Photo by Bloomberg News
Protestors in Zocolo Plaza
Thousands of farmers, peasants and union members are camping out in Mexico City to protest the rising prices of tortillas and increasing amounts of corn imports. Mexico removed tariffs on corn imports Jan. 1 under the North American Free Trade Agreement, which protestors say will open the doors to more U.S. corn and put more Mexican farms out of business.
Farmers from across the country have made their way since Jan. 18 to the capital city for the protests, some walking for 1,000 miles, Bloomberg News reported. As tractors led a huge parade of protestors, a herd of cows, tended by dairy farmers angry over low milk prices, waited in a makeshift pen in a traffic circle.
Farmers and farm activists chanted, "Without corn, the country doesn't exist!" as they marched. Protestors want Mexico to keep its “food sovereignty”, the International Herald Tribune reported.
Corn is Mexico’s staple food. Tortillas provide about half the protein and calories of the Mexican poor, according to the IHT.
The price ceiling for tortillas is now about 35 cents a pound, which is about 40 percent higher than three months ago. By contrast, the minimum wage is 4-percent higher than a year ago, and less than $5 a day.
Brigida Beatriz Ramirez, 46, told a reporter she traveled overnight in a caravan of 12 buses to protest.
“We can't find any work in the fields,” Ramirez said.
“If the government doesn't help us find a way to make a living, what are we going to do? Just keep trying to cross the (border) line," said Jose Ambris Juarez, a farm activist from Baja California. Some predict that as many as 250,000 Mexican farmers will enter the U.S. illegally looking for better work.
Protestors note that U.S. farmers receive nearly $20,000 dollars in annual subsidies, compared to only $700 in Mexico. Mexican farmers also complain of mounting fuel, fertilizer and electricity prices, which represent 60 percent of the average cost of running a farm.
Mexican farmers say they can't compete with bigger U.S. farms, which receive more government support. Mexican farms are small -- mostly plots of 12 acres or less, the Associated Press reported.
The protests put more pressure on recently-elected Mexican president Felipe Calderon, who won a narrow victory in 2007 over a strong critic of NAFTA. Protestors last summer questioned the accuracy of the ballot count.
Calderon is also drawing criticism for plans to open parts of the gas and oil sector, including refining and transportation, to private and foreign investment. Many foresee higher energy prices as a result.
Farmers and opposition politicians insist that some NAFTA provisions be renegotiated, but national leaders have shown no inclination to do so.
Canada's Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz last week said the United States, Mexico and Canada were pleased at how NAFTA was working and there is no reason to reopen negotiations.