On the Border, Small Farmers Tackle Big Issues of Migration, Climate Change, Food Policy

By  |  20 / November / 2017

Ciudad Juarez on the Chihuahua-Texas border has historically been a nexus of migration and global capital flows. Now that the presidency of Donald Trump has revived international debates on both, the international small farmers’ organization, Via Campesina, gathered from around the world there in early November to examine the connections between low-wage work, migration and the environment.

Local universities also co-hosted events that brought the Mexican community together with farmers and researchers from Haiti, Nicaragua, Italy, Spain, Canada, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico and the United States at the V Meeting on Migrations and Wage Work. Farm activists from across the globe examined the state of migrant rights, climate justice, food security and free trade, among other issues.

Juarez was a choice spot for Via Campesina to meet. Surrounding this city of about 1.4 million people, the trucks of free trade jam roadways and highways laden with goods produced for export in more than 300 low-wage factories. Migrants constitute a significant sector of the population.

Rising amid the scrub, wind and dust of the Chihuahua Desert, Juarez and the neighboring cities of El Paso, Texas, and Sunland Park, New Mexico, are also among the most vulnerable places on earth to human-induced climate change. Long droughts interspersed with brief but heavy bouts of rainfall have produced water shortages, flooding and overall environmental havoc in recent years.

Small farmers are particularly sensitive to the effects of climate change. “Climate change has many consequences. There is a lot of drought, agricultural production has gone down. Hurricanes have caused much damage, and there are many victims,” said Juslene Tyresias, Haitian representative for Via Campesina. “All the world’s nations  should continue defending the environment. It’s the life of the world.”

The Rights of Migrants

Ciudad Juarez exemplifies the contradictions of U.S. migration policy. Despite historic connections that bind Juarez with its U.S neighbors, stretches of border fencing constructed during the Bush and Obama administrations and now continued under the Trump White House divide communities and obscure views from one country to the other.  In protest, at the close of their four-day meeting, the activists boarded buses and headed for the northwestern Juarez neighborhood of Anapra, on the borderline with New Mexico. There they held a demonstration against the U.S. wall and plans to extend it.

Strengthening the struggles of migrants from all countries was high on the agenda in Juarez. Maria Jose Urbina, Via Campesina Nicaraguan representative, said the international conference in Mexico was  important  due to the well-documented and systematic violence Central American migrants suffer on their journey through Mexico to the United States. Urbina called on governments to enforce existing global migrant and labor agreements like the International Labor Organization that ostensibly protect migrant workers, and urged the convening of a broader global summit on the migration question.

“Migrants reveal a world problem. It’s not only about having a job, but having one with a dignified salary,” said Juarez labor attorney Elizabeth Flores, former director of the local Roman Catholic Diocese’s now shuttered Pastoral Obrera advocacy office. “We have to struggle for dignified salaries so people don’t migrate.”

Flores added that many migrants who make it to Juarez wind up living in “precarious conditions”. The city lacks sufficient housing, schools and adequate infrastructure.

“This city has a problem with migration, but it’s also a city that gets together to talk about our problems,” weighed in longtime UTAF leader and Via Campesina’s North America co-coordinator,  Carlos Marentes.

Anthony Pahnke, vice-president of Wisconsin-based Family Farm Defenders, spoke about emerging coalitions in the U.S. Midwest that bring together agricultural producers, immigrant workers and people of faith. He cited his group’s backing of last February’s massive “A Day without Latinos and Immigrants” protest in Wisconsin organized by the pro-immigrant advocacy group Voces de la Frontera, and the growing support for the new sanctuary movement defending immigrants threatened with deportation.

“People see connections between different issues. There’s a lot of understanding in rural areas, and activism in the churches,” Pahnke told this reporter. Of particular concern to Pahnke and others in the Midwest are the stealth-like migrant detentions carried out both by local police and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on a piecemeal but steady basis. “People are being arrested little by little, in Wisconsin and elsewhere,” he added.

Marentes stated that the Juarez gathering identified a need to shift the immigration debate away from the narrow issue of legal reform toward a deeper discussion about changing societal attitudes and structures. The activists plan on doing this by first working through the many organizations making up Via Campesina, he said.

“We can trash Trump, but a part of society elected him. We have to convince society. We have to change society. There could be immigration reform, but it doesn’t change the racist character of institutions,” Marentes said.

The veteran rural and farm labor activist denounced diplomatic obstacles that prevented some persons from attending the Juarez meeting. He recounted that one Salvadoran activist was subjected to an onerous record request by the Mexican ambassador in El Salvador, and Tunisians could not attend because of Mexico’s limited diplomatic relations with their country. In conformance with restrictionist U.S. immigration policies, the federal Mexican government is erecting “migration filters” and “doing Trump’s dirty work,” Marentes contended.

Haitians Stranded in Mexico

The setting on the U.S.-Mexico border raised the nearly forgotten drama of thousands of the Haitians stranded on the Mexico side. Wilner Metelus, president of the Mexico City-based Citizens Committee in Defense of the Naturalized and Afromexicans estimated about 5,300 Haitians are stuck in limbo in the Baja California cities of Tijuana and Mexicali, the remnants of more than 20,000 who began crossing Mexico’s southern border last year en route to the United States.

Most are refugees from the 2010 earthquake that devastated their Caribbean island nation who migrated first to Brazil and other South American countries where work was plentiful at the time. Metelus explained that South American government’s initial open-door policy was not only a humanitarian response, but also a gesture of political solidarity tracing back to Haiti’s 1804 status as the first nation in Latin America and the Caribbean to win independence from European colonial rule. After throwing off slavery, Haiti quickly lent its support to the South American independence movement headed by Simon Bolivar.

“That’s why the governments decided to receive the Haitians,” Metelus said. It was the moment.” But when work dried up especially in recession-wracked Brazil, the Haitians embarked on another journey across multiple countries to the Mexico-U.S. border, where they attempted to gain U.S. asylum.

Although the Mexican government granted the refugees temporary visas at the southern border, resource-strapped local agencies struggled to accommodate the Haitians in Baja California, as thousands packed migrant shelters last year. Later, the Haitians were largely expelled from the shelters after authorities claimed they needed the space to house an expected wave of Mexican deportees from the U.S, according to Metelus.

Haitians stopped coming in large numbers after the Obama administration announced it was canceling humanitarian visas as part of an electoral “strategy” in the weeks before last November’s election,  and news of U.S. deportations increased, Metelus continued.

Hope diminished with the election of Donald Trump.  “When Trump won, it was a hard blow for the Haitians,” he said. The Trump administration is expected to make a decision soon on whether to continue the Temporary Protected Status granted to Haitians in the U.S. after the 2010 quake.

Of the Haitians remaining in Baja California, 1,800 of them have Mexican-issued humanitarian visas while more than 3,400 don’t, Metelus calculated. For survival, some work long hours without access to health care in border export factories or restaurants or in the streets washing car windshields. Others receive financial support from relatives living in the United States.

Metelus is concerned about the danger of stranded young Haitians  falling into the clutches of organized crime. He demanded that the Mexican government respect international labor standards, grant humanitarian visas to more Haitians and set up a Baja California office of the official Mexican Commission for Refugees.

Defending the Family Farm 

For Via Campesina, food security, food sovereignty, ecological agriculture and sustainable family farms are indispensable pillars of a healthy economy.

“There are no policies to guarantee food security. This is a concept that Via Campesina developed in its Second Congress in Mexico,” said Jaime Castillo Ulloa, who represented the National Union of Regional Autonomous Small Farmers’ Organizations (Unorca) in Juarez, made up of Mexican farmers in 24 states.

“(The government) has to reorient its policies to satisfy the population. We’re not against exportation. We favor free exchange of products, but not trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA),” Castillo said.

The Mexican rural advocate argued that agriculture should be excluded from free trade agreements because production factors such as soil and climatic conditions differentiate growing food from assembling televisions, cars or other products. and because food supply is strategic for any society
According to  Pahnke, Family Farm Defenders has not taken a formal position on the NAFTA renegotiation, but members including dairy producers urge the inclusion of immigration in any new deal- a provision that was explicitly excluded from the original trinational agreement when it was negotiated a quarter-century ago. Pahnke maintained that transparency is a big problem with trade deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership and NAFTA.

“I think there is some confusion about what could happen–how much is talk versus real action,” Pahnke said of the rocky NAFTA renegotiations underway.

Upholding migration as a fact of human history going back thousands of years, Castillo condemned border walls, supported the free movement of peoples, and warned against forced migration. “Immigration is going to continue, but we don’t want it to continue because of hunger,” he said.

Beyond Juarez

Via Campesina has spoken out these issues at several  international forums this month. Its activists attended the People’s Climate Summit in Germany Nov. 3-7, held as an alternative gathering to the official COP23 climate talks in Bonn. There Via Campesina participated in the mass occupation of a German coal mine, strategized with other social movements over alternatives to capitalism and climate crisis, advocated “peasant agroecology” and blasted climate change mitigation schemes gaining ground in some quarters.

“We call (climate change mitigation plans) false because these proposals do not bring real change but, rather, bolster corporate profits,” Fanny Metrat, representative of the French peasant small farmer  organization Confederation Paysanne, stated in a Via Campesina news release.

“Carbon markets, geoengineering, so-called climate smart agriculture are being promoted by the same people who are also promoting emission-intensive livestock production and an export-based industrial agriculture which requires massive amounts of fossil fuels. It is a big contradiction.”

In Germany, a young organizer and activist from the Boricua Agroecology Organization of Puerto Rico, Jesus Vazquez, described the tragedy of Puerto Rico, battered by more than a century of U.S. colonialism, mass emigration and the catastrophic  Hurricane Maria. Vazquez emphasized the resistance of small farmers.

“In the context of these hurricanes, we have witnessed that agroecological practices are more resistant to extreme weather phenomena. They bring resilience,” Vazquez said in a Via Campesina news release.

“Many root vegetables  have pulled through the disaster. Many peasants and farmers are already back in the fields planting and cultivating despite the fact that the Secretary of Agriculture says that agriculture is completely devastated throughout the island. We’re here to remind governments that the change must be systemic.”

Global Responses

On the other side of the globe, Via Campesina joined with allies from the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand for a Nov. 11 Manila gathering prior to the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Marching farmers supported food security, while opposing ASEAN plans for free trade agreements.

“Land grabbing and changes in land use have become normal phenomena in the countryside. We’re losing our lands because of mining, special economic zones, tourism, and real estate. Our rights are continuously and systematically violated,” Mohammed Ikhwan of Serikat Petani, Indonesia, said in a Via Campesina statement.

The international organization called on ASEAN leaders to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in the Rural Areas, a text that recognizes small farmers’ rights as human rights but has not been adopted by ASEAN member states.

Not letting up, Via Campesina is now mobilizing for another people’s summit set to coincide with the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting next month in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

“Notwithstanding the misleading protectionist statements coming from Washington and London, the WTO will meet again to try to impose the interests of capital at the cost of Planet Earth, of the democratic aspirations of the world’s peoples, and of life itself,” Via Campesina said in a call to action. The organization underscored that a study by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reported in 2013 that 70% of the food people consume globally comes from small farmers.

“We will denounce the WTO as the criminal organization that it is and will raise our flag of food sovereignty. We will denounce all governments that, after having understood that the WTO had been weakened, resorted to bilateral and regional mega free trade agreements that threaten to annihilate our food systems, just as the WTO has done in the last two decades.”

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