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Argentina's beef with its farmers

Argentina's farmers are demonstrating
Argentina's farmers are revolting over government tax increases
Argentina's wealthy beef farmers are revolting over government tax increases. Daniel Schweimler reports on a row which has pitted town against country and stirred up class conflict.

Our bus, which had been hurtling along at a sometimes frightening pace, slowed suddenly and the passengers craned their necks to investigate what the delay might be.

There were several trucks parked by the side of the road. The bus crept forward.

Was it police? Military? Yet another accident on Argentina's dangerous roads?

A couple of men, one with a clipboard, both well dressed, talked to our driver and then waved us through.

Farmers' blockade

Other well-groomed, well-fed men watched us pass, leaning on their flat-bed trucks or sitting in parked four-by-fours.

On the 120 mile (193km) journey from Buenos Aires to the town of Chacabuco, we passed several such roadblocks.

For the farmers have taken control of the Argentine countryside.

Not the farm workers who earn a pittance and cannot afford the time off to protest but the farm owners, the producers of prime Argentine beef, those who make this country one of the biggest growers of wheat and maize in the world and increasingly, of soya.

Tractor tactics

They are angry, really angry.

Last month, the government raised taxes on the export of agricultural produce to a top rate of 45%.

They said it was necessary to help control inflation.

The farmers drove their tractors out of the fields and on to the roads.

They stopped trucks carrying farm produce from passing, sending them back to where they had come from or tipping their cargo onto the roads.

Exports ground to a halt. The main meat market in Buenos Aires closed its gates and there was talk of laying off idle workers.

President's war

I went to my local supermarket earlier this week for chicken, some mince and eggs.

I returned home with two packets of biscuits and the eggs but at nearly twice the price they were a month ago.

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner
President Cristina Fernandez says the farmers are greedy

The President, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, spoke. The farmers awaited concessions, they got war.

She told them they were greedy, that they were holding the country to ransom, that the government would not back down.

Her angry defiance brought the wealthy residents of Argentina's cities, who do not much like Mrs Kirchner, onto the streets bashing pots and pans in noisy support of the farmers.

Class clash

What had appeared to be a simple battle between city and countryside was now looking like a class war.

Many in the city have investments in the countryside and do not want to pay more in taxes that they say the government only squanders.

One farmer, on a roadblock in the northern province of Santa Fe, said his community of 2,000 people paid millions of dollars in taxes to the central government.

"Our school doesn't even have a toilet," he said.

And in Chacabuco, several people complained, in hushed voices, that the roadblocks were an inconvenience and that it was the wealthy farmers calling the shots.

"One farmer here," I was told, "makes enough profit on each harvest to buy himself a new house."

Government fight-back

Every day the protesters held meetings in fields and at roadblocks - fiery orators, speaking from flat-bed trucks, became national figures.

The government fought back with a rally of its own, a show of strength in Buenos Aires that attracted tens of thousands.

Bus-loads from the shanty-towns and working-class districts that circle Argentina's main cities.

Most Argentines, brought up on prime beef, are insulted by the mere suggestion of a soya burger
Such rallies in Buenos Aires are often routine, but as I fought my way through the throng to get a better view of the president, there was a definite purpose in the air - anger that the farmers might deflate the hopes they have invested in this government.

One man, who had travelled for two hours to hear a 30 minute speech he could have watched on television, told me he was demonstrating against what he called the thugs that hate the government.

These are the people who voted for Cristina Kirchner. She promised them she would work for the poor.

And who better to pay for that than the soya farmers, riding the wave of sky-high international prices and rising demand?

Romantic cowboy

Most Argentines, brought up on prime beef, are insulted by the mere suggestion of a soya burger.

And 95% of the crop is exported, much of it to China where they know what to do with it.

But the crop is so profitable that beef farmers are increasingly turning to growing it, diminishing the supply of meat.

Counter demonstration to farmers' strike in Argentina
Government supporters are angry with the farmers

Many urban Argentines have a romantic notion of the countryside, fuelled by the image of the gaucho (the Argentine cowboy) taming the flat expanses of land in the centre of the country known as the Pampas.

Eating meat is part of what it means to be Argentine and they eat more per head than anyone else in the world.

Those urban carnivores are suspicious of anything that threatens their beef, especially a small cream-coloured bean, even if it does contain a lot of protein.

Simmering dispute

There is also a long tradition of mutual distrust between the Argentine countryside and Buenos Aires.

The two sides even fought wars in the 19th Century.

It will not come to that this time, although there have been some violent clashes.

This truce is an opportunity for Argentines to talk and to stock their shelves but I suspect this dispute is far from over.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 5 April, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Fernandez slams Argentine farmers
02 Apr 08 |  Americas
Q&A: Argentina farm protests
01 Apr 08 |  Business
Argentina's divisions clear to see
26 Oct 07 |  Americas


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