UPDATE 4-Colombia's commodity sector gets respite, woes persist
* Drummond coal loading suspension lifted after three weeks * Railway had been running at 75 pct since early February * Cerrejon workers still on strike, wage talks continue * Stoppage by coffee farmers enters its 5th day By Carlos Vargas and Jack Kimball BOGOTA, March 1 (Reuters) - Colombia's troubled coal sector received a respite on Friday after a regulator lifted suspensions on the country's No. 2 exporter, Drummond Ltd , and on the main railway. But Colombia's top coal miner was still on strike and coffee farmers entered a fifth day of stoppages. The two commodities are the top foreign currency earners after oil and key drivers for economic growth, which is slowing. President Juan Manuel Santos is under increasing pressure and attacks by rivals for his handling of the myriad problems in the coal sector, which shut down nearly all output, as well as angry coffee farmers demanding more government aid. The coal sector in the world's fourth-largest exporter of the material has been reeling from a series of stoppages since early February. The lifting of suspensions on the rail line and Drummond is seen as a relief to both producers and end users. Luz Helena Sarmiento, general director of the National Environmental Licenses Authority, known as ANLA, said that the body had approved Drummond's updated contingency plan and would end a loading suspension at its port. ANLA halted coal loading at Drummond's harbor on Feb. 6 after bad weather caused a coal spill into the nearby waters. "The reopening of loading activity with barges does not mean the end of this investigation. It is an ongoing punitive process that will determine whether it was an accident or negligence," Sarmiento told journalists. "It is possible it is a serious offense and, if applicable, the penalty shall be proportionate to the damage and exemplary." Sarmiento also said a ban will be lifted on overnight transport on Colombia's main coal railway, known as Fenoco. A regional environmental body ordered Fenoco to stop running trains near populated areas overnight so residents would not be disturbed. The company has complied with the order since early February, cutting train shipments by 25 percent. Located in the northern province of Cesar, Fenoco shareholders include Drummond, the Prodeco unit of Glencore International Plc and a Goldman Sachs Group Inc affiliate. After the announcements, physical coal registered its first trade of the day on the GLOBALcoal platform since traders had been waiting for more clarity on the situation in Colombia. European physical coal for delivery in April traded at $89.50 a tonne, down around $0.50. CERREJON STRIKE Meanwhile, workers at Colombia's biggest coal exporter, Cerrejon, have been on strike since Feb. 7. The labor union and the company restarted talks this week to try to end the walkout. Cerrejon is a joint venture between Anglo American Plc , BHP Billiton Ltd and Xstrata Plc and accounts for nearly 40 percent, or 34 million tonnes, of Colombia's annual output. It supplies power generators mainly in Europe. The union says that if talks set to end on Saturday do not lead to a deal, it will continue the strike. Cerrejon had to declare force majeure on some shipments due to the walkout. The over supplied global market has largely sheltered coal prices from steep changes. Last week, Colombia's central bank said the economy would take a hit in the first quarter in part due to lower coal exports. Growth slowed in the third quarter of 2012, the last reported economic data, on problems in the coal industry. COFFEE STOPPAGE A strike by coffee farmers in some top bean producing provinces that began on Monday has lead to some clashes with the police in a protest against low global prices and the strengthening peso currency, which has hurt exporters. Colombia is the world's biggest producer of high-quality Arabica beans. Regionally, Brazil, another top Arabica producer, has seen increased lobbying from farmers hit by a slump in prices. Government officials will meet next week to decide on what measures they could take to help growers. The government provides farmers with a subsidy, but the sector says it is not enough and is demanding more. Santos says his administration has invested about $555 million to help coffee farmers since he took office in mid 2010 and called on strikers to reflect on that investment. The government met coffee protest leaders for hours on Thursday without reaching a deal to lift the walkout. "Santos' government belittles the harm done to national agricultural production and denied a deal after 12 hours of negotiations," the leftist Polo Democratico political party said in a message on Twitter. Santos met key ministers on Friday over the dispute. "Dialogue has been suspended, hereafter we'll continue with the coffee leaders who are acting within the law, who are not promoting old solutions and therefore are not clogging the roads and highways of our country," Interior Minister Fernando Carrillo told journalists after the meeting.
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