Colombian farmers demand reforms

Free trade agreements have been driving farmers out of business for years, and have now forced them to the streets.


    The green pastures of the town of Zipaquira seem to be the perfect setting for a booming cattle business. At least that's what Eleazar Corredor thought when he arrived here 22 years ago.

    He was fleeing the agricultural disaster in the region of Boyaca. Farmers there grew barley and wheat, but the crops couldn't compete in a new market that had changed dramatically. In 1990, Colombia signed the first of 17 free trade agreements with countries around the world. Barley and wheat imports begun wiping out the local Colombian crops.

    In Zipaquira, in the state of Cundinamarca, Eleazar bought cattle and in a few years, 100 heads were roaming around the 60 hectares of land he was able to rent.

    Eleazar is an energetic boss. He goes around supervising his workers meticulously as they herd the animals into open pens specially prepared to milk the cows. It seems a perfect setting on a beautiful sunny day, but Eleazar sees clouds looming on the horizon.

    He has a tiny notebook where the major problems in his life are jotted down in two pages full of numbers: the cost of fertilisers, the cost of watering, the cost of transport, the cost of paying his workforce one after another, he adds up his main expenses and shows me that every month he is working at a loss of one million pesos, or just over $500.

    "I can't pay my loans so I've had to find something else, another income, like renting my truck," he says. He's been working at a loss for the past three years.

    Because so many farmers like Eleazar also lost their wheat and barley crops, a large number turned to growing potatoes and onions. Many turned to dairy farming, too. But Colombia is also importing potatoes and onions under its trade agreements.

    Senator Jorge Robledo from the opposition Polo Democratico party says 25 years of free trade policies in Colombia have caused a disaster for the Colombian farming industry. The damage didn't happen overnight, he says.

    "All the agrarian protection policies were suspended, we used to have prices stalled, controls for raw materials, state technical assistance and some scientific investigation projects. That was all reduced dramatically. At the same time the tariffs that protected agriculture were lowered and the products begun to arrive from abroad," he told Al Jazeera.

    Five years after the first agreement was implemented, hundreds of thousands of hectares of seasonal crops disappeared. Farmers couldn't keep up with competitive prices. And, as the years went by imported potatoes and onions left many farmers bankrupted, again.

    The collapse of their livelihoods, over the course of several months, has meant some farmers have gotten desperate, taking to the streets to protest.

    For more than two weeks, farmers supported by students and unions staged violent protests across the entire country. Confrontations with security forces have left at least three people dead and hundreds more injured.

    "It is not gratuitous that the strikes have been so strong, especially in colder areas because they used to produce wheat and barley and now there isn't a spike of wheat or barley in Colombia. So many farmers turned to milking and now there is an excess in production," says Robledo.

    Eleazar produces nearly 22,000 litres of milk every month.

    "The problem for us now is that because of the free trade agreements a lot of whey has been imported and that is turned into milk. Knowing that Colombia is a country that can export milk, instead they are importing it!" he says.

    Farmers in Colombia say that for decades they have been forgotten. They say government after government has been oblivious to their demands for protective measures that will allow them to compete with imports. "The reality is that with the [free trade agreements] we are competing with countries that have lots of subsidies for farming and they help farmers a lot. We simply can't compete with those countries”, says Eleazar.

    President Juan Manuel Santos reacted to the crisis with much hesitation. Now he's begun doing something. He's reshuffling his cabinet, he's also been able to nail down some agreements with farmers to quell the anger and violence. And he has called on a national dialogue on September 12. Despite this, his approval rating has plunged to the lowest a president has had in Colombia since 1999.

    Many farmers, though, are wary of the talks, and think the government will do whatever it can to keep its international agreements intact.

    Farmers say they've run out of patience and they are angry with the government. They want subsidies, they want a revision of the free trade agreements and an agricultural reform. And they've threatened to paralyse the country's main roads unless the government takes urgent action to improve conditions for agricultural workers.

    At his farm, Eleazar feels the tensions around the country in himself. His tiny notebook is recording the losses month after month. And the numbers keep adding up - like a time bomb. His future lies here, among 50 milking cows that could keep his farm running if policies change.

    If they stay the same, however, his 22-year-old business could disappear.



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