BOGOTA – Colombian banana farm workers in the country’s key growing region went on strike May 8 over pay and benefits, threatening hundreds of thousands of boxes exported a day, union leaders and producers said.

Around 17,000 banana plantation workers joined the strike in the world’s No. 3 exporter of the fruit and the protest has paralyzed around 234,000 18-kg boxes a day of exports, said Guillermo Rivera, president of the Sintrainagro farm union.

Colombia’s Uraba region, the country’s banana-growing heartland, usually ships approximately 350,000 boxes of bananas a day mainly to the clients in the United States and Europe, according to producers.

The call for a strike received the support of 99 percent of all workers.

Banana crops represent 30 percent of Colombia’s agricultural exports (excluding coffee), competing for first place with flowers.

Banana crops for export occupy 1.5 percent of Colombia’s permanently cultivated land, and banana production contributes with 6.3 percent of the country’s agricultural GDP, generating nearly 37,000 direct jobs and 111,000 indirect jobs, in particular in the departments of Antioquia and Magdalena.

The European Union is the main destination of the country’s banana exports, and the volume of exports to that destination is growing despite the problems caused by access restrictions.

In 2007, these exports generated 385.2 million dollars and 73 percent of the product was exported to the European Union, as compared to 56.5 percent at the beginning of the decade.