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Mexico's Fox Signs 'Countryside Accord' to Help Peasant Farmers - 2003-04-29

Mexican President Vicente Fox has signed an accord with major farm groups in his country to address the needs of impoverished peasants working small plots of land. The government has also indicated it might seek changes in the North American Free Trade Agreement, known as NAFTA, with the United States and Canada, to protect small farms from competition.

The signing of the Countryside Accord (Acuerdo Nacional para el Campo) brought to an end several months of protests and complaints by peasant groups which said they were unable to compete with larger, more technologically advanced farm operations in the United States.

They had sought a re-negotiation of NAFTA to protect a number of Mexican crops, but what they got in the end was President Fox's promise to seek a voluntary pledge from the United States and Canada to maintain tariff protection for white corn and beans. Mr. Fox has spoken of making changes in the trade agreement, possibly starting at a meeting of officials from the three nations in June, but there are no plans to open up the treaty for a complete overhaul.

The agreement President Fox and the farm groups signed is more of a social welfare package for the impoverished rural areas, with the government spending an additional 2.8 billion pesos in various rural development programs. That is about $280 million.

President Fox says the accord demonstrates his government's commitment to the poor rural sector.

He says his government is with the peasants, and supportive of their rights, their interests, their earnings and their products, both inside and outside the country. He promised to take measures to offset the effect of subsidies in the United States that give producers there an unfair advantage.

Under the plan set forth in the agriculture accord, the Mexican government will promote housing projects in rural areas, help provide electricity and develop programs for women and the elderly.

But critics of the Fox plan say that the accord signed Monday will do little to solve the real problems of the Mexican countryside. They say the lack of productivity in Mexico's countryside reflects inefficiency, lack of technological advancement and an unwillingness to abandon crops for which there is not a strong market in favor of those, which provide more competitive advantage. Many farm parcels in Mexico are too small for efficient operations, but old laws make it difficult for peasants to sell the land.

The average farm in the United States or Canada is around 100 hectares in size, but many Mexican farmers operate on two or three hectare plots, sometimes using donkeys instead of tractors. The subsidies granted to farmers in the United States are also seen as irrelevant by many experts, since they tend to favor grain farmers who have no competitors in Mexico.

Under NAFTA, some large-scale Mexican farm operations, producing tomatoes, broccoli and other vegetable crops have prospered. Some farmers in the United States have complained about what they see as an unfair competitive advantage for Mexico.

Still, the leaders of some Mexican farm organizations say they will press for even more government help for impoverished peasants. They have not ruled out more marches and demonstrations to keep pressure on the government. The accord signed Monday, they say, is only the beginning.