MEXICO CITY - More than 2,000 peasant farmers from throughout Mexico
staged a protest Tuesday in the capital to demand a freeze on the
agricultural provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement
(NAFTA), which they blame for most of their economic and social
But their demands do not appear to have much chance of winning
the desired response from the government.
Mexican campesinos stand at a barrier as a row or riot police
stand guard during a protest outside the U.S. embassy in Mexico
City against NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) December
3, 2002. Mexican campesino organisations are asking for a moratorium
on the removal of tariffs on agricultural products from the
U.S. into Mexico as they fear the market will be flooded with
cheaper imports after January 1, 2003 when agricultural trade
tariffs are due to be dropped. REUTERS/Andrew Winning
''I have nothing. I am here out of desperation because I am poorer
than I have ever been,'' said Francisco Martínez, an elderly farmer
who took part in Tuesday's march in Mexico City, carrying a sign
that read ''NAFTA Equals Death''.
Under the slogan ''the countryside can endure no more'', farmers
from 24 of Mexico's 32 states marched in Mexico City to the Congress
building to present their demands and later staged protests outside
the U.S. and French embassies.
UNORCA, the national union of some 30 regional peasant groups,
organized the demonstrations with the aim of preventing the agricultural
trade liberalization measures -- agreed under NAFTA, which comprises
Canada, Mexico and the United States -- from taking effect in January.
The new phase of liberalization entails the complete elimination
of tariffs on 21 farm products, including potatoes, wheat, apples,
onions, coffee, chicken and veal.
The NAFTA mechanism, which UNORCA describes as ''toxic to the
Mexican countryside,'' establishes three steps towards liberalizing
the farm and livestock sector. The first occurred in 1994 when the
three-nation treaty entered into force, the second is slated for
January, and the third in 2008.
In 1993, when NAFTA was still being negotiated, the government
of Carlos Salinas, then president of Mexico (1988-1994), agreed
to the process of a gradual elimination of agricultural tariffs
with the support of the country's leading farm organizations.
Now, nearly a decade later, they are all complaining.
Recognizing the difficulties that Mexican farmers face with the
deepening of trade liberalization, President Vicente Fox announced
in November that the government would provide support for rural
producers to the tune of 10 billion dollars in 2003, or 7.7 percent
more aid than this year.
Fox stated last month that he is very concerned about how the
trade liberalization process is unfolding, ''in light of the U.S.
subsidies to its agricultural production.''
He said he would take up the matter with the George W. Bush administration,
but there has not been any indication of action so far.
The Mexican president's aim would be to press the United States
to eliminate its farm subsidies, which total 19 billion dollars
a year, nearly double what Mexico has budgeted for its farmers in
But Washington announced that it will not alter its farm subsidy
policies and that the situation of the Mexican farmers does not
justify annulment of the agricultural chapter of NAFTA.
Mexico would not ask for a suspension of the trade agreement's
farm provisions anyway, say Fox administration sources, because
doing so would mean revoking the country's recognition of the treaty
Since NAFTA took effect, Mexico's overall exports shot up from
60.9 billion dollars in 1994 to 158.4 billion dollars in 2001. In
that same period, imports jumped from 79.3 billion dollars to 168.4
billion dollars annually.
More than 85 percent of Mexican trade is currently concentrated
in exchange with the United States.
But for Mexico's rural areas, where 75 percent of the population
living in extreme poverty is concentrated, the three- country treaty
has meant the loss of more than 10 million hectares of cultivated
And the decline of the rural sector has pushed 15 million peasants
-- and mostly young people -- to move to the cities, either in Mexico
or in the United States, according to a study by the Autonomous
National University of Mexico (UNAM).
Over the last 10 years, the participation of the farming sector
in Mexico's gross domestic product (GDP) has fallen from 7.3 percent
to less than 5.0 percent.
The protests Tuesday echoed similar demonstrations in November,
including the blockade of a main federal highway by farmers in the
state of Morelos, neighboring the Mexico City federal district,
and protests by peasants from the southern states of Oaxaca and
Guerrero outside government offices in the capital.
The common denominator of all of these events is the rural producers'
rejection of NAFTA.
''The farmers are walking towards death because they are up against
the 'disloyal' trade competition from the United States and the
Mexican government's desertion of the countryside,'' says Alberto
Gómez, UNORCA executive coordinator.
Without exception, Mexico's farmer organizations believe the new
phase of NAFTA-stipulated farm trade liberalization will generate
more poverty and prompt more people to leave rural areas.
They also reckon that the financial support Fox has promised will
not be nearly enough.
Mariano Ruiz, an analyst with the Mexico City-based Grupo de Economistas
y Asociados, says the worst blow for the Mexican farmers will come
in 2008 when the agricultural tariffs on products like maize and
beans are lifted.
An estimated 2.8 million Mexican farm families make their livelihood
from these commodities.
''The countryside is a time-bomb that could explode very soon,''
commented Rosario Robles, chairwoman of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary
Party (PRD), the country's third political force.
The elderly farmer Martínez, who joined his colleagues for the
Mexico City march Tuesday, does not believe in anything that the
Fox government is offering.
''I have heard many things in the two years since he took office.
The one thing for certain is that I am getting poorer and poorer,''
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