26 de marzo 2008 - 00:00

Indefinite farm strike

Mario Llambías, Eduardo Buzzi and Luciano Miguens yesterday when announcing that the already 14-day long strike would continue indefinitely.
Mario Llambías, Eduardo Buzzi and Luciano Miguens yesterday when announcing that the already 14-day long strike would continue indefinitely.
Argentine farmers vowed on Tuesday to extend indefinitely a two-week protest against new taxes, as the first signs of food shortages put pressure on President Cristina Fernandez to resolve the biggest conflict she has faced.

Trade at the country's biggest grain and cattle markets has ground to a halt since the strike began on March 13 and diminishing supplies of beef and some dairy products were reported at stores.

Farmers have blocked roads with tractors across the country during the protest and grains shipments have been affected. Argentina is one of the world's leading suppliers of soy, corn, wheat and beef.

Strike leaders said the protest would continue until the government shelves the new export tax regime, which introduces a sliding-scale of duties and substantially raises levies on soy and sunflower sales.

Eduardo Buzzi, president of the FAA association, told a news conference that agricultural leaders had agreed to "continue this strike for as long as necessary."

Justice Minister Anibal Fernandez told local radio the government was willing to negotiate but it will not allow the farmers to say "how things should be done." Ministers have said the strike must be called off before talks can start.

It is the biggest conflict Fernandez has faced since she took office in December, and it marks a deterioration in tense relations with farmers, who have criticized anti-inflation measures such as export bans and price controls.

Most grains exporters have been hit by the blockades, an industry leader said.

"At the moment, the majority (of grains exporters) are not operating. Because we've ended up with no stock. No grains, no oils and no meal, said Alberto Rodriguez, director of the Cereal Exporters Center (CEC) and vegetable oil group CIARA.

Some exporters declared force majeure last week, switching soy shipments to the United States, U.S. traders said.

FRUSTRATED

Consumer and retail groups said reports of bare shelves at supermarkets and grocery stores were increasing as the strike dragged on.

"In general, the things that are lacking are beef and some dairy products," said FABA, a federation that groups small grocery stores across the country.

The protest in Argentina has also weakened the value of the peso currency due to fewer inflows of dollars from agricultural exports.

But road blockades have become the most visible aspect of the protest. In some areas, frustrated truck drivers began clearing highway barricades themselves.

The demonstrators have been letting trucks pass as long as they are not carrying farm goods.

Farmers at roadblocks handed out pamphlets, saying the government's hefty export taxes "take (money) from rural communities, from our shop owners and our industries. With this money there could be more investment, more jobs and a better future for everyone."

Government officials have sent some signals of trying to end the crisis, by announcing price cap agreements on fertilizers and proposing to form a special agency to deal with issues faced by small farmers.

But so far, that has not been enough for farmers, who say the export tax hike was the last straw.

The government has used levies on grain exports to boost state revenue at a time of exceptionally high commodities prices, and to curb high local inflation, particularly on basic food items.

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