Thousands of Colombian farmers and state workers have marched through Bogota, banging pots and pans after 11 days of increasingly violent protests against agricultural and trade policies they say have left them impoverished.
Students wearing balaclavas pelted shop windows with rocks near the capital’s main square and clashed with riot police who fired tear gas to disperse them on Thursday.
“Long live the farmers’ strike! Food sovereignty,” they chanted, holding up protest banners.
President Juan Manuel Santos, who has been unable to end the so-called national strike that has united potato growers, milk producers, teachers and health workers, acknowledged agriculture is in crisis, but called for peaceful dissent while talks about possible solutions are going on.
“The farm sector has been abandoned,” the centre-right president said in a televised address.
“The protests are valid … but, via dialogue, we will resolve the problems … We are in a storm, but we will persevere.”
Protesters wearing typical farmer attire of woollen ponchos, brimmed hats and rubber boots to show their solidarity, marched in 15 columns towards the Plaza Bolivar, where the presidential palace and Congress are located.
Farmers have blocked roads, snarling city-bound traffic and pressuring Santos three months before he must decide whether to run for a second term.
“My purchase power is zero, it’s only enough to survive,” said Orlando Pamo, 50, an indigenous father of six from central Tolima province who earns less than the minimum wage farming citrus and other fruits. “The government wants us off the land so it can be given to big business. We don’t get the benefits companies get.”
Santos said he will lift import duties on 23 products, including some fertilisers and pesticides, to help lower crop production costs. He also is working to find more permanent solutions for the farm sector’s problems.
Clashes between police and protesters over removal of the barricades resulted in at least one death and scores of injuries and arrests since the strike began on August 19.
Looting was reported in several towns and blocked roads have prevented food getting to market, raising prices for consumers.
The already gruelling life of farming families has become harder in recent years since income from harvests has failed to cover costs of fertilisers and transportation.
Potato, corn and milk producers complain that free-trade agreements with Europe and the United States have made it almost impossible to compete with cheaper imports.
Droughts followed by unusually heavy rains have also made farming conditions difficult over the past several years.