CANCUN, Mexico – Hilario Kauich Canul plants corn each year on land his family has farmed near the Caribbean coast since Mayan times. But now he doesn’t understand why the local cooperative won’t buy his product anymore.

“I can only sell house to house,” Kauich said, holding up a protest sign in Cancun last week.

His lament is one of many at the World Trade Organization talks in the resort city, but it echoes those of George Naylor, an Iowa soybean farmer who feels trapped into accepting U.S. agricultural subsidies, and Lee Kyung Hae, the South Korean rice farmer who committed suicide in front of Mexican riot police Wednesday.

The three planters came to Cancun with thousands of others last week to criticize imbalances and distortions of the world’s agricultural trade practices, which they said are designed to benefit big corporations at the expense of millions of small-scale farmers around the globe.

While the trade negotiations have pitted Europe, the United States and other rich nations against the developing world, they also have become a face-off between big farmers and small, many within the same countries, including the United States.

“Our agricultural policy is not good for the U.S. and not good for the people of the U.S.,” said Naylor, the president of the American Family Farm Association, whose family has farmed 470 acres in Iowa since 1919.

“Does it make sense to export our crops for less than it costs to make them?”

Negotiators from 146 nations came to the trade summit in this resort city in hopes of paving the way for a global free-trade deal by 2005, which supporters say will deliver benefits to millions of producers and consumers.

While the U.S. and Europe have said they will scale back their agricultural price subsidies and trade barriers, the talks have been slowed by demands from developing countries for that to happen faster and further than promised, especially on products such as cotton.

Farmers have been at the center of the protests at the vacation spot, including a march that turned violent Wednesday. They say the plight of millions, including their families, has been ignored as the United States and others pressure the world to adopt the abstract ideal of free trade.

U.S. officials say the slow disappearance of small-scale farmers is attributable to advances in technology and efficiency, not trade policies.

But across town from the WTO convention center, critics and protesters held a weeklong series of seminars decrying U.S. agriculture policies as distorting global markets and hurrying the extinction of small farmers worldwide with lots of suffering along the way.

On Thursday, a University of Tennessee professor argued in a presentation titled “Rethinking U.S. Agricultural Policy” that federal farm policies since 1996 have led to a collapse in global grain prices that has hurt small farmers worldwide, without being reflected in lower prices for consumers.

One result is that farmers in Mexico and elsewhere cannot compete against more efficiently produced and government-subsidized exports of U.S. corn, while at the same time, those developing nations are being encouraged to drop trade protections for their farmers.

“There is no question that the U.S. is exporting poverty,” said Daniel de la Torre Ugarte, a Tennessee professor who is originally from Peru.

A report by Oxfam last year blamed the plight of millions of Mexican corn farmers on the speed with which their country dropped barriers to U.S. corn under the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement.

Since then, corn prices for Mexico’s 15 million farmers have dropped more than 50 percent, while the price of tortillas made from the corn has risen 150 percent, the Oxfam report said.

Hauntingly similar problems are included in a pamphlet that Kyung Hae, 56, handed to reporters Wednesday before the farmers’ march where he scaled a fence and then plunged a knife into his heart.

Like Mexico, South Korea has benefited in some areas from free-trade policies. But Kyung Hae described a tragic spiral of surplus produce, cheap imports and a four-fold drop in income that left many Korean farmers desperate.

He wrote of another farmer “who abandoned his life by drinking a toxic chemical.”

Kyung Hae, a former president of the Korean Advanced Farmers Federation, was known to WTO officials because of his hunger strike outside their Geneva headquarters earlier this year.

Naylor, the Iowa farmer, said the U.S.-led policies are driving many small American farmers out of business, while keeping others afloat artificially. Recent statistics seem to support his claims.

A recent analysis by the not-for-profit Environmental Working Group found that the top 10 percent of recipients receive 71 percent of all U.S. farm subsidies.

Government statistics show that the number of farms decreased between 1992 and 1995 from 1,925,300 to 1,911,859. The figures also reveal the number of farms with more than $100,000 in sales increased from 333,865 to 345,988.

With the shouts and drum beats of protesters all around him, Naylor argued that the U.S. should reinstate the price floors eliminated in the 1996 Farm Bill, which allowed big agriculture corporations to buy up corn and soybeans dirt cheap but increased subsidies to keep small farmers going.

A farm bill signed by President Bush last year put the total number of U.S. farm subsidies at more than $12 billion a year, although that was down from an average of more than $20 billion each of the three previous years.

“I stay in business because of subsidies,” Naylor said, obviously irritated by the thought.

“If they said no more subsidies, all farmers would be out of business next year, because not one dollar would be lent to them (by the banks).

“My dad always said he hoped I would get a college education, but that if I wanted to come back home that was fine with him because farming is the finest profession there is.

“The romance is gone out of farming now,” Naylor said.

(c) 2003, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WTO

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): WTO

AP-NY-09-13-03 1554EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.