IN THE MEDIA ~ Trost touts Colombia trade deal -Free trade agreement would serve to benefit both countries: MP says

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Trost touts Colombia trade deal -Free trade agreement would serve to benefit both countries: MP says
Jeremy Warren, The StarPhoenix

Increasing trade between Canada and Colombia would help fight drug traffickers and improve human rights in the South American country, says Saskatoon-Humboldt MP Brad Trost.

A Canada-Colombia free-trade agreement is working its way through Parliament, and Trost is one of several Conservatives leading the push to ratify the agreement.

Trade between the two countries totals about $1.3 billion annually. That's not a lot compared to other countries, but trade expansion could mean more than just the exchange of goods, Trost said in an interview from Ottawa.

The free-trade pact would mean more jobs for Colombians as companies expand trade with Canada, he said.

"Increasing trade with Canada allows industries to hire more and that's a direct social benefit," Trost said. "If you want to help people, give them a job."

Conservatives aim to increase exports to Colombia for Canadian producers of goods such as wheat, barley, paper products and heavy agricultural equipment. Colombia's exports to Canada include coal, coffee and bananas.

A free-trade agreement would also make investment easier for mining companies looking to expand in Colombia, according to the International Trade ministry.

Saskatchewan producers of wheat, barley, pulses, lentils and pork would have a new market for their goods if the agreement is ratified, Trost said.

The elimination of tariffs would allow Canadian goods to compete with U.S. exports in South America, he said.

"The 15 per cent (tariff) in a commodity driven market really puts our guys at a disadvantage," Trost said.

A Colombian-United States free-trade agreement has been signed, but ratification has been stalled in the U.S. Congress, where concerns about human rights abuses in Colombia haveslowed progress.

The federal NDP opposes Canada's agreement for similar reasons. "Colombia has an appalling human rights record," said NDP MP Peter Julian, his party's international trade critic. "Signing the trade agreement is likely to exacerbate the problem."

The Colombian government has forcibly removed peasant landowners in order to sell land to international companies, and the government continues to ignore labour rights, Julian said.

About 2,700 Colombian trade unionists have been killed since 1986, although the numbers have dropped annually since reaching a peak in the mid-1990s, according to Human Rights Watch.

Canada's proposed agreement does nothing to ensure the rights of farmers and labourers are protected by trade expansion, Julian said.
"(An agreement) rewards a government that has its hands soaked in blood," said Julian, who compares the situation to signing an trade agreement with North Korea or Myanmar.

"The Conservatives want to sign an agreement as a smoke and mirrors attempt to cover up their lack of an economic strategy."

Colombia and Canada signed the agreement in November 2008, but Parliament has yet to ratify the trade pact that was first tabled last March.

The bill has passed second reading in the House of Commons and is now in committee where MPs are bringing in witnesses -- from union representatives to Colombians now living in Canada -- before the bill heads to a third reading, which Trost expects sometime this June.

The trade pact also comes with two parallel co-operation agreements, which Ottawa says will improve labour relations and environmental practices.
The labour co-operation agreement only asks Canada and Colombia to respect international labour standards such as freedom of association and collective bargaining rights, but does set enforcement obligations and related penalties.

The co-operation agreement won't be effective because it allows Colombia to self-police its labour relations, Julian said.

"Once a year, the government would have to report on itself and say how good of a job it's doing," Julian said.

The Liberal Party has supported the agreement, but has proposed its own amendments. Julian and Trost both sit on the House of Commons' International Trade Committee.

The alternative to a free-trade agreement is continued and expanded support for Colombia through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Julian said.

Since 1972, Colombia has received $355 million from CIDA, which has funded projects for displaced people, rehabilitation of child soldiers caught in the drug wars and agricultural programs.

Colombia is slowly emerging from a history marred with violent drug wars and human rights abuses, but security in the South American country has improved, said Trost, who has visited the country twice, once for a family wedding. "They still have a high a crime rate and a guerrilla war, but things are getting better all the time," Trost said, adding that the Colombian government's move to eliminate the drug trade means more opportunity for local farmers.

"If Colombia expands its trade markets, the coca leaf growers need something to replace their crops," Trost said. "The Colombians need more markets for tropical fruits."