Agrarian Strike only way to ‘put pressure’ on Colombia Govt: Coffee organizer

Posted on Mar 27 2014 - 2:42pm by Rico
Coffee strike Colombia

Strike is the only recourse available to Colombia’s coffee farmers to ensure the government fulfills previous promises made to the sector, according to a strike organizer.

Labor leaders insist that, while President Juan Manuel Santos has attempted to portray a new bout of civil unrest as unjustified and damaging, it is the government’s own noncompliance with agreements made last year following protracted strikes in the coffee sector that make renewed work stoppages necessary.

“Last year we signed seven agreements with the federal government in the various strikes that were taken [...] Of those agreements only one has been met, so we are forced to perform the strike because it is the only way to put pressure on the government,” said Victor Correa, spokesperson for Coffee Growers’ Dignity (Dignidad Cafetera — DC), in an interview with Colombia reports Colombia Reports.

MORE: Colombia coffee farmers to join new agricultural strike on April 28

If Colombia’s coffee farmers go ahead with plans to join the borader so-called Agrarian Strike, scheduled to begin April 28, it will be the third time they have abandoned their farms to protest in the past year. In 2013, strikes beginning in February and August led to seemingly successful negotiations between the farmers and the Santos administration.

Farmers are now claiming, however, that the government has failed to implement the agreed upon measures, contributing to the continued  economic distress of small and medium scale producers throughout the country.

MORE: Why better prices doesn’t mean better conditions for Colombia’s coffee farmers

One key policy that emerged from talks in March was a national subsidy program, designed to provide farmers with a guaranteed payout on their harvest to counteract price fluctuations in the international market. The subsidy was indeed put in place and was widely heralded as a success by the government, but farmers complained of impartial or delayed payments and incomplete coverage.

“We expect the government to fulfill the agreements it has not yet fulfilled. The first point of the agreement was to give aid while improving internal coffee prices – this agreement was fulfilled by 80%, but there have been many people who have not received this grant,” said Correa.

Recent events illustrate some of the program’s further shortcomings, namely its inability to compensate for volatility in the international market. On February 25, the subsidy program was suspended due to a 60% rise in the global market since January 1. One month later, the program reinitiated, after prices fell 20% in a week.

MORE: Colombia reactivates subsidies after coffee prices fall 20% in week

Even when subsidies adjust according to the rise and fall of international prices, moreover, they fail to take into account the high costs of fertilizer and fuel. When prices hit their lowest levels since 2008 last August, for example, production costs ran at $343 per load, which sold for $319 at the time. Farmers were absorbing a consistent loss of $24 per load for the farmers.

MORE: Coffee price falls to lowest level in 5 years; Colombia growers to talk with govt

Such losses, a longstanding problem for farmers, lead many to take on large debts. A credit agreement signed at the end of the last strikes. which included “an agreement on waivers to small coffee growers who had no means to pay the debts,” has not been realized, according to Correa. 

The coffee growers’ complaints that “agricultural inputs have risen in price” and that the government has failed to “control the smuggling of coffee”mimic those made by the leaders of the broader Paro Agrario, which last year took over roadways in much of the country and shutdown entire regional economies during a month of intense protests between August and September. 

The larger strike was unable to force concessions from the government, and organizers have since declared the new April 28 deadline.

In the case of the coffee farmers, at least, the government may be able to avoid another strike. Correa said, “The strike will be throughout Colombia, but will be cancelled if the government complies with the agreements.”

With protests scheduled to begin less than a month before presidential elections, in which President Santos is a candidate, keeping the iconic sector out of strikes will likely be a priority for the government. 


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