Belgium cancels all flights as workers stage national strike

Brussels airport says they plan to handle 591 flights. (AFP)
Updated 13 February 2019

Belgium cancels all flights as workers stage national strike

  • The airspace will be closed for 24 hours, starting at 21:00 GMT, due to possible lack of staff
  • Officials expect the temporary closure will affect almost 60,000 passengers

BRUSSELS: Belgian airports canceled almost all flights on Wednesday due to a national strike over pay and working conditions that halted activity at ports, hit public transport and led to blockades outside factories.

Belgian air traffic control body Skeyes shut Belgian airspace for 24 hours from 10 p.m. (2100 GMT) on Tuesday because it could not guarantee enough staff would turn up.

Brussels Airport, the country’s busiest hub, said it had planned to handle 591 passenger and cargo departures and arrivals and that the strike would hit some 60,000 travelers.

Just one passenger flight, to Moscow, would depart late on Wednesday, with a few late arrivals and some cargo flights.

National rail operator SNCB said about half of its train services were running. High-speed Thalys, running to Amsterdam and Paris, said it should be running normal services, though catering might not be available on all trains. Some Eurostar trains to London were canceled due to maintenance.

Dock workers were not loading or unloading ships in the port of Antwerp. Blockades stopped work at factories across the country.

Brussels’ metro, tram and bus operator ran just a handful of lines. The situation was the same in the rest of the country.

Unions are calling for wage increases, an improved work-life balance and better pensions in talks with employers. Some see the strike as political action against the center-right federal government ahead of a parliamentary election.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said talks needed to resume by Thursday and added that companies had created 219,000 jobs in the past four years thanks to the government’s policies.

Belgium’s Central Council of the Economy, composed of worker, employer and consumer representatives, has advised that the maximum pay hike for 2019 and 2020 should be 0.8 percent. Michel’s office said that, including wage indexation, this meant an effective pay increase of up to 4.6 percent.

How Brazil and Vietnam are tightening their grip on the world’s coffee

Updated 25 min 25 sec ago

How Brazil and Vietnam are tightening their grip on the world’s coffee

  • A plunge in global coffee prices in recent months, to their lowest levels in 13 years, has begun to trigger a massive shake-out in the market in which only the most efficient producers will thrive

SAO JOAO DA BOA VISTA, Brazil: A towering machine rumbles through the fields of Julio Rinco’s farm in the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo, engulfing whole coffee trees and shaking free beans that are collected by conveyor belts in its depths.
This automatic harvester is one of several innovations that have cut Rinco’s production costs to a level that few who use traditional, labor-intensive methods can match.
With increasing use of mechanization and other new technologies, the world’s top two coffee producers, Brazil and Vietnam, are achieving productivity growth that outstrips rivals in places such as Colombia, Central America and Africa.
They are set to tighten their grip.
A plunge in global coffee prices in recent months, to their lowest levels in 13 years, has begun to trigger a massive shake-out in the market in which only the most efficient producers will thrive, according to coffee traders and analysts.
Rival producers elsewhere in the world are increasingly likely to be driven to the margins, unable to make money from a crop they have grown for generations. Some are already turning to alternative crops while others are abandoning their farms completely.
Such shifts are almost irreversible for perennial crops like coffee, as the decision to abandon or cut down trees can hit production for several years.
“Brazil and Vietnam have had consistent increases in productivity, other countries have not,” said Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, citing advances in mechanization, selective crop breeding techniques and irrigation technology.
In Colombia and Central America, coffee is typically grown on hillsides where mechanization is more difficult, and hand-picking cherries has kept production costs relatively high. The African sector, meanwhile, is dominated by small-scale farmers often unable to raise the capital needed for new techniques.
Rinco bought his harvesting machine for around 600,000 reais ($155,600) and is paying the agricultural supplies company with coffee, delivering 400 bags a year over four years. This kind of bartering is common in Brazilian farming.
One such machine in Brazil replaces dozens of people in the field. Even with financing and fuel bills, farmers and machine manufacturers say there is a reduction of 40% to 60% on harvesting costs.
“Beyond the lower costs, it made my life less complicated,” said Rinco, relieved at no longer having the gruelling task of hiring suitable pickers every year for the harvest at his farm in the Sao Joao da Boa Vista area.
“People don’t want to pick coffee anymore, they go to town to find something else to do.”
Brazil and Vietnam now produce more than half the world’s coffee, up from less than a third 20 years ago, and the proportion is rising, US Department of Agriculture estimates show.
Leading producer Brazil alone accounts for over a third of global supply. In a clear sign of increased efficiency, it reported a record crop of 62 million bags last year and is expected to produce another record in 2020, the next on-year in the country’s biennial production cycle — despite the fact the coffee-planting area has been falling for the last six years.
Vietnam is also regularly setting production records while, by contrast, in Colombia the largest ever crop was harvested in the early 1990s and in Guatemala nearly two decades ago, USDA data shows.
In countries such as Guatemala and Honduras, growers who are increasingly abandoning farms are swelling the ranks of migrants trying to enter the United States.
Average yields in Brazil have risen sharply over the last decade with figures from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization showing an increase of more than 40% to about 1.5 tons per hectare. Vietnam has also seen yields rise from already strong levels, climbing about 18% to around 2.5 tons.
Colombia did show some growth, about 12%, but remains well behind at about 1 ton per hectare while in Central America there was a decline of around 3% to a meagre 0.6 tons.
Businessman Alexandre Gobbi and two partners decided to enter coffee farming in Brazil four years ago. They bought an area in Sao Sebastião do Paraíso, in the main producing belt in Minas Gerais state, and sought out state-of-the-art tech.
Today, his farm has equipment including an underground dripping irrigation system with artificial intelligence, considered the world’s most advanced.
“It does almost everything by itself. Reads humidity levels, tells me when to add water and fertilizer and by how much,” he told Reuters, pointing to the digital panels in his control room.
With the system, plus other equipment including harvesters, he has doubled average yields to around 60 bags per hectare, and can make a profit even with current low prices.
Arabica coffee futures on ICE Futures US, the most widely used global benchmark for coffee prices, fell in May to 87.60 cents per lb, the weakest level since September 2005.
Prices have since recovered slightly but remain at a level where few producers outside Brazil and Vietnam can make money.
Arabica beans, which provide a smoother and sweeter taste, constitute nearly two-thirds of the world’s coffee. More bitter and stronger robusta beans largely make up the rest of global supply, much of them hailing from Vietnam.
A warehouse owned by Vietnamese coffee exporter Simexco Dak Lak Ltd. in the town of Di An, near Ho Chi Minh City, illustrates the scale of Vietnam’s coffee operation.
Coffee is stacked in neat piles several meters high, awaiting export to Europe. The warehouse has enough capacity to store 20,000 tons during the harvest season.
“At the height of the harvest, having enough space to create an aisle to walk through the warehouse becomes a luxury,” said Thai Anh Tuan, who manages one of three warehouses for Simexco, which exports over 80,000 tons of robusta a year.
“Every tiny bit of space will be taken up by these little beans,” Tuan added. “We have to hire additional warehouses nearby for extra storage.”
Tuan also credited the steady increase of Vietnamese coffee exports over the last four to five years to an increase in innovative farming techniques, including intercropping — growing different crops together — and the use of better technology in irrigation and cultivation.
Coffee is still the key cash crop for Dak Lak, Vietnam’s largest coffee-producing province, although durians, jack fruit, mangoes and avocado trees have all been intercropped with coffee trees to maximize income in recent years, farmers told Reuters.
Ksor Tung, a coffee grower with a 10-hectare farm, said intercropping coffee with durian trees resulted in better protection from direct sunlight and pests.
“Farmers here have experimented with intercropping for nearly a decade,” Tung told Reuters.
“Peppers used to be the most popular tree when it comes to intercropping but for the past three years, with the prices falling, almost all farmers have turned to fruit trees instead,” said Tung, adding that farmers who intercrop can triple their income per hectare.
Farmers in Colombia face a far different future.
Battered by low prices and high costs, some are contemplating switching to other crops or selling up, despite tens of millions of dollars in government aid.
Jose Eliecer Sierra, 53, has farmed coffee for three decades but low prices have forced him to look at alternatives — Hass avocados and cattle among them.
“Avocados are in high demand abroad and it’s one of the options,” he said, standing amid some of his 41,000 coffee trees on a mist-shrouded mountainside near Pueblorrico, in Antioquia province.
“Another very tempting option that people are thinking about is cattle — knocking down coffee trees and planting grass for cows,” said Sierra.
It is not the first time Colombian coffee growers have looked to other crops for a better living. Many in the south — sometimes under pressure from armed groups — abandoned it for the more lucrative coca, the raw ingredient in cocaine, though coffee has since rebounded.
For some growers, even switching crops may not save them.
Uriel Posada, who worked for more than 30 years as a house painter in the United States, dreamed of coming home to Colombia to grow coffee. Now his land is up for sale.
“I’m up to my neck in debt,” the 52-year-old said, gazing up the steep hill where his 30,000 coffee trees are planted.
“Brazil has a huge advantage over us — the land is flat and they have machinery,” Posada said. “Here I have to pay a human being to go tree by tree, branch by branch and pick the red berries.”
Avocados and cattle are good alternatives, Posada said, but require start-up funds and transition time that many local growers do not have.
“I’ll sell, pay what I owe and go. End my Colombian dream.”