This paper is an extensively revised and enlarged version of the article published in Social Research, Vol. XXXIII, No. 3 (Autumn 1966). Republished in Agrarian Problems and Peasant Movements in Latin America, edited by Rodolfo Stavenhagen, 1970.

The author, a Mexican sociologist, is at present associated with the International Institute for Labor Studies, Geneva. Needless to say the views expressed in this article are his own.

Social Aspects of Agrarian Structure in Mexico

Rodolfo Stavenhagen


Fifty years after the first revolutionary measures for land distribution were taken, agrarian reform is surely the main cause of the broad economic and social changes that have occurred in Mexico during this century. The armed revolution of 1910-1917 brought forth important transformations in the country's political structure, but without the profound changes in agrarian organization that followed upon the Decree of January 6, 1915, and which were later incorporated into Article 27 of the Constitution of 1917, these political transformations would not have had the effects they had. In the economic aspect, it has repeatedly been stressed that the agrarian reform has had considerable influence on the economic development of agriculture and of the country in general.1

Agrarian reform in Mexico has not been a short-tern, policy but rather a lengthy social process that continues to this day. It has passed through various stages and has had different orientations. Mexico's public leaders have not at all time been fully conscious of its objectives and characteristics. On the contrary, as one of its best students has recently remarked:

There was no other alternative than to adopt the same agriculture inherited from the past with all of its backwardness, all its deficiencies, its impressively low productivity despite the fact that agrarian reform was expected, rather nebulously, to promote agricultural progress. But this could not be achieved overnight, a lengthy and painful process was necessary in order to create the resources necessary for the progressive improvement of the productivity of the land.2

As far as its main aspect is concerned, the redistribution of land, agrarian reform did indeed achieve its basic purpose: the destruction of the semifeudal hacienda and of the inhuman system of exploitation of man, peonage, which was its main feature for hundreds of years. Latifundismo (the social and political organization accompanying the existence of large landholdings and extreme inequality of land distribution) and peonage (which existed before 1910) have disappeared from the rural scene. But with respect to another of its principal objectives, that of giving the land to the landless peasant population, and the creation of the small family farm either as private property or as an eijido grant, land reform has only come halfway, partly as a result of rapid population growth over the last forty years. In this sense one may still speak of the continuing process of agrarian reform.

But the concept of agrarian reform itself, however, leads to certain misunderstandings. It is no longer a question of reforming an anachronistic and outdated agrarian structure of yesteryear, but rather of carrying forward an agrarian policy which is adequate to the country's current needs for economic and social development, and appropriate for solving problems produced by the new land tenure structure. Mexico's government has become conscious of the fact that the mere distribution of land to the peasants does not solve the problems of agriculture, though it does satisfy the principal political requirement of any land reform. It has, therefore, become common, in the last few years, to speak of reforming land reform, or of integral land reform, terms which refer not only to the problems of land tenure but also to those of an adequate agricultural development policy for the country.3


The principal result of agrarian reform has been the redistribution of land ownership. Some figures will make this clear. In 1910, the last year of the Diaz dictatorship, 1 per cent of the population owned 97 per cent of the total land, while 96 per cent of the population owned only 1 per cent of the land. The agrarian structure of that period is well known and need not be described in detail here. It was a typically latifundist organization based on haciendas, many of which covered many thousands of hectares, whose owners made up the social, political and economic aristocracy of the country. The hacienda was not only a large landholding system but above all it was a social system, a universe within which certain kinds of social and economic relationships took place. The greater part of the rural population lived within the limits of the haciendas and in fact lacked the most elementary civil rights. Also well known are the working and living conditions of the peons on the haciendas; indeed, peonage as a system of labor was the very foundation of the hacienda. The lack of land of the greater part of the rural population cannot be separated from the oppressive living conditions to which peasants were bound. These conditions sparked the armed, spontaneous, testable mass uprisings in which so many rural communities became involved during more than a decade, and which turned into the great revolutionary wave that swept the country between 1910 and 1920.4

In contrast with more recent agrarian reforms in various underdeveloped countries, the one that resulted from the Mexican revolution did not have a defined program nor guidelines which were clearly established from the beginning. No doubt the agrarian leaders and the statesmen who successively occupied positions of power during the revolutionary period were motivated mainly by social justice. Concern over the increase of per capita income of the total population and the rate of growth of the national economy only appeared occasionally in the policy statements of that time and did not really take shape until several decades after agrarian reform had been launched.

Rural property in Mexico began to concentrate in a few private hands only after the proclamation of the reform laws around the middle of the nineteenth century, through which the large corporate holdings of the Church passed into the free market. The hacienda needed, above all, an adequate supply of labor, and in order to obtain this, it began to expropriate, through various means, the land of the small landowners and especially of the Indian communities, thus forcing the peasant population to work for it. This process of land concentration and expropriation created increasing tension and conflict on the land during the second half of the nineteenth and the first years of the twentieth century. It is understandable why the first demands of the revolutionary peasants were for restitution of their usurped landholdings. And in fact, one of the first means employed by the revolutionary governments in the solution of the agrarian problem was the restitution of these lands to their rightful owners. It was thought that on the basis of this restored collective property the peasant communities could be recreated.


Two opposed currents of thought about the social function of land ownership and the organization of the rural community have coexisted throughout the history of Mexico. These same currents have also come to the forefront in the process of agrarian reform, and the emphasis on one or the other has left its imprint on the agrarian policy of the different periods. The first one ascribes a social function to the property and usufruct of land; it considers land ownership as a right which is limited by the common welfare and favors the communal or collective holding of land in the interests of the community. This current finds its general expression in the constitutional norm which establishes the nation's eminent domain over the land, and its concrete expression in two types of land tenure included in the agrarian legislation: communal village lands or agrarian communities, and the eijido.

The other current considers that only the full and free private property of land can lead to progress and well-being. Already in colonial times the Spanish Crown tried to promote the development of private land owne rship by means of land grants called mercedes and the sale of royal lands to private owners. During the nineteenth century, the liberal ideology prevailed and private land ownership was stimulated as against the so-called "corporations": the Church and the Indian communities. This current is also present in the agrarian reform. Indeed, the struggle against the latifundio has never been directed against private property as such, but only against its excessive concentration. In truth, Mexico's agrarian policies have favored private land ownership.

These two conceptions were never regarded as mutually exclusive alternatives. The communal property of land has been considered since colonial times as a protective, tutelary policy in favor of the lower strata of the peasantry. The liberal and individualist conception, in turn, has been deployed in support of agricultural development and has been associated with the concept of a rural middle class. How else are we to explain that the so-called "small property" (pequena propiedad) is defined in the agrarian legislation as a unit twenty-five times larger than the eijido plot? It is curious that in the agrarian ideas relating to communal land ownership should be found the vestiges of an elitist, caste-like conception inherited from colonial times. Only the radical ideas of agrarian socialism, which envisaged the collectivization of the land as well as productive labor, overcame these incongruities of agrarianism (agrarismo), the agrarian ideology. But these ideas never became crystallized in an effective official agrarian policy, except for the creation of a number of collective ejidos during the administration of President Cardenas (1934-1940), from which later administrations withdrew their support.5


The small privately-owned farm is as much the result of agrarian reform as is the eijido. After the reform was launched, but particularly after 1930, the number of private units in agriculture increased. The main legal limitation to private ownership has to do with the maximum size allowed to individually-owned farms, which at present is 200 hectares of seasonal land, or 100 hectares of irrigated land (or exceptionally 150 and even 300 hectares when specific "plantation" crops are grown). This maximum size of private property in land was incorporated into the constitution through an amendment to Article 27 in 1946. The same amendment also reintroduced the landowners' right to amparo (a request by a private party for a judicial writ of injunction against executive action by the government). This amendment may be considered as the most important step in the agrarian counterreform which has been gaining ground since 1940.

Between 1930 and 1940 the number of privately-owned farm units doubled, increasing from 600,000 to 1.2 million. After that their number increased only slightly, and between 1950 and 1960 it decreased, a fact which despite deficient statistical information reflects the growing process of reconcentration of privately-held land. At present (according to the figures of the last agricultural census in 1960), there are more than 1.3 million private farms.

During the early years of agrarian reform there was much talk about the formation of the "small family farm" as a solution to the land problem. It was thought possible that a "rural middle class" like the one on which the agricultural progress of Western Europe and the U.S. had supposedly been based could arise. These model family farms were to have sufficient land and resources to provide the peasant family with a satisfactory level of living, through the exclusive or nearly exclusive use of family labor. Though it is difficult to determine what the optimum size of such a farm should be, it is obvious that in Mexico it has not been possible to establish it on a large scale.

Over the years a strong measure of concentration of privately-owned land has subsisted in Mexico: at present two-thirds of all private farm units are less than five hectares in size and they possess only 1.3 per cent of all privately-owned land, and 10 per cent of all privately-owned agricultural land. At the other extreme, 34 per cent of the farm units still own 98 per cent of all agricultural land which is not in ejidos.

These figures show that in the private sector the largest number of farms are minifundios, that is, farm units which are generally too small to provide either full employment or a satisfactory income to the average peasant family.


Except for those cases where intensive, diversified cash-crop farming is carried out efficiently on irrigated land (near Mexico City, for example), in which even the cultivation of a few furrows can provide a satisfactory income, generally minifundio agriculture is associated with poor, subsistence farming (mainly maize, the staple crop) based on insufficient economic resources and backward technology. It is here that underemployment and unemployment are most conspicuous. It may seem paradoxical, but it is true, that the majority of Mexico's private farmers have nothing to do most of the year.

The problem is a difficult one and it has no easy solution. The nonagricultural sectors of the economy have not been able to absorb the growing agricultural population quickly enough. In the areas where population density is highest and where minifundism is most acute (in the center of the country), the amount of agricultural land is limited, and consequently it is not possible to think about increasing the size of the small holdings without drastically reducing the agricultural population. A long-term solution is the redistribution of the peasant population, channeling it toward virgin land, mainly in the tropical regions of the southeast. But the opening-up to cultivation of virgin lands requires considerable previous investments which, by definition, the smallholder is unable to make. An adequate agricultural development policy (small irrigation, agricultural extension, credit, etc.) could contribute to an increase in productivity of the land in the minifundios, but it would also probably intensify the unemployment problem, inasmuch as progress in agricultural production (technification, mechanization) generally tends to displace manpower. On the other hand, the climatic conditions of large parts of the country require that most of the agricultural work be done at certain periods of the year, thus preventing the adequate distribution of available labor over a twelve-month period. To sum up, if present tendencies continue, minifundism will continue to exist for many years and will probably become worse.

Even though subsistence sub-family farms6 imply very low levels of living for the smallholders, the minifundio does fulfill certain economic and social functions at the present time. The smallholders work their plots more intensively than do the owners of farms of over five hectares in size, and according to the 1960 agricultural census, production per cultivable hectare is slightly higher on farms of less than five hectares in size (648 pesos) than on those which are larger than five hectares (630 pesos). This suggests that the smallholders use their scarce resources more efficiently than the larger farmers. Experience in other parts of the world (such as in Southeast Asia) shows that minifundios can be highly productive, even when lacking in capital resources, if they use adequately the abundant manpower available to them. In Mexico, preference for the model of the family farm and the conviction that agricultural progress can only come about on the basis of well-mechanized medium-size and large agricultural enterprises has made for the fact that the minifundio's potential, particularly its human potential, has been neglected and underestimated.

The formation of medium-size and large mechanized farm units in areas of minifundia would be of doubtful economic usefulness and disastrous from the social point of view, because it would displace a large part of the peasant population who cannot at present find employment in other sectors of the economy.

In an underdeveloped country where disguised unemployment in agriculture is common, the formation of large mechanized farm units which would displace labor is not justified if they do not contribute significantly to an increase in production, and then only if other solutions to the rural unemployment problem are likewise available. The minifundio represents, up to a point, an "insurance" of the peasant population against these "modernizing" tendencies.

But in view of the fact that a highly unequal distribution of land still exists in Mexico, it is feasible to think about increasing the size of minifundios through the further expropriation of large landholdings. Yet this would be only a partial solution and would by no means improve the situation of most of the smallholders.


Indeed, agrarian reform has not produced an equitable distribution of the land in Mexico, though the situation is incomparably better than it was before. True, the traditional hacienda has disappeared from the agrarian picture, except perhaps in a few remote areas of Chihuahua or Chiapas. But the large landholding which monopolizes land, water and other resources at the cost of the small cultivators (both private land ejidal) is still more the rule than the exception in many parts of the country. In order to get around the agrarian legislation, the large landholdings are mainly divided up and registered under different names, belonging to family members or friends of the owners. In this way have been formed the new latifundia, particularly in the rich, irrigated areas of the northwest. For example, in the Yaqui valley 85 proprietors control 116,800 hectares of the best irrigated land, which are registered under 1,191 names. In other words, each landholder owns on the average 1,400 hectares.7 There are no statistics available which would allow us to quantify the phenomenon, but it suffices to read about the numerous complaints and denunciations of latifundia by peasants all over the country to understand that it is much more widespread than official statistics might lead us to suppose.

Neo-latifundism is not an isolated phenomenon and cannot be attributed to circumstantial factors, such as the illegal dealings of a large landholder, the unscrupulous actions of a dishonest public official, or the lack of resources or trained personnel of one or the other government agency. Neo-latifundism is simply the natural result of the present power structure, that is, of the country's class structure. For every illegal large landholding "retrieved" for the nation with all the publicity of which public relations are capable, there are hundreds more which form daily. The present agrarian legislation is too inefficient, the public administration is incapable, and the ruling class is unwilling to stem this process. No matter that many officials "really" want to eliminate latifundism and comply with the agrarian reform in spirit as well as in law. In a capitalistic system based on the profit-motive, the accumulation of resources and wealth by individuals is the driving force of the economy. It would be naive to think that agriculture could escape this law. And, as we shall see later, this happens not only in the private sector but also in the ejidos. Neo-latifundism underscores what we said before: the agrarian reform, though it succeeded in partially destroying the power of the dominant oligarchy of the prerevolutionary regime, basically represents a tutelary policy designed to protect the lower strata of the peasantry and has not been able to prevent (because that was not its purpose) the rise of a new ruling social class in agriculture.

Despite the extent of neo-latifundism, there is no point in exaggerating its importance in the present agrarian structure. There is nothing that will becloud understanding of the present agrarian reality more than the insistence that in order to solve the national agrarian problem it is necessary to eliminate the large landholdings and redistribute more land. This could be carried on for some time, particularly in order to satisfy the needs of official rhetoric, but the essential characteristics of the present agrarian problem are not these. To reduce the agrarian problem to the subsistence of a few traditional latifundia is to turn attention away from the real agrarian problem. In order to eliminate neo-latifundism it would be necessary to amend the constitution and formulate and execute a new, different agrarian policy. Though this seems most unlikely at first glance, it might not be too farfetched to speculate that the accumulated pressures of a growing smallholding and landless peasant population could conceivably force the bourgeoisie to sacrifice its rural fraction again, in the interests of its own survival, as it has already done once before during the present century.


The present agrarian legislation prescribes the restitution to the peasant villages of their communal lands, if they can prove through original titles (generally of colonial origin) that they have been illegally deprived of them. The 1960 agricultural census registered about 2,000 such communities in the whole country with a total area of 8.7 million hectares. But only a fraction of this is cultivable land. Most of the communally held area is covered by pastures and forests or is economically worthless. The government has restituted land and confirmed titles to less than 700 communities up to now, with a total of almost 7 million hectares.

The legislation covering these agrarian communities is not at all clear. In most cases, communal farmers enjoy individual usufruct rights over the cultivable part of the communal lands and in fact consider their plots as private property. The wholly communal tenure of cultivable land tends to maintain itself in those areas in which the conditions of climate and soil impose a primitive subsistence agriculture based on the slash-and-burn system, and when strong population pressure on the land does not exist. In the more prosperous areas where a cash-crop economy requiring certain inputs is developing, or else where demographic pressure is felt more strongly, social and economic forces are at work against the maintenance of communal tenure of cultivable land.

According to the legislation, the woods and grasslands of the communities are to be put exclusively to collective use, without any kind of subdivision. But here again private appropriation has made its appearance in some communities, frequently supported by strong private forestry interests and politicians who often exploit the communal forests for their personal profit without any benefit for the communities involved.

Communal tenure is plainly in a stage of disintegration. There are few internal forces within the communities themselves that attempt to maintain or revive it, and someday it will probably disappear for good.


The eijido is commonly considered as the most important achievement of Mexican agrarian reform; not only because it was the answer to the peasants' need for land, but particularly because it is a social institution which in large measure satisfied the people's and the government's desires for social justice and because potentially it represents the foundation for a more just and efficient form of economic production: a cooperative or collective one. There is no need in a short essay to go into a detailed description of the organization and functioning of the eijido system of land tenure, w cause there is an abundant bibliography on the subject.8 Let us simply point to some of the main problems which it faces at present.

(a) The Size of Individual Plots. Under pressure to satisfy the urgent requirements of the peasant population through the restitution or outright granting (dotacion) of land to the communities, the state neglected the need to form economically viable agricultural units. The legal size of newly-created eijido plots has varied over the years. It began with 4 cultivable hectares, and is at present 20 hectares of seasonal land, or 10 hectares of irrigated land or their equivalent in other kinds of land. In fact, many eijido farmers have much less than what the law grants them. For example, in some areas of the state of Tlaxcala where there are many peasants and little land, each ejidatario received only 1 hectare. In other regions, such as the Laguna in the north, from 4 to 10 hectares of irrigable land were distributed per beneficiary, but there is only enough water available to irrigate 1 hectare; the rest of the land grant is desert. In 1960, the average size of the eijido farmer's plot was 6.5 hectares of cultivable land; but 44 per cent of all ejidatarios had less than 4 hectares each and only 15 per cent possessed more than 10 hectares. Except in some parts of the country (for example, the collective livestock ejidos of Cananea, created in 1958) the non-cultivable eijido lands are generally not very useful to the ejidatarios. Neither husbandry nor forestry have up to now received in the eijido the attention they deserve. The ejidatario is basically a cultivator, and most of them are in fact minifundists, such as we have described before.

(b) The Distribution of eijido Lands. The distribution of land to the ejidos began slowly, increased considerably between 1935 and 1940, after which it leveled off, to rise again somewhat after 1959. In recent years, however, the figures on land grants include great expanses of arid lands in the north which have little economic value.

The administrative procedures which govern the formation of ejidos are slow and cumbersome. The initiative must be taken by the applicants themselves, who must also carry on the various kinds of bureaucratic dealings with different officials in government agencies. Given the landless peasants' low cultural level and their ignorance of legal and administrative matters, they frequently fall into the hands of unscrupulous middlemen who may profit at their expense. The red tape and expenditure involved in applying for eijido land seems more like a long judicial process than the technic execution of a clearly stated policy. There are applicatio for eijido lands in the Agrarian Department that have been in process for over thirty years, and only a small number of the have been solved favorably in less than five years. Of the nineteen thousand existing eijido communities only a few have reached the final stage of the land-grant process: that of legal division of the individual plots and the distribution of the definitive titles.

(c) Security of Tenure. The eijido plot is not a private property. According to the law, eijido plots may not be sold, rented, mortgaged or transferred in any other form except in specific cases included in the law. According to some students of the agrarian reform, the fact that the eijido plot is not a true private property is the reason why many eijido farmers do not effect capital investments and other kinds of improvements on their plots. This is also the reason given up to now by private banks to account for their refusal to channel credit toward the eijido sector. In some ejidos, in fact, the local eijido authority has the right to redistribute plots annually among the members.

However, in the majority of cases, the advantage for the ejidatario consists precisely in the fact that his plot gives him security and protection. Nobody can legally despoil him of it. The lack of investments in most of the plots is not due to their legal status but to the low rate of capitalization in the ejidos, which in turn is the result of their lack of resources. The fact that the eijido plot cannot serve as collateral for a bank loan is not to the disadvantage of the ejidatario but of the banker.

(d) The "Inflexibility" of Eijido Tenure. It has often been stated that the eijido is a brake to the development of capitalist relations in agriculture and, therefore, to economic development in agriculture; that eijido tenure is "rigid" and that it represents an obstacle to agricultural development. It has even been suggested that the criterion for eijido land grants should be the ability to "farm well" the land that has been distributed, and not simply the lack of land. We shall see below some figures on production, but we can already say here that nowhere has eijido tenure been an obstacle to agricultural progress. In areas of abundant resources and high productivity, the eijido is as productive as are the private farms. And in the poor regions, the private farms are as unproductive as any eijido plot.

The enterprising and innovating ejidatarios never break their heads against the "rigidity" of the eijido in their attempt to progress. They always find a way to buy additional land outside the eijido or to rent land or, mainly, to devote themselves to complementary nonagricultural activities (trade, services, transportation, etc.) which may even become the principal source of their economic well-being. The problem is not that the eijido institution brakes individual progress, but that quite often this "individual progress" is achieved by a few ejidatarios at the expense of all the others and of the eijido community as a whole, and at times in open violation of the agrarian laws.

Sometimes eijido plots are rented out to private "investors" who may or may not be landowners, but who at any rate possess the resources that the majority of ejidatarios lack. These rentals are fairly widespread, despite the fact that they violate the agrarian legislation, but there is no doubt that they have contributed to an increase in agricultural production.

Whatever the shortcomings of the eijido system may be (and they are many), "rigidity" is not one of them. The present agrarian legislation, despite its many violations, is still in principle a security for the poor ejidatario who finds himself at a low technical and cultural level. The eijido plot is still in principle an unalienable property.

The real problem is that the eijido organization must used fully to achieve not only the well-being of a few "entrepreneurs" (who will always exist under any circumstance) but of the whole community. This applies as well to the collective ejidos in the irrigated areas as to those devoted mainly to forestry in the indigenous areas; or to the "indvidual" ejidos (that is, those whose lands have been divide into individual plots) on seasonal lands which abound all over the country. It is not the eijido institution that has failed (and neither has the collective eijido as such failed, contrary to what is often wishfully said), but rather a certain policy -- or else, the lack of one -- which for over three decades now has fomented the practices which are so often denounced.

There are some examples -- unfortunately, too few -- which show that when the ejidatarios are strongly united (as in some ejidos of the Laguna region), or when there exists a clear policy of support and help to the ejidos on the part of honest, competent and dynamic public officials, then the eijido institution flowers and grows even against all sorts of internal and external pressures. But when public officials are corrupt and private interests strong, when there does not exist a clear-cut policy in support, and for the development, of the ejidos, then the eijido disintegrates as an institution and "fails." The key is not the tenure system but the political and nomic system that governs Mexico's institutional life.


The figures published by the agricultural census only low for a superficial analysis of the agrarian structure in 1960. On the one hand the census registers the property of the ejidos, and on the other hand, all non-eijido property is divided into farm units of up to five hectares and farm units larger than five hectares. Table No. 1 gives us an idea of the distribution of farm units, total size, cultivable land and irrigated land, among these three categories.


Land Distribution in 1960
(in thousands of hectares)

Category Number of Units % Area
Total Cultivable Irrigated
Has. % Has. % Has. %
Up to five hectares 900,000311,30011,2005.3 1285.5

More than 5 hectares

450,000 16 123,200 73 12,200 51.3 1,862 53.5
Ejidos* 1,500,000 53 44,500 26 10,300 43.4 1,417 41.0

* Refers to eijido farmers in possession of land. The category "farm units of more than five hectares in size" includes communal, federal, state and municipally-owned lands which amount to a total of 9,200 units. The figures are adjusted.

Source: IV Censos Agricola-Ganadero y Ejidal, 1960 (Mexico, 1965).

These figures show that the million and a half ejidatarios who have received land under the agrarian reform program, and who represent more than one-half of all heads of farm units in Mexico, possess a little over 40 per cent of all cultivable and irrigated land in Mexico. If we add to the eijido plots (which are usually too small to adequately support a peasant family) all privately-owned farm units of less than five hectares (which can with even more justification be called minifundios or sub-family farms), then we see that 84 per cent of all farm units in the country only possess 49 per cent of the cultivable area. Given the nature of soils and climate in most of the country we may consider these units as subfamily farms which do not provide either full employment or a satisfactory income to the peasant family.9


Mexico has in recent years had one of the highest rates of population growth in the world, more than 3 per cent yearly. But as a result of increasing rural to urban migration, as well as due to the fact that from one census to the other many rural communities are classified as urban centers (the limit between rural and urban centers being 2,500 inhabitants), the urban population has grown at a much faster rate than the rural population.

Rates of Yearly Population Growth
Periods Total Population Urban Population Rural Population
1930-1940 1.75 2.22 1.49
1940-1950 2.75



1950-1960 3.08 4.89 1.51

Source: Banco de Mexico, Proyecciones de la poblacion de Mexico, 1960-1980 (Mexico, 1966).

The rates of rural population growth have, however, remained constant since 1930. Thus, though the proportion of the rural population with respect to the total population has decreased from 66.5 per cent in 1930 to 49.3 per cent in 1960, in absolute numbers it has grown from 11 million to 17 million over the same period, that is, an increase of almost 50 per cent in thirty years.

If we only take the economically active population, we see that the number of persons engaged in agriculture increased from 3.6 million in 1930 to 6.1 million in 1960, that is, an increase of 70 per cent, but its relative position with respect to the total labor force decreased from 70.2 per cent in 1930 to 54 per cent in 1960.

More than one half of the total labor force is still engaged in agricultural activities in Mexico.

During the period under consideration (1930-1960) cultivable land increased from 14.5 million hectares to 23.8 million hectares, that is, an increase of 64 per cent, of which the larger part took place between 1940 and 1960. Irrigated land increased by over 100 per cent between 1930 and 1960, from 1.7 million hectares to 3.4 million hectares, and most of this increase took place between 1950 and 1960.

The Agricultural Labor Force, 1930-1960
  1930 1940 1950 1960
Total labor force 5,165,800 5,858,145 8,268,000 11,332,016
Increase - 13.4% 41% 37%
Agricultural labor force 3,626,300 3,830,892 4,621,000 6,144,930
Increase - 5.6% 20.6% 33%
% of agricultural labor force over total labor force 70.2% 65.4% 56.0% 54.2%

Source: Population census.

If the agricultural labor force is related to the cultivable land, it will be seen that the number of cultivable hectares per person occupied in agriculture does not change significantly, with the following coefficients:

1930/4 -- 1940/3.9 -- 1950/4.3 -- 1960/3.9

Nevertheless, we note that despite an increase of 0.4 between 1940 and 1950, the number of cultivable hectares per agricultural laborer had again decreased in 1960 to the same level as twenty years before, mainly as a result of the considerable growth of the agricultural population and the slower growth of cultivable land during the period 1930-1960.

Over the last thirty years the occupational structure of the agricultural population has changed considerably.

As a result of agrarian reform the number of ejidatarios almost trebled in thirty years, and the number of private farmers increased by 113 per cent. If we take ejidatarios and private farmers together, we see that the number of heads of farm units increased 144 per cent, from 1,147,000 in 1930 to over 2,800,000 in 1960.

But the growth in the number of farm units, though it has been higher than that of the total agricultural labor force, has not been sufficiently fast to absorb the growing number of landless agricultural laborers. There were 2.5 million of these landless laborers in 1930, at which time they represented two-thirds of the total agricultural population. As a result of the agrarian reform, their numbers decreased between 1930 and 1940, representing less than one-half of the agricultural labor force in 1940.

The Occupational Structure of Agriculture
(Thousands of People)
  1930 % 1940 % 1950 % 1960 %
Agricultural Labor Force 3,626 100 3,831 100 4,800 100 6,144 100
Increase - 5.6% 20.6% 33.0%
Landless Laborers 2,479.5 68 1,892 49 2,055 43 3,300 54
Increase - -23.7% 8.6% 60%
Ejidatarios 537 15 1,223 32 1,380 29 1,500 25
Increase - 128% 13% 8.7%
Private farmers 610 17 716 17 1,365 28 1,300 21
Increase - 17% 91% -4.7%
Source: Agricultural and population censuses. Adjusted figures.

Between 1940 and 1950 the number of ejidatarios increased slightly, but the number of private farmers almost doubled. Over the same period, due to population growth and the lessening rhythm of land distribution to the ejidos, the number of landless laborers increased again in absolute numbers, even though proportionately they represented no more than 43 per cent of the total agricultural labor force in 1950.

Between 1950 and 1960, as a consequence of the high rate of population growth, the agricultural labor force increased by 33 per cent. Over the same period, the number of ejidatarios only grew by 9 per cent and the number of private farmers diminished by almost 5 per cent due to the renewed process of land concentration in the private sector. Consequently, the number of landless agricultural laborers increased by 60 per cent, from 2 million to more than 3.3 million.

This means that by 1960 the landless agricultural population was more numerous than in 1930, and also than in 1910, and now makes up more than half of the total labor force in agriculture.

If the whole period under consideration (1930 to 1960) is analyzed, it will be seen that as against a total agricultural population growth of 70 per cent, the number of ejidatarios increased by 180 per cent, the number of private farmers by 113 per cent and the number of landless laborers only 33 per cent.

But if only the period from 1940 to 1960 is taken, the tendencies change. During these two decades, the agricultural labor force increased 60 per cent altogether. And whereas the number of ejidatarios increased by 22.6 per cent, that of private farmers grew 81.6 per cent and that of landless laborers 74 per cent. These figures reflect the changes in government agrarian policies after 1940.


The landless agricultural laborers, most of whom are wage workers, are not evenly distributed in the various parts of the country. In the region known as "Northern Pacific," where the most advanced cash-crop agriculture is practiced and where a third of all the country's irrigated land is found, the wage workers represent 61.6 per cent of the agricultural labor force. In contrast, in the "Southern Pacific" area, where traditional agriculture is the rule, the proportion of wage workers is only 42 per cent of the agricultural labor force.

The agricultural wage workers occupy the lowest strata of Mexico's population. They receive the lowest incomes, which are generally below minimum official wages. Their living conditions are also of the worst kind. Though in the prosperous regions some of them may be more or less permanent workers or employees in an agricultural enterprise, they generally work by the day or piecemeal and do not enjoy any security in their employment or their income. Many thousands of them are migrant workers and they follow more or less fixed seasonal circuits, according to the needs of the different crops. These migratory workers live under the worst conditions. They do not benefit from the protection of the law, or social security, or medical assistance or adequate housing or educational facilities for their children.

In the areas where the Indian populations live, and where many Indians work seasonally on nearby commercial plantations as wage laborers, the economic exploitation of labor goes hand-in-hand with ethnic and cultural discrimination, thus depressing the peasants' level of living even more.

Today's agricultural wage worker has very little in common with the old hacienda peon. The traditional power structure which tied the peon to the hacienda owner in a tight network of oppressive yet paternalistic relationships has been substituted by cold and impersonal monetary relationships. The mass of today's agricultural wage workers constitute an incipient agricultural proletariat.

Not All the Agricultural Population Will Be Able to Receive Land. Much speculation has taken place about the amount of land still available to satisfy more than 2 million applicants for land grants. Estimates by the Centra de Investigaciones Agrarias indicate that according to present legislation not more than 300,000 peasants may be able to receive land. And if new land is put under cultivation, approximately another 350,000 might receive land in the future.10 This means that practically all possibility for the redistribution of land under present legislation has been exhausted. Only a modification of present agrarian policy (which would drastically reduce the size of unexpropriable holdings) could change the nature of the present agrarian problem. On the other hand, if present demographic tendencies continue in the countryside, the agricultural population will not begin to diminish in absolute numbers for another fifteen years at the earliest. But if for some reason the non-agricultural sectors of the economy lose some of their dynamics maintained over recent years, then the agricultural population will continue to grow in absolute numbers up to the first decades of the next century, and by then it will have doubled. The effect of this growth on employment and income among the agricultural population has been qualified as nothing short of disastrous.11


The agricultural labor force is not evenly distributed among the different land tenure groups. The private smallholders (farm units of up to five hectares in size), who own 5.3 per cent of all cultivable land, provide employment to 27 per cent of the agricultural labor force. We have here, then, farms that are worked very intensively but where the degree of underemployment of the labor force is also very high. The eijido sector accounts for 45 per cent of the agricultural labor force on 43 per cent of the cultivated area. Here the man-per-land relationship is lower than among the private smallholders; the proportion of labor corresponds more or less to the proportion of cultivable land. Among the farm units of over five hectares in size, the ratio is much lower. In this group only 28 per cent of the agricultural labor force finds employment on 51 per cent of the cultivable area. The low man-per-land density in this group is of course due to the use of a more advanced technology and of higher proportions of capital, both of which displace manpower.

It has been common to consider the two main forms of land tenure (eijido and private) as two independent and to a certain extent rival and mutually exclusive systems. In fact, however, they function side by side. In any part of the country, eijido plots and small private holdings exist next to each other and are intertwined. In many villages ejidatarios and smallholders live together. According to the figures of the 1960 census 18 per cent of all ejidatarios also own small private plots. In the irrigated districts, water is distributed equally to private owners and ejidatarios, and though the former always attempt (and sometimes manage) to hoard water rights, in other areas (such as the Laguna region) the eijido farmer gets preference. The national unions of agricultural producers (associations of growers of certain crops such as coffee, sugar cane, cotton, etc.) include both ejidatarios and private owners.

Occasionally, however, conflicts arise between the private owners and the eijido farmers. A glance at the "farmers' page" of the major newspapers will show frequent complaints of ejidatarios against landowners who attempt illegally but with "political protection" to evict the former from their lands in order to appropriate them for themselves, sometimes even through the use of violence. And there are also cases in which groups of landless peasants peacefully occupy large private holdings in order to pressure public officials into listening to their demands for land. Some militant peasant organizations point to these incidents as symptoms of the agrarian counter-reform which, so they claim, has been implanted by the new bourgeoisie in power, and they warn that if adequate measures are not taken to accelerate the agrarian reform and to protect the peasant masses, violent outbursts will sooner or later contribute to the creation of a new revolutionary climate.12 The peasant organizations which are linked to the government tend to minimize these serious events and frequently adopt positions against such movements. These "official" attitudes account for the fact that many peasants have lost faith in the mass organizations tied to the State.

The interrelationships between the two tenure systems also takes place at the functional level. In the areas where eijido land grants have been made, there generally subsist the cores of the old haciendas, now transformed into "small private properties." These agricultural enterprises often provide labor opportunities to the ejidatarios or their families who, because they lack sufficient land, have to supplement their income with wage labor. In these cases, the private agricultural enterprise gets the necessary labor and the eijido the necessary additional opportunities for employment.


This question has been at the center of every discussion on land reform in Mexico. The enemies of the reform argue that private properties are more efficient and productive and that, therefore, they must continue to receive all sorts of public and private aid. They state that the private sector in agriculture has been supporting the country's agricultural development during recent years. They maintain that the eijido is unable to respond adequately to the needs of economic development and that, therefore, any aid it might receive would be no more than a handout, or charity, but by no means a productive investment.

How much truth is there in these arguments? Though this is not the subject of the present paper, it is nevertheless necessary to clear up some points in this respect.

According to the 1960 agricultural census, the relative proportion of the value of crops grown on eijido land (43 per cent of total value of all crops) corresponds roughly to the relative proportion of cultivable land in the eijido sector (43.4 per cent of all cultivable land), and is slightly higher than the relative proportion of irrigated land in the eijido sector (41 per cent of all irrigated land in the country). In other words, the eijido contributes to the country's agricultural product in direct proportion to its participation in the resource land.13

According to the same source, the private farms possess 70 per cent of all capital in agriculture (excluding the value of the land itself), whereas the ejidos only possess 30 per cent of all agricultural capital. Yet they contribute, as was said before, 43 per cent of the value of all crops. This suggests that the ejidatarios use the few capital resources they have at their disposal more intensively and efficiently. Indeed, for every $1,000 in capital, the eijido sector produces crops in the value of $955, the private farms of over five hectares in size, $763, and the small farms of up to five hectares, $698.

It has already been stated that in the private farms of over five hectares, 28 per cent of the agricultural labor force is employed. These same farm units possess 62 per cent of all capital in agriculture. On the other hand, as we have already seen, the ejidos avail themselves of 45 per cent of the labor force and possess 30 per cent of the capital. Nevertheless, the value of agricultural production in these two groups corresponds roughly to the relative amount of cultivable land they possess. This means that the higher concentration of capital in the larger private farms (of over five hectares in size) does not contribute significantly to an increase in production but does contribute to displace manpower.

It is true that with respect to two indexes generally used to measure productivity (production per cultivable hectare and production per person employed on the farm), the private sector shows better results than the eijido. This is due mainly to the fact that the private farms possess more and better resources than the eijido -- not only as regards cultivable and irrigated land and capital, as we have already pointed out, but also as regards technological resources, technical aid, credit, etc. Indeed, it is well known that rural education and agricultural extension and information programs managed by official agencies, as well as by certain private enterprises, mainly benefit the middle-size and large landowners, and hardly or not at all the private smallholders and ejidatarios. Figures from the 1960 census show that 62 per cent of all land on which fertilizer was used in 1960 belonged to private farms of over five hectares, while only 38 per cent of such lands belonged to the ejidos. As for credit, which is a key problem of Mexican agriculture, the National eijido Credit Bank only services 17 per cent of all the ejidatarios, and private banks, as we already mentioned before, are loath to invest in the eijido sector. As a result, as we shall see below, the eijido farmers have to bear the usurious rates of interest imposed upon them by local moneylenders and middlemen, which weigh heavily upon their economy. The same applies, to be sure, to the private smallholders. In contrast, the medium-size and large private landowners have no difficulty in obtaining short- and long-term credit under good conditions (including that which comes through internationally financed programs such as the now extinct Alliance for Progress).

The idea of the inefficient eijido is one of those myths which are propagated without any scientific basis. There is no serious study of Mexican agriculture which does not show that given equal conditions, the ejidatario and the private owner can make the soil produce with equal efficiency. The trouble is that in most cases these equal conditions do not exist. The ejidatario (or the private smallholder) and the large agricultural entrepreneur do not possess the same natural, technical, financial, administrative, educational or institutional resources. Comparing the ejidatario with the large agricultural entrepreneur is like comparing an unskilled worker with a business-school graduate in their ability to run a factory.

The myth of the inefficient ejidatario has all the characteristics of a self-fulfilling prophecy. So much is said about the inefficiency of the ejidatario that they are denied precisely those technical and financial elements necessary to increase production and improve their efficiency. In other words, the ejidatarios are punished because they do not possess that which they have been denied.


Given the conditions under which at present the eijido system develops, it is surprising -- and by no means discouraging -- to see the satisfactory economic performance of the ejidos, in relation to the resources they possess -- by no means in absolute terms. However, there are many forces which slow down their development and we must not underestimate their importance. Among the more serious problem elements, various students point to the institutional factors. What are these factors and how do they affect the development of the eijido sector?

(a) Difficulties of Internal Organization. It is necessary to remember that eijido tenure is communal property; that it is the community, the village, which receives and owns the land. Besides cultivable land -- which may be worked individually or collectively according to the decision of the President of the Republic -- most of the ejidos also own collective pastures or forests which, in contrast to the cultivable area, may not be subdivided and worked individually. The administration of this communal tenure (distribution of individual plots, rules for the collective use of forests and pastures, rights of succession and inheritance, etc.) requires an adequate organization. The law provides for the democratic election in the ejidos of a governing body (comisariado ejidal) and a vigilance committee which are in charge of these activities.

But these organisms are often the seat of conflict and struggles within the ejidos. Many ejidatarios are not prepared technically to take on functions which require a high degree of administrative ability. In view of the economic advantages which are often associated with the directive functions in the ejidos (for example, collecting quotas for the use of communal pastures, or having the power to distribute vacant plots of cultivable land, and so forth), in many of them tendencies toward the concentration of power in self-appointed "bosses" (caciquismo) have arisen, thereby weakening internal harmony and affecting majority interests. These tendencies are often stimulated by external interests, either of a private nature or of regional political groups or even by interested public officials.

(b) The Bureaucratization of the Eijido System. The eijido is closely related to various government departments. It is dependent upon the Agrarian Department for everything related to land tenure itself (original or additional land grants, confirmation of old communal titles, registry and individual titles to cultivable plots, determination of land boundaries and of persons with agrarian rights, supervision of elections of eijido governing bodies, etc.). It depends on the eijido Credit Bank for agricultural loans, through local credit associations or groups. In the irrigation districts, it is dependent upon the Ministry of Hydraulic Resources for the distribution of water. Furthermore, it is closely linked to the national political structure through the chain: eijido governing boards regional peasant committees -- state agrarian leagues -- National Peasant Confederation. As a locality, the eijido is also the object of other agencies: the Ministry of Public Education, the Federal Commission for Electricity, the Ministry of Public Health and Welfare, the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, etc. In all of these relations the members of the eijido governing board take on multiple functions. In order to fulfill them satisfactorily, the president of the governing body must have many human, administrative, political and technical qualities. Of course, not all of them possess these qualities in the same proportion.

The eijido is thus integrated in a wide network of bureaucratic and political relationships. This system may, of course, bring a number of benefits to the ejidatarios, by channeling to them the goods and services that the government distributes. But it also contributes to the vulnerability of the ejido's independence and its capacity for autonomous decision and action as a social unit, by exposing it to official authoritarianism and paternalism, bureaucratization and, particularly, corruption.

Specific cases which it has been possible to study in the rural areas show that corruption is not an "endemic malady" in eijido organization, but that when it appears it is generally stimulated from above and outside the eijido. It would thus seem that the bureaucratic bourgeoisie (the "new class" of which Djilas speaks in another context) finds in the eijido a fertile field for the application of its acquisitive instincts.

There are plenty of examples which would document these generalizations. Let us simply point, among others, to a special kind of problem which has become very important in the development of the eijido sector. Sufficient, cheap and timely credit is an essential element in agricultural production. The National eijido Credit Bank was created over thirty years ago to cater to the needs of the ejidos. But as we have already pointed out, its resources are insufficient to satisfy more than a minority of eijido farmers. Its activities are channeled mainly toward economically profitable cash crops in the highly productive areas (sugar cane, cotton). Due to various reasons and through different mechanisms, in certain areas the Bank has taken over the control of agricultural production in the ejidos through the establishment of agricultural calendars, the distribution of fertilizer, the use of heavy machinery, the management of industrial transformation units such as sugar mills and cotton gins, and the acquisition, stocking and sale of harvests. In these areas, the ejidatarios often lose control over the product of their labor and over their own labor for they become, as it were, wage workers for the Bank on own plots. Their relations with the Bank, instead of stimulating entrepreneurial capacity among the ejidatarios, in fact transform them into passive dependents. The ejidatario, instead of planning and caring for his crops, seeks a daily wage for his subsistence. And the local Bank agency handles counts and distributes profits after the harvest has been sold, with hardly any intervention on the part of the ejidatarios.

It is not strange, therefore, that under these conditions the ejidatario often ends up at the close of the agricultural cycle in debt to the Bank. Complaints are frequent ejidatarios about fraud, larceny, fictitious costs which charged against their accounts, inputs of low quality, technical and financial aid which arrives at the wrong time after undue delays, and so forth. And the Bank, in turn, frequent! does not recuperate its loans and its balance sheets show large deficits in the management of its accounts, which are all due to the same causes. Some students of the agrarian question maintain that the Bank is no more than a subsidizing agency for the ejidatario, because it seems to be managed more by political than purely financial criteria. Others, however, point to the fact that in many areas the Bank's operations involve the ejidatario in a cumulative process of decapitalization and that certain types of legislation (such as the law which establishes compulsory areas for the cultivation of sugar cane in order to supply the sugar mills) prevent the ejidatarios from breaking this vicious circle.

(c) The Collective Eijido. Over the years there have been various attempts to organize the eijido sector along cooperative and collective lines. This tendency is fully justified by the characteristics of eijido tenure and the social organization o eijido communities. In 1922 the first efforts to create variou kinds of cooperatives began. During the administration president Cardenas the first collective ejidos were created in some of the more prosperous areas of the country (the Laguna region, Sonora, Michoacan, Yucatan). In these ejidos the productive process was carried out jointly by the ejidatarios.

The collective ejidos quickly achieved important economic successes, but they also developed serious problems of internal organization, mainly due to the lack of previous experience, which soon provoked considerable conflicts and maladjustments. After 1940, government policy turned against the cooperative and collective experiments, mainly due to ideological and political reasons and, such as was the case among the collective ejidos in the Yaqui valley, a good number of these ejidos "became the victims of difficult situations, created artificially as a part of political maneuvers intended to weaken them and provoke their failure. . . ."14 Some of them were able to resist successfully; others have disintegrated. Even though in recent years collective exploitation has again been stimulated partially in the newly created livestock ejidos, in general, however, collective eijido organization is clearly declining, not because it has proven to be a failure as such, but because the incompatibility between a collective form of organization of production and the capitalist regime in the country has been too great. The sabotage of collective organization by the highest circles for almost thirty years reflects the increasingly sharp contradictions between collective and private interests in the countryside. The main tragedy of the Mexican agrarian reform has been that its development has necessarily had to reflect the nature of the Mexican revolution itself, which was carried out by the peasants but has mainly benefited the new bourgeoisie risen from its ranks.


Though in general terms the growth of agriculture has been satisfactory, this development has taken place only in those areas of the country where highly productive commercial agriculture is carried out, particularly in the irrigated districts of the north and northwest. In the seasonal (nonirrigated) areas agricultural productivity is low and in large parts of the country most of the peasants practice subsistence agricul-tare which has contributed but little to over-all agricultural progress. Thus, for example, in the state of Sonora the value of agricultural production per cultivable hectare is 1,660 pesos, whereas in the state of Oaxaca, whose agricultural population is almost four times higher, and whose cultivable area is more than twice that of Sonora, the product per cultivable hectare is less than 500 pesos.

Regional differences tend to increase. In recent years the highest rates of growth of the agricultural product have taken place in the irrigated areas devoted to cash crops. The government's agricultural policies also tend to favor these regions: this is where the main investments in the economic and social infra-structure are made. The country's limited resources for agricultural research and extension are also concentrated here.

In contrast, the areas of subsistence agriculture lack financial and technical aid and the market structures here are likewise unfavorable to the peasant.

Given the high productivity and potential of commercial agriculture and the present structure of demand for agricultural products, it is probable that these subsistence farmers -- estimated at two million ejidatarios and private smallholders -- will continue at the margin of agricultural development indefinitely and that their numbers will increase due to population growth.

It is often said that in the process of economic development the agricultural population has to decrease not only in proportion to the other sectors (as has occurred in Mexico) but also in absolute terms (which has not yet occurred). It is said that it is necessary to "take people out of agriculture." But unemployment and underemployment are as serious in the cities as in the countryside. The process of national industrialization has not yet been able to incorporate adequately the growing working population of the country. That is why the so-called tertiary sector grows so fast: commerce and services. The slogan "getting people off the farms" forgets the social and economic problems which present themselves in the overpopulated cities and which become more acute from day to day as a result of increasing rural to urban migration and of population growth. This attitude, just as the one that posits that land reforms should only distribute land to "efficient" farmers, does not take into consideration the enormous problems of millions of peasants who are neither "efficient" fanners nor contribute significantly with their production to national accounts.

That is why the subsistence minifundio, even though marginalized from the process of economic development, fulfills a function at the present historical moment: it contributes to fix the population on the land to provide minimum subsistence to those who otherwise would perhaps have none. As long as present incongruities in the use of the country's financial resources continue, and as long as the present economic system continues to favor the city over the countryside, the prosperous areas over the poor ones and the upper social strata over the low-income groups, minifundio subsistence agriculture will remain, and perhaps extend itself indefinitely.

But not everything is perfect in the prosperous agricultural areas either. In these zones wage laborers obtain miserable incomes. The ejidatarios are frequently dominated by the credit institutions or those which buy their crops (the Eijido Bank, the sugar mills, etc.), to which they become increasingly indebted. Production costs rise and soils become depleted (as with cotton), and the peasants wish to go back to grow their maize and their beans, because with these crops at least they satisfy their basic food needs.

In these areas of speculative cash crops (as, for example, in the Apatzingan valley, in Michoacan), the prosperity brought along by a good harvest is fleeting, and the wealth generated in the area does not remain there. It is skimmed off by the merchants, middlemen and speculators, leaving the area and its peasants as poor and neglected as they were at the beginning. This kind of phenomenon, which has been called internal colonialism, is fairly extended. It means that even in the regions of prosperous agriculture progressive decapitalization may occur. This occurs even more acutely m the poor areas.


Before the revolution, the class structure in the country, side was highly polarized. A small landowning aristocracy, a part of the national bourgeoisie, which controlled almost all the land and a large part of the natural resources, which made up the power elite and occupied the apex of the social pyramid, dominated and exploited the large peasant mass of resident peons, wage workers, sharecroppers and communal smallholders. The so-called rural middle class of independent farmers or ranchers was insignificant.

Agrarian reform, by eliminating traditional peonage, redistributing the land and creating almost three million new heads of farm units, has contributed to the profound modification of the rural class structure. At present, the picture is more complicated and it is possible to perceive various social strata and classes in the agrarian structure.

(a) The Ejidatarios. The eijido farmers or ejidatarios are a product of land reform, having profited directly from the distribution of land. More than any other type of peasant in Mexico, the ejidatario arose out of the struggle for the land. Many of the older ejidatarios were directly involved in the revolution. A large number of ejidos were formed after violent conflicts, sometimes lasting for years, between the agrarian leagues or committees and the latifundists and their private armed bands. Countless peasant revolutionaries lost their lives in these conflicts, but others have seen their long years of struggle crowned by the formation of an eijido. Thus, ejidatarios may be viewed as a revolutionary element in rural Mexico, but more because of their origin and history than because of their present situation. In fact, ejidatarios today are increasingly dependent upon the State because it gave them their lands and because they are tied to it through various government agencies such as the Agrarian Department, the Credit Bank and other institutions. We may add to this the traditional paternalistic view of the State as "patron," and the high degree of centralism and authoritarianism which the State has assumed in Mexico in recent years. These circumstances, among others, have contributed to the fact that the eijdos sector shows less initiative and dynamism than the private sector in agriculture. The paternalistic State, instead of stimulating and promoting collective initiative and the ejidal peasant organizations it helped to create, has lately tended to regiment their development within a framework of economic and political control which serves it as a supporting base. Thus, a number of collectively worked ejidos, instead of being able to develop under the guidance of a sympathetic government, are increasingly involved in a bureaucratic network which manipulates them to further its own interests. Though in many cases these circumstances do produce unquestionable economic benefits for the ejidatarios -- specifically in the case of irrigation districts where the eijido Bank invests great sums of money in certain highly productive cash crops -- politically they have prevented the development of grass-roots democracy at the eijido level.

The local eijido authorities form the base level of the pyramidal structure of the National Peasant Confederation (one of the sectors of the ruling party, PRI), which is made up, at progressively higher levels, of regional peasant committees, state agrarian leagues and the national directorate. The ejidatario thus finds himself at the bottom of a double political hierarchy: that of the State and that of the party. It would seem that in this fashion the ejidatarios possess effective power in the national political structures. Indeed, the eijido sector may make its voice heard at the national level, and may pressure the government in its favor, more effectively than any other peasant group (with the exception, of course, of the large landowners). But the integration of the ejidatario in political organizations which are directly dependent upon and controlled by the government, has in fact contributed to the real political subordination of the ejidatarios to government interests and has diminished the functional efficiency of his organizations as independent interest and pressure groups. This system, which fully satisfies the political control function which is imposed upon it from the top, has fomented ejido "bossism" (caciquismo), which was mentioned before.

The eijido sector, perhaps more than any other, is interested in "reforming" agrarian reform by means of an agrarian and agricultural government policy which would enable it to improve its productive base, to increase its income and to benefit increasingly from Mexico's economic progress. Many ejidos need more land; others only require government policy stressing greater incentives, better credit facilities, more investments and so forth. The eijido sector possesses the objective base for organized political and economic action; the land is communal property, local matters must be handled lawfully by local eijido credit organizations and the ejido's own elected officials. It is because of the ejido's great economy and political potential that the ejidatarios are strictly controlled by the official bureaucracy and by the peasant organizations which are tied to the State. Thus the ejidatarios are placed in an ambiguous position with regard to the State, and this situation contains the seeds of future conflicts. Though the ejidatarios are no longer thrust in the same fashion as before against the vested interests of other powerful rural social classes, the State itself may enter into conflict with the ejidos, to the extent that it itself reflects various conflicting class interests. And insofar as the State is a "distributor of scarce goods" (investments, public services, policy, fiscal policy, agricultural subsidies, special legislation, etc.), the ejidatarios will compete with other interest groups for the State's attention. But in contrast with other social classes, the ejidatario as such is not placed in structural opposition to other social classes. With regard to the ejidatarios, the State is all-powerful; it may be the firmest ally or the biggest obstacle for the attainment of the ejido farmer's ally or the biggest obstacle for the attainment of the ejido farmer's aspirations, but it is never neutral.

Ejidatarios in possession of land amounted to 1.5 million in 1960, that is, about 25 per cent of the agricultural labor force and 53 per cent of all heads of farm units. Their share in the net agricultural product was 33 per cent.

(b) The Minifundists. Though there are many peasants in the eijido sector whose individual plots in fact characterize them as sub-family farmers, minifundism with all its problems is to be found principally in the private sector of agriculture. By "minifundio," as we mentioned before, is meant here an agricultural unit which is too small to give full employment to two adults and to adequately satisfy the needs of a peasant family. The exact size of such a unit will vary, of course, according to regional differences in soils, climate, water resources and prevailing level of technology. Official statistics, however, only give the actual size of landholdings in hectares, so we must take these measures for our purposes. We may safely estimate that the great majority of proprietors of five hectares or less (a figure which appears in the Mexican agricultural census returns) are minifundists, though in many areas larger holdings than these will also have the same occupational characteristics.

Minifundists are also the product, albeit an involuntary one, of agrarian reform -- they are an unforeseen but almost inevitable result of land distribution. The sub-family farm owner, in contrast with his ejidatario counterpart, is not tied to the State and can expect very little from it. Up to a point his interests and those of the ejidatario coincide, particularly as regards agricultural price supports and the need for cheap credit, and also due to the fact that almost 300,000 ejidatarios are at the same time proprietors of small private plots. This class of peasants is tightly linked to an increasingly powerful rural bourgeoisie, through the sale of their produce, their need for credit and the occasional complementary wage labor in which they engage. The rural bourgeoisie to which they are tied is a new regional upper class whose pre-eminence comes not from property or land but rather from the monopolistic control of commerce, the distribution of goods and services, and regional political power. The minifundists usually face a monopolistic market and credit structure which lies entirely out of their control, and the kind of subordination they suffer is as harsh and exploitative as was the erstwhile latifundist's control over his peons.

It is among the minifundists that disguised unemployment is most pronounced. Many of them are also engaged in complementary economic activities, such as local crafts (pottery, manufacture of straw hats and mats, woodwork, particularly in the Indian regions), or petty trade in local market places (also mainly in the indigenous areas), or wage labor on nearby farms.

The private smallholders are generally subsistence farmers; they live marginalized from economic progress. Through their effort and labor and the way in which they are integrated in regional economic structures, they contribute to the economic progress of other classes. The forms of exploitation they suffer are subtle and indirect and appear to them as the "impersonal forces of the market."

The minifundists are not politically organized; their political potential is low, given their dispersion and isolation and the fact that their integration in the class structure does not directly place them in opposition to a dominant social class which they could easily identify, in the same way as the hacienda peon was able to identify his oppressor. Their world is small and their world view is limited and localized. They feel the burden of, and frequently protest against, the exploitation of a local cacicazgo, but they are unable to see that it is the national agrarian policy itself which maintains the system that condemns them to the lowest subsistence levels.

The private smallholders who own farms of less than five hectares in size are almost 900,000 strong. They represent 31 per cent of all heads of farm units and 14.6 per cent of the agricultural labor force. Their share of net agricultural income is 13 per cent.

(c) The Owners of Family Farms. If we simply take census information about the size of holdings at the national level (and in order to simplify our analysis we will not employ other criteria that might modify the picture slightly), it will be seen that more than 225,000 units, that is, 17 per cent of all private landholdings, have from five to twenty-five hectares of land. These farms are usually something more than minifundios, but are not really prosperous or highly productive agricultural units. We may suppose that they are family farms, of sufficient size (due regard being given to regional variations of soil and climate) to provide full employment to two adults, perhaps with occasional help from temporary wage labor and the use of draft animals or some agricultural machines. A large proportion of these units is concentrated in the central belt of the country, where demographic pressure is highest.

If we suppose that there is one owner per unit, we find that 7.8 per cent of all heads of farm units and 3.6 per cent of the agricultural labor force are in this category.

(d) Medium-Size Farm Owners. In the stratum composed of farm units of between twenty-five and two hundred hectares we find definite increases in productivity. With the usual reservations regarding regional differences, we may suppose that these holdings are multi-family farms which require not only the labor of an average family but also the more or less permanent presence of wage workers. Approximately 170,000 holdings, that is, 13 per cent of all privately-owned farm units, are to be found in this category, and they occupy 10 per cent of all privately-owned land. Supposing again that there is only one owner per farm unit, we find 6 per cent of all heads of farm units (including ejidatarios) and 2.7 per cent of the agricultural labor force in this category.

(e) Large Landowners. We may consider as large landowners those who possess more than two hundred hectares of land. In many cases these are properties which may be affected by land-distribution measures because they exceed the maximum legal limit of what is considered pequena propiedad. They have usually benefited from adequate investment of capital and may be highly productive. In this stratum there is a high degree of concentration of land. Indeed, only forty-two thousand units, that is, 3 per cent of all properties, are in this class, but they occupy together more than eighty-six million hectares, that is, 84 per cent of all the land in the private sector. Among the large landowners we must also include the neo-latifundists who concentrate in their hands properties which are legally registered under different names as pequenas propiedades. In this stratum we regularly find the use of wage labor, technological innovations and, above all, easy access to the main sources of agricultural credit.

The new latifundists are true agricultural entrepreneurs. They are organized nationally into growers' unions or "smallholders' " (sic) associations, which have become strong pressure groups that influence the government authorities in defense of their class interests. The large landowners are generally tightly linked with the bourgeoisie at the national level, and their economic interests go well beyond mere agricultural activity into commerce, credit, transport, real estate and other mainly tertiary activities.

The three strata that have just been mentioned -- the family farmers, the medium-size and large landowners -- jointly make up one of the dominant rural classes. They represent 15.3 per cent of all heads of farm units and 7 per cent of the agricultural labor force. But they received 46 per cent of net agricultural income.

(f) The Rural Proletariat. We may finally point to the more than 3.3 million landless rural laborers, over half the active population in agriculture, whose existence is proof that Mexican agrarian reform is still far from having fulfilled what it set out to do: that is, to hand the land to the tiller. However, only a part of this group is really an agricultural proletariat working on plantations or modern capitalistic farm enterprises in exchange for a secure job and an adequate income. A large part of these workers are peons or day laborers who for a subsistence wage on the small and medium-size far devoted to traditional agriculture, or even on eijido plots. Hundreds of thousands of these, whose ranks are increased by ejidatarios and minifundists during the slack season, used cross regularly into the United States as braceros. Others| wander to the cities temporarily to find work as unskilled workers and may thus be considered members of a semiurban, semirural proletariat.

As we have pointed out elsewhere, "the wages of the day laborers are notoriously low. In most parts of the country employers do not comply with the legal minimal rural salary."15 There are areas where 3 or 5 pesos ($.25 or $.40) are still being paid for a full day's work. A recent survey by the Bank of Mexico has shown that more than 76 per cent of all families whose heads are agricultural wage laborers, have an average monthly per capita income of 59 pesos (less $5.00), and a third of these families have an average monthly per capita income of 43 pesos (about $3.50). In no other branch of the national economy do wage workers or day laborers receive such low incomes, and no other economic activity is as badly paid as this one. Though the agricultural laborers represent more than half of the agricultural labor force, they only receive 8 per cent of agricultural income.

This social class is a forgotten group in Mexico's social and political picture. In official declarations the topic is evaded. The peasant organizations recognize the problem but up to now they have done little to face it with practical measures, the number of landless agricultural laborers increases constantly due to strong population pressure, and to the fact that the nonagricultural sectors of the economy are unable to absorb this growing population into productive jobs. Their numbers have increased almost 60 per cent between 1950 and 1960 and it is impossible, for many reasons, that each worker receive an eijido plot or a small private farm. Though they are not systematically organized in unions or other similar organizations, and even though their incorporation into such kind of associations is a difficult task, their political potential is large. The possibilities for the social and economic development of this class within the framework of present economic structure are increasingly blocked. They may not realistically aspire to benefit from a land grant under the reform program; facilities for emigration as braceros are no more, at least for the time being; opportunities for finding employment in the cities are limited, particularly for rural immigrants having low educational levels. Even their employment in the larger agricultural enterprises becomes increasingly difficult due to the tendency toward labor-displacing mechanization in these farms. In the face of a lack of viable immediate alternatives, the potential organizability of these rural workers may put the whole fabric of present agrarian policy under stress and may shake the bases of the existing political and economic structure.


The landless workers, the private minifundists and most of the ejidatarios are the exploited classes in the countryside. The fashion in which they are related to other social classes and integrated in the wider society varies in each case; but in general, class relations constitute a complex network of interdependencies and oppositions which stem from the agrarian reform and the process of economic and social development in recent years.

In the first place, let us state that the rigorous distinction between the ejidal and the private sector which some authors draw is only meaningful at the level of the formal structure of land tenure. In fact, the majority of ejidatarios are "functional minifundists" and can hardly be distinguished from the sub-family farm owners of the private sector. In contrast with other countries where no agrarian reform has taken place, in Mexico the minifundio is not structurally linked to the latifundio. In many areas the underemployed working population of the minifundios and the ejidos finds temporary employment on large nearby farms, but as producers the private and ejidal minifundists are rather integrated in regional economic systems whose dynamic nucleus is a regional "metropolis" or urban locality which is the political, economic and administrative center of the region.

The large landholding, in turn, is a modern, productive, commercial enterprise and has access to enough free labor from among the class of rural laborers so that it need not turn to peonage as its predecessors did, nor depend on the minifundio as a reserve of labor, as is the case in many other Latin American countries.

The agricultural laborers may, in turn, become integrated in two main types of systems of work. The first one is the capitalistic cash-crop agriculture of the irrigated areas, where they usually carry out specialized, well-paid jobs. In this type of agriculture, the worker fulfills a necessary function, and even though increasing mechanization tends to displace labor, the creation of a real agricultural proletariat in these area is an unescapable process. The second type of work system for agricultural laborers presents itself in the areas of subsistence agriculture, mainly in the regions of seasonal farming in the center and the south and southeast of the country. Here the misery of wage work appears most dramatically, related to the lack of employment, the lowest standards of living, the absence of education, of opportunity and of hope. Here the formation of a modern proletariat does not take place; here only the "marginalization"16 of the rural population becomes more acute.


In the more underdeveloped regions of the country which have been called its "internal colonies," the oppositions and contradictions between social classes at the local and regional level very often lose their importance as compared with the larger opposition represented by the subordination of the region as a whole to the dominant centers or "metropoli" of the country, that is, the large cities and the areas of rapid economic growth. In the internal colonial situation, the regions that function as "colonies" are undergoing a growing process of pauperization, losing their best natural and human resources. A case in point is the defense in 1966 by the whole people of the state of Durango, of their natural resources, against the industrial bourgeoisie of Monterrey. Another example is provided by the recurrent outbursts of "autonomism" in Yucatan, which are provoked, among other things, by this state's subordination to the center. In the Apatzingan valley, in Michoacan, the cotton boom initiated by "investors" from other parts of the country (that is, agricultural entrepreneurs, well supplied with capital, who rent large numbers of eijido plots to farm them as one unit) has mainly benefited the "investors" without producing any large-scale and long-term benefits for the area and its population, after having depleted the region's best soils.

Internal colonialism is strongest in areas of Indian population, such as Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas. In the highlands of Chiapas, for example, a numerous Indian peasant population (ejidatarios, communal smallholders, private mini-fundists, wage workers) is subordinated economically and politically to the Ladino or mestizo ethnic group, which is mainly concentrated in one city (San Cristobal las Casas) which functions as the administrative, political and commercial center of the region. The exploitation of the peasant population as a social class is here reinforced by its exploitation as an Indian group, that is, as a colonized people and an oppressed minority.17


Before agrarian reform, the hacienda was a relatively autonomous and closed social and political universe in Mexico, as it still is in other Latin American countries. Only the landed ruling class participated in national life: the limits of the social universe of the peasant class and the rural middle strata coincided with the limits of the hacienda. The hacienda was the economic, political and social center for a large population. The breakup of the latifundist structure widened the peasants' social universe, stimulated social and geographical mobility, created new networks of social relationships and new regional centers of political and economic power. In the new structure the small and medium-size regional town is playing an increasingly important role. This is so much the case that social processes on the land cannot be understood except in relationship with these urban centers. They are not only distributors of goods and services, but also places through which rural migrants have to pass on their way to the big cities or to the dynamic agricultural centers of the north northwest.

In these towns, in turn, we witness the development of a new social class which has received a special impulse in Mexico since the agrarian reform, though, of course, it exists historically ever since there have been cities. This is a rural-urban bourgeoisie, a class engaged in the activities of the tertiary sector but closely related to agriculture. It is composed of merchants, store owners, public officials and professionals of certain kinds whose activities relate to agriculture. This bourgeoisie does not derive its status from the ownership of land, even though many of its members may also be rural landowners, but rather from capital accumulation which is generated by agricultural activity but which finds its way into these urban occupations of the tertiary sector.

In these towns important processes of saving and capital formation take place. But it is probable that only a small fraction of these savings is reinvested in agriculture, and then only in the areas of commercial crop farming. In general it appears that the capital generated by agriculture is absorbed by this growing commercial and servicing sector, although a part of it is no doubt used for local and regional industrialization. But this seems to be only a small part, and we do not believe that the rural bourgeoisie, at the present stage of Mexico's development, is about to become a class of industrial entrepreneurs. On the contrary, a number of facts lead one to suppose that this social class channels its capital into increasing its commercial activities, speculating with real estate and so forth. In other words, capital generated in agriculture tends to flow toward the large developing urban centers.

The increasing importance of this regional bourgeoisie places it in a position in which it is able to determine and to dominate, up to a point, the social processes in the rural areas. Investment or innovation decisions by the peasants depend in large measure not upon their individual acts but upon various kinds of pressures which this social class exercises upon the regional farm economy. The interests of this social class also influence the regional market for rural land, and thus the degree of concentration or dispersion of rural land-holdings. By virtue of its key role in the regional economy, the members of the regional bourgeoisie also occupy important positions in the social and political structure. We may suppose, in fact, that this is where a number of public officials and politicians are regularly recruited and that this class, in general terms, plays an important role in the country's political dynamics.

Consequently, we see that due to agrarian reform in Mexico, the rural economic and political power centers have moved from the hacienda to the regional towns; that a ruling class of large landowners has been displaced by a regional bourgeoisie whose locus is in the cities but which dominates rural life; that out of a peasant class of peons two new social classes have developed -- the minifundists (or smallholders sub-family farmers) with their two factions: the private owner and the ejidatarios, and the landless rural workers -- and that, finally, various strata of medium-size and large farm owner have developed. The latter are closely linked to, and some times indistinguishable from, the rural bourgeoisie of regional cities and even some sectors of the great bourgeoisie at the national level.


1 See, for example, Leopoldo Solis, "Hacia un analisis general a largo plazo del desarrollo economico de Mexico," Demografia y Economia, Vol. I, No. 1 (1967); and Edmundo Flores, Tratado e economia agricola, third edition (Mexico, Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1964).

2 Marco Antonio Duran, El agrarismo mexicano (Mexico, Siglo XXI Editores, 1967), p. 19.

3 Ramon Fernandez y Fernandez, Notas sobre la reforma agraria mexicana (Mexico, Escuela Nacional de Agricultura, n.d.), has pointed to the confusing aspects of the official slogan of "integral agrarian reform" if it is not accompanied by a real transformation of the established agrarian policies.

4 For valuable descriptions about the period by contemporary observers, see Andres Molina Enriquez, Los grandes problemas nacionales (first edition, 1908), and John Kenneth Turner, Barbarous Mexico (first edition, 1910). The best English-language descriptions of the prerevolutionary agrarian situation are to be found in Francois Chevalier, Land and Society in Colonial Mexico: The Great Hacienda (Berkeley: University of California Press), George McCutchen McBride, Land Systems of Mexico, and Frank Tannenbaum, The Mexican Agrarian Revolution (Haaden, Connecticut: Shoestring Press, 1968).

5 For a discussion of the conflict between private and collective property see Ramon Fernandez y Fernandez, Propiedad privada versus ejidos (Mexico, 1953).

6 "Sub-family" farms are those that absorb no more than two man-years of labor and do not provide adequate income to an average peasant family. See Solon Barraclough and Arthur Domike, "Agrarian Structure in Seven Latin American Countries," in volume.

7 Personal communication by Emilio Lopez Zamora.

8 See principally Eyler N. Simpson, The Ejido, Mexico's Way Out (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1937), and Nathan L. Whetten, Rural Mexico (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948).

9 A good contribution to the study of changes in land tenure is Carlos Tello, La tenencia de la tierra en Mexico (Mexico, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, 1968).

10 Sergio Reyes Osorio, "Estructura agraria, demografia y desarrollo economico," Planificacion (Mexico), Vol. 1, 1968.

11 Ibid.

12 Recent incidents in 1967 involving the violent deaths of dozens of peasants in Guerrero and Hidalgo are a dramatic -- but by no means isolated -- example of this malaise. Foreign observers sometimes see the symptoms more clearly than the national press. An article in U.S. News & World Report on these topics showed Mexico in such unfavorable light that it called forth official denials. See also The New York Times, December 29, 1967, and The Minority of One, December 1967.

13 Only the value of crops and not of total production is considered here, because as regards fruit orchards, permanent plantations, livestock, etc., the eijido system due to the poverty of its resources is at a disadvantage with respect to the private sector, and, therefore, the comparison would not be valid.

14 Marco Antonio Duran, op. cit.

15 Rodolfo Stavenhagen, "Los jornaleros agricolas," Revista del Mexico Agrario, Vol. 1, 1967.

16 For a discussion of the concept of marginalization in Mexico see Pablo Gonzalez Casanova, La democracia en Mexico (Mexico, Ediciones Era, 1965).

17 For a detailed analysis of this situation see Rodolfo Stavenhagen, "Classes, Colonialism and Acculturation," in Joseph A. Kahl, ed., Comparative Perspectives on Stratification, Mexico, Great Britain, Japan (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1968).