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Mexico - Communal agrarian tenure (Ejido system)

This extract from the full case study gives a flavour of the ejido communal agrarian tenure system that is practiced in Mexico. For the full case study, which delves deeper into the historical background of the ejido system, and contains full academic references, please read the report in full.

The mechanism(s) of ownership/tenure 

Ejidos are now effectively a form of social and private property that contain a mix of individually parcelled land (made possible by the 1992 reform) and some land which is held and used communally. They are one of four types of landownership found in Mexico: private property, or small property, due to the extensive limitations in landownership established in the law; social property, including ejidos and agrarian communities; national land; and wasteland. Ejidos tend to have small plots of land owned by ejidatario families and a specific area designed as ejido communal land, which is owned by everyone in the ejido. It has been calculated that approximately 5.6 million people live in agrarian nuclei (either in ejidos or agrarian communities), covering more than 100 million hectares and representing 53.4% of Mexico’s total surface area. There are approximately 29,519 ejidos across the country. They are a modern institution, having only been in existence for 100 years, and represent an attempt by the Mexican government to fight the historical accumulation of land in the hands of the few, and to address the shortage of land held by the majority of the Mexican population by the beginning of the twentieth century. 

Ejidos and agrarian communities vary in size (in terms of land extension and people) across the country depending on the state. In Mexico, large estates are forbidden, and individuals cannot own plots of land considered to be larger than smallholdings (known as ‘small property’; pequeña propiedad). The small property in Mexico is limited to 100 hectares when land is used for livestock and the production of vegetables; 150 hectares when land is used for cotton plantations; and 300 hectares when land is used for the production of bananas, sugar cane, coffee, henequén (sisal), rubber, palm trees, olives, quina, cocoa, vanilla and fruit-bearing trees. Small property for forestry cannot exceed 800 hectares.   

Any economic activity can be conducted on ejidos as long as it is permitted by law. 56.4% of social property in Mexico is used for agriculture and most of the plots of land are considered as smallholdings. Within these agrarian nuclei the main crops are maize, sugar cane and coffee, and many ejidos grow grasslands for livestock. Nevertheless, some ejido communities are engaged with tourism activities, forestry, arts & crafts, fishing and payment for ecosystem services schemes related to carbon capture and biodiversity conservation. 

Extent and process of community control 

Ejido communities establish their own rules and are governed through an Ejido Assembly and ejido governing bodies. Changes within the private plots and common land of ejidos cannot happen without the consent of the Ejido Assembly. All ejido members have voting rights to elect a leader (a comisariado). Ejidos play a fundamental role in politics despite not being part of government itself. Mexico is a federal state with three government levels: national or federal government level; state level; and local (more than 2,000 municipalities). Ejido communities are associations or corporations of rural dwellers (and now, sometimes urban) which are organised and therefore have the capacity to lobby government. As they are very close to the municipal level of government, ejidos can easily access and influence local politics and municipal decision makers.  

Successful stories of the collective management of natural resources in ejidos and agrarian communities can be found across Mexico. The most well-known cases are related to community forestry. Specifically, the communities of Nuevo San Juan Parangaricutiro in Michoacán and the Union of Zapotecan and Chinantecan Forestry Communities (UZACHI) in Oaxaca. In both cases, the communal ownership of forests has strengthened community cohesion, encouraged young people to remain in their communities, and improved the local economy by promoting agriculture, timber production and tourism.  

In the case of the UZACHI communities, forest resources were being exploited in the 1970s by private companies, however with adequate organization, communities took control of their forest resources. For example, in the 1980s, four agrarian communities wanted to develop their own forestry services to encourage sustainable management. In 1992, the communities formed an association to provide forestry services and technical advice across the area of concern. The communities took responsibility for the forest (with permission from the Ministry of Agriculture) and management now takes places in common forest management units on the communally owned land. The community forest association (UZACHI) produces timber, promotes local employment and generates benefits for local people. The four communities are represented on the UZACHI management board and vigilance committee, alongside representatives of public bodies. Despite institutional barriers, corruption and lack of funds, community forestry seems to have a bright future, and this often due to the benefits that communities obtain from managing their natural resources themselves. 

Key challenges and future directions 

Many criticisms have been directed at ejidos because of the political, economic and social problems they have bought to the country. For example, unlike in many other Latin American countries, the existence of ejidal and communal lands in Mexico has provided a source for illegal land development in the cities. It is estimated that in many Mexican cities more than 50% of the urban land development has occurred on ejido land through one form of illegal means or another. In Mexico City the urban growth from the 1940s onwards provoked the phenomenon of new informal settlements on ejido land and the impoverishment of urban dwellers. Indeed, when Mexico City started growing explosively, as a result of loopholes in the law and in policy, poorer residents settled in rural ejido lands outside the centre of the city.  

It is also fair to note that the 1992 reforms have, in certain cases, further eroded women's rights on ejidos. Women in Mexico were largely excluded from the land redistribution programmes. Most ejidal land is held by men, and the majority of women are not voting members (ejidatarios) of ejidos and do not hold use-rights. After the 1992 reform, only ejidatarios were allowed to vote on new regularisation and tenure regimes, and therefore only existing ejidatarios’ land rights were strengthened through these processes.
Despite criticisms that ejidos are an economically inefficient form of land tenure, the ejido has proven to be a resilient institution, and rural dwellers seem to be comfortable with collective ownership and the mélange of social and private property within their communities.  

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