For 15 years, the members of the Rural Coalition have shared stories, ideas, skills and mutual support. The 90 member groups that form the coalition include African-American and Midwest farmers, rural women and students from Maine and Appalachia, indigenous craft makers from the mountains of Mexico, Navajo sheep herders, campesinos [farmers] from Chihuahua, people of color from polluted lands in Cancer Alley, and farmworkers from everywhere. Bonds of trust and mutual aid, along with the pressures caused by NAFTA, are drawing these people together as they look for ways to stay on the land and make a livelihood. A community-based cross-border trading system could be one of the keys. The author is executive director of the Rural Coalition and can be reached at PO Box 5199, Arlington, VA 22205, 705/534-1845
During the Rural Coalition’s first bi-national assembly in Chihuahua, northern Mexico, the campesinos were incredulous: "There are poor farmers in the United States?" They found out that not only are there, but that small farmers on both sides of the border share much in common.
There was agreement at the assembly about the need to renew the forgotten wisdom and methods of growing corn and beans together, selecting seeds for micro-climates, and allowing the land to rest. Participants also agreed on the need to relearn the concepts of seeing the Earth and human communities as living organisms in which each act of stewardship benefits the Earth and future generations and each act of greed endangers the whole system.
To these people, achieving sustainability is less about training or research than it is about altering the dynamics and power structures of communities and the world economy.
NAFTA and Farming in Mexico
In 1992, when the Rural Coalition held this dialogue with campesino organizations in Chihuahua, it was still unclear what impact NAFTA would have on trade relationships. African-American farmers from the south, Midwestern and Mexican producers calculated their respective costs of production. They concluded that the new trade law would flood US corn into Mexico.
How would that affect the ejidos [communal land system], we asked the campesinos? They put their hands in their pockets and said "Well, I guess we won’t be able to grow corn anymore." A striking reaction, for corn is the way of life of the people, sacred to life and community.
The experts calculated that US corn imports would mean up to 3 million families or 15 million people would be pushed off the land in Mexico. For what benefit? About 6 cents a bushel for US producers, over 15 years.
Prior to the passage of NAFTA, Mexico removed Article 27 – the land reform article – from its constitution. Article 27 had returned land to producers and enabled the formation of ejidos. Families were provided land they could use and will to their children, but which could not be sold or consolidated. If the family left, the land would revert back to the ejido. Land could not be used as collateral for loans, and it could not be foreclosed. Frequently ejiditarios cooperated in production, pooling their land to grow corn, beans, and other goods.
Now, not only do producers face the loss of their land, they also face the end of government credit market programs and subsidies that had provided some level of security to Mexico’s rural communities.
The 200-some African Americans, Midwestern and indigenous farmers, and campesinos who met that day in Chihuahua asked detailed questions about land reform and ejido management. Changes in the land tenure systems, which gave legal and economic support to individual rather than familial or community management, had been in part responsible already in North America for the monumental loss of land to indigenous people. This was also a key factor in the loss of black farm land and the great migration of African Americans off the land. In 1910 there were more than one million black farmers in the United States; today there are about 25,000.
The ejiditarios were anxious to learn more about the work of Rural Coalition member, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. The Federation works to help poor farmers, especially African Americans, retain their land. In 40-50 rural counties in the South, black land loss has been reduced or halted and efforts begun to recover and build back the land base.
Of most interest to the campesinos was the Federation’s work in cooperative and credit union development. A long conversation ensued over methods of democratic control used in cooperatives and ejidos. The conversation continued after the gathering was over, and in March, 1994, more than 50 Mexican farmers and farmworkers traveled by bus to the Federation’s training center in Epes, Alabama, for a workshop. To survive NAFTA, they would need to learn about alternate credit sources, new methods of organizing, and to seek the support of people with common concerns. To care for the land and their families, they had to stay on the land and keep it productive.
By the time the Rural Coalition gathered at Window Rock, Arizona, for the June 1995 Assembly – the first international meeting ever hosted by the Navajo Nation – the three years of building trust was beginning to pay off. Seven additional communities in Mexico were represented, and an immediate solidarity developed among the women from craft cooperatives in Maine, southern Mexico, and Mississippi.
Participants were ready to make specific plans for a joint marketing project. The Mississippi Federation of Cooperatives, a member of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, will be a key link in a new trade system. The Mississippi Federation and other cooperatives in the region have been providing marketing outlets for poor southern farmers, primarily African Americans, who otherwise are at the mercy of large market forces. Federation staff now make weekly trips to Chicago to arrange sales.
The Mississippi Federation and the Alabama based federation marketing specialist are now ready to fill orders with products shipped from communities in Mexico. The cooperative will open a new refrigeration facility in Jackson this winter to allow expanded marketing of vegetable products from Mexico and from US farmers. If, through this cooperative marketing effort, campesinos are able to grow vegetables and receive a fair price for their produce, their prospects for staying on the land are much improved. The cooperatives benefit as well by having a greater quantity and variety of vegetables available in season.
We have built a foundation of trust among the communities now, and we expect the vegetables to start flowing as early as next spring. It remains to be seen if the US government will help or hinder efforts by these rural communities to trade with each other. But the communities are now ready to take the next steps regardless, and find whatever resources they need.