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The Gathering Storm in Mexico

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Section: Features

September 12, 2003

The Gathering Storm in Mexico

Under NAFTA, Mexican farmers move from ejido to foreign finca*

Mexicans in San Salvador Atenco at a rally in support of the Zapatistas and other indigenous movements. Farmers are at the centre of Mexico’s growing social movements. Photo: Indymedia Chiapas
[* Ejido is the Spanish word for 'common land'. 'Finca' means real estate; but in the Americas it means 'ranch' or 'farm'.] On the same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force, January 1, 1994, a group of Mexican peasants marched out of the mountains and the jungles and directly into the media spotlight. At the time, President Carlos Salinas was celebrating Mexico's new status as a "first world" nation and basking in the glory of his own sudden prominence as a major world leader alongside United States President Reagan and Canadian Prime Minister Mulroney. It was only the peasants who recognized NAFTA for the disaster that it was destined to be, and said !Basta!, - enough is enough.

The struggle of the so-called Zapatistas (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional or Zapatista National Liberation Army - EZLN) has, in the minds of many, become parallel to the struggles of the Mexican agricultural community, or the "campesino" movement. There are hundreds of organizations in the Mexican farmers' movement, such as a group called "The land can't take it anymore", but they have still managed to find an affinity with each other and with the Zapatistas. To be sure, neither the EZLN nor the Mexican farmers' movement is solely about NAFTA. But NAFTA provided a clear and obvious rallying point for both, and the EZLN's entry into the spotlight on the very day the agreement came into force helped to draw the world's attention to the actions of the Mexican government and to the consequences of trade agreements in general.

What went wrong?

More than 25% of the Mexican population makes its living from agriculture... Recent estimates show that Mexican farmers earn an average of 35 cents a day.
A reasonable question for society to answer is whether there is a need for family farms in our economies. In general, Canadians would probably agree there is a need and most Americans would also likely concur. In Mexico, it's not even a question: it would be very much like asking if the sky should remain up today, instead of trying down for a change. Mexico's economy cannot function effectively without the family farm. It is a millennia-old system that has been the backbone of the Mesoamerican economy. More than 25% of the Mexican population makes its living from agriculture (for comparison, less than 2% in the US) and about 80% of those farmers still use pre-Columbian agricultural techniques.
Further reading:

'Los campesinos', by Paul Harris
'The Mexicans dance on their hats', by Paul Harris
'Snookered', by Paul Harris
'Rented sunshine and leased air', by Paul Harris
'Mexican farmers lead way in fight against NAFTA', by Judy Ettenhofer
'Mexican farmers see death sentence in NAFTA', by Pav Jordan

Yet the survival of these family farms is threatened by NAFTA. Some may remember that when the deal was sold to North American citizens, farmers were assured that NAFTA was going to bring them higher prices. In Mexico the opposite is true. Commodities are under-priced and farm income is below the cost of production. There are government subsidies but these benefit large industrial producers rather than cash croppers. Many of them have been forced off fertile land that was previously guaranteed to them by the Mexican government (under the "ejido" system) because of privatization pressures. And with the elimination of most agricultural tariffs, US products have flooded Mexican markets and further degraded the prices paid to native farmers. Recent estimates show that Mexican farmers earn an average of 35 cents a day.

In order to feed its people, Mexico now imports about six million tons of corn every year. Corn is the staple of the Mexican diet, it is the crop most campesinos grow, and it has never before happened that Mexico could not produce enough for its own needs. Despite its use of "primitive" techniques, Mexico was also once largely self-sufficient in basic grains production. Today it is importing about 95% of its soy, 58% of its rice, and 49% of its wheat. All of these pressures have contributed to the growing popular unrest among Mexico's farming community.

Renegotiating NAFTA won't help

One of the goals of the campesino movement in Mexico is the renegotiation of at least the agricultural portions of NAFTA. Unfortunately, this will never happen.

Most of the turmoil in Mexico and much of the anger in the farming community can be readily traced to one source: racism.
There is a mechanism for changing NAFTA contained in Chapter 22 of the agreement. It seems relatively benign in that all it requires is for one country to call for a renegotiation, which must then be discussed and agreed upon by all three countries. The problem lies in the fact that NAFTA is not a tool of government--it is a tool of industry. Neither Mexico nor the other two parties can alter this agreement without the concurrence of major industrial players, and industry has no interest in reopening this agreement unless it is to allow themselves to strip even more power and authority from government and the people.

Mexico's President Vicente Fox said the politically expedient thing in Zacatecas state at the beginning of 2003 by indicating his government was open to the possibility of renegotiating the agricultural clauses. In fact, he was simply buying himself some time knowing that in the end no renegotiation would occur. He actually took the step of signing an agreement with a representative group of campesinos in April 2003 promising to ask Canada and the United States about renegotiating NAFTA guidelines on white corn and beans. White corn is the staple of Mexican agriculture and food. Fox knows this agreement of his is a callous sham. He is well aware that neither Canada nor the US will agree to renegotiation - they haven't, and they can't - and that there was never any chance that they would. This was purely politics for local consumption.

And with the elimination of tariffs on another 80 or so US agricultural products on January 1, 2003 as part of the phased-in NAFTA rules, the Mexican agricultural economy is primed for destruction. There is little doubt then that the increasingly active campesinos and Zapatistas will not see their concerns dealt with any time soon.

Mexican unrest has deep roots

One of the things that makes agriculture different in Mexico as compared to Canada and the United States is the high percentage of farmers who are Indians. [For ease of use, I will use the word 'Indian' to include Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Tojolobal, Chol, and other Mayan groups along with non-Mayan indigenous peoples.] There has long been simmering resentment between those Indian farmers and Mexico City although, quite frankly, many consider themselves to be Indian first, Yucatecan second, Mexican third. At the same time, there is overt racism toward the Indians in much the same way there is in Canada and the United States. But as a fairly homogenized subclass of workers (farmers), the Mexican Indians are readily marginalized. It is a small leap for them to see NAFTA as racially discriminatory.

In many ways, it is difficult to separate the aspirations of the Zapatistas from the campesinos; even when ethnicity isn't an issue, poverty is. Farmers are farmers; that's what they want to do and they want to be able to do it in peace and with the ability to earn enough to feed and house their families. Social status and political power would be nice, but being able to eat and live are more important.

Historically, the Zapatistas draw their lineage back to the days of Spanish colonialism. In the words of the Zapatista "Declaration of War": "We are a product of 500 years of struggle ... we have nothing, absolutely nothing, not even a roof over our heads, no land, no work, no health care, no food nor education. Neither are we able to freely and democratically elect our political representatives, nor is there independence from foreigners, nor is there peace nor justice for ourselves and for our children."

The Zapatista movement, at least according to its nominal spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos, is not a political movement out to seize power. It is truly a revolutionary movement intending to transform society. It sees the peasants of Mexico as its constituency and there is little doubt that the continued frustration of efforts to improve the lot of Mexican farmers is almost sure to result in action. Given the intransigence of the federal government and its complete emasculation by NAFTA, WTO, and the IMF, etc., it is quite possible that such action is going to be bloody.

Where to now?

During an interview I gave to a Mexican newspaper in March 2003 regarding an article I published on economics, I took the opportunity to interview the reporter about the Mexican farmer's movement. [I do not presume he speaks for his news organization so I will neither quote him directly nor name him.] As it happens, although he is based in northern Mexico, in Monterrey, he is originally from Quintana Roo, one of the states that makes up the Yucatan region of Mexico, home of the Zapatista movement. He spoke eloquently and passionately about the downtrodden Mexican peasants (he is not one himself) and he predicted that there will eventually be a solid alliance between the Zapatistas and many of the farmers' groups. He also predicted that the federal government is powerless to address their concerns, even in the unlikely circumstance that they would want to, owing to NAFTA. And, finally, he says there is sure to be a civil war.

The Yucatan declared independence from Mexico City in 1841. To be sure, there is still a movement among various Indian groups for autonomy at least, separation at best. The poor south is where most of the Indians live in Mexico and there is not a lot of love lost between the Indians and the descendants of the Conquistadores del Espana. These natives have suffered the same indignations as native peoples throughout North America (and, I suppose, most of the rest of the world) and they now have similar social problems: low literacy, poverty, poor life expectancy, inadequate employment and housing - all the usual benefits of having been conquered by white people. For agriculture, there is also the complicating factor that these unhappy people comprise the bulk of the farming community.

Most of the turmoil in Mexico and much of the anger in the farming community can be readily traced to one source: racism. The massive poverty of the south derives from the racial disdain of the north. In that regard, the Mexicans are no different from Canadians and Americans who have subjugated their native people, who have promised them all sorts of things only to snap them away at the last minute, who have herded these people into little corrals, and who feel sort of guilty about what they have done but resent every effort to redress.

And while Canadians and Americans complain in varying degrees about NAFTA, the Mexicans probably got short-changed more than anyone because the agreement is set up to guarantee they remain in poverty. They cannot get ahead as a people; the rich will get richer while the poor do no better than maintain status quo. Mexico remains the "third world" component of NAFTA.

So although from the outside, Mexico seems to be a sleepy land of sombreros, salsa, and siestas, it is in fact a very divided country with a wide range of social and political aspirations that make it anything but stable. Someday, the siesta may be over and those disparate and desperate groups may finally rise up to take charge of their destinies. If that happens, all those Canadian and American enterprises that moved their business facilities to Mexico to avoid giving safe working conditions and decent wages to their employees may find those employees running for their lives. It is almost certain to be the farmers who are leading the charge. NAFTA will have been the last straw.

Paul Harris is self-employed as a consultant providing businesses with the tools and expertise to reintegrate their sick or injured employees into the workplace. Canadian businesses can reach him at paul@working-solutions.ca. He has traveled extensively in what is usually known as "the Third World" and has an abiding interest in history, social justice, morality and, well, just about everything. Paul is also a freelance writer and can be reached at paul@escritoire.ca. He lives in Canada.

* * *

Source material:

El Paso Times - June 23, 2003
World Social Forum - TerraViva - January 28, 2003
Mexico's Unfinished Symphony: The Zapatista Movement - Rodolfo Stavenhagen, El Colegio de México - 2000
The Chiapas Rebellion: the struggle for land and democracy - Neil Harvey, Duke University Press, 1998
The Capital Times - Judy Ettenhofer, August 10, 2003
The Michigan Daily - Lee Palmer, September 28, 1998
Common Dreams Progressive Newswire - July 11, 2003
Foreign Policy in Focus - Laura Carlsen, March 2003
BBC News - June 5, 2003
IRC - Tim Wise, June 2003
Massachusetts Institute of Technology for NAFTA documents

with additional files from:

Amnesty International
Associated Press
Corporate Watch
Global Exchange
Human Rights Watch
La Jornada - several interviews with Subcomandante Marcos
Organic Consumers Association (United States)
Polaris Institute
Trade Justice Movement (Great Britain)

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