The price paid to Colombian farmers for coffee has dropped 35 percent since last year, due to a combination of a decline in world market prices and the devaluation of the dollar compared to the Colombian peso. At the same time, the price of fertilizer, pesticides and fuel has skyrocketed, as have interest rates on agricultural loans.
“It is impossible for coffee growers to survive with the current price,” Victor Javier Correa, spokesperson for the Coffee Growers Dignity Movement, said in a March 4 phone interview from Concordia in Antioquia province. The group organizes peasants as well as small and large capitalist growers.
Most coffee farmers in Colombia, and the majority of the protesters, are peasants who work just a few acres with the help of family members. Many also work for a wage for the big capitalist farmers. As part of the strike many capitalist farmers have been dismissing farmworkers. Those who work exclusively as farm labor for a wage are not part of the strike.
Farmworker unions have been decimated in Colombia over the last several decades, said Alirio García, general secretary of Fensuagro, a union federation that organizes small farmers and farmworkers, by phone from Bogota. “Our leaders have been murdered or forced to flee by paramilitary groups, but we are finally starting to reorganize.”
On March 2, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos announced that it would increase the amount of a government subsidy from 60,000 pesos ($33) per carga (a 275 lb. sack) to 115,000 ($63). “But that doesn’t even cover all the costs,” Correa noted.
The National Coffee Growers Federation urged farmers to accept the increase and end the strike. But most refused. Although the federation claims to represent all the coffee farmers, “it’s the big farmers that are represented there, not the small and medium size ones,” said García. “But it’s the small and medium farmers that are losing the most.”
“The agreement does NOT solve the crisis of the small- and medium-sized Colombian coffee growers,” said a statement from Apemecafe, the Association of Small and Medium Coffee Farmers. They face “the problem of suffocating debts, the pressure from the banks, and government neglect that permits the financial sector to get hold of the land of the peasant producers.”
The group calls for canceling farmers’ debts, subsidizing fertilizers and other agricultural supplies and freezing their prices, and for government loans at zero percent interest.
Police and army troops have attacked some of the peasant blockades in an attempt to reopen the roads. “They are using violence against the peasants, to prevent them from living with dignity,” García said.
Meanwhile, a strike by some 340,000 truck drivers that began March 2 ended three days later when the government agreed to lower the price of fuel for three months.
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