Mexican Farmers under NAFTA: On the Road to Nowhere

Article excerpt

In 1992, a Mexican farmer, discussing an American proposal to eliminate the Mexican import-licence system for corn, said, "if the U.S. sends subsidized corn into Mexico, send it in trains with benches to bring back the Mexican farmers who will need jobs." Juan Hinojosa Ojeda, a NAFTA proponent at the University of California-Los Angeles, then forecast that lowering Mexican corn supports and eliminating import barriers under NAFTA could cause 600,000 Mexican farmers to enter the United States in search of jobs.

Although there is no firm estimate of the number of Mexican migrants since NAFTA went into effect, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service apprehended 1.5 million people trying to cross the border illegally in 1996, some of them more than once. The total cost of increased border patrolling is similarly unknown, but the doubling of INS agents to 867 in Arizona since 1994 very conservatively indicates the high cost of policing NAFTA. In one of free trade's many brutal ironies, many of these trade-policy refugees are joining the swelling flow of immigrants who are harvesting and processing U.S. food in often dangerous and low-wage conditions (i.e. low wages relative to the cost of living in the U.S.). In January 1997, Mexico guaranteed that many more farmers would become trade-policy refugees when it eliminated the 15-year phase-out of tariffs on corn imports. It had been negotiated in NAFTA to allow Mexican agriculture to adjust to competition with subsidized transnational agribusiness exports. Although 2,000,000 to 3,000,000 Mexicans grow corn to feed their families, peasant farmers also produce about 40 per cent of Mexico's commercial corn. Their ability to market that corn and afford to stay on their land is the first casualty of the elimination of the tariff phase-out period and betrays the promise to farmers of a "level playing field" under NAFTA.

Tighten your belt for free trade

Just as the acceleration of opening the borders to U.S. agricultural commodities has, as critics predicted, undermined Mexican farmers, NAFTA has like wise contributed to endangering consumer food security. From January 1995 to June 1996, consumption of basic foods (corn, beans, wheat) dropped 29 per cent, and as a result one in two Mexicans lacks access to the minimum World Health Organization caloric requirements (2,340 calories). The Mexican Institute of Social Security says 158,000 Mexican children die each year before reaching 5 years of age from malnutrition-related illnesses. The proportion of malnourished children in Mexico is about the same as in sub-Saharan African countries having a tenth of Mexico's per capita gross domestic product. Mexico's growth in GDP is one of the macroeconomic indicators of the alleged recovery from the effects of the December 1994 peso devaluation.

While U.S. officials gush about NAFTA's role in that so-called recovery, most Mexicans are witnessing a widening gap between their paycheques and the cost of basic necessities. According to a December 1996 study by the Mexican Workers' Congress, following the 1994 peso devaluation, staple foods cost 724 pesos a month for a family of five when the minimum wage was 458 pesos a month. During the "recovery," the price of those foods rose to 1,731 pesos a month while the minimum wage increased to only 670 pesos a month.

Tilt the playing field for free trade

Mexican hunger in 1996 derived not from the inability of farmers to produce enough food. According to the Mexican Secretary of Agriculture, as of November 1996, farmers had harvested a near-record 18 million tonnes of corn, the staple food of most Mexicans. This harvest is all the more remarkable since, even according to a euphoric U.S. Embassy in Mexico report on the economic advice followed by the Mexican government, "improvements for the rural population remain a saliently absent feature in this standard reform program."

Producer and consumer food insecurity resulted in part from NAFTA-induced policies that made food too costly for many consumers and made it impossible for farmers to sell their harvests to importers. …