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On August 1, 200 long distance truckers gathered in Bogota for a demonstration meant to force the government to help them meet the increasing costs of freight transport. The truckers were representative of the truck drivers who are instrumental in getting Colombia’s largest and best known export – coffee – out to its eager market. The Colombian truckers move coffee beans from the central part of the country where they are grown and picked to the coasts and ports so that they can be exported to countries around the world. Coffee exports account for an enormous percentage of Colombia’s economy, and the trucker’s strike has the potential of crippling the nation’s economy.
The truckers, who say their strike is open-ended, have ceased hauling coffee beans and other produce in an effort to enlist government support in enforcing the conditions of deal that was struck back in July. That deal would have raised the freight rates and improved other conditions for long distance truckers to help them deal with the rising cost of fuel. Instead, the government of President Alvaro Uribe responded by declaring the strike illegal and threatening sanctions and punishments against truckers who take part.
The National Federation of Coffee Growers, whose members account for 30% of the nation’s coffee exports, issued a statement that the effects of the coffee strike were immediate. The strike has halted transport of 30,000 60 kg bags of coffee a day from getting to the ports for shipment. The Association of Colombian Coffee Exporters, which represent the remainder of the country’s coffee exporters had said that there would be no real effect on the international flow of coffee unless the strike lasted eight days or more.
The strike is now entering Day 15, and the trucks that haul coffee beans to the ports are parked idle in the streets of the coffee producing regions, awaiting the word that the government has given in and will enforce the new contract. Nemesio Castillo, president of the Colombian Truck Drivers’ Association told Reuters news agency that the strike will continue until the government recognizes that the pay rate for truckers must keep up with their costs.
It’s a potent threat. More than half a million Colombian families rely on the coffee industry for their livelihoods. The strike threatens the entire economy by stalling beans in their tracks. Meanwhile, the stock market is responding to the shortage with rising prices – by day 7 of the strike, coffee futures prices rose to a three-week high of $1.4225 per lb.
The strike, which started with 200 trucks in Bogota, has expanded now to involve 150,000 trucks, and the prices for food and other goods sold domestically could rise dramatically if the strike doesn’t end soon.
As the truckers’ strike winds on through a second week and into a third week, its effects are starting to make news and be felt beyond Colombia. The two coffee growers’ federations have both reported feeling the effects of the slowed transport, with the National Federation of Coffee Growers saying that it is backed up by approximately 280,000 6 kg bags of coffee, and the Association of Colombian Coffee Exporters admitting that reserves, which it has been using to fill orders, are starting to run thin.
While the government has stepped in to facilitate talks and attempt to get the truckers moving again, neither side in the labor dispute seems willing to budge. The effects on the overall coffee market remain to be seen, but if things aren’t resolved soon, coffee lovers may soon face a shortage of Colombian coffee, rising prices and a moral dilemma – in a market that has more ‘green’ participants than many others, who will a socially conscious coffee market support: the coffee growers who are being damaged by the strike, or the truck drivers who are seeking fair wages and rates for their work?