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Friday, 31 January, 2003, 23:06 GMT
Mexican protests against US imports
Farmers protest in front of stalks of corn planted by protesters at Independence Monument  in Mexico City
Farmers say Mexico must withdraw from the treaty
Thousands of farmers gathered in the Mexican capital to demand their government renegotiate a regional trade pact, which they say is destroying their livelihoods.

A big mistake was made in the phasing out of tariffs for imports. Farmers are worse off now than before NAFTA was signed

Rafael Galindo, farmers leader
The farmers say the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) has led to a flood of cheaper imports from the United States and Canada - the two other members of the treaty.

They say a treaty clause - which came into force in January, allowing agriculture and livestock imports to enter Mexico free of duty - will have an especially devastating effect.

The protesters say the government of President Vicente Fox must come up with a new agriculture and livestock policy and withdraw from Nafta.

They have already warned that unless their demands are met, they will step up their actions by blocking ports and border crossings with the US.

But the BBC's Nick Miles in Mexico City says the farmers' demands put Mr Fox in bind, as the president does not want to sour ties with the country's most important trading partner.

Rural crisis

Carrying banners and machetes as a show of defiance, the farmers travelled in from across the country.

Mexican President Vicente Fox
President Fox has ruled out NAFTA renegotiation

Leaders of the march said they expected up to 40,000 people to take part in the demonstration.

Our correspondent says their message is clear - the Mexican countryside is in crisis and free trade is making it worse.

About a quarter of Mexico's 100 million people live off the land, and since Nafta was signed in 1994 many farms have gone bankrupt, unable to compete with cheaper foreign imports.

Mexican farms are generally smaller and less efficient then their northern neighbours.

But the protesters say the main reason they are going under are the subsidies US cereal growers and livestock rearers receive.

The farmers demand that import tariffs on Mexico's main crops - corn and beans - must be kept in place indefinitely.

"With this march, we want to push the government to reach real accords on farm policy," farmers' leader Rafael Galindo told local radio.

"A big mistake was made in the phasing out of tariffs for imports. Farmers are worse off now than before Nafta was signed."

Flat refusal

The farmers also said they wanted the Mexican Government to put more pressure on Washington to reduce farm subsidies.

But experts say the US is by far Mexico's most important trading partner, and Mr Fox does not want to put that relationship under pressure.

Mr Fox has offered a sop to the farmers in the form of increased funding to reduce rural poverty.

Agriculture Minister Javier Usabiaga has also admitted that the government policy for the countryside needed an overhaul.

But talks between the government and the farmers broke down after President Fox refused to withdraw from Nafta, saying renegotiating the deal was out of the question.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Nick Miles reports from Mexico City
"It is a very defiant mood here"
See also:

06 Apr 01 | Business
03 Feb 03 | Americas
02 Aug 02 | Americas
13 Jul 02 | Americas
07 Mar 02 | Country profiles
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