Carlos Marentes

(Excerpt of a presentation made at the 1997 Agricultural Missions Annual Meeting/Study Session, "Economic Globalization: Are There Winners and Losers?", May 2, 1997, El Paso, Texas)

Sin Fronteras is based in El Paso because this is one the largest farm labor recruitment site along the border. Hundreds of Mexicans arrive every day to this area and depart from here to every major agricultural region of this country.

This is a historic movement, as old as the historic development of North American agriculture. In fact, the development of North American agriculture is based in two very important movements of human beings. One was possible due to the use of force and violence, the other was voluntary.

I'm talking about the system of farm labor slavery in the South of millions of African indigenous peoples and the "Bracero" program, during Word War II, under which more than four and half million Mexicans came to work in this country to produce the food needed to assure the American victory at the battlefields. At least, one third of the Braceros crossed to this country and returned back thru El Paso. These two movements of people show the immigrant essence of North American Agriculture.

Today, the farm labor force continue to be composed of immigrants. According to the available estimates, more than 4 million people, including women and about 100,000 children, work in the agricultural fields of America. At least two-thirds are immigrants, and of these immigrants, 80 per cent are from México.

In our region, we also have a farmworker community, estimated at 14,000 people, the majority also México or U.S. citizens of Mexican origin. About one fifth are female farmworkers and you still find children, as young as 5 years old, working in the fields.

The recruitment of the border farmworkers takes place at midnight in Southside El Paso. During the months of August and September, hundreds of workers congregate attempting to get to the best fields. Once hired, they spend several hours traveling. They work in the fields from 8 to 10 hours and return to El Paso, the starting point, at about 6 to 7 p.m. This means that they only have a few hours to rest, take a shower, see their families, have a hot meal and return again to the recruitment site.

The majority of the farmworkers work in the multi-million dollar chile crop in south New Mexico. The chile industry is based in the exploitation of the chile pickers. The wages paid to these workers are so low that somebody making the minimum wage is considered a very lucky worker. The average annual income for a household of a chile picker is $6,000.

The exploitation of the chile picker of this region is a moral shame. But this is not a unique situation since the exploitation of the farmworkers is the foundation of the North America food industry. This is a system of food production based on the delivery of a good supply of cheap products to the consumer society. The abundance of food and low prices are possible due to the inhuman exploitation of the farmworkers.

It is clear now, that the general conditions of the farmworkers of this country continue to erode. But what else can we expect? The farmworkers who labor the fields in the United States are the same ejidatarios or poor peasants from México who have unsuccessfully attempted to produce the food needed to live in their own land. Just look what is going on south of our border to explain the current status of farm labor in America.

The conditions of the peasants and of the rural farming communities of México also continue to deteriorate. Poverty has been a historic phenomenon since the indigenous communities lost control of their land. Without land, people can't produce the food necessary to survive. The struggle for land, and the right to live, has been a permanent struggle in México. For a short period of time, Mexican agriculture produced all the basic food, beans and corn, to feed its people. However, this situation changed with the economic policies of modernization of agriculture and the growing foreign debt, as well as the corruption of the PRI-Government. By the Eighties, México, formerly known as the "horn of abundance", was importing millions of tons of corn, mostly from United States.

By the late Seventies, Mexican agriculture was in a serious crisis. Thousands of ejidatarios left their communities to look for work. Poor peasants sold or leased their small pieces of land to have enough money to pay the "coyotes" who brought them across the border. Eventually, these peasants lost their land and became an integral part of the farm labor force of this country.

The neoliberalist policies of a new group of Mexican political rulers, in power since the middle Eighties, known as the "technocrats", only made this terrible reality worst. This Harvard educated group, of which Carlos Salinas de Gortari is the most popular (or unpopular) member, introduced profound changes to Mexican agriculture. The most important was the reform to Article 27 of the Constitution to eliminate the Ejido System. Along with this vital change and to satisfy the requirements imposed to Mexico in order to be part of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the PRI-Government also ended production subsidies and food marketing and distribution. The final aspect of this new policy was the removal of agricultural tariffs.

Three years after the approval of NAFTA we see the results in México.

-Every year 100 thousand children die

-5 million people live in extreme poverty

-9 million peasants lack most basic public services

-3 million lack a place to live and

-5 million don't have a piece of land.

Three years have been enough to end the dream of millions of human beings of one day being able to live from the fruits of their labor in their own land. For the Mexican poor means accepting the fact that they will have to join the army of "undocumented" crossing the border in an attempt to survive. For a lot of us, Mexicans, living in this country, means that we have to accept the fact that we may not be able to go back to our land.

But NAFTA has also accelerated the food production system based in huge agribusiness corporations, which don't care who harvest the product, as long as it results in profits. Whether it is the poor farmworker of North Carolina or the poor "jornalero" of Los Mochis, Sinaloa, as long as the consumer in New York City will be able to buy bright red tomatoes regardless of the climate or the time of the year.

Although NAFTA has increased imports of cheap North American food, a few corporations are the only beneficiaries. The rest of the population not only doesn't benefit from this food production system, but is paying the consequences. Small producers and family farmers continue to disappear. Besides a few food production enterprises, the American Indian have been disconnected from agriculture production. In the South, Black ownership of the land may end by the next century.

The current food production system is also based in the concentration of land. This also means an intensified and brutal exploitation of land, through the use of highly advanced technology, which includes a growing and alarming use of toxic chemicals. As a result, the safety and quality of food continue to deteriorate.

For our people and our communities, for the whole society, the challenge today is to deal with this food system imposed upon us by a handful of greedy corporations, with the support of governments who have abandoned their social responsibilities.

The challenge is complex and requires an active and unified society. It requires an international approach and a real inclusion of the diverse groups which comprise our society. And since our voices have been ignored time and time again, it is very important the concerns of the farmworker groups and of the peasants and their families are taken into account.

It's very important that society support all and every farmworker organizing effort. It is not enough to stop eating something to show solidarity. Real support means directly supporting the farmworkers struggling in Ohio, Florida, the U.S.-México border and in every place of the country.

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