Monday, May 24, 2010

NAFTA Geography

I promised to revisit the issue of gender and nationalism, particularly as it relates to the ascendancy of cities in the realm of political geography. In most cultures, women are more closely tied to the homeland. We can map this link by tracking geographic mobility. For both the journey to work and international migration, men travel further than women. I've approached understanding this pattern through hitchhiking folklore. The moral of those stories serve as a warning to women that they should not wander the world unless in the company of a man.

Global economic integration has undermined traditional gender roles. First the men left in search of work and better pay. Labor flows streamed around the world, adeptly finding the boomtowns. Women, too, relocated to faraway places. But the wives and mothers stayed behind, tending to the nation. Young maidens tended to be the ones seeking opportunity in another land. There is no sense in sticking around the village since all the men are gone. But even the matrons of the community eventually would seek opportunity elsewhere:

In addition to the gender of farming, the gender of out-migration from feeder states like Michoacan, Jalisco, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, and more indigenous Chiapas and Oaxaca, has changed radically. Once upon a time only men headed for El Norte and the potentially mortal consequences of this dangerous migration but womens' numbers in the flow north have tripled in the last decade as neo-liberal agrarian policies imposed from Mexico City have devastated the "campo" and the bottom has fallen out of Mexican agriculture.

Under presidents Carlos Salinas and Ernesto Zedillo (1988-2000), the Constitution was mutilated to allow the privatization of communally-held land, grain distribution was handed over to transnationals like the Cargill Corporation, guaranteed prices were scrapped, and credit for poor farmers dried up. Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon (2000-2010), presidents chosen from the right-wing PAN party, have hastened the demise of the agricultural sector.

The coffin nail was the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. Every year since, millions of tons of cheap U.S. and Canadian corn swamp Mexico forcing small-hold campesinos and campesinas out of business. A Carnegie Endowment investigation into the impacts of NAFTA on poor Mexican farmers published on the tenth anniversary of the trade treaty calculated that 1.8 million farmers had abandoned their milpas in NAFTA's first decade - since each farm family represents five Mexicans, the real number of expulsees comes in close to 10,000,000, at least half of them women.

Like manufacturing in the Rust Belt, family farming was the root of Mexican identity. NAFTA destroyed the foundation of this country's nationalism. The giant sucking sound that Ross Perot described during the 1992 US Presidential campaign ended up being the emptying of rural Mexico.

Understanding why this happened, you have to know something about economies of scale. Certain fixed costs such as farm machinery are more affordable if spread out over more land (and greater yields). We're talking orders of magnitude bigger. This allows for slimmer margins. $100 of profit per acre isn't so bad if you manage 1,000 acres.

NAFTA opened up the food markets in Mexico for American corporate farms. Mexican families in agricultural states couldn't compete with cheap US produce. What farming remains is more like the model in El Norte, which means that less people are needed to tend to the crops. Millions of Mexican workers were displaced and the national economy couldn't possibly absorb them. Again, a bit like what happened in the Rust Belt.

Missing in the above narrative is the role of educating girls. Various economic development agencies focused on the educational attainment gap between boys and girls. The success of these programs had the unintended consequence of geographically mobilizing the female workforce (e.g. nurses from the Philippines). The harbingers of culture were leaving the country en masse.

The overall increases in migration as a result of globalization, as well as the rise of transnationalism thanks to innovations in transportation and communications, forced a rethinking of citizenship law. Many countries liberalized rules to encourage people to return. The common denominator is women. Matrilineal links can earn you a new passport in countries such as Israel and Ireland. With nation increasingly separated from state, women become even a more important locus of culture.

I argue that the same is true for domestic diasporas. In the United States, women are better educated than the previous generation and more geographically mobile. But the traditional stronger connection to home remains. Map the sales of Steelers baby clothes outside of Greater Pittsburgh and you'll get a great snapshot of the Burgh Diaspora. If you would like more expatriates to return, then seek out the best educated women. More about that strategy in my next post.

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