November 24, 2002
Farm advocates want changes to NAFTA tariff program
Mexican officials warned of possible unrest over cuts
By JERRY KAMMER
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – As Mexican officials prepare for high-level
meetings with the United States this week, they are coming
under pressure from farm advocates demanding changes in the
North America Free Trade Agreement's program for eliminating
tariffs on a range of farm goods beginning Jan. 1.
Leaders of farming organizations, state-level politicians and
academics are warning of social unrest and massive new flows of
illegal immigration to the United States unless the government
acts to firm up income for millions of small farmers.
"We are facing the prospect of 4 or 5 million peasant farmers
deciding that their only option is to cross into the United States,"
said Rodolfo García Zamora, an immigration expert at the
Autonomous University of Zacatecas.
Strains are already evident in Mexico, where farmers have
blockaded highways to protest farm prices they say condemn
them to misery – even before NAFTA sends protective tariffs
tumbling in the new year.
García said the looming crisis needs attention in Washington as
well as Mexico City.
"If President Bush is concerned about the safety of the borders,
he should be concerned about this," he said.
Mexico President Vicente Fox has expressed alarm at U.S. farm
subsidies, which he says make it difficult for Mexican farmers to
compete. NAFTA did not address subsidies.
Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda was quoted Friday in the
newspaper Reforma as saying the NAFTA provisions for tariff
reduction "will be one of the most intense topics" of this week's
Cabinet-level meetings with a U.S. delegation headed by
Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Immigration is expected to be another central topic, as
Castañeda continues to press the United States to legalize
millions of Mexicans in the United States and make it easier for
hundreds of thousands more to cross the border.
On the agricultural front, the United States is giving the cold
shoulder to proposals for changes in NAFTA, which was adopted
in 1993 after intense discussions that Mexico initiated in an
attempt to modernize its economy and spur economic growth.
The U.S. position is that NAFTA cannot be opened up to
piecemeal renegotiation and that Mexico should focus on fixing
structural problems in agriculture that were apparent when the
agreement was negotiated a decade ago.
Those problems derive from a fateful combination of economics,
demographics and geography.
Twenty-two percent of Mexico's work force is involved in
farming, producing just 5 percent of the gross domestic product.
Though some large farming operations in northern Mexico
operate with world-class efficiency, millions of farmers work
small plots of marginal land that receive little rainfall. They face
chronic problems with expensive fuel and farm credit.
By contrast, the U.S. farm population, benefiting from more
favorable weather and financing, comprises 2 percent of the
work force and produces 2 percent of the GDP.
"We are in a serious position because we have done almost
nothing to prepare" for the removal of tariff barriers, said
Manuel Suárez-Mier, who lobbied the U.S. Congress on behalf of
NAFTA when he was an economics specialist at the Mexican
Embassy in Washington.
Suárez-Mier said the greatest threat to the small farmer is 2008,
when tariffs will come down on corn, a staple of the Mexican diet
and a totem of Mexican culture.
"When the treaty was negotiated, corn was sent to the back end
so that we could have time to adjust," he said.
But the government has accomplished little to equip farmers for
the looming economic realities, he said.
In recent weeks, the Fox administration has pledged a new
packet of subsidies for the Mexican countryside. It also has
indicated that it would like help from the United States.
But Suárez-Mier said reopening NAFTA would be "a terrible
disaster," for Mexico, which has seen its exports to the United
States soar because of the agreement.
"The moment you open a treaty like that, it's the end of it," said
Suárez-Mier. "You can't just reopen a little corner of it. There
were many groups in the United States who were passionately
against NAFTA, and they would use (a reopening) to go after it
and try to destroy it."
Political analyst Sergio Sarmiento made the same point in a
newspaper column that noted that Mexico's trade surplus with
the United States this year could reach $37 billion.
"Can you imagine what it would mean to our country to lose $37
billion a year?" he said.
But García said NAFTA will be devastating for a farming
economy already in desperate shape. In his north-central state
of Zacatecas, he said, hundreds of rural communities depend on
remittances from workers who have left for the United States.
"If it weren't for the remittances, the state's economy would have
collapsed," García said.
About 90 percent of the money is being used to sustain families,
he said. He has called on the government to promote use of
remittances for productive investments that could generate