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NAFTA Tour Coverage

NAFTA Turns 15: A Look at Free Trade, Food Security and Migration in Oaxaca, Mexico

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Oregonian interview with Baldemar.

Mexican farm expert lobbies for NAFTA change

by Gosia Wozniacka, The Oregonian
Wednesday April 15, 2009, 6:06 PM

Oaxaca, Mexico-based agriculture expert Baldemar Mendoza Jimenez works with rural communities that abide by a traditional form of self-organization, including a system of community service.

But this system, Jimenez says, was nearly destroyed by the North American Free Trade Agreement, leading to massive migration of Mexican farmers to the United States and our current crisis with illegal immigration.

NAFTA was implemented in 1994 to remove barriers to trade and investment between the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Jimenez works for the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca, which teaches farmers how to restore traditional farming methods, including organic, sustainable agriculture and crop diversity. He's touring communities throughout the Northwest this month. He speaks at several venues in the Portland area today and Friday.

His organization's goal is to reverse adverse effects of NAFTA: save and share traditional farming methods, restore food independence and halt the migration of Mexican farmers to the United States.

Jimenez answered questions during a recent interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

15 years after the implementation of NAFTA, what are the results on the ground in Mexico?

In general, the free trade agreement has led to a breakdown of the community in Mexico. In indigenous communities, every person performs volunteer work for the good of the community, such as working on constructing a school, clearing a road, or digging a water well. NAFTA weakened the system of community duties, because there are fewer community citizens to do the work. They have abandoned the fields and migrated to the United States.

Those who come back have a hard time re-adapting and often don't want to perform communal labor. Many community obligations are left to women. But when a family stops performing communal work, they loose their rights in the community, for example the right to cultivate the land. It generates many conflicts and the fabric that binds our community is lost.

Why did so many Mexican farmers migrate to the U.S.?

NAFTA undermined traditional agriculture methods and created a dependence on pesticides. It took away government price guarantees for corn and other products. It left the free market to regulate prices. To keep up, Mexican farmers sowed more corn. Diversified crops were substituted with monocrops. The government and agrobusinesses encouraged farmers to use pesticides to increase yield from the fields.

The Mexican government also approved the experimental planting of GMO corn. Our native corn was contaminated with genetically modified corn and farmers stopped using native seeds.

As a result, farmers abandoned traditional, sustainable farming practices. Their soil was contaminated by the use of agrochemicals. It became dependent on the pesticides, so farmers had to pay more to buy them. Many could not make ends meet. They abandoned their lands, left to work in maquiladoras, and emigrated to the United States.

Because farmers were no longer cultivating diverse crops and they couldn't compete with market prices, Mexico started to import food from the U.S. Now, Mexico is completely dependent on U.S. foods. In 2003, out of every 100 agricultural products that Mexicans ate, 93 were bought from the United States -even corn, beans, and rice, the staples of Mexican diets. Despite the free trade agreement, the U.S. continues to subsidize its farmers, allowing them to dump huge amounts of corn into Mexico and driving Mexican farmers to abandon their crops.

Do you see any positive effects of NAFTA in Mexico, especially in Oaxaca?

From the point of view of our reality, none. There may be some positive effects in other parts of Mexico, but usually it benefits people who are close to the government, people who have money, and not farmers. We are told Mexico has reduced the amount of corn it buys from the U.S. But those who sell corn in Mexico these days are not farmers, and often they're not even Mexican. They are business people who are making money in this new reality.

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