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Mexico’s import barriers to expire

- 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.

"There was no transition period like they promised 15 years ago," Mr. Suarez said. "We are not ready [for the trade opening]. The only ones who are ready are the 20 big agribusiness corporations."

In fact, Mexico's government has allowed global market forces to be felt strongly in Mexico. For years, it has allowed more corn imports under lower tariffs than NAFTA requires. This is why the U.S. ethanol boom caused a spike in tortilla prices early this year, which in turn sparked street protests in Mexico.

For a country long used to a highly regulated agricultural market, the "tortilla crisis" was a bitter taste of the power of agribusiness consortiums that purportedly hoarded corn and speculated with prices.

But the spike in corn prices has given Mexico's beleaguered farm sector "a little more breathing room," said Cruz Lopez, leader of the National Farmers Confederation.

It also has reduced the apocalyptic talk and strengthened the realization that farmers may have to depend on themselves.

"We have changed our rhetoric. Remember that 15 years ago, we were saying that on January 1 ... we would be flooded with corn, that all the corn farmers in Mexico would disappear," said Hector Salazar, secretary of the National Corn Producers Federation. Now, instead of talking doom, his group is trying to get farmers to join together to sell their crops on a contract basis to large consumers, like food companies.

Such efforts to build agricultural cooperatives — similar to the Grange halls and dairy cooperatives formed in the United States in the 1800s and 1900s — may be key to Mexican farmers' survival.

"They have only one way to survive, and that is by understanding the need to organize," said Hugo Garcia, an academic and co-author of the book "The Corn and Tortilla Crisis in Mexico."