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Refueling a Vicious Cycle

By Bart Evans Coalition Coordinator, Student Action with Farmworkers

In the 17 years since NAFTA went into effect, agribusiness seems bent on continuing to insist that Free-trade Agreements are the answer to our current agrarian woes. Just days ago, Larry Wooten, President of the NC farm bureau, published an opinion piece calling for the acceleration and expansion of free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. Perhaps he worried that given the crackdown on immigrant farmworkers in neighboring states of Georgia and Alabama, potential migrants, many of which now come from southern Mexico and Central American countries, might think twice about heading north to labor on our farms. Indeed, if the effect NAFTA had on small-scale, indigenous farmers in Mexico were to play out in Colombia and Panamá, it could certainly ease Carolina farmers’ current or perceived future labor shortage problems. Free trade and drug wars have decisively scarred the Mexican landscape and people—can we really afford to continue advocating for such a model?

The long journey pa’l norte is not an easy one by any means, and despite more recent media attention on the train-riders passing through Mexico, for example, nevertheless the extreme human rights abuses and hazards of the trip persist. I went with Student Action with Farmworkers on a WFP delegation to Oaxaca this past January, visiting the Centro de Orientación al Migrante (COMI) local office and learning about the everyday risks migrants face as they head north. Sadly, we learned that many migrants make it to Oaxaca thinking that they are almost there, when in reality they still face thousands of dangerous miles across Mexico into the vast northern deserts and across the border into the United States.

COMI from SAF on Vimeo.

However, once here in the U S of A, one might be cautious to breathe a sigh of relief. The good ol’ global economy has got us not looking too good over here either. Our slumping economy, as it slumps even more, is rearing its ugly side: Stark inequalities in wealth, legislation legalizing racial profiling, a.k.a. “driving while Mexican/driving while brown.” (For further reading, see this article in GQ magazine about blueberry farmworkers in Maine.) Migrants are coming into a situation here in the US (especially the southeast) where black and brown families on average own just a few cents for every dollar owned by white families. This racial wealth-gap is astounding, and conservatives are using it as fuel for the anti-immigrant fire. You’ve heard it all before, the “they’re taking our jobs” myth. Farmworkers are getting caught in the middle.

Wooten writes, “Agricultural trade is not only critical to North Carolina’s farmers, it is vital to the U.S. economy and the creation of American jobs. Every $1 billion in agricultural exports supports 9,000 U.S. jobs, such as transportation workers, food processors, packers and even sales and marketing professionals.” Borrowing Wooten’s stat of 9.6 billion in annual NC farm receipts, that equals about 86k jobs in North Carolina farms—but wait—aren’t those the jobs that American’s won’t do?

Farmworker picking beans in North Carolina. Photo by Beatriz Cruz.

This disconnect between arguments for job-creation with the anti-immigrant rhetoric of “stealing our jobs” plays directly into the hands of US growers. Growers who are dependent on immigrant labor, and on “opening” foreign markets via free trade agreements, to further fuel the vicious cycle we are caught in.

The system is broken, and it is an embarrassment to continue to see arguments calling for the continuation, let alone the intensification, of global, neoliberal policy.

To take action to stop three pending free trade agreements, please click here.


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