Reclaiming Corn and Culture :: Mexico’s grassroots choose co-ops and fair trade

Reclaiming Corn and Culture :: Mexico’s grassroots choose co-ops and fair trade :: By Wendy Call
Reclaiming Corn and Culture
by Wendy Call

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

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,

“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.”

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.

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