BOGOTÁ, COLOMBIA – In the last three days Colombia has experienced a nationwide series of strikes that have paralyzed roadways and resulted in clashes between protesters and police. The question for those outside of Colombia is “Who is on strike and why?”
On Colombian television and in national newspapers, the strike is referred to as the “Paro Nacional de Agricultores,” or “National Agricultural Workers Strike.” This is an accurate reflection of the coffee, dairy, potato and coca farmers leading the strikes. But there are many others on walkout as well, including miners, health workers, truck drivers, and each sector has its own gripes.
Here are some of the reasons why so many Colombian workers have walked off the job:
Coffee Growers: Forget romantic notions: Juan Valdez has had it. From time almost immemorial, coffee growers have barely been able to survive. Changes in weather, pests, the cost of inputs and most of all, fluctuating market prices, make coffee farming a tough row to hoe. Keep in mind that US$4.50 a cup you pay for your latte, or the US$8 -- or more - you pay a pound, never sees the light of day on a coffee finca in Colombia. And yet dropping coffee prices, which curiously never benefit consumers, have devastated this sector. After massive strikes earlier this year in which growers demanded a floor to stop falling prices, the government offered subsidies to help coffee growers survive. But farmers say the help still hasn’t arrived and when -- and if -- it does, it will be too little too late.
Potato and Other Small Farmers: In an economic policy change that almost seems heretic -- the importation of potatoes to their land of origin -- Colombia signed the US-Colombia Trade Agreement and pretty much said “Hasta la vista” to small potato farmers. According to a recent Oxfam report, “the FTA [will] force Colombian agricultural products to compete without any protection against US subsidized commodities. As a result, …. Colombia’s 1.8 million small farmers [will] see their net agricultural income fall by over 16 percent on average.” The same goes for rice, dairy and poultry farmers, among others, who will have to hold their own, on their own, against the Goliath of the North American industrialized agriculture.
Miners: Privatization has reached new levels of brazen in Colombia, as the government has invited in international mining companies, given them exclusive rights to vast regions rich in gold and other metals, and then turned around and made it illegal for regular Colombians to mine the land themselves. The new laws distinguish between legal miners -- those employed by these mining companies -- and “artisanal” miners -- also known as everyone else. Decree #2235 goes even further, authorizing the destruction of any tools or machinery used by miners who do not have the appropriate permission. The government says it is just trying to organize the mining sector, but small mining businesses and individual miners see it as a government giveaway of national patrimony to foreign interests -- at the cost of poor miners who can barely, literally, scrape out a living.
Land Scams: In one of the latest scandals to hit Colombia’s political scene, Multinational food giants have been caught with their hands in the cookie jar of land reform parcels, and this “finca gate” has even reached the doors of politicians who have personally benefitted. At a time when the Santos government is trying to convince farmers that “he understands their pain,” the fact that very profitable agribusinesses are ending up with land designated for poor farmers is not helping to make his case.
According to the Solidarity Center, an international workers rights organization, Colombia is the deadliest country in the world for union activists, with 4,000 trade unionists murdered in the last 20 years, and each year more labor activists killed in Colombia than the rest of the world combined.The Santos government has pledged to respect the right of Colombian citizens to demonstrate and has promised to heed the UN’s demand to use restraint with protesters.