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Rural discontent: one-year anniversary of agricultural accord marked by large-scale protests.

Placards and tattered signs still hang off the walls outside government offices in Mexico City, the remnants of scattered marches in late April to protest Mexican farm policy.

The marches saw thousands of Mexican peasants move through the city from office to office, chanting slogans and accusing the government of not holding up its end of a year-old agreement to revamp the struggling agriculture sector.

"We say that the government are liars," the angry protestors yelled as they marched toward the Finance Secretariat on April 28, the anniversary of the Mexican farm accord.

The President Fox administration and farm leaders signed the historic accord last year in an effort to help modernize the countryside and allow its farmers to compete with the United States and Canada under their shared North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta).

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Last year's accord consisted of 282 distinct points of action, set out a plan over coming years to cover a wide range of sector needs, from supporting rural infrastructure and providing better educational facilities to providing farmers with cheaper fuels and setting them up with modern technology.

"This agreement has not been fulfilled in any way," said Jose Dolores, a corn farmer from Chihuahua who attended the April 28 forum in Mexico City to discuss how the agreement was progressing.

The Mexican farm sector, which still supports about 25% of the population and which in many cases still uses horses and oxen to pull its plows, says it cannot compete with its Nafta colleagues, who produce more crops at cheaper and faster rates.

The farmers say Nafta has brought them to their knees, pushing their products out of the local market in favor of cheaper imports.

Among other points agreed to in the National Accord for the Countryside, as it is known, was for the agriculture sector of Nafta to be reviewed to decide whether import terms should be renegotiated for goods like corn and beans, staples of the Mexican diet.

That's an option the government says it has studied and rejected.

NOT NAFTA'S FAULT

The recent study conducted by the government and the respected Colegio de Mexico concluded that while Nafta has had some negative impact on certain sectors of the Mexican countryside, it is not responsible for its woes.

The government review of Nafta pointed to some of the success stories under the treaty, especially in the fruit sectors that have flourished under the 10-year-old agreement. Fruit exports have done well under the accord because they are labor intensive and labor is much cheaper in Mexico than in Canada or the United States.

Authors also explained that many of the problems in the Mexican countryside, where much of the agricultural activities consist of subsistence farming carried out on plots smaller than 5 hectares, come from neglect stemming back decades. Study authors acknowledged, though, that more funds need to be funneled into the rural economy if Mexico is to maintain its farm sector.

BLEAK RURAL OUTLOOK

Farmers scoff at the study, calling it a unilateral look at the sector that was written by academics sitting behind their desks instead of by visiting the nation's farms.

"The countryside is being abandoned," said Dolores, mourning crop prices that are so low that they cannot support farmers and their families.

"People are living off remittances now," he said, referring to the money sent back to Mexico by Mexican immigrants, most of them former farmers, in the United States.

According to recent government statistics, as many as 600 people leave the countryside every day, some of them heading to major cities in Mexico and others braving illegal crossings to seek a better life in the United States.

Heladio Ramirez Lopez, the head of Mexico's powerful National Campesino Confederation (CNC), maintains that the Mexican countryside will cease to exist if the farm chapter of Nafta is not revised.

"Obviously the government's vision has very little to do with the dramatic reality of the countryside," he told reporters in April.

Ramirez and others like him say the accord for the countryside looked good on paper but has not translated into actions.

Government agencies say they are advancing in implementing the accord, citing examples such as subsidized diesel and electricity and guaranteed minimum prices to growers as proof they are holding up their part of the bargain.

"We have been fulfilling the terms of the accord and on schedule," said Antonio Ruiz Garcia, an undersecretary for the Agriculture Secretariat who monitors rural development programs.

"But these changes are not going to occur overnight," said Ruiz, attending the April forum to discuss the status of the accord.

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FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE

Rafael Galindo, a legislator heading a special farm commission in Mexico's lower house of Congress who also attended the forum, said poor communications have hindered the accord and its image.

He also said government officials charged with implementing different points in the accord appear to have backed off from it since it was signed into effect last year.

Ramirez of the CNC goes so far as to say that most of the agreement's 282 points have not been fulfilled.

As an example, he cited point 273 of the accord, which aims to promote the participation of social organizations and producers in monitoring the progress of the accord. Instead, he says, all such talks are being held between councils that are unknown to peasants.

Fernando Lopez, a director of an indigenous, campesino organization, said farmers have been pushed out of the picture since the accord was signed.

"We [indigenous farmers] were present in the protests, not as much in the negotiations, and by the time actions were filtering down to the local levels we had to depend on the media to hear about it," Lopez told farmers during an April speech.

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George Terrats is a Mexico City-based freelance writer.
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Author:Terrats, George
Publication:Business Mexico
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Jun 1, 2004
Words:972
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