Truckies' strike and fake news stop Brazil
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Truckies' strike and fake news stop Brazil

Sao Paulo:  A strike by Brazilian truck drivers coupled with fake news on messaging service WhatsApp brought the country to a stand still on Thursday, causing fuel shortages, long queues and panic buying at supermarkets.

A bicyclist pedals past trucks partially blocking a road, that connects the cities Rio de Janeiro and Teresopolis, in Brazil.

A bicyclist pedals past trucks partially blocking a road, that connects the cities Rio de Janeiro and Teresopolis, in Brazil.

Photo: AP

The drivers' four-day strike to protest rising diesel prices sparked a wave of fake warnings on WhatsApp, including one voice recording purporting to be from the "president" of a "truck drivers' association" that encouraged people to rush to petrol stations and supermarkets to stock up because "everything will stop".

The message, like many that spread on Brazilian social media, was false and designed to cause chaos.

A logistics company executive, Mauricio Lima, told BBC Brasil, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"If everyone wants to stock up because they fear shortages, they will cause a shortage that wouldn't otherwise exist", he said.

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It's what economists told the BBC was the "tragedy of commons". When we share resources, people who act rationally in self-interest and against the common good, end up causing a collective irrational behaviour that harms the whole.

Several petrol stations in Brazil ran out of fuel during a truck drivers strike that caused panic buying.

Several petrol stations in Brazil ran out of fuel during a truck drivers strike that caused panic buying.

Photo: Agencia Brasil

South America's largest economy runs largely on road transport and the stoppage indeed was beginning to have serious consequences, with highway police reporting trucks had blocked roads in nearly all but one of Brazil's 26 states.

The airport in the capital of Brasilia was only allowing planes to land that were carrying enough fuel to take off again. The civil aviation authority and airport authorities said they were monitoring fuel supplies carefully. Bus services scaled back in most states.

Long lines formed at petrol stations, and some ran out of some kinds of fuel. A number of petrol station owners were reportedly arrested for overcharging.

Motorists queue for petrol in Brasilia overnight.

Motorists queue for petrol in Brasilia overnight.

Photo: Agencia Brasil

In Rio de Janeiro, only about two-thirds of the city's buses were operating on Thursday, local time, according to Rio Onibus, which represents the companies that run the various lines.

Local media reported food shortages and rationing in some supermarkets throughout the country, and an association of supermarkets in the south warned that perishable food would run out in days if the strike did not end. The association said stores on average have a 15-day supply of dry goods, but fresh food would run out or spoil before then.

Milk producers told Brazilian website G1 they had already thrown out milk stock that couldn't be delivered.

The Brazilian Association of Meat Industry Exporters said dozens of meat-packing plants were idling because of the strike, and 1200 containers carrying beef for export were not being loaded on ships each day. Brazil is one of the largest exporters of meat in the world.

Jorge Martins, owner of an orange distributor, said he hadn't had a shipment in days.

"Everything is stopped," he said. "We can't pay anything. ... Our accounts are starting to be in the red because we have daily bills we have to pay."

Striking truckies and motorcycle messengers block the entrance of BR Distribuidora, a fuel station run by the state-run oil company Petrobras.

Striking truckies and motorcycle messengers block the entrance of BR Distribuidora, a fuel station run by the state-run oil company Petrobras.

Photo: AP

Truckers complain that rising diesel prices have cut deeply into their income and are demanding relief from the government. Diesel prices are being pushed up by rising world oil prices and Brazil's falling real currency.

On Wednesday night, the lower house of Congress rushed through a bill to eliminate a tax on diesel through the end of the year. But the Senate still had to approve it.

Truckers rejected an earlier decision by the state oil company Petrobras to reduce diesel prices at refineries by 10 per cent. The company said the measure would last for 15 days and give the government time to negotiate an end to the strike.

"The government thinks truckers are illiterate and can't count," said Vicente Reis, who has been driving for 20 years. "In 2018, there has already been about a 25 per cent increase in fuel prices. And now they want a 15-day freeze with [a reduction of] 10 percent. Truckers know how to count, Mr. President."

Late on Thursday, Friday AEST, after marathon negotiations the Brazilian government announced a deal had been reached to suspend the strike for a fortnight.

Eliseu Padilha, chief of staff for President Michel Temer, told reporters in Brasilia that several unions representing truck drivers agreed to suspend the strike to give all parties time to find a solution to rising fuel prices.

Diumar Bueno, president of the National Confederation of Autonomous Transporters, told the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo that he hoped the agreement would lead to drivers quickly dismantling roadblocks on highways and streets.

But it wasn't immediately clear how many of the thousands of drivers, who by the nature of their jobs operate with a good bit of independence, would heed calls to stop the strike and unblock roads.

AP, with Fairfax Media