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BUCHAREST, Aug 13 2008 (IPS) - Thousands of Bulgarian milk and meat producers have been protesting for more than a week in various regions around the country, warning the government that life for small farmers has become impossible in Bulgaria.
The protests have been taking place on and off since the beginning of the year, but they intensified in the last week, with farmers blocking roads in the north and southeast of the country, spilling milk on the streets and slaughtering cattle.
Several of the protesters are currently taking their sheep to neighbouring Greece, in a gesture meant to signal that they can no longer conduct the trade in their own country.
The recent rise in anger was caused by a European Union (EU) decision to block close to 800 million euros in aid to Bulgaria, because of poor management of funds by national authorities. About 100 million euros of this money was supposed to go into rural development schemes.
Bulgarian farmers are among the poorest in the EU and they receive some of the lowest subsidies; each producer being entitled to 0.10 euros per litre of quality milk produced. With fuel and fodder prices increasing dramatically over the last year, subsistence level stock breeders say this amount of aid is not enough to keep them in business.
The Bulgarian government had stopped paying even this money after February this year.
About 70 percent of milk and meat producers in Bulgaria are small-scale farmers, owning no more than three animals, and many of them have not been able to keep up with the rising costs of production. According to Adrian Tsakonski, chairman of the Bulgarian Milk Producers' Association, around 100,000 animals have been sacrificed on farms around Bulgaria since the beginning of 2007 because their owners could no longer afford to feed them.
The Association further points out that most of the animal owners survive only by taking considerable loans, with annual indebtedness of a milk producer estimated at between 25,000 and 50,000 euros.
Farmers complain that big retailers, who control the market, force them to sell the milk at prices that do not cover production expenses.
"We cannot sell the milk directly in the marketplace because we have to meet certain safety regulations, and we cannot afford the technology needed to bring the milk to that quality," says Anelia Apostolova from village Izvor, close to capital Sofia. Apostolova's family owns three cows, but she says the family barely makes ends meet. "We drink some of the milk ourselves and sell the rest of it to a milk factory, but the price is a rip-off."
Out of a total of 130,000 milk producers monitored by the National Milk Producers' Association, only 1,680 have the facilities to produce quality milk which can be directly commercialised.
Rural development investments are crucial at this point for subsistence farmers, says Dilyana Slavova, executive director of the National Milk Producers' Association. The only way to keep small stockbreeders in business, Slavova told IPS, is "to invest in new production technology for the small farms in order to bring their milk to the quality required by the EU regulations." The 100 million euros lost by Bulgaria last month could have gone towards such projects.
Bulgarian farmers have also been asking the government to guarantee a buy-off price of 0.40 euros, 15 eurocents more than the current price. Their peers in other European countries, such as Germany or France, had called for similar measures of protection during their protests earlier this year.
But Bulgarian authorities have already announced that they cannot intervene in the price-setting process. "This is practically impossible because we are in a state of market economy and a joint agrarian market," said deputy minister of agriculture Svetla Bachvarova.
The Common Agricultural Policy of the EU (CAP) – to which Bulgaria adhered in 2007 – is currently being reformed to make producers more market-sensitive. Governmental interventions to fix prices would not be considered acceptable under the new rules, the Bulgarian officials argue.
Calls to reform CAP in the direction of more liberalisation came after decades when governments in the EU offered significant aid to their farmers, and facilitated the cheap entry of European products to external markets like Africa, driving local farmers there out of business.
However, farmers in Bulgaria are far from having a threatening position on the world market. The milk and meat producing industry has diminished significantly since the 1990s. Only 1.6 million sheep are being raised in the country now, as compared to nine million in 1990. Similarly, from 1.7 million cattle in 1990, Bulgarian owners now have only 650,000 in their care. Only 3-4 percent of the businesses are major producers.
Most of the milk and associated products are destined for the local market. Bulgarians export mostly cheeses, said Dilyana Slavova, which go to markets in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and some Arab and European countries.
On Aug. 7, Bulgarian minister for agriculture Valeri Tsvetanov announced that the government will pay the 60 million leva to the farmers, but only after the European Commission approves the measure, otherwise Bulgaria could be fined for giving state aid to its producers. Given that the EU has blocked its funding to Bulgaria, this money would have to be paid from the national budget.
But the protesting farmers were not convinced the government announcement is not just an empty promise. "The government always excuses itself with Brussels," said Adrian Tsakonski from the Milk Producers' Association at a press conference Aug. 11. Tsakonski announced that the actions of farmers would continue until the money is actually received by the producers.
A national rally was held Wednesday in Sofia.
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