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Beyond “Free” or “Fair” Trade: Mexican Farmers Go Local

We usually think of the demand for local, organic foods as coming from the North. But in southern Mexico, the growing localist movement is a strategy for survival.

San Pedro Coxcaltepec photo by Reid Mukai

San Pedro Coxcaltepec. Many young people here have left because of the difficulty of making a living with farming. 

Photo by Reid Mukai.

Tío Joel rode his small donkey down the dirt road to his greenhouse to show us his solution to keeping small farmers on their land in southern Mexico. At about seventy years old, he could handle a machete or lift a 20-kilo sack of compost as easily as any of us, though the brace he wore around his waist was a sign of problems to come.

Trade policy in the United States usually gets cast into two opposing camps–"free" trade and "fair" trade, a dichotomy that assumes local production in the Global South must be sold elsewhere.

Taking a break from chopping green manure for compost for his popular tomatoes, he explained why a campesino like him could benefit from using organic methods:  “In the harvest this year a lot of tomatoes were being harvested and the price went way down to five pesos per kilo, but we sell ours for seven. I go from house to house and sell it small-scale, but we sell out our tomatoes because they’re well-known … on Sunday we ran out of tomatoes, we sell so many.”

Trade policy in the United States usually gets cast into two opposing camps–"free" trade and "fair" trade, a dichotomy that assumes local production in the Global South must be sold elsewhere. Indeed, we usually think of the demand for local, organic foods as coming from North America or Europe.  But within countries like Mexico, there's another way to approach the issue, looking at global import and export versus local production and consumption. In the United States, it has emerged as the "localist" movement, which to many seems an unaffordable luxury compared to the accessibility of cheap imported food.  But in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, raising and eating your own food and producing for the local market has become a strategy for cultural and economic survival in a hostile trade environment.

Mexican Cornfield photo by Mike Wold

A green cornfield in the hills outside the city of Oaxaca. Corn is a staple food crop for Mexicans, but the bottom has dropped out of the market for Mexican corn.

Photo by Mike Wold.

In southern Mexico, the cost of corn production is now higher than its world market price. By standard economic logic, Mexican campesinos should give up raising corn and grow another crop to sell on the world market, leave their land entirely for a job in the city, or migrate north.

Many farmers have done just that, swelling the ranks of undocumented workers in the United States and the underemployed in overpopulated cities at home. Others, however, have stayed on the land and are finding ways to survive and even prosper.  I traveled with a group from the United States, organized by the nonprofits Witness for Peace, Community Alliance for Global Justice, and the Washington Fair Trade Coalition, to Oaxaca state's Mixteca region to find out how and why.

Mexico is the birthplace of corn, and corn is the mainstay of the Mexican diet.  It’s hard to imagine a Mexico that doesn’t raise corn.

Yet when the the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed 17 years ago, one of its immediate consequences was a five-fold increase in corn imports into Mexico. U.S. corn sells at well below the cost of Mexican corn, not just because American agriculture is more “efficient” (due to heavy use of machinery and chemical-based fertilizers), but because subsidies for U.S. corn bolster the industry's economic leverage.

Making Tortillas photo by Amanda E. Welch

Making tortillas.

Photo by Amanda E. Welch.

But in places like Oaxaca's Santo Tomás Mazaltepec, farmers—and eaters—still prefer local over the yellow corn usually grown in the United States. “The local corn produces more and better tortilla material than imported corn…and also you can tell the difference in the flavor," said one farmer we talked to.  "A disadvantage is that we have really low production—we can barely produce enough for ourselves…and we have periods of the year when we have really severe drought conditions…There are the government stores that sell corn but what’s sold there is the yellow corn…that may come from the United States… [there are] a lot of chemical fertilizers in it and pesticides and herbicides and they can sell it here much cheaper than we do, so we’re obligated to sell ours cheaper ...”

As a result of these social and economic fluctuations, much of Mexico's countryside has been depopulated.  In San Pedro Coxcaltepec, there are few young people for old-timers like Tío Joel to pass their farms on to.

According to Tío Martín, another Coxcaltepec farmer, “It used to be that there were 12 or 15 people…in each house, and now…it’s two people here, two people there; there’s just no people left.  When we try to do tequio [traditional volunteer community service], it used to be…there were lots of people helping out; now it’s really hard because it’s just us older folks.”

Eleazar García, a farmer in his thirties, added that “the important challenge is that there are [still] a number of young folks here and we want to convince them that this is dignified work and that it’s a very important role in the feeding of one’s family…The campesino always appreciates having food… to not worry about always having money in your pocket …[as] they say around here, we’re not worried—if I’ve got beans, I’ve got something to eat.”

Enter the “localist” movement—or better, the movement for food sovereignty, the principle that for a community to have control of its destiny, it must have substantive control of the production of the food it consumes. People need to be able to choose what they eat.

Subsistence farmers in southern Mexico are in a much better position to raise what they eat than most dwellers in U.S. cities.  They’ve been doing it for a long time.  In Oaxaca, there are dozens of different varieties of corn, each adapted to a particular set of climatic conditions, elevation, and soil.  Even the grass that was the wild precursor of corn still grows in the Oaxaca hills.

Furthermore, over thousands of years, indigenous Mexican farmers have evolved a sophisticated means of sustainably farming on steep slopes and easily eroded soils. Unlike typical U.S. agricultural practice, Oaxacan farmers traditionally plant beans and squash in their cornfields. Beans use the cornstalks for support and add nitrogen—a nutrient that is depleted by growing corn—to the soil.  Squash can grow between the corn stalks; the vines can be left in place as a green manure for adding nutrients to the field after the harvest.  Farmers also allow wild greens to grow in and around the cornfield; these greens are ecologically adapted to the cornfield environment—they don’t grow in such profusion away from the fields—and are an important source of vitamin A and other nutrients in the village diet.

Seed Our Corn photo by Mike Wold

A mural at CEDICAM translates as “SEED OUR CORNFIELD.” 

Photo by Mike Wold.

In the 1980s, new organizations in the Oaxaca highlands, such as CEDICAM (Center for Integral Campesino Development of the Mixteca), started working with campesinos to find alternatives to the damaging pesticides, monocrops, and hybrid seeds promoted by the Green Revolution throughout the 60s and 70s by building on traditional practices that were adapted to the area—all while using new insights from organic farming to increase yields.

Unlike the urban poor in Mexico, farmers in San Pedro Coxcaltepec say that the post-NAFTA rise in the price of tortillas didn’t affect them at all. “I raise all the corn I need,” one of them told me.

Unfortunately, farmers also need cash to participate in the modern world and buy goods they can't produce themselves.  So the challenge is to find something besides corn to sell on the market.  That way young people will want to stay and farm there and, in doing so, keep their traditional economy alive.  CEDICAM has helped farmers like Tío Joel use greenhouses from a failed development project in the valley to raise vegetables to sell–not on the world market, but in nearby towns, where people will pay for fresh, local produce.

Corn Growing Tall photo by Mike Wold

Corn grows tall in this well-composted field.

Photo by Mike Wold.

Another organization, Puente a la Salud Comunitaria (Bridge to Community Health), has helped several communities revive the cultivation of amaranth, a grain which originated in the Mixteca region and still grows wild there, but which was almost entirely eradicated by the Spanish, who thought it was associated with pagan practices.  Amaranth has much higher protein than corn and, unlike corn in the modern market, still has a high market value in Oaxaca—thus it can serve dual purposes of improving village nutrition and providing a viable cash crop.

In Santo Tomas Mazaltepec, the availability of the high-protein grain has had a significant effect on nutrition in the community.  Mothers who added small amounts of locally grown amaranth–less than an ounce a day–to their children’s daily meals as an experiment said that the kids were clearly more energetic and growing better.

Food sovereignty isn’t limited to farmers in rural areas.  Most of the people in Oaxaca City are within one or two generations of living off the land and still know something about growing their own food.  Given the steep rise in food prices in Mexico since NAFTA was signed, city-dwellers who grow at least some of their own food can supplement meager incomes to insulate themselves and their families from the effects of layoffs and low wages; this also increases their resilience during the frequent political struggles that occur in Oaxaca between the population as a whole and the corrupt government.  The ability to eat during strikes may make the difference between winning or losing the struggle.

Fatou Batta photo courtesy of Groundswell International
Women Farmers Feed the World

Grassroots food activist Fatou Batta on why the question of agricultural sustainability is also a question of equality.

Growers María and Laurentina started raising oyster mushrooms two years ago; a year ago, they were working hard to explain to people in the produce markets how to cook the mushrooms; this year, the demand for mushrooms is enough that they’re looking for ways to increase their production and capacity, like buying a refrigerator to store their own spores in, rather than having to buy them, and to store their crops for a few days.  Another urban farmer talked about what a help it was to her household budget not to have to go to the market for tomatoes, cilantro, parsley, and celery.

These farmers and urban gardeners are not looking for hand-outs or foreign aid. What they need is a supportive environment for their survival and the rejuvenation of a once-sustainable rural economy. The United States can help by supporting trade policies that don’t pit Mexican small-scale agriculture against U.S. agribusiness and create an economic environment that supports the rest of the world in growing its own food.  NAFTA is up for renewal in a few years, offering us a chance to do exactly that.

“If you really want to combat hunger in the world," farmer Eleazar García told us as he showed us the difference between thriving cornstalks in a field that had been fertilized with cheap organic compost, and stunted corn in a field that had been fertilized with chemicals for too many years, "it’s in the hands of campesinos.  They live on what they grow.”


Mike Wold wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Mike is a regular contributor to Real Change newspaper in Seattle and a long-time activist on immigration and related social justice issues.

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