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Mexican President Seeks to Calm Farmer's Economic Protests - 2003-02-12

In Mexico, President Vicente Fox is making an effort to calm protests in the farming sector through a dialogue with the government. But, the talk, so far, is mostly one-sided.

The dialogue between Fox government officials and farm group leaders held on Tuesday here in Mexico City included two cabinet officials and a number of governors and legislators, but very few campesinos, as the farmers are called in Spanish.

The leaders of the nation's largest campesino organizations, the Congreso Agrario Permanente, or Permanent Agrarian Congress, and the Confederacion Nacional Campesina, or National Farmers Confederation, boycotted the session. They complained that the government's decision to change the venue, from the National Archives building to a sports complex, violated an agreement to consult with them on such arrangements.

President Fox is calling on all such groups to attend another meeting later this week so that they can contribute to the effort to improve the lot of Mexico's farmers.

He says he wants to move forward quickly to develop a national accord for the agricultural sector by March 15. He says this accord should include details about how to provide more financing and credit to farmers as well as how to help farmers commercialize their products.

President Fox is encouraging poor farmers to develop more skills in both production and in marketing. He says that some farm operations in Mexico are prospering under the North American Free Trade Agreement, known as NAFTA. Mr. Fox notes that the Mexican farm sector produces 157 products for sale in the United States and that Mexico leads the world in production of several types of products, including watermelons, tomatoes, broccoli and cauliflower.

Mexican tomato producers are among the most enthusiastic supporters of the trade agreement. In the past ten years, Mexico has nearly doubled its tomato exports and today, one out of every three tomatoes sold in the United States comes from Mexico.

But campesino leaders say NAFTA has favored such large-scale operations and left behind the millions of poor, small-scale farmers who cannot compete with the United States and Canada. Two weeks ago, some 20,000 campesinos marched in Mexico City demanding that the government renegotiate NAFTA, something President Fox has said he would not favor.

Under the terms of the treaty, tariffs on several commodities were reduced to zero on January 1. By 2008, tariffs are set to fall on a number of other products including corn, sugar and beans.

The United States has remained out of the fray over NAFTA here in Mexico other than issuing statements highlighting the benefits of the agreement. However, Canada's ambassador to Mexico, Keith Christie, in an interview published in the Reforma newspaper Tuesday, said his country is against any change in the treaty. He said NAFTA is a complete package and it is not possible to change one part without reopening the entire agreement. That, he said, would not be good for any of the countries involved and he noted that both Canada and Mexico have gained more than the United States in terms of increased exports as a result of NAFTA.