Mexico's Grassroots Answer to NAFTA

For 14 years, NAFTA has displaced farmers and spurred migration. The answer from Mexico’s grassroots: co-ops and fair trade.

Mexican farmers take part in a protest against NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) in Mexico City on January 31, 2008.

Photo by Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images 

“The fatal date has arrived,” announced one of Mexico’s largest newspapers, El Universal, on New Year’s Day 2008. The last trade barriers between Canada, Mexico, and the United States fell on January 1, completing the North American Free Trade Agreement’s 14-year phase-in process. While this milestone passed with little comment in the United States, more than 100,000 teachers, college students, activists, farmers, and ranchers marched in Mexico City.

The New Year’s Day protesters demanded their government reopen negotiations on NAFTA. When that didn’t happen, about twice as many took to the streets again on January 31, 2008. Another newspaper summed up the situation: “Head-on struggle against NAFTA explodes.”

By 2003, 1.3 million Mexican peasants had lost their livelihoods because of NAFTA.

For nearly two decades, Mexican farmers have spoken out against NAFTA—a trade agreement they suspected from the beginning would wreak havoc on their country’s agricultural sector. They have sounded their voices loudly in Mexico’s capital, while quietly developing their own answers to NAFTA in farming communities throughout the country—working models of “fair trade” that consider people and the environment, not just profit margins.

By 2003, 1.3 million Mexican peasants had lost their livelihoods because of NAFTA. Many of the displaced farmers came north in search of work. Mexican migration to the U.S. increased an estimated 75 percent in the five years after the trade agreement took effect.

Even outside Mexico’s agricultural sector, NAFTA has been no boon. Mexico’s World Bank representative recently admitted, “[We] haven’t seen any progress [in Mexico’s economy] in the last 15 years.”

North of the border, there has been only slight progress. In 2003, the U.S. Congressional Budget Office estimated that NAFTA had increased the U.S. gross domestic product only “a very small amount … probably a few hundredths of a percent.” Meanwhile, Wal-Mart has become Mexico’s largest retailer.

With the last tariffs lifted on beans, chicken, powdered milk, and—most important—corn, Mexican farmers fear the deepening of an already extreme crisis. Mexican organizations challenging NAFTA have gathered under the banner Sin maíz, no hay país—without corn, there is no country.

Seeds of a Fair Economy

New Year’s Day 2008 also marked 14 years since the Zapatista uprising began in Chiapas, Mexico. The communiqué they issued in January 1994 said their struggle was for “work, land, housing, food, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice, and peace.” The Zapatista communities set about building their own schools, health clinics, and fair trade initiatives—giving the Zapatistas political autonomy and a more prosperous local and regional economy.

In 2001, a group of 383 Zapatista coffee farmers founded the Yachil Xojobal Chulchan coffee cooperative. The name means “new light in the sky” or “new dawn” in the indigenous Tzeltal language.

Today, 1,500 co-op members have successfully navigated the complicated process of organic certification and created a farmer-controlled processing and export system, so that more income flows to coffee growers. Chris Treter, co-founder of the Higher Grounds Trading Company, a U.S. vendor of Yachil’s coffee, notes that the cooperative’s goals extend from getting a better price for coffee farmers in the near term to building an autonomous society in the long term.

Coffee beans are stacked in front of a mural in the Café Museo Café in San Cristóbal de las Casas. The café is run by Co-op Café Chiapas, which represents 36 small farming cooperatives that work in fair trade. Photo by Barbara Soldi.

West of Chiapas, in Oaxaca state, the Association of Indigenous Communities in the Northern Zone of the Isthmus (UCIZONI) shares many goals and strategies with the Zapatistas. The group’s 20,000 members run agricultural cooperatives, train local health care workers, pressure the government to build schools, fight for secure land tenure, promote organic agriculture, challenge human rights abuses, and defend members’ legal rights.

The group operates in a region that is feeling the pressure from economic globalization. Local vendors in open-air markets must now compete with a superstore owned by Wal-Mart called Bodega Aurrera, which opened in 2005.

Last year, UCIZONI’s peasant members grew 12,000 tons of corn. With the entry of heavily subsidized U.S. corn to the Mexican market, it’s increasingly difficult for the association to find buyers for their higher quality, more expensive harvest.

Oaxaca may be home to the widest diversity of corn varieties in the world. More than 5,000 years ago, corn was domesticated from an inedible progenitor, teosinte, not far from where UCIZONI members grow their crops today. The Florentine Codex, one of the oldest surviving Mexican texts, says, “Corn is our sustenance, our life, our being.” According to Mayan cosmology, people are descended from corn.

Corn provides nearly 60 percent of the calories in the Mexican diet—eaten as tortillas, tamales, and in UCIZONI’s region, baked totopos. A large, round cracker that stays fresh for months, the totopo represents local culture as much as maize represents Mexican culture. Baking totopos is a special skill, passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter.

A few years ago, UCIZONI began connecting its corn farmers to totopo bakers in villages that don’t produce their own corn. Carlos Beas Torres, the group’s coordinator, explains, “UCIZONI buys directly from our producers at a fair price, and that pressures the local market to offer a higher price.”

In the process, UCIZONI is also creating fledgling local economies. A product is produced, processed, sold, and consumed locally, employing farmers and bakers, and keeping all the money in the local area.

So far, the program is tiny—last year the bakers bought just 350 tons of UCIZONI corn. Nonetheless, the group can replicate this pilot program, and give local farmers some control in an out-of-control economy.

People’s Trade Agreements

Latin America’s fair trade initiatives extend far beyond coffee and corn to new models of international trade policy. The two most important examples are the People’s Trade Agreement, proposed by Bolivian President Evo Morales, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s “Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America and the Caribbean,” or ALBA. Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Nicaragua, and Venezuela have all joined ALBA. Both the People’s Trade Agreement and ALBA operate on the premise that trade should not be an end in itself, but rather a means to support human and community development.

“Grassroots processes are very long term. A two-pronged approach is needed: strong, independent grassroots movements at the base, and radical leaders in positions of state power.”

These government-led initiatives are essential, says Miguel Pickard, co-founder of the Center for Economic and Political Research for Community Action in Chiapas (CIEPAC). But “building power from below is the only guarantee that there will be sustainable solutions. What if Chávez or Morales is toppled tomorrow?” he says. “Grassroots processes are very long term. A two-pronged approach is needed: strong, independent grassroots movements at the base, and radical leaders in positions of state power.”

Pickard has been a vocal critic of a new trade initiative under the Bush Administration that broadens NAFTA with increased emphasis on border security and corporate access to natural resources. The initiative, called the “Security and Prosperity Partnership,” or SPP, was launched two years ago in a series of negotiations with the Mexican and Canadian governments. Because the SPP is not a treaty, there is no congressional oversight, nor any process for citizen comment. The only input comes from a council of 30 advisors, ten selected by each government. The list reads like a Who’s Who of corporate North America, including the CEOs of Bell Canada, Chevron, Ford, General Electric, General Motors, Home Depot/Canada, Kimberly-Clark/Mexico, Lockheed Martin, Scotiabank, and Wal-Mart.

Pickard believes the secretive, anti-democratic nature of the SPP is a response to growing grassroots power. “Fourteen years after NAFTA, civil society is better organized, informed, networked, and mobilized,” he says. Not only have fair trade networks sprung up, but public opinion throughout North America has turned against NAFTA, spilling into the U.S. presidential campaign.

With U.S. elections on the horizon, might U.S. trade policy take a new turn? What if our next president listened to the New Year’s Day marchers in Mexico City? What if Carlos Beas Torres, of UCIZONI, rather than the CEO of Wal-Mart, was an SPP advisor?

The question surprised Beas Torres. “It’s so hard to imagine myself part of the SPP Council; better that I just list a few elements of a fair trade policy.” His priorities include subsidies to rural producers, protections for native crops, rural investment programs, and most important, a total rejection of “the Wal-Mart business model, which destroys small and local businesses.”

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