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Changing Lifestyles : Confusion, Fear on Mexican Land : * The government says it has a land reform plan, but farmers are again skeptical.


JOJUTLA, Mexico — There was the governor in shirt sleeves and straw hat on a hot Saturday afternoon, standing before a legion of sun-scorched faces urging--pleading, really--for patience and understanding.

Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari seeks justice for farmers, explained Morelos state Gov. Antonio Riva Palacio. His proposal for the most profound agrarian reform since the Mexican Revolution means freedom. A better life.

The men with stubbled beards and thick hands listened earnestly. They were the commissaries of their communal farms and the bedrock of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.

But they weren't buying the governor's line.

"I don't know how to read even the letter A," 65-year-old Gilberto Salazar said. But, he added, "I know this is bad. I am against it. It is a lie that this will help the poor."

Here in the Land of Zapata--the birthplace of the revolutionary land reformer, Emiliano Zapata--the weather-beaten farmers have reacted to Salinas' reforms with confusion, suspicion and fear. Rage is simmering in a few.

They don't understand the changes that the lower house of Congress adopted late last week at the president's behest, but their distrust of government promises is nearly instinctual. Their poverty is ancient and seemingly eternal. They are uneducated but not inexperienced, and they know in their work-weary bones that, somehow, the poor never come out ahead.

The 1910-1917 Mexican Revolution was fought on their behalf. "Land and liberty!" was Zapata's cry. The new constitution in 1917 broke up the large landholdings of latifundistas and established the ejidos , the communal farms for peasants.

Ejido members were granted the right to work a parcel of land and bequeath it to their heirs, but not to mortgage, rent or sell the property. In other words, it was theirs--but it wasn't.

Over generations, the parcels shrunk as they were divided among sons. And farmers could no longer support their families, let alone satisfy the nation's appetite. Many ejido members left for the cities and illegally rented their land; others scraped by.

Now, Salinas proposes to revamp the countryside. First of all, he will end the government's obligation to hand out farmland to the poor--a constitutional requisite that effectively ended years ago. There is no more land to grant, Salinas says.

He will let farmers vote on whether to remain in ejido s or give individuals full title to the land, allowing them to sell it or otherwise do with it as they please. Ejido members can form associations with other ejidos and agribusiness--a move to encourage economies of scale.

A few farmers at the November meeting here saw potential in the president's plan. Teodoro Montecinos, secretary of the Jojutla ejido about 50 miles southwest of Mexico City, believes canneries and other food companies will move into the area.

"What we are looking for is businesses to affiliate with us and buy our produce," Montecinos said. A guaranteed market close to home.

At the nearby Xoxocotla ejido, Martin Flores Lara, 43, said he would gladly sell his few acres and bank the money if he could be guaranteed a job in a food factory.

"They pay minimum wage and triple time on holidays. You can see in the families who work in the chicken farms around here that they live a little better. They dress better and their children have shoes," Flores said.

Others, however, said factories require too much schooling of their workers and do not always treat them fairly. What they really need, they said, is more support from the government--infrastructure, training and technology--and an end to corruption in the assigning and use of farm credit.

To sell their lands, they say, would be to lose a sense of dignity, even though they can barely survive on the three or four acres they have. They would become wage-earners rather than landowners.

Saturnino Mata, 45, wondered aloud if the reforms might not give him the opportunity to buy out fellow members of the Xoxocotla ejido who do not work their parcels. But then he realized he didn't have money to buy.

"I think what's going to happen is that everyone will sell over time. Then the people of Xoxocotla won't have anywhere to live or plant," Mata said.

Gilberto Salazar fears the same fate, although he vows he will never sell his land.

"They are my only patrimony," he said.

A sense of doom hung over the meeting of farmers at a crumbling ejido hall. Over the years, the government has pushed farmers to plant sugar cane for the nearby Zacatepec mill, only to shut down the mill and tell them to plant corn. They've planted sorghum for virtually no profit after paying for fertilizer, insecticides and seed. And now this--whatever this is.

Anger flashed across the tight faces of some farmers--an anger that the governor was trying hard to dissipate.

"We are always cheated," said Francisco Asturillo Lopez, 58, of the Rio Seco ejido. "The rich will end up with the land and we will become slaves." Referring to the pre-reform era, when many rich landowners were from Spanish immigrant families, he said: "Like before, the Spanish will have the land. The people will not let this happen. . . . If they try to force us, there will be war."

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