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Mapping the Historical Roots of Poverty and Inequality in Mexico

What can political, climatic and epidemiological events in 16th Century Mexico tell us about that country’s modern agrarian system? What is history’s role in defining the present? These are questions Jennifer Alix-Garcia and graduate student Emily Sellars are exploring in research that ultimately seeks to shed new light on what makes development projects work.

When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico in 1519, they found flourishing agriculture-based communities and a population of about 25 million. Only six decades later, European diseases and two periods of brutal local plague, coupled with the severest drought in 600 years, had killed 90% of the native population. It was the worst demographic collapse in human history.

“Such radical de-population had to have a large impact on the institutions developed by the Spanish colonists,” explains Alix-Garcia. In particular, the extreme shortage of workers led to coercive labor practices that mimicked European feudal systems, or even slavery. Native people were expected to “tithe” a certain amount of labor to colonists who had expropriated land once farmed by those who had succumbed to pestilence. It was easy for the Spanish to amass large holdings that would later comprise the hacienda system.

Debt peonage followed, as hacendados consolidated their control over the local populations. “The hacienda owners were able to control the labor force because they owned most of the land,” says Alix-Garcia. She and Sellars are now studying the legacies of those early institutional arrangements, as Mexico gained independence from Spanish rule and later waged a revolution fueled by peasant demands for land.

Picture of ejidos In the eight decades following the Mexican Revolution of 1910, over half the country’s land was redistributed in one of the largest agrarian reforms in history. Before the revolution, half of the rural population lived on haciendas, but over the course of the land reform haciendas were dismantled and peasants were given communal ejidos, with limited rights to farm the land. “They could farm but not own or transfer the land. Only one child could inherit ejido rights, so the land reform actually caused out-migration and other adverse long term effects,” the researchers note.

Alix-Garcia and Sellars join others in recent efforts to assess the benefits of land redistribution, but despite decades of agrarian reform efforts around the globe, proving the theory correct remains elusive. Recent studies in India and South Africa show poverty reduction effects, but the particular case of Mexico’s reform defies the pattern.
Photo of rural Mexico They will use data on population, wealth and land ownership from colonial days to the present, integrating factors such as the locational effects of railroads and opening of new markets, to look at spatial patterns of prosperity in modern-day Mexico.

The researchers suspect that areas with the largest population collapse saw the greatest increase in land inequality, which subsequently led to high demand for land reform. “We are using events occurring four centuries before the reform to predict its intensity, and we hope this will help us understand the role of land redistribution on the wellbeing of today’s rural communities,” says Alix-Garcia.

“I want to map development outcomes so that we can see if our theories about the power of institutional development are correct. If we can recognize the fundamental sources of inequities in society — the importance of specific, local institutions embedded in a long history — we can design policies that truly encourage economic growth.”

This story was originally published on the UW-Madison Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics website.