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Mexico’s Ejido Experiment

Post-Revolutionary Agrarian Politics Through Capitalist Restructuring

September 15, 2022

The Ejido as Mexico’s Historical Alternative to Private Property

Over the span of eighty-five years, Mexico’s post-revolutionary government expropriated and redistributed over half of Mexico’s arable land in the form of the Ejido.1Perramond, “The Rise, Fall, and Reconfiguration of the Mexican Ejido,” 356. The ejido was a byproduct of the most pressing demand stemming from the Mexican Revolution: land reform. Reluctantly, revolutionary president Venustiano Carranza introduced the ejido as part of the 1917 constitution, but notable expropriations of Mexico’s large, landed estates did not take off until the presidency of Lazaro Cardenas, the post-revolutionary president most committed to peasant and working class politics. Through the ejido, Cardenas and subsequent presidents at least partially challenged dominating and widespread notions of private property.

Today, private property has become the dominant form of land tenure worldwide, but in Twentieth-Century Mexico, the Revolution produced conditions that facilitated a more collective alternative to capitalist conceptions of land ownership. As recipients of ejido land, or ejidatarios, owners and their descendants have access to government-owned land indefinitely—so long as they do not fail to work the land. If an ejidatario abandons or fails to work their land, fellow ejidatarios can petition to redistribute plots amongst themselves. This happened frequently when ejidatarios migrated to the US or Mexico City and failed to return.

The redistribution kept land productive for those in the community. In this way, the ideals of Emiliano Zapata, “la tierra es para quien la trabaja,” was effectively turned into policy. In addition to their allocated plots, ejidatarios maintained access to communal holdings that belonged to their community’s ejido.2Velazquez Hernandez, Entrevista con ejidatario. These were typically mountains or hills, land that was difficult to cultivate but provided resources for animal grazing and hunting/gathering.3Ibid. These lands were essentially open to the public and used for communal benefit.

In centering the experiences of ejidatarios, or those who received expropriated land, we are able to challenge assumptions and arguments made by those observing from the outside. Ejidatarios in rural Guanajuato describe their manifestation of the ejido as the collection of the community’s parcel holdings. This collective self-determination is crucial. Members of the ejido meet frequently in casas ejidales, where they collectively and democratically make decisions for their community and the lands. Here, questions about land allocation and distribution, transfer of resources, and the induction of new members are all voted on. In order to become an ejidatario, a current member has to propose to transfer a piece of their parcel to a prospective recipient. If the recipient in question is not an ejidatario, then the ejidatario petitioner must go before their fellow ejidatarios in a meeting. The transfer of land is then discussed and voted on. A majority of ejidatarios must itself be present and if among those gathered, the majority votes are in favor, then the land can be transferred and the prospective recipient becomes a member of the ejido. Mexico’s conception of land tenure for ejidos, while problematic in the sense that the state remains the official proprietor of the land, permits a much more collective and democratic form of land management than allowed by private property, which  dominates capitalist social arrangements.

Much has been written about the end of the ejido, but their death-knell should not be rung so quickly.4There is a consensus between political scientists, sociologists, historians, anthropologists, and archeologists that ejidos have been privatized. For examples, see: Bacon, The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration; Cornelius and Myhre, The Transformation of Rural Mexico : Reforming the Ejido Sector; Covert, “Reframing Guanajuato’s Indigenous Past: Archaeological Field Notes and Development Priorities”; Stanford, “The Privatization of Mexico’s Ejidal Sector: Examining Local Impacts, Strategies and Ideologies.” Most scholars agree that Carlos Salinas de Gortari dealt a death blow to collective lands when he opened them up to privatization in 1992. But scholars are mistaken in believing that the ejido has ceased to exist. In fact, in the decade following Gortari’s reforms, less than one percent of ejido land was privatized.5Kraul, “Mexico Ends Practice of Giving Land to Poor.” In many parts of the country, the ejido remains a major, if not dominant, form of land tenure. But this is not to say that neoliberal agrarian reforms have had no impact. While they failed to eliminate the ejido, they were successful in transforming it into a more individualized form of land tenure by issuing land deeds. By pointing to these land deeds, scholars identify an important development and are partially correct, but they are also mistaken in identifying Gortari’s reforms as the most influential in the ejido’s demise.

Instead, local ejidatarios identify the agrarian reform of 2002 by conservative president Vicente Fox as the policy that truly transformed the ejido. Fox’s reforms provided formal titles for family parcels while, at the same time, titling much of what had been fully communal land, particularly in the mountains and hills. Essentially, neoliberal reforms failed to transform ejidos into private property, or land open for public sale. Instead, it created enclosures among the collective landholdings that existed. Reforms transformed the ejido but did not eliminate it. Through the reforms, no land was taken away from ejidatarios but the ability to formally expropriate private landholdings came to an end. Reforms moved ejidos towards individualization, but the ejido nonetheless remains a distinctly social form of land tenure, quite different from private property. Today, ejido meetings through which collective self-determination is organized continue to occur.

The new, formal titles to land allow people to transfer their plots between themselves more easily, but what distinguished the ejido most from private property—the ability to petition for unused land—was lost. Commonly accessible lands, such as the non-arable mountains and hills, were titled and formalized. Once titled, community members lost access to these lands and their resources. This was the moment that enclosure began to dominate rural Mexico. Ejidos’ lands ceased to be communal in the most relevant sense and became increasingly individualized property. Still, and despite the centerpiece of their social self-determination being thrown into question, ejidatarios do maintain certain privileges over formal private property owners. The taxes they pay on their property are negligible and they maintain preferential treatment when the government introduces programs to assist rural Mexicans. Finally, they still must democratically decide who gets what when it comes to transferring property. The casa ejidal continue to function as a local means for community organizing and governance.

Mexico’s conception of land tenure for ejidos, while problematic in the sense that the state remains the official proprietor of the land, permits a much more collective and democratic form of land management than that allowed by private property.

The fact that ejidos continue to exist today in itself dispels much of the undue exaggerations in the literature on the impact of neoliberal reforms in rural communities. While it is true that, in many ways, neoliberalism contributed to the displacement of campesinos in Mexico, it is not the direct correlation presented by most scholars. Since they still exist, a relevant political question becomes: how do we support the ejido today? Is it possible to roll back reforms? It is true that the ejido in its current state has lost much of its collectivity and communalism. In its current state dominated by titled lands, it no longer presents us with a truly radical alternative to private property. But rolling back reforms without more significant structural change would eventually lead to similar results.

Beyond defending their existing form, a more robust defense of the principles behind the ejido is necessary. This means rural Mexicans must organize and restructure their relationship to the land in ways that collectively benefits their communities. Doing so would avoid the weaknesses built into the ejido from its start. Indeed, from its onset, the ejido functioned as a political tool for the post-revolutionary elite to use in exchange for large scale political support. We give you land and you support our rule. Investment and follow through was never enough, though, and today, it is worse than it has ever been.

The contemporary ejido therefore functions as a historical lesson in revolution. It continues to exist to this day only because Mexicans defended the institution, including with arms when necessary. Reactionaries and those who lost land were not able to recover their expropriated lands because campesinos organized and armed themselves through Las Defensas Rurales. Even in its depleted form, ejidos also provide rural Mexicans with memory of collective organizing and identity. To this day, peasant unions and actions take place and the ejido remains a central tenet for this type of organizing. Until rural Mexicans can once again reclaim land from the encroachment of capitalism in the countryside, and in preparation for such a day, we must learn the lessons of revolution, investment, organizing, and armed defense that the ejido has taught us over the last century.

Ejidos and Inequality

Some, however pull up short of this revolutionary demand, focusing instead on a narrower neoliberal time-frame and a limited view of recent policy’s effects. The effects on ejidos of the transition from “revolutionary nationalism” (economic nationalism) to neoliberalism in Mexico has indeed drawn much attention from scholars. Some have argued that neoliberal reforms “privatized the countryside.”6Michael Foley, “Privatizing the Countryside: The Mexican Peasant Movement and Neoliberal Reform,” Latin American Perspective, 1995; David Bacon, The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration (Boston: Beacon Press, 2013). First, they assert that the opening of ejidos to privatization created a consolidation of land by wealthier groups in society at the expense of former ejidatarios, exacerbating inequality. Second, those ejidatarios who continued to work their land now faced competition from US agribusiness with less economic protection than they earlier enjoyed. As a result of these changes, or so the argument goes, many rural Mexicans were unable to remain in the countryside and were compelled to move to the United States to find work.

This narrative accurately identifies a correlation between neoliberal reforms and one of the largest migrations of people in the twentieth century. However, this explanation did not take into consideration pre-existing migration networks, particularly rural-to-urban migration. Likewise, migration to the United States had been present in large numbers prior to neoliberalism, including the mass exodus during the Mexican Revolution and during the period of state-sponsored, contracted labor known as the Bracero Program.

As a result, it is reasonable to question whether rural inequality was itself a byproduct of neoliberalism. Without comparing the conditions of rural Mexicans in the neoliberal period with the conditions of similarly situated rural Mexicans before the neoliberal period, it is impossible to draw meaningful conclusions about the effects of neoliberalism. In fact, a thorough examination of rural Mexico during the “Mexican Miracle” shows that rural Mexico’s relationship to urban centers of power and wealth were very unequal prior to reform. Testimony and archival evidence shows extreme poverty in rural Mexico during the nationalist period.7Maria Olalde speaks of severe malnutrition growing in in ISI rural Mexico. Death certificates from the period commonly list malnutrition as a cause of death. Olalde, interview; “Acta de Defuncion.” Mexico’s rural, cyclical, and mobile workforce produced massive amounts of wealth for both economic regimes. Inequality is thus far more constant than is believed to be the case. The more relevant change is who extracts the wealth. Mexico’s national policies have subjected campesinos to the whims of first domestic/urban Mexico and later, transnational actors taking advantage of neoliberalization. For this reason, focusing on neoliberalism alone will not resolve the problem.

With the consolidation of the Mexican state after the revolution, Mexico took on a policy of state-led development that centralized its investment in Mexico City. This concentration of resources in Mexico City manifested in a huge movement of people towards the Mexican capital. By the late 1970s, the final years of developmentalist politics in Mexico, the population had skyrocketed to fifteen million, making Mexico City among the largest cities in the world.8Robert Kemper and Peterson Royce, “Mexican Urbanization since 1821: A Macro-Historical Approach,” 267–89. Many of these residents were of rural origin, some residing in the city permanently but others migrating cyclically between the countryside and the D.F. Thus, Mexico’s transient rural population was substantial and provides us with a lens into Mexican inequality between both regions. The divide in investment, wealth, and economic opportunities was central to motivating campesinos to relocate to Mexico City. In order to be willing to upend their lives completely, migrants certainly recognized the discrepancy between these two spaces.

Historical studies of wealth development focusing on Mexico City and its production of, and draw on, rural poverty during the period of import substitution industrialization (ISI) are scant. However, many studies do exist of rural poverty following the transition towards neoliberalism at the end of the twentieth century. This is where the one-sided story about neoliberalism being the predominant cause of inequality comes from. For this reason, while the required historical and comparative work is difficult, it is nonetheless necessary to use all available resources in painting a more complete picture.

In lieu of other sources, demographic data and snapshots of ethnography recorded by anthropologist are useful. Demographic studies inform us that for the entire twentieth century, much if not most of Mexico City’s population descended from origins outside of the city, and most of these outsiders were of rural origin. They were poor peasants attempting to escape rural poverty by migrating to Mexico’s primary urban area. Investigations that date back to the ‘Mexican Miracle’ period tell us that these migrating peasants lived in self-built slums on the peripheries of the city.

Mexico’s national policies have subjected campesinos to the whims of first domestic/urban Mexico and later, transnational actors taking advantage of neoliberalization. For this reason, focusing on neoliberalism alone will not resolve the problem.

Additionally, the few available anthropological studies can give us glimpses of inequality in Mexico during the relevant  time and can helpfully expand upon the too-narrow view.9de Antuñano, “Mexico City as an Urban Laboratory: Oscar Lewis, the ‘Culture of Poverty’ and the Transnational History of the Slum.” One such anthropologist, Oscar Lewis, studied Mexico City intensely in the 1950s. Lewis is well known for his controversial proposal of a “culture of poverty” as an explanation for the continued impoverishment of rural to urban migrants in Mexico City, but at the same time, he also proposed a lesser known theory of urbanization without breakdown. Lewis essentially recognized that rural to urban migrants maintained social structures in place and recreated their community in new urban space, helping to facilitate the transition from rural to urban for themselves and other newcomers that arrive from the community.

In studying the rural village of Tepoztecan, Lewis found inequality between rural and urban Mexico to be the primary motivation that led to the move from Tepoztecan to Mexico City. Among the earliest cohort of migrants prior to revolution and also those who migrated during the Mexican Miracle, most proclaim to have migrated to Mexico City in search of better access to education and improved work opportunities.10Lewis, “Urbanization without Breakdown: A Case Study”, 33. The difference in educational and employment access for rural Mexicans compared to their urban counterparts was clear, and is a fine marker of inequality. Despite having obtained land through expropriation and redistribution, Mexico’s peasantry remained deeply impoverished and sought opportunities outside of the countryside. They saw and acknowledged that Mexico City could improve their conditions, even if it was not always the case that these migrants found the social mobility they sought. While neoliberalism is certainly impoverishing, we should not ignore the impoverishing power of earlier forms of capital.

Almost half of all rural people who left Tepoztecan for Mexico City lived in vecindades, or shantytowns. Within the city, rural migrants could not escape poverty and inequality. It followed them to the city. For the most part, they remained in the lower rungs of society. But even though rural Mexicans in the city remained amongst the poorest in their environments, there was a pronounced difference between the standard of living of those who lived in cities versus those who stayed in the their place of origin. For example, in terms of commodities, there was an extreme gap between people who remained at home and those who migrated to the city. Only one percent of Mexicans in Tepoztecan had radios at the time of this study when a full 78% of migrants living in the city had a radio in their possession. In the city, all of the participants from the study slept in beds, while only 19% had beds in their community of origin.[/mfn]Ibid., 36[/mfn] Material inequality between these two groups of people who descended from the same place was extremely pronounced. Moving to the city provided members of these communities with access to resources that were simply inaccessible back home.

Even with more access to material goods, in terms of social position, rural migrants remained at the bottom. They remained marginalized in slums and lived in the most squalid conditions in the city. In absolute terms, rural to urban migrants were able to elevate their standard of living by migrating to cities. In relative terms, however, they remained members of the lowest class, and as result, migration to cities did not truly address the unequal relationship between rural and urban Mexicans.

Within this larger view we can see that Mexican inequality, a defining feature of Mexican society and arguably the primary motivator behind the Mexican Revolution, remained very much intact during the post-revolutionary period. The issue of poverty in the countryside was not successfully addressed by either import substitution industrialization or the nationalization and redistribution of hacendado land. In part this failure can be attributed to the Mexican government’s lack of investment in the countryside. But, in the larger debate about the revolution, it was truly a failure of Mexico’s proletarian and peasant classes to seize power. It was the maintenance of political and economic power in the hands of the elite that translated into an agrarian collapse. Under the auspices of neoliberalism, rural Mexicans would only see an increase of already existing neglect on the part of the Mexican government.

Proponents of neoliberal reform argued that its implementation would be beneficial for the Mexican countryside on the basis of increased efficiency in production and distribution. Those who advanced these reforms recognized that ISI was more advantageous for urban economies and development, but at the same time, argued in favor of austerity for a sector of society that relied heavily on public subsidies to sustain itself.11Kelly, “Neoliberal Reforms and Rural Poverty”, 90. The result of this contradiction was overwhelmingly negative for rural agricultural producers. Investment in agriculture fell 85% from 1980 to 1989, or during the first wave of neoliberal reforms under Miguel de la Madrid.12Ibid.Poverty, which was already intense grew as a result, and given the harsh backlash legislators faced from rural sectors, the subsequent president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, reversed some of the austerity measures and implemented anti-poverty programs such as PRONASOL, which attempted to facilitate education, health, transportation, and regional development projects. But PRONASOL and other programs intended to address the growth in inequality had limited effects. Studies of these programs show that the poorest in rural Mexico benefited little from them.13Ibid., 91. Instead, urban sectors continued to benefit the most from these anti-poverty measures.

While the entire economy suffered greatly from the shock of neoliberal reforms, by the 1990’s, much of the national economy as a whole began to recover. Rural economies however, continued to contract, increasing inequality between rural and urban sectors. By the time Gortari signed NAFTA, the cornerstone of neoliberalism, rural poverty in Mexico had grown significantly compared to pre-1982 levels.14Ibid., 96. The crucial point is that neoliberalism did not create inequality for rural Mexicans, but it did augment the already prevalent problem. Neoliberalism continued the trend of favoring urban sectors over rural, despite the critiques coming from its proponents who identified this issue with ISI economic policies. In terms of inequality, neoliberalism was more of the same, but elevated and intensified.

While the ejido never accomplished all of the goals proposed by radical agrarianism, it nevertheless shows us the limitations of attempting to address inequality under capitalism by only restructuring one sector of society.

Thus, the rural-urban divide in Mexico is very pronounced because urban Mexico was developed at the expense of rural sectors of society. Ejido poverty can be attributed to abandonment by the state, not a failure of collectivity or communal holding. While land distribution was arguably the most important demand of Mexico’s early Twentieth-Century revolutionaries, it was done as a gesture of pacification and in tandem with import substitution industrialization, meaning that manufacturing and resource extraction became the central economic program in Mexico. Agricultural production, then, took a backseat. Yet, despite a lack of true investment, ejidatarios were tasked with producing Mexico’s food, and more specifically, feeding Mexico’s growing cities. Unable to feed themselves, ejidatarios took to urban migration. Because access to ejidos require that you work them, many of these rural migrants worked cyclically between their rural communities and the city. Campesinos found themselves doubly exploited: they were tasked with growing crops for the country with inappropriate support and compensation, and at the same time, they were to form the largest labor force for the construction and expansion of the newly reinvigorated hegemonic capital of Mexico. During import substitution industrialization, rural Mexicans became the backbone for Mexico’s growth, but most rural Mexicans faced extreme difficulty escaping the poverty that continued to follow them from pre-revolutionary times.

The turn to neoliberalism did nothing to address rural Mexicans’ social position. It is true that privatization interrupted how rural Mexicans related to land by effectively imposing enclosure. And to be sure, this increased inequality among rural Mexican populations. But most importantly, it must be noted that even before neoliberalism, rural Mexicans had already been made reliant on other forms of income removed from farming. Neoliberalism was not unique in this regard; it did not force campesinos to find alternative sources for sustenance. Instead, it disrupted the infrastructure that migrant campesinos had developed to respond to these pressures during the ISI period. Mexico was decentralized, meaning that investment was spread across the entire nation instead of concentrated in Mexico City. In many cases, rural Mexicans who had migrated to Mexico City for work found themselves redirecting their migrations elsewhere. Many left Mexico altogether for United States, which became the newest destination for mass rural outmigration.

If anything, neoliberalism inflamed an already pressing situation. Mexico’s campesinos remained a mobile and, through their precarity, increasingly exploitable labor force. Their position in the bottom rungs of society remained intact. Reforms solely redeveloped how Mexicans would be exploited. Instead of feeding and building Mexico City, campesinos were redirected towards the United States as a deployable labor force in the interest of Mexico’s economy. With NAFTA, Mexico relied overwhelmingly on the United States for food, ending the need for internal cyclical migration for many rural Mexicans altogether.

Many rural Mexicans thus permanently relocated to the United States and sustained those who stayed home through remittances. But, again, remittances did not address inequality. Uneven development grew. Rural Mexicans who remained at home and with few relatives in the United States, remained deeply impoverished. Transnational immigrants, despite forming the most exploitable labor force for the United States, grew economically relative to their domestic rural counterparts. Transnational immigrants and those directly related to them have become a new class within rural society, occupying a social position still defined by rurality but economically superior to less connected rural Mexicans. Neoliberalism, then, did not create inequality in Mexico. Instead, it created new forms of inequality. In some ways, it exacerbated existing inequality between rural Mexico and the city. In other ways, it produced new and different class distinctions within Mexico’s rural society.

The Future Signaled by the Ejidos

Ejidos are a more democratic and equitable form of land tenure compared to private property. But, even so, inequality between rural and urban Mexico was never seriously addressed by land redistribution, ISI, or neoliberal economic policies. ISI built Mexico’s cities at the expense of the countryside and urban developers benefited from the mobile and exploitable labor force created by rural divestment. Neoliberalism exacerbated these realities and while later policymakers acknowledged the negative impacts of neoliberalism on the countryside, their solutions continued the trend of widening inequality between these two sectors of society.

Rural Mexicans developed strategies to address the poverty but even though many increased their standard of living through migration, their overall relationship to urban Mexico remained one of continued exploitation and subjugation. Neoliberalism disrupted rural Mexicans’ ability to use urban Mexico to advance their positions and redirected campesinos to the United States. But this also preserved rural Mexicans’ sectoral positions as the least socially desirable. Even though migration did allow some people to increase their relative wealth, this only created more inequality within rural Mexican communities, particularly between those who left and those who stayed behind.

While the ejido never accomplished all of the goals proposed by radical agrarianism, it nevertheless shows us the limitations of attempting to address inequality under capitalism by only restructuring one sector of society. Urban primacy, dominance over those who produce the most valuable asset for life—food—remains intact. Revolutionary campesinos accomplished much through their insurrection: for many years, the post-Revolutionary state recognized the power of armed and organized peasants. They made concessions to subdue rural unrest but did so strategically. Yet, without complete societal restructuring, rural Mexicans acquired land without changing their social position. They remained easily exploitable by the interests of national capital, and even more so by transnational capital once neoliberalization granted increased access.

Even so, rural Mexicans accomplished much through organizing, insurrection, and armed defense of gains. They expropriated and redistributed most of Mexico’s arable land. They protected it for decades and the persistence of the ejido to this day, despite being constantly attacked, teaches us that revolution, organization, and consistent defense of gains produces resilient institutions capable of organizing their social self-determination. We must expand our vision beyond sectorial restructuring and beyond a narrow opposition to neoliberalism alone. In its history, its still extant social forms, and its collective versions of ownership and use, the ejido provides some powerful illustrations of the politics that would be required to truly produce an equal society.



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