MEXICO CITY - Tens of thousands of farmers clogged the streets of the capital on Thursday to protest the end of tariffs on corn from the United States, warning that the elimination of trade barriers could drive them out of business and lead more Mexicans to migrate north.
The farmers brought a herd of cattle and more than 50 tractors to make their point, jamming the historic center and blocking the central artery, Paseo de la Reforma. One rowdy group burned a tractor.
Stretching for more than four miles, the march was a sea of tanned faces, cowboy hats, flags and calloused hands gripping banners with slogans like "Without farms there is no country." The police said at least 50,000 people joined the protest; organizers put the number at 100,000.
"We cannot compete against this monster, the United States," said one farmer, Enrique Barrera PÃƒ©rez, who is 44 and works about five acres in Yucatán. "It's not worth the trouble to plant. We don't have the subsidies. We don't have the machinery."
One the nation's largest labor coalitions, the National Union of Workers, joined dozens of farmers' organizations like the National Campesino Confederation to finance the march. The organizers bused people in from as far away as Chihuahua in the north and Yucatán on the Gulf Coast.
On Jan. 1, the last tariffs on corn, beans, sugar and milk were lifted under the North American Free Trade Agreement, completing a 14-year transition to an open market between Mexico, the United States and Canada.
Since then, Mexican leaders of farm coalitions and other unionists have been calling for the government to renegotiate the treaty, putting them at odds with President Felipe CalderÃƒÂ³n, a staunch free-trade advocate.
The farmers worry that a surge of inexpensive corn could doom millions of peasants who farm plots of less than 12 acres. They also complain that the government has done almost nothing to prepare farmers for the open competition.
Much of the $1.4 billion in annual aid for farmers, they say, has gone to large agricultural businesses in the northern states rather than to small farms.
"We are mostly angry with the Mexican government," said Victor Suárez, the leader of ANEC, a farmers' coalition. "They have left the small producers to fend for themselves."
Opposition politicians have also seized on corn- along with an unpopular proposal to allow foreign investment in the state oil monopoly - to whip up sentiment against the administration.
Mr. CalderÃƒÂ³n has fought back. In a speech on Jan. 7, he declared that the free-trade agreement had brought Mexicans lower prices for goods while increasing exports fourfold, even when oil is excluded.
"As with all agreements of this nature, the treaty presents challenges and opportunities, but in general it has been beneficial to Mexicans," he said.
Yet the renewed debate seems to have touched a nerve in Mexico, where corn was first domesticated 5,000 years ago and the culture revolves around its consumption. Underlying the political discourse is a widespread sentiment that poor Mexicans have benefited little from free-trade policies, while giant businesses have reaped profits.
In practice, however, nothing changed on Jan. 1. Mexico had been gradually dropping its tariffs on corn since 1994, when they stood at more than 200 percent, and most of the corn imports in recent years had entered without tariffs under import quotas. What is more, the corn from the United States is yellow corn, used to feed livestock, rather than the white corn Mexican farmers produce for tortillas.
Some opponents of the treaty, however, say a spike in demand for American corn to produce ethanol has protected Mexico's farmers so far. Over the long haul, these critics say, small farmers in Mexico cannot face off with the Americans' heavily subsidized and mechanized farms.
"How are you going to compete with the enormous subsidized farms in the United States and Canada?" said Francisco Hernández Juárez, the president of the National Union of Workers. "It's totally unequal."
Agricultural officials here agree that the peasant farmers cannot hope to stay in the game. They say four-fifths of the nation's 2.6 million small farms have plots so little that they produce only enough to live on and never market their goods.
"Our small producers are not affected by the free trade agreement," said Marco Sifuentes, a spokesman for the agriculture department. "They don't participate in the market."
Francisco LÃƒÂ³pez Tostado, an assistant secretary of agriculture, said the answer lay in peasant farmers' forming large competitive agricultural cooperatives, a policy the administration has pursued.
Several marchers who farm less than five acres said they no longer planted corn or beans except to feed their own families. Even with corn prices high, they said, the high costs of fuel and fertilizer had made it unprofitable to market their corn.
Others with larger farms said they could still make a living, but they feared that imports from the United States would eventually drive the prices down to a point where they could not compete.
Francisco Javier RÃƒÂos, 66, a farmer from Bahia de Banderas, in Nayarit State, said he planted 15 acres with white corn each year. Depending on prices and weather, he can make between $3,000 and $4,000 of profit. He worries, however, that imports from the United States will cut his thin profit margin.
"The free market should exist, but it should be more level," he said. "To compete against them is unfair to us because we don't get the same subsidies. Our costs are 100 percent ours."
© 2008 The New York Times