With farmers in crisis over the double whammy of European competition and Russia’s ban on Western food imports, this week has seen furious protests backed by thousands in Lisbon and Porto. Added to this, truck drivers and transport businesses are seeing red over the latest fuel price hikes and threatening a “go slow” that promises to snarl-up business on national roads just as Easter approaches. It has been a week of discontent that shows little sign of abating or being effectively assuaged.
The agricultural conundrum is exacerbated by the fact that people these days are simply eating less meat.
Portugal’s pig and cattle farmers are thus faced with a fall in national demand while major chains buy ‘cheap’ from other countries like Romania while Russia has dropped its business for Portugal’s products entirely.
As Carlos Neves of APROLEP, the association of Portuguese milk producers, explained, it is a case where authorities have to intervene.
Agriculture minister Capoulas Santos has been in Brussels, pushing Portugal’s agenda.
He said the desperate situation of the nation’s farmers is being mirrored in other member states, and it “shows governments and the EU that there is a problem”.
As the meeting went ahead, protests had been registered in Brussels, Helsinki, Paris “and other countries”, he said. “We have to find solutions.”
But how much Portugal can win for its producers remains the burning question.
For now, the agriculture ministry has announced it is opening up a €20 million line of credit to help pig farmers who managed to register their state of crisis and frustration in Lisbon last Friday by commandeering a fleet of livestock trucks to literally blockade all the capital’s major access points.
Heavy police presence saw the protest fail to bring Lisbon to a standstill, but it was felt nonetheless by thousands of drivers caught in tailbacks.
On Monday, it was the turn of the milk and cattle brigade which came out in force in Vila do Conde (Porto), using 280 tractors backed by as many as 2,000 protestors.
But all that has resulted from this show of force and deep-seated anger is an “availability” from the European Commission to authorise “the temporary reduction of milk on a voluntary basis and an increase in support for storage”, reports Correio da Manhã.
In other words, much needed financial support is thin on the ground, and the nitty gritty of how to sustain countries’ agricultural sectors is barely touched upon.
To its credit, APED – the Portuguese association of distributors – has said it acknowledges the plight of meat and dairy farmers, but that nothing will change without “the intervention of national and European authorities”.
Meanwhile, this is not the only “trouble on the block”.
Truckers announce “two-weeks of mourning”
Portugal has two weeks to come up with a solution to placate furious truck drivers demanding a drop in escalating fuel costs.
The government’s State Budget has seen extra burden on all fuel products which has led thousands of everyday citizens to start filling up in Spain. With estimates suggesting Portugal is “losing €1 million a day” due to the thousands buying up cheap Spanish fuel, truck drivers are on the warpath.
This week saw the third price hike in fuel in a month and, unless things change, truckies say they will be forced to launch a nationwide “go-slow” in a bid to force the government’s hand.
For now, their decision is for “two weeks of mourning”, in which all trucks will sport black protest banners.
“What is happening is an affront to businesses,” Gustavo Duarte of ANTRAM, the national merchandise transportation association, told the press.
“We are the people who deliver bread, water and fuel everyday. We are an important sector for the economy and for all Portuguese people.”
Stressing that trucking companies feel defrauded by the government’s stance, the truck drivers have called for the dismissal of economy minister Manuel Caldeira after his only contribution to the issue was to encourage Portuguese to show a “civic attitude” and not pay Spanish fuel taxes when they could be paying (vastly inflated) Portuguese ones.
“If he cannot do the maths, we will give him a calculator,” union chief Márcio Lopes of ANTP, the national transporters association, retorted.
But the bottom line from the government on Tuesday was that fuel prices were “really no higher than they were at the beginning of the year”, thus there is no case for reducing Portugal’s ISP (tax on fuel products).
The announcement, made by secretary of state for fiscal affairs Fernando Rocha Andrade failed to address the fact that fuel prices globally are low which is why Spain’s diesel is 35 cents cheaper than it is in Portugal, and its petrol 30 cents cheaper.
A family with two cars can save over €1000-a-year filling up in Spain, explains the nation’s best-read tabloid, suggesting there are 37 boroughs with over 450,000 inhabitants where filling tanks and fuel deposits in Spain will continue to make perfect sense.
By NATASHA DONN [email protected]
Photo: Pedro Nunes/Lusa