Thousands of Colombian coffee growers went on strike Monday demanding that the government provide greater financial support for the struggling industry.
While the exact number of protestors has not yet been determined, initial reports indicate that upwards of 30,000 people have taken to the streets in the departments of Antioquia, Huila, Risaralda, Quindio, and Tolima.
The demonstrations have been peaceful for the most part, though there have been reports of clashes between protestors and police that left approximately 21 people with non-life threatening injuries.
According to National Police Commander, General Jose Roberto Leon, 15,000 policemen have been dispatched. The police commander said he will not allow any road blocks, a stated intention of strike organizers.
Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos on Monday denounced the coffee growers’ strike and defended his administration’s actions.
“The strike that is happening today [Monday] is not only inconvenient and unnecessary, it is also unjust,” said the president.
In an impassioned and defensive speech, Santos emphasized how much support the government had given to coffee growers. The head of state also accused some strike organizers of having ulterior motives.
“Some who are promoting the strike are not interested in coffee farming or the well being of the farmers,” said the president. “No country or government is doing for its coffee industry and growers what we are doing today in Colombia…so far the government has given in direct aid to the sector [more than $550 million]…an amount that has never before been given to coffee growers…we are talking about [$1.65 million] a month.”
Strike organizers however, have argued that the government’s subsidies have not been enough to protect them from the perfect storm of low international coffee prices, harmful weather conditions, and an unusually high peso, which has resulted in net loss on each sack of coffee.
Strike organizer, Victor Correa, told Colombia Reports in January that, “[Farmers] are paid $282 for a sack of coffee but the cost of producing it is $366. 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.”
The National Coffee Growers Federations (FEDCAFE), while expressing support for coffee growers, characterized the strike as a confrontational and unproductive strategy.
“The federation sides with the coffee growers…[but] we believe that the interests of coffee growers are best served by dialog and not by confrontation,” the federation’s communications director, Luis Fernando Samper, told Colombia Reports Monday.
“We believe the concerns [of the coffee growers] in terms of prices are valid, but the way to express them and the way to come up with solutions, well [the strike] is probably not the best way for coffee growers, rather it deteriorates the atmosphere within which to reach an agreement,” said Samper.
The federation acknowledged that the government attempted to act in good faith. As Samper put it, the plight of the coffee industry is “not necessarily a government policy issue or a problem, but rather a price problem, an exchange rate problem…because the government has supported growers, as the president of Colombia said this morning [Monday], and it’s true, they have reached out to help the industry. Of course you always want more…but you have to agree or understand that the government has its limitations and you cannot get everything you want.”
Whether the strikes will have an impact on the future of the coffee industry is yet to be seen. However, a solution needs to be arrived at quickly. The livelihoods of thousands of Colombians are at stake.
- Interview with Fedecafe communications director Luis Fernando Samper
- Alocución del Presidente Juan Manuel Santos sobre la convocatoria a una movilización cafetera (Presidential Press Release)
- Paro cafetero avanza en medio de disturbios y bloqueos” (El Heraldo)
- Hay disturbios en Huila, Quindío y Risaralda por paro cafetero (El Tiempo)