Among the principal causes of the Mexican revolution (1910–20) were the country’s highly unequal landowning patterns and growing landlessness among the rural majority, especially during the regime of dictator Porfirio Díaz (1876–1910). The 1917 constitution, which has governed Mexico since that time, included among its provisions several articles addressing the land issue, most prominently Article 27, which states in part: “The nation shall at all times have the right to impose on private property such limitations as the public interest may demand, as well as the right to regulate the utilization of natural resources . . . in order to conserve them and to ensure a more equitable distribution of public wealth.”
Article 27 also stipulated that only ejidos (inalienable village-owned collective lands, generally distributed by villages to individual heads of households) and individual Mexican citizens could own Mexican land or subsoil rights. In the early 1920s, under intense international pressure, Article 27 was watered down in a series of constitutional amendments to permit foreign firms, most notably U.S. oil companies, to be granted concessions on Mexican territory for the exploitation of natural resources.
Actual implementation of Article 27 varied greatly in accordance with the proclivities of individual presidents. In the 23 years from 1917 and 1940, approximately 30.6 million hectares were redistributed to villages and individuals. Around one-third of this total (34 percent) was redistributed from 1917 to 1934 under the presidencies of Venustiano Carranza (1917–20), Alvaro Obregón (1920–24), and Plutarco Calles and his subordinates (1924–34), amounting to a little over 10.5 million hectares. The remaining two-thirds (66 percent), amounting to some 20.1 million hectares, was distributed by the administration of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–40).
After 1940, the popular clamor for land declined substantially, in consequence of both the aggressive implementation of the constitution’s land reform provisions under Cárdenas; formal representation of rural producers in national and local governments via the National Peasant Confederation (Confederación Nacional Campesino, or CNC); and the growth of rural-urban migration and the attendant shift in the nation’s demographic structure. According to one leading scholar, “[the] era of agrarian violence that began in 1810 finally ended with the land reform of the 1930s.” (Tutino, From Insurrection to Revolution, p. 348.)
After 1940, the national government under the PRI favored large commercial agricultural enterprises at the expense of smaller production units, resulting in growing impoverishment among rural dwellers. Under President Luis Echevvaría (1970–76), the government again emphasized the ejido sector, adding some 17 million hectares to the ejido total. This was the last major redistribution of Mexican land. In 1992 the government radically altered the nature of the ejido, in effect privatizing it by permitting ejido-holders (ejidatarios) to sell, rent, lease, or mortgage their properties. The neoliberal, free market, privatization-oriented reforms under President Vicente Fox (2000–06) continued the erosion of the ejido, though the institution remained important in many rural areas, while local struggles for land (as waged by the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, for instance) promised to continue into the foreseeable future.
- Barry, Tom. Zapata’s Revenge: Free Trade and the Farm Crisis in Mexico. Boston: South End Press, 1995;
- Tutino, John. From Insurrection to Revolution in Mexico: Social Bases of Agrarian Violence, 1750–1940. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.
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