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Mexico Farmers Protest Against NAFTA

Some Mexican farm groups continue to protest the reduction in agricultural tariffs that took place on January 1 under terms set by the North American Free Trade Agreement, known as NAFTA. Over a dozen protesters are carrying out a hunger strike at a major city intersection near the U.S. embassy.

In his folk song, singer Andres Contreras says the Mexican campo, or countryside, cannot take any more and that the small farmers have lost their patience. He says people should listen to the complaints of the peasants, known in Spanish as campesinos so that they might preserve their traditional lifestyle, living off the land.

Nearby, 16 men and women lie under a tarp covered in blankets. They are representatives of various campesino organizations and they are undergoing a fast to draw attention to the cause.

One of the organizers of this protest, at Mexico City's Angel of Independence monument, is Fernando Olivaria Saavedra. He says the free trade agreement has been a disaster for the campo, although he admits that some sectors have done well because of the treaty. He says large farm operations have benefited most and that the government failed to take into account the needs of the peasants who work small plots of land and are ill-equipped to compete with Canada and the United States, the other treaty participants.

The government of President Vicente Fox has tried to mollify the farmers by opening a dialogue with them. Last week, Mr. Fox even suggested that he might be disposed to renegotiate parts of NAFTA, something he had previously said he would not do. But the president warned that it might not be wise to reopen treaty negotiations since Mexico could lose more than it gains in a new deal.

Free trade advocates have supported the government's refusal to renegotiate and have expressed concern that Mr. Fox might damage both trade and his own credibility by giving in to the farmers' groups demands.

Reforma newspaper columnist Sergio Sarmiento notes that the overall effect of NAFTA has been positive for Mexico. In the past ten years, he says, Bank of Mexico figures show a more than 58 percent increase in Mexican exports. He also notes that imports of cheaper grains and other products from the United States and Canada have kept food prices for Mexican consumers much lower than they would have been without the treaty. Mr. Sarmiento says the real problem is not trade, it is the inability of the small, inefficient Mexican farms to produce and compete.

But the farm protest has taken on political force and is being backed by members of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution and some members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, which ruled Mexico for 71 years until Mr. Fox became president two years ago. With the involvement of these political forces, the issue of Mexican agriculture and the effects of free trade are likely to remain major topics of debate in the months ahead.