GUERRILLAS FORCE DOLE TO SUSPEND COLOMBIA OPERATION

GUERRILLAS FORCE DOLE TO SUSPEND COLOMBIA OPERATION

Multinational banana company Dole has suspended operations in the Caribbean port of Santa Marta because of attacks and threats from leftist guerrillas.

Dole's Colombian subsidiary, Tecnicas Baltime de Colombia, announced it would stop all banana production and exports for two weeks. The move effectively paralyzes 65 percent of the region's production, representing 700,000 18.4-kilogram boxes."In Santa Marta, as in much of the country, unfortunately, there's a lot of guerrilla activity that targets the country's economic sectors," said Juan Diego Velez, president of the Association of Banana Producers.

Mr. Velez said one of the country's main guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), has recently stepped up

pressure on Dole. The guerrillas accuse Dole of participating in the formation of private para-military groups, which combat the guerrillas in the absence of a strong armed forces.

The guerrillas are demanding that Dole pay a "vaccine" so the rebels will leave them alone, but the multinational refuses to negotiate with the guerrillas.

In a recent attack, the rebels destroyed several refrigerated containers, irrigation systems and other equipment. Mr. Velez said Dole's operations will be shut down for at least two weeks while the equipment is repaired.

In an open letter published in the local press, Dole asks the community and producers to support its action. It also asks the guerrillas to "let us work, in the only way we know how, with dedication, honesty, professionalism, giving our best, always trying to benefit all of those involved in banana production in the region."

Dole has 2,000 hectares under cultivation and also buys fruit from hundreds of small plantations that comprise another 4,000 hectares.

"This is very serious for Dole, but it will make operations even more difficult for the small producers," who stand to lose $1.25 million over the two weeks, Mr. Velez said.

The Santa Marta region accounts for about 35 percent of Colombia's total banana exports. About 54 percent of Santa Marta's exports are destined for the European Union, while 12 percent are sold to the United States.

Guerrilla activity has plagued banana growers for years. Just two weeks ago in the Uraba area, which exports 65 percent of the country's production, guerrilla massacres shut down production for a week.

Colombia is the third-largest banana producer in the world, after Ecuador and Costa Rica. Bananas are the country's largest non-traditional export, worth about $450 million last year.

Colombia shipped 34 million boxes of bananas worth $185.7 million in the first six months of this year, down 4.7 percent in dollar terms from 40.3 million boxes worth $194.9 million for the same period in 1994.