Travel across the Ecuador – Colombia border has been effectively shut down by protesting Colombian farmers. Tourists, en route to Ecuador, have been stranded while badly needed goods on both sides of the border can’t move.
As many as 300,000 farmers have erected road blocks across Colombia, although much of the activity is in the southern part of the country. The farmers are demanding that the government agree to a wide-ranging set of demands including subsidies for their products, elimination of the free trade agreement with the U.S. and cheaper fuel prices.
The government says it will not negotiate until all roadblocks are lifted. It has deplyed thousands of anti-riot police across the country as protests by agricultural workers continue to spread.
Hundreds of foreign travelers have been caught in the conflict and cannot travel to their destinations, according to Colombian authorities. Ecuadorians, North Americans and Europeans have been forced to seek shelter in a number of towns near the Ecuadorian border.
Ecuadorian authorities say they can only wait and hope for a quick resolution but say the conflict is causing economic loses as well keeping Ecuadorians from returning home. The protests are reminiscent of protests in Ecuador in the 1990s and 2000s.
The Colombian strike entered its seventh day on Sunday and the government says it is worried that food shortages could soon affect major cities, including Bogota and Medellin.
The worst affected provinces have been Boyaca, near Bogota and the southern province of Narino. The main roads connecting Boyaca with neighboring provinces have been blocked off by the protesters and local residents have reported a shortage of fuel. Many most schools and shops in the province have been closed.
The protesters accuse the government of President Juan Manuel Santos of failing to put in place “concrete action to help the farming and agricultural sector”. Dairy farmers also complained about milk being smuggled into Colombia from neighbouring Venezuela and Ecuador and sold at lower prices, undercutting Colombian milk producers.
Farmers also say the free trade agreement with the U.S., signed two years ago, is causing financial harm to many farmers.
Interior Minister Fernando Carrillo wrote on Twitter that many of the demands “were just, but violent protests will not bring about solutions, but rather only deepen the crisis”.
The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Colombia, Jordi Raich, called on the protesters to let ambulances and emergency workers through the barricades. He said there had been 12 cases in which emergency workers had been hindered in their work.
The farmers say they need help from the government as the prices for raw materials and fuel needed to transport their goods rise, while the prices their products fetch have been falling.
Photo caption: A protester builds a roadblock on a highway north of the Ecuadorian border as police look on