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Farmers declare one-month truce
Inter Press Service, Latinamerica Press
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Strike gives way to negotiations with government.

Thousands of farmers meeting in an assembly April 2 decided to call off a three-week farm strike involving roadblocks around the country that have caused food shortages in cities, and declared a truce to continue talks with the government.

Some 20,000 farmers and their families, holding Argentine flags and signs with the names of their towns, gathered in Gualeguaychu in the province of Entre Rios, north of Buenos Aires.

”We have suspended the strike for no more than 30 days,” said Mario Llambías, president of the Confederaciones Rurales Argentinas, one of the four rural associations of small, medium and large agricultural producers who took part in the protests. His organization along with the Inter-Cooperative Agricultural Federation, the Rural Association and the Argentine Agrarian Federation, represent some 290,000 farmers.

The assembly followed a very different rally by supporters of the government of President Cristina Fernández, in the Plaza de Mayo outside of the seat of government in Buenos Aires. Addressing a crowd of as many as 200,000 supporters, according to police estimates, the president called for support for the measure that sparked the conflict in the first place: the hike on soy and sunflower export taxes.

“I’m asking you to help me continue fighting for justice, for jobs,” she said, urging the farmers to be a part of a business sector that “adds value to production with more and better work, with education as an instrument of social balance, because I can’t do it alone.”

Redistributing income?
On March 11, the government announced an increase on soy export taxes from 35 to 44 percent and on sunflower export taxes from 39 to 41 percent, although the sliding scale tax will vary as international prices rise or drop.
The government states that it is a redistributive measure imposed to extraordinary revenues due to the high prices of these crops in the international market, and that the aim is to promote other crops. The treasury, however, is receiving already almost half of the US$24 billion a year these activities yield.

For Néstor Scibona, a columnist at the La Nación newspaper, more than a measure for social redistribution, the hike was the government’s way of stashing money away to pay off the country’s public debt and to pay for the importation of heavy crude, and “feed a bottomless pit of subsidies that are used to camouflage the energy deficit.”

The decision outraged farmers who demanded incentives such as subsidies and loans. Small, medium and large producers of grains, milk, beef and other products began to stage roadblocks at 400 different points around the country to keep trucks from delivering their shipments of food to the cities, where supermarket shelves began to empty and some food manufacturers had to give their workers early vacations.

Two weeks into the strike, middle-class demonstrators spontaneously took to the streets to bang pots and pans in support of the farmers and in opposition to the Fernández administration.

Cities around Argentina were left with major food shortages. Millions of gallons of milk and tons of tomatoes, carrots, bananas and oranges spoiled on trucks. Meat disappeared from supermarkets and millions of small chickens had to be slaughtered.

Concentration of land
Local reports say that behind the conflict is the increasing concentration of land in the hands of a few — major landowners and large corporations — and the trend toward monoculture. Twenty percent of the country’s 84,000 soy producers hold 80 percent of the crops, and of the 30 million hectares (74 million acres) of arable land in the country, half is used for growing this oleaginous crop. Ninety-five percent of Argentine soy is exported.

In an effort to appease the farmers, the government on March 31 offered a package of measures to small farmers, such as a rebate on the export tax and compensation for transport costs. But the traffic blockades stayed in place till Wednesday, when the farmers agreed on a month-long truce.

Danilo Lima, a political analyst and journalist at El Diario daily from Entre Rios, says that in reality the new tax puts a ceiling on the farmers’ profits. “Since the costs are not going to stop going up — seeds, taxes, fertilizers, agrochemicals, gasoil — small and medium farmers have no other option but to rent out their land, and after, sell it to a large-scale farmer. A genuine producer is lost, then, and the land becomes concentrated in fewer hands.”
The farmers who met in Gualeguaychú — a city that led massive protests against a cellulose pulp plant in the neighboring Uruguayan city of Fray Bentos — announced that they would give the government until May 2 to discuss their agenda.

“We want solutions, not promises,” Llambías said. “We don’t want to stay quiet; we’re going to continue pressuring and searching for solutions. We don’t want 30 days to go by to return empty-handed.”

The strike caused about US$2 billion in damages, according to Argentine business groups.

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