Saturday, November 24, 2007

Kill NAFTA before NAFTA kills Mexican corn

A few clips from a recent John Ross column:
Some say that these indeed may be the last days of Mexican corn.

In fact, this January 1 may prove to be a doomsday date for Mexican maiz when at the stroke of midnight, all tariffs on corn (and beans) will be abolished after more than a decade of incremental NAFTA-driven decreases. Although U.S. corn growers are already dumping 10 million tons of the heavily subsidized grain in Mexico each year, zero tariffs are expected to trigger a tsunami of corn imports, much of it genetically modified, that will drive millions of Mexican farmers off their land - in NAFTA's first 13 years, 6,000,000 have already abandoned their plots - and could well spell the end of the line for 59 distinct "razas" or races of native corn.


Monsanto, which dominates 71 per cent of the GMO seed market, has operated in Mexico since the post-World War II so-called "green revolution" that featured hybrid seeds ("semillas mejoradas") that only worked when associated with pesticides and fertilizers manufactured by the transnational chemical companies. Selling hybrid seeds and chemical poisons in Mexico continues to be profitable for Monsanto whose total 2006 sales here topped 3,000,000,000 pesos ($300 million USD.) It doesn't hurt that Monsanto Mexico sells hybrid seed for $2 Americano for a packet of a thousand when its states-side price is $1.34.

22,000,000 Mexicans, 13,000,000 of them children, suffer some degree of malnutrition according to doctors at the National Nutrition Institute and Monsanto insists that it can feed them all if only the CIBOGEN will allow it to foist its GMO seed on unwitting corn farmers. But the way Monsanto sells its GMO seed is severely questioned.

Farmers are forced to sign contracts, agreeing to buy GMO seed at a company-fixed price. Monsanto's super-duper "Terminator" seed, named after California's action hero governor, goes sterile after one growing cycle and the campesinos are obligated to buy more. By getting hooked on Monsanto, Mexican farmers, once seed savers and repositories themselves of the knowledge of their inner workings, become consumers of seed, an arrangement that augurs poorly for the survival of Mexico's many native corns.

Moreover, as farmers from other climes who have resisted Monsanto and refused to buy into the GMO blitz, have learned only too traumatically, pollen blowing off contaminated fields will spread to non-GMO crops. Even more egregiously, Monsanto will then send "inspectors" (often off-duty cops) to your farm and detect their patented strains in your fields and charge you with stealing the corporation's property.

When Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser came to Mexico several years back to explain how Monsanto had taken his farm from him for precisely these reasons, local legislators laughed that it was a science fiction scenario. "It is going to happen to you," the old farmer warned with all the prescience of an Aztec seer.
I've been trying to tune my readers in to the growing crisis facing our fellow humans who make their lives and livelihoods in Mexico. NAFTA, beloved by both the Clintonistas and Bushistas, has certainly been a godsend for their corporate cronies, but an utter nightmare for family farmers and merchants in Mexico since it went into effect in the early 1990s:
In Mexico, “Poverty has risen by over 50 percent during the first four years of NAFTA and wages in the manufacturing sector have declined,” reports the Data Center.

A 2004 report published by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means states that “At least 1.5 million Mexican farmers lost their livelihoods to NAFTA.” The situation is only expected to worsen in 2008 when Mexico is required to comply with a NAFTA deadline to totally eliminate its corn and bean import tariffs. Many policy experts predicted that farmers displaced by NAFTA would migrate to the United States.

Indeed, a comparison of U.S. censuses of 1990 and 2000 shows “the number of Mexican-born residents in the United States increased by more than 80 percent,” states Jeff Faux in “How NAFTA Failed Mexico,” The American Prospect (July 3, 2003.) “Some half-million Mexicans come to the United States every year; roughly 60 percent of them are undocumented. The massive investments in both border guards and detection equipment have not diminished the migrant flow; they have just made it more dangerous. More than 1,600 Mexican migrants have died on the journey to the north.”

While NAFTA is responsible for the latest “migration hump,” it is not the sole culprit. Practices by bodies like the World Trade Organization, “along with the programs dictated by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, have helped double the gap between rich and poor countries since 1960,” reports Noam Chomsky in The Nation. The ensuing foreign debt deprives these countries from accumulating capital to develop competitive industries and has lead to mass migration northward.

After NAFTA was passed by Congress in 1992, “the agreement raised concerns in the United States about immigration from south of the border,” according to “NAFTA, The Patriot Act and the New Immigration Backlash” by the American Anthropological Association. To counter the predicted influx of Latin Americans, President Bill Clinton signed The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. “The 1996 Welfare Reform bill included anti-immigrant and other measures that eliminated many social services for undocumented immigrants,” the report states. The current ICE raids are a result of these long term policies.
As you can gather from those paragraphs, when folks are driven to near-starvation, they have this amazing tendency to look around for some means of providing food and shelter for themselves and their families. The biofuel boom has merely exacerbated the situation, causing the price of staple grains as corn and wheat to skyrocket over the last year or so, leading to more hunger and of course to more migration to El Norte. John Ross' remarks on what appears inevitable regarding genetically modified corn taking over native crops suggests that times are bound to get much harder as more farmers are forced off of their land.

The standard US approach, of course, has been punitive: more border patrols (of both the uniformed and vigilante varieties), walls, electronic surveillance, ICE raids, more draconian laws in various states in order to harrass "illegals" and anyone who would dare to provide assistance to them, etc. The "kinder, gentler" US elites would allow for a sort of revolving door of easily exploited cheap labor (the so-called "guest worker" approach advocated by Bu$hCo and more than a few Democrats). Both approaches are intended to treat the symptoms, albeit very poorly, while ignoring the problem of bad trade policies that are at the root of the human suffering behind the mass migration. The lone bright spot is the existence of pockets of resistance among the campesinas in Chiapas and elsewhere. Their struggle is (to say the least) best characterized as uphill. As Manny noted a few months back:
Until enough people "Get It" that the magnetic force of migration is due to utter desperation - the darkest night of the soul - the inner-most circles of mental hell - and not just some American™-prismed view that border-crossers don't respect our laws, then the deaths will continue unabated.

Imagine a situation where you had absolutely nothing. The system had completely screwed you and your family out of livelihood. Do you do what you need to do to survive? Or do you just give up?
What we've seen time and time again is that folks will most assuredly do what they can do to survive. That basic life instinct (what Jung, and to a certain degree Freud, called eros) is hardwired into us - it's a drive that does not discriminate for nationality or race. Those who cross the border into El Norte are doing so for survival - I respect that 100%. If you take a moment to walk in the migrants' shoes, you should - unless you're a borderline psychopath - be able to relate to their situation. What I don't respect are the policies and policy makers responsible for so much human suffering. NAFTA is part of the problem in that regard. Its nearly decade and a half history has been an unmitigated disaster for our friends in Mexico and points southward. The Zapatistas have referred to NAFTA as genocidal for good reason. Americans need to kill NAFTA before it kills more. The loss of numerous varieties of corn might seem like a tempest in a teapot to VH-1 addled Americans while munching on their Taco Bell burritos, but it is a disaster for family farmers and one that has the potential to lead to famines of global dimensions in the not-so-distant future. When it comes to survival, we're in it together.

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