Historical Notes on Mexico's Land Reform

Also see: Mexican Revolution and Mexican History 1810-1940

Land reform before Cárdenas

The post-revolutionary governments of the period 1911-1934 did undertake some land reform, but it was premised on the idea that capitalism would remain dominant in the countryside: what was to be abolished was a supposedly parasitic, "traditional" landlordism. The vision of Mexico's rural future envisaged by the reformers was one of large scale modern agroindustries and prosperous medium-scale private capitalist farms. Land grants to peasants were seen as a transitional measure, part of the process of dismantling the great estates, the haciendas. In the longer term, private property would replace the state property associated with land reform: the ejido. The term ejido, which now means a land reform community, is a colonial one, denoting public land (what in England we call commons) attached to a settlement. Post-revolutionary land reform beneficiaries may receive a plot of land individually, or ejidos can be collective, based on collective work on land held in common. Ejidatarios, the beneficiaries of land reform, only received rights to use the land in legal theory, and could not alienate it as if it were private property: if an ejidatario could no longer farm his or her land, and had no successors in the family able to do so, the plot should revert to the community for redistribution to some other potential beneficiary. In practice, however, land titles have been bought and sold in ejidos, and ejidal land might be rented to capitalist entrepreneurs from outside the agrarian community for long periods. But these were informal and illegal practices up to December 1991, when the neoliberal administration of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari (elected in July 1988 amid widespread accusations of electoral fraud) amended constitutional Article 27 in ways which will in practice make legal sales of ejido land possible for the first time and allow peasants to put up their land as collateral for a loan.

Early land reform was mainly designed to serve the political purpose of stopping peasant rebellions, particularly rebellions by indigenous, Indian, communities. This has important consequences for modern agrarian structures. In central Mexico, the area around Mexico City, peasants who received land in the 1920s often only received a hectare or so. This type of land grant was seen as simply a supplement to a wage. It was assumed that the ejidatarios would continue to work as day-laborers (jornaleros) for private farmers, as they had worked for the pre-revolutionary haciendas, or that they would migrate to the cities. The entire policy was intended to be purely temporary, a transitional arrangement. In the event, it has endured up to today, and so one type of land reform community in Mexico is termed the ejido pejugal ¾ another colonial word which means a plot of land given to a foreman on a hacienda. In other areas, peasants did receive more land: Eastern Morelos, one of the main centres of agrarian conflict, the heartland of Zapatismo, is an example. In this case, it was theoretically possible for the peasant family to grow a commercial surplus of corn, something which was quite impossible on the ejido pejugal. However, it's important to note that even here, the government seldom gave the land to the peasant communities under the legal form of a restitution of land, a return of former community land taken away by an encroaching hacienda, even if the communities were theoretically entitled to such a return of land. Land was usually given as a dotación, a grant by the state which could theoretically be revoked in the future. Peasants were seldom even given written titles to their land. These strategies of implementing land reform were used as a way of keeping the peasants dependent on the state and harvesting their votes for the ruling party, but were also symptomatic of the perspective that the land reform system would eventually give way to a full private property regime. In today's neoliberal political climate, this view is once again coming into the ascendant and the privatization of ejidal land has long been the policy of Mexico's main right-wing opposition party, the PAN (Partido de Acción Nacional). But events during the 1930s did introduce a completely different paradigm.

Cardenista land reform

Lázaro Cárdenas, president of Mexico from 1934 to 1940, proposed a completely new model for the ejidos. Peasant agriculture would be the basis for agricultural modernization, and the preferred form of the ejido was the large-scale collective type, though Cárdenas did, in fact, create many new individual ejidos as well. Cárdenas also changed the agrarian legislation so that land could be redistributed to landless laborers on haciendas, peons who had never belonged to rural villages which had previously had communal land, taken away under the liberal reforms of the mid-19th century or simply stolen by haciendas. This was a much more radical land reform program, which promised to make the peasants the masters of the Mexican countryside. Under Cárdenas, much more land was redistributed to peasants than under all the previous post-revolutionary governments put together. As a result of the Cárdenas reforms, a substantial number of ejidos were created which enjoyed prime quality agricultural resources, irrigation works, and in some cases, control of agro-industrial facilities run as cooperatives. So Cárdenas's government created a sector of land reform peasants who were theoretically capable of producing substantial commercial surpluses ¾ in the sense that they were given the land and water needed to do so. Under Cárdenas, they also received state credit, the financial resources needed to valorize their physical resources, investment by the state in infrastructure (roads, canals, etc.) and technical assistance.

Land reform after Cárdenas

After Cárdenas, things shifted once again: under the government of Miguel Alemán (1946-52), there was a virtual counter-reform. Not only were the ejidatarios deprived of state financial aid, but the private sector received both direct and indirect benefits from the change of policy. Whilst the peasants were made to subsidize industrialization, the private sector, particularly in the northern states, received subsidies from the state to develop a prosperous private agricultural sector. At the same time, Alemán's government permitted capitalist entrepreneurs to invade the existing ejidos by renting the peasants' land, producing the phenomenon known as neolatifundismo, where capitalist entrepreneurs build up large-scale enterprises on the basis of controlling land which remains ejidal but is not sown by the peasants to whom it is assigned. This situation persisted until the 1970s, though it's important to stress that there were a number of periods in which peasant resistance to the processes of capitalist expansion began quite intense. It became fashionable to talk about land reform being completed, and governments insisted that there was no more land to redistribute, but the peasantry persisted in denying this proposition by denouncing private landholdings which exceeded the maximum legally permissible size (many of them owned by PRI politicians) and continuing with agrarian struggles against local caciques and large cattle-ranchers. Some additional agrarian reform which did not threaten existing private property was possible within this regime by dint of schemes to colonize previously sparsely populated areas in the tropical lowlands, but peasants found plenty of illegally large landholdings to invade in other parts of the country.


A crunch came with the government of Luis Echeverría, which began in 1970. Echeverría began his adminstration by declaring land reform dead, but two years later, in the face of a mounting deficit in the production of basic foodstuffs and escalating peasant mobilization, had embarked on what was to prove the biggest land reform programme since Cárdenas. Echeverría legalized land invasions in states like Sonora, where big capitalist farms and ranches, often foreign-owned, were turned into new collective ejidos. At the same time, Echeverría revitalized the state credit system, extending credits to a majority of the land reform sector and introduced a whole series of other reforms designed to make it possible for peasant farmers to produce surpluses of basic grains again. But the Echeverría reforms were really quite different to the Cárdenista reforms. First of all, we must bear in mind that Mexico now had a strong private agricultural sector, which also benefitted from the subsidies Echeverría provided to agricultural producers. Mexico's modern agrarian structure is bipolar, combining a peasant and capitalist sector, and the inequalities between the capitalist and peasant sectors are acute. Peasants who lack capital are effectively restricted to sowing low-value crops, whilst the capitalist sector only produces more profitable crops. The official credit system as revived and expanded by Echeverría operated in a way which effectively deprived the peasants dependent on it of any possibility of independent, autonomous, capital accumulation: peasant households generally could not live on what they grew and were simply being maintained in a semi-proletarian existence by state subsidies.

Furthermore, Echeverría's reforms did not satisfy the peasant demand for land: in the next adminstration, of José López Portillo, land invasions were ruthlessly repressed: about 20 people died weekly in agrarian conflicts in 1980. López Portillo too was forced to change his tune a bit in the second half of his administration, producing new programmes designed to encourage peasant production of basic foods like maize and reduce dependence on food imports, in particular the Sistema Alimentario Mexicano (SAM). But the bias towards the private sector continued, and López Portillo's overall emphasis was on improving things for existing ejidos, rather than creating new ones.


After 1982, the position of the agricultural sector in general, and the peasant sector in particular, has deteriorated catastrophically, following the switch to neoliberal policies by the incoming administration of Miguel De la Madrid. People are now much worse off than they were in the 1970s. Under the government of Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988–94), whose claims to have won the elections were a subject of hot dispute, state credit and other forms of assistance for peasant farmers were cut back drastically, although the government did introduce a new scheme of direct cash subsidies to farmers in 1993 (PROCAMPO, the Programa de Apoyos Directos al Campo). Great claims were also made by some for the social programmes grouped under the umbrella of the PRONASOL (Programa Nacional de Solidariad), theoretically the biggest anti-poverty programme in Latin America, though it is also a programme with clear political objectives (peasants often call these PRIcampo and PRInasol to emphasise the point!). But the most radical development was the amendment of Constitutional Article 27 in 1991, which made future claims for private land to be redistributed virtually impossible, and threatened the future existence of the ejido itself by opening the doors to a creeping privatization of ejido land and the possibility of concentration of land in fewer and fewer hands. Implementation of the new agrarian laws is in the hands of a new agrarian bureaucratic agency, charged with administering the PROCEDE (Programa de Certificación de Derechos Ejidales y Titulación de Solares Urbanos). Since the continuity of agrarian struggles in Mexico since the revolution has been influenced by the existence of laws allowing for excessively large private holdings to be redistributed, even if such holdings were largely tolerated in practice, these changes represent a radical break with the revolutionary past. There have, however, been a variety of militant responses to neoliberal attempts to restructure Mexican rural society, ranging from the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) in Chiapas, to the Barzonista ("El Barzón") movement, which is a militant organization started by private sector farmers in western Mexico who found themselves unable to repay their loans to the banks. It has now become a national debtors' movement, embracing urban small businessmen as well as farmers.

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