Protests in Argentine towns support farmers against government

( dpa ) - Large numbers of demonstrators in small towns around Argentina's farming areas Monday expressed support for the farmers' protest over higher export tariffs and demanded a new agricultural policy.

Businesses closed in many towns in the provinces of Santa Fe, Cordoba and Entre Rios in support of the farmers' strike.

At the main rally before scores of thousands of people in Armstrong, in the province of Santa Fe, Argentine Agrarian Federation (FAA) Eduardo Buzzi said the protest will persist "as long as necessary."

There were other rallies in Reconquista ( Santa Fe), San Pedro ( Buenos Aires) and Gualeguaychu (Entre Rios).

A first round of strikes in March followed the government's raising of average export taxes on soya from 35 to 44 per cent. The farmers suspended the protests to allow talks with the government.

But just last week, the government included the same numbers in a new set of policies - although it set a tax ceiling that would lower the tariff percentage rate if world prices rise above the ceiling.

Buzzi - the head of an organization that brings together some 100,000 small agricultural producers - said the agricultural policies of the governments of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and of her husband and predecessor Nestor Kirchner (2003-2007) "are an obstacle" for the country's development.

"We know when (the protest) started, but we do not know when it will end. We are very patient," said another protest leader, Alfredo De Angeli.

The crisis in one of Argentina's top economic sectors has been brewing since March, when an increase in export tariffs for soya and sunflower went into effect in March, tying tariffs to international market prices.

The positions of the government and agricultural producers have remained far apart.

In March, a complete blockade of agricultural production caused severe food shortages in large urban areas and provoked traffic problems. Earlier this month, farmers opted to block the export of cereal and other key products, like soya.

In their third protest, farmers again took to the roads last week. Although their leaders asked that they not disturb traffic, the passage of trucks carrying agricultural produce was blocked in some areas.

In a strike that was set to end Monday but could be prolonged, farmers were blocking the sale of cereal and oil-based crops for export, and they curbed the sale of cattle for meat.

After years of meagre earnings, Argentina's farmers don't want the export duties to cut into their profits just as they have begun to see more money flowing in with higher world food prices.

The halt to agricultural exports has proved expensive for the government because a large part of its income comes from export duties.

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