Although nearly half of Mexico's total land area is officially classified as agricultural, only 12 percent of the total area is cultivated. In the early 1990s, only some 24 million hectares of a possible 32 million hectares were under cultivation.
Extensive irrigation projects carried out in the 1940s and 1950s greatly expanded Mexico's cropland, especially in the north. The government created areas of intensive irrigated agriculture by constructing storage dams across the valleys of the Río Bravo del Norte (Rio Grande) and the rivers flowing down from the Sierra Madre Occidental, by controlling the lower Río Colorado (Colorado River), and by tapping subterranean aquifers.
These water-control projects allowed Mexico to expand rapidly its total land area under cultivation. Between 1950 and 1965, the total area of irrigated land in Mexico more than doubled, from 1.5 million hectares to 3.5 million hectares. Despite a slowdown in the development of irrigated land after 1965, the total irrigated area had expanded to more than 6 million hectares by 1987. In the early 1990s, 80 percent of Mexico's cultivated land required regular irrigation. Because of the high cost of irrigation, however, the government has emphasized expanding production on existing farmland rather than expanding the area under irrigation.
Agricultural practices in Mexico range from traditional techniques, such as the slash-and-burn cultivation of indigenous plants for family subsistence, to the use of advanced technology and marketing expertise in large-scale, capital-intensive export agriculture. Government extension programs have fostered the wider use of machinery, fertilizers, and soil conservation techniques. Although corn is grown on almost half of Mexico's cropland, the country became a net importer of grain during the 1970s.
During the first decade of the twentieth century, peasants began to agitate for the return of communal and private lands seized by large-scale commercial producers since the 1870s. The desire to recover lost lands motivated many peasants to join the Revolution that began in 1910. On January 6, 1915, General Venustiano Carranza began the agrarian reform process by decreeing the immediate return to their original owners of all communal lands improperly seized since 1856. Carranza, who became president in 1917, also decreed that previously landless villages receive title to lands expropriated from private hacienda owners or to excess government land. These principles were later incorporated into Article 27 of the constitution of 1917.
The constitution established three different forms of land tenure in Mexico: private, public, and social. Social property was further subdivided into communal (in southern Mexico) and ejido
(see Glossary) lands. Private lands were worked by owners, sharecroppers, and landless peasants; social lands were worked by colonos
(settlers) or members of ejidos
, known as ejidatarios
. Although the constitution limited private holdings to 100 hectares, by the early 1990s Mexico had more than 40,000 farms of 101 hectares or larger and some 500 farms larger than 50,000 hectares. The constitution prescribed national sovereignty over all land, water, and subsoil mineral resources within national boundaries. It held private ownership of land to be a privilege rather than an absolute right, and it allowed the state to expropriate lands that it judged not to serve a useful social purpose (see Rural Society, ch. 2).
Article 27 and subsequent legislation established the ejido
, or communal landholding, as the primary form of land tenure in Mexico (see Rural Society, ch. 2). Mexico's most extensive land redistribution took place during the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-40). Cárdenas redistributed some 18 million hectares, twice as much as all his predecessors combined. By 1940 most of the country's arable land had been redistributed to peasant farmers, and approximately one-third of all Mexicans had benefited from the agrarian reform program (see Cárdenas and the Revolution Rekindled, 1934-40, ch. 1).
Agrarian reform sharply increased the proportion of Mexico's arable land held by minifundistas
(smallholders). The share of total crop land held by large estates fell from 70 percent in 1923 to 29 percent by 1960, while that held by small farms of fewer than five hectares rose from 7 percent in 1930 to more than 33 percent by the 1980s. Between 1924 and 1984, the government expropriated and redistributed more than 77 million hectares of large-estate land, amounting to more than one-third of the national territory.
Declining agricultural production and mounting food imports moved President Salinas finally to address the root cause of the problem, the land tenure system. In 1991 Salinas announced a constitutional reform of the ejido
and land distribution systems intended to overcome the low productivity resulting from the fragmentation of ejido
farming units, of which 58 percent contained five hectares or fewer. A reform of land tenure rules in February 1992 gave Mexico's 3 million ejidatarios
formal title to their land, enabling them to lease or sell their plots if a majority of members of their ejido
agreed. No further land would be distributed, and joint ventures with private capital were legalized and encouraged. The reforms sought to reverse the trend toward smaller and less productive farming units and stimulate rural investment by allowing ejidatarios
to use their holdings as collateral for raising capital. Implementation was hampered, however, by delays in conducting the necessary land surveys of ejidos
prior to transfer of title, as well as by other factors.
Data as of June 1996