- Associated Press - Monday, June 20, 2011

ACHACACHI, BoliviaBolivia’s farmers were hit from all sides last year — drought, floods and wildfires — forcing the poor Andean nation to import food staples on an unprecedented scale.

But nature wasn’t the only cause. Farmers also blame the government for imposing price controls and export restrictions instead of letting the free market prevail as it does in nearly all the other Latin American countries suffering similarly bad weather.

In Bolivia’s eastern lowlands, soybeans that ordinarily would have been exported languished in their silos because they could not find local buyers.

“We were already being battered by the climate when the government came out with these decrees prohibiting exports,” said Demetrio Perez, a soy farmer who is president of the National Association of Oil Seed Producers. “With the restrictions, an incentive to plant more was lost.”

Sunflower crops rotted in the fields because farmers could neither sell locally nor get export licenses from an inefficient bureaucracy.

“It was a disaster,” said Susano Terceros, who lost part of his sunflower crop.

The political cost for President Evo Morales is high.

After winning re-election by a landslide in 2009, his approval rating is now about 45 percent. He is seeking advice from the farmers, including agribusinessmen in the pro-capitalist east, where his fiercest political foes reside.

In December, at a time when food shortages already were being felt, the government decided to eliminate gasoline subsidies, which would have raised fuel prices more than 70 percent. Thousands took to the streets in protest, forcing Mr. Morales to back down.

His government had imposed price controls and an export ban on corn, wheat, sugar and other staples in 2007. Two years later, it added vegetable oils, sunflower seeds and soybeans to the list of staples that could be exported only if officials decided the domestic market was adequately supplied.

Export controls are necessary to prevent food from being smuggled out to neighboring countries, said Nemecia Achacollo, the government’s rural development minister.

“The government is like a mother who has to look out for all her children,” Mr. Achacollo told the Associated Press. “It’s not acceptable for [food] to be exported while leaving shortages in the domestic market.”

Bolivia has long produced most of its food, but imports of sugar and corn shot up 68 percent to $143 million in the first three months of this year to compensate for slumping output.

A double whammy of floods and severe drought dramatically shrank the land area under cultivation last year, while fires blackened fields in the eastern lowlands that produce most crops.

Now, the high plains are suffering erratic weather.

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