The Specter of Rural Development

September 25, 2007

While the cri- sis in Mex- ico is not new, until the dawn of 1994 it had been extremely well hidden. A well-financed cam- paign had proclaimed the country ready to join the ranks of the advanced industrial nations, and the offi- cial criers were not only Mexican. Pundits in Washington were joined by colleagues in Paris and Geneva to usher the nation into the hallowed circle of well-behaved and wealthy nations, the GATT, NAFTA, and now the OECD. 1 But in Mexico, the claims that global integration will bring prosperity ring hollow for a large and growing segment David Barkin is currently senior fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is on leave as professor of economics at the UAM- Xochimilco, Mexico City. Lorracor oe Lana (Lane Lurueri, Karael iunno, i , i'zL. Linocut on paper, 11 1/2x 18 1/2". of people whose strug- gle to survive is be- coming more desper- ate-and perhaps even more hopeless-as the well-publicized recov- ery of recent years produces a cornucopia that only feeds a few Mexicans and their designated foreign partners. This polar- ized reality encom- passes all parts of the country and all dimen- sions of society: local cultures and fiefdoms, regional marketplaces, national culture, and internationalized con- sumption. The acceler- ating process of inter- national economic integration is weaving urban and rural differ- ences into a single bat- tleground of conflict- ing interests, thrusting modern systems into traditional backwaters, and leaving important parts of Mexican soci- ety unprepared to com- nPte in an fcnnnnmic and social environ- ment that offers fewer, though more attractive rewards to a small elite. In rural Mexico, the battle lines, now so sharply drawn, can proba- bly be traced to the mid-1960s. This was the period when the country finally proclaimed itself self-sufficient in basic foodstuffs, an historic achievement made possible by the successful appli- cation of the agrarian-reform pro- gram put in place in the 1930s. This land reform, based on the breaking up of the colonial hacienda system, was the result of one of the most important demands of the Mexican Revolu- tion of 1910 to 1917, the redistri- bution of land-written into Arti- cle 27 of the 1917 Constitution, A highly capitalized commercial agricultural sector transformed Mexico into an important participant in the international market for fruits and vegetables. but only effectively implemented during the presiden- cy of Lizaro Cdrdenas, from 1934 to 1940. The land reform redistributed hacienda land by creating rural communities-ejidos-whose members could work the land individually or collectively, depending on political circumstances. Although the community members-ejidatarios-did not have the right to sell, rent or mortgage the land, their parcels were consid- ered to be private property, to work as they pleased within the guidelines established by the community itself. Post-Cdrdenas administrations accorded less atten- tion to this program and did not finance any significant technical assistance for these communities. The stimu- lus of having their own land to work was sufficient, however, to encourage most farmers to dramatically improve their productive conditions. Contrary to what many experts predicted, these poor, unschooled peas- ants were able to increase the productivity of their lands at an average annual rate of more than 3% fol- lowing the redistribution of the 1930s, doubling their meager yields to more than 1.2 tons per hectare by 1960.2 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 by the prices of agricultural inputs and products. The import-substitution industrialization scheme of the post-Cdrdenas period was also part of the develop- ment strategy. By producing consumer goods for the elite and more popular items for the masses, it contributed to general welfare by creating a rapidly growing demand for labor at a time when migration from the countryside was just beginning. The gains were real, as the purchasing power of mini- mum wages increased almost five-fold from a post-war low in 1946 to its apogee in 1976, while workers and peasants were able to claim an increas- ing share of national income, rising from 25% to 37% in the same period. Further improving the lot of workers and peasants, the populist state was offering important educational oppor- tunities and medical care to virtually every segment of society. Agricultural development over the half century following Cirdenas' reforms created a highly polarized rural society. Most ejidatarios were relegated to their traditional cultiva- tion systems, producing maize and beans and a variety of other products for domestic consumption. They were highly constrained by an inefficient and corrupt federal bureaucracy, and unable to introduce modern farming systems or new crops for lack of credit or capital. Meanwhile, a highly capitalized commercial agricultural sector emerged as a result of substantial public investments in irrigation, rural road networks, agricultural research, production of high-yielding vari- eties of seed, and new cropping systems. Financed by generous agricultural credit-subsidy programs, and encouraged through a broad array of private and pub- lic incentives, these commercial farmers forged a new economy in the areas in which they operated, quickly transforming Mexico into an important participant in the international market for fruits and vegetables as well as for cattle. In most of the country, the rural bourgeoisie chan- neled its struggle to control the countryside through the public-investment program. Multi-purpose river basin development schemes, strategically placed throughout the country, opened up vast territories for commercial cultivation of crops destined for a new animal-feed industry and nascent fruit and vegetable markets in the United States, and later in Europe and Japan. With their new products and markets, the neo- latifundistas, as they were labeled by Mexican acade- mics, began a cumulative process of investment and social differentiation that facilitated new forms of social control in the countryside. Social control was now imposed by the marketplace and enforced by a racist caste structure that made it more difficult for an NACIA REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 30REPORT ON MEXICO indigenous and mestizo peas- antry to participate in the mod- ernization of rural Mexico. Nowhere were these obstacles to progress more imposing than in the regions inhabited by the nation's many indigenous peo- ples. Whether in the colorful and well-known communities in the tourist centers among the Pure'hpecha of Michoacin, the Mayas of Yucatan, the Mixtecs and Zapotecs of Oaxaca, the Tzotziles and Tzetzales of Chia- pas, or in the less accessible terri- tories of dozens of other ethnic groups, the local pattern of cacique control was reinforced by draconian systems of official "justice" and police control, sup- plemented where necessary by Workers load freshly ha the arbitrary exercise of military near lxmiquilpum, Mexi force, sometimes camouflaged by a real or invented search for drugs. Official programs for local development, together with private conces- sions for the exploitation of natural resources, com- bined to threaten the traditional systems of resource management with a logic and pattern of extraction fre- quently incompatible with the social needs and eco- logical possibilities of the area. These outside pres- sures on resources were exacerbated by tensions created by growing population and poverty that often forced the communities to violate their own norms of resource conservation. As a result, indigenous com- munities and their regions were commonly even more devastated than other regions of the country in the name of economic progress and survival. By 1990, rural development had left more than half the country's total rural area and its cultivated land to ejidatarios, colonists, and indigenous communities. The more than three million people in these commu- nities, who make up the "social sector" in Mexican agriculture, were a major factor contributing to the country's political stability. As recently as 1990, they accounted for more than one half (55%) of the total domestic maize production, and controlled 20 million hectares (49 million acres) of arable land-more than half the total, though much of it of marginal quality. 3 They are now engaged in an increasingly difficult struggle to survive, as the neoliberal policies of mod- ernization through international economic integration threaten their very existence. With the uprising in Chiapas, Mexico was rudely reminded that many groups in rural society had been permitted to partici- pate neither in the fruits of the revolution nor in the rv coc benefits of more recent material progress. he Mexican government has for half a century chan- neled resources into the physical and institutional infra- structure necessary to consolidate the development of a modern rural sector. This deliberate role began as early as 1943, when the government joined with interna- tional groups to facilitate the development of what would become an imposing global struc- ture of research institutions creat- ing and encouraging the "green revolution." Behind this seem- ingly benign label, "naive" for- eign scientists decided that tradi- ,ested garlic in a field tional research institutions in Mexico were a brake to progress. So they collaborated with others, with more venal motives, to terminate programs that were helping dry-land beneficiaries of land-distribu- tion programs. In the ensuing decades, rural policies became more complex but their objectives remained the same: to promote newer, higher-valued crops cultivated by a group of better-schooled farmers. The original pro- gram to develop dwarf wheat varieties, cultivated under irrigated conditions in the northwest, was acclaimed a success by 1960 and its group leader, Nor- man Borlaug, was awarded the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for feeding the hungry. Little concern, however, was expressed for the traditional wheat farmers who groped for new ways to eke out a living as their traditional seeds, sown in rain-fed lands in the central plateau, could not compete. These displaced farmers were the forerunners of large contingents of small-scale landowners who became contract producers and day laborers for a new agroindustrial complex serving domestic and transnational interests. With declining real incomes and fewer job opportunities, internal and international migration became a significant feature of Mexican life. As the men left in search of wage incomes, women were obliged to join the wage-labor force in increasing numbers, exposing themselves and their children to heretofore unknown health risks asso- ciated with the use of pesticides and sewage water in irrigation and a wide variety of hazards in other occu- pations. The new production systems, requiring the intensive use of irrigation and agrochemicals, have had environ- mental effects that are still being sorted out. Over-irri- VOL XXVIIi, No 1 JULY/AUGUST 199431 VOL XXVIII, NO 1 JULY/AUGUST 1994 31REPORT ON MEXICO gation has initiated a destructive cycle of salinization, while the use It is the g of petrochemical fertilizers and pes- ticides has produced a good deal of inten water and land contamination. encou The impoverishment of the peas- antry heightened with the imposi- emig tion-beginning in 1984-of neolib- eral programs of economic of mo stabilization. At first, the adminis- 13 milli tration of President Miguel De la Madrid channeled resources to pro- from the ducers of export crops, abandoning its commitment to food self-suffi- peol: ciency. Although it modified this governme policy later in the 1980s, when annu- al food imports rose to an alarming "redunc $5 billion and the popular outcry for blocking change became widespread, supports for maize and beans were channeled rural I mainly to the nation's richer farmers, working in the irrigation districts and the fertile plains of the north, rather than to the peasant farmers who traditionally sowed these crops on rain-fed lands. By the time the Administration announced the decision to negotiate NAFTA, howev- er, there was an explicit commitment to eradicate the traditional forms of cultivation of basic food crops in rain-fed areas. In fact, the present Unaer-Secretary of Agriculture, Luis T611ez, has stated unequivocally that it is the government's intention to encourage the emi- gration of more than 13 million people from the rural areas during the remaining years of this decade, peo- ple who not only were "redundant," but were actually preventing progress in rural Mexico. In the meantime, however, in 1993 a transitional income-support pro- gram, Procampo, was substituted for the traditional price supports, as a way of accommodating popular demands for assistance with international pressures against subsidies. In early 1992, a constitutional reform of Article 27 was promulgated that paved the way for a reorganiza- tion of land tenure and the introduction of corporate capital into farming. Its goal was to modernize rural production in a way that a corrupt and underfinanced bureaucracy could not. By permitting ejidal title hold- ers to enter into a wide variety of commercial con- tracts, the private sector is expected to finance land improvements and cultivation. The new program probably will be very effective in pushing a select group of farmers into export production and facilitat- ing urban expansion. The remaining millions of farm- ers, whose plots are too small and/or whose land is of marginal quality, will be isolated from the institutional and financial supports that allowed them to continue to t r r r r r p N farm in the face of unfavorable mar- vernment's ket conditions. To many thoughtful critics, the country can ill afford the ion to effects of a narrowly defined pro- age the gram like the one presently being implemented. 4 The environmental, *ation political and social problems that another massive rural-urban migra- "e than tion would occasion are beyond the n people capabilities of the system to man- age. ural areas, Yet the present economic pro- gram of modernization and integra- tion offers the prospect of a bright it feels are future for a small but significant segment of the population. 5 Foreign ant" and investment will flow into the coun- try to create numerous new enter- >rogress in prises, both in agriculture and lexico. industry. This new investment will install the most modern work "processes and produce high-valued products for the international markets. We might even anticipate that part of this production will be directed to local markets where it will drive out less modern producers unable to compete, either because of low productivity, inadequate capitalization, or the inability to survive the intense marketing battles. Local produc- ers throughout the country are already beginning to enter into various kinds of production agreements with Mexican and foreign interests to produce under con- tract for export and local specialty markets, accelerat- ing a process that was evident 30 years ago. The winning groups will be dispersed throughout rural Mexico. They will be concentrated in the northern irrigation districts, but many investors will choose to improve productive infrastructure in other parts of the country in order to get around the labor bottlenecks that frequently occur in the North. Furthermore, technologi- cal advances will offer opportunities for other farmers to take advantage of special programs to increase pro- ductivity in basic food-producing sectors. Recent advances in the achievement of food self-sufficiency, for example, are based on important advances in yields, resulting from the use of new seed varieties and agro- chemicals. This is evidence of the official decision to promote domestic food production without tying it to the traditional producing groups who, in the official view, would hold back the pace of modernization. Similarly, for those organized groups of ejidos will- ing to accept production agreements with the private sector, generous flows of resources will be available to promote technological change in which members of the "social sector" can participate. It is evident, how- ever, that these joint ventures are less attractive to 32 NAL1A REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 32 NACIA REPORT ON THE AMERICASREPORT ON MEXICO investors and more difficult to manage than originally imagined; the showcase collaboration between an ejido and the transna- tional food conglomerate GAMESA in the northeastern part of the country was recently dismantled because of disagree- ments about the way to account for investments and to distribute profits. 6 Past experience also sug- gests that private investors are generally unwilling to sustain long-term commitments as mar- ket, production and technological conditions change. Because of the lack of such a commitment, most foreign investors are unwilling to contribute to the conservation activities that-for local farmers everywhere-are normally a part of the production process. This lack of long-term A recent arrival from the countryside plays an accordion for coins outside a new Kentucky Fried Chicken in Mexico City. commitment has ominous consequences for the preservation of natural resources. There is no doubt that the new, more flexible institu- tional structure will offer profitable opportunities for important groups of farmers. The most significant development in this regard is the increase in organiz- ing efforts by the many regional peasant groups who, in turn, are members of national and provincial coali- tions. The new negotiating strategy of the agriculture ministry clearly demonstrates its preference for deal- ing directly with the coalitions, rather than with indi- vidual producer groups. Although the producers' groups are presently experiencing substantial difficul- ties in obtaining financing, it seems obvious that these obstacles will be reduced through the complex politi- cal negotiations that the NAFTA process stimulated. 7 This expansion of the arena for negotiation, and the active participation of local groups in complex discus- sions about the way in which they will be included in the modernization-integration process, offers an important new channel for well-organized regional coalitions to attempt to obtain privileged access to new productive opportunities in the neoliberal envi- ronment. 8 Afew years ago, I proposed a "war economy" as a complementary strategy for rural develop- ment. 9 Building on the experience of Great Britain during World War II, this strategy suggests that a concerted effort to mobilize idle domestic capacity for food production among small-scale pro- ducers in Mexico would contribute to stimulating the growth of the domestic market for consumer goods by the country's workers and peasants. The simu- lation exercises conducted in con- junction with this proposal demonstrated the substantial link- age effects of this approach in generating income and new employment opportunities throughout the economy.1 0 The peasant-based food self-sufficien- cy strategy offered by this propos- al, however, now seems insuffi- cient, in light of the further intensification of the official assault against peasants in rain- fed agricultural areas. Because of important shifts in the world mar- ket, occasioned by the competi- tion to subsidize food exports among the advanced industrial countries, basic food production itself has been devalued; it no longer can offer a viable option for economic advancement for most people in rural Mexico. In the face of the narrowly focused model of industrial mod- ernization, there is a critical need for a more diversi- fied productive base, taking advantage of abundant and varied natural resources and the enormous reserve of inherited knowledge stemming from Mexico's cul- tural diversity. Such an approach requires programs to productively employ a significant part of Mexico's population that still struggles to remain in the country- side. " This approach must offer a new development strate- gy that explicitly redresses the inherited imbalance between rural and urban areas. In one way or another, this requires a recognition of the importance of rural society for national-and urban-welfare. The histori- cal pattern of discrimination against rural producers imposes an unacceptably heavy burden on society as a whole. To reverse this pattern, ways must be found to help rural communities diversify their economies, and to rebuild their patterns of diversified production which have long been an integral part of their survival strategies. In this new context, traditional food pro- duction will become one of a number of enterprises in which peasant communities engage as part of their overall strategy to survive, to improve their standard of living, and to defend their social and cultural integrity. In the new-world process of economic inte- gration, they must find additional productive activities as well as forms of paid employment that offer greater income, because food production alone will no longer allow them to live. VOL XXVIII, No 1 JuLYIAuGusT 1994 33 VOL XXVIII, No 1 JuLY/AuGusT 1994 33REPORT ON MEXICO In Mexico, one way to begin this process is to identify small projects that might help individual communi- Rural co ties and regional groups use the must find resources they have, in as creative and must find productive a way as possible. Small- productive scale projects, for instance, are under- way involving groups who can con- as well tribute to the essential task of of paid er protecting endangered species as a way of generating additional incomes becau in traditional food-producing commu- nities. The incomes generated by product using conservation funds to employ will no lo local people and to construct appro- priate tourist facilities to stimulate them visitors will allow rural communities to strengthen important environmental programs while at the same time diversifying their traditional produc- tive activities as a means of defending their communi- ties. Two examples of communities working to protect endangered species are in nesting areas of the Monarch butterfly and the marine turtle. A similar approach involves an abandoned "geyser" which is spewing brine over the lands of a Michoacin commercial farming community. The community is thinking about how to transform this "nuisance" into something productive. The "geyser" was created by the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) in its search for exploitable geothermal resources, but the engineers did not consider it important enough to har- ness for power generation. So, for more than a quarter century it has simply been cordoned off and left to contaminate the land. A proposal is being developed to enable the community to participate directly in the transformation of the site into a tourist attraction, a spa, a training area for sporting activities, and even a showplace for alternative energy sources. This is a complex activity, because the community requires outside assistance to develop a proposal and to deter- mine its feasibility, and the CFE must acknowledge that it has abandoned the geyser and give the land back to the community. Another example, also in Michoacin, involves a group attempting to create an agroindustrial park powered with geothermal energy, as part of a plan to diversify rural production and to reduce losses from spoilage and inadequate marketing channels. These are examples of the ways in which people are attempting to confront the growing imbalance between rural and urban development, and the resulting polar- ization in the countryside. They offer ways in which people can begin to use the natural resources at hand to protect not only the resources themselves but the m re a n s io n t very economic viability and social integrity of communities whose exis- munities tence is in question. The three cases dd itional cited above are only examples of approaches that might encourage oth- activities ers to look for different projects with the same goal: to diversify the pro- s forms ductive base so that rural communi- ployment, ties can continue to exist, even to thrive, and to continue to produce e food food as part of a broader strategy for rural development. This strategy n alone draws part of its inspiration from the ger allow need to protect the rich heritage of natural diversity that is so important o live. in Mexico, using strategies that also encourage the preservation of the extraordinary reserve of cultural diversity that has managed to survive in spite of the systematic attack to which it has been subjected during the past centuries. 12 Clearly, the economies of North America are inte- grating. For Mexico, this integration will mean more trade and some new jobs; production will continue to increase in certain privileged sectors, like automobiles and consumer products for export. Traditional indus- tries, if left to themselves, will continue to wither with a further weakening of the labor market, increasing social polarization. At the same time, with the "shrink- ing" of the public sector, there are fewer institutions prepared to deal with the problems that the neoliberal strategy is creating and with the people that it is leav- ing behind. The salinista modernization strategy is based on the presumption that foreign investors will bring sufficient resources to Mexico to pay to correct the problems, but this seems like a major gamble. Policymakers today are unwilling to "darle tiempo al tiempo"-give time a chance, as the popular Mexi- can expression has it-to allow society to adjust to the process of international integration that is linking nations and cultures. They forget the lesson of another popular saying: "simply by waking up earlier, the sun won't rise sooner" ("No por mucho madrugar, amanece mdcs temprano"). That is, Mexico-the coun- try, its people, its culture-will not magically change its course, its very essence, simply because the Presi- dent orders its industrial structure modified, its resources sold or leased, or foreign goods imported on a massive scale. The country is beginning to realize the nature of the changes underway, though it is still too soon to predict the modifications that people will demand. It is likely, however, that the neoliberal dreams of today's ruling elites will not survive the vigorous rejection of Mexico's diverse, but impover- ished peoples. search for these solutions is the basis for the present research agenda of the author and several colleagues. In one of Bonfil's last articles (in Ojarasca, April, 1992, No. 7), he vividly details the problems created by the confrontation between the trend towards neoliberal globalization and the possibility, indeed the necessity, of a different, more pluralistic world, if humanity and the earth itself are to survive. This current of thought has become increasingly influential in Mexico and elsewhere in the Third World, where people of many different persuasions and approaches have adopted this approach in social analysis, action programs, and political platforms. 12. For a discussion of the role of cultural diversity in world develop- ment, and the threats that the internationalization of the econo- my represents for both nature and people, see Bonfil, Mexico Profundo, with regard to Mexico, and Eric Wolf's different approach in Europe and the People Without History (Berkeley, California: University of California, 1982).

Tags: Mexico, Zapatistas, NAFTA, Subcomandante Marcos, interview

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.