Why Mexico's Small Corn
Farmers Go Hungry
The New York
March 3, 2003,
By TINA ROSENBERG
Macario Hernandez's grandfather grew corn in the hills
of Puebla, Mexico. His father does the same. Mr. Hernandez
grows corn, too, but not for much longer. Around his
village of Guadalupe Victoria, people farm the way they
have for centuries, on tiny plots of land watered only
by rain, their plows pulled by burros. Mr. Hernandez,
a thoughtful man of 30, is battling to bring his family
and neighbors out of the Middle Ages. But these days
modernity is less his goal than his enemy.
This is because he, like other small farmers in Mexico,
competes with American products raised on megafarms
that use satellite imagery to mete out fertilizer. These
products are so heavily subsidized by the government
that many are exported for less than it costs to grow
them. According to the Institute for Agriculture and
Trade Policy in Minneapolis, American corn sells in
Mexico for 25 percent less than its cost. The prices
Mr. Hernandez and others receive are so low that they
lose money with each acre they plant.
In January, campesinos from all over the country marched
into Mexico City's central plaza to protest. Thousands
of men in jeans and straw hats jammed the Zocalo, alongside
horses and tractors. Farmers have staged smaller protests
around Mexico for months. The protests have won campesino
organizations a series of talks with the government.
But they are unlikely to get what they want: a renegotiation
of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta,
protective temporary tariffs and a new policy that seeks
to help small farmers instead of trying to force them
off the land.
The problems of rural Mexicans are echoed around the
world as countries lower their import barriers, required
by free trade treaties and the rules of the World Trade
Organization. When markets are open, agricultural products
flood in from wealthy nations, which subsidize agriculture
and allow agribusiness to export crops cheaply. European
farmers get 35 percent of their income in government
subsidies, American farmers 20 percent. American subsidies
are at record levels, and last year, Washington passed
a farm bill that included a $40 billion increase in
subsidies to large grain and cotton farmers.
It seems paradoxical to argue that cheap food hurts
poor people. But three-quarters of the world's poor
are rural. When subsidized imports undercut their products,
they starve. Agricultural subsidies, which rob developing
countries of the ability to export crops, have become
the most important dispute at the W.T.O. Wealthy countries
do far more harm to poor nations with these subsidies
than they do good with foreign aid.
While such subsidies have been deadly for the 18 million
Mexicans who live on small farms -- nearly a fifth of
the country -- Mexico's near-complete neglect of the
countryside is at fault, too. Mexican officials say
openly that they long ago concluded that small agriculture
was inefficient, and that the solution for farmers was
to find other work. "The government's solution for the
problems of the countryside is to get campesinos to
stop being campesinos," says Victor Suarez, a leader
of a coalition of small farmers.
But the government's determination not to invest in
losers is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The small farmers
I met in their fields in Puebla want to stop growing
corn and move into fruit or organic vegetables.
Two years ago Mr. Hernandez, who works with a farming
cooperative, brought in thousands of peach plants. But
only a few farmers could buy them. Farm credit essentially
does not exist in Mexico, as the government closed the
rural bank, and other bankers do not want to lend to
small farmers. "We are trying to get people to rethink
and understand that the traditional doesn't work," says
Mr. Hernandez. "But the lack of capital is deadly."
The government does subsidize producers, at absurdly
small levels compared with subsidies in the United States.
Corn growers get about $30 an acre. Small programs exist
to provide technical help and fertilizer to small producers,
but most farmers I met hadn't even heard of them.
Mexico should be helping its corn farmers increase their
productivity or move into new crops -- especially since
few new jobs have been created that could absorb these
farmers. Mexicans fleeing the countryside are flocking
to Houston and swelling Mexico's cities, already congested
with the poor and unemployed. If Washington wants to
reduce Mexico's immigration to the United States, ending
subsidies for agribusiness would be far more effective
than beefing up the border patrol.