The People vs. “Free” Trade

Can resistance to corporate trade policies help create the movement we need for the better world we want?

From the October 2013 PNL #828

by Ursula Rozum

Author's Note: The following article is written with information from the Green Shadow Cabinet, Citizen Trade Campaign and

On August 19, Colombian farmers’ organizations initiated a massive nationwide strike—the Paro Nacional Agrario. They blocked roads, dumped milk on cars and basically stopped producing food for the cities. According to news reports coming out of Colombia in early September, tens of thousands of Colombians are demonstrating in the streets. The farmers’ strike has been supported by oil industry workers, miners, truckers, health sector professionals, and others. On August 29, ten days into the strike, more than 20,000 students joined the movement and shut down the capital city, Bogotá. The problem? Government policies are making it impossible for farmers to do their work and make a living producing food.

Recent free trade agreements (FTAs) signed with the US and the EU are undercutting Colombian producers, who simply cannot compete with subsidized imports. One of the triggers for the mobilization has been Agricultural Law 970, which forbids farmers from replanting their saved seeds unless they are approved by the Colombia Agricultural Institute. This law is rooted in the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement and is an attack on the timeless practice of farmers saving their own seeds.


The Movimiento Campesino de Cajibio, CNY’s sister-community partner through the
Colombia Support Network, participates in Colombia’s national farmers’ strike.
Photo credit: Jhon Campo


The mobilization has been extremely successful in opening up space for discussion, solidarity and resistance in Colombia. Students, for instance, have been keen to support the farmers. They rallied loudly against GMOs and for food sovereignty. But they also wanted to put forward their own demands for free public education, nudging the mobilization beyond agrarian concerns into a broader wave of social pressure to change current Colombian policies.

While Colombian social movements are coming together to confront policies that favor multinational corporations over Colombian workers, policies epitomized in the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, another trade agreement is being negotiated mostly in secret, that many are referring to as “NAFTA on steroids.”

The Trans-Pacific Partnership

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a new international trade pact crafted by multinational corporations and currently being negotiated in secret by the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) along with eleven other foreign governments. The TPP began as trade talks among a few Pacific Rim countries, but has been expanded to include Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, Mexico, and Canada, with the possibility of further expansion to Japan, Korea, and China. While the public and media are not allowed to see the text, and members of Congress only receive limited, heavily restricted access, 600 corporations have been advising the president and suggesting amendments as they have full access to the documents. This includes Monsanto, Walmart, Bank of America, JP Morgan, Pfizer, Cargill, Exxon-Mobil, and Chevron—some of the worst corporate citizens in the US.

Representative Alan Grayson, the only member of Congress granted even limited access to the TPP negotiating texts, describes the agreement as “an attack on democratic governance” and “a gross abrogation of American sovereignty…a punch in the face to the middle class of America.”

If ratified, the TPP would establish a system of international tribunals allowing corporations to challenge the laws, regulations and even court decisions of any member nation (including local, county and state laws) if they are deemed to adversely impact the corporation’s expected future profits. Under the TPP’s “investor-state” provision, corporations would even be allowed to file preemptive lawsuits against proposed government actions before they are undertaken. In New York, for example, this could prevent the state and municipalities from passing anti-fracking legislation or enacting consumer protection laws.

Many in Central New York are familiar with the negative impacts of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), negotiated in the early 1990s, which overturned many environmental and worker protection policies. NAFTA caused the elimination of hundreds of thousands of US jobs, and millions of Mexican farmers who could no longer compete with heavily subsidized US crops were displaced from their land, setting off a wave of desperate migration northward. Similarly, the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement is putting Colombia small farmers out of business. The TPP will greatly accelerate this global race to the bottom; its negotiating countries already constitute 40% of the world economy and it contains provisions allowing other nations to join later.


Provisions in the TPP specifically threaten to:

• Undermine food safety protections by making it harder for countries to adopt regulations such as labeling laws or banning GMOs.

• Dismantle the “Buy Local” movement by overturning government laws designed to keep taxpayer dollars in the local economy.

• Inhibit access to lifesaving medicine by extending monopoly drug patents for big pharmaceuticals.

• Curtail Internet freedom, spur further financial deregulation, roll back environmental laws and more.


Leaked drafts of the TPP’s intellectual property chapter reveal that the TPP would roll back reforms to US trade pact drug patent policies. The TPP would empower drug companies to attack the medicine formulary systems, such as those New Zealand, Australia and other developed countries have used successfully to reduce drug prices.

Much like the polices that have Colombia farmers in the streets, the TPP will make it more difficult for countries to adopt and maintain strong food safety regulations governing pesticides, food additives and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) by granting so-called “life sciences” corporations unprecedented power to erect barriers to those regulations. Under past Free Trade agreements, consumer right-to-know rules requiring product labeling have been attacked and dismantled.

The food safety and drug accessibility issues raised by the TPP are expansive and controversial. The trade policies being promoted under the TPP will inhibit the ability of countries, including the US, to make their own decisions, based on local conditions and markets, about farming practices and the production of local, healthy food. This puts the food supplies of those countries at risk, especially when farming and food supplies are increasingly affected by energy costs and adverse weather conditions, precipitating price spikes. By limiting access to affordable drugs, the TPP further threatens the health of the populations of participating countries, especially those in developing countries. World food and health crises will have a ripple effect and, given the restrictions placed on the FDA by the TPP, ultimately have a negative impact on US consumers of food and drugs.

The TPP is being negotiated under unprecedented secrecy because previous attempts to pass similar “free trade” pacts have been met with widespread public opposition. Grassroots movements in the past have successfully stopped the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, the Free Trade Area of the Americas, the expansion of the World Trade Organization, and others. The Obama Administration plans to bring the TPP to a “fast track” vote as early as the Fall of 2013, bypassing congressional review and public debate entirely. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, because  of its far reaching effects, is an opportunity for our movements to come together and to stand up to the corporations seeking to increase their control over all aspects of human life. Therefore, we must act now, utilizing education, protest and pressure on Congress to stop the TPP and to build a broad-based movement for future battles.

Ursula is an SPC staff person. She is passionate about organizing to end corporate rule.