Chiapas and the Crisis of Mexican Agriculture

Peter Rosset and Roger Burbach | 12.01.1994

December 1994, Policy Brief No. 1

The rebellion in southern Mexico led by the Zapatista National Liberation Army is rooted in the profound agricultural crisis of the state of Chiapas. Is Chiapas an isolated case in an otherwise “modernizing” Mexico, or, rather, is it symptomatic of a larger malaise affecting the entire country? In this Policy Brief we argue for the latter viewpoint, suggesting that the Chiapas uprising should serve as a wake-up call to Mexican society.

With the bulk of the Chiapan population dependent on agriculture, over seventy five percent of the state’s population lives below the poverty line. Almost twenty percent of the economically active population has no cash income, while another thirty nine percent makes less than the minimum wage of $3 per day. This poverty stands in stark contrast with the agricultural wealth of Chiapas. A state with less than four percent of Mexico’s population, it is the country’s largest coffee exporter, the third largest maize producer, and among the top three states in exports of bananas, tobacco, and cacao.

The Zapatista movement in Chiapas is demanding a reversal of neoliberal policies, proclaiming that NAFTA is a “death certificate” for the Indian and peasant peoples of Mexico.

Due to agrarian reform programs begun in the 1930s, over half the agricultural land is held in ejidos, or agrarian communities. But the peasants and Indians who work these lands lead meager existences. Most of this sector is located on marginal lands of low fertility and scarce water resources. In the Lacandón rainforest of Chiapas, from whence the Zapatistas come, the ejidos and agrarian communities are essentially cut off from market access. The best lands are under the control of a group of wealthy land owners who control the state’s economy and are linked to the ruling PRI party.

While the Zapatista uprising has focused attention on the appalling living conditions of the majority of the inhabitants of Chiapas, the conditions there are not all that different from those affecting the rest of rural Mexico. A study prepared for the World Bank declared that “Mexico is probably the best representation of a bimodal agricultural system,” with “a small number of powerful, well capitalized” enterprises, and a vast majority who are impoverished. Throughout Mexico the best lands are under the control of a small minority who dominate the country’s agricultural economy. With ties to the ruling PRI party, these agrarian businessmen, who also control Mexico’s export markets, have, over the decades, benefited from the financial and technical resources of the Mexican state.

During the 1970s the Mexican state did allocate major resources to the ejido sector, including the creation of state marketing agencies that bought peasant commodities at subsidized prices. But this strategy of development failed because of the extensive corruption of government bureaucrats and the program’s top-down nature. When the state withdrew its support in the mid-1980s, due to the Mexican debt crisis, the ejidos found themselves more impoverished than ever. Today the Mexican government is implementing neo-liberal economic policies aimed in part at abolishing the ejido. Article 27, the agrarian reform clause of the Mexican constitution, has been gutted, and under NAFTA, import barriers are being dropped, enabling cheap corn and other staple foods to flood Mexican markets, impoverishing the peasantry even further. As demonstrated by Chiapas, the progressive impoverishment of rural peoples can only lead to further social unrest and the eventual destabilization of larger Mexico.

The Zapatista movement in Chiapas is demanding a reversal of neoliberal policies, proclaiming, for example, that NAFTA is a “death certificate” for the Indian and peasant peoples of Mexico. The Zapatistas are calling for a new agrarian reform program for the entire country, one that will not only redistribute the better lands, but also provide peasants with the resources they need to create a new agricultural economy to meet their needs rather than those of rich landowners and the Mexican state. Only if Mexican society heeds the wake-up call of Chiapas and acts on these proposals can stability be restored and prosperity for the majority achieved.