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Argentine farmers start protest

By Candace Piette
BBC South America correspondent

A supporter of farmers shouts anti-government slogans during a protest march (June 2008)
Last year's strikes were politically damaging for the government

Argentine farmers and cattle ranchers have begun four days of demonstrations and stoppages ahead of a crucial meeting on Tuesday with the government.

They are calling for taxes on the country's lucrative grain and soya exports to be postponed for six months.

They also want to be allowed to export more meat, milk and wheat.

Their demands come as Argentina begins to feel the full force of the global downturn and the drop in demand for its agricultural products.

Vast swathes of Argentina's agricultural land have been affected by a severe drought this year.

Wheat, soya and beef have been particularly badly hit.

Argentina is the third largest soya producer in the world, exporting mainly to China.

Neighbouring Brazil has said it is buying its wheat from other countries this year because Argentina is unable to provide sufficient quantities.

State of emergency

Although there are few reliable government figures, independent economic assessments suggest the impact of the drought may mean a drop in agricultural productivity worth $15bn (10.5bn) this year.

The government has declared a state of emergency and extra measures to help with the drought, but the producers say it is too little and too late.

They have been trying to arrange a meeting with the government for emergency talks on what to do for months now, to no avail.

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner says she welcomes talking but the country cannot afford to drop export taxes.

Last year there was a series of very large and effective strikes and demonstrations by agricultural producers over the taxes.

This was politically damaging to the Kirchner administration and left relations with the farmers raw and sensitive.

Another round of demonstrations would not bode well for the government in this year of local elections.

As the global recession begins to bite in Argentina, it seems the political tussling between agriculture and government may get in the way of creating sensible emergency policies to help support this essential, revenue-making part of the economy.

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