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House Approves Free-Trade Agreement With Peru

The U.S. House of Representatives approved a free-trade agreement with Peru Thursday.  The Andean nation isn’t exactly one of Oregon’s biggest trading partners, but onion, asparagus and vegetable farmers — as well as food processor employees — see the agreement as a serious threat to their livelihoods.

They’ve reached out to unions and Democrats to help defeat the bill. But the agreement incorporates many of the environmental and labor protections that unions have been calling for.  As Kristian Foden-Vencil reports, Oregon Democrats split their votes on the new agreement.

The new agreement forces the U.S. and Peru to drop tariffs and other protections for their goods.

Peruvian farmers are very worried — four million went on strike last year because they expect the U.S. to flood their markets with cheap wheat and grain.

Here in the states, concern hasn’t run as high. Mainly because Peru doesn’t mass-produce many products that can flood U.S. markets.

But Arthur Stamoulis, of the Oregon Fair Trade Campaign, says there are definitely some people who are worried.

Arthur Stamoulis: “In Oregon we can expect onion growers to see major job loss. Onion imports from Peru have risen from about 1 percent of imports to I believe about 19 percent over the last decade or so. We can expect more food processors to move to Peru, to take advantage of the vegetable market.”

Companies like ‘Green Giant’ and ‘Del Monte’ have already shifted their canning factories to Peru — chiefly because workers there earn $7 a day – as opposed to more than $7 dollars an hour. But job loss isn’t the only issue, says Irene Lin of the National Family Farm Coalition.

Irene Lin: “It really doesn’t make sense that an Oregon supermarket has to import all the way from Peru, when somebody could grow it 10 minutes away.”

Lin says free trade agreements undermine the country’s “food sovereignty.”

Irene Lin: “We believe that local production is most important. That our family farmers should be feeding our local communities first, instead of whatever is the cheapest, whatever has the lowest environmental standards.”

Such concerns have caught the attention of some of Oregon’s Congressional Democrats. David Wu and Peter DeFazio voted against the agreement. DeFazio says NAFTA, CAFTA and other free trade agreements prove the country’s trade policies are flawed.

Peter DeFazio: “We’re borrowing two billion dollars a day from overseas, a lot of it from China, to buy things we used to make here. We’ve lost 5 million manufacturing jobs, we’ve lost 40 thousand jobs in Oregon due to these free trade agreements. And these are not just the old line jobs that they told us about, we’re losing high tech jobs, we’re losing not only our manufacturing base but we’re losing family wage and benefit type jobs. It’s time a new model.”

But while DeFazio and Wu opposed the agreement, Democratic leadership in Congress joined with the Bush Administration to pass it. Darlene Hooley and Earl Blumenauer joined with Republican Greg Walden to  vote in favor.

Blumenauer helped draft the legislation and says that unlike NAFTA and CAFTA, this agreement incorporates the necessary environmental and labor protections.

Earl Blumenauer: “We have, in this bill, for the very first time in the history of trade agreements. We have been able to incorporate all these multi-national environmental agreements into the body of the text, to make them enforceable. This is unprecedented in terms of environmental protections.”

Blumenauer’s claims are underscored by the fact that big unions like the IBEW and the AFL-CIO are not actively campaigning against the Peru agreement.  The bill now goes to the Senate, where it is expected to pass. President Bush has said he will sign it into law.

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