Colombian trade commissioner Alvaro Concha is optimistic two countries’ free trade agreement will pay off. Canada and Colombia provide small, but stable, markets for each other’s products, and prospects are good for strengthening these commercial ties under a free-trade agreement that came into force in 2011, says Colombian trade commissioner Alvaro Concha.

Concha is in Vancouver this week in connection with the planned opening of his country’s new trade office, manned by trade specialist Juan Carlos Oliveros, to serve British Columbia and Alberta.

Not that the two-way trade figures for the first two years of the Canada-Colombia FTA are anything to write home about.

Trade volume did spike — a 16-per-cent increase in Colombian goods coming into Canada, and almost as much growth in what we send back — in 2011, the first year of the deal. But these gains retreated in 2012 thanks to softening demand, especially for Colombia’s traditional big exports — coal, coffee and sugar. The upshot is a modest reversal of Canada’s usual small balance-of-trade deficit with Columbia, turning it into a $100-million surplus on a volume of about $800 million in exports.

Yet Concha is undeterred in his enthusiasm for the FTA. Despite the slippage in those three traditional products — a problem worsened by a poor coffee-growing season in Colombia — the volume of other products went up. With Colombia already the world’s second-largest flower exporter after Holland, and with growing trade in other agriculture products such as bananas and in processed foods and pastries, these increases are a sign of things to come, he said.

And history has shown new free trade agreements need five years or so before they fully take root and start yielding big results.

Concha and Oliveros also have responsibility for fostering both tourism and foreign investment. Canadians have long been big investors in Colombian mines, but now other areas of the economy are opening up.

For years, the virtual war between the government and powerful drug cartels meant the country was shunned by most would-be investors, as well as by visitors.

Today, he said, Colombia’s major cities are safer than most capitals of the world. The number of tourists, almost absent beyond a few visitors from nearby countries a dozen years ago, now tops two million visitors a year and is headed for four million.

He concedes Colombia still suffers from perception problems. “But if the country wasn’t improving the way it is, these things wouldn’t be happening.”

However, I think it is not just perceptions — although, having personally visited a handful of Colombian cities in recent years, I agree that most of the country is safe. But, while international observers generally agree Colombia has come a long way on human rights, it still has some distance to go.

Canada’s trade agreement with Colombia includes a requirement for annual reporting on progress on human rights, and just last week the country’s vice-president, Angelino Garzon, delivered a similar report to a United Nations review body in Geneva. Other international groups also keep a wary eye on the country, giving it generally improved marks, although still chastising it periodically for issues ranging from income inequality, to prison overcrowding, to violence against women in areas still wracked by violence, to failing to protect activists from threats, intimidation or even murder.

Similarly, Concha said, the world is watching when it comes to labour standards.

Colombia is by no means a destitute country, but it is considerably poorer than Canada — it has about 1.5 times our population, but only about a fifth of our wealth. But the kind of negligent corner-cutting that led to the recent factory tragedy in much-poorer Bangladesh simply can’t happen in Colombia, committed and monitored as it is thanks to agreements like the FTA with Canada.

“It’s not just that we don’t want to behave like that,” he said. “It’s that we can’t, or we’ll lose our access to international markets.”