Argentina: Empty Shelves, Drowned Chicks as Farm Strike Rages

(IPS) – Millions of litres of milk have been dumped out in Argentina, tons of tomatoes, carrots, bananas and oranges have rotted in trucks, beef has been unavailable in butcher shops and supermarkets in the capital for the past six days, and millions of chicks have had to be drowned because of the lack of chicken feed.

This is one face of the 20-day farm strike in Argentina, where farmers continue to block roads at 400 different points in 14 agricultural provinces, keeping many farm products from reaching Buenos Aires and other cities.

The protest has caused concern in community soup kitchens, schools and hospitals.

"I don’t know what we’re going to do," said Estela Esquivel, who runs a soup kitchen that serves meals to 150 poor children every day in the La Cava slum neighbourhood on the north side of Buenos Aires.

"We don’t know when they are going to bring us beef; around here, businesses have opted to just close their doors," she told IPS.

The secretary general of the teachers’ union in the eastern province of Buenos Aires, Roberto Baradel said schools in the district "are no longer serving beef, chicken or milk, but only rice, noodles and polenta" to the 1.5 million children who receive lunch and a snack every day in 8,800 schools.

"We have two children, ages four and eight, at risk of malnutrition, because they depend exclusively on our soup kitchen for their meals," said Carmen Ozorio at the Darío Santillán community centre in the lower middle class district of Lanús in southern Buenos Aires.

"We only have dry goods, a few vegetables, and little to no meat," she told IPS. "The neighbourhood butcher shops are closed and the greengrocer shops are too, because the only products that are coming in are very expensive, and expensive things don’t sell around here."

Ozorio said that if the farm strike and resultant food shortages continue, "people are going to take to the streets at any moment." She was referring to looting of shops that occurred on Mar. 27 in other Buenos Aires suburbs, which was reminiscent of what happened during the late 2001 economic meltdown.

The current crisis, the worst faced by the centre-left government of Cristina Fernández, who took office in December, was triggered by a Mar. 11 announcement of a tax increase on soybean and sunflower exports.

In response to the measure, which replaced a fix tax of 35 percent of soybean exports with a sliding scale tax that currently stands at around 40 percent (the percentage rises and shrinks depending on international prices), the rural associations decided to mount traffic blockades around the country.

Several days into the protest, middle and upper middle class people in Buenos Aires spontaneously took to the streets, beating pots and pans in demonstrations held in solidarity with the farmers.

On Monday, the government offered small farmers measures that included a rebate on the new export tax and compensation for transport costs. But the government offer was rejected, and the farm associations announced that the strike would continue at least until Wednesday.

But on Tuesday, thousands of trade unionists and members of human rights groups and social organisations packed the Plaza de Mayo outside of the house of government for a rally in support of Fernández.

In her speech, the president once again defended the farm export tax hike, which she has explained as an attempt to redistribute income, encourage farmers to add value to their products, and guarantee domestic food supplies.

"I ask you to help me continue to fight for justice, for jobs, for creating a national business community that incorporates value-added, with more and better employment, with education as an instrument of social equilibrium, because I can’t do it alone," she called on the crowd, which numbered 200,000 according to police sources who spoke to the state news agency Telam.

Jorge Álvarez, who took part independently in the rally, instead of with one of the numerous participating groups, said "I thought I should come because I believe the tax increase is fair, regardless of whether the government may make mistakes in the way it handles things. Whether we like it or not, this is the best government we’ve had in years."

To the protesting farmers, the president said: "Attack me if that makes you happy, but don’t attack the people anymore, and clear the roads so Argentine society can have access to food, factories can obtain their raw materials, and shops can get their merchandise."

But the roadblocks continue.

"No chickens can go by!" Alfredo De Angelis shouted Tuesday, standing in a group of fellow farmers in front of a long line of trucks held up along the main highway in the eastern province of Entre Ríos, which also runs to neighbouring countries.

De Angelis, leader of the protest in the town of Gualeguaychú, explained that they had decided to let through 10 trucks an hour. But one of the drivers who had a truckload of chickens tried to force his way through and the demonstrators got angry.

"Now chickens can’t go through," said De Angelis.

Economy Minister Martín Lousteau, who announced the package of measures for small farmers on Monday, told the protesters Tuesday that "you can’t fool around with people’s food," and said he was confident that the roadblocks would be lifted.

"Food has been thrown out, and everything is more expensive now," said the minister.

Several basic products are now scarce in the cities, while others are simply impossible to find on supermarket shelves. The Fedecámaras business association reported that 200,000 businesses have been affected by the shortages.

In the Central Market, where fresh produce is distributed throughout Buenos Aires, two tons of food that was spoiled by the time the trucks finally made it through was thrown out.

Cooking oil and dairy products are being sold in limited quantities. Dairy farms have had to dump out their milk because the trucks have been unable to make their pick-ups.

Producers of bread, crackers and cooking oil are suffering a lack of ingredients, and some companies, like Bagley, a biscuit maker, have temporarily laid off their workers or given them early vacations.

The first product to disappear from the shops was beef, of which Argentina is one of the world’s top exporters. In Victoria, a district in northern Buenos Aires, a terrible stench was coming out of a garbage dumpster. Neighbours said a truck driver had tossed trays of beef there after holding them for several days in his vehicle, at room temperature in the early days of the southern hemisphere autumn.

Hundreds of trucks carrying beef had to abandon their merchandise on the side of roads. In some cases, the protesters themselves benefited, roasting huge quantities on improvised grills on the ground at the roadblocks. But most went to waste.

Ignoring the stench, poor residents living near the roadblocks on the outskirts of Buenos Aires picked through the food, salvaging what they could.

"Nothing has been slaughtered in three weeks," Danilo Schab, assistant secretary of the Federación Gremial del Personal de la Industria de la Carne (the union of meat industry employees), told IPS. Work at the meat-packing plants has been brought to a halt, and workers are drawing lowered wages.

On Monday "we asked the Labour Ministry to give us a hand because the companies say they can’t pay our paychecks for the second half of March," said Schab. "That’s going to cause a big social problem, because we’re talking about 40,000 workers."

Nevertheless, the situation faced by the beef industry is not as dire in the long-term as the outlook facing chicken producers. "Cows can just continue to graze, but chicks, without grain feed, can’t survive," said the trade unionist.

When the protest began nearly three weeks ago, there were 100 million broiler chickens around the country, and 2.1 million were slaughtered daily, compared to 300,000 a day since the farm strike was declared.

"This is like an assembly line: as the chickens are slaughtered, room is made in the sheds for the new chicks," said Schab. But because of the roadblocks, "four million chicks had to be drowned in barrels of water."