THE EJIDO IN MEXICO

The tradition of government ownership and allocation of land can be traced back to the Aztecs. When the Spanish arrived, they found a system that resembled serfdom. All land first belonged to the Aztec Emperor, who often awarded large estates to members of the nobility for their services in times of war. Other lands were held by the state to provide for the needs of the Emperor, his court and army. Those working the land had no proprietary rights. In a sense, they were share-croppers allowed to retain a small portion of what they raised to keep themselves alive.

By the time of the fall of the Aztec Empire in 1521, it is estimated that over 60% of all arable land was allocated to the ruling class. Local chiefs or prominent families also received vast parcels of land. Even those who worked land not officially granted by the Emperor had no transferable title.

The Spanish invaders also espoused the theory that all land belonged to the state. They had claimed it for the Spanish Crown. Thus, with the demise of the Aztec Empire, the new Colonial Government took over the allocation of land. They found the vast majority of agricultural workers in place on land they did not own. Pressed by both the Spanish Crown and the Church, both of whom sought the conversion of the Indians to Christianity, grants were made to the indigenous people to keep them in place on the land, facilitating conversion. Tribes, and villages became the communal owners. Thus, the ejido was born.

Most of the land was held in trust for the "ejidatarios" by the Church. This had serious repercussions in later years when conflict arose between Church and State.

Even after the colonial government fell to an early revolution, the ejido survived, theoretically protected by land laws. During these chaotic times, little attention was paid to legal ownership of land or homes. Only possession counted.

In 1858, led by Benito Juarez, himself an Indian, the Liberal Party struggled for power. Part of its credo called for almost complete suppression of the Church, claiming this would lead to true religious freedom.

The "Lerdo Laws," passed in 1857, while aimed primarily at the Church, had the simultaneous effect of destroying the ejido. In expropriating Church-owned land, all ejidos held in trust for Indian communities were seized. By 1859, ejidos were no more. The involvement of the ejidos with the Church had proved fatal. Reformers claimed that the Church was the real owner and took ejido land at will. It was not until 1910 that an agrarian reformer, Emiliano Zapata, called for the restoration of the ejido. In 1911 he drafted the Plan of Ayala which blue-printed the restoration of communal lands to those from whom they had been taken.

In 1916, under President Venustiano Carranza, an Agrarian Law was passed that repealed the Lerdo Laws of 1856. Legally, the ejido was reborn. However, the country was in chaos. It was not until 1917 that Carranza was able to start to implement the new laws. The task he faced was Herculean. The former communal owners, mostly Indians, had been driven from the land and disappeared into remote regions of the country where they scratched out a precarious living. Locating them was impossible. It was not until 1936, during the presidency of Lazaro Cardenas, that the ejido again caught the eye of the government. Supported by the newly formed Confederation of Mexican Workers, a vast program of expropriation of land owned by wealthy Mexicans was started. This land was used to re-create ejidos, Now, the grants went mostly to "campesinos," Mexican peasants. Some went to villages, a few to indigenous peoples.

Until the 1960s, all went well. However, as cities grew, pressure on ejidos increased, and illegal sales were made. By law, ejido land could not be sold, but as peasants flocked to cities, large parts of the ejidos lay fallow. Moreover, the appeal of communal working of land was fading. Now, "ejidatarros" simply staked out claims to portions of the ejido and worked them alone.

But as their families grew, they further divided the plots to provide land for the children. Without communal effort and support, purchase of farm machinery, fertilizer, and irrigation plans, became next to impossible. Productivity fell. Illegal sale of land increased.

This is the root of the problem today. Mexican laws that prohibit such sales were ignored, and buyers received unregistered titles. Nevertheless, fanned by urban sprawl, the practice continued. A time-bomb was created.

Many blame Mexico's present need to import corn and beans on the lack of ambition of those campesinos now satisfied to eke out a meager living on the small farms they claimed, albeit illegally, rather than work with their neighbors communally to raise cash crops.

In the last twenty years, the Federal government has recognized the havoc that time has wrought on the entire ejido structure. Land designated as ejidos has been sold, seized, built on illegally, and claimed by opportunists.

However, it was only in 1993 that President Carlos Salinas de Gortari made an effort to bring order out of chaos. With the use of satellites, an effort was launched to plot the boundaries of all known ejidos. Furthermore, quoting present day Mexican land law incorporated in the Mexican Constitution but never acted on, "Titulos de Propriedad" were now issued, enabling ejido land to be sold with clear title. Now, it can be willed to a descendent, or sold without communal approval.

Unfortunately, the present administration has failed to continue to fund the program. Probably no more than 70 percent of all ejidos now have transferable public deeds. Hopefully, with improvement in the national economy, the program will start up again.