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Pathways To Your Plate

During a month-long road trip through Mexico, independent radio journalist Roberto Nieto and a university researcher Lili Eskinazi will research and document agricultural issues surrounding food production, covering a wide range of topics from landownership and the economic challenges facing subsistence farmers to the realities of operating small farms and large-scale agribusiness. Interviewing men and women farm workers, government officials, and farm owners, they will explore the little known labour that goes into the food that we buy in our markets and eat from our plates everyday.

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New roads to “globalize” Mexico

Driving around the country, we noticed that all around Mexico there are these amazing new toll highways. Most are extremely expensive by Mexican standards, and even by northern standards. Going from the southern town of San Christobal, in Chiapas, to Mexico City costs roughly 100 US dollars in toll charges. Sometimes we seemed to be going down these sparkling new roads that no one even seemed to know about, so few cars were on them.

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Francisco

We drove down the pacific coastal road of Mexico going through the resort towns of Zihuantanejo, Ixtapa, Acapulco, Puerto Escondido and others. This is a beautiful, picturesque road. Sometimes you come by miles of abandoned beaches. Were it not for the military trucks, it might have been more inviting. As we mentioned before, Guerrero is the most militarized state in the country and it seemed like we had front row seats to witness it.

Check point after check point, we drove even more to the South. We made it to the state of Oaxaca. Here, more beaches but also more migrants workers. I had in mind to go meet Francisco, a worker I had met in Canada several years ago. At the time he had a serious eyesight problem, brought on he would say by the pesticides used in the greenhouses where he used to work. He was slowly becoming blind. Back when I last saw him he could still see and never mentioned this problem to his employer. He was of course in fear of not being able to work and tried to tough it out until the end.

I think I saw him the last summer that he came to Canada. That must have been five or six years ago.

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A Place Called Narcopulco

The Canadian government recently published a travel advisory for Mexico, warning of the high levels of violence in the northern border area. As I read La Jornada today, there are reports of three people decapitated in Tijuana, and another five executed in Chihuahua. In the past year, nearly 6,000 people have been killed in violence related to the drug war. In the past month, around 800 members of the police force have been put under criminal investigation for presumed involvement in narco trade and trafficking. In response to the worsening crisis, 50,000 officers from police and army forces have been deployed around the country.

While much of the coverage focused only on northern border areas, the increasing wave of violence is sweeping the entire country. What is rarely mentioned in news coverage is that the state of Guerrero—beachside and touristy—is the most militarized part of the country. In this area, wealth and poverty exist side by side. The state of Guerrero has some of the poorest rural inhabitants. In some areas, entire villages migrate, or even abandon their homes to struggle for survival elsewhere. It is probably also the state with the highest levels of migrants, including migrants under the age of eighteen. 20% of the population over 15 does not know how to read, 25% of its inhabitants do not live in a house that has access to the sewer system, 30% do not have clean water, and half of the state’s inhabitants live in overpopulated housing

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Back to the road…

We drove for days in an area to the west of the city of Irapuato. Driving down roads where we came across small villages where entire populations rely on migration to sustain themselves. The countryside in this area is made up of a more industrial type of agriculture. It feels like an area where the agro-industrial model is hitting hard. Machines are replacing humans and work for the rural workers is getting scarce. Well, maybe it has been this way for 10 to 20 years now. I’m not really sure… What is somewhat more obvious is the effects of this industrial model on the people of the area. The locals have no way of getting out of here instantly. So they go get work further and further away.

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Horrible news for José Olvera

The story of José Olvera is one that we have been following for some time. (See our previous posts on Olvera’s story, including our visit to his family, and thoughts on the situation of migrant.)

Sadly, his personal drama unfolded recently in a tragic way. Today he boarded plane back to Mexico, after over 6 years in Canada, some of them as a non-status person. He has not been back to his home country in all those years. Not seen his family. He has a legal case still in waiting, but I can only presume there is little chance of him wining it now. He may never be allowed back to Canada and he will be incapable of sustaining his family in Mexico.

The horrible news is that on the night of Wednesday, seven members of José’s family were involved in a car accident. They were traveling together in a minibus, on their way home from the nearest town, Tlaxco. In a curve the bus was hit by an oncoming trailer truck. The minibus rolled over and four of the seven family members were killed, this includes his sister. Three remain in intensive care; one of them is severely injured and might not survive.

I will be posting more on his story soon along with a podcast on his entire story. One article appeared in a local newspaper.

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Searching for Lilia

They represent a small portion of the migrants coming to Canada, maybe less than 5%, but women are clearly part of a new migration pattern. While agriculture and migration have been and are still dominated by men, more and more women have started going into these traditionally male dominated domains. They have started to go to work in the fields more often than before and they also started to migrate north, a relatively recent development. This phenomenon has been changing the social tissue in the villages where they live.
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Searching for a job? Want to work on a farm?

We are in dire times. The economic depression is starting to hit stronger than ever with jobless rates and bankruptcies on the rise here in Canada, while in the US, nearly 600 000 jobs have been lost in January alone. While all of this is going on, I was listening to the radio and a report was mentioning sectors of the economy where things aren’t really going that bad. One of them is the food production industry.

While around the world, migrant workers in general are sending less and less back home, I am wondering how it will be in the agricultural sector come this summer when workers arrive. Will there suddenly be an influx of local Canadians wanting to work on farms—work fewer and fewer people have been willing to do since WWII.

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The uncertain path of migrants

I recently posted the story of José Olvera, along with my account of our visit to his family in his village. Here are some more thoughts on his case.

As we investigate such issues as migration and agriculture, driving along the country roads of Mexico and meeting workers, we are constantly reminded that the backbone of the agro-industry is comprised of those many sun-parched hands that toil in the fields. These fields are located throughout the rural areas of our one big continent—the Americas.

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The Olvera Family

We set off for another day of unexpected encounters. Driving down the country roads of Tlaxcala, North of Apizaco, we headed to visit the Olvera family. We thought it would be interesting to have a friendly visit with the wife and family of José Guadalupe Olvera Rivera, a migrant agricultural worker who has been in Québec for the past 6 years. Five of these years, he has spent fighting for compensation after a workplace accident made him incapable of doing the manual labor he had done for most of his life.

His story recounts a long and tedious legal battle following his accident. One day, while working in the field, he was hit by a tractor trailer and severely injured. Unable to perform his usual work, his employer announced that he was to be sent back to Mexico. Refusing to leave without the compensation he felt he was entitled to, Olvera has spent his time in a legal struggle against the Canadian government and has not been able to return to Mexico. What was supposed to be a six-month temporary work stint has turned into a 6 year long nightmare.

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José Olvera’s story

José Olvera was working on a farm near L’Assomption, to the North-East of Montreal. He had worked fifteen years in Canada without an incident, but in the summer of 2002, he had a serious accident involving the tractor trailer on his farm. He was working in the field when the tractor driver called him to ask for some help in un-jamming his trailer, which was stuck in the dirt road. José approached and stood between the tractor and the trailon. After some pushing and shoving, with the tractor driver trying to get the tractor to move forward, the machine suddenly jolted forward and ran José over. He got stuck under it and was seriously hurt. The gruesome accident all happened as a result of the tractor driver’s request for help.

The sequence of events after the incident exposes the fault lines of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. At the time of the accident, the supervisor on the farm could not find Jose’s Medicare card. The boss was absent and had kept the Medicare card somewhere, but nobody knew where. Yes, this is supposed to be illegal… but that’s just the way most farm employers do it.

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