Mexico Struggles to Feed Itself As Farmers Migrate to Towns

WITH only a plastic-wrapped sombrero to protect him from the cold drizzle outside, farmer Moises Galixto unleashes a downpour of discontent. The grizzled corn-grower doesn't complain about the rain. In fact, his spindly corn stalks have thirsted for just such a soaking after several months of drought.

Rather, Mr. Galixto grumbles about Mexico's crisis in the countryside. Like hundreds of thousands of small farmers, he has no access to the shrunken pool of public credit. And as wages and prices were frozen last year in a largely successful fight against inflation, the ``guarantee prices'' the government pays farmers for basic grains have plunged 24 percent after adjusting for inflation.

``The guarantee prices are too low to earn anything,'' says Galixto, who has stopped planting on most of his land and now grows only enough corn for his family's tortillas. ``What can we do? This is the only work we know.''

For millions of campesinos (rural laborers) who depended on these growers for jobs - and for an increasing number of small producers themselves - the answer has been simple: Look for work in Mexico's overcrowded cities or immigrate to the United States. So many campesinos have left the countryside that there is an increasing number of ``ghost towns'' inhabited only by women, children, and old men.

An estimated 5 million farming families still depend on basic-grain production for their livelihood. For them, health and nutritional levels continue to fall - as does the incentive to cultivate their land. Domestic production of basic grains plummeted a record 20 percent in 1988, according to official figures. A severe early season drought may compound the losses for 1989.

``We're talking about a new phase of the agricultural crisis,'' says agronomist Armando Bartra, adding that the agricultural sector has been hit hardest by the government's tight-fisted program of economic restructuring. ``The countryside is becoming decapitalized.... It's not only money and people that are leaving, but fixed capital [machinery] is deteriorating and going unrepaired.''

Seven years of austerity, Mr. Bartra warns, have left a ``huge negative balance'' that will be difficult - but crucial - for the government to pay.

The rural crisis is already making it dangerously expensive for Mexico to feed itself. To offset the decline in production, the government has spent $3.5 billion importing basic grains over the past year, a cost Mexico can ill afford as its foreign currency reserves have tumbled from $16 billion a year ago to around $5 billion today.

For a nation whose Indian ancestors once worshiped corn as a god, it may seem ironic that Mexico now buys more than 25 percent of its corn abroad, most of it second-grade US feed corn at higher prices than it would cost to produce domestically. But until Mexico's debt payments are drastically reduced and its austerity program eased, imports will increase and the food crisis will intensify, economists say.

The Mexican countryside has always presented the government with a prickly dilemma: How can it balance the growing need of urban consumers for cheap food with the need of rural peasants for an adequate standard of living?

In recent years, as Mexico's mushrooming urban population has demanded more and cheaper food, the balance has tipped slightly in favor of consumers. Food subsidies have been slashed in an effort to trim government spending and liberalize the economy. But tortillas and beans are generally kept inexpensive enough for popular urban consumption.

The subsidies have also led to disturbing contradictions: Well-to-do Mexicans, for instance, still benefit from inexpensive meat and other products. And here in Juiquipilco, some farmers find it cheaper to buy subsidized, imported corn in Mexico City than to grow it on their own land.

``Peasants have not only lost the needed stimulus to make profits, but some can't even afford to plant for their own consumption,'' says Arturo Warman, an agricultural expert who now directs the government-funded National Indigenous Institute. ``It presents a tremendous danger because the growth of imports has physical limitations.''

Mr. Warman contends that Mexico should seek self-sufficiency in corn and beans, not just to reduce the burden of imports or protect against sudden shifts in the world prices, but to ``improve the well-being of the rural population.''

Mexico abandoned that goal in 1982, after a decade of expensive policies bolstering basic-grain production. Rather than shoot for self-sufficiency, then-President Miguel de la Madrid sought to modernize Mexican agriculture. So he pushed it into the global economy, increasing both exports of fruits and vegetables for the US market and imports of basic grains for the internal market.

Mexico's public investment in agriculture, meanwhile, sank from 18 percent of the federal budget in 1980 to around 5 percent today. Most of the remaining resources have been funneled to export crops instead of basic grains, which employ nearly 90 percent of all rural farmers.

``We're not focused on self-sufficiency,'' acknowledges Gustavo Gordillo, the policy undersecretary in the Ministry of Agriculture. ``But we do need a level of production to negotiate better terms with world prices,'' which have been ``very erratic lately.''

President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has promised a new strategy to reinvigorate the once-vibrant agricultural sector. Last week, a member of his agricultural ``cabinet'' even noted that it was vital to ``eliminate the anti-agriculture bias that has characterized the macroeconomic policy implemented in the last few years.''

But there has been no change in either Mr. Salinas's macro-economic policy or guarantee prices. Rather than risk his anti-inflation program, Salinas promises to stimulate production by rooting out corruption, inefficiency, and ``paternalism'' in the ponderous rural bureaucracy.

For producers here in Mexico State, that seems too little, too late. Even at a recent meeting of pro-government peasant unions in Toluca, there were dissenting voices asking for more relief - and more incentives.

``The agricultural cabinet is a group of very distinguished technicians,'' said one union leader. ``But they don't put their hands in the soil. They take their numbers from computers.'' If farmers are to help Mexico avoid an agricultural disaster, he added, ``they [the agricultural cabinet] should talk to the peasants themselves.''

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