Colombia’s coffee growers will not lay down work completely during the unified national strikes that kick off on Monday. According to a strike leader, the growers do not want to further harm a sector already under economic pressure.
“We’re not going to stop the collection process for coffee, that much is clear, because we are not going to worsen the economic crisis being experienced by [Colombia’s] coffee farmers,” said Victor Correa, President of Coffee Worker’s Dignity, a social advocacy group that organized a coffee strike earlier this year and has been representing the national coffee workers in the last several rounds of negotiations with the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos.
“We are going to participate in force in protest manifestations on August 19 and August 20, and for however long the other strikes last,” the strike leader added.
The farmers’ intent to continue working while protesting differs from tactics used in February when approximately 90,000 coffee farmers shut down production and took to the streets, forcing the government to subsidize coffee production the farmers say costs more than the profits they receive for their beans.
A recently launched direct payment subsidy program implemented by the government is too little too late to prevent protest manifestations from coffee workers, however, who have decided to take part in national protests regardless, because, as Correa put it, “the government only understands strikes.”
“Once the strike threat was present, the government finally got around to fulfilling a few of the things it promised three months ago […] we’ve received notifications of a few problems [with the new direct payment system], but it’s only working at all because of the threat of strike, not any willingness on the government’s part to meet their responsibilities,” he said.
According to Correa, the national strike organizers “have shown great respect for the unique dynamics of each region. The areas where they are beginning the coffee harvest, are not the ones where you are going to see the greatest show of force in the protests.”
The coffee sector’s continued participation in the strikes is as much about ensuring “[the agricultural movement] doesn’t lose track of the true force that’s motivating it” as it is about solving problems facing the coffee sector in particular, which Correa indicated is the only one participating in the August 19th protests currently involved in formal talks with the government.
Throughout the past month, Correa has been outspoken about his desire to find a way around the protests, and the doubts he has regarding their potential downsides. But with less than a week to go before the deadline he himself set, he seems committed to the cause.
“This strike is necessary, for the dignity of Colombia’s coffee workers, and the salvation of Colombian agriculture.”
Government officials have described what will be the second industry strike of the year as a show of bad faith by the coffee workers, and a ploy to extort more benefits from the government. But Correa has called such claims “ridiculous” and “untruthful.”
Correa said the government “only understands strikes. It has no will to talk with agriculture workers unless it’s to prevent a strike.”
According to Correa, it’s precisely that pattern of “empty negotiations” that brought about the newest round of strikes.
When coffee workers announced the August 19 strike back in early July, he said, “more than 250,000 coffee producing families hadn’t received a single cent of subsidies from the government, hand’t received any type of government assistance, over the almost full year since [the government] initiated the subsidy program last October. They hadn’t implemented any direct payment system at the time, which was one of the points we agreed upon with the government [after the previous strike in February].”
Unfulfilled promises, however, are only part of the problem. Behind the immediate motivations to relaunch strike efforts is “a long chronology, a long history that has to be considered.” There are a number of issues, he explained, that the coffee workers have been trying unsuccessfully to work out with the government for “years and years.”
“We signed something in Pereira to lift the [previous] strike that focused on a few points, but the [formal list of complaints we submitted to the government] was much bigger than those points, and we couldn’t reach any productive conversation with the government on those topics.”
According to Correa, what’s driving the August 19 movement is a “series of problems we [in the coffee sector] share with the greater agriculture sector in general,” among them, longtime complaints regarding a lacks in environmental regulations on the mining sector, import protections for agricultural markets and access to available credit for farmers looking to expand or modernize their businesses.
“This is an agricultural strike, not a coffee strike,” he said.
- Interview with Victor Correa