Mexico’s Corn Farmers

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It’s been 14 years since the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect. Farm trade between the United States and Mexico immediately soared. It’s now four times what it was the year before NAFTA was signed. Two weeks ago, the few remaining trade restrictions on farm goods were dropped. U.S. officials is calling the move a win for farmers in both countries. But the reaction south of the border is quite different. Mexican farmers are taking to the streets in protest. The World’s Lorne Matalon reports from Xochimilco, Mexico.

Matalon: Under a cobalt sky and blinding sun, Rafael Avila moves slowly along a dusty brown path between 10 ft stalks of corn. Tending his 6 acres, he grips a small silver machete as he harvests corn grown from seeds that trace their lineage to the Aztec and Maya cultures. In Mexico there’s a saying. “Sin maiz, no hay pais.” ‘Without corn there’s no country.’ But Avila says small farmers now demanding that NAFTA be renegotiated are missing the point. Avila blames the Mexican government which he says has ignored small farmers since NAFTA was signed in 1994.

Avila: “If we don’t have the weapons to compete, Mexico is dead. We will not advance as a nation.”

Avila says Mexico has everything it needs to compete agriculturally–fertile land, water, a perfect climate and people who know how to work their land. He says globalization is a fact-of-life that Mexico could take advantage of.

Matalon: When NAFTA was ratified, Mexico’s government promised subsidies to help small farmers mechanize, increase efficiency and boost profits. Avila and groups representing small farmers say the money went instead to maquiladora assembly plants that line the U.S.- Mexico border. The result is a competitive manufacturing sector and a farming sector that is unprepared for foreign competition.

Avila: “NAFTA does not affect us, but we need a change in political priorities. We need help to mechanize, and a cultural shift in the government’s attitude toward small farmers. That’s how we’ll overcome this struggle.”

Matalon: Many farmers disagree with Avila. One group blocked the bridge between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez on New Year’s Day to prevent trucks importing corn, beans and sugar grown in the U-S from entering Mexico.

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The banner reads: “Corn and beans out of NAFTA!” (Lorne Matalon)

And other demonstrations are taking place in several Mexican states. At one event, a farmer railed against the government…

Protester: “They talk about democracy, freedom and justice, but what we have is a country that serves transnational companies.”

Matalon: The Mexican government denies that. It says its farmers are ready to face competition.. The gov’t says farm exports have grown by more than 10 per cent a year, a sign that NAFTA has helped farmers. But only some farmers. The 20 largest Mexican agribusinesses are flourishing. One company alone controls 70 % of the corn market here. But 5 million Mexicans have lost farm jobs and one recent study here documents that 80 per cent of the 400,000 Mexicans who enter the U.S. each year are from the Mexican countryside.

O’Farril: “As with everything in the economy, you have a positive side and a negative side.”Mexicans, especially poor Mexicans, eat up to 10 corn tortillas a day. They are cheap and filling, but vulnerable to price fluctuation. Last year, U.S. demand for corn for ethanol production caused tortilla prices in Mexico to rise by as much as 50 per cent. Since New Year’s Day, corn flour in some parts of Mexico has risen by 10 % – driven by fear that the end of tariffs will translate into permanently higher corn prices.

Matalon: Enrique O’Farril’s company, Bursametrica, tracks commodity prices.

O’Farril: “Opening up the economy will bring higher efficiency into the farm sector of Mexico. We’ll be able to choose the best quality at the best price. There will be less inflation on prices and that should mean more investment, more employment and more development. But along the way, there will be difficulties for the small farmers of Mexico.”

Matalon: Part of the problem is economies of scale; U-S corn farms produce 22 tons of corn per acre. In Mexico it’s 6 tons per acre and most Mexican farms are 6 acres or smaller.

Enrique Perez of the Association of Mexican Agricultural Producers says,” We’ve seen how Mexican agriculture has fallen and how poverty has risen in rural areas of Mexico” since NAFTA came into effect.

Perez: “Corn is identity, culture, and economy. We cannot think of Mexico’s history without corn. We’re in a dangerous situation and there are consequences for agriculture and Mexico in general.”

Matalon: Despite its role in the country’s diet and culture, Mexico has long been dependent on corn imports. Mexico imports 10 million tons a year, about a third more than it produces. Commodity tracker O’Farrill says U-S corn has been in Mexico for many years. The only difference now he says, is that U.S. producers no longer have to pay tariffs before crossing the border.

For The World, I’m Lorne Matalon in Xoximilcho, Mexico.

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