- The Washington Times - Monday, December 31, 2007

MEXICO CITY (AP) — For 15 years, Mexican farmers have feared the day when the last import protections end for the country’s ancestral crops of corn and beans.

But as Jan. 1 draws near, farmers say, the damage has already been done: Mexico has plunged deeply into a model of globalized agriculture where farmers are ill-prepared to compete, and even people who don’t farm for a living are suffering.

Nobody knows that better than Vicente Martinez, who grows corn, beans and coffee in the green mountains of Tepetlan, Veracruz. In July, his daughter, Felictas, died trying to cross the desert to enter the United States.

Mr. Martinez blames a combination of free trade and dwindling government farm-support programs that leave rural families with little choice but to migrate; his daughter found no work in their farming town to support her four children, other than cleaning houses for little pay.

“The only thing left to do is run for the United States … or sit around looking like idiots, because there’s nothing to do here, nothing,” said Mr. Martinez, whose daughter was abandoned by a smuggler in Arizona.

Corn, beans, sugar and milk were granted special 15-year import protections when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was negotiated in 1993, time that was supposed to be used to prepare Mexico for competition. But many say that didn’t happen.

Although global prices for these commodities are booming, Mexico’s farm parcels tend to be tiny and only marginally productive, so higher prices internationally have done little to improve people’s lives here.

Farmers like Juan Antonio Lopez, who plants corn on about 7.5 acres in Pino Suarez, Durango, have little corn left over to sell and often must buy grain at higher international prices for their families and animals.

Even larger farms have trouble storing crops and getting them to market, in part because the government has allowed state purchasing agencies, granaries and distribution networks to wither, preferring instead to rely on market forces.

Mexico also has been slow to modernize to take advantage of ethanol demands and genetically modified crops.

Mr. Martinez was among a group of farmers demonstrating this month in Mexico City to demand that the government take a greater role in assuring farmers a fair price, as well as networks to store and sell their grain.

But even that wouldn’t benefit most Mexican farmers, whose plots are so small — less than 6 acres — that they engage in subsistence agriculture, not producing even enough to eat.

“It isn’t enough to live on, and besides, we have to plant with mules and a hand plow, because there have not been any programs to provide us a tractor,” Mr. Lopez said.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Officials in 1993 said the 15-year transition period would give farmers here a chance to modernize, diversify their crops and begin to export them, or at least find seasonal work at a new wave of factories that the trade pact was expected to bring to the Mexican countryside.

None of that happened, said Victor Suarez, the leader of a farm cooperative group that works to start storage silos and direct farm-to-consumer sales of corn tortillas.

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