Recent events have the political and economic elites of Mexico, Canada, and the United States on edge. The North American Free Trade Agreement is threatened as Donald Trump repeatedly promises to make good on a marquee campaign promise and pull the plug on it if conditions are not renegotiated in favorable terms for the United States.
Since its ratification in 1994, the agreement has not only increased the economic interdependence of the region but reorganized the core composition of the three national economies as well. For example, exports to the United States from Mexico have more than quadrupled. Analysts suggest that if the policy were terminated, the Mexican economy would be in the best position of the three in terms of competitiveness due in large part to the NAFTA-initiated shift towards low-wage maquila manufacturing labor and potential upcoming trade deals with the European Union. Other effects have not been as beneficial to Mexico: the agricultural sector—already weakened by the 1990 constitutional amendments that opened up the sale of former communal farming ejidos and created the conditions for the construction boom of shoebox, subpar social housing—lost even more competitiveness to American farms. Since then, Mexico has turned from a net-corn exporter to an importer and the gradual loss of farming labor, traditions, and products has coincided with the importation and rise of American processed food culture. Unsurprisingly, obesity, diabetes, and a variety of related public health issues have skyrocketed in the same period, particularly in low-income, indigenous communities. This phenomenon is tied to disappearance of these communities’ labor populations which flow north in search of opportunities at maquilas or across the border.
However, the Mexican agriculture industry has not yielded quietly and tacitly accepted a state of permanent decline; instead it has structurally repurposed itself to become competitive in the global economy. The so-called “Almerían Miracle” of mass scale, controlled, hydroponic greenhouse methods has been imported, tropicalized and deployed across the Mexican territory. If the global thirst for tomatoes cannot be quenched, then why incentivize your labor population to seek opportunities elsewhere in the United States when it can be grown cheaper at home? As the extent of Mexican land devoted to tomato growth has declined over twenty years, its yields have increased and the farms now see massive productivity gains from high-tech year-round growth. The return of agriculture in Mexico has not caused prosperity to come back to the small, disparaged communities ravaged by NAFTA. Massive farming conglomerates rule over this sector of the economy, its sources of production concentrated in northern states of Sinaloa and Baja California where the agricultural heritage of Mexico meets the region’s tradition of industrial development and innovation. These developments have tremendous ecological impacts: requiring an endless plastic tarps to cover the greenhouse structures, the continuous extraction of water from already depleted aquifers, and creating toxic runoff from the use of fertilizers and pesticides.
However, the complexities of global capital have dictated that while the food is locally grown, the labor is still imported. Organizers tempt misinformed, improvised, largely-Nahuatl populations in the Huasteca region of central Mexico to take the jobs and make the trek to the north every year for the growing season. Unsurprisingly, human rights abuses profligate. As pickers are told to keep their hands clean and their fingernails trimmed for optimal handling of the fruit, they are housed in compounds that often have no beds, where the lack of running water forces workers to bathe in irrigation ditches, barbed wire fences physically confine laborers, and pay is often illegally withheld until the end of the season with risk of forfeiture if the contract is not fulfilled. Such abuses do not exist at the fringes; these companies supply tomatoes and peppers to Walmart and Whole Foods, and two large producers have been honored by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto as “exporter of the year.” Compounding this litany of wrongs, these vegetables are primed firstly for export, the result of the Mexican peso’s volatility. Mexicans do not have access to the literal fruits of their labor, confined to subsisting off processed food. These conditions cannot be allowed to perpetuate and propagate.