MEXICO CITY, Dec 3 (IPS) -- More than 2,000 peasant farmers from throughout Mexico staged a protest Tuesday in the capital to demand a freeze on the agricultural provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which they blame for most of their economic and social woes.
But their demands do not appear to have much chance of winning the desired response from the government.
"I have nothing. I am here out of desperation because I am poorer than I have ever been," said Francisco Martnez, an elderly farmer who took part in Tuesday's march in Mexico City, carrying a sign that read "NAFTA Equals Death".
Under the slogan "the countryside can endure no more", farmers from 24 of Mexico's 32 states marched in Mexico City to the Congress building to present their demands and later staged protests outside the U.S. and French embassies.
UNORCA, the national union of some 30 regional peasant groups, organised the demonstrations with the aim of preventing the agricultural trade liberalisation measures -- agreed under NAFTA, which comprises Canada, Mexico and the United States -- from taking effect in January.
The new phase of liberalisation entails the complete elimination of tariffs on 21 farm products, including potatoes, wheat, apples, onions, coffee, chicken and veal.
The NAFTA mechanism, which UNORCA describes as "toxic to the Mexican countryside," establishes three steps towards liberalising the farm and livestock sector. The first occurred in 1994 when the three-nation treaty entered into force, the second is slated for January, and the third in 2008.
In 1993, when NAFTA was still being negotiated, the government of Carlos Salinas, then president of Mexico (1988-1994), agreed to the process of a gradual elimination of agricultural tariffs with the support of the country's leading farm organisations.
Now, nearly a decade later, they are all complaining.
Recognising the difficulties that Mexican farmers face with the deepening of trade liberalisation, President Vicente Fox announced in November that the government would provide support for rural producers to the tune of 10 billion dollars in 2003, or 7.7 percent more aid than this year.
Fox stated last month that he is very concerned about how the trade liberalisation process is unfolding, "in light of the U.S. subsidies to its agricultural production."
He said he would take up the matter with the George W. Bush administration, but there has not been any indication of action so far.
The Mexican president's aim would be to press the United States to eliminate its farm subsidies, which total 19 billion dollars a year, nearly double what Mexico has budgeted for its farmers in 2003.
But Washington announced that it will not alter its farm subsidy policies and that the situation of the Mexican farmers does not justify annulment of the agricultural chapter of NAFTA.
Mexico would not ask for a suspension of the trade agreement's farm provisions anyway, say Fox administration sources, because doing so would mean revoking the country's recognition of the treaty itself.
Since NAFTA took effect, Mexico's overall exports shot up from 60.9 billion dollars in 1994 to 158.4 billion dollars in 2001. In that same period, imports jumped from 79.3 billion dollars to 168.4 billion dollars annually.
More than 85 percent of Mexican trade is currently concentrated in exchange with the United States.
But for Mexico's rural areas, where 75 percent of the population living in extreme poverty is concentrated, the three- country treaty has meant the loss of more than 10 million hectares of cultivated land.
And the decline of the rural sector has pushed 15 million peasants -- and mostly young people -- to move to the cities, either in Mexico or in the United States, according to a study by the Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM).
Over the last 10 years, the participation of the farming sector in Mexico's gross domestic product (GDP) has fallen from 7.3 percent to less than 5.0 percent.
The protests Tuesday echoed similar demonstrations in November, including the blockade of a main federal highway by farmers in the state of Morelos, neighbouring the Mexico City federal district, and protests by peasants from the southern states of Oaxaca and Guerrero outside government offices in the capital.
The common denominator of all of these events is the rural producers' rejection of NAFTA.
"The farmers are walking towards death because they are up against the 'disloyal' trade competition from the United States and the Mexican government's desertion of the countryside," says Alberto Gmez, UNORCA executive coordinator.
Without exception, Mexico's farmer organisations believe the new phase of NAFTA-stipulated farm trade liberalisation will generate more poverty and prompt more people to leave rural areas.
They also reckon that the financial support Fox has promised will not be nearly enough.
Mariano Ruiz, an analyst with the Mexico City-based Grupo de Economistas y Asociados, says the worst blow for the Mexican farmers will come in 2008 when the agricultural tariffs on products like maize and beans are lifted.
An estimated 2.8 million Mexican farm families make their livelihood from these commodities.
"The countryside is a time-bomb that could explode very soon," commented Rosario Robles, chairwoman of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), the country's third political force.
The elderly farmer Martnez, who joined his colleagues for the Mexico City march Tuesday, does not believe in anything that the Fox government is offering.
"I have heard many things in the two years since he took office. The one thing for certain is that I am getting poorer and poorer," he said.
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