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Mexico Ends Practice of Giving Land to Poor

Latin America: Government scraps program that symbolized nation's revolution but became mired in corruption and disputes.


MEXICO CITY — President Vicente Fox's administration has declared an end to the 85-year-old practice of making land grants to the poor, a program that embodied the spirit of the Mexican Revolution but was rife with corruption and property disputes.

The agrarian reform movement, which had faded in recent decades, transferred more than half of Mexico's arable land to the indigenous and poor, most of them organized into communal groups called ejidos. About 30,000 such communal groups exist today, and there is little unoccupied land left to redistribute.

The move comes at a time when Mexican agriculture is in crisis, hampered by urban migration, foreign competition resulting from free-trade agreements and low productivity caused by laws that restrict individual farm sizes to 256 acres, too small for the economies of scale enjoyed by international giants.

Agrarian Reform Secretary Maria Teresa Herrera Tello said Monday that redistribution of land had failed to solve rural poverty and that the government must redirect efforts into making farming more productive.

While addressing rural Mexicans' yearning for land, the program's vague ownership rules left a morass of title disputes. More than 343,000 such conflicts are now before special agrarian tribunals. Some of them date to the 1940s, said Arturo Alvarado, a sociology professor at Colegio de Mexico here.

"It's a program that has pretended to deliver social justice but, unaccompanied by government support or technical assistance, has often just been a tool for political demagoguery," Alvarado said. Members of the ejidos were perennially subject to political pressure from local or federal bosses who threatened eviction, he said.

The general disorganization and uncertainty of Mexican real estate laws compounded the confusion. Ejido members fight among themselves as much as with neighbors over property rights.

Previous owners of land awarded to ejido members in the 1970s have successfully gone to court to recover their property. One successful appeal led to the eviction of hundreds of Baja California homeowners south of Ensenada, many of them U.S. retirees, who had bought houses on disputed land.

Fox said Monday that the government will try to make legal reforms that would settle ownership disputes. He said about 23,000 disputes were resolved in 2001, his first full year in office.

Fox is only the latest Mexican president to try to clarify property ownership. As part of his extensive land reforms in 1992, then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari ordered a census of all ejidos and their members. The initiative did little to untie the legal knots that plague land ownership nationwide.

Mexico's 1917 constitution guaranteed land to all citizens who could prove they were poor, landless and bona fide members of certain communities. With varying degrees of commitment, Mexican presidents thereafter redistributed land, which frequently had been under the control of huge estates.

Land grants have slowly come to a stop since the early 1970s, when the last spurt of transfers was made under President Luis Echeverria.

Salinas' 1992 reforms included a clause that gave ejido members the right to sell off entire grants or individual shares for private development if they could establish ownership. The reforms also eliminated the government's obligation to make land grants to qualified groups, making it more discretionary.

"Salinas tried to restore authority in these matters to the communities themselves, for them to manage their land grants as they chose, including selling land into the local real estate market," said John Womack, a Harvard University history professor who has written extensively about Mexican land policy.

But less than 1% of all ejido land has been privatized during the past decade, according to a spokesman for the Agrarian Reform Ministry, partly because of the ownership disputes.

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