LIMA, Feb 1 (Reuters) - At least two people have been killed in clashes at protests by potato farmers across the Peruvian Andes, police said on Thursday, as demonstrators demanded the government make good on promises to buy excess potatoes after a sharp price drop.
Thousands of farmers took part in the protests on Wednesday and Thursday, with many blocking highways to demand help in coping with market prices well below the cost of production, said David Lazo, leader of a potato farming association.
TV images showed police firing tear gas at crowds and roads covered with boulders, tires and tree trunks.
Clashes erupted when a group of protesters tried to occupy a state-owned hydroelectric dam in southern Peru on Wednesday, said Manuel Boluarte, a spokesman for the interior ministry.
The unrest unfolded as President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski struggles to shore up support for his center-right government.
Similar protests by potato farmers ended three weeks ago when Kuczynski’s Cabinet announced a deal for five regional governments to spend up to 1.5 million soles (US$467,000) each on buying surplus potatoes.
Lazo, who is part of negotiations between farmers and the government, said the finance ministry had not transferred funds to regional authorities to start the purchases, prompting this week’s protests.
The agriculture ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Before becoming a global staple, potatoes were first domesticated thousands of years ago in the Andes in what is now Peru and Bolivia.
Lazo said imports of pre-cooked potatoes from Europe and a crackdown in Bolivia on unregulated shipments of Peruvian potatoes had saturated local markets.
Potato farmers now want 10 million soles to be spent in each region to reduce excess supplies, and are pressing the government to hike tariffs on potato products, Lazo said.
“In other countries, governments protect their farmers, but not in Peru,” said Lazo.
Kuczynski’s government has said that surplus potatoes were due to poor planning and simultaneous harvests in different regions this season because of unusual weather.
The interior ministry said public prosecutors would investigate the deaths of two men in this week’s protests.
Lazo said a third person died on Thursday after being run over by a truck swerving in a road protest. (Reporting By Mitra Taj)