OF THE total territory of the Mexican Republic probably not more than eight per cent is by nature suitable for agricultural purposes. This is due primarily to the physiography of the country and the peculiar climatic conditions. Add to this the anachronism of enormous landed estates -- latifundos -- and the defective and primitive methods of cultivation which prevail, and it will be understood why agricultural production has been so limited that Mexico almost continuously has had to import grain and other foodstuffs.

When for any reason crops are short and the people cannot satisfy their hunger, it is logical and natural that they should instinctively demand a greater production from the land. Since they cannot conjure the mountains into arable plains nor compel the clouds to send down rain on the sterile fields, they turn upon the landholder who is monopolizing the great fertile domains, keeping a good part of them uncultivated; and they force him, or try to force him, to share with them the ownership and use of his acres. The landholder, of course, objects to giving up even a part of his possessions, and then there occurs an uprising, bloody and devastating, of the hungry masses against the proprietor who is unwilling to satisfy their hunger out of his own pocket. This has been the fundamental cause of Mexican civil war since before the Conquest. Then the conflict was not between the peasants and the landholders, but between the tribe which cultivated a fertile region and the tribe which desired that region because they could not subsist on their own sterile territory. The colonial uprisings and the revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been only the inevitable repetition of the agrarian conflicts of archaeological times.

Numerous scientific investigators, both native and foreign,[i] have found in the agrarian problem the justification of the apparently inexplicable and continual upheavals through which the Mexican nation periodically has passed. They all agree that if the Mexican people are to live a normal economic life the big estates must be divided up into small farms, a measure which the governments of Mexico have been trying to introduce since 1917 and legislation for which is being actively pushed at the present moment.

The solution of the agrarian problem will probably proceed along the following lines. The Agricultural Bank, recently established, will become the agency for buying and financing the lands of the big estates which are needed for small farms. Very high taxes will be levied on the uncultivated portions of the estates. By means of the patrimony law the land turned over to the peasants will have the character of individual property instead of communal, as has been the case in the past and as is still the case in certain parts of the country. Appropriate provisions will be made to prevent these small farms from being sold back to the large landholders, as this would be equivalent to restoring the

As a complement to this course of action, roads are being built so that farm products may be transported to market. Furthermore, several great irrigation projects are being worked out, and six big agricultural schools have already been opened and many more will be started for the practical teaching of modern methods for the intensive cultivation of small farms. The big School of Agriculture at Chapingo has been modernized in every way and is prepared to train scientific farmers and technical experts to take charge of large-scale agricultural enterprises on plantations where machinery is available and scientific methods of cultivation can be used.

In an interesting address which the Mexican Ambassador, Señor Tellez, delivered in Cincinnati last autumn, he mentioned two very significant figures. One was the movement of commerce between Mexico and the United States, which amounts to almost 370 millions of dollars annually. The other was the number of consumers of American merchandise in Mexico, which he fixed at three or four million persons. Furthermore, he forecast an increase of this latter figure. It may be asked, how will it be possible to transform into buyers of modern merchandise ten or twelve million persons who to-day lack the necessary means. The answer is that it will occur when the formation of a class of small farmers brings with it the betterment of the peasants who to-day spend their energy and their wages almost entirely in satisfying the most elemental needs of existence.

The consumption of tropical products in the United States reaches a fabulous figure, but the most satisfactory manner of securing them has not yet been found. The best source for the greater part of these products would be Mexico, since the two countries are neighbors and consequently freight rates are lower between them than between the United States and any other southern country. Because of Mexico's marvelous fertility and because its hot lands, especially those along the coast, do not for the most part require irrigation, it should supply a great part of American needs at the lowest prices. Nevertheless, up to the present time the production of these regions has been negligible and we therefore did not include them in the estimated eight per cent of productive land. (We refer, of course, to the hot lands, properly tropical, in which the average annual rainfall is from fifty to seventy inches, and not to the semitropical slopes or to Yucatan, where the rainfall varies from twenty to forty inches.) The high temperature, the humidity of the atmosphere, and above all the terrible effects of malaria so weaken and destroy the human race in these regions that even the indigenous population, which is relatively immune, has never been able to raise even mediocre crops. But the extermination of this plague must be possible. We have been able to stamp out yellow fever -- until a quarter of a century ago the scourge of the ports of Mexico and Central and South America -- by fighting the mosquito which transmits it. This achievement, thanks for which must go to the combined efforts of the different Latin American Governments and the Rockefeller Institute, has brought about an increase of many billions of dollars in international trade and has contributed towards saving innumerable human lives. Unfortunately, the method used for the extermination of yellow fever has not given equally good results in the case of malaria, for although the petrolization of cities may be possible, the petrolization of more than a million square miles of territory is not, -- and the extent of the malarial regions of Latin America is as large as this. The only recourse is to investigate intensively until some curative or preventative serum or vaccine is discovered to offset the deadly effects of the haematozoario of Laverran. The Rockefeller Institute, which as we have said contributed such important and disinterested services in the campaign against yellow fever, is at present active in combating hookworm disease in Mexico; we might suggest that it would be preferable to try to find an anti-malarial vaccine.

There is another aspect of the agrarian problem which has been widely discussed. It has been pointed out that it is inadvisable to divide into small farms the large plantations in regions where the soil calls for a sort of cultivation that cannot be carried on by the small farmer, as is the case with sugarcane and henequen. It has been suggested that the peasants should not be given lands of this kind, and it has even been proposed that the land should be taken from them in cases where they already possess it. This suggestion is uneconomic and unsociological, for the result would be that the inhabitants of those regions where small farms are located would progress rapidly, while the inhabitants of other parts of the country, like Yucatan, where henequen is produced exclusively, would remain stationary in an inferior economic state; this in turn would inevitably oblige them to emigrate to the more flourishing regions of small farms, thus destroying the wealth of Yucatan, where the scarcity of labor has always been a most difficult problem. However, it cannot be denied that the production of henequen or sugar-cane on a small plot is unprofitable because the owner does not have the necessary machinery for shredding, crushing and distilling. The Mexican Government has devoted special attention to this aspect of the agrarian question; not only has it provided that those plantations which can justly be considered as especially fitted for large-scale agricultural industry shall not be affected by agrarian subdivision, save in exceptional cases, but it has undertaken the construction of great central organizations where the crops of the small farmer will be purchased at a fair price or where they may be manufactured at a fixed rate. I understand that in the State of Morelos one of these central plants for the manufacture of sugar is already being organized with foreign capital.

The standardization of crops and the abolition of the habit of restricting cultivation almost exclusively to corn constitute a serious question in Mexico, and one which, incidentally, has a certain importance to the corn regions of the United States. Mexico was the first country in which the wild corn plant was transformed into cultivated corn. In view of the high nutritive value of corn and the absence of other cereals, such as wheat and rice, which were only introduced into Mexico after the discovery of America, it was natural that for many centuries preference should have been given to its cultivation. But the continuation of this system is uneconomic and anachronistic. In fact, almost all the crops that can be harvested in the cool, temperate or hot lands of Mexico are much more remunerative than corn, especially those that can be exported; but in spite of this the farmers, slaves to tradition and routine, devote their principal attention and effort to planting corn instead of introducing the cultivation of other more suitable and more profitable crops. In view of these facts, perhaps it would be advisable for Mexico to lift the import duty on foreign corn for some years. Imported corn could then be bought at lower prices than native corn, because the methods used in its cultivation in the United States, Argentina and other countries are more economical. And Mexican farmers would be forced to take up other crops.

Mexico does not practise the standardization of crops which has given such good results in other countries. In Argentina, for example, it was found after prolonged and careful experimentation that on the whole the soil of that country was best adapted to three branches of agriculture, the growing of wheat and corn and the raising of cattle; and other crops were relegated to second place. There resulted specialization and efficiency in agricultural methods and a notable increase in production. In Mexico, true to the ancient tradition of the estate, we have endeavored to produce everything on a single plantation, -- firewood and lumber, garden produce and fruit, grains of all kinds, cattle and sheep on the plains and hills, and even stone, lime and other minerals. When the plantations are situated in temperate regions this tendency is carried to extremes, as happens in many parts of Puebla, Hidalgo, Morelos and, above all, Caxaca, where there are plantations which to my personal knowledge and without exaggeration furnish the following highly dissimilar products: wood, coal, stone and gravel for construction, "tecalli" or Mexican marble, wheat, corn, sugar-cane, castor-plant, pears, mangoes, sheep, goats and cattle, not to mention the gardens which supply the plantation household with food. This may appear a symptom of great wealth to those who do not judge the question by the cold criterion of economics: on the contrary, it is an indication of a defective system of agriculture, industry and cattle raising, a demonstration of the old proverb, "Jack of all trades and master of none."

Mexico must learn to separate the purely industrial side of her plantation enterprises from the purely agricultural side, putting each in different hands. Then it must be ascertained by experimentation which are the most productive crops, in order to plant these and abandon the others. Until this is done throughout Mexico, Mexican agricultural products will not improve markedly either in quality or in quantity.

There is another aspect of the Mexican land question which has been little discussed. Confirmed critics of Mexico in the United States have tried to find in agrarianism, in organized labor even, subterranean communistic tendencies aiming at the annihilation of capital. In this connection we should remember the old adage that to cook a hare you must first catch it. A real anti-capitalistic movement can scarcely exist in Mexico since there is no Mexican capital. The number of Mexican fortunes reaching a million dollars is proportionately very small, while the number that reaches five million is infinitesimal. Is it reasonable to suppose that the agrarian or social movements directed toward the subdivision and distribution of great rural estates can have for their objective the destruction of intangible capital?

The only capital of any size or importance in Mexico is foreign, and a comparatively insignificant part of it is invested in rural property. For this reason the possession of land has scarcely ever been the cause of serious differences between the Mexican Government and any other government. Petroleum, mines, factories, transportation facilities, electric light plants, hydro-electric power, the export of raw materials, -- these are the enterprises in which foreign capital is invested. A few months ago when the Secretary of Industry and Commerce of Mexico, Señor Morones, was interviewed in New York and Washington by American industrialists, laborites and journalists regarding possible communistic tendencies in the Mexican labor party, this official, who is the most representative laborite of the continent beyond the Rio Grande, demonstrated irrefutably that the Mexican labor movement is an intelligent movement for social betterment, anti-communistic in form and in essence. It has improved not only the wages of the laboring class, but also their food, clothing, homes and education. In fact, it is estimated that their economic condition to-day is from three hundred to four hundred per cent better than it was in 1910.

Although it may seem paradoxical, the labor elements in Mexico may really be considered as conservative, so much better is their economic condition than that of the agrarians. With the exception of a small proportion who have received lands and implements for farming, the peasants are still in the same condition that they were in fifteen years ago or fifty years ago, -- undernourished, poorly clad, illiterate, earning a daily wage of from twenty to thirty cents American money, and living in unsanitary hovels. These men, who as yet do not know what communism means, might easily be transformed into bloodthirsty revolutionists should a new crisis arise. In order to avoid this, the government of General Calles is putting into practice the measures described above, which will result in the rapid distribution of small farms and the formation of a social group numbering millions of small farmers owning their own land and finding in it the means of subsistence. They will be the enemies of political upheavals of an artificial character which might threaten their possession of the land and the enjoyment of its products. A striking parallel can be found at the present moment in Russia, where the agrarian socialism of the peasants who already own their farms constitutes a powerful check on communist ultra-radical tendencies.

It is certain that this agrarian movement of Mexico will find an echo in almost all the countries of Central and South America, since their physical characteristics, economic situation and social and ethnic structure are or have been analogous to Mexico's. The actual settlement of our agrarian problem will be of great importance to these countries and the study and consideration of Mexico's solution will perhaps enable them to solve their own without bloodshed and without the sad experiences through which Mexico has passed.

[i]We may mention as the best example of foreign studies "The Land Problems of Mexico," by G. M. MacBride, a publication of the American Geographical Society, New York. old defective system. The bank will finance the peasants progressively, in order that they may provide themselves with the necessary materials for farming.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now