The Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD), an agency of the bishops in England and Wales, has expressed concern that the full implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) will result in job losses and radical wage depreciation for poor Mexican farmers.
The NAFTA agreement is due to be finalised this month, February 2008. Critics, including CAFOD and other UK development groups, say it will pit poor Mexican workers in an unworkable economic battle against US and Canadian competitors, rather than spreading propserity evenly.
Overall, they argue, the result may well be greater inequality. The American government says the result will be a boost in finance and trade, although it has negotiated hard, using all its international muscle, to secure a deal favorable to the rich United States.
CAFOD has now backed a strong statement from the Mexican Catholic Bishops Conference's social action commission, criticising the proposed deal.
The Mexican bishops say: "There is a very real risk of greater impoverishment in rural and indigenous areas." They want to see the interests of the poor central to NAFTA.
CAFOD has worked in Mexico for more than 30 years and has campaigned to raise awareness of the plight of small farmers affected by NAFTA since 2001.
The agency says it supports the bishops' call for the Mexican government to guarantee its people have enough food to eat, to protect national production and to consider renegotiating NAFTA.
Roisin O'Hara, from CAFOD's Latin America and Caribbean team, declared last wek: "CAFOD welcomes the bishops' powerful statement condemning the free trade system and applauds their expression of solidarity with Mexico's poorest communities."
O'Hara continued: "Trade liberalisation has filled Mexico with cheap alternatives, leaving small producers unable to compete. Every hour the country imports an estimated 1.5 million dollars worth of agricultural and food products, almost all from the US. During the same hour, 30 people leave their homes in the Mexican countryside to seek work in the US."
"We have witnessed first-hand the devastating effects unfair trade policies are having on the poor and agree we have a moral responsibility to speak out and support them out of poverty," she said.
An indigenous coffee farmer, Vicente Gómez, whom CAFOD supports through a partner organisation in the south of Mexico, is quoted as saying: "Since NAFTA we get very little for what we sell. Now coffee only brings in 6 pesos a kilo but a pair of trousers is 100, shoes 150, and a hat 50."
Mexican bishops point out that: "Mexico cannot close its borders indefinitely, not only because we are not self-sufficient in everything but also because the market now exceeds national limits in both its benefits and limitations."
They declae: "[W]hen the laws of the market impose upon the rights of the people and communities, profit becomes the supreme value and serves the large interest groups, excluding the poor and generating a global economic system which is both unjust and inhumane."
The letter from the church leaders continues: "It is necessary to seek paths, in the sphere of international commerce, which change those systems which generate injustice and exclusion in those countries or sectors of society which are less developed. No system is untouchable when it generates death."
In particular, CAFOD reports, the bishops have warned that more farmers may abandon their farms and migrate to cities or to the US which "currently has a very strong and inhumane anti-immigration programme".
They say that farm workers may be tempted to cultivate illegal crops which will open the door to insecurity and violence, and that the increasing demand for fuel for industry is stimulating the production of bio-fuels derived from grain which has serious consequences for the ability of the country to feed itself.
The bishops concluded their statement by quoting the words of Pope Benedict XVI: "The just ordering of society and the state is the principle task of political bodies and not the Church. However the Church cannot remain at the sidelines in the fight for justice".
British anti-poverty groups, ranging from CAFOD and Christian Aid through to the World Development Movement and War n Want, have warned that 'free trade' can often be a smokescreen for the huge vested interests of the rich and for widespread economic injustice.
Where groups of workers and producers are hamstrung by one-sided deals there is no freedom, only unfairness, they point out. The answer is a major readjustment of the international trade, economic and financial system, they say.