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Politics of corn loom for divided Mexico

The disputed election has heightened tensions over a NAFTA deadline for removal of tariffs. Corn farmers vow to fight it.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 9, 2006


Corn plays an important role in ancient Mexican mythology. The Aztecs revered a corn god named Centeotl; the Mayans believed man's flesh was formed from corn dough.

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But these days the folklore of a crop that is still the centerpiece of the Mexican diet is fueling a bilateral clash between Mexico and the US as cheap American corn has inundated Mexican farms and marketplaces under the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

"They should not send their corn here, they can send it somewhere else," says farmer Luis Damaso tending his milpa, or corn patch, outside the town of Santa Ana Xalmimilulco in the central state of Puebla. "No one will pay for [our corn] now."

The politics of corn continue to escalate, as a 2008 NAFTA deadline looms for Mexico to scrap its corn and bean import tariffs. And the disputed July 2 election has only heightened those tensions. On the campaign trail, runner-up Andrés Manuel López Obrador said he would renegotiate NAFTA provisions to protect the nation's corn and bean farmers. Now Mr. Obrador is leading mass protests for a full, vote-by-vote recount of the election he lost by 0.6 of a percentage point.

He has put NAFTA supporters on the defensive, and raised the hopes of farmers across the country – many of whom have rallied around Obrador and promise a long, hard fight ahead if rival Felipe Calderón, a staunch supporter of NAFTA, is certified as president. That decision is in the hands of an electoral court which has until Sept. 6 to rule.

"[Corn in Mexico] is one of the areas that has the potential to become extremely explosive," says Jon Huenemann, a former assistant US trade representative who helped negotiate many agricultural provisions under NAFTA. "US-Mexican trade is huge and getting bigger and more significant to producers and consumers. And yet for the same reason the sensitivities are getting potentially more complicated. ... It's a bit of a tinderbox."

The US is the largest corn producer in the world, exporting 18 percent of its crop.

In the 2004-05 season, US corn growers shipped 231 million bushels to Mexico, its second largest customer after Japan, with a price tag of some $462 million, says Jon Doggett, vice president of public policy at the National Corn Growers Association. The vast majority exported from the US is yellow corn used to feed livestock, not the white corn that Mexicans traditionally consume. "I don't think we are a threat to the Mexican farmer who is raising white corn," Mr. Doggett says.

But critics of NAFTA disagree. They say the flow into Mexico of American corn, sold 15 to 20 percent cheaper than the cost to produce it in the US, is lowering the price of all corn, displacing farmers, and eroding a way of life. Victor Suarez, a congressman for Obrador's Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) who helped organize a mass protest of farmers in 2003, says nearly a million farmers have been displaced since NAFTA went into effect in 1994. He says their only recourse is to head north along the border or into the US.