Tens of thousands of coffee growers will attempt to bring roads across Colombia to a standstill in February to demand the government step in to save their troubled industry, said a strike organizer Wednesday.
The coffee growers strike will block national highways across 12 departments of Colombia, in an attempt to save an industry for which Colombia is famous, Victor Correa, strike coordinator in Antioquia department, told Colombia Reports Wednesday. Correa’s mother is a coffee farmer herself.
“[Farmers] are paid $282 for a sack of coffee but the cost of producing it is $366,” he said. “These are small farmers. They are poor. The culture of coffee growing is important to Colombia but we cannot continue like this…We are facing an economic crisis, a social crisis, an institutional crisis and a crisis of production.”
Marina Velez, a coffee grower from Concordia in southwest Antioquia and president of her local growers association told Colombia Reports that, “International brands and middlemen in Colombia are getting money…but we are not getting enough to live on.”
The strike and blockade is planned to begin on February 25. According to Correa, the department of Antioquia will see 20,000 people taking action, while the Huila department will see 80,000 coffee growers taking what they see as a last-ditch action to save their livelihoods.
“We don’t know how to do anything else but grow coffee. We cannot change careers. We don’t have the money,” said Velez. “It’s even part of our identity.”
“Cocoa producers and rice producers will also join us,” said Correa. “This is a crisis of all agriculture in Colombia because the government has ignored agriculture.”
Instead the government has focused on mining, claims Correa. There are mining concessions and applications covering much of the land where coffee is currently grown. “The mining companies get tax relief but agriculture doesn’t.”
The government has given a temporary subsidy to farmers of $33 dollars per sack, but this is not enough to turn coffee-growing into a money-making enterprise and is set to end on January 31.
Senator Rodrigo Villalba of Huila, one of the departments that expects high participation in the strike, described the action as “just and legitimate”, according to local media.
“If by the beginning of February we do not have a definitive answer from the government, and if there is no negotiating table, [there will be] no alternative but to go on strike,” he said.
Coffee growers have also been hit by low international coffee prices, a high peso, poor weather, and diseased trees. But the industry has been in decline since the free trade agreements Colombia signed in the 1990s, according to Correa. Control of coffee imports is one of the strikers’ demands. At the moment, most of the coffee sold in Colombia is from abroad.
According to Correa even their own industry body, the National Federation of Coffee Growers, owner of the Juan Valdez chain of coffee shops, is part of the problem and coffee growers want the government to help them improve democracy in the organization.
“It has had the same leadership for 20 years. They invest money in other businesses. They aren’t interested in small coffee farmers,” said Correa. “For instance they force [them] to grow only certain types of coffee when [farmers] want to grow a broader range.”
But most of the coffee producers’ demands are for government action. They want to see coffee subsided to above the cost of production, debt relief, cheap loans for farmers, more controls on the mining industry, subsidies for fertilizers, and government investment in new technologies.
If nothing changes, says Correa, it will not be possible for Colombia’s coffee growers to survive.