David Werner

In the mountains of western Mexico, the village health workers at Project Piaxtla have long realized that people’s health is closely linked to land tenure. The families with the poorest levels of health and the most severely malnourished children are those of landless peasants. One of the strategies of health promotion, therefore, has been to organize poor farmworkers to occupy tracts of land held by the big land-holders, and then to petition for legal title to the land under the terms of the Mexican Constitution.

On paper, this constitution—until very recently—was one of the most progressive in the world. Drafted after the 1910 Mexican Revolution (which was in large part a popular revolt against a feudal land system), it explicitly guaranteed the right of poor farmers to equitable redistribution of the country’s land. The heart of its agrarian reform law was the ejido, or local unit of community supervised land tenure. The ejido system, which was created by a progressive government in the1930s, combined positive features of both capitalism and socialism. When people in a cluster of villages came together to form an ejido, they divided the land equitably among themselves. Larger holdings were broken up so that every family got an equal share. Each family obtained provisional title to its parcel, and was free to farm it for personal gain. However, to retain the title, the family had to work the land. If it failed to do so, the land would be reclaimed by the ejido and given to a needy family. Neither family nor community could sell the land. The title was for right-of-use, not for barter.

Unfortunately, fair redistribution under the ejido system did not come easily. Big landholders often employed tactics ranging from bribery to violence to circumvent the law of the land. As a result, Mexico’s agrarian reform was only partially successful. But to some extent the ejido system did work, especially where poor farmers organized in such large numbers that they were able to pressure the government into making their constitutional rights a reality.

In the western Sierra Madre, the organization of campesinos (farmworkers) started by the Piaxtla health team has grown in numbers and power over the last 15 years. These campesinos’ militant demand for their legal land rights won them the grudging respect and support of Agrarian Reform Ministry officials. And, until recently, the local latifundistas (land barons) couldn’t intimidate them, and did not dare resort to their age-old tactic of hiring hitmen to gun down peasant leaders.

Over the years, the campesino organization occupied and won legal title to over half the good riverside land that used to be held by big landholders. With the fairer distribution they gained, fewer families needed to sharecrop (pay with half their harvests for the use of a rich person’s land). This resulted in less hunger, healthier families, and lower child mortality.

But now things have changed. As part of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which the Bush Administration is currently negotiating with Mexico, and in response to pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, in December of 1991, signed an amendment to the constitution that effectively dismantles the ejido system.

The Mexican government has touted this change as a positive step promoting the modernization of the country and the well-being of campesinos. The campesinos, however, both in the Ajoya area and in other parts of the country, have become divided over this issue. Some are pleased to be gaining full title to their land, feeling that they will have greater control to do with it as they wish. Others, however, including Roberto Fajardo who leads Project Piaxtla, see the more dire consequences of these drastic changes in the law. They realize that, once again, their land will be vulnerable to takeovers by bigger landholders, should they become indebted to them in any way. They also understand that they have lost their constitutional right to invade and equitably distribute any additional tracts of the remaining large landholdings in their area.

What the Salinas administration has accomplished is nothing less than a reversal of one of the outstanding achievements of the Mexican Revolution. The following are some of the consequences of this “accomplishment:”

  • The government no longer has the obligation to redistribute large landholdings among campesinos, nor do landless peasants have a constitutional right to invade those landholdings and demand title to them.

  • The legalization of latifundios or large landholdings (up to 2,500 hectares of irrigated land or 20,000 hectares of forest) will lead to the concentration of land into very few hands.

  • Ejidos and communal lands, which have now become merchandise that can be bought or sold, will disappear little by little, as they are bought up by large landholders or forfeited as payment for debt. As a result, more rural families will be left landless and destitute.

These changes are all in keeping with the structural adjustment policies of the IMF and the World Bank, which consistently promote privatization and reliance on largescale agribusiness. The destruction of the ejidos will only accentuate the trends the structural adjustment strategy is already causing in Mexico, and has caused in every other Third World country it has been imposed on: a widening gap between landed and landless, and between rich and poor; an increased exodus from the countryside to growing city slums; and greater hunger, unemployment, and misery.

Along with many other Mexican citizens, the Piaxtla health team and campesino organization are outraged that their government is willing to tamper with the country’s constitution and sacrifice the wellbeing of the poor majority in order to placate foreign interests. They see it as the kiss of death for agrarian reform. Together with many other activists, farmworker, and popular organizations, they have joined a nationwide grassroots protest.

But they face daunting odds. The power structure of Mexico (which has a long history of ignoring people’s constitutional rights) is now backed by the whole weight of the world economic power structure. Short of another Mexican Revolution (an unlikely prospect), the ejido system—and other potentially liberating elements of Mexico’s Constitution—appear doomed.

Mexico’s ejido system conflicts with the free market ideology behind structural adjustment. The forces behind the New World Order are determined to remove all the safeguards protecting the weak from the strong, even if it means rewriting a nation’s constitution. Mexico, moreover, is not alone. The same scenario that is unfolding in this country is being played out with minor variations in many other poor countries whose elites are bartering the health of their nations to win favors from the global power brokers. From Honduras to India, “neoliberal” pressures are forcing Third World governments to revise their constitutions in ways that place the interests of big business, so-called “free trade,” and multinational industries before the basic needs of their most disadvantaged peoples.