NAFTA’s Assault on Mexico’s Indigenous Farmers

Excerpt from Eating Tomorrow (New Press 2019), Chapter 8, with deep gratitude to the late Alejandro Nadal

Alejandro Nadal, a pioneer in the field of trade, environment, and agricultural biodiversity.

I saw how far-reaching NAFTA’s effects were in Soteapan, a small municipality on the slopes of the Santa Marta volcano in Mexico’s southeastern state of Veracruz. Colleagues from El Colegio de Mexico (ColMex) took me there to better understand the connections among trade, poverty, and the environment. Under the direction of Alejandro Nadal, they had been studying the Popoluca indigenous farmers in Soteapan — from small-scale commercial producers in the lowlands to subsistence producers in the highlands — to assess the impacts of NAFTA and liberalization on cropping patterns and environmental management. They wanted to compare current practices to those before NAFTA, and to the cropping practices documented in great detail in a 1960 anthropological survey.

These are poor indigenous farmers, the kind you can find across southern Mexico. The vast majority lived in crowded homes with dirt floors and no indoor plumbing. Education levels were low. In 2000, more than 90% of households were in extreme poverty. The 66% fall in maize prices had cut into producers’ incomes, and related changes had compounded the problem. Prices for other important crops in the area had also fallen. Coffee prices declined 66% while prices for common beans, another Mexican staple, fell 41%. This left producers with few alternatives if they wanted to shift crops to avoid the maize crisis caused by U.S. agricultural dumping under NAFTA.

The other dramatic impact on local producers came from the restructuring of local and regional markets with the expansion of Maseca, the multinational Mexican firm that controls a large share of the domestic market for maize flour. Through its national network of suppliers and its access to inexpensive imports, Maseca can provide year-round supplies of flour, masa (dough for tortillas), and tortillas, something local millers could not match. As one tortilla-seller in town told me, he wanted to keep milling maize for local farmers, but that would have left him with tortillas only in the months after the local harvest. Because Maseca used its market power to insist on year-round contracts with its distributors, he had to stock the company’s tortillas even when local maize was available to mill.

The competition drove prices down to the point that it was not economical for him to buy local maize and sell local tortillas. Of the three main tortilla-makers in town, none was making and selling local maize tortillas. According to my colleagues, the demand for maize in the region surrounding Soteapan increased 59% from 1990–2004, but Soteapan producers’ share of that market dropped by 40%, to just 6%. This had a particularly harsh impact on commercial producers in the lowlands who were sending a majority of their maize to market. Local millers were continuing to go under, unable to compete with Maseca.

The income impacts were dramatic. Between 1993 and 2005, commercial producers saw their incomes, adjusted for inflation, decline by more than 40%. Subsistence producers saw their real incomes fall by half.

How did such brutal income losses affect maize diversity and the environment? Since that 1960 survey there had been significant declines in the traditional milpa system of maize intercropped with beans, squash, and other crops. If the observations from Soteapan are accurate, the milpa could be a thing of the past unless present trends are reversed, and with the milpa would go some of Mexico’s rich store of agricultural biodiversity.

One source of pressure on the traditional milpa comes from diversification, as producers seek crops that can bring more income than maize. They had tried coffee, papaya, and even African palm. They also were using more of their land as pasture for livestock. Since 1993, non-commercial Soteapan producers had reduced the share of their land devoted to maize from 40% to 30%. In the lowlands, commercial producers had responded to the crisis by expanding maize with the intensive cultivation of hybrid maize varieties, abandoning intercropping altogether. Highland producers had also begun to grow hybrid maize on their traditional plots. The reason, in large part, was a shortage of labor, particularly at key harvest times, another indirect effect of NAFTA.

In 1993, before NAFTA, few Soteapan households reported any significant migration, either seasonal within Mexico or permanent to the United States. By 2005, more than 20% of middle-income households reported at least one family member migrating temporarily, many to the tomato harvest in Sonora state. Among some of the middle-income producers, one-fifth of households reported permanent migration by at least one family member to the United States. Because the seasonal migration comes at the time of the most intensive need for local labor, the milpa’s labor-intensive cultivation process is undermined.

Many farmer strategies are designed to reduce the labor investment in the family plot. Livestock is less labor intensive than the milpa, and so is palm and fruit cultivation. Unfortunately, so too is more intensive cultivation of monoculture maize from hybrids using rising levels of agro-chemicals. That shift increases production costs and leaves households with a greater need for cash to buy the inputs, forcing them to take on more off-farm employment, adding to their harvest-time labor shortage.

The impact on agricultural biodiversity was dramatic. Survey data from the region showed that whereas the typical producer in 1960 used as many as 12 different native varieties of maize in the milpa, now even traditional producers were growing only three, with another two mestizo varieties (hybrids crossed with local varieties), and with eight different hybrid varieties. The biodiversity decline is even more dramatic for the milpa as a whole. In 1960, researchers found as many as 32 different plants in a seven-and-a-half acre plot; now the most researchers could find was eight.

My ColMex colleagues summarized this sad transformation: “Where the milpa survives, it has been significantly altered and the number of species greatly reduced, with the result that agrochemical inputs become a necessity and the old methods of pest and weed control based on agro-biodiversity are no longer functional.”

“The entire social structure that has supported corn production in Mexico is imperiled and may be gradually collapsing in front of our eyes,” said ColMex economist Alejandro Nadal.

The process is insidious. Native varieties of maize fall into disuse on one farm, or maybe many farms, or maybe all of them. A variety that is no longer planted stops evolving with its local environment, as seed selection, the annual interaction between the farmer and the environment, ceases. This is the threat posed by NAFTA’s assault on the rural poor in Mexico.

The data in this section comes from Alejandro Nadal and Hugo García Rañó, “Trade, Poverty and the Environment: A Case Study in the Sierra De Santa Marta Biosphere Reserve” (World Wildlife Fund, May 2009),

Alejandro Nadal wrote one of the earliest studies of NAFTA and its potential impacts on maize diversity in Mexico. He worked more recently on the economics of wildlife trade. He was a weekly columnist for La Jornada newspaper. He died March 17 at his home in Mexico City. His last column, submitted on deadline six days before he died, was titled “Economic Crisis Was Foreshadowed Long Before Coronavirus.”

Author of Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, & the Battle for the Future of Food. Advisor with Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store