Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Agrarian Dreams, Agricultural Realities: Agricultural Land Conversion in Mexico's Chihuahuan Desert
by Hruska, Tracy V., Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley, 2020, 151; 28090234
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation examines the drivers and socioeconomic process of the conversion of rangeland to irrigated crops in Janos County, Chihuahua since 1970. The research was motivated by a desire to understand why irrigated agriculture was expanding in this site when there were no such expansions in adjacent regions. I analyze the historical roots of agricultural expansion as well as the contemporary social and economic dynamics that propel it today. Data came from 166 interviews with landowners, ex-landowners, laborers, and local officials, as well as from historical land records. Results reveal the importance Mexico’s national land reform (~1920-1992) in breaking up large ranches and creating opportunities for small farms to become established, even if many of those small farms—especially on ejidos—ultimately failed. I attribute the majority of rangeland-to-cropland conversion to Mennonites, whose commodity farms have proliferated through both in-migration and capitalist investment of agricultural profits.

My research contributes to the wide-ranging literature on Mexico’s ejido system through the analysis of dynamics on the arid lands ejidos in Janos County. The Janos ejidos differ from the preponderance of cases in the literature in that they were founded through very different mechanisms and have seen far higher rates of land sales and consolidation. I contribute to the literature on agricultural frontiers by discussing agricultural expansion in arid rangelands rather than in tropical forests, where most of the literature is centered. The contrast between stagnating agriculture on the ejidos and expanding agriculture by Mennonites reveals both the importance of capital access in desert farming and the prominent role that social and cultural capital play in improving access to agriculture. In Janos, addressing the ‘agrarian question’ entails a close examination of capital access as well as intragroup social dynamics.

Commercial cattle grazing has been the dominant land use there for at least 300 years, though the percentage of land under crops has expanded significantly in recent decades, irrigated with groundwater from a declining aquifer. The proliferation of irrigated agriculture has roots in Mexico’s national land reform, which ran nearly from the end of the Revolution in 1920 until 1992. The land reform fractured the vast cattle ranches that had previously dominated Janos County and redistributed a third of the land area in the form of 14 ejidos. The land reform also incentivized ranchers to sell land rather than have it expropriated by the government, which enabled groups of Mennonites from central Chihuahua to buy thousands of hectares at a time starting in the 1950s. Those parcels became the first four Mennonite colonies in Janos County and the hubs of ongoing cropland expansion.

The process of ejido formation in Janos County was different than in most studies of central and southern Mexico, with profound impacts for land use and rights ownership. Ejidos here were not formed through restitution of land rights to long-term residents, indigenous communities, or even occupiers. Instead, land rights on new ejidos were given to landless laborers who had signed petitions demanding land through the land reform process, laborers who were most often living more than hundred kilometers from Janos County and had never been there. The freshly minted ejidatarios who came to Janos County to begin their new agrarian lives lacked the equipment, the investment capital, the farming expertise, and the social relations with each other needed to establish farms. While government support for these communities was significant, it was only sporadically sufficient to establish agricultural livelihoods. Out-migration and land sales were rampant, particularly after Mexico’s neoliberal policy reforms of the late 1980s and 1990s. There has been significant consolidation of land control on the ejidos since the 1990s, which has facilitated the ability of some households to earn a modest living from cattle or crops. On nearly every ejido, there remains land officially designated for farming that is still used only for cattle grazing.

Founders of the first four Mennonite colonies in Janos County had come from Mennonite communities in west-central Chihuahua, and those communities had been founded by Mennonites immigrating from Canada in the 1920s. Mennonites in Janos County are Mexican citizens or dual Mexican-Canadian citizens but are in nearly every way deliberately distinct from mainstream Mexican society. They still speak Spanish as a second language, if at all, and they live in clearly defined colonies with their own churches, schools, businesses, and minute governmental institutions. They are also farmers first and foremost, though there is some economic diversification. Mennonite settlers arrived to Janos with sufficient economic means to establish irrigated farms – mostly modest – and construct functioning community centers with minimal state support.

Mennonite colonies are ethnic enclaves that maintain high stocks of social and cultural capital that improve access to farming and foster loyalty to the home community and to farming as a livelihood. Social practices of cooperation and preferential treatment reduce the economic burden of establishing new farms or expanding existing farms, such as sharing farm machinery and paying each other for land or expensive services in annual installments without interest. Mennonites also have their own sources of formal and informal credit that are difficult for outsiders to access. The Mennonite agricultural access regime has enabled farmers to gradually intensify and expand their farming operations over time. Mennonites now routinely tap into international markets to grow genetically modified cotton, in addition to chili peppers, onions, and other crops that are planted, weeded, and harvested by migrant workers from southern and central Mexico.

Agricultural production in my focal communities was always of ubiquitous commodities produced primarily for the market, but since the 1990s there has been something of an agrarian transformation underway. The area of irrigated crops has expanded rapidly, driven in part by economic differentiation of farmers and consolidation of landownership. The national neoliberal policy changes in the 1990s enabled these changes, as they served to increase the costs of agricultural production, significantly alter credit access, open new agricultural markets, and legalize the sale and rental of ejido land rights. While rising production costs drove some ejidatario and Mennonite farmers to sell out and migrate, new markets and sources of credit enabled wealthier Mennonite farmers to intensify and expand their operations. Increased farm profits among the emerging Mennonite elite were plowed back into purchases of ejido parcels and new blocks of ranchland outside the original colonies. The expansion drove up property values, further incentivizing ejidatarios and ranchers alike to sell land to Mennonites. High property values and competition for land are major barriers to entry for young would-be farmers, breeding new concerns over social justice and community values. Meanwhile, irrigated agriculture continues to expand outward from the original Mennonite colonies and the aquifer continues to fall.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Huntsinger, Lynn
Commitee: Peluso, Nancy L., Sayre, Nathan
School: University of California, Berkeley
Department: Environmental Science, Policy, & Management
School Location: United States -- California
Source: DAI-A 82/5(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Environmental Studies, Latin American history, Land Use Planning, Political science, Agriculture, Sociology
Keywords: Agrarian question, Ejido, Irrigation, Land-use change, Mennonite, Political ecology, Chihuahuan Desert, Mennonite communities, Capital
Publication Number: 28090234
ISBN: 9798691238253
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