Gaining ground : land reform and the constitution of community in the Tojolabal Highlands of Chiapas, Mexico

G. van der Haar

    Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


    This study reconstructs the process of land redistribution in an indigenous region of Chiapas, the Tojolabal Highlands, situated between the better known Central Highlands and the Lacandona Rainforest. Until 1930 this region was dominated by large private estates or <em>fincas</em> , owned by families from Comitán. Usually 3000 ha in size, these <em>fincas</em> were dedicated to cattle ranching and some agriculture. The ancestors of the present inhabitants of the region, most of whom are Tojolabal Indians, lived and worked on the estates as peons, landless labourers who received no or little wages.</p><p> In the early 1930s, this situation changed dramatically as president Lázaro Cárdenas sought to implement land reforms throughout Mexico. He made no exception for Chiapas and in the region of study the effects of his policy were soon felt. After some initial hesitation, the peons filed one request for land endowment after another. In less than fifteen years, the extent of land controlled by the estates dropped to fifty percent and this trend continued. By 1970, only ten percent of the land remained in the hands of private, non-indigenous landowners and by 1993 this had fallen to three per cent. Most of these lands had been given out to the former resident peons in the form of so-called <em>ejidos</em> , giving groups of at least twenty peasants joint control over the land which they are not allowed to sell or lease. Other lands were sold by the original owners to groups of peasants, usually former peons. More recently, these lands have been converted to a communal tenure regime ( <em>bienes comunales</em> ).</p><p> As a consequence of land reform, the <em>fincas</em> in the region gave way to peasant communities with an almost exclusively Tojolabal population. (By 1990 the region comprised some 26 localities with a total population of approximately 15,000 individuals). This study started by asking how this process had taken place and what implications it had for the population. In my search for answers to these questions, I found I was entering largely unexplored terrain. In the literature on Chiapas, land reform is commonly treated as a very limited phenomenon. It is generally assumed that the landowners held such power that they managed to neutralise or minimise the threats to their property. Most scholarly attention has focussed on the redistribution of national lands (to which no private titles existed) and on piecemeal land redistribution as part of manipulative political strategies to keep the peasantry in check. Against this background, the lack of land reform is usually cited as one of the root causes of the Zapatista uprising of 1994. The limits of land reform since the 1970s and the gross abuses that have characterised it, partly justify this perspective. However, it loses sight of the fact that in some regions of Chiapas land reform was extensive and had profound political and social consequences. For the region of study, land reform was one of the most important processes in contemporary history.</p><p> I explored the process of land reform in the Tojolabal Highlands on the basis of extensive archival study as well as field work. This allowed me to establish that eighty percent of the land redistributed was drawn from private estates and the remaining twenty per cent from national lands. I also found that although the landowners had opposed land redistribution, they had been unable to effectively counter it. In fact, land redistribution was so successful that virtually the entire region was converted to <em>ejidos</em> . Not only had the <em>ejido</em> (and to a lesser extent communal property) displaced private property as the main tenure regime, but the Tojolabal communities had also undeniably acquired the appearance of <em>ejidos</em> . They have come to display all the necessary attributes of <em>ejidos</em> , such as the <em>comisariado ejidal</em> (the head of the <em>ejido</em> -members), regular meetings, and written agreements endorsed with the <em>ejido</em> seal. Today, the <em>ejido</em> is an important referent of identity in the region and the <em>ejido</em> features mentioned above are now considered 'typically Tojolabal'.</p><p> Land reform was more than a redistribution of land. It contributed to the formation of Tojolabal communities as we know them today and played a crucial role in the development of the conflictive relations between these communities and the Mexican state. The present communities are partly a product of land reform. Although there was some continuity between 'fincas' and ' <em>ejidos</em> ' in terms of the land and population involved, land reform involved considerable re-definitions, re-grouping and in some cases, re-localisation. As a consequence, social relations were re-structured around the land endowments. In this process, the land reform beneficiaries adopted the <em>ejido</em> model that the state offered, but also re-worked it. Although conditioned 'from above', land reform also involved processes of appropriation 'from below'.</p><p> This becomes especially clear when we observe the ways in which land tenure is organised within communities. I found, for example, that communities used their own lists of right-holders to land that differed from the official records held by the land reform bureaucracy. Communities re-defined and re-assigned land rights to individual members in relatively autonomous ways, relying only partly on the norms as these are formally prescribed. In practice, communities exerted a considerable degree of control both within the field of land tenure and beyond it. This governing capacity is exercised not only with regard to their own members but also vis-à-vis the state land reform bureaucracy. The latter's legal authority to regulate land tenure within <em>ejido</em> -communities is challenged in many ways. Land tenure thus emerges as a field of contention between different and at times opposing claims to control, in which not only different notions of property, but also rival attempts to define and assign land rights are confronted. In the thesis, this is illustrated through the detailed analysis of a conflict between two factions within a community.</p><p> In recent years, resistance to state control has become more explicit than ever as well as part of a more articulate political project. This is best understood against the background of - with the increasing politicisation of state intervention since the 1970s - political identities increasingly taking shape in opposition to the state. Since 1994, the Zapatistas have made the limits to state control painfully clear. This is probably best illustrated with reference to the land occupations that have taken place in the wake of the uprising and that have obliged the state to endorse a new phase of land redistribution belying all official declarations concerning the 'end of land reform'. Furthermore, through the so-called autonomous municipalities the Zapatistas have managed to develop a considerable governing capacity beyond the reach of the state.</p><p> The processes described above contain a certain paradox, especially if contemplated from the view - put forward by Mexican authors since the 1970s - that land reform is essentially an instrument of political control in the hands of the state. Although this perspective has been valuable in pointing out the importance of hidden agendas in land reform, it does not explain how land reform could at the same time have been so successful in creating <em>ejidos</em> and so obviously have failed to control the latter. To account for the paradox we need to develop a perspective that moves beyond the focus on state control and also addresses the multiple contestations that land reform has involved. Recent works on processes of state formation in Mexico are particularly promising for elaborating such a perspective. This approach suggests we might understand land reform as part of attempts by the state to extend its reach to new regions, but with dissimilar and contradictory results. From this vantage point we can explore how the state engaged with specific regions, re-defining relations of property and authority and generating multiple contestations and re-negotiations. Processes of state formation have a dual nature that is also relevant in the case of land reform. While it informs and penetrates local cultural and institutional repertoires, in doing so it also provides some of the central terms around which resistance to the state becomes articulated. We can thus begin to understand some of the complex and contradictory consequences of the creation of <em>ejidos</em> in the region of study. Furthermore, such a perspective points to the role of land reform itself in the constitution of communities as spaces from which the state is resisted and challenged.</p><p>These arguments are developed throughout the book, along three narrative lines. In the first place, the book tells the history of a particular community, San Miguel Chibtik. The efforts of the Chibtikeros to obtain the land they had worked for generations, the ways they developed of administering and distributing these lands amongst community members, and their participation in land occupations under the banner of Zapatismo as of 1994, run through the text. These experiences provide entry points for discussing three related processes: the geography and politics of land redistribution in the region (Chapters Two and Three), the development of institutional arrangements and governing practices concerning land in the communities of land reform beneficiaries (Chapters Four and Five) and land occupations in recent years as part of the Zapatista political project (Chapters Six and Seven). The analysis of these processes constitutes the second narrative line. Finally, on a third level, the text may be read as an exploration of the numerous ways in which - through land reform- the Mexican state reached into the region. The study thus provides a window onto one of the principal routes of state formation in eastern Chiapas. This perspective, as well as the conceptual considerations on which it rests, are developed in Chapter Eight.</p>
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Wageningen University
    • Long, N.E., Promotor
    • Ouweneel, A., Promotor, External person
    Award date7 Dec 2001
    Place of PublicationS.l.
    Print ISBNs9789058085290
    Publication statusPublished - 2001


    • land reform
    • ethnography
    • history
    • land ownership
    • law
    • mexico

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