Colombia coffee growers protest falling prices

Thousands of Colombian coffee growers staged protests around the country Monday to press for more government support in the face of low coffee prices.

President Juan Manuel Santos appealed for dialogue to temper the protest, and urged growers to keep their marches and other actions peaceful and refrain from violence.

"The strike being called today is not only inconvenient and unnecessary, it's also unfair," Santos said in a televised speech.

Since Sunday, thousands of growers from around Colombia have been mobilizing for a march to demand that the government increase subsidies and other measures to cushion the blow from low prices.

With signs reading "Just price" and "Long live the strike," protesters on Monday blocked rural roads in some localities, AFP photographers witnessed.

"This is a peaceful march," said Diego Londono, a protest leader in Bolombolo, a village of 3,500 inhabitants in the northwestern province of Antioquia. "We demand a just and sustained price for Colombian coffee."

Growers are seeking subsidized prices for inputs, debt relief and a prohibition against large-scale mining in coffee-growing areas. Santos has pushed mining as a source of export revenues.

"We are going to march all day in a peaceful manner until they listen to us," said Oscar Gutierrez, a spokesman for the growers.

Growers in Colombia, one of the world's top coffee producers, have been hard hit by a 35 percent drop in prices on the international market last year and a 10 percent revaluation of the peso, the national currency.

An estimated 560,000 families owe their livelihoods to coffee, for decades one of Colombia's biggest exports.

Santos acknowledged difficulties in the sector, but defended his government's record, saying that since coming to office in 2010 it had given growers billions of pesos worth of credits and subsidies.

Calling for dialogue, he proposed setting up a commission to discuss how to deal with the problems facing the industry.

Production fell 12 percent in 2011 and less than one percent last year, with total production at the close of the year at 462 metric tons.