Sunday, February 3, 2008

Mexican Farmers Protest End of Corn-Import Taxes

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 Pérez, 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 Calderón, 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. Calderón 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.

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