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Lawmakers hear farmers’ demands

From the print edition

Waking up before the sun rises is a farmer’s way of life. They work long hours and fight tough climate conditions to earn what some would call meager wages.

On Tuesday, an estimated 15,000 producers representing different agricultural organizations and cooperatives from around Costa Rica – many as far as the northwestern province of Guanacaste and the Southern Zone – traveled by bus to the country’s capital to demand from legislators a decrease in property taxes.

Coffee farmer William Víquez, a member of CoopeAlajuela, a farm cooperative, attended the march. “Right now, we’re paying too many taxes at too high of a rate. It’s very difficult to work the land, let alone deal with these taxes,” said Víquez, who grows coffee with three members of his family north of San José. 

Víquez does not own the two-hectare plot of land where he and his family work for up to 16 hours a day, but he pays a monthly fee, along with the cost of seeds, fertilizers and other monthly expenses, leaving him with little money at the end of the day.

“I grow my coffee, and I sell what I can to survive,” he said, wearing a striped shirt and green oversized fishing hat in San José’s Central Park. 

Víquez produces about seven fanegas a year depending on weather conditions. A fanega is the equivalent of about 568 pounds of the cherry-like coffee fruit. Depending on the market, each fanega pays farmers about {100,000 ($200).

Many producers trade their crops with other farmers to waive food expenses.

Nevertheless, $1,400 a year is “barely enough to make ends meet,” Víquez said.

At the center of the dispute is a 2007 property tax reform that reappraised land values at a higher tax rate, including farms. Farmers say the new rates are too high, and have proposed a reform bill to exempt agricultural lands from paying up to 80 percent of property taxes.

Although some municipalities have implemented the 2007 tax reform incrementally, Víquez said his municipality has already put into practice the full force of the law. During the last trimester, he paid {50,000 ($100) in property taxes – half of what he earned for a fanega of coffee during the last crop season.

Along with Víquez, thousands of Costa Rican farmers marched from Central Park to the Legislative Assembly, wearing traditional cowboy and fedora hats and holding homemade signs requesting lawmakers to discuss and approve bill 18,070, which calls for an 80 percent tax exemption on farmland.

“We are here because the current property taxes that are in place today represent a negative and unnecessary burden on farmers, and it is impossible to maintain in the long term,” said Adrián Hernández, board member at CoopeLibertad, a coffee cooperative representing more than 2,000 coffee producers in the Heredia province, north of the capital. “We are not asking to be fully tax-exempt. However, we want to pay what is fair within the agricultural sector.”

Rain did not deter those present at the march. Many huddled together, shared umbrellas and listened to some of their sector’s national leaders speak from a stage built in front of the assembly. Among them was Guido Vargas, president of UPA Nacional, an organization of small- and medium-sized producers.

Vargas, one of the main organizers of the march, said he hoped not to have to return to San José, as previous marches against the 2007 tax reform ended unsuccessfully. 

“The spirit among [agricultural] producers is a spirit that will not negotiate,” Vargas said on Wednesday. “An intelligent society should not think it is OK to have rich municipalities and an impoverished countryside.”

Also present at the march was legislator José María Villalta, from the Broad Front Party, who said that the current tax reform is drowning a sector that has been battered for the past 30 years.

“The towns in this country have shot up property values and not because the agricultural sector is doing well,” Villalta said. “But due to the development of other types of businesses, such as the real-state boom and the development of tourism, land values have increased tremendously.”

As a result, Villalta said, this puts small and medium-sized producers in a tight spot by having to pay taxes they can’t afford.

Villalta said that several of his colleagues in the assembly support the farmers. Following the daylong demonstration, President Laura Chinchilla called on legislators to hold a special session and prioritize discussion of bill 18,070.

Lawmakers agreed to open debate on the bill on Monday.

“We will keep fighting from everywhere in the country if bill 18,070 is not passed,” Vargas said. “We have the muscle to fight.”


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