Heeding a plea from President Cristina Fernández, Argentine farm groups on Friday ordered a halt to a 16-day protest over new export tariffs that paralysed deliveries of meat, milk and vegetables, helped push up world soya prices, and sparked street protests against the government.

The country’s four main producers’ organizations, who want the government to revoke a new sliding scale of export tariffs on the country’s money-spinning agricultural exports, resolved to end the protest in order to facilitate dialogue, but to remain “on alert”.

In a conciliatory speech on Thursday night, Ms Fernández had “humbly” appealed to farmers to end their action before talks could begin. That was a marked change from her tough stance two days earlier, which was greeted by thousands of people taking to the streets banging pots and pans in irritation at a president who promised widespread institutional change before taking office in December and has yet to deliver.

As farmers eased or removed roadblocks in place across the country’s northern agricultural heartlands, the heads of the four agricultural associations began talks with Cabinet Chief Alberto Fernández, Economy Minister Martín Lousteau, Internal Trade Secretary Guillermo Moreno, and Agriculture Secretary Javier de Urquiza. At one point, the talks were halted temporarily for the ministers to consult with the president.

Both sides will be seeking concessions. The government has vowed to stick to a sliding scale of tariffs that Ms Fernández sees as a cornerstone of her economic model designed she says to share out the windfall income of high commodities prices more fairly.

Those prices helped export revenue surge 55 per cent to $10.8bn in the first two months of this year compared with the same period in 2007 in a country where agriculture is the backbone of the economy and soy is the star crop. But farmers believe they are being used as the government’s piggy bank and say the new tax regime, which guarantees higher revenues if world prices soar, is the last straw. They say that with other taxes, they face a total tax burden of more than 70 per cent.

Although blockades were lifted, farmers remained on many roadsides awaiting developments from Buenos Aires. Their protest has delayed food deliveries, forcing many supermarkets and butchers’ shops to shutter meat counters in a land famous for its beef. Fruit and vegetable prices also rose as supplies dwindled.

The protest also halted exports of cereals and oils from the main port of Rosario, fuelling higher world soy prices and forcing Chinese importers to seek alternative supplies.

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