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Case Study: Colombia, 2013

Coffee farmers win a living wage

GOAL: To increase government subsidies on coffee in order to receive a minimum of $360 per 125kg sack of coffee beans.
SUCCESS IN ACHIEVING SPECIFIC GOALS: 6 points / 6
SURVIVAL: 1 / 1
GROWTH: 2 / 3

In 2012, Colombian coffee prices fell 35 percent on the international market while the Colombian peso appreciated 10 percent. A combination of crop disease, bad weather, and unfavourable currency rates forced growers in Colombia to sell their coffee at a loss. Many coffee growers then found themselves spending more on fertilisers and supplies than they were making for their coffee.

When this happened, they looked toward the fund established by the national federation of coffee growers, known as Federacafé, as a source of capital that growers had paid into so that they would have support during difficult times. Instead of support, they found that the fund had been mismanaged and pillaged by corrupt officials for years.

ImageOn 25 February 2013, about 40,000 coffee growers organised protests and road blockades in the regions of Antioquia, Huila, Risaralda, Quindio, and Tolima, through the Movement for the Dignity of Coffee Growers (el Movimiento por la Dignidad Cafetera – MDC). Each roadblock had tarp shelters at its sides where protesters prepared food and slept. Farmers collected pots, firewood, and food to bring to their protests.

The campaign demanded that the government provide increased subsidies to guarantee a minimum price for their coffee beans in the market.

At the time, growers received $288 per 125kg sack of coffee, though the cost of production varied from $360 to $387 per sack. Their demand for increased subsidies to offset the lower prices they were receiving on international markets was a demand for a living wage.

In response, president Juan Manuel Santos sent out 15,000 police to violently repress the protesters. They used tear gas and physical force to attack the campaigners. Police tore down the camps, threw food on the ground, and spread toxic chemicals over it to make it inedible. They injured more than 50 people and killed one.

Though the campaign’s demands explicitly expressed coffee growers’ interests, other groups offered their support.

Many merchants closed their shops in solidarity on the first day. Cacao farmers, workers, indigenous people, and even businesspeople are reported to have participated in support of the coffee growers.

“Many merchants closed their shops in solidarity on the first day”

On 1 March, the indigenous communities of Northern Cauca set up road blockades in support, explaining that ‘it’s not just the coffee; it is the agricultural sector and the whole economic model’.

During the months of February and March, other groups like coal workers and truckers launched their own strikes with their specific set of demands.

On 2 March, the government announced that it would provide farmers with a subsidy increase of $33 or $52 per 125kg sack of coffee, depending on the size of the farmer’s land over the year 2013.

The campaigners rejected this and continued their strike demanding a minimum price of $360 per sack, which would require a larger increase in subsidy than $33 or even $52.

The government tried to disorganise and break apart the campaign during the first week. For example, they announced that they had negotiated with Federacafé and so the strike was over. This was not the case however, as the strike was organised by the MDC.

The government tried at other points to associate the strike organisers with guerilla rebel groups or the opposition party, which was not effective.

On 7 March, the government agreed to provide a subsidy of up to $80 per 125kg sack of coffee or $0.29 per pound, which would amount to $450 million in government price supports for the year 2013. They also pledged to take additional measures to help fertilisation and facilitate loan payments for coffee growers. They said that these measures were to come into force on 18 March.

On 8 March, Guillermo Gaviria Osorno, the leader of the MDC, announced that coffee growers and the government had reached an agreement. The Colombian national coffee growers federation also released a statement saying that organisers called off the strike. Gaviria Osorno praised the unity among coffee workers and expressed his hope that the subsidies would begin to be effective.

This case is drawn from the Global Nonviolent Action Database, a project of Swarthmore College in the US. More info: www.nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu

Researcher: Nick Palazzolo, March 2013.