Rural Society

Mexico Table of Contents

Nearly eighty years after enactment, agrarian reform remains at once one of the Mexican Revolution's most impressive accomplishments and enduring failures. At the onset of the revolution, huge haciendas controlled almost all agricultural land. By 1991 agrarian reform beneficiaries (and their heirs) held about half of all national land. More than 3.5 million campesinos live and work in nearly 30,000 communities formed as a direct result of various agrarian reform initiatives. At the same time, however, most campesinos hold marginal parcelas (individual plots) that cannot meet the subsistence needs of their families. These campesinos, as well as those with no land at all, have to work periodically for large landowners or agribusinesses, migrate seasonally to the United States, or take a variety of other actions to survive.

The Agrarian Reform Act of 1915 and the constitution of 1917 laid the groundwork for dramatic changes in Mexico's land tenure system. These documents established that the nation retained ultimate control over privately held land, which could be expropriated and redistributed in the public interest to campesinos.

The ejido , or communally farmed plot, emerged as the uniquely Mexican form of redistributing large landholdings. Under this arrangement, a group of villagers could petition the government to seize private properties that exceeded certain specified sizes--initially 150 hectares for irrigated land and 200 hectares for rain-fed holdings. Assuming a favorable review of the petition, the government then expropriated the property and created an ejido . The state retained title to the land but granted the villagers, now known as ejidatarios , the right to farm the land, either in a collective manner or through the designation of individual parcelas . Ejidatarios could not sell or mortgage their land but could pass usufruct rights to their heirs. Ejidatarios had to work their land regularly in order to maintain rights over it. In cases where villagers established that they had collectively farmed the land in question before its eventual consolidation into a hacienda, the government created an agrarian community (comunidad agraria ). Comuneros (members of agrarian communities), who lived primarily in southern Mexico, had largely the same rights and responsibilities as ejidatarios .

Mexican administrations have varied widely in the importance accorded to the ejido . During the 1920s and early 1930s, policy makers typically viewed the ejido as a transitional system that would lead to small private farms nationwide. For example, President Plutarco Elías Calles (1924-28) described the ejido as a school from which ejidatarios eventually would graduate as private farmers. Given this perspective, policy makers encouraged ejidos to divide their lands into individual parcelas . In contrast, President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-40) saw the ejido as an essential and permanent component of agricultural development, and he encouraged a collectivist organizational structure to maximize resources. During his six-year term, Cárdenas expropriated nearly 18 million hectares of privately owned land for redistribution as ejidos , more than double the total amount recorded since the revolution ended. The ejido share of total cultivable land increased from roughly 13 percent in 1930 to approximately 47 percent in 1940.

During the next three decades, the government favored large-scale commercial agriculture at the expense of the ejido . Federally funded irrigation projects in the states of Sonora and Sinaloa and in the agriculturally important Bajío region of Guanajuato and northern Michoacán were designed to enable large landowners to compete in the United States agricultural market. The government also narrowed the definition of private properties eligible for expropriation.

Upon assuming the presidency in 1970, Luis Echeverría Álvarez shifted government priorities back to the ejido . Espousing the same philosophy as Cárdenas three decades before, Echeverría felt that the ejido would play a leading role in meeting domestic food demand. Echeverría increased ejido holdings by some 17 million hectares, including the expropriation of rich irrigated lands in Sonora. Collectivized ejidos received preferential access to credit and farm equipment through government agencies such as the National Bank of Rural Credit (Banco Nacional de Crédito Rural--Banrural).

The Echeverría administration marked the last significant redistribution of landholdings. Echeverría's successor, López Portillo, distributed only about 1.8 million hectares to ejidos . Yet like Echeverría, López Portillo sought to channel government resources to ejidos . Following the discovery of vast petroleum reserves along Mexico's southeastern coast, López Portillo used oil profits to establish the Mexican Food System (Sistema Alimentario Mexicano--SAM), which sought to ensure national self-sufficiency in basic staples, such as corn and beans. López Portillo encouraged ejidos to play a major role in this effort and channeled petrodollars to agencies offering credit to ejidatarios . For many ejidatarios , however, credit merely generated increased debt and dependence on government bureaucracies without significantly improving their overall conditions. In the wake of the debt crisis that began in 1982, the administration of Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado (1982-88) abolished the SAM and cut agricultural funding by two-thirds.

Despite collectivist efforts of Echeverría and, to a much lesser extent, López Portillo, a national survey released at the beginning of the Salinas presidency revealed that approximately 88 percent of ejidatarios and comuneros farmed individual parcelas . (Government statistics did not differentiate between ejidos and agrarian communities.) The survey also indicated a notable differentiation between the 16 percent of ejidos and agrarian communities that had irrigated fields and the remainder that did not. The former reported significantly higher percentages in the use of improved seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers, as well as access to technical assistance. Sixty-five percent of all ejidatarios and comuneros indicated that they grew corn as their principal crop.

Mexico's post-1940 population explosion produced a continual subdivision of most parcelas , resulting in holdings that were below subsistence level. According to the 1981 agricultural census, nearly 31 percent of all ejidatarios held parcelas of two hectares or less, far below the amount of land required to support a family. Another 27 percent maintained holdings ranging from two to five hectares, with 38 percent farming parcelas of between five and twenty hectares . Less than 3 percent of ejidatarios held individual plots of between twenty and fifty hectares.

Data from the 1981 agricultural census on private landholding patterns revealed an even more stratified picture. Nearly 40 percent of all private (non-ejido ) farmers held plots of two hectares or less, with an additional 17 percent working plots of between two and five hectares. Together, these two groups had only 2 percent of the privately owned land area. In contrast, 2 percent of all landholders controlled nearly 63 percent of the privately owned land. Holdings exceeding 2,500 hectares were particularly in evidence in the north (especially in Chihuahua and Sonora) and in Chiapas.

With plots too small to support even a modest standard of living, farming has become a secondary source of income for most campesinos. Many worked as day laborers for large landholders. The 1981 agricultural census recorded approximately 3 million farm laborers, 60 percent of them temporary. Ejidatarios , in effect, form a cheap and available labor pool for commercial agriculture. These sectors are further linked through the illegal before 1992 but nevertheless widespread practice of renting ejido land. Although the government maintains no statistics on this activity, some observers estimate that up to half of the irrigated ejido lands in Sonora and Sinaloa and up to half of such holdings in the Bajío region of Guanajuato and southern Michoacán are rented. Regular migration to the United States also is an essential survival strategy for many campesinos, with remittances allowing many families to remain in the countryside. Many young campesinos spend the bulk of the year working in the United States, returning to their plots only during the planting and harvesting seasons. An unknown number of campesinos in isolated communities in southern and western Mexico also engage in narcotics trafficking.

In the 1970s, sociologist Rodolfo Stavenhagen and other scholars suggested that the ejidatarios were among Mexico's poorest and most exploited rural workers. Their productivity was low because of the poor quality of their land, the lack of timely technical assistance, and the unavailability of low-cost agricultural inputs. Yet the government's official policy historically has been to keep agricultural prices low in an effort to subsidize the urban population.

Ejidatarios remain highly dependent on the bureaucratic channels of both the state and the ruling PRI). All ejidatarios are automatically members of the peasant sector of the PRI; but owing to their lack of political experience, they become easily manipulated by professional "peasant" leaders in Mexico City, who are usually of middle-class backgrounds. Many ejidatarios look to the state as a modern patrón (traditional paternalistic landlord) who has the power to control prices, credit opportunities, and access to farm machinery and water rights and who must be continuously courted and reminded of their pressing needs.

Confronted with the dysfunctional character of much of Mexican agriculture, the government in 1992 radically changed the ejido land tenure system, codifying some existing actions that were illegal but widely practiced and introducing several new features. Under the new law, an ejido can award its members individual titles to the land, not merely usufruct rights to their parcelas . Ejidatarios can, in turn, choose to rent, sell, or mortgage their properties. Ejidatarios do not need to work their lands to maintain ownership over them. They also may enter into partnerships with private entrepreneurs. The law also effectively ends the redistribution of land through government decree. Finally, the processing and resolution of land disputes are decentralized.

The government's perspective is that these new measures provide ejidatarios with more realistic and sensible options. A winnowing effect is anticipated, as some inefficient and marginal producers sell their properties to more efficient farmers. With property to mortgage, the more entrepreneurial ejidatarios have collateral that can be used to obtain private-sector credit. By removing the prospect of widespread government-directed land redistribution, owners will be more likely to invest resources to increase agricultural production. Government critics fear, however, that the revisions will increase landlessness and poverty among ejidatarios and solidify inequitable patterns of land distribution in states such as Chiapas.

As part of its overall agricultural program, the Salinas administration attempted to restructure Banrural as a more efficient and streamlined organization, limiting its scope to serving those ejidatarios with production capabilities. To assist more marginal producers in dealing with the agricultural transformation, Salinas established the Procampo program in 1993 as part of the Pronasol initiative. Procampo provided direct payments to farmers based on the size of their holdings. In 1995 President Zedillo shifted Procampo's operation to the newly created Alliance for the Countryside (Alianza para el Campo) and extended it for a fifteen-year period.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress