Argentina: Farmers Declare One-Month Truce

(IPS) – Thousands of farmers meeting in an assembly Wednesday decided to call off a three-week farm strike involving roadblocks around the country that have caused food shortages in the 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 Gualeguaychú in the province of Entre Ríos, to the 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.

"But we are still on a state of alert and mobilisation. In that time, we will put together an agenda for obtaining solutions, not promises," he told the farmers meeting in the assembly.

The assembly followed a very different rally held Tuesday by supporters of the government of 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, she called for support for the measure that sparked the conflict in the first place: the hike on soy and sunflower export taxes.

The government describes the tax increase as an attempt to redistribute income based on the windfall profits currently enjoyed by exporters of soy and other agricultural commodities of which Argentina is a leading producer.

The tax on exports of soy rose from 35 to 44 percent, and on sunflowers from 39 to 41 percent. However, the sliding scale tax will vary as international prices rise or drop.

When the government announced the tax hike on Mar. 11, 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.

On Monday, the government 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, until the farmers agreed on a month-long truce.

In their assembly Wednesday, the leaders of the rural associations read out a proclamation in which they said the three-week farm strike was unprecedented in Argentine history, as was the support for the rural sector expressed by demonstrators in the cities.

The roadblocks "were forced on us by the circumstances; it was the only way to get our voices heard, because we had tried, to the point of exhaustion, all of the normal routes," the declaration said. "We were not born to upset peaceful coexistence, but we could not avoid it; we want to return to normal coexistence and to our work."

They also expressed their interest in "re-establishing conditions for dialogue," in order to set forth proposals and legislative initiatives.

In addition, they demanded greater control over the way the taxes are to be used. "We want to recuperate the country’s lost federalism," they said, criticising the fact that the export tax is not distributed among the provinces.

Juan Echeverría, who belongs to the most radical sector taking part in the protests — a group of farmers who do not form part of any of the four major rural associations — said the countryside "exploded" because the export tax hike was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

"Soybeans were the last refuge of profitability, after the trampling of the profit margin for milk and beef," he said.

The rural activist said that in the past few years, dozens of small dairy farms have closed down, because the subsidies shelled out by the government over the past year have gone to the large producers.

"It’s outrageous that just five days before the soybean harvest, they increased the export tax on soy," complained Alfredo De Angelis, another of the farmers leading the traffic blockade in Gualeguaychú. "This time we got this far, but next time we’ll reach the Plaza de Mayo," he warned.

Eduardo Buzzi, the president of the Federación Agraria Argentina, the rural association that represents small farmers, complained about the government’s description of the farm strike as "coup-mongering", and pointed out that leaders of his group were political prisoners during the brutal 1976-1983 military dictatorship.

"This mobilisation is protesting against an increasingly centralised system of political and economic administration," said Buzzi. He was referring to the government’s refusal to share the farm export tax with the agricultural provinces, in order to improve infrastructure in those areas.

"It’s ridiculous that with the taxes we are contributing, we have to hold a raffle just to get the town school painted," he complained.

The response to the measures offered to small farmers Monday by the Economy Ministry was cautious. Some of the compensations already exist, in the form of 500 million dollars in subsidies.

But small farmers, who say the assistance goes mainly to large dairy and food products companies, complain that although they filled in all of the forms, they never received the support, which is why they are wary about promises of new aid.