Mexican farmers Tuesday blocked all but one lane of the bridge linking Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, Texas, to protest the opening of...

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Mexican farmers Tuesday blocked all but one lane of the bridge linking Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, Texas, to protest the opening of Mexico’s market to U.S. corn, sugar, beans and milk as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Farmers and supporters held protests across Mexico Tuesday as the tariffs were lifted.

The protesters argue Mexico hasn’t done enough to protect them from cheaper U.S. commodities, said Enrique Perez, spokesman for the National Association of Commercial Field Producers.

“This is the most important, symbolic protest, here on the border,” Perez said.

Mexico, the U.S. and Canada agreed to delay the opening of the markets for the four commodities until Tuesday, 15 years after NAFTA was signed.

But Mexican farmers say the damage has already been done and that Mexico has plunged deeply into a model of globalized agriculture in which they are ill-prepared to compete.

Corn, beans, sugar and milk were granted special 15-year import protections when the NAFTA, was negotiated in 1993, time that was supposed to be used to prepare Mexico for competition. But many say that didn’t happen.

And while global prices for these commodities are booming, Mexico’s farm parcels tend to be tiny and only marginally productive, so higher prices internationally have done little to improve people’s lives here.

Farmers like Juan Antonio Lopez, who plants corn on about 7.5 acres in Pino Suarez, Durango, have little corn left over to sell and often must buy grain at higher international prices for their families and animals.

Even larger farms have trouble storing crops and getting them to market, in part because the government has allowed state purchasing agencies, granaries and distribution networks to wither, preferring instead to rely on market forces.

Mexico also has been slow to modernize to take advantage of ethanol demands and genetically modified crops.

Farmers demonstrated in Mexico City last month to demand the government take a greater role in assuring them a fair price, as well as networks to store and sell their grain.

But even that wouldn’t benefit most Mexican farmers, whose plots are so small — under 6 acres — that they engage in subsistence agriculture.

“It isn’t enough to live on, and besides, we have to plant with mules and a hand plow, because there have not been any programs to provide us a tractor,” Lopez said.

Officials in 1993 said the 15-year transition period would give Mexican farmers a chance to modernize, diversify their crops and begin to export them — or at least find seasonal work at a new wave of factories the trade pact was expected to bring.

None of that happened, says Victor Suarez, the leader of a farm-cooperative group that works to start storage silos and direct farm-to-consumer sales of corn tortillas.

“We are not ready [for the trade opening], the only ones who are ready are the 20 big agribusiness corporations.”

The government has already allowed global-market forces to be strongly felt in Mexico. For years, it has allowed more corn imports under lower tariffs than the NAFTA requires.

This is why the U.S. ethanol boom caused a spike in tortilla prices early this year, which in turn sparked street protests in Mexico.

But the spike in corn prices has given Mexico’s beleaguered farm sector is “a little more breathing room,” said Cruz Lopez, leader of the National Farmers Confederation.

It has also strengthened the realization that Mexican farmers may have to depend on themselves.

“Remember that 15 years ago, we were saying that on Jan. 1 … we would be flooded with corn, that all the corn farmers in Mexico would disappear,” said Hector Salazar, secretary of the National Corn Producers Federation.

Now, instead of talking doom, his group is trying to get farmers to join together to sell their crops on a contract basis to large consumers, like food companies.

Such efforts to build agricultural cooperatives — similar to the Grange halls and dairy cooperatives formed in the United States — may be key to Mexican farmers’ survival.

And Joost Martens, the regional director for anti-poverty organization Oxfam, notes that what happens in Mexico may presage the fate of farmers in much of the developing world.

“NAFTA has been the model not only for the United States, in negotiating with Andean nations, Central America and the Caribbean, but the European Union, as well, is following the NAFTA model in its “association agreements,” Martens said. “The basic thing has been ‘NAFTA parity.’ “