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Sowing Discontent Small Farmers in Mexico and Free Trade BY KENT PATERSON Chihuahua, Mexico THE CITY OF CHIHUAHUA has a long revolutionary history. It was here, in the once-isolated outpost of the north, that the fugitive initiator of Mexico’s cry for independence, Padre Hidalgo, was beheaded by the Spanish. A century later, Hidalgo’s spirit was reborn in the rising of the peasants and cowboys of Pancho Villa’s Division del Norte against the hacendados, or landlords, who once controlled vast stretches of Chihuahua’s land. Today, even as Chihuahua officialdom courts relocating U.S. companies like Ford Motors and Digital, discontent is resurfacing in the countryside. Recently, farmers from the state’s rural districts ringed the city plaza with old John Deere and Ford tractors in protest of Mexican agricultural policy. The parking of obsolete farm machinery symbolized fears that the North American Free Trade Agreement will accelerate the flow of cheaply produced U.S. agricultural imports and overwhelm the technologically disadvantaged small Mexican farmer. “Our situation is the same as any other producer,” said Jesus Manuel Acosta, a smallscale Chihuahua dairyman. “Our product isn’t worth anything.” Acosta is typical of the state’s dairymen, many of whom count but a few dozen cows in their herd. They complain that it costs more to produce a liter of milk than is returned in payment, and that U.S. dairy products like milk, yogurt and ice cream are undercutting their business. Acosta and fellow dairymen compete against a U.S. dairy industry that is increasingly characterized by large, cost-efficient feedlot operations, such as the several-thousand-head dairies that have been set up in Texas and southeastern New Mexico in the past few years. “It’s a competition that doesn’t work,” complained Acosta. . His sentiments were echoed by onion, chile, cotton, corn and apple producers gathered around him in the plaza. Gabino Gomez and other protesters are fired up about doubledigit loan interest rates \(sometimes triple the amounts charged farmers in the United tricity, insufficient technical assistance and looming bank foreclosures of their land. Kent Paterson is a radio producer and free lance writer in Albuquerque, New Mexico. NAFTA, which will remove remaining barriers on trade and investment if approved, also worries farmers. Gomez, who represents small apple growers, said produce was thrown away last year because farmers were unable to compete with South American and U.S. apples now sold in Mexico as a result of that nation’s recently liberalized trade policies that unilaterally opened Mexican markets to foreign producers. Many who lost ground in competition with foreign competitors can’t pay their debts and now might lose their land. “We think we were the first to be hurt by the effects of a free-trade treaty that hasn’t even been approved yet,” said the campesino spokesman. “We’re demanding that these debts be fixed, and that apple imports be restricted at least during our seasonal production.” In recent months, a situation many say is dire has prompted campesinos in Chihuahua and elsewhere to dump apples, pour milk on the streets, occupy government offices, take over highway toll booths, camp out in public spaces, and threaten to burn their tractors in a flaming dramatization of a deepening rural crisis. Protesters want the government to relieve debt-burdened growers, invest in the agricultural infrastructure, provide subsidies and agree to overall agricultural planning. For the first time, according to a statement by Juarez Valley farmers, virtually all levels of Mexican farming are at risk. Small ejiditarios, who farm and ranch on the collective ejidos unique to Mexico, and growers and ranchers who own their land, are all faced with the prospect of abandoning the land due to the economic torrents engulfing them. The roots of the latest crisis go back to the early and mid-1980s, a time when Mexico City, confronted with ballooning debt and declining oil prices, bowed to bank-directed austerity measures that slashed crop subsidies and threw open the door to greater foreign investment and imports. According to one report by the Economist magazine, public investment in agriculture plummeted 90 percent in the 1980s. In 1986, Mexico entered the General Agreement on steadily reduced import restrictions. On the other side of the border, U.S. farmers are split on NAFTA. The nation’s largest group, the American Farm Bureau Federation, backs the treaty, viewing it as an opportunity to increase U.S. exports such as corn and grain. Some producers of labor-intensive crops like broccoli or chile, aware of the low wages in Mexico, are nervous that production will move south.. Like Jesus Manuel Acosta and his friends, more than a few U.S. dairymen are wondering what NAFTA has in store for them. Citing the U.S-Canada Free Trade ‘Agreement, which exempted Canadian dairies and subjected U.S. and Mexican farmers to heavier-subsidized imports, organizations such as Rural Vermont have taken a stand against the treaty. Their demands are remarkably similar to the Mexicans: increased price supports and restrictions on foreign competition, policies that are anathema to the free traders in Washington and Mexico City. With large U.S. dairies pressured to relocate in retreat from the urban sprawl that often leads to fights with new suburban neighbors over flies, odors and manure, NAFTA presents an opportunity to take the cows south. “If you give [big dairies] trouble in New Mexico or Texas with their pollution, they’ll move across the Rio Grande, they’ll ship, even flood milk back in,” said East Texas dairy farmer Marvin Gregory, a National Farmers Union member and a Democratic candidate for Texas Agricultural Commissioner. But in Mexico, some farmers must think the dam has already burst. It is they who are treading water in a flood of imported agricultural products. Foreign butter, powdered milk, corn, cereals, apples and yes, even U.S.processed salsa, have appeared in Mexican grocery stores, setting the stage for the complete elimination of trade walls in the form of the Bush-Salinas negotiated NAFTA accord. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently estimated that U.S. agricultural exports to Mexico would reach $10.1 billion by the year 2008, when NAFTA, if approved, is fully implemented, an increase from the $3.8 billion in agricultural exports to Mexico in 1992. The major exports are expected to be cattle, pork, corn, soybeans, beef and dairy products, fruits, poultry, vegetables and wheat. In this new game, the big winners in Mexico will be larger, technically able producers who can afford expensive irrigation systems and other equipment or who enter into partnerships with U.S. investors a trend well underway in parts of Mexico. 14 NOVEMBER 12, 1993