Potato Farmers in Colombia Rebel Against Trade Laws, Rising Production Costs

The farmers are demanding cheaper inputs, a better price for their crop, and that payment be based on the quality of the product, rewarding growers for a higher quality product. “All we have is our land,” says a young woman named Senída. “And at these rates, we are losing it fast.”

 Famers and laborers protesting in Colombia gather to read an official statement.We’re stuck in Tunja, a colonial town about three hours outside of Bogotá, way up in the Colombian mountains, covered with rolling hills, above the clouds, majestic beyond words.

Not a bad place to be stuck for a few days.

The roadways both in and out of Tunja are blocked. The main bridge, called Puente Boyacá, connects Tunja to the road running south to Bogotá, as well as to the opposite path heading north, where Chris and I are trying to go. Puente Boyacá is shut down because of the papero (potato farmers) protests.

The day before we arrived, reports quickly spread of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of farm owners and rural laborers staging a blockade. Their cars and tractors lined the bridge, stopping traffic from passing through, a brazen act of civil disobedience against the Colombian government, and specifically the Department of Agriculture. Puente Boyacá has historical significance in the area: it is where Simón Bolívar defeated the Spanish army, in a decisive battle for independence from colonial rule.

The farmers are demanding cheaper inputs, a better price for their crop, and that payment be based on the quality of the product, rewarding growers for a higher quality product.

It´s around noon when we arrive at the bridge. The bridge blockade is down on this particular day, while negotiations take place in Bogotá, although the protesters are still gathered in full, and growing.

Approximately 150 people are standing at a precipice below the side of the road, looking up the hill at Puente Boyacá. Most of the demonstrators are gathered in small groups. Some carry sticks and wear militant red bandanas over their faces, but most of the crowd is unarmed.

A young man, who turns out to be part of a group of local students who came in support, is yelling and gesturing wildly, taking advantage of the few cameras present. He´s riling up the farmers and the laborers who have joined in as well, who, at this point, have been at the blockade for over 24 hours.

Facing them down, literally, on the above precipice, are around thirty state police, dressed in full riot gear. Further up the road are another fifty police officers. The previous day, they had responded to the blockade with water cannons. According to local news reports, water cannons were used against sticks and rocks. It ended with anywhere from five to thirty protesters detained, who are still absent from the on-going demonstrations the following day.

We find a mostly peaceful scene, aside from the occasional jeers directed at the police. (When the rain starts, there is a lot of hollering, and riot police back down from their posts to take shelter. It’s a mini-victory of sorts).

The government is showing some signs of listening, or at least responding, to the transit emergency created by the blockade. After the previous night’s violent turn, representatives of the potato farmers are meeting in Bogotá with the Ministry of Agriculture, to present their demands. Those still facing off with the police are anxiously awaiting results of the meeting. Word is that there will be some news to act on, for better or worse, by 2 pm.

More trucks arrive with campesinos from neighboring municipalities. Each new arrival is greeted with appreciative cheers from the crowd. Tomato, onion, and dairy farmers are joining as well. The morning newspaper, reporting on events the night before, says 10,000 people are participating from the Boyacá region alone, strategically spreading onto other smaller roadways as well.

Shouts of “¡Que mejoren los precios!” (“Better prices!”) come from all directions. At the current price rate, farmers say, they can no longer sustain their businesses.

People are eager to talk to anyone who will listen.

“It now costs more to grow the food than we can sell it for,” says one man. Chris, himself a farmer in the US, asks for an estimate. “100 kilos sell for 35,000 pesos, (around 20 USD),” the man says. At current market price, this quantity costs COP 60,000 (36 USD) to produce.

The blockade was planned one month in advance. Farm owners and laborers from all over Columbia communicated with each other to set up block points, using a cell phone tree. They say their calls for economic justice have been ignored for too long, and they are fed up.

“All we have is our land,” says a young woman named Senída. “And at these rates, we are losing it fast.” Another man says it’s been a year and a half since farmers were able to get a bank loan to pay for basic inputs for the farm, such as fertilizer, pesticides, seed, and fuel for machinery.

Farmers and laborers all frequently speak in anger against the “TLC” (Trata de Libre Comercio), the international free trade agreement which has allowed an influx of large quantities of cheaper agricultural products from countries like Argentina, Peru, and Canada.

Off of one of the trucks comes a photocopied statement from the farmers, which is quickly passed around. It reads:

“For the Dignity of All Campesinos.

NO to the importation of crops under the free trade agreements.

NO to raising fuel prices.

NO to raising the price of fungicides.

NO to spontaneous fluctuation of food prices.

We will turn our hoes to the State.”

Their primary work tool, the hoe, has become a symbolic weapon for the farmers. In Bogotá, where campesino protests spilled into the streets, hundreds of hoes were laid in front of the building housing the Ministry of Agriculture. Although many of the protesters gathered with us at the bridge today say they are pacifists, there seem to be differing opinions about tactics.

”We come in peace, and we will continue to act in peace,” says the student leader to the news camera.

But the farmers I speak to privately disagree.

“We’ve tried everything,” says Senída. ”But without violence, no one listens. No one pays attention.”

A boy named Alex, around 18-years-old, goes further. ”The farm youth are ready to take up arms,” he tells me.  ”Six thousand of us.”

I ask the group of about seven people gathered around us if they agree with Senída’s statement. Without hesitation, all nod vigorously. They are still waiting for news of the talks from the capital as we leave.

Chris and I return to Tunja to catch the bus out of town. Buses have been running smoothly all day, since the Puente Boyacá blockade was removed, and we’re able to get the same ticket north that was impossible to buy the day before. As we wait, it’s not yet 2 pm.

The bus is late, and then it’s later. I ask the bus company manager what’s up. He hangs up the phone and looks at me helplessly.

No hay paso.  They’ve taken the bridge again.”

Joe Shansky works for Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant rights organization and low-wage workers center, based in Milwaukee, WI.  He can be reached at: fallow3@gmail.com.