Colombia: coffee strike claims advances

With a strike that lasted from Feb. 24 to March 8, tens of thousands of Colombian coffee growers took to the streets in towns and cities across the country, demanding relief for a sector hard hit by neoliberal policies—and ultimately claiming victory despite government intransigence and calumnies. The cafeteros refused to harvest beans, blocked traffic, and prevented beans from being loaded at port terminals, in a wave of actions across Colombia’s highland coffee belt, stretching from Nariño in the south to Antioquia in the north.

The striking workers—numbering 70,000 by organizer counts—demanded that the government of President Juan Manuel Santos boost subsidies, renegotiate debt and end all coffee imports. The government initially refused to negotiate, with Santos dismissing the strike as “unnecessary, inconvenient and unjust”—while his Ministry of Agriculture asserted that it was part of a campaign by the FARC guerillas. While FARC expressed solidarity with the strike, organizers denied any link to the guerillas.

The government finally agreed to talk on March 2, after a week of street protests and blockades. A week after that, the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation accepted an offer of nearly $450 million in new subsidies, and called off the strike.

Oscar GutiĂ©rrez Reyes, a spokesperson for the Movement for the Dignity and Defense of Coffee Workers, said that as many as 75 were wounded in clashes with police during the strike, including children, as security forces used rubber bullets and tear gas. 

Depending on the year, Colombia is the world’s third or fourth top coffee producer. The country is also the leading producer of the prized Arabica bean—although the growers themselves rarely see higher premiums for producing specialty beans. Growers are now battling a fungal disease called “coffee rust”—or roya in Spanish—that has forced farmers have to uproot their coffee crops and plant new disease-resistant varieties. In 2011, up to 10% of Colombia’s coffee groves—300,000 acres—were re-planted because of infestation. Many growers and ecologists blame climate change for the blight, as well as the rise of industrial farming methods. (Waging Nonviolence, March 25; La LĂ­nea de Fuego, March 20; Global Coffee Review, March 11; Colombia Reports, March 2;  Colombia Reports, Feb. 27; BBC News, Feb. 25; Colombia Reports, Jan. 30)