by Esme Choonara
Rapid price rises in the cost of tortillas provoked angry demonstrations across Mexico earlier this year. Over 75,000 trade unionists,agricultural workers and others joined the biggest demonstration through Mexico City.
They called on the newly elected president, Felipe Calderon, to put a stop to the free market policies pushingup the price of corn (called maize in Britain) – the main ingredient in tortillas. Many workers also demanded wage rises to keep income above the rising price of food.
Millions of poor Mexicans relyon tortillas as their main source of nutrition. Many households spend up to a third of their income on corn flour to make tortillas. In the months leading up to the protests, the price of corn flourdoubled in a month, provoking an outcry across Mexico.
One reason for the drastic rises was the diversion of much US corn into cultivation of grain for the manufacture of grain-based ethanol for fuel.The other main reason is the neoliberal politics that have dominated Mexican government policy since the 1990s.
Tortilla prices have risen by over 700 percent since the institution of the NorthAmerican Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) in 1994.
Before signing up to Nafta, the government regulated storing, importing and distributing grain through the National Company of Popular Subsistence. AfterNafta, the grain industry was in effect privatised.
In 1998, president Ernesto Zedillo’s government handed much of the corn market over to private companies – in particular to the huge Maseca andCargill groups.
The following year a corn-based subsidy program that fed 1.2 million poor families was axed.
Cargill (created in U.S.) is the second largest private company in the world and operates in72 countries. It controls a huge proportion of the Mexican grain market, but also has a large stake in US grain exports. So if Mexican grain prices rise, Cargill benefits. If there is a crisis in...