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Jean-Philippe Colin

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Agrarian institutions and contractual practices in Mexico

1Since the 1980s, the question of the “rules of the game” regarding land—'agrarian institutions'—has returned to the forefront of the preoccupations of both international institutions and public policies in numerous southern countries, in the context of a redefinition of the role of government intervention in land regulation, an increased pressure on land, and environmental concerns, This new focus on the land question in public policies is paralleled by a dramatic development of research in Institutional Economics (understood in the broad sense). Two main research fields are explored by this literature in the area of agrarian studies: (i) land rights, with for example the common versus private property debate, or research regarding the effectiveness of land registration and titling programmes in securing property rights; (ii) agrarian contracts, with a focus on the rationale and comparative efficiency of different contractual arrangements, with a specific interest in sharecropping due to its empirical importance in developing countries and to its theoretical interest. The rich theoretical production of recent decades has nevertheless not always been accompanied by parallel empirical work. At the inaugural meeting of the International Society for New Institutional Economies (1997, Saint Louis, Missouri), the Nobel Prize winners Ronald Coase and Douglas North thus made an ardent appeal for the development of empirical institutional research—especially research grounded in case studies—in developing countries. This book offers such a contribution through an analysis of agrarian contractual practices in Mexico. The approach combines the theoretical insights of the economics of contracts, used as 'research intuitions', and a comparative and comprehensive micro-analysis–comprehensive in the sense that the logic of contractual choices are deciphered taking into account the viewpoint of the stakeholders.

2The first chapter reviews the economic theories of agrarian contracts from the ciassical writings to the current research conducted along the lines of agency and transaction cost theories, and presents the research orientations that guided this study. The second chapter presents a historical overview of agrarian contractual practices in Mexico and particularly sharecropping, broadly defined as any agreement leading to the sharing of production by owner and tenant. Sixteenth-century Spanish chronicles show that tenancy relationships existed in the Aztec society, clearly differentiated from the payment of the tribute. Sharecropping was later practised in the 'hacienda System', where the sharecroppers were de facto peónes rather than tenants. The agrarian reform subsequently led to the redistribution of nearly 100 million hectares to some 3 million beneficiaries between the beginning of the twentieth century and the 1990s. Until 1992, any market transaction (saie, lease, mortgage) was forbidden on that land; the beneficiaries of land redistribution (ejidatarios) benefited of an use right that could just be bequeathed. The agrarian reform led to a radical change in perspective in regard to contractual practices. The ejidatario sometimes lacked the means to farm the land he received, and therefore leased out land under fixed or share arrangements, even if such a transfer was illegal. This opened the way for an inversion in the relationships between the (ejidatario) 'owner' and the tenant, the latter being often economically better off. Lastly, in 1992 a fundamental legal change allowed contractual practices on ejido land (as well as market transfers of ejido property, under conditions). This historical review sets up the empirical framework of this study, and also highlights the need for empirical investigations, especially when the aim is to go beyond broad analysis in order to explore the different types of possible alternative institutional arrangements, their dynamics and the underlying rationale of the actors.

3The next four chapters provide, in this perspective, the detailed results of studies conducted at a local scale in different agro-ecological and socio-economic environments:

  • a Zapotec community in the central valleys of Oaxaca State, characterised by a production oriented towards on-farm consumption in a marginal agro-economic and socio-economic context;
  • two ejidos in southern Tamaulipas, illustrating agrarian contractual practices and dynamics in a context of strong past state intervention in the form of the development of an irrigated perimeter and the creation of collective ejidos with market-oriented production, and then the crisis of ejido production and the development of land lease within the ejidos and between ejidatarios and private capitalistic farmers;
  • several villages in the Sierra Madre Oriental (Puebla and Veracruz states), with a study focused on contractual arrangements for intensive farming with high production costs (potatoes) performed by small farmers facing financing constraints and imperfect markets;
  • the last study describes the case of a village in the altiplano of the State of Tlaxcala, where the arrival of 'outsiders' (tenants coming from other regions) who introduced a new crop (potato) provided the opportunity for analysing the relations between contractual dynamics, moral hazard problems with regard to the enforcement of contracts, and the role of contractual practices in a learning process.

4The final chapter puts the results of these studies in perspective, revealing the importance of agrarian contractual practices in the Mexican rural environment, including the ejido land before the 1992 legal reform. Even if the observation of a lack of a strong link between the pre-1992 legal prohibition and agrarian contractual practices cannot be generalised, it shows that the impact of the 1992 reform on the land rental market might be much weaker than anticipated by both the supporters and detractors of legal reform. The research shows the diversity of the 'contractual configurations', whereas agrarian contract theories generally postulate specific coordination conditions. In most models, large landowners lease out to landless farmers, whose only alternative is to work as farm labourers; the farming System is essentially based on land and labour; the contractual relationship in the case of sharecropping is interpreted as an implicit wage relation. The case studies give another picture of the contractual arenas, showing the diversity of both the players involved in contractual agrarian relations and the types of production concerned. The research also shows the diversity of forms and functions of sharecropping. This contract appears as a polymorphic institutional arrangement with great diversity in the ways the costs and products are shared, in the types of actors involved and in the degree of their involvement in the production process. This diversity of forms is accompanied by a diversity of functions, along three main 'ideal-types': the share contract as a land relationship, as a labour relationship, or as a partnership. Depending on the situation, this type of contract can therefore be used as a means to overcome insufficient capital accumulation and market imperfections (first of ail credit market), to deal with agro-ecological, market or strategic (enforcement problems) uncertainties, or to be used as a learning device. The existence of the contractual arrangements, as well as their conventional nature, enable flexible adjustment of the production factors in a context of imperfect markets. These results converge with the analyses performed during the past two decades in the economics of agrarian institutions, which have rehabilitated practices previously considered to be intrinsically inefficient or survivais of exploitative relations.

© IRD Éditions, 2003

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