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Guerrillas plan to threaten Colombian plantations.

Guerrillas plan to threaten Colombian plantations

Leftist guerrillas have announced they plan to extend hostilities to coffee plantation zones. But a rebel offensive, if it materializes, may either fizz out or make only limited inroads, predict the pundits.

Nonetheless, neither the government of President Virgilio Barco nor the Growers' Federation are taking the guerrilla threat lightly. Three major insurgent movements are active in Colombia, and the most intransigent of them is the pro-Castro ELN National Liberation Army which has been fighting since the early 60's.

The far-left ELN, which would like to transform Colombia into a second Cuba, has a thousand or so combatants whose activities up to now have been largely restricted to remote rural zones. There they have long harrassed ranchers and, in more recent years, oil exploration and development companies such as Occidental and Shell.

The ELN guerrillas, who have rejected all peace offers by the authorities, each year cause losses valued at millions of dollars with their raids on petroleum pipelines and oil exploration camps. The rebels launched their economic war against the petroleum industry five years ago, and their sabotage tactics are designed to oust foreign companies from Colombia's oil fields.

The guerrillas affirm they are merely seeking the nationalization of the oil sector. But not a few analysts suspect that this is just a pretext for the insurgents' terrorism and that the Marxist rebels are in fact bent on destroying the economy as a whole to further their armed revolution.

This viewpoint has been strengthened by the ELN's latest announcement that it is to extend its activities from isolated oil fields to the densely populated coffee-growing zone of highland Colombia. The guerrillas' threat has understandably shaken both planters and government officials because, if the rebels were able to make it good, the out-look would be bleak for both the coffee industry and economy overall.

As a dollar-earner, coffee has receded in importance in the last 10 years, the commodity nevertheless still accounts for nearly a third of Colombia's export income. It provides a livelihood for over two million Colombians who produce Milds on more than 300,000 small-holdings, with an average extension of 3.3 hectares.

Accordingly, coffee in Colombia is a crop grown essentially by either peasants or lower-middle-class families. Large plantations owned by companies or wealthy landowners are the exception rather than the rule and, primarily for this reason, communist-led guerrillas have to date met with little success in their attempts to infiltrate the coffee zone; there is little class hatred or disparity of wealth to play on. Moreover, Colombian planters are sturdy individualists who, given their innate conservatism, have little time for Marxism.

Nor have the guerrillas been able to subvert rank-and-file plantation workers for the simple reason that, in many cases, there are usually no hired workers to subvert. On the majority of coffee farms, planters' families themselves tend the crop in view of the limited size of holdings.

Only during harvesting are workers employed in any number and at high wages by Colombian rural criteria. Labor unrest is therefore infrequent. In addition, many pickers are migrant workers who are not represented by trade unions. They thus constitute a nebulous target for guerrilla infiltrators.

By contrast, workers in Colombia's oil-producing zones are militant trade unionists and radical in outlook. There is another difference: until recently, living standards in oil regions were low while those in plantation areas are among the highest in the country's rural zones.

Against this economic background, then, it is scarcely surprising that Colombia's coffee heartland has remained generally tranquil while remote oil and ranching areas have been rocked by guerrilla violence.

Now, though, according to the ELN, all this is about to change. Ominously the guerrillas say they plan "to defend the sovereignty of Colombian coffee." Put more plainly, they evidently intend to send in rebels to extort protection money from coffee planters whose farms they may destroy if growers resist their demands. The guerrillas have for years employed such tactics against ranchers and, as a result, numerous livestock breeders have had to all but abandon their properties in isolated areas.

The insurgents, it is feared, may also try to foment labor unrest, and they may attack coffee warehouses, communications, and trucks transporting Milds. In short, in theory at least the coffee sector could suffer the multi-million-dollar losses that the oil industry has experienced, and Milds exports could consequently decline in quality and volume.

But how likely is this doomsday scenario? A soothing answer has come from Jorge Cardenas, manager of the Growers' Federation. Plantation zones, he says, are barren ground for revolutionaries, given the socio-economic conditions of such regions and the democratic infrastructure of the coffee industry.

Cardenas adds quickly, however, that the armed forces should be up to the task if the guerrillas do, in effect, move in on planters. The military concur. Though the army has been hard put to contain rebels in jungle and ranching areas, where highways are few and far between, troops in the compact coffee regions are thick on the ground and have a modern communications network at their disposal.

Unlike the case in some more remote areas, they are normally able to count on the cooperation of the local population. Already this has been an important factor in keeping rebels out of coffee plantations. Information supplied by growers has enabled the security forces to root out guerrillas in several plantation regions.

Psychologically, the security forces will also have another advantage if the guerrilla offensive materializes. The ELN, in its war against the oil industry, has been able to claim that the petroleum sector has been dominated by foreign multinationals (even though the bulk of oil proceeds go to the state).

But it can make no such claim as far as the coffee industry is concerned. The overwhelming majority of plantations are owned by Colombians. The same applies to warehousing, processing and transportation facilities.

Only an insignificant minority of small farms are owned by foreigners, most of whom purchase such properties as weekend or retirement retreats. As for the Growers' Federation, it is entirely Colombian-run.

So it is doubtful if even the ELN believes its own propaganda that it will be defending Colombian sovereignty by attacking the coffee industry. Not even the most ill-informed plantation worker can be expected to swallow this "hypocritical nationalism," as El Tiempo newspaper, of Bogota, describes it. Hence the rebels' xenophobic slogans, effective in oil zones, should find little echo in plantation regions.

The ELN, rather than adopting false nationalist postures, comments El Tiempo, "should once and for all admit its aim is to continue destroying the Colombian economy in line with the Marxist precept of one has to destroy to construct."

Hopefully this brief review of the security situation, as it could affect planters, will provide a useful perspective for Milds importers because, in months to come, they may be reading lurid newspaper dispatches of guerrilla raids in Colombia's coffee regions. Possibly such reports could even unnerve the Milds market, triggering scares of supply shortages.

But as this particular report has endeavored to show, if the guerrillas do indeed escalate operations, they may prove to be something less than a terminal scourge.

Footnote: Colombia exported a record total of 1.5 million bags of coffee in April, confounding skeptics who had predicted the country's ports would be unable to stand up to the pressure of swiftly increasing Milds shipments.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Lockwood Trade Journal Co., Inc.
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Author:Nares, Peter
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Jul 1, 1990
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