Development vs. Human Rights? The Case of Colombia

[Note from Dave: The following is a guest post from Brandon Wu, a grad student at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He’s currently living in Bogotá, Colombia, conducting research on the conflict between Afro-Colombian economic, social and cultural rights and Colombian economic development policy. Prior to grad school he worked on the Colombia FTA at an advocacy nonprofit in Washington, DC.]

As the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) moves through Congress at the President’s behest, much of the recent press coverage has focused on party-line fights about Trade Adjustment Assistance reauthorization. I would certainly argue that U.S. workers who lose their jobs to trade deserve, at the very least, the minimal compensation that TAA can provide, but that’s a domestic politics story for another time. Largely lost in the U.S. debate is the fact that certain marginalized Colombians stand to lose far more than just their jobs.

Colombia provides a perfect demonstration of the idea that “development” is not necessarily a linear arrow of progress. (See Jonathan Glennie.) Even as Colombia has sustained respectable GDP growth rates over the past two decades, it has also created what is now the largest population of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the world. Much of this displacement is a result of Colombia’s longstanding, low-level civil war. However, there is also a great deal of forced displacement taking place as a direct result of official economic development policies, such as efforts to develop a palm-oil export industry, extensive mining operations, and various projects to modernize highway and port infrastructure. These economic policies and the armed conflict are often related.

Many of the aforementioned economic development projects are taking place in Colombia’s Pacific coast region. This region is almost unimaginably rich in natural resources and biodiversity, and is also home to indigenous and Afro-descendant communities who have lived in the area for hundreds of years. These communities are under constant threat of forced displacement as a result of intensified economic activity. Community leaders organizing resistance are often subject to death threats: according to the Washington Office on Latin America, at least 28 indigenous leaders have been murdered in 2011 alone, and just last month, a prominent Afro-Colombian displaced leader, Ana Fabricia Córdoba, was assassinated in Medellín.

Unfortunately, scenarios akin to this one have played out in many places around the world, although perhaps with less overt violence. What makes Colombia fascinating is that it actually has a set of remarkably progressive laws and court rulings protecting the economic, social and cultural rights of its vulnerable populations, including indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. For instance, the same Afro-Colombian communities who are being displaced by the development of agro-industrial palm oil plantations and other economic activities are legally protected from that same displacement by an impressive series of laws and court decisions: most importantly Law 70 of 1993, but also Transitory Article 55 of the 1991 Constitution, Law 387 of 1997, Constitutional Court rulings T-025 of 2004 and A-005 of 2009, and more. Additionally, Colombia is a signatory to ILO Convention 169, which the Constitutional Court has ruled applies to Afro-Colombians in addition to Colombia’s indigenous population.

The net effect of all these laws and rulings is that — on paper — Afro-Colombian communities have the right to collective ownership of their ancestral land, the right to prior informed consultation before any policies are enacted that affect their livelihoods, and the right to not be forcibly displaced from their land. These protections have been hard-won by Afro-Colombian community activism over the past two decades, but their enforcement has been lackluster at best.

In practice, economic development policy has consistently taken precedence over these legally enshrined rights. One particularly illustrative example is the development of oil palm plantations in the Jiguamiandó and Curvaradó river basins, where businessmen worked in conjunction with paramilitary forces to forcibly displace at least 13 communities and create palm plantations on their land. Another is the case of the coastal city of Buenaventura, where a massive port expansion over the past ten years has displaced thousands of Afro-Colombians without proper prior consultation. These are just two of the most famous examples; similar economically motivated displacements abound up and down the Pacific coast.

Obviously, this is a bit of a conundrum. Colombia has two sets of policies that are often directly in conflict with each other. What is a student of development, or a development practitioner, to make of this situation? How might a country redesign its development policies to allow for a certain level of self-determination for its people, and how can the international community help in this process? More generally, given the power differentials and entrenched interests at play, how can we move beyond a simplistic conception of a trade-off between development and human rights towards a model in which the two concepts go hand-in-hand?

One thing that seems clear — getting back to the topical issue with which I began this post — is that the U.S.-Colombia FTA will deepen the conflict between human rights and development in Colombia. The FTA is a continuation and intensification of the national economic policy that Colombia has pursued for about two decades — the same policy that continues to directly violate the legally protected economic, social and cultural rights of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. (For more specifics on Afro-Colombians and the FTA, see my two-page memo here.)

I don’t mean to argue that the U.S. should not engage in trade with Colombia. Rather, I’m arguing something many students of development will be familiar with: context matters; we need to think very carefully about the particulars of the country and the cultures we are working with; we need to make sure our policies don’t make things worse for large groups of marginalized people while only benefitting a powerful few. The FTA doesn’t pass that test. It’s our job as development students and practitioners to come up with a better model.

2 thoughts on “Development vs. Human Rights? The Case of Colombia

  1. I was just there for the past few months, and couldn’t help but think about this exact tradeoff. How do we develop while the civil war wages on and human rights atrocities continue to happen? I visited a co-worker located up in Uruba and couldn’t stop thinking about the displaced people/villages and their stories. Fascinating topic. Great post. Thanks.

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