Standing at the end of Avenida Madero (Madero Avenue) on the last day of January 2008, a stone throw from the Zocalo or City Center of Mexico City, I am swept along in a sea of thousands of farmers and laborers, carrying signs and banners. Streaming from the historic statue of the Angel of Independence, symbolically setting fire to a decrepit tractor, one hundred and fifty thousand small farmers, teachers, workers, and neighborhood activists are marching to repeal the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and end the illegal “dumping’ by Cargill, ADM, and Monsanto of billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidized U.S. agricultural crops-beans, rice, sugar, powdered milk, soybeans, and genetically engineered corn–onto the Mexican market.
NAFTA, pushed through in Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. in 1994 over the opposition of the majority of North Americans, is literally driving Mexico’s thirty million small farmers and villagers off the land and into the slums of Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey, Tijuana, Juarez, and other cities; or else, following the path of twelve million others before them, across the increasingly dangerous border into the United States to find work. Rural villages in Mexico have become literal economic ghost towns of women, children, and the elderly. In some municipalities, 80-90% of the men and boys are gone, increasingly joined by the young women.
A dark-skinned peasant woman, wearing her kitchen apron, approaches me. I stand out in the crowd, an obvious gringo with my Code Pink anti-war T-shirt and my Organic Consumers Association baseball cap. The farm woman patiently explains to me how NAFTA has broken up her family. Her two sons and her daughter, like millions of other jovenes (young people), she explains, desperate for a living wage, did not want to leave their community or abandon their families, but they had no choice. And now, with the militarized border, so-called illegal aliens, like her children, can no longer take the risk of coming back home to visit. Her spons amnd daughter, like most other immigrants, send back remesas (money) to help support their families. This twenty-four billion dollar annual lifeline is the only thing standing between Mexico’s rural population and utter poverty.
Moving up behind the farmers, flanked by banners protesting the imminent sell-off of Mexico’s publicly owned electricity and oil industries, union workers and students fill the massive square in front of the National Palace. Mexican workers, whose minimum wage is 1/12 that of the U.S., are already suffering from high prices for electricity and gasoline. But once U.S. and European corporations take over the petroleum and electricity sectors, prices will inevitably skyrocket.
Passionate speakers from the podium call for a repeal of NAFTA and the restoration of food and energy sovereignty, but everyone knows that Big Business and Agribusiness call the shots in Mexico City, Ottawa, and Washington. Short of a miracle, rural and urban poverty will increase, as will the power and obscene wealth of the industrial agriculture, oil, and utilities multinationals. In July 2006 Mexicans launched an impressive though ultimately abortive ballot box revolution, turning out in droves for the anti-NAFTA presidential candidate, Manuel Lopez Obrador, from the left-of-center PRD (Party of Democratic Revolution). Although Obrador won the popular vote, according to reliable exit polls and election experts, in a U.S.-style electronic vote theft, the elections were stolen, and Felipe Calderon, a pro-NAFTA corporatist was installed as President. As a Mexican activist friend reminds me today, we are at the end of the road for polite protest. Nothing short of a second Mexican (and American) revolution will save us.
Corporate globalization, savagely embodied by NAFTA, is not just a threat to Mexican farmers and rural villagers. The economic, health, and social damage created by industrial agriculture, corporate globalization, and the patenting and gene-splicing of transgenic plants and animals, are inexorably leading to universal “bioserfdom ” for farmers, deteriorating health for consumers, a destabilized climate (energy intensive industrial agriculture and long-distance food transportation and processing account, directly or indirectly, for 40% of all climate-disrupting greenhouse gases), tropical deforestation, and a rapid depletion of oil supplies. Lest we forget, forty percent of the world’s population are still small farmers and rural villagers. If we allow corporate agribusiness and so-called “free traders” to continue to drive these last two billion peasants from the land, replacing them with chemical and energy-intensive, climate disrupting industrial farms, cattle ranches, and agrofuels plantations, we are doomed.
Fortunately practical solutions are at hand, although implementing these obvious alternatives will require nothing short of a global grassroots rising. The simple solution to all this is to scrap NAFTA, make organic and sustainable farming once more the dominant practice in agriculture (as it has been for most of the last 10,000 years), help the globe’s two billion farmers stay on the land, make healthy organic foods and lifestyles the norm, and restructure global agriculture and commerce so that sustainable local and regional production for local and regional markets and Fair Trade become the norm, not just the alternative. And of course as we begin this great turning away from corporate control, we will also begin to be able to address and solve the global energy crisis (at the root of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) as well as the global climate crisis, through conservation, economic re-localization, and drastic greenhouse gas reduction in the agriculture, transportation, and utilities sectors. Unfortunately none of the “major contenders” for the White House are offering any real alternatives, other than rhetoric, to address the current Crisis. Our job is daunting, but standing here at the end of the road, it appears we have no choice.