Thursday, August 29, 2013

Colombia's national agricultural strike can use some facts and numbers to aid the public discussions

Today, there is the largest yet march in the cities of Colombia during the country's nationwide agricultural paro (strike) by the campesinos (farmers). It's been 10 days so far. Students (suspending classes), truck drivers, health workers, together with miners, potato and other small farmers, coffee growers will all march today. The situation is fairly grave. You can read about the demands of the farmers here, but in summary, they are asking for financial help from the government for seeds, fertilisers, fuel and highway tolls. (FYI: Colombia's highway toll costs have been the highest in our year-long South America trip so far.)

Photo source: &, screen captures from here and here

A lot of emotions, but how much is all this financial help?

Not clear.

All the reporting by newspapers like this, this and this, only ever talk about whether the farmers and the government have reached an agreement, that the road block continues, that the food prices are rising due to shortage, that there are more blocks and marches, etc. Nothing concrete about how much all this financial help amounts to, not even a summarised high level figure.

Minimum: half a million US dollars.

The best I could gather was from this article, that the government has asked for 1 billion pesos (~half million USD) to be added to the agricultural budget. My best guess is that this is the minimum, because Colombia is not that expensive, but it's not that cheap either. Nothing on the news can tell me what the range of this ballpark figure could be though.

More likely: 20 million US dollars.
As this article suggests that earlier this year when there was a one-day strike by the farmers, this is the amount the government promised, but never materialised.

Note: none of the figures above says the time period. Is it over a year, or many years? No clue.
Also note the large range between the two figures.

Facts and numbers can help bring neutrality to the conflict.

As an outsider, there appears to be strong popular support for the farmers in the country, all based on sentiments though. It is a us the people versus them the government situation. 

There is very little facts and figures being discussed. Had the government analysed the costs of the agricultural financial help being asked for, and let the people know the consequences and the financial size of the negotiation talks, people would then have an idea to what degree their government can afford to help the farmers. These farmers are indeed quite poor, so images of their leathery and sunken faces shrouded in an earthy poncho arouse a lot of sympathy from the media and social media. 

Without concrete numbers, people are acting solely on emotions. Instead of posing the question, "can we as a nation help the farmers, and how much", it is instead a finger pointing exercise by the people to the government that they have forgotten about the country's farmers. The government has next to no sympathy from the people. Aggressive riots continue that are met by hoards of police in full riot gear. Bloody conflicts pursue day after day. People are getting angrier. There is only black and white, us and them in the story. No neutrality.

Is the government missing a great opportunity to introduce changes to its tax system?

In my opinion, this is a great opportunity for the government to do small step changes in its tax system. That is, IF they can outline the costs involved for the financial help to the farmers, so that the people can understand the consequences. Since there is strong popular support for the farmers, and assuming the government runs the country with money from taxation of the people it serves, the government should be asking the Colombian people to fund the farmer's agricultural activities through taxation.

The country's economy is growing a lot, despite a biased international image of a dangerous drug land. Its city people have a relatively high standard of living compared to its neighbours in South America. As tourists, we feel its prices and infrastructure is comparable to countries like Chile and Argentina. As the country grows more, its tax system is going to need reforms to fund all the nation's spendings, as it is relatively low right now compared to western standards. I cannot think of a better opportunity to introduce such changes. That said, there is a lot I don't know about the country!

Finally, where are the road blocks? Can I get around?

Read this list, updated daily.

Nope, there is no map.

I'm thankful for the information provided by the helpful service #767. At a glance though, without knowing the country's cities and towns super well, I struggle to know whether there are any open roads towards my destination.

Neither do I have a visual context of the scale of the road blocks.

As we sit here in Bogota, Colombia, totally stuck and unable to leave the capital due to rubber-tire-burning and rocky-fallen-tree-stumps road blocks setup by protesting farmers, we are selfishly annoyed by the disturbance to our year-long South American trip in a mini, self-made casa rodante (house on wheels). We don't want to risk driving through these road blocks, as our friends on the road had firsthand experience going through them. Although they pleaded their way through the blocks ultimately safely, they did also report incidents of rock throwing, tire puncturing, window breaking, etc., done to other cars. Some Colombians say the farmers won't do anything to us and our car, since we are foreigners, but tense conflicts do not always afford reasons. Therefore, we're waiting it out on our friend's couch.

Photo source:, screen captures from here

Special thanks to Angela, William, Julian and Sergio for generously accommodating us in and around Bogota. Colombians are such kind and generous people, helping us completely out of the blue, and in this case, accommodating us simply having met us in hotels or on the roads. Thank you. I wish for peace in your country.

No comments: