The Free Trade Assault on Farming in Mexico: Ya Basta!

The battle against US imperialism and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has once again been taken to the streets of Mexico City.  On the 31st of January, hundreds of thousands of small-scale farmers came out in protest against the free trade onslaught that the people of Mexico have been subjected to.  This time, the small-scale farmers were demonstrating against the scrapping of all import tariffs on maize, beans, sugar and powered milk, which had come into effect on the 1st of January under NAFTA.  In solidarity, various groups also blockaded several border crossings between Mexico and the US — thereby temporarily stopping cheap imported goods from the US coming into Mexico.1

Of course, these blockades were a symbolic act of resistance.  Within a matter of hours, goods were once again flowing across the border.  With each truck that rolled into Mexico, more misery was being brought into the country. Indeed, NAFTA has caused untold misery for the majority of the people.  Due to “free” trade, US corporations can dump their subsidized goods into Mexico at ridiculously cheap prices.  They are also free to pillage and plunder anything and everything that they want in Mexico. 

Free trade has had especially devastating consequences for small-scale farmers and farm workers.  With the advent of free trade, subsidized agricultural products from the US have flooded into the country.  The maize sector, which has traditionally been the staple food of Mexico, has been especially hard hit by imports.  Maize farmers in the US receive approximately $10 billion worth of subsidies every year, which allows them to export their produce to Mexico at exceptionally low prices.2  Most Mexican farmers don’t receive subsidies and can’t compete with the price of this imported maize.3  The result has been that millions of small-scale maize farmers have gone bankrupt.

Coffee farming has also been devastated since neo-liberalism and NAFTA were imposed on Mexico.  Coffee farmers used to receive subsidies from the state, and used to sell their produce to a state-owned entity, the Mexican Institute of Coffee, which guaranteed them fair prices.  With the country adopting free trade under NAFTA, the coffee industry was deregulated and the Mexican Institute of Coffee was privatized.  This opened up the way for companies such as Nestle and General Foods to enter into the Mexican coffee market and become the main purchases of coffee in the country.4  At the same time, the international price of coffee was plummeting.  With the advent of global free trade, and the reduction of tariffs internationally, the world market was flooded with exports.  This drove the international prices of coffee down.5  In 2002, the coffee price dropped to its lowest point since 1882.  This meant that multinationals such as Nestle could buy coffee from farmers in Mexico for as little US 44 cents per pound.  In most cases, small-scale farmers simply could not, and cannot, even produce a kilogram of coffee for as little as US 44 cents per pound.6

The collapse of coffee, maize, and other farming, due to free trade, has driven as many as 5 million small-scale farmers and farm workers from the rural areas.7  Many of these people have sold their land, and used the proceeds of this to travel to urban areas, export processing zones, or the US.  Millions of people have become unemployed.8  All of this has seen poverty in Mexico grow by 80% since 1984 — the result being that 75% of people now live in abject poverty.9  Due to NAFTA and the collapse of agriculture in large parts of the country, Mexico is also now dependent on the US for its food supply.  In fact, Mexico has lost any semblance of economic independence that it once had.

The growing discontent amongst the people with the free trade onslaught on Mexico has led to the emergence of numerous movements that openly resist neo-liberalism, free trade, and capitalism in general.  Indeed, recent Mexican history has been marked by localized revolts against the unbearable conditions that free trade and NAFTA have created.  One of the most influential and radical movements that have embarked on a full-scale revolt against neo-liberalism and free trade in Mexico has been the Zapatistas.

On the 1st of January 1994, the day NAFTA came into effect, the Zapatistas rose up and declared war on the Mexican government.  The reason why they took this action was to fight against the neo-liberal economic policies that had been imposed on the people by the IMF, the World Bank, and NAFTA.  Most of the people involved in the uprising were indigenous people who were small-scale coffee and maize farmers or farm workers.  They had been severely affected by free trade — even by 1994 low coffee prices were a major problem and cheap imported corn was already flooding into the Chiapas.  Many of the people involved in the Zapatistas had already lost their access to land, and their way of life was under threat from NAFTA.10  As part of the uprising, the Zapatistas demanded land, food, shelter, work, healthcare, education, independence, freedom, democracy, and justice.  The aim of the Zapatistas revolt was not to take state power; rather their aim was to create a liberated zone in which the people could govern themselves and democratically decide on how the economy should be run.

As part of their uprising, the Zapatistas took over large areas of Chiapas province.  Zapatista supporters, who had been farm workers, invaded the land of the local elite and multinational companies and began farming it communally.  The Mexican military responded brutally, but were unable to defeat the Zapatistas.  Massive international demonstrations against the Mexican military played a vital role in halting its full-scale attack on the Zapatistas11.

Since 1994, the Zapatistas have remained in control over large sections of the Chiapas province.  There are currently 30 autonomous municipalities that make up the Zapatistas territory.  In these areas a system of direct democracy has been established.  The people in these areas have also attempted to create an alternative economy that is not based on the principles of capitalism.12  As part of this, the Zapatistas have at times used road blocks to disrupt imported goods from coming into their territory.

The basis of the Zapatistas economy is communal and small-scale farming.  Most of the Zapatistas communities have established communal farms in the areas in which they live.13  Each of these communal farms usually consists of approximately 100 families who decide democratically how they should run the farm.  In doing so, each community elects people for a period of one or two years to coordinate work on the farm.  Once the two year term ends, new people are elected to these positions — this ensures that individuals do not entrench themselves in leadership positions.  Each communal farm also has different “collectives” in which members of the community work.  Each “collective” is responsible for certain types of farming such as honey farming, coffee farming, and maize farming.  Through these collectives, the communities meet their own food needs.14  If there is excess food that has been produced, this food will be bartered for other goods with nearby communities.15  Only after this will the surplus food be sold outside — usually to middlemen that pay very little.

The Zapatistas have also created larger cooperatives that grow and sell maize and coffee to the outside world.  These cooperatives are in contact with the hundreds of Zapatista solidarity networks and sympathetic NGOs in North America, Europe, and other Latin American countries.  These international solidarity networks then sell the coffee or maize, which the Zapatistas have produced, to the supporters of Zapatista struggle in their countries.  Perhaps the largest and most well known of the Zapatistas cooperative is Mut Vitz.  The Mut Vitz cooperative is made of 28 participating communities.  Almost 1,000 small-scale farmers from these communities are growing organic coffee, which they sell through Mut Vitz.16  This organic coffee is then sold on through international Zapatista solidarity networks.  This ensures that Mut Vitz receives a relatively high price for the coffee its sells.17  A large portion of the income from cooperatives, such as Mut Vitz, is also used collectively to improve the lives of all people in the Zapatistas territory through building clinics and schools. 

The Zapatistas, however, have not been the only people in Mexico that have attempted to create viable cooperatives to protect themselves from free trade.  Many small-scale farming communities have established cooperatives.  Some of these cooperatives are also involved in organic farming and have sold their produce through fair trade networks.  Of course, this year’s protests in Mexico City also showed that small-scale farmers across the county have become involved in resisting free trade.  The 31st of January’s action was simply a follow-up in a long series of demonstrations.  For example, in 2003, 100,000 small-scale farmers protested against NAFTA in Mexico City and demanded that communal land ownership be respected.  As neo-liberalism becomes more entrenched in Mexico it is likely that such protests will become more frequent.  There are also signs that Zapatista-type rebellions will also become more widespread over the coming years — in 2006 Oaxaca City was taken over for 4 months by the Peoples Assembly of Oaxaca (APPO) as a part of their struggle against neo-liberal capitalism.  Indeed, across Mexico, farm workers, small-scale farmers, students, service workers, industrial workers, and indigenous people are rising up and fighting free trade and capitalism through protests and rebellions — their message: Ya Basta!  Indeed, such protests and rebellions could be precursors to the next Mexican revolution.


1  Emile Schepers, “Mexican Farmers Protest NAFTA Hardships,” People’s Weekly World, 9 February 2008.

2  Oxfam, “Dumping Without Borders: How US Agricultural Policies are Destroying the Livelihoods of Mexican Corn Farmers,” Briefing Paper 50, 2003.

3  Stephen Lendman, “The Zapatistas’ Struggle Against ‘Free Trade’,” 21 March 2007

4  María Elena Martinez Torres, “Survival Strategies in Neo-liberal Markets: Peasant Organizations and Organic Coffee in Chiapas,” Mexico in Transition: Neoliberal Globalism, the State and Civil Society, ed. Geraldo Otero, London: Zed Books, 2004.

5  “Mexico — A Neoliberal Experiment,” Mexico Solidarity Network.

6  John Ross, “In Chiapas, Organic Coffee Growing Faces Off with Plan Puebla-Panama,” Americas Program Feature Investigation, Interhemispheric Resource Center, 6 August 2002.

7  Teresa Gutierrez, “Masses Protest NAFTA in Mexico,” Workers World, 10 February 2008.

8  Ross, op. cit.

9  Timothy A. Wise, “NAFTA’s Untold Stories: Mexico’s Grassroots Responses to North American Integration,” Americas Program Special Report, Interhemispheric Resource Center, 10 June 2003.

10  Mitt Shapiro, “Anatomy of a Zapatista Rebellion,” Anatomy of a Movement: The Zapatistas, Project South.

11  Lendman, op. cit.

12  Andrew N. Flood, “The Zapatistas, Anarchism and ‘Direct democracy’,”  Anarcho-Syndicalist Review 27, Winter 1999.

13  Bob Stone and Betsy Bowman, “The Meek Want the Earth Now: The Solidarity Economies of Brazil & Mexico,” Center for Global Justice, February 2006.

14  Flood, op. cit.

15  Stone and Bowman, op. cit.

16  “Ten Years Into the Rebellion: John Ross interviewed by Chris Arsenault,” ZNet, 5 November 2004.

17  Martinez Torres, op. cit.

Shawn Hattingh is a research and education officer at the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG) in Cape Town.

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