* President cuts tariffs, seeks dialogue to end protest
* Farmers object to free trade policies
* Finance minister says cannot meet all demands
(Adds police fire tear gas, clash with protesters)
By Helen Murphy and Fernando Peinado
BOGOTA, Aug 29 Thousands of Colombian farmers
and state workers marched through Bogota on Thursday, banging
pots and pans as they converged on the capital after 11 days of
increasingly violent protests against agricultural and trade
policies they say have left them impoverished.
Students wearing balaclavas pelted shop windows with rocks
near the capital's main square and clashed with riot police who
fired tear gas to disperse them.
"Long live the farmers' strike! Food sovereignty," they
chanted, holding up protest banners.
President Juan Manuel Santos, who has been unable to end the
so-called national strike that has united potato growers, milk
producers, teachers and health workers, acknowledged agriculture
is in crisis, but called for peaceful dissent while talks about
possible solutions are going on.
"The farm sector has been abandoned," the center-right
president said in a televised address early on Thursday. "The
protests are valid ... but, via dialogue, we will resolve the
problems ... We are in a storm, but we will persevere."
Protesters wearing typical farmer attire of woolen ponchos,
brimmed hats and rubber boots to show their solidarity, marched
in 15 columns toward the Plaza Bolivar, where the presidential
palace and Congress are located.
Farmers have blocked roads, snarling city-bound traffic and
pressuring Santos three months before he must decide whether to
run for a second term. The government's tough peace negotiations
with Marxist FARC rebels are creating their own contentious
national debate at the same time.
"My purchase power is zero, it's only enough to survive,"
said Orlando Pamo, 50, an indigenous father of six from central
Tolima province who earns less than the minimum wage farming
citrus and other fruits. "The government wants us off the land
so it can be given to big business. We don't get the benefits
Santos said he will lift import duties on 23 products,
including some fertilizers and pesticides, to help lower crop
production costs. He also is working to find more permanent
solutions for the farm sector's problems.
Clashes between police and protesters over removal of the
barricades resulted in at least one death and scores of injuries
and arrests since the strike began on Aug. 19.
Looting was reported in several towns and blocked roads have
prevented food getting to market, raising prices for consumers.
Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon has accused the FARC rebels
of infiltrating the protests and seeking to rope peaceful
farmers into their struggle against the government.
"Please, let's not fall into the hands of the violent," said
Santos. "Do not allow them to gain strength from these protests
because it will distort the entire meaning of the demonstration
and it leads to unnecessary confrontations that have led to
The already grueling life of farming families has become
harder in recent years since income from harvests has failed to
cover costs of fertilizers and transportation.
Potato, corn and milk producers complain that free trade
agreements with Europe and the United States have made it
almost impossible to compete with cheaper imports. Droughts
followed by unusually heavy rains have also made farming
conditions difficult over the past several years.
The demonstrations are the second wave of national strikes
this year against agricultural and economic policies.
"More demonstrations will follow in the coming days if there
is no response from the government," said Julio Roberto Gomez,
head of the nation's second biggest union confederation, as
protesters banged pots and pans behind him.
Even though Santos has made improving the conditions of the
poor and cutting the jobless rate a priority, difficulties for
farmers are unlikely to change in the coming months.
Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas said it would be
impossible to meet all demands from the different protest
"The country is on the right track and the economy is an
example worldwide," he said on local radio. "But if you add up
everything they want, there's no way to give them it all. They
are seeking significant resources. There isn't enough money to
cover the demands of all the sectors."
(Additional reporting by Peter Murphy; editing by Jackie Frank
and Stacey Joyce)