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Meanwhile, in Mexico City, Mexican farmers are in protest marches, tens of thousands of them, because of another new change. The last tariffs in North America were eliminated on the new year. That's a long time commitment under the North American Free Trade Agreement. And now Mexican farmers are afraid they'll be pushed into bankruptcy by direct competition with U.S. farmers. Michael O'Boyle reports from Mexico City.
MICHAEL O'BOYLE: At first glance it seemed like a county fair had arrived to Mexico's financial district. A train of outdated tractors rumbled down the capital's Reforma Avenue, rolling between the towering glass office buildings and on to the city's colonial center. They were followed by tens of thousands of protesting farmers who had made a pilgrimage here from across the country. Among them was Juan Gardenas, a corn and soy farmer from Guanajuato.
Mr. JUAN GARDENAS (Farmer): (Through Translator) You can't compete with countries so powerful as the United States and Canada. Up there they have big subsidies for their farmers. But here the government of Mexico has forgotten about the countryside. They give us practically nothing.
(Soundbite of protest)
O'BOYLE: At the protestors marched, they chanted, Without corn there is no country. Mexico was the birthplace of maize and the corn tortilla is the national staple. Free trade in corn is not surprisingly a sensitive issue here. Many farmers feel they're having their natural market robbed from them by cheaper U.S. imports. Monica Morra(ph) breast feeds a baby as she sits on the back of a hay rack pulled by a John Deere.
She's the wife of a bean farmer from Zacatecas, and she's worried what will happen if Mexico doesn't come to the aid of its farmers.
Ms. MONICA MORRA: (Speaking Spanish)
O'BOYLE: She says, Our husbands will abandon the fields and they will have to migrate to the U.S. to support our families. This is already happening. Indeed, millions of Mexicans fled rural poverty to illegally migrate to the United States during the NAFTA years. The farm groups that organized the march want the Mexican government to renegotiate the treaty, but that isn't likely.
President Felipe Calderon is a pro-market conservative and a supporter of free trade. However, his government has been attempting to mollify farmers by approving a record amount of agricultural aid in this year's budget. Political commentator Stefio Sarmiento (ph) says that opposition parties are using NAFTA as a scapegoat.
Mr. STEFIO SARMIENTO(ph) (Political Commentator): Mexico's countryside was poor before NAFTA in 1994, and that in fact NAFTA can increase productivity and NAFTA can increase exports and generate more investment. But it doesn't the instruments to actually eliminate poverty in the land. The reason why we have poverty in rural areas in Mexico is much deeper than just trade.
O'BOYLE: Land reforms following the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century led to the redistribution of land, breaking up large estates into small parcels. Some 60 percent of Mexican farmers worked those small plots, barely earning enough to feed their families. The other 40 percent of farmland has been turned into large irrigated agro-businesses. These wealthy farmers have increased their exports to the United States.
So there are two Mexicos - one that feels it's winning under NAFTA and another part that feels it's falling further behind. Calderon's government yesterday offered to start new negotiations with protestors. But farm leaders, largely members of opposition parties, rejected the overtures. They promised more protests before the nation's congress, which resumes session this month. For NPR News, I'm Michael O'Boyle in Mexico City.
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