Chilean President Ricardo Lagos signed an agreement with the nation's chief agricultural associations on 13 September, marking a positive end to more than two months of often tough "roundtable" discussions between the government and the agricultural sector.

Lagos emphasized that the work of the government and roundtable members had just begun." This sector can continue to count on having a friend in the government. We have made promises with respect to milk, beef, tariffs, agricultural insurance, debt payments and agricultural stocks," said the president.

Ricardo Ariztia, president of the National Agricultural Society, SNA, praised the government's commitment and described his own organization's decision to sign the agreement as an act of faith. TheSNA had criticized the roundtable's failure to address many of the political and economic problems plaguing the agricultural sector and was the last organization to sign the document. "There are innumerable specific issues that are not resolved by this document. We hope that over the course of the coming weeks some of these can be resolved. Others will require more time, and [our decision to sign the agreement] is a message that we are placing our trust in the government to resolve them," said Ariztia.

Price fixing mechanisms still up for debate

Among the issues that remain to be addressed are the establishment of mechanisms for fixing prices for wheat and oil products, stronger measures for tackling the extensive debt facing the agricultural sector and defining the tax status of products on the agricultural stock exchange. Some of the most important elements of the 41-point agreement include an appeal to the Fiscalia Nacional Economica to study the milk market to determine if large milk companies are bilking producers; a commitment to increasing agricultural sustainability; stronger financial support for the Livestock and Agricultural Service, SAG, and the National Customs Service, especially in the cattle sector; the establishment of a watchdog agency to ensure compliance with price caps; broader agricultural insurance; the reassessment of debts owed to Indap; and increased access to credit for agricultural ventures.

Springboard for further negotiations

Manuel Riesco, president of the Southern Agricultural Consortium and one of the most doubtful of the round table members, indicated that the accord was primarily a springboard for future negotiations for the agricultural sector. "Only in the spirit of agricultural unity have I assumed the responsibility of signing this document. There isn't a country in the world whose government leaves the agricultural sector at the whims of the free market and Chile cannot be the exception. The government has the responsibility for fulfilling this agreement," said Riesco.