Land and Liberty in Mexico - Neil Birrell

An article from summer 1995 on the Chiapas uprising. From The Raven #30.

Submitted by Fozzie on August 6, 2022

The uprising in Chiapas which began on January 1st 1994 - coinciding with the signing of the NAFTA agreement - immediately confirmed two open secrets. The one was that the Mexican economy was in a mess. Despite the efforts to achieve equal status with the rich nations this top-of-the-form pupil of IMF and World Bank policies suffers from such serious internal divisions that it just doesn't make the grade. The second was the knowledge that an uprising would occur for the actions of the Zapatistas had been long in the coming.

This could in some ways be traced back to the eve of the Olympic Games which were held in Mexico City in 1968. A student demonstration at the time was brutally put down by the military/police killing some 200 demonstrators in the process. Hundred more were imprisoned - in many cases held for up to three years without trial. This was one of the key factors giving birth to the Generacion de 68. Many of those imprisoned were intellectuals coming from a variety of Maoist, Marxist-Leninist and anarchist persuasions. It is in many ways these same people who were the key figures in preparing and executing the Chiapas rebellion.

But in another sense the rising had a much longer gestation period and is firmly rooted in the indigenous peoples sense of injustice and their awareness of a cultural identity which has more in common with anarchism than the neo-liberalism of the current regime.

I wish to show in this essay that the culture of the indigenous people of Mexico historically displays many of the traits that would be necessary to any definition of anarchism; that capitalism was an unnatural system forced upon them by a process of colonialisation carried out by European statists; that this perversion has, down the years but with particular reference to the immediate past, brought into being a crippled development and that the state, being instrumental in this process, has been unable to solve the inherent social problems of the people of Mexico even when occasionally its intentions were benign. I will argue that the root of this continuing problem is traceable to the continuing crisis in Mexican agriculture - exacerbated today by the forces of global integrationalism - which can only be solved by the people organising themselves into social organisations capable of solving the land problem that the political parties have proved themselves unable or unwilling to deal with effectively.


Peter Newell in his book Zapata of Mexico includes an interesting appendix where he considers amongst other questions the close relationship between the people and the land in this area of the world. The first settlers in the central area around what is now known as Morelos held their fields in common, were largely self-sufficient - an important factor for anarchists I believe - and advanced in their agricultural techniques being extremely productive and producing crops several times per year. It was about 500 years later that the Toltecs - one of the main groups in Chiapas - arrived. Likewise they were skilled farmers cultivating a wide variety of domesticated plants.

These early societies had little concept of landed property. Even when the groups became sedentary the concept of individually or even family owned property was long in the forming. Indeed even as late as the 15th century Newell quotes Parkes as saying:

The mass of the people cultivated the land. Land was not held as private property. Ownership belonged to the tribe or to some smaller unit within it. Each family, however, was allotted a piece of land which it cultivated independently. Certain lands were reserved for the expenses of the government and the support of the priests, these lands being cultivated by the common people.

Clearly government in some rudimentary form had already appeared. Indeed it was firmly established in those areas where the Aztecs held sway where also - as might be expected - the notion of slavery had already made an appearance. Yet even here Newell quotes Lewis Morgan Henry saying that, 'The Aztecs and their Confederate tribes still held their lands in common... land belonged to the tribe, and only its produce to the individual". Thus the land was, throughout the region, owned in a communistic fashion. This was seemingly so natural that - despite the intervening colonial period - Ricardo Flores Magon was able to write in 1906 that: Mexico there are some four million Indians who lived, until twenty or twenty-five years ago, in communities that held land, water and woods in common. Mutual aid was the rule in these communities and authority made itself felt only when the rent collector made his periodic appearance... Each family cultivated its special strip of land, which was calculated as being sufficient to produce what the family required; and the work of weeding and harvesting the crop was done in common, the entire community uniting to get in Pedro's crop today, Juan's tomorrow and so on.'

Clearly the notion of government and authority was not absent from all of this. Mayan civilisation as well as Aztec was highly theocratic with a priestly caste which along with any warrior class helped establish in time honoured fashion the trappings of government. However, amongst the Mayans, power was highly decentralised which proved one of the main problems for the conquering Spaniards when they arrived meaning that they had many centres of power to conquer rather than just one head to cut off.

I do not wish to devote much space to considering the role of the Spanish - the story is well known. Briefly the Spanish sought to dismantle the natural social forms they found by stealing land from the Amerindians and giving it out to settlers who, supported by the Church, were charged with socialising the locals with religious propaganda and its attendant values systems. Of more significance, however, was the new attitude to land which was foistered onto the area and which sowed the seeds of the current crisis. Indeed what the World Bank has called the 'best example of a bi-modal system' was brought into being by the Spaniards. They introduced two forms of land ownership which I must now introduce and which will be important for the rest of this essay.

The local people were given a degree of independence by being granted tracts of common land called ejidos which allowed for subsistence farming. This was no charitable project. Indeed given the continuing class stratification taking place at the time this was of use to the emerging landowners who could make the Indians work on their own land (they owned the Indians along with the land - the system introduced by the Spanish was essentially feudal) but could do so without remunerating them given that the ejidos presumably gave them what they needed for basic survival. Still the owners of society were not satisfied. They continued encroaching onto the ejidos until they had succeeded in creating the enormous haciendas: the other side of the equation that has blighted Latin American agriculture for so long.

Whilst the ejidos could still be seen as part of an economic system geared to use-value the haciendas were geared solely to the capitalist notion of exchange-value. European 'civilisation' had successfully been imposed on the naturally anarchic domestic culture.


Although the conquistadors were little more than pirates it is vital to realise that the conquest was achieved not simply by a bunch of bloodthirsty sadists. It is well known that infections such as influenza and smallpox were the two major generals in the imperial army and indeed it is arguable that the Americas might never have been conquered without them. In North America smallpox was deliberately introduced in an act of genocide which perhaps has few historical parallels. More importantly it must be emphasised that New Spain was simply an outpost of the Iberian peninsular and subject to direct Spanish rule. As always, therefore, the new social stratifications were introduced by means of state power. The conquistadors were controlled by agents of the Spanish crown known as gachupines and the Viceroy's rule over the whole show was indeed despotic. Property laws - a new phenomenon even in Europe - were the means by which the haciendas came into being. All land belonged to the Spanish crown thus dispossessing the Indian villages. These lands were slowly and progressively seized and after an elapse of time the situation was regularised by the legal system. Thus, over a period of time, the lands which the conquistadors originally owned became the new haciendas covering most of the fertile lands of central Mexico.

Independence in 1821 did little to improve the situation. Legislation like the Ley Lerdo (1856), despite the hopes of some of its supporters, failed to improve the lot of the underclasses. Its practical effects were to allow those with wealth to increase their control of land at the expense of the many. It was this situation which sparked of the Mexican revolution.

In the long term this also did little to help the people who gave their lives for it. But it did usher in the new era. One in which at various stages attempts at land reform were made (more than can be said of other countries in the region) but which all ultimately failed to one degree or another essentially because of the involvement of the state in the process which had of course caused the situation in the first place.

The state almost by definition is a conservative force. It presides over a social set-up which has willingly or otherwise allowed it to achieve and keep power. Any tinkering with the basic social infrastructure is not in the interest of any state given the possibility of apple carts being upset. Thus in the early days when presidents like Obregon and Calles made some moves to redistribute land to the ejidos the larger landowners were handsomely compensated and the peasants were subsumed into the clientelistic political apparatus. Instead of land and liberty at best the people got land and the state.

In the thirties Cardenas succeeded somewhat in breaking up the feudal system allowing for Mexico to develop industrially. However the reforms introduced during this period simply organised co-operative farms dependant on the government for finance. The government also successfully controlled the campesinos not only in this economic way but also politically by channelling demands for land and services through organisations under its control by incorporating the ejido's comisariados into the structures of clientelism and political patronage. This corporatist approach had the long term effect of creating a dependant, passive agrarian sector - again indicative of the conservatism of the state.


The land crisis at the heart of the Mexican problem has not been solved although certainly political lessons seem to have been learnt from the past. The EZLN has stated repeatedly since the uprising began that land reform is crucial to their programme. For example on March 1st 1994 they stated that, 'we want the great extensions of land which are in the hands of ranchers and national and foreign landlords and others who occupy large plots... to pass into the hands of our people'.

The crisis in Chiapas is not a local one and it affects the whole of Mexico. This agricultural system that I have traced back to the time of the conquistadors is in the words of the world bank, "probably the best representation of a bimodal agricultural system". That is to say that there is a small number of enterprises which are well capitalised and tied to the governing elite who have over the years dedicated to them state financial and technical resources. On the other hand there are the impoverished many - about 7,000,000 (some 10% of the national and 40% of the rural population of the country) live in conditions of desperate poverty. Chiapas offers us a microcosm of a far larger picture.

In Chiapas the bulk of the population is dependant on agriculture. Over half the population earn less than US$3 per day. This however, contrasts with the overall agricultural wealth of the state being in the top three for prouction of coffee, maize, bananas, tobacco and cacao.

However this is not because the land is mainly owned by the commercial landowners. Indeed it isn't - over 50% of the land is owned by the ejidos. We need to look beyond this simple explanation. A study by ECLAC helps.

11% of agricultural producers in the ejido sector are commercially viable - marketing about 90% of their produce. At the other end is a further 31% who, marketing one third or less of their produce cannot obtain the basic necessities of life. The remaining 58% whilst marketing a significant proportion of their produce can still barely eke out an existence on their land. Thus about 90% of the ejido farmers are not economically viable.

The neo-liberal solution to all this is well known - those who fail must go to the wall. This reason is tragically flawed for at least two reasons. Firstly, as the process of integration continues (the NAFTA being one milestone along the track) the competitive arena will progressively be that of the global market. Given Mexico's inability to compete here the already small number of 'successful' ejidos will fail as will those more privileged landowners, outside the ejido section, who traditionally enjoyed state protection but who will, as the natural shelter of the nation-state is taken away from them due to the development of trading blocks, also fall into the arms of bankruptcy. The idea that Mexico can compete with it's Northern neighbours due to the cheapness of its labour fails to take into account the capital based nature of the northern agricultural systems. But secondly, once again the above statistics don't paint the full picture and indeed to the extent that they suggest that the ejido sector is unproductive they falsify the truth.

The top 11% of the ejido do not owe their success to control of large tracts of land. The ECLAC study puts their success down to easy access to bank loans which has allowed them to capitalise the agricultural process. But does this mean that capital intensive farming is naturally superior to labour-intensive farming? The answer is far from clear. According to Barkin the land reforms introduced by Cardenas, insufficient as they were, encouraged most farmers to dramatically improve their production:

Contrary to what many experts predicted, these poor, unschooled peasants were able to increase the productivity of their lands at an average annual rate of more than 3% following the redistribution of the 1930s, doubling their meager yields to more than 1.2 tons per hectare by 1960. The system put in place by Cardenismo encouraged the peasants to achieve substantial improvements in productivity by the back-breaking application of inherited cultivation practices, together with the fruits of local experimentation with seeds, fertilizers, and soil and water conservation techniques. Despite this encouragement, however, the peasants were condemned to poverty by a rigid system of state control of credit and the prices of agricultural inputs and products.

Given the right conditions it can easily be argued that traditional farming techniques are equal to if not superior to those which are encouraged by the neo-liberal policies. To this equation we must of course also add the important factor of the quality of the land and the irrigation infrastructure that attends certain areas.

Here we turn away from the ejido sector - even that 'successful' part of it - to look at the private sector located in the more favourable parts of the state. Soconusco, the region of the state with the most developped commercial sector is a case in point. Here 18% of the population lives on 7% of the best land. The plantations are exchange-value based - that is essentially geared to the international economy rather than satisfying local need. Beef cattle raised for the international market is one of the products raised on the plantations where the average private landholding is about 8 times that of the average ejido holding. At the top of the pyramid are some 150 holdings (with all the built in privileges I have described) which are between 50 and 100 times the size of the ejido sector and a further 100 which are more than 100 times the size of the ejido sector.

The overall picture therefore is one of where the private sector reap the benefits of an unfair share of the best lands in the state. Such an unlevel playing field cannot be studied with a view to drawing conclusions about the relative merits of two different approaches to the land question that is on the one hand a neo-liberal system geared to an international economy and motivated by profit and on the other hand a labour-intensive system based on popular control and geared towards serving the needs of the people. Clearly the regime as one might expect stands for the former and the uprising seeks to advance the possibilities of the latter winning through. What are the chances of success for each approach?


The Mexican economic 'miracle' is in large part dependant for its analysis on those parts of the economy which are geared towards the international economy. In considering the issues involved here I wish to braket certain questions from the outset. Firstly, the argument as to the nature of change in the global infrastructure and indeed whether change is/has occured/occuring. This is important but I feel the realities of the situation can be discussed without direct reference to the nature of the changes that are taking place. Secondly, we need to confine ourselves to the land question. The arguments we are putting forward therefore may take on at the very least a different hue when applied to other parts of the economy. So having entered these caveats what are the prospects for the two agricultural models we are considering?

Neo-liberal economics is tied to the historical straightjacket of classical liberal economic theory (or at least one interpretation of it) which in part is dependant on a Ricardian notion of comparative advantage. In the hustle and bustle of political debate regarding integration (federalism, democracy etc) the underlying concept of an economic structure within which each region seeks a trade advantage is often lost. However, it is the validity of this argument upon which the whole structure is essentially based. As in the words of the former leader of the GATT Sutherland 'We are all winers'. This might be true if we all had a role to play. So what is the role for Mexican agriculture?

Capitalism suffers from a central economic weakness which is that once scarcity has been solved as a problem it has no project. This whole problem is academically subsumed into the question of price elasticity. Basically if you produce a commodity where need/want has been fundamentally satisfied you are a loser and if you produce a commodity where need either has not been satisfied or can be generated by advertising you are a potental winner. To give an example you won't buy more coffee tomorrow even if the price were to halve (or at least not significantly so) whereas you might run two cars if the cost of running one halved (and you live in a social unit comprising of two potential car drivers).

Agriculture (apart from for example asparagus ferns for Interflora packaging) is largely a price inelastic market. The capitalist project of supplying demand has been solved and so within a capitalist system those involved in this area are redundant. Those who will make a success of this sector will be capital intensive.

This is of necessity a simplistic version of an argument which is just as applicable in its more sophisticated version. Its consequences are far reaching but in terms of Mexican agriculture the results are pretty stark. Even in this field where the capitalist economic problem has largely been solved we are considering, within the confines of the NAFTA a third world country (for indeed that is what Mexico is) competing with the most capital intensive agricultural system in the world. We are comparing some of the richest lands in the world with farmers dealing with hillsides that never had rich and deep topsoils. This isn't competition it is a rout. Some figures:

The impact of NAFTA is illustrated by the productivity figures on corn, the single most important crop of the Mexican peasant. While Mexico averages 1.7 tons of corn per ha., the United States produces seven tons. One might think that Mexico could remain competitive because its labor costs are only a fraction of what they are in the United States. But this is not the case. To produce one ton of corn in Mexico 17.8 labor days are required, while in the United States only 1.2 hours are needed to produce that same ton of corn!

Figures on bean production, the other historic Mexican staple, also reveal a dismal future for Mexican peasants. Mexico produces about half a ton per hectare, while the U.S. weighs in with 1.6 tons. In Mexico 50.6 labor days are needed to produce each ton of beans while in the United States, just over half a day of work is required.

Such figures were produced prior to the economic collapse last December. In theory the revaluation of the peso within the global system should make Mexican exports more competitive but the theory goes up the swanny as I have said given the inelasticity of the products involved. Some advantage will be gained by those farmers already geared towards an exchange-value economy rather than a needs value economy but it will be slight and the whole of Mexican society will have to pay the social cost (unemployment austerity progs etc) which even before the crash painted a bleak picture.

The neo-liberal route which has tied its colours to the NAFTA mast doesn't look too promising even from the World Bank's viewpoint, who concluded in a plan that it funded but didn't endorse that the changes to Article 27 of the Mexican constitution relating to land reform 'are unlikely to achieve the lofty goals of enhancing productivity and modernizing agriculture that are desired by the Mexican government." Instead foreign capital (what there is of it) will invest minimally in the ejido sector, given its general marginality and poor quality lands. As a result some ejidos will shift to less capital intensive private livestock. Only a few of the "best endowed agricultural areas" will consolidate under large scale entrepreneurs who will concentrate on providing inputs for food processing operations, that is the external market.

Given the propensity for the large landowners to direct their efforts to the international arena staple food under the neo liberal framework will not be produced in sufficient quantities for any degree of autarkic dvelopment. Currently the ejidos produce two-thirds of Mexico's beans and corn and 70 percent of the rice.


An alternative to this exchange-value approach has to begin by recognizing that the Mexican state's policy of intervention in the campesino economy has failed. It is not because of any inherent "backwardness" of the ejido or because of a lack of initiative on the part of the Mexican peasantry. It is the development strategies of a "modernizing" Mexican state that have created and perpetuated poverty.

As David Barkin has argued "in spite of innumerable government programs created precisely to aid agricultural modernization, the history of institutional intervention in Mexico demonstrates a definite socio-economic bias against the majority of poor farmers." As we have seen the priorities of the Mexican regime were, as is the case with the statist approach, not geared towards the resolution of economic problems by addressing the agricultural qustion but rather the putting of political control before economic development and favoring the urban industrial economy at the expense of the agricultural sector.

This further demonstrates that the only solution for Mexico's food crisis is a real agrarian reform, not one where peasants are once again relocated to the country's worst remaining soils, while the best lands are held in larger estates.

It follows, surely, therefore that ultimately, the key to a new agriculture is the empowerment of the peasantry. The ejidos and agrarian communities have to have the resources they need and empowerment to find their own solutions. Clearly the question of social and political organisation is crucial here.


In the past the movements against clientelism tended to be spearheaded by national leftist parties, and this centralized control meant that the organizing agendas of local campesino organizations were determined by the political strategies of Mexico City-based parties. There has also been a history of more independent political party organizing by campesino organizations that have attempted to pursue their demands through political channels. In Morelos, Sonora, Guerrero, and Oaxaca,campesinos joined with workers and other popular sectors to create home-grown political parties to challenge PRI hegemony. In all instances, the government responded to such political challenges with repression, largely discouraging further attempts by campesinos to organize in this way. Somewhat as a result of this more recent campesino organisations have tended to eschew all political activity all together. By the late 1980s this commitment to political independence and autonomy became an increasingly evident strategy. Fearful of being subsumed by corporatism, the more radical wing of the campesino movement declined to support the opposition candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas in 1988.


The campesino movement has in recent years become increasingly concerned with issues of internal democratization. More grassroots involvement and control of the new campesino organizations increased with the fading power of the ejidal comisariados and the emergence of new credit, food distribution, and other service organizations in the mid-1970s. The declining influence of the government-sponsored National Campesino Federation and the creation of new local and regional organizations linked to national networks also created room for a more democratic campesino movement. Also important was the participation of the "generation of 1968" as technical advisors and academic consultants to the new organizations.

The increasingly democratic character of the campesino movement was also a product of the integration of traditional community organizations into producer networks. This was especially evident in the National Network of Coffee Growers Organizations (CNOC), which was firmly anchored in local and regional organizations that combined the structures of direct and representative democracy. The vibrant democracy of village assemblies and the regular regional meetings of village delegates contrasts sharply with the top-down character of Mexican political institutions and demonstrates the viability and efficiency of bottom-up social structures.

Since the 1970s campesino organizations have made great strides in creating more democratic structures. But many shortcomings remain. The clientelistic, elitist, and paternalistic behavior for which Mexican political parties and government agencies are criticized is also found within campesino organizations. Overdependence on one leader or honcho persists in many organizations, the most prominent case being that of the EZLN and its "spokesperson" Subcomandante Marcos.

Certainly the EZLN can be seen to be tainted in this way but it was essentially the EZLN which has been instrumental in organising in Chiapas a grassroots movement for democratization that was at least as important as the electoral aspects of democratization. In Chiapas, a State Assembly of the Chiapanecan People formed as a loose coalition of citizen groups, campesino organizations, democratic union currents, and NGOs. Responding to the call of the EZLN, a National Democratic Convention was held immediately before the August 1994 elections that brought together human rights groups, leftist academics and scholars, and popular organizations, united in their conviction of the lack of real democracy in Mexico.

Formal institutions such as the National Democratic Convention and the State Assembly of the Chiapanecan people were established largely as a result of the EZLN's call for organized civil society to take the lead in pushing for an up-from-the-bottom process of democratization. This grassroots movement for liberty took hold at the village level in Chiapas as communities began to challenge the pervasive hold of the caciques in the Altos de Chiapas and to confront municipal authorities with charges of corruption. The rising recognition in Mexico that the deep racial and caste divisions need to be addressed and a reinvigorated sense of indigenous idenity have also been important advances in the creation of a more democratic society in Mexico.


Peter Newell Zapata of Mexico Cienfuegos Press 1979
Peter Kropotkin The State. It's Historic Role Freedom Press London
Ronald Wright Stolen Continents The Indian Story Pimlico 1992
Roger Burbach and Peter Rosset Chiapas and the Crisis of Mexican Agriculture
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Land and Liberty in Rural Mexico - Democracy Backgrounder Vol I, No 1 April 1995
Fax: (US) 505/246-1601