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A Message from the Bishops of the Episcopal Commission for Social Action Regarding the Situation of the Mexican Countryside


For the dignity of the land, for the dignity of Mexico
Mexico, Distrito Federal, January 29, 2003

To our brothers and sisters of the countryside
To the Catholic people of Mexico
To the Government of Mexico
To all people of good will

     In the way of Jesus, the Good Shepherd (John l0:1)

  1. We, as shepherds, and members of the Episcopal Commission for Social Action, who have been given the task of announcing the Gospel in the midst of the realities in which we live, wish to direct a word of hope, encouragement and solidarity to our brothers and sisters in the Mexican countryside.1

  2. This message is, at the same time, an invitation to Mexican society and to our public officials to reflect on the difficult situation that millions of peasant farmers have faced for many years and in recent times has been deteriorating.

  3. Additionally, as part of our mission as shepherds, we wish to contribute to the debate, which has intensified of late, about the effects of the most recent phase of liberalization of agricultural imports on the Mexican countryside. Although our words are directed at this particular situation, we invite the reader to consider them in a broader light, as a contribution inspired by the Gospel to the debate about the future of our Nation as a whole.

    "The Lord's are the earth and its fullness" (Ps. 24:1)

  4. We begin our reflection with the words cited above from Psalm 24, words which are particularly appropriate at a time in which human beings have understood their dominion over creation as if it were an absolute power, allowing it to be manipulated for their own pleasure and even to be destroyed for their own ends, particularly for their financial gain.4

  5. But the biblical texts that at one time inspired this way of understanding the dominion of human beings over creation, clearly say just the opposite. By having been created in the image and likeness of God, humankind is called to be the steward and protector of all creation. Human beings, as all other creatures, must understand their position as one of profound dependence on God, and as such, must accept that their relationship to nature should be characterized by caring and love for nature.

  6. We are witnesses to the profound respect that our brothers and sisters in the countryside have for the land. We understand that this respect is derived from deep familial and communal roots and from the livelihoods that are generated by the soil. We wish to highlight in a special way the significance that the land has for our indigenous brothers and sisters, who maintain a deep and vital relationship with it and have developed a very strong community and religious sense of the land.

  7. Today, however, we are profoundly concerned about the widespread tendency to view the land solely "as a means of production, as capital, as a good to be bought and sold." The unfettered accumulation of wealth, the displacement of original owners from their lands, the plundering and the destruction of communal property that we are seeing throughout the country are situations of injustice that "cry out to heaven."

  8. If we continue to view the countryside exclusively in market terms, we cannot expect anything less than increased poverty, destruction of rural culture, greater out-migration, and worse yet, a spiral of violence and death which is completely inconsistent with God's plan for a life of dignity and justice for all His sons and daughters.

    "I came so that they might have life"(John 10: 10)

  9. The words of Jesus to his disciples, as written by the evangelist St. John, express unmistakably the mission that the Father entrusted to Him. God in Jesus Christ is manifested above all as the God of Life.

  10. The dignity given to all human beings by our creation by God in His image and likeness, and our redemption by Christ, bestows on every person the right to life, and to a life with dignity. This right implies the rejection of all kinds of violence. The violence of poverty, of misery, of damage to the environment, is a reality today for millions of our brothers and sisters in Mexico. As shepherds, we know that this violence is waged in the countryside on a daily basis.

  11. With these words, we wish to transmit a message of solidarity to all of you, brothers and sisters of the countryside, who experience the daily punishments of poverty and misery. To you, who have seen your families destroyed by the migration of your relatives because they are no longer able to extract what they need to survive from the land. To you, brothers and sisters, who during the last decades have seen the quality of life in your communities deteriorate, have had no access to education and health care, and have seen your economic activity curtailed. You are the judgment that the world will face for having excluded, through its model of economic organization, and continuing to exclude millions of brothers and sisters from the banquet of creation. It is you, however, who are called to affirm life in the midst of death, demonstrating to us that a road to greater humanity can be built out of poverty; a road in which life is viewed as gift without a price, in which generosity surpasses the value of material resources, and in which the capacity for celebration and joy is preserved in the midst of the sufferings of our existence.

    "Jesus saw a vast crowd, and his heart was filled with pity for them." (Mk 6:34)

  12. St. Mark, the evangelist, transmits to us Jesus' experience upon seeing the multitude, who were debilitated and walking as if sheep without a shepherd. As we look today at the situation of the countryside, we do so through Jesus' eyes and with the heart of shepherds who know and love their flocks.

  13. In Mexico, where 1 out of 4 persons live in the countryside, working directly or indirectly in agricultural activities, we witness a very harsh reality: the majority of the population lives in poverty and a great number of them in extreme poverty. This situation is particularly dramatic among the indigenous communities.

  14. Throughout our history, there has been an ongoing discussion about the development of the Mexican countryside. Many of our conflicts have been tied to the discussion of rural life. A century ago, we argued about the ownership of the land; today the discussion is centered on the type of development we want for the countryside. This is an issue which is central to the future of our nation.

  15. In the last century, during the decades known as the "Mexican miracle," the countryside gave us cheap food and employment, and constituted an important source of foreign exchange, which financed our industrial and urban development, but did not produce many benefits for the peasant farmer.

  16. During the last 30 years, conditions in the Mexican countryside have deteriorated steadily, particularly among small land holders, who constitute the vast majority of farmers. This is attributed to several factors, including the corporatist manipulation of the countryside for political ends; the lack of infrastructure support, investments in research, and financing for agriculture; terms of trade which have enriched large importers, but not the majority of small farmers; and a series of public policy decisions which were directed at supplying imports for the domestic market rather than at increasing productivity. These policies are now being questioned because of the impact they have had.

  17. In addition, during the last few decades, the process of economic globalization has intensified. Mexico became part of this process in 1986 and more so during the l990s. In 1993 a free trade agreement was signed with the United States of America and Canada. This brought policy reforms with respect to the countryside.

  18. The results of this agreement have been beneficial for some regions and some growers in the country, but the majority of the farmers, small peasant and indigenous farmers, have experienced a severe decline in their incomes and quality of life.

  19. One of the sectors which did benefit was that of the fruit and vegetable growers, which was able to take advantage of several aspects of the agreement. Others, however, like the basic grains and cattle growers have been negatively affected. It is important to note that the group which did reap significant benefits numbers in the thousands, while the group that did not is made up of approximately 3 million farmers.

  20. We can anticipate, as has been the case in the past years, that until optimal productivity levels are reached, so as to compete on equal terms with our trading partners, the conditions of poverty in the countryside will become increasingly harsh.

  21. As shepherds, we recognize there are many different levels of productive capacity. Only a small percentage of farms are mechanized, while the vast majority uses traditional farming methods and many produce for subsistence. This demonstrates that production for self-consumption has increased while the sale of agricultural produce to the domestic market has decreased.

  22. The phenomenon of migration, about which we recently issued a statement together with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, is increasing at an alarming rate. In the recent pastoral letter, we affirmed that: "all persons have the right to find in their own countries the economic, political, and social opportunities to live in dignity and achieve a full life through the use of their God-given gifts." (#34).

  23. In the past several years, Mexico's economy has not grown at a rate fast enough to absorb the existing labor force, much less to provide employment for those who have been displaced from the countryside to other sectors of the economy. This has caused the forced migration of many individuals, families and communities, often in dangerous and precarious conditions. These migrants suffer many abuses of their rights and dignity throughout their journeys and in their destinations. Many have also met their deaths while crossing the border which separates prosperity from misery.

  24. The importing of foodstuffs, which could be produced in our own country, has also increased significantly. Just in the last decade, experts confirm that Mexico's food imports have reached 40% of its domestic consumption. This represents an increase of 16% since the signing of the free trade agreement. We must warn that the undermining of our food sovereignty places our country in a very insecure position for the future. This is a decision that merits a broad national debate and also poses an ethical challenge with respect to the regulations governing the quality of food imports, which should be more rigid.

  25. We also wish to highlight the phenomenon of child malnutrition which, in spite of efforts to combat it, has not declined. In the countryside, one out of six children suffers from malnutrition, while half of all children under two nationally suffer from anemia.

  26. All of these statistics, which we see around us in our daily contact with our brothers and sisters in the countryside, move us to proclaim as one Church, with heartfelt words of solidarity, the primacy of the human person in any development model.

    "You cannot serve two masters: God and money" (Mt. 6:24)

  27. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus invites his listeners to embrace options that will bring them closer to God's plan. The life of Jesus is marked by a process of permanent discernment.

  28. Mexico is called to engage in a similar process, to discern the course of action which will best serve the nation. As we affirmed in our pastoral letter "From the Encounter with Jesus Christ to Solidarity with All," our society and all of its representatives must seek a broad consensus about what we want to achieve, based on the identity and the plurality of our society, on human dignity and the common good. The Mexican people, in a climate of dialogue and respect for the rights and responsibilities that are derived from human nature, have the opportunity to chart a course of solidarity, pluralism and inclusiveness which will serve the needs of human beings, families, their values and their history. (#269)

  29. In these times of globalization, in which the market would appear to dominate all else, we would do well to recall the words of John Paul II who affirms that "not all human needs can and should be addressed by the market." (Centessimus annus #34)

  30. In the last few years, Mexico has negotiated a great number of trade agreements with other countries. Pope Paul VI affirmed in his encyclical "Populorum Progressio": "....The teaching set forth by Leo XIII… is still valid today: when two parties are in very unequal positions, their mutual consent alone does not guarantee a fair contract; the rule of free consent remains subservient to the demands of the natural law… free trade can be called just only when it conforms to the demands of social justice."

  31. This text allows us to cast light on the debate that has intensified of late as to the justice of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), especially with respect to the agricultural chapter. We must ask whether the negotiations of NAFTA took into consideration the asymmetries between the infrastructure, financing and technical support available to the Mexican farmers on the one hand and the North American and Canadian growers on the other.

  32. The reality illustrates that, although a small group of growers has benefited from the negotiation and implementation of NAFTA, a much larger group of farmers has been excluded from these benefits. The gap between the export agriculture sector, which has ample access to credit and markets, and that of subsistence farmers and those who produce for local and regional markets, and do not have access to credit and other support, has clearly grown.

  33. We must remember that the trade agreements that Mexico has signed are a means, not an end. They should serve as a vehicle through which to attain a better quality of life for all Mexicans. A truly modern and democratic approach to trade agreements and related national policy decisions should seek the integral development of the entire society. As we affirm in our Pastoral Letter, "economic activity should not be based exclusively on market principles, but should be subject to ethical norms and principles and grounded in human dignity, social justice and the universal distribution of the beloved resources of our Creator". (#312)

  34. It is also unfair and unjust that you, peasant farmers and producers, should be held exclusively responsible for the deplorable situation in the Mexican countryside today. The reality around us should serve as an appeal to the conscience and responsibility of all sectors of society, but especially to those responsible for the designing and implementing public policy.

  35. We would also like to say a word about the role of the state. The state has a social responsibility not only to ease the effects of poverty, but also to attack its root causes (#23 "The Challenges of the New Evangelization....,CELAM, 2002). Public spending levels, which in Mexico have been largely directed at internal and external debt service payments, have been significantly reduced. While this is occurring in Mexico, our international trading partners have increased support for their agricultural producers. We call on our government to pursue long term strategies for strengthening agriculture in our country and for bolstering food security. This implies pursuing comprehensive support policies that promote research and technological innovation and protect rural culture.

  36. For the various reasons outlined above, we can conclude that the agricultural trade we are currently conducting with our trading partners from the North is unjust. The agricultural subsidies and support recently approved by the United States government, against which Mexico cannot compete, have dramatically altered the assumptions under which the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed a decade ago.

  37. The consequences of many years of abandonment of the countryside, for which we all share some responsibility, are poverty, abandonment, the breakdown of family and community ties, forced migration and environmental degradation. In this context, we can understand the mobilization of peasant farmers and indigenous communities who perceive that their political leaders and society in general are not doing enough to stem the decline of the countryside. We are all called to listen to the just demands of the peasant farmer movement, along with the growers and other sectors which have joined with them in solidarity. In a spirit of mutual respect and dialogue, of openness and reconciliation, we must seek a just solution to these demands. At stake is our capacity to set a course for our nation based on justice, plurality and inclusiveness.

    "Be concerned above everything else with the Kingdom of God and with his righteousness, and He will provide you with all these other things" (Mt. 6:33)

  38. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks to his disciples of all times. With His word he invites us to renew our faith in the Divine Providence and to seek the Kingdom of God above all else in our lives. To allow God to reign means we must submit all of our relationships to his Word. It means that we must take on the options that He himself has revealed to us: the option for the poor and the lowliest among us. When we open ourselves to his Holiness, we are guaranteed a plentiful life for all men and women.

  39. We wish to share with you now some criteria and strategies with which to find solutions for the situation confronting the Mexican countryside today.

  40. Above all, we should recognize the fundamental and primordial right of all Mexicans to life. This right should be promoted and protected in every circumstance and should supersede any economic or political treaty. At the same time, we recall the right of all persons to participate in the life of their own communities or nation. This right cannot be diluted "when the democratic process breaks down because of corruption and favoritism, which not only obstruct legitimate sharing in the exercise of power but also prevent people from benefiting equally from community assets and services, to which everyone has a right." (John Paul II, World Day of Peace, 1999).

  41. We must acknowledge that the government, peasant farmers, growers and all other actors in our society are collectively responsible for the crisis in the Mexican countryside as well as for the future reconstruction of rural Mexico. Let us recall the words of Pope John Paul II to the Indians of Oaxaca and Chiapas "....the depressed world of the countryside, the hard labor, that with its sweat also irrigates its distress, must not be forced to wait any longer to live out its dignity to the fullest. It is not inferior to any other sector of society ... and as such has the right to respect… has the right to be free of the barriers of exploitation…has the right to receive support- not as alms nor crumbs of justice- but support which will allow it the development that the dignity of human beings and children of God so deserve. (Oaxaca, January 29, 1979)

  42. We ask the Mexican Government, in negotiating trade agreements and related concerns, to seek the greatest good for the greatest number of people, for the longest period of time possible and at the lowest cost. We need a legal framework which "ensures the value of the human person, honesty, respect for life, distributive justice, and special care for the poorest" (SD #195) in order to build an economy of solidarity, which is both creative and socially just, in service of the Mexican countryside.

  43. It is imperative that we support the organizations, institutions and intermediate groups working on behalf of peasant farmers and the preservation of their way of life, those that promote a more just distribution and use of land, that provide indispensable technical support to farmers and the land, organizations that are pursuing fair trade strategies for agricultural produce, and those who are seeking a theological framework with which to protect the land. We reaffirm our commitment to participate in the construction of a new society "from an option for the poor and with the poor, in whom we encounter the living Christ." (#426)

  44. In the last 20 years, we have observed the way in which the relationship between the economy, the state and society has been altered. In response, we call for a broad national debate which is not only necessary, but urgent, if we are to set a long term course for our nation. This requires an authentic commitment from all sectors of society, using a common methodology and objectives, to define together the role of rural society in our country and the importance of our capacity to produce food for our entire population. This debate should seek to rebuild the relationship between the Mexican state and the countryside. It should involve the peasant farmers themselves in a reexamination of the role of agriculture in our country, should include all sectors of rural society, not just a limited few, should seek strategies for reducing rural poverty and obtaining greater equity, should seek greater sustainability, and should give priority to the rights and culture of the indigenous communities.

  45. In light of the current environmental, economic, and socio-cultural crisis in the countryside, we call upon the government to listen to our society, to dialogue with the peasant farmers and other producers, and to make use of all the resources at its disposal to insure that this population does not continue to be excluded from our development. The trade agreements we have signed do not in any way constitute a permanent and unalterable commitment. The parties involved do have the opportunity to establish mechanisms and safeguards and other mechanisms in emergency situations. The free play of market forces alone is not capable of correcting situations of exclusion and poverty. If we rescue the countryside, we will recover the opportunity to construct a better future for the generations to come. Is this an ethical obligation, an economic necessity, and a political imperative.

  46. As pastors, we call on the faithful to reflect on the problems of the countryside and to seek creative solutions.

  47. We will explore mechanisms for dialogue about this issue with the Bishops of our sister churches of Canada and the United States. We will make an effort to strengthen the dialogue which already exists between the farmers of our three countries. Similarly, we respectfully invite our brother bishops of the various churches in Mexico to promote reflection and dialogue about this issue.

  48. May the Holy Virgin of Guadalupe, who transmitted her message of Jesus' salvation to our country through Saint Juan Diego, a poor Indian, intercede for us with her Son so that we may move, in a spirit of peace, toward the construction of a more just and caring Mexico, grounded in solidarity.

On Behalf of the Bishops of the Commission

+ Sergio Obeso
Archbishop of Xalapa
President of the Episcopal Commission for Social Action

1 "It is just that the Church… should issue its moral judgment, including judgment about issues of the political order when the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls is at stake, using all those means, but only those means, which are consistent with the Gospel." (CEM, No. 230, Pastoral Letter, "From the Encounter with Jesus Christ to Solidarity with All", March 25, 2000).

2 See Document of Santo Domingo, No. 171-177.

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