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Look around the rain-fed corn farms in Oaxaca state, and in vast areas of Mexico, and one sees few young men, just elderly people and single mothers. "The men have gone to the United States," explained Abel Santiago Duran, a 56-year-old municipal agent, as he surveyed this empty village in Oaxaca state. The countryside wasn't supposed to hollow out in this way when the North American Free Trade Agreement linked Mexico, Canada and the U.S. in 1994. Mexico, hoping its factories would absorb displaced farmers, said it would "export goods, not people."
But in hindsight, the agricultural elements of the pact were brutal on Mexico's corn farmers. A flood of U.S. corn imports, combined with subsidies that favor agribusiness, are blamed for the loss of 2 million farm jobs in Mexico. The trade pact worsened illegal migration, some experts say, particularly in areas where small farmers barely eke out a living.
That is the case in the rolling hills of western Oaxaca state, ancestral lands of indigenous Mixtecs who till small plots of corn, beans and squash between stands of jacarandas, junipers and eucalyptus. Eagles soar in the brilliant blue skies. Clumps of prickly pear and organ cactus attest to the sporadic nature of rainfall. When a visitor arrives, the gray-haired men on the veranda of the village hall talk about the exodus of young men. "When they hit 18 and finish secondary school, they leave for the United States or other states of Mexico," Duran said. His cousin, Jesus Duran, said young men see little future as corn farmers and observe with dismay how the government aims subsidies at medium and big farms, leaving only a trickle for small family farms. "If you go to the offices over there and ask for help," Duran said, nodding to the local agriculture agency, "they say there isn't any to give."