Farmers strike in Argentina

Argentina’s farmers are on strike, Jaime Jacques explains why.

A piquetero at a pro-government rally in Buenos Aires holds a sign that reads: ‘Soy, or Peace, Bread, and Work.’

Jaime Jacques

‘You are not owners of this country, you are citizens!’ roars Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner to a crowd of thousands gathered in Plaza de Mayo, the political centre of the city of Buenos Aires.

Dressed impeccably (rumour has it that she has never worn the same thing twice) with two mammoth screens broadcasting her speech on either side of the platform on which she stands; music blares, confetti falls from the sky and the ground seems to shake as the crowd breaks into applause. The president continues. ‘Argentines do not eat soy! We need more meat and more milk, at reasonable prices, so that everyone in this country can be fed.’ The message is implicit. Soy: the antithesis of all that is good and Argentinean; and the farmers who cultivate it: guilty by association. Cristina holds her hand to her heart and a tear appears in her eye. ‘Please, for the sake of your country, lift the strike.’

The crowd goes crazy again and as the president finishes her impassioned speech a blanket of grey approaches the city and rain starts to pound down on the streets of Buenos Aires. The show is over and the herd absconds, leaving a slippery mess of empty wine tetrapaks and pro-government pamphlets for someone else to clean up.

It's part of the regular political play here in Argentina. Piqueteros, members of the urban underclass, are paid to attend government rallies and create an aggressive (and often festive) backlash against whoever is questioning the government's latest scheme – in this case, Argentina's farmers.

The piqueteros gather around the president as if she is a rock star. There are no farmers in sight but that doesn't mean they aren't listening. They are scattered throughout the country’s main transport routes; huddled in groups, clutching handheld radios or gathered around TVs. They have blockaded the main highways, effectively halting the transport of food from farms to the cities. The strike is a response to the president’s announcement of another tax hike (the third in six months) on exports of soybeans and other grains in an attempt to keep domestic food prices low and ‘redistribute wealth’.

For the first time in 50 years the farmers of Argentina have united in a common struggle. Small, medium and large land owners have had enough of what they see as unfair export taxes. They are fed up and they are leading Argentina's first farmer’s revolt.

Farmers say they have been struggling with increasing export taxes since the early 1990s when soy beans were first introduced to Argentina's incredibly fertile soil. The cultivation of soy has been on the rise ever since and so has the profit. In 2001 a ton of Argentinean soy sold on the international market for between $170 and $175. Today the same amount is worth $480. The value has almost tripled and as a result almost all of the soy produced in Argentina never sees domestic shelves.

A drive through the countryside reveals this once little known bean's ubiquity. Blankets of green punctuated by signs that read ‘supersoy’ or ‘soymagic’ have replaced fields where cows once grazed. Many of these farms are owned by international companies who are harvesting transgenic soy; but small and medium landowners are getting in on the action as well. Today in Argentina it's difficult to find a farmer who doesn't allocate at least some of his land to soy.

‘Until four years ago I produced only meat and dairy but after the crisis I began producing grains as well. They started to have more value and above all else the global demand for soy increased significantly,’ says Guillermo Echezarreta, a 62- year-old farmer who lives in Gualyguachu, a small town surrounded by never-ending fields of soy, wheat and corn. Trucks covered in mud crawl along the tranquil streets of this agricultural community and men with weathered hands and faces line up to buy seeds at the local shops. They are changing their crops and methods to keep up with demand. They say they need soy to survive.

‘The only land that is now used for meat and dairy is that which is not suitable for grains. Where you produce 300 or 400 kilos of meat you can produce 7000 kilos of grain, says Echezarreta. ‘I believe that right now soy is the key to economic development in Argentina.’

Economic development? ‘What development?’, scoffs 49-year-old Carmen Silva as she watches Cristina give one of her infamous speeches on the TV in a tiny Buenos Aires apartment. Like many others Silva and her family lost their life savings in 2001 when the country went bankrupt and now struggle to get by. ‘Look at her… Gucci clothes, diamonds around her neck while the rest of us are dying of hunger.’

Silva sits down and begins to eat a hamburger, maybe the last for a while, she says. With the farmers stopping meat from reaching the city, prices are quickly escalating and the tension is palpable. Strangers nervously strike up conversations with each other in supermarkets about the prospect of living on pasta and canned tomatoes for a while. In meat obsessed Argentina this qualifies as a crisis.

Silva begins chatting with her son. Both tune out the president’s histrionics. . Cristina finishes her speech with her usual nationalistic flair. ‘I want to make this country better for all Argentineans; not just a select few.’

This seems to be the standard justification for the increased taxes – to make food more affordable for the nation's poor (the theory is that less food exported means more food sold domestically and lower prices) and to redistribute profits from agriculture to average Argentineans. However, farmers, along with the majority of people on the streets say this is laughable. They say that average citizen never sees the return, and furthermore, there is no accountability for where the profit goes.

Many believe that behind the altruistic rhetoric the government is plotting to get rid of small and medium landowners and let big agribusinesses take over completely. After all, the same tax increase that could put a small farmer out of business is barely a dent in the bankroll of big company.

‘It's an authoritarian government that is not willing to listen to anyone,’ says Echezarreta. ‘The conflict began because the measurement does not take into account the difference between small producers and big producers; small-time farmers are hit the hardest with these retentions. They claim to be a populist government, but are working hand in hand with big companies.’

It's a perfect paradox: economic growth with increasing poverty.

After 21 days the farmers are feeling the heat from fellow Argentines. They agree to put the strike on hold, bring food back to the cities and participate in government talks. But the conflict is far from over – and it is far from unique.

Across the world developing countries are trying to feed their own citizens affordably while maintaining exports. The demand for soy and corn has increased as more people start eating meat and meat-derived products (the production of which involves an overwhelming need for grains) and the demand will continue to grow with the increased use of corn for ethanol and soy for biodiesel.

The agrofuel craze is contributing to world food inflation and Argentina is caught in the trap even though the country is the world's largest soy exporter. While Argentina’s grains pull in valuable dollars on the international market poverty is rampant at home.

In Buenos Aires slums line the outskirts of the city (it is in these areas the government finds it’s piqueteros), thousands of cartoneros (informal garbage collectors in search of recyclables) invade the streets at night. While tourists feast on fat steaks and red wine at a fraction of the cost they would pay at home, locals line up at food banks because they can't keep up with the rising prices. The situation is even worse once you leave the city. In the northern parts of the country people are literally dying of hunger.

‘The problem is not what farmers are growing; it's whether they are growing it for agrofuels or for food,’ says Stephen Lendman, an analyst with the Centre for Research on Globalization. ‘If it's not for food, prices skyrocket and people die.’

Lendman also expresses concern over foreign companies poisoning arable soil with GMOs. Almost all of the soy produced in Argentina is genetically modified.

In Gualyguachu, a taxi driver talks about the changes he has seen since the soy boom. ‘The river here used to be clean, now there is a constant layer of thick foam that rests on top – an accumulation of the agrochemicals that companies are using to harvest soy. It’s an environmental disaster but you never hear anyone talking about it.’

Cristina sells the government's new export policy as a way of protecting the environment, by forcing limits on soy production, but the reality is that there have been no new environmental acts implemented. Therefore, as it stands, those who can afford to pay the increasing export taxes can continue to mine Argentina's soil.

Despite the government's best attempts to sway the agricultural sector; Argentines have seen a long succession of political fabulists and are fluent in doublespeak.

After 30 days of failed negotiations angry farmers resumed their strike with a clever new tactic. Instead of stopping food from reaching Argentines, farmers are stopping food from reaching the rest of the world.

‘We are back on strike and will not let trucks with grain for export through. The idea is to hit the government where it hurts most – no exports of grain, no income in dollars and no export tax,’ says Alfredo De Angeli, one of the farmers leading the strike in Gualyguachu. Argentina’s farmers mobilized once again and on Thursday of the first week of the renewed strike only two trucks made it through to the Parana River to deliver grains for export. At this time last year almost 6000 trucks could be found in the same place on any given day. The world is feeling the pressure as soybean prices soar and consumer prices follow. Less output and higher prices are good for business but the worlds poorest are paying with their lives.

Jaime Jacques is a Canadian freelance journalist based in Buenos Aires.