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MEXICO. Agrarian Reform: 77 years of intervention of the State in land management. 1/4

1/4-First stages: 1915-1940

Written by: Hubert Cochet

Writing date:

Organizations: Association pour contribuer à l’Amélioration de la Gouvernance de la Terre, de l’Eau et des Ressources naturelles (AGTER)

Type of document: Paper / Document for wide distribution

400 years of land despoliations

Although the main objective of the first colonial institutions was to acquire and control the indigenous workforce, notably to work in the mines, the colonists’ interest in land began to increase from the 17th century onwards. The decrease in silver mining profitability and the investment of capital in farming rapidly transformed the colonial hacienda into a major commercial agricultural estate. At first, the hacienda’s organization revolved around the production of wheat and sugar cane, particularly on the most propitious and sometimes irrigable lands. At first, corn was « left » to the Indians. In the 18th century, however, the hacienda began to control the production, and above all, the storage and trade of corn.

The use of fallow agriculture (wheat and corn) and light draft animal power expanded, notably near Spanish cities and mines. The use of new tools like the swing plough and horn yoke increased at a time when labor was becoming more scarce. However, it remained limited to the large Spanish estates that were being built. The use of draft animal power spread along with the colonists’ seizing of land. Manual, self-sustaining agriculture, based on the production of corn, continued to exist in sanctuaries. It often took centuries before Indian peasants were able to use draft animal power.

During the 17th century (between 1640 and 1700), the tenure of the majority of the haciendas was legalized through the process of composición de tierras, land ownership was acquired from the crown, who granted land title. The peons in a Mexican hacienda were theoretically free farm workers. In reality however, they were trapped at the estate because of the debts they had accumulated in the hacienda store, the tienda de raya, which they were forced to resort to for their purchases. Moreover, the peons were given accommodation (acasillado) on the hacienda and were obliged to remain upon the estate as long as they were indebted. The debt was inheritable: the expression “debt servitude” is often used to define the social tie between the bonded worker and the owner of the hacienda. The hacienda system, however, was more complex and diverse in reality because several very different production units were intertwined. The best lands, located at the heart of the haciendas, were usually directly used by peons, while other families worked lands located at the periphery. These families were also tied to the owner, by tenancy or sharecropping agreements (diagram 1). Indian communities living on the small remaining parts of land left vacant by the large estates also had working ties with the hacienda (becoming day laborers during peak periods, for instance).

Mexican independence in 1820 did not change this pattern. Like everywhere else in Latin America, the 19th century was dominated by liberal ideas partly inspired by the French Revolution, and resulted in the triumph of private property (in the sense of the individual right to use, exploit and alienate). A series of liberal (and anticlerical) laws followed, turning land into a commodity, and private property into the only link between man and land recognized by law. Any other form of land possession was abolished. “Mortmain” property (belonging to a corporate body) was declared illegal and had to be sold (desamortización).

In Mexico, this series of laws were mainly targeted at:

  • Properties of ecclesiastical and religious congregations

  • Indian communal lands (los ejidos), which belonged to the whole community, but from which only usufruct was granted to all the members of the community.

Consequently, the Indian communities lost their juridical personality and ceased to exist de jure. While Indian communities’ land tenure was being declared illegal, they also had to accept the sale of the plots of the community’s territory. in order to become an owner, each member of the indian community had to purchase a plot and pay a property tax to the state (alcabala). This resulted in what may be the most massive plundering of indian property in history. It not only benefited the interests of the hacendados, whose control of territory continued to spread into the late 19th century, but also that of the rancheros, and most probably some indigeneous caciquesas well, who could now establish their hegemony.

Mexico: Overview just before the Revolution.

In 1910, Mexico held a population of approximately 15 million inhabitants. It took almost 4 centuries to reach pre-Cortes demographic levels of 10-20 million inhabitants. 70% of the Mexican population still lived in rural areas, and 90% of agricultural laborers did not have any land rights.

In Mexico, there were1:

  • 8,400 haciendas with an average surface area of 13,500 ha

  • 50,000 ranchos with an average surface area of 200 ha

  • Over 110,000 small owners, possessing an average of approximately 12 ha

At the time, there were 3 million peones families and around 400,000 tenant or sharecropping families 2. 60% of the indian communities were either shattered or forced into the proletariat.

The rise of discontent and the increasing peasant revolts resulted in the uprising of 1910 and to the Revolution, led by Emiliano Zapata in the South and Pancho Villa in the North. Peasant masses rallied around one slogan « Tierra y Libertad ». Thanks to an alliance with the working class and the middle class, particularly in the cities, the dictator was overthrown in 1910. A long period of unrest and civil war followed (1910-1920).

1st phase of the agrarian reform and restitución program (1915-1934).

In 1915, the 1st agrarian reform law was promulgated. The content of this law was specified in the now famous article 27 of the 1917 constitution.

This law:

  • Stated that the ownership of all lands and waters was vested in the Nation

  • Restored to the indian communities their juridical personality

  • Thanks to the restitución program, enabled indian communitites to claim restitution of land which had been plundered.

  • Declared that the sale of any lands which had once belonged to indian communities, should be null and void after the desamortización.

This program aimed to return the ejidos to the indian communities. As in the past, the word ejido referred to lands owned collectively by the community.

However, this law did not question the distribution and sale of lands of the previous century’s desamortización, but only the illegal sale of land that followed. In theory, commons distribution could be questioned and cancelled if 2/3 of the former community members requested it. In reality, the ones impacted by this arrangement were the children and grandchildren of the former community members. This principle seems to have never been applied: indian communities who had survived desamortizaciónusually experienced the absorption of their plots, which were now viewed as private property.

The program did not allow the laborers of the hacienda to claim for land distribution. In 1922, it was specified by law that the nucleo of the hacienda was prohibited from filing a request for a land grant. Peones were not considered to have agrarian rights and were thus excluded from any process of land redistribution. This law only applied to the hacienda’s ancillary lands, which had been obtained late and illegally at the expense of indian communities.

The restitución program merely
scratched large properties.

The heart of the haciendas, that is the best lands, usually had irrigation infrastructures; they were not affected by the first phase of the agrarian reform, nor were social relations of production which were the foundation of the hacienda system. In reality, this law reflected more a concession towards part of the peasantry for their massive involvement in the 1910 uprising, and the necessity to forestall conflicts in the countryside, than a real will to change the country’s agrarian pattern towards more equality.

Large properties were not impacted by the agrarian reform. The juicio de amparo system, that is the right of large proprietors to appeal to the court for injunction whenever they were threatened by restitución, delayed considerably the implementation of the reform, thus increasing the price for Indian communities resorting to it.

The ex post evaluation of the agrarian reform showed that the restitución program had a very limited impact: out of 30,000 presidential resolutions signed throughout the agrarian reform, less than 500 involved a « restitución » (Warman, 2001 p. 98)3.

The first 20 years of the agrarian reform, which had a much lower impact than the following stages, showed that 7.7 million ha (3-4% of national territory) were distributed to around 780,000 peasant families. The lands which had been distributed were not the best ones. Over these first 20 years, each beneficiary had received an average of 0.33 ha of irrigated land + 1.77 ha of dry land, and 7.77 ha of pasture.

The condition of the majority of the peasantry, who were de facto excluded from being potential beneficiaries of the agrarian reform, did not improve. This resulted in many peasant uprisings during that period.

Moreover, the agrarian reform was not conceived as a tool for economic development; to the contrary. President Calles soon suggested to put an end to the agrarian reform and to limit the scope of the action to the mere objective of social justice. He absolutely wanted to avoid turning it into a tool for economic development. He based development on large estates’ agricultural exportation, but unfortunately, the crisis of 1929 and the drastic fall in exports that resulted signalled the end of this illusion.

Source: H. Cochet, based on SRA data, Dirección General de Información y Documentación Agraria
77 years of agrarian reform in Mexico: surface areas distributed and beneficiaries/term of office.

The agrarian reform: pillar of economic development. 1934-1940.

When General Lázaro Cardenas seized power, the agrarian reform entered a new phase. The agrarian reform was no longer considered as a concession granted under popular pressure; it was now viewed as a tool for economic development.

The 1934 agrarian code, the 1st main rewriting of article 27 of the Constitution introduced major changes:


1/ Laborers in haciendas were given the right to claim land by being granted the status of « subject with agrarian rights ». Peones were allowed to organize themselves and claim land allocation as a group (it was no longer a mere restitution)4. The allocation program allocated land in the form of ejidos, but the meaning of the word had now evolved, and referred both to the land attributed to a group of people, as part of the agrarian reform, and to the group itself. The characteristics of an ejido were the following:

  • The State (the Nation) kept land ownership

  • The State granted land use (usufruct) to the group of beneficiaries; each group member was identified as ejidatario

  • Usufruct was usually divided into individual plots between the group members, (parcela ejidal referring to each individual allocation), except for ranges and woods which were accessible to anybody.

  • Individual usufruct (parcela) could be transmitted by inheritance, was indivisible (to avoid allotment), and inalienable (any form of purchase/ sale, rental, mortgage, cession for owner occupancy was prohibited).

2/ The right of large owners to appeal to the court for injunction ({juicio de amparo) was abolished.}}

3/ Private property was limited to:

  • 100 ha irrigated land

  • 200 ha dry land

  • or the surface area necessary to maintain 500 livestock units.

Any private property which kept under these limits could not be affected by the agrarian reform, and became recognized and protected by law5.


4/ The notion that the agrarian reform could be exempted from being implemented for stockbreeding reasons inafectabilidad ganadera was introduced to protect large estates with extensive stockbreeding from being affected. Under certain circumstances, owners could be granted certificates of inaffectability certificado de inafectabilidad ganadera6. The aim was to match the agrarian reform process, with the emerging development of extensive cattle breeding, particularly in less populated tropical area (pioneer front). This shows the ambiguity of the agrarian reform, which, although radical in some aspects, granted other sectors a lot of liberty to continue developing without having to abide by the agrarian reform.

This time however, contrary to the previous period, the heart of the hacienda system was impacted, and the dotación procedure resulted in disassembly of the haciendas, with the most favorable lands (particularly irrigated lands) being distributed.

Land allocation and haciendas disassembly

It was assumed that only a massive distribution of the lands, including the most fertile ones, could boost production. There was one exception however: in areas dedicated to irrigated agriculture for exportation, in which large estate owners had made considerable investments, collective ejidos were established to « save the production tool »: the Laguna region (cotton), the Yucatán region (henequen), the Yaqui valley (cereals), the hot lands of Michoacán (rice), and Los Mochis (sugar cane). This was the only (though considerable) infringement to the individual and family characteristic of the reparto.

During Lázaro Cardenas’ presidency, almost 19 million ha were distributed (almost twice as much as during the 20 previous years) to around 730,000 beneficiaries (the same as during the 20 previous years). The surface area distributed per beneficiary was much larger than during the previous period, approximating 25 Ha/ plot. Also, the quality of the lands distributed during the agrarian reform was generally much better: it usually included irrigated land (averaging 1.3 Ha/ beneficiary) and a much larger seasonal farmable land temporal (averaging 4.6 Ha/ beneficiary versus 1.77 Ha over the previous 20 years. The remaining allocated surface area of 19 Ha was composed of pasture, woods and ranges) see graph 2.

During this presidency, various tools to promote the development of agriculture were implemented: farm credit, policies to control prices and prevent speculation, and on top of this nationalization of gas and the gas industry which enabled massive and inexpensive production of artificial fertilizers.

1 According to the first census of 1905, analysed by A. Warman (2001, p. 74)

2 Jean Meyer, 1973 (p. 34 ; p. 225-228)

3 From 1927 onwards, indian communities were entitled to use the reconocimiento y titulación procedure, which recognized and protect communal status: 2,000 nucleos benefited from this procedure (Warman, p. 98). It did not imply land redistribution or restitution, but recognition and protection of the existing tenure.

4 The allocation program was created before the 1934 agrarian code. Its implementation was insignificant during the first phase of the AR: in accordance with the law in 1922, which prohibited núcleos of haciendas from claiming land, the heart of the haciendas could not be impacted.

5 This legal protection was limited to physical persons.

6 Lucio Mendieta y Nuñez, p. 257.

Translation into English : Stéphanie Calabrese


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