MEXICO CITY — President Carlos Salinas de Gortari on Thursday proposed constitutional reforms that would allow agribusiness to buy up thousands of poor communal farms, effectively dismantling one of the Mexican Revolution's most hallowed institutions.
Salinas proposed eliminating the government's constitutional obligation to distribute land to peasants, one of the chief gains of the 1910 revolution. Tens of thousands of peasants died in that seven-year struggle for "Land and Liberty," and their leader, Emiliano Zapata, is still a celebrated hero today.
Salinas' suggested agricultural reforms, certain to be adopted by Mexico's congress, are part of a radical restructuring of the country's economy and a dismembering of official revolutionary ideology. They are a bid to attract foreign investment to the ailing Mexican countryside and to promote large-scale farming.
Since taking office three years ago, Salinas has systematically broken official taboos. He has moved Mexico from a nationalistic, state-run economy to a competitive, free-market system. In his state-of-the-union speech last week, Salinas offered to legalize the status of the Roman Catholic Church, which lost its rights after it opposed the revolution.
Now he is taking on the countryside.
"Agrarian reform is moving into a new stage," Salinas said in a letter to Congress introducing the reforms. "It is essential to overcome the backwardness of (our) agriculture."
Half of the nation's arable land belongs to 28,000 \o7 ejidos, \f7 a sort of communal farm system born of the revolutionary mandate to break up huge land holdings. Most of the farms--which are unique to Mexico, as the kibbutz are to Israel--are divided into small, inefficient plots of fewer than 10 acres.
Currently, \o7 ejido \f7 farmers have a claim to the communal lands and may bequeath their claim to their heirs. But they may not legally rent, sell or mortgage the property. Under the proposed reforms, they could secure individual land titles, which would allow them to do as they please with the property--even sell it.
Under the reforms, agribusiness also would be allowed to form associations to buy and farm huge tracts; no one now may own more than 250 acres, and associations to farm more than that are illegal.
"This is an important reform to the land tenure system that will encourage more investment in the countryside," said a high-level government official. "It creates conditions for economies of scale."
The reforms will probably concentrate more land in fewer hands, as \o7 ejido \f7 farmers either sell their land or lose it to banks.
Larger expanses of land could make Mexico more competitive in grain production, in which the United States and Canada have traditionally had an advantage. The three countries are negotiating a free trade agreement and agriculture is a particularly sensitive area.
The reforms also remove one of the major constraints on U.S. agricultural companies that want to invest in Mexico.
"Rather than contracting with an \o7 ejido,\f7 " said Gary Williams, coordinator of the Texas Agricultural Marketing Center at Texas A&M, "firms would prefer to purchase land and pay workers." Under the new system, they will be able to do that.
Removal of the government's obligation to distribute land is expected to make landowners feel more secure about their property rights. In the past, landowners were reluctant to pay for costly improvements for fear their farms would be expropriated for \o7 ejidos \f7 before they recovered their investments.
\o7 Ejidos \f7 would continue to be a legal form of land tenure, but they would not receive preferential treatment, such as low-interest loans, as they did under past Mexican administrations. Salinas already had begun restricting credit to them and is pushing \o7 ejido \f7 farmers to associate with agribusiness.
Unresolved land claims will be turned over to rural courts, instead of being handled by the executive branch as they have been. "Many of them will be denied because there are not more lands to give out," said the official. "In the past, the claims dragged on because it was too politically delicate to say no."
The official noted that although only 30% of the population lives in rural areas--in contrast to 70% at the time of the revolution--in absolute numbers, there are far more people in the countryside today.
If \o7 ejidos \f7 are broken up, the agricultural reforms would raise questions about the ruling party's ability to maintain political control in the countryside. \o7 Ejido \f7 farmers traditionally have been required to join unions of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The party, which has ruled for 62 years, has relied heavily on the countryside for votes at election time.