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July 1998, Volume 5, Number 7

Mexico: Agriculture

Agriculture is the largest single sector of employment in Mexico: some six to seven million Mexicans, about 25 percent of the labor force, are employed in agriculture. Agriculture, however, generated just five percent of Mexican GDP in 1996, so incomes in Mexican agriculture are just one-third of Mexico's $3,700 GDP per capita.

In 1998, Mexico is suffering from severe drought, preventing 300,000 day laborers from working. The first planting season is in October and November, with crops harvested the following spring. In 1998, spring harvests were near normal, but crops planted in spring 1998 for harvest in fall 1998 are expected to be much smaller than usual because of drought.

In 1960, Mexico had about 35 million residents, and half were rural residents-- defined as those living in communities of 2,500 or less. In 1996, Mexico had 93 million residents, and 24 million, or 26 percent, were classified as rural. Six Mexican states included almost half of all rural Mexicans in 1995--Veracruz, 2.8 million, 42 percent of Veracruz residents were rural; Chiapas, two million, 56 percent, Oaxaca; 1.8 million, 56 percent; Morelos, 1.7 million, 14 percent; and Guanajuato and Campeche, 1.5 million each, and each 33 percent rural residents.

Education levels and housing conditions are lower in rural areas. In 1994, about 62 percent of the 14 million rural residents 15 and older had not completed grade school, compared to 26 percent of the 43 million urban residents 15 and older. About 2.5 percent of rural residents had completed high school, compared to 18 percent of urban residents. About 62 percent of rural homes had electricity in 1995, compared to 86 percent of urban homes, 31 percent had sewage facilities compared to 75 percent, and 79 percent of rural homes had electricity compared to 93 percent.

February 27, 1992 was a turning point for Mexican agriculture. On that day, Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution of 1917, which permitted large private land holdings to be redistributed to communal ejidos for peasants, was amended to end land redistribution and to permit the rental or sale of ejido or communal land. Since 1992, both foreigners and corporations have been permitted to buy farm land in Mexico.

A new book, "The Transformation of Rural Mexico: Reforming the Ejido Sector" from the Center for US-Mexican Studies, explores the effects of ending Mexico's 77-year experiment with communal land, arguably the most important economic reform in Mexico in recent years. Its major conclusion is that Article 27 reform signals evolution, not revolution in the Mexican countryside. Neither the hopes of supporters of reform nor the fears of opponents have been realized: "few of the initial expectations concerning reform of the ejido sector have been realized." (p18).

The four-part, 18-chapter book includes sections on macro perspectives, political and social factors affecting ejidos in particular states and commodities, the likely impacts of ejido reform on migration, urbanization, and other trends, and the environmental implications of ejido reform. Among the notable contributions is that of David Myhre who criticizes the withdrawal of farm credit, and the manner in which the subsidized credit still available is channeled to large farmers. The rural financial system failed just when the need for credit to restructure was highest. Wayne Cornelius has an interesting chapter based on a January 1995 visit to an emigration community in Jalisco, concluding that ejido reforms "are likely to be neither a stimulus to additional migration...nor a viable alternative to emigration." (p230).

The 27,000 ejidos in Mexico in the early 1990s included half of Mexico's arable land and provided homes for about three million farmers or ejidatarios. With their families, some 15 million Mexicans--one sixth of the population--were directly affiliated with ejidos. Ejido farmers and their heirs retained the right to the land only as long as they actively worked and lived on it, which anchored many rural Mexicans to the land.

Ejidos internalized rural population growth, resulting in ever-smaller plots as the rural population increased. The ejido system clearly failed to prevent rural poverty, and increasingly was unable to produce enough food for Mexico. However, land for the peasants had been a rallying cry of the Mexican revolution and preserved rural peace, so there was a tension between those who wanted to maintain the status quo and those who wanted to abolish the system.

Corn played a special role in the debate over ejido reform. Fifteen million Mexicans depend at least in part on corn production. Most are dry-land farmers, meaning that, if there is insufficient rain, they get a small crop.

Until 1994, the government offered to buy at about twice the world price all corn produced and delivered to Conasupo offices. In 1994, the Procampo program substituted cash payments to land owners of about $100 an hectare for delivered corn. The hope was that farmers would use the cash payments to invest in irrigation and other improvements necessary to switch to other crops.

Some hoped that corn farmers would quickly switch to labor-intensive fruits and vegetables that could be exported to the US. But producing high-profit and high-risk fruits and vegetables requires more than labor. It also requires seeds suited to local lands, inputs such as water, fertilizers and pesticides, and a capacity to quickly cool and ship harvested crops long distances. In many cases, dryland corn farmers did not have the capital or expertise to produce fruits and vegetables for export markets.

Mexican exports of vegetables for Asian customers in the US almost tripled between 1993 and 1997, as US importers worked with growers in Sinaloa to produce Chinese eggplant and broccoli. Mexican imports account for about 10 percent of US consumption of vegetables for Asian dishes consumed in the United States.

Mexico in the 1990s is in a period of rapid change. Mexico has changed its agricultural policies. Input subsidies have been reduced and output price guarantees eliminated. Markets for imported commodities have been opened.

Migration. In a ceremony at the National Palace, President Ernesto Zedillo on June 4, 1998 presented the first 12 nationality certificates under a law approved in March 1998 that allows Mexicans living abroad to hold the citizenship of another country without losing Mexican nationality.

Mexico will have 10 elections for state governor between July and November 1998. In Zacatecas, a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) who was not selected as a candidate for governor bolted to the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) and is leading in the race for governor. Mexico has 31 states, and the National Action Party (PAN) holds six of them; the PRD has never won a governorship.

On July 5, 1998, there will be elections in Chihuahua, Durango, Zacatecas; August 2, in Aguascalientes, Veracruz, Oaxaca; October 25, Tamaulipas; and November 8, Sinaloa, Tlaxcala, Puebla.

The struggle of an independent union at maquiladora Han Young in Tijuana continued in June, one year after it began in June 1997, as the state's labor board postponed indefinitely a decision on whether to certify the "October 6" union. The union and its US supporters charged once again that Mexico was not obeying its labor laws.

Cornelius, Wayne A. and David Myhre. Eds. 1998. The Transformation of Rural Mexico: Reforming the Ejido Sector. La Jolla, CA. Available for $25.45 ($21.95 plus $3.50 for delivery) payable to UC Regents, Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, UCSD, Dept. 0510, La Jolla, CA 92093-0150 or