The original North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, or TLCAN) devastated rural communities in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. From displacing peasants in Mexico and forcing millions of them to migrate north, to the forced removal of trade protections for family farmers in Canada and the United States, the 1990s experiment with free trade has proven profitable for multinational corporations and detrimental to rural workers.
We as member groups of La Via Campesina (LVC) opposed NAFTA at the time of its inauguration in 1994. We see its revision – rebranded as the USMCA (or T-MEC) – as another failure to respect the dignity of farmworkers, family farmers, Indigenous people, and the communities and territories in which we live. In fact, in many areas, the proposed revision makes the situation of rural workers even worse. For this reason, LVC member organisations in all three countries are asking their respective legislatures to vote against the USMCA in its current form. Rejecting the current USMCA is central to our ongoing struggle for food sovereignty.
Numerous sections of the agreement propose trade policy changes that will worsen the social, economic, and environmental crises facing rural communities across North America. Many of problem areas in the agreement include: the privileging of corporate interests over those of laborers and family farmers; the focused attempt to attack Mexico’s ability to protect its seeds; the efforts to undermine Canada’s public policy supports for small scale agriculture; and the lack of recognition for Indigenous people’s claims to territory. As the regional organization representing LVC groups in North America, we denounce the agreement for undermining food sovereignty, and also for its attempt to pit rural people in each country against one another.
One area where the politics of division is clear is in the agreement’s proposed opening of the Canadian market to U.S. dairy exports. In the months preceding the deal, President Trump railed against the Canadian Supply Management system, denouncing it for its tariff protections. Meanwhile, Canadian dairy farmers made a series of visits to their farmer counterparts in the United States, particularly in Wisconsin, who, after suffering years of deregulation and export-promotion that has created overproduction and price volatility in the U.S., listened with enthusiasm to their visitors’ explanation of how the Canadian market management system more effectively supports family-scale dairy farms. Despite the clear policy tools available in the U.S. to address the dairy crisis, corporate dairy export groups in the U.S. praised the proposed opening of Canadian markets as a way to provide outlets for U.S. milk, as this expanded market offers a new frontier for corporate U.S. dairy to under-cut family-scale farmers. La Via Campesina groups know that the reality is another – the U.S. has a crisis of overproduction due to the lack of price supports and a quota system; the U.S. milk surplus is in part due to the import of milk protein concentrate and other milk powders; and agribusiness conglomerates regularly manipulate prices, which is a practice that contributes to low, and often volatile farm incomes. Although the Canadian supply management is not without its faults, such as the difficulty for new producers to access the quota system, the answer to problems in the U.S. and Canada is not to force Canada to open its market to U.S. milk.
Divisiveness is also found in the new agreement’s failure to address the highly exploitative nature and inhumane reality of farm labor. In the U.S., the Trump administration chose to criminalize migrant farm labor instead of respecting it. The government continually stokes racist fears concerning immigrants, who in reality share a common love for food, farming, and family with many citizens in U.S. rural communities. It is true that the new agreement includes explicitly a section on workers’ rights, which the original NAFTA did not. However, this inclusion is partial at best, paying mere vague lip service to very real problems such as violence and harassment at work, wage theft, and the repression of workers attempting to unionize. The revised deal provides some benefits for labor but lacks effective enforcement mechanisms (e.g. a regional independent secretariat or certification requirements) for situations when workers’ rights are violated, which is chronically the case, especially for female workers. The new measures in the USMCA on violence and migrant workers have the potential to actually fail to address rights violations, leaving migrant workers vulnerable to abuse – a situation that can lead to lower wages for everyone in the food industry. Other weaknesses in the agreement remain, including an apparent loophole that would make it difficult to uphold international labor standards, as well as the absence of prohibitions concerning abusive labor recruitment.
Furthermore, although in theory collective bargaining provisions will be strengthened in Mexico, there is ample evidence that collective bargaining rights of workers in the U.S. have been under assault politically for decades and will continue to be dismantled under this proposed agreement. Men, women, and children – on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, particularly those in and from Mexico – are exploited in agriculture, domestic service, childcare, mining, food processing, construction, and tourism. Provisions for ensuring the dignity of labor – a central element of food sovereignty – are absent from the revised NAFTA agreement.
There is also a complete failure to enact policies that would provide living wages for rural workers. This applies as much to farmworkers as it does to family farmers, in all three countries. The general belief that export agriculture will raise incomes for everyone in the countryside has been proven wrong over the last couple decades, as farmers go bankrupt and farmworkers are forced to live in subhuman living conditions around North America.
Agriculture also suffers because of the threat to seeds that the revised agreement allows. Already, Mexico’s corn supply has been contaminated by genetically modified varieties from multinational corporations in the United States. The problem is exacerbated by another international agreement – UPOV (Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants).
Although Mexico signed this treaty in 1978, the government never agreed to the last revision that was ratified in 1991. In this new version the treaty not only promotes the privatization of seeds, but also establishes punishments for farmers who keep their seeds between harvests or exchange seeds outside of the market. The problem for Mexico comes from corporate actors in Canada and the United States who may want to integrate the North American food market even more, and to oblige Mexico to accept the 1991 UPOV agreement and thus to forfeit still more of its peasant agricultural wealth. Family farmers in Canada have seen how their right to seeds have been threatened by Canada’s recent signing of UPOV.
The USMCA no longer has the Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanism, which in the original NAFTA, allowed corporations to sue governments. While many may see this as a victory, the USMCA introduces a way for corporations to be at the table when regulations are created. The reason is that the USMCA requires each government to publish annual reports on their past and prospective changes, which are then shared with individuals from the other countries for review and comment. Such reporting is not only onerous, but also allows corporate lobbyists to have advance notice and information that could help them influence the development of regulations. This adds yet another tool for corporations to challenge regulations on seeds, pesticides, and rural development. The prior version of NAFTA already allowed the expansion of corporate power, for example, when Cargill sued the Mexican government – and won – for the latter’s tariffs on high fructose corn syrup. La Via Campesina member groups in Canada and the United States stand with Mexican peasants in their opposition to the increase in the corporate control of agriculture in all three countries.
Similarly, there are abundant details on how to open the Canadian markets to U.S. dairy exports, but almost nothing on how to measure carbon emissions. Climate change is a very real threat that rural workers face daily as crop choices, work conditions, soil quality, and extreme weather impact how our members produce the food that we eat. There is also nothing in the text of the agreement about protecting Indigenous food sovereignty, whether that involves providing for Indigenous communities in Canada and the U.S. to assert their treaty rights and land claims, or publicly-supported efforts to turn back ongoing practices of cultural and material dispossession. Such silences leave any kind of agreement pertaining to North America inherently incomplete.
For these reasons, the USMCA in its current form should be rejected. It divides rural workers – whether as farmworkers, Indigenous people, or family farmers – more than it brings us together to confront the very real threats that we face. Every day, these threats ravage our people through farm foreclosures, violent and brutalizing immigration practices, or territorial dispossession. Our elected leaders – whether Obrador in Mexico, Trudeau in Canada, or Trump in the U.S. – have already stated their support for the USMCA and therefore are explicitly prioritizing their political careers and corporate interests over the health and livelihood needs of rural communities. From our analysis, which is rooted in the lived experiences of our members in rural communities who are on the front lines of the battle over free trade, we propose that all three countries should reject the USMCA. Only in rejecting the revised agreement can we together work on food sovereignty in North America. It is time for the people in our countries to decide which side they are on – the side of corporations, which chase profit, or that of the rural communities that feed us all.
The National Farmers Union is a founding member of La Via Campesina (LVC). For more information, please contact Joan Brady, LVC North America Co-coordinator.