Colombia’s coffee workers held a national assembly yesterday to consolidate strategy heading into several months of harvest and, they hope, intense talks with the government to ward off the looming threat of the second nationwide industry strike since the start of 2013.
Some 200 delegates from 12 states attended the meeting, called by Coffee Growers’ Dignity (Dignidad Cafetera — DC), a national labor organizing and protest body and held in the western Andean city of Manizales, in the heart of the Coffee-Growers Axis.
After a day of discussion and internal voting, the assembly established a 20-person “Technical Committee” comprised of DC representatives from throughout the country and charged with negotiating the group’s position ahead of the April 28th national strike deadline also decided upon at the meeting.
“Strike, as always, is our last recourse, as we are the ones most affected by it,” said Victor Corre, Spokesman for the DC’s Antioquia-state branch, in an interview with Colombia Reports. “The assembly decided to give the government plenty of time in this case, and we now have an official team authorized to speak for us.
“They know what we are asking for, they know who to talk to, they know how long they have to show a real willingness to negotiate — it’s up to the government to take the next step.”
At issue are the agreements originally made with the government last March, after a national strike brought Colombia’s iconic coffee industry to a standstill.
At the time, the Ministry of Agriculture agreed to a number of measures later reinforced in a separate round of negotiations initiated by the government last August to prevent the country’s coffee sector from joining a series of nationwide work stoppages and protests organized by the country’s most important labor sectors.
The government, however, “has not fulfilled its promises in most cases,” said Correa, and in cases where there has been demonstrable follow-through, the measures taken have been “obviously insufficient, poorly planned and poorly implemented.”
The government’s central initiative, for example, an automatic direct payment subsidy program, has received hundreds of millions of public funding and been widely toted as a success by President Juan Manuel Santos and Ministry of Agriculture officials, but has failed to make good on its primary purpose of delivering immediate aid to farmers, said Correa.
“The automatic payment has worked well for coffee cooperatives, but only a small percentage of business transactions occur in those settings. Most farmers don’t do business with the cooperatives, and therefore are stuck dependent on the old payment system, which is slow at best. For this reason, you have a majority of farmers with late subsidy payments or no payments whatsoever throughout the whole year of 2013.”
Even for those whose payments have arrived on time and in full, explained Correa, the subsidies are not enough to make up for a lack of action regarding other agreement topics, such as reductions in the cost of fertilizer and agro-equipment, the annulation of agricultural debt, the restructuring of the National Federation of Coffee Growers and the delimitation of mining territory in agro-production zones.
“The government always tried to pretend that money was our only purpose, that the subsidy was all we wanted or needed. But that was never true, and we have seen no progress in practically any of the other areas. The subsidies help, but this is an industry in crisis, and subsidies are not enough.”
‘An industry in crisis’
The previous nationwide coffee strike was spurred in part by a sharp drop in international coffee prices and a 2012 harvest devastated by fungal infection. “It was,” as Corre put it, “an act of necessity.”
Since the strike, however, conditions have only gotten worse for Colombia’s coffee farmers.
“Just before the strike,” said Correa, “coffee growers were getting around $300 a sack on the market. Now the price is close to $150. If you consider that the subsidy, per farmer, is $87.50 — when they are receiving it — you see that we would need twice as much in subsidies just to get back to where we were before the strike.”
The problem, he said, extends beyond the notoriously mercurial international coffee market.
Many farmers took high-interest loans in recent years while coffee prices were on the rise. Now that prices are down, they find themselves with insurmountable debts.
“Creditors came in when prices were high and convinced these people to take loans on their property. These are poor people who thought they were taking advantage of a good thing to expand their production, and in fact took on debts they will never be able to pay back now.”
As a result, the “small producer himself is at risk,” as creditors threaten to sieze lands and convert independent farms into larger planting operations.
“It’s already hard enough to make a living as a small-scale farmer in this country, and now they want to take the one thing we have: our land.”
The price of fertilizer and farming equipment are almost prohibitively high in much of Colombia, one of the primary motivators behind a wider agricultural strike that took hold of the country last August and September. In some places, said Correa, “coffee growers pay 80-90% above standard international prices for basic fertilizer.”
The costs make anything but large-scale planting financially untenable, and while the government agreed in March to help farmers by reducing fertilizer prices by at least 30%, so far there have been no advances reported on that front.
Fuel is another expensive commodity in Colombia, despite high levels of internal production. Colombia is one of the largest petroleum exporters in the world but imports gas for its own consumption and pays prices among the highest in Latin America.
The imbalance makes it harder for small-scale farmers to deliver their goods to market at a profit, but is also a pattern reflected in the coffee industry itself.
“Here we export almost 90% of the coffee grown in the country, and import 1 million sacks per year from other countries,” said Correa. “Farmers receive low payments from intermediaries who sell their coffee to the rest of the world, and Colombia doesn’t drink Colombian coffee.”
‘It’s not about politics’
In response to August’s nationwide strikes, government officials widely accused protests of being manipulated toward political aims by outside forces, including the FARC rebels and opposition political groups.
To prevent any such characterization this time, Correa said, DC has taken additional measures to separate its demands from politics.
“April 28th was the date we chose because it coincides with the end of the harvest. It’s after [March's] congressional elections and falls before presidential elections [in May] only because we have to act before the time comes to begin work for the next harvest. Our negotiating team, moreover, is made up of people who have never been in politics and have no immediate political aspirations.”
Still, Correa did not disregard that the threat of another coffee strike is likely to exert significant pressure on congressional races throughout the Coffee-Growers Axis and on presidential elections.
“We are not political in the sense that we are not aligning ourselves with political bodies but with policies. Of course there will be political pressure, and if it gets the government to act, then good.”
Ultimately, the DC’s declaration is clear enough about its goals.
“No more delays, honor what was agreed to.”
- Interview with Victor Correa
- Dignidad Cafetera Facebook