Issue 10, August 2009
Government efforts over time to break up haciendas and redistribute large landholdings among peasant populations have produced mixed results. In many cases, land was seized and converted into communal plots known as ejidos, owned by the state. Peasants who worked the land were given the right to do so by the government, a right that could be revoked or modified, and often was, based upon political considerations. Farmers could not own title to the land, and therefore could not sell it or use it as collateral to obtain credit. The peasants working the land depended on the government for critical irrigation infrastructure that, like many public resources, was often doled out according to favoritism and connections. The resulting lifestyle was often worse than it had been under the hacienda system, as many peasants found themselves with poor quality plots of land, facing crippling competition from large commercial operations that benefited from state favors.
In the 1970s, President Luis Echeverria Alvarez attempted to reinvent the ejido concept, expropriating new, well-irrigated land, creating more communal plots, and providing access to special credit and farm equipment through the government. By the 1990s, in response to better-coordinated pressure from the rural poor, the government was allowing more individual land ownership as well as more flexibility for individual farmers within communal holdings.
However, speculators and commercial interests purchased much of this land for large scale industrial farming and, as the population grew, peasants faced smaller and smaller subdivided plots and declining productivity on over-used land. Credit, critical for purchasing seeds and fertilizer, was hard to obtain. Many peasants could barely feed their families. In addition, Mexican farm goods (especially corn and sweeteners) faced crippling competition from US subsidized crops.