Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Plight of the Potato Men

'No free trade agreement.'
Potato power!

Armed with hoes, shovels and weed sprayers, hundreds of potato farmers protested today in front of the Ministry of Agriculture against free trade agreements, which they say are flooding Colombia with subsidized foreign potatoes.

"We're broke," one small farmer told me. "There's lots of poverty. We can't compete with subsidized products and farmers who have thousands of hectares."

The man told me that peasant farmers in his region of Boyaca generally have between 5 and 10 hectares and families with 5 children or so.

"Soon, there'll be strikes and roadblocks," he said.

In fact, there were strikes and roadblocks today in Boyacá, El Tiempo reports. According to the newspaper, farmers get paid less than half of their costs for each sack of potatoes.

The farmers protested the free trade agreements which Colombia has signed with the U.S., Canada and other countries which often heavily subsidize their farmers. But the peasants also called for subsidies for themselves. Undoubtedly, they had in mind the subsidies which coffee farms obtained after their own recent protests.

Free trade agreements may increase macroeconomic numbers and lower prices for consumers (altho it's arguable that many of those products, like french fries) aren't doing us many benefits. But these farmers suffer the human cost. Does Colombia really want to drive these small farmers into bankruptcy to provide cheaper junk food? If these family farms go under, the families will become displaced people. With little education, they'll crowd into the 'neighborhoods of misery' on the fringes of Bogotá and other cities, and some will inevitably join the illegal economy.

'Our potatoes feed you; Your policies impoverish us.'
When I was living in Bolivia a decade ago McDonald's open there - and quickly got caught in scandal when it became public that they were importing their potatoes from Canada. In Bolivia, where the potato originated, that didn't look good. (The fact that the restaurant chain was harming Bolivians' health with overpriced junk food wasn't important, of course.)

"There's lots of poverty," this man told me, "everybody's going bankrupt." He said he has three kids, but most of his neighbors have five or six. 
The farmer got into a confrontation with a street merchant, who called him 'You damn campesino!'

A police line protects the old provincial government building. 

There's a saying here: 'The law is only applied to those who wear ruanas.'

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


Carlito said...

But who should we save, the thousands of farmers who have the land anyway and can harvest other products or even eat their own produce or the MILLIONS of poor colombians that have more food at better price at their tables? Potatoes aren't only junk food in Colombia, they play a major role here.

mauricio forero l said...

Excellent comment Carlito!!!, I couldn't agree with you more.

Miguel said...

If there were another crop, I imagine they'd already be planting it, or considering it. These small farmers live at high altitudes and I'm sure their land isn't great.

My understanding is that the imported potatoes are used for processed foods - french fries, etc - not the most healthful stuff.


Stuart Oswald said...

Great, more people protesting of their (supposed) right to other peoples' money.

Miguel said...

The government has promised subsidies for the potato farmers - which is probably the most populist and least economically sensible solution.