Low prices force Mexicans from fields
By Bill Lambrecht
POST-DISPATCH WASHINGTON BUREAU
Sunday, Oct. 30 2005
Over thousands of years since Jesus Leon’s ancestors developed corn from a
wispy grass, Mexican farmers have had an abiding relationship with the crop
they call maize.
Near Leon’s hometown in southern Mexico, a museum features ancient murals
depicting humans being born of corn stalks. Patches of white, blue and red corn
dot the mountainsides of the region.
But in just over a decade, the bond between many Mexican farmers and their favorite plant has been broken. An estimated 1 million farmers in rural Mexico have lost their livelihoods.
"We never imagined what would happen to us in ten years’ time," said Leon.
Passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and the Mexican
government’s sharp reduction of protective tariffs triggered a flood of U.S.
corn pouring south into the Mexican heartland. That corn - grown more cheaply
in the United States with the benefit of taxpayer subsidies - sent prices in
Mexico into a tailspin from which they have never recovered.
Corn farmers in Illinois, Missouri and the rest of the Midwest were big winners
under NAFTA, which opened a dependable new market in Mexico that has grown to
nearly 6 million tons and could double within a decade, according to the U.S.
The plight of Mexican corn farmers could come back to bite the Midwest, in more
ways than one. Many ex-farmers and their families have emigrated to Missouri
and other rural areas that are hard-pressed to handle them. And the story of
Mexican corn has provided a cautionary tale to other poor nations pressuring
the United States to reduce its subsidies to farmers, something the
administration of President George W. Bush has already proposed.
So Midwestern corn growers, already struggling with low prices for their crops
and record diesel fuel costs, aren’t shedding too many tears for their Mexican
Greg Guenther, who farms 730 acres near Belleville, observed that U.S. farmers
face constant barriers in trying to sell around the world. At the moment, the
United States is fighting with Mexico to avoid a 20 percent tax on corn syrup,
which the World Trade Organization has ruled illegal.
"I don’t want to sound cold-blooded about this, but what are the chances of
those Mexican farmers ever getting beyond barely making a living? Maybe this is
a good thing for them and will help the Mexican government focus on how they
can have a better life," he said.
Some segments of Mexican agriculture have prospered post-NAFTA: high-tech corn
farmers, who have increased Mexico’s overall corn output; poultry and hog
operations that prosper from cheap feed corn; and fruit and vegetable growers
who now ship their produce to the United States.
There are uncalculated costs to free trade, on both sides of the border. With
little or nothing to earn from selling their corn, many Mexican farmers began
heading to the United States.
Other farmers found a dependable cash crop to replace corn: marijuana.
According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office, the amount of
marijuana seized annually along the Mexican border has doubled to 1.1 million
pounds since 1994, the year NAFTA took effect.
Jesus Leon, who heads a small farmer’s alliance in the Sierra Madres in the
state of Oaxaca, says a quarter or more of young males who tended the soil in
his part of Mexico are gone, leaving behind fractured families and unplanted
"It makes people very angry when they think about what has happened to our corn
and all that it has meant for us. But it’s invisible to the world. It’s as
though we don’t exist," said Leon, 40.
Perils of trade
When NAFTA was negotiated in the early 1990s, neither the administration of
President Bill Clinton nor the Mexican government suggested that some Mexican
farmers would suffer as a result.
Yet, since the agreement went into effect, 900,000 farmers and other
agriculture workers have lost their jobs, according to the Mexican government.
Private research organizations have placed the number as high as 1.3 million.
Many have left the country.
Deborah Meyers, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank in
Washington, recalled negotiators’ making the opposite case when NAFTA was
debated in the U.S. Congress in the early 1990s.
"The idea was that bringing greater growth to Mexico, fewer Mexicans would need
to leave. Mexico said, ’We want to export our tomatoes, not our people.’ But,
in fact, it led to greater migration," she said.
The Mexican farmers who have left the land are victims not just of competition
but of their own country’s policies.
The problem for small farmers became apparent early when the Mexican government
scrapped plans for a 15-year transition period for reducing tariffs on U.S.
corn, instead removing most of the tariffs by 1996. As a result, U.S. corn
exports to Mexico spiked.
"It was a little gift to their friends, the guys who were doing the importing,"
Alejandro Nadal, an economics professor at the College of Mexico in Mexico
City, said in an interview in his office.
The result, according to Nadal, was a 48 percent drop in Mexican corn prices,
which triggered the upheaval in Mexico’s farm sector that continues to this day.
Meanwhile, Mexico dismantled its price regulation agency, which was to have
been phased out gradually, while reducing state support for agriculture.
In the United States, corn subsidies averaging $4.2 billion in recent years
give farmers a leg up on the competition. Mexico gives smaller subsidies to its
corn farmers - but farmers in half of its 32 states get no corn subsidies.
No wonder many farmers see a brighter future north of the border. And Mexico
has little reason to complain about emigration: The $16 billion sent home from
the United States last year from ex-farmers and others to their families has
grown nearly three-fold since the mid-1990s and ranks second only to oil
revenue in foreign currency Mexico takes in.
Luis de la Calle is a former Mexican government official who was instrumental
in drafting NAFTA and who still defends the agreement as a great benefit to his
He said freer trade was needed, in part to reduce the number of small farmers
eking out a living in the countryside. "You cannot have 25 percent of the
population trying to live off 5 percent of the gross national product," he said
in Mexico City.
But instead of using subsidies to help the small farmers who could no longer
make a living from the land, the Mexican government has given subsidies to
well-off farmers, he said.
"You have a lot of people trapped in a system of low income and no way out
unless they migrate. And that’s what’s happening," he said.
Jon Doggett, the St. Louis-based National Corn Growers’ vice president of
public policy in Washington, said critics of trade polices ought to compare the
Mexican subsistence farmers’ quality of life with the richer existence they can
find in the United States.
He added, "Is that the best way to feed the world, by continuing to encourage
subsistence-style agriculture? While one of our farmers can feed hundreds of
people, theirs can feed a family and maybe a few more people. And basically,
our job is to feed people."
Those left behind
In Mexico, many in rural areas are concerned mainly about feeding themselves, a
task that often becomes a challenge when the males in the family leave the farm.
At a recent church-sponsored gathering in Mexico City to talk over the corn
crisis, Gaudencia Munoz, 52, said that her son had left the family farm for the
United States because "there was no other way for him to live."
Elizabeth Paez Gonzalez, 40, told of women suffering from depression and
anxiety whom she counsels in rural areas of Veracruz.
"They’re left alone," she said. "They see their husbands leave, and they don’t
know if they’ll ever come back."
Manuela Pereda, 51, echoed other participants in saying that many in her
community of Tuxtepec simply quit growing corn because prices are so low. With
men gone, fields that get planted are tended by women and children, she said.
"It has destroyed families," she said. "When men leave, they take up with other
women, and women start relationships with other men."
Yet 200 miles east in other fields of Oaxaca, several farmers said they planned
to continue growing corn for their families despite the inability to sell any
"This is how we live," said Elvira Garzon Miguel, 73. "We feed ourselves and
all of Mexico."
From Mexico to Missouri
Farmer Jesus Leon continues to plant his corn. But he also traveled last month
to the United States, hoping to tell his story and influence future trade
policy in ways that benefit small farmers.
Traveling in Missouri with financial support from Maryknoll, a Catholic mission
movement, and Catholic Relief Charities, Leon even visited the boyhood home of
Mark Twain in Hannibal. In nearby Palmyra, Mo., he found kindred spirits at the
farm of Lowell and Marcia Schachtsiek at a gathering arranged on his behalf by
the Missouri Farmers Union, an advocacy group for family farmers.
Lowell Schachtsiek said later that many U.S. farmers, too, had been driven off
the land by plummeting corn prices that recently reached a modern low of $1.50
"People are paying more for a bottle of water than a bushel of corn," said
As a result of the meetings in Missouri and elsewhere, U.S. farmers agreed to
take part in a gathering with their Mexican counterparts with hopes of changing
policies in both countries. No date has been set.
Eventually, Leon journeyed to Washington, where he met with staff representing
15 members of Congress. They perked up when Leon got to the part about how
problems in Mexico affect congressional districts in the United States.
"There has been an abandonment of the countryside and a new migration of
people, some to our cities. But many are coming here to the United States," he