The Reform of Article 27 and PROCEDE

Ejido Title.jpg (32333 bytes) Ejido Land Title from 1940

The modification of Article 27 was duly approved by the PRI-controlled congress in 1992, although even the official peasant organisations remained lukewarm and many independent ones expressed outright hostility to the measure. The amendments did two basic things. Firstly, they set the legal seal on the principle that there was no more land in Mexico to redistribute to the landless. The only possible exceptions would be in cases where private proprietors held land in excess of the legal maximum, or where land was confiscated by the state from delinquents such as drug traffickers. Secondly, the amendments changed the nature of land tenure. Up to this point, the state had retained ultimate title to the land, and peasant beneficiaries of land reform simply enjoyed rights of use. These were transferred on their deaths or incapacity to a nominated successor (who would normally be their spouse in the first instance). In the event of no successor being available, land would revert to the agrarian community for redistribution to a landless claimant. In legal theory, land reform land was inalienable and could not even be rented to a third party on a long term basis.

In practice, the agrarian law was widely abused. In the case of Guaracha and many other ejidos in our case study region, land titles had been exchanged for money, sometimes to persons who were legally excluded from membership of the agrarian communities in question, like the ex-neolatifundist Samuel Yepes, who acquired rights to three ejidal parcelas. One justification for reforming the law was that it was beneficial to regularise de facto practices. The fact that reform sector land was not legally alienable made it impossible for land reform farmers to obtain finance from the private sector, since they could not use land as collateral. The old system was said to sustain peasant farmers’ dependence on a paternalistic state, inhibit economic rationality, and make them prey to the manipulations of corrupt officials and the local bosses called caciques. Under the new rules, farmers would obtain definitive title to their land and total security as full proprietors. This, it was argued, would make it possible for them to become more productive.

Critics of the reform immediately responded that it was a recipe for the wholesale privatisation of the land reform communities. It would lead to the rapid concentration of land as poor peasants sold their plots, and the consolidation of large-scale capitalist farms. The conventional rhetoric spoke of the return of the latifundios, the great estates whose expropriation was supposedly one of the positive achievements of the 1910 Revolution. The critics tended to combine this emotional theme with equally emotional talk of a massive new wave of migration to the cities—eleven million people thrown onto an urban labour market in which job creation was not even keeping pace with the existing urban birth rate. Advocates of the reform retorted that this was hysterical nonsense. In the first place, the legislative changes did not even lead directly to the abolition of the ejidos and the transformation of land into individual private property. The first step of the reform was a programme of certification of individual rights to farm plots, common land and urban lots, the PROCEDE (Programa de Certificación de Derechos Ejidales y Titulación de Solares Urbanos), which was put in the hands of a new federal government office created for the purpose, the Procuraduría Agraria. After certification, there would have to be a majority vote in the ejidal assembly before proceeding to full privatisation with the registration of the plots with the National Agrarian Registry (RAN). Secondly, advocates of reform argued that the new legislation freed peasant agriculture from the dead hand of state intervention which had manifestly failed to produce genuine "development". Farmers could now engage in joint ventures with foreign as well as domestic agribusiness companies which would provide either the capital or the jobs of which they had been starved for so long. Thirdly, from the point of view of the nation as a whole, including low income urban and rural consumers, it was quite obvious that many peasant farmers were not productive, so that a certain degree of triage seemed beneficial to a society in which they were now only a minority.

This kind of argument clearly abstracts from the question of the extent to which the problems of Mexican peasant agriculture are an historical product of both state economic policies and a systematic plundering and decapitalization of the more productive branches of the sector by the holders of formal and informal political power. Economics cannot be separated from politics. This seems a particularly important issue given that a great deal of the rhetoric of neoliberal reformers seems to be premised on the idea that private business and the market can somehow operate in a sphere that is outside politics and non-economic power relations. Even in terms of a more orthodox perspective on economic issues and social costs and benefits, the "productionist" approach to the question of ejido reform abstracts, for example, from the relationship between the ejido and labour markets which are transnational in scope and from the synergies which developed in Mexico between the ejido sector, private agro-industrial capital and more diversified small-town economies. But if we are interested in the purely empirical question of how peasants are reacting to the reform process and what they might do to modify the expected economic and political outcomes of the reform, we do need to look beyond economics.

In addressing the question of why people might be willing to defend their ejidos, anthropologists have emphasised that the ejido is more than a land tenure institution or a means of organising agricultural production, that it can have cultural and political meanings and broader social functions. It can mean different things even to different members of the same community, depending on wealth, status, age or gender. For example, widows were generally first in line to inherit their husband’s rights to the land under the old system. If an ejidatario proceeds to full privatization of his land, they and their children will no longer have any effective rights to challenge his decision. But there are many factors that can impede progress towards full privatization. In the messy world of local politics, regional factional in-fighting and conflicts between regional and extra-regional interests, many different kinds of alliances can prove expedient to competing groups. Conserving the ejido as an institution in one form or another can be attractive to the relatively powerful as well as the powerless in at least some contexts. In addressing the actual mechanics of the rural reform process itself, anthropologists have also tended to highlight the enormous gaps which have always existed between legal theory and on the ground realities and practice, and the way that the implementation of state bureaucratic projects is mediated by the micro-politics of bureaucrats’ interactions with local people. All these factors have been relevant to the experience of PROCEDE to date.

The attempt to remove the legal basis for land redistribution has proved much more controversial than was anticipated because it became strongly entangled with the issue of the rights of Mexico’s indigenous peoples. The catalyst for this was, of course, the Chiapas rebellion of January 1994, but the issue is much broader than Chiapas. The low intensity war which characterised Chiapas throughout the period of dialogue with the government has now spread to the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero and the Huasteca region of San Luis Potosí, Hidalgo and Veracruz.

These patterns of conflict need to be related to both agrarian conditions and to the regional political systems which shape both the agrarian conditions and the way local elites respond to peasant protest. As demonstrated by Mexican anthropologists Gabriel Ascencio and Xochitl Leyva Solano, the heartland of the Zapatista rebellion, the region of Las Cañadas, is a zone of colonisation populated by former plantation workers from a variety of indigenous groups over an extended period of time from the 1930s onwards. The colonists were able to recreate peasant communities by securing grants of ejido land, but the development of their ejidos was restrained by the creation of forest and ecological reserves, accelerating the point at which population growth outstripped available land. With limited migratory alternatives, and a strong sense of collective identity forged in opposition to the structures of class and ethnic oppression from which they had escaped, the new peasant communities of Las Cañadas were fertile ground for agrarian mobilisation, particularly given the limited interest of the state elite in providing public services and development resources for supporting production and employment. It is significant that the government negotiators involved in the now suspended dialogue with the Zapatistas have persistently refused to discuss demands for abandonment of the changes to Article 27.

Elsewhere in Chiapas, and in parts of Oaxaca and the Huasteca, agrarian conflict is, however, more directly related to the coexistence of indigenous communities and disguised latifundios. President Zedillo has repeatedly claimed that the backlog of unresolved agrarian disputes throughout the country will be resolved before the end of his period of office. But this claim needs to be taken with a considerable pinch of salt. There is a discrepancy between the number of outstanding cases of land claims that Zedillo cites and figures issued by the Ministry of Agrarian Reform. The reduction in the Ministry’s figures has largely been achieved by passing the cases to agrarian tribunals: this administrative sleight of hand enables the government to declare cases solved which are in effect still unresolved on the ground; it also obscures the fact that almost half the cases that have been decided by agrarian tribunals during his period of office have been decided against the peasant claimants (article in the weekly news magazine Proceso, No. 1054, 12th January, 1997).

The peasants have good reason to be dissatisfied with these results. Consider the case of San Luis Potosí, where indigenous peasant militants staged a mass hunger strike to protest about the gap between Zedillo’s rhetoric and on the ground reality. It is claimed that 150,000 hectares of disputed land remain in the hands of state and federal functionaries, including some of the most powerful figures in the land (article in the daily newspaper La Jornada, 11th April, 1996). In Chiapas, where Zedillo declared an historic solution to the state’s long-standing agrarian problems in March 1996, in the form of a programme to benefit 58,000 peasant claimants, the state governor responded with a programme to expel land invaders by force from 90,000 disputed hectares (La Jornada, March 24th, 1996). The first action after Zedillo’s pronouncement was taken in defence of a property belonging to the fugitive financier Carlos Cabal Peniche, closely associated with the Salinas brothers and the controversial governor of Tabasco, Roberto Madrazo Pintado, who was accused of spending much more on his election campaign in the state than legally permitted, using money laundered from drug trafficking.

These cases highlight some crucial realities which need to be considered in surveying Mexico’s land reform. Firstly, we have the implications of the co-existence within Mexican agrarian structure of a private-property based agriculture and the ejidos. Even in the period of Lázaro Cárdenas, large properties and capitalist farmers were given important guarantees, and patterns of state investment after 1940 favoured the development of large-scale capitalist farming in the Northern Mexico. Political connections enabled landowners to control illegally large properties, and members of the political class at regional level throughout the country have been able to protect such properties.

Secondly, these problems are particularly explosive in the states which have large indigenous populations. Latifundios were not an important phenomenon in all areas prior to the Revolution, and there are other sources of agrarian conflict between communities, although even boundary disputes have a political dimension given the fact that the success of some communities in defending their interests is tied to their leaderships’ relations with political actors above the community level. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise the pervasive existence of illicit forms of land appropriation which are difficult to identify by standard bureaucratic procedures in the absence of detailed local knowledge. Mexican agrarian law recognises indigenous communal property as a third category of land tenure besides "small private property" and the ejido. As anthropological studies by Frans Schryer on the Huasteca, and Jaques Chevalier and Daniel Buckles on the Gulf Nahuas of Veracruz have demonstrated, communal land tenure has very frequently served as a convenient cover for disguised private property holdings, especially by cattle ranchers. These holdings have been protected by local structures of village bossism and patron-client relations, although often at the cost of intense intra-communal factional conflict.

The massive bureaucratic intervention embodied in the PROCEDE should, theoretically, bring all these issues into the light of day. Yet even the most committed and irreproachable functionaries face real difficulties in adjudicating claims and counter-claims on the basis of the sedimented paper products of years of illegalities, leaving aside the political pressures and threats to personal security which can be brought to bear on them in rural locales not noted for the transparent application of the rule of law. The PROCEDE process made headway initially by taking unproblematic cases first: there is now a suspicion that the process is not removing the most glaring of existing injustices but ratifying them, and this will add to the already substantial investments federal and state governments are needing to make in rural social pacification through militarisation of security. It has also becoming clear that private forces of hired gunmen that have defended private property interests against indigenous peasant land claims in Chiapas, Oaxaca and other states are enjoying the covert logistical and political support of state authorities.