Wednesday, October 31, 2007

ARTICLE: Free Trade, Migration and Corn Crises

side note for those that might not know: On January 1, 2008 the last provisions of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) will be fully implemented.

Free Trade, Migration and Corn Crises

Rural Mexico and NAFTA at Fourteen
October 30, 2007

On the eve of the elimination of all tariffs on corn and beans imported into Mexico, a new World Bank study spotlights continued, major structural problems afflicting the country's agricultural sector. According to the report, one-fourth of all residents of the Mexican countryside abandoned their homes in a ten-year period studied. Especially noteworthy was the out migration of 25 percent of youths between 15 and 24 years of age. Increasingly, Mexican rural areas are becoming lands of women and the elderly. The study gives a strong hint of what helps explain the rural exodus: Mexican agricultural workers lost 30 percent of their purchasing power between 1988 and 1996 alone.

According to the World Bank, rural Mexicans make up 24.3 percent of the nation's population, or approximately 24,800,000 people. Although they still constitute nearly one-quarter of Mexico's population, rural Mexicans generate only 3.9 percent of their nation's Gross Domestic Product. The farm GDP of $24.3 billion is just slightly less than the amount of migrant remittances received by Mexican households in 2006. The World Bank's study indicated that migration had a double-edged sword-at least in the short to medium term. While draining the countryside of future farmers, migration provided remittances that allowed poor households to survive. Given slow-downs in the US economy as well as the stricter application of US immigration laws, it's uncertain how long the remittance economy outlined by the World Bank can sustain itself.

The time period studied by the World Bank coincided with the entry of Mexico into the World Trade Organization, the dismantling of government agricultural support programs and the first years of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta). The World Bank report was released a little more than two months before all remaining tariffs on staple corn and beans are eliminated under Nafta’s provisions. Already, the study is fueling renewed debate about free trade's impact on the Mexican countryside. Since 1994, the first year of Nafta, corn imports from the United States have acquired increased importance in the Mexican food and animal feed sectors.

John Nash, an economist for the sustainable development department of the World Bank, predicted a modest or positive impact in Mexico from the pending tear-down of tariff barriers on basic grains. "There could be a positive effect with the opening of the border, especially for corn producers," Nash said.

But Karen Hansen-Kuhn, an analyst for the Washington-based non-governmental organization Action Aid, offered a different assessment of the World Bank study’s implications.

"Nafta has been devastating for the small producers of Mexico," Hansen-Kuhn said. "Several million of them have been displaced from their lands since the agreement began functioning and now that the prices of grains have gone up significantly, the agricultural sector finds itself devastated to such a degree that it is very difficult for farmers to return and produce on their lands."

As the 14th anniversary of Nafta dawns, two prevailing currents of thought influence Mexican farm organizations. One side holds that Mexican producers must find their niche in the global economy and take advantage of new opportunities, but with some government support. For instance, Maria Esther Teran Velasquez, president of the National Confederation of Rural Landowners (CNPR) insists that the agricultural sector requires modernization to effectively compete on the world market.

Speaking at the CNPR's recent assembly, Velasquez called for investing more public funds in the countryside, implementing "clear operating rules" and fully eliminating "discretion in the approval of projects." Vasquez urged the government to extend a modest subsidy program for small producers known as Procampo for at least ten years, and to seek alternative means of support for producers with more than 75 acres who are currently enrolled in the program.

Upholding principles of food sovereignty and agricultural sustainability, another important sector of the rural population is attempting to block the corn and bean tariff eliminations beginning on January 1, 2008. So far, their efforts are not receiving a positive hearing in many government circles. Promoted by the National Council of Campesino Organizations, El Barzon and other groups, a law designed to strictly regulate the importation of beans and corn failed in the Chamber of Deputies last week. The initiative went down to defeat due to opposition from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and its rural arm, the National Campesino Confederation, which still retains influence in the countryside.

Citing Article 31 of the Mexican Constitution that gives the congress power to protect strategic sectors of the Mexican economy, the unsuccessful bill nevertheless set the stage for a future revisiting of the power of Mexican national law over international treaties, an issue Mexico's Supreme Court has been willing to consider in water shortage complaints by Tamaulipas farmers and in other cases.

Anti-Nafta forces, however, are stepping up their mobilizations and organizing protests set for January 1. Across the nation, the "No Corn, No Country" campaign is building support among city dwellers for anti-Nafta rural organizations. The movement sponsored a youth-oriented rock concert in Mexico City which drew thousands to the capital city's Zocalo plaza last weekend. Dubbed "Lets' Save the Countryside to Save Mexico," the event was endorsed by environmental organizations, artists, intellectuals, and actors and actresses.

Concert organizer Lorena Paz, a representative of the Maya Institute, told attendees that while Mexico was one of the nations where corn originated, the country now faces a defining economic, political and
cultural crisis.

"The food of the people is in danger of dying and the campesinos are in danger of extinction," Paz contended. "If we don't take our corn and beans out of Nafta, we will be on our knees before the United States. We will have lost our food sovereignty and we will completely depend on other countries for eating."

In a follow-up event to the concert, small farmers plan a November 8-10
Zocalo fair, where city slickers will get a chance of sampling Mexico's home-grown "agricultural richness."

In the big picture, Mexico confronts environmental and structural disadvantages in the agricultural sector when it comes to competing with its Nafta trading partners, the United States and Canada. According to the World Bank, Mexico has about 71 million arable acres of land. In contrast, the US possesses about 462 million acres of cultivable land, while Canada boasts more than 135 million acres of land suited for agriculture.

Sources: La Jornada, October 28, 2007.
Proceso/Apro, October 24, 2007.
Article by Patricia Davila.,
October 24, 2007. Jornada, October 20, 2007.

Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

For a free electronic subscription email

Courtesy of: Ne74