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Des barbelés dans la Sierra

Hubert Cochet

Summary. Barbed wire across the Sierra

The origin and changes in a farming system in Mexico

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1The hilly relief of the Sierra Madre del Sur, the dry tropical climate, the scarceness of lines of communication and the almost complete absence of arable land (approximately 1% of the area) make Southwest Michoacán a region lacking in “comparative advantages” which is sparsely populated. The dominant farming method is still cultivation of burned land.

2However, the main activity of farms is now extensive cattle farming, with the young bulis produced are sold to breeders in the wetter part of the country. This specialisation is less marked in the few Indian villages and hamlets along the Coastal strip, but the area still controlled by Indian communities has been considerably reduced by half-breed cattle breeders from higher parts of the Sierra Madre del Sur (Coalcomán). The latter have fenced part of the former community land and made the local population abandon part of their territory and progressively move down towards the coast to found new villages.

3Although the half-breed cattle breeders are the participants in this recent invasion of common land, study of the agrarian history of this agropastoral society shows that the “creole” or slightly half-breed people were themselves from areas further north: the Cotija region at the edge of the altiplano and from still further away in the vast Bajio region and the Altos de Jalisco plateau. These families started to emigrate at the end of the 18th century in the direction of the southwestern edge of the altiplano. They settled in the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains at the end of the 19th century when abolition of the right of mortmain (which obliged Indian communities to divide up common land) made it easier to repurchase part of the former community land.

4A population drift thus began at the end of the 18th century in the heart of New Spain. In several stages and nearly two centuries of history, farmers travelled 300 km from central Mexico to the Pacific Coastal area. This migration was the resuit of a differentiated peasant System which had existed for a long time but which is often forgotten because of the all-powerful 19th-century hacienda System and immense numbers of agricultural labourers dispossessed of ail means of production. Small tenant farmers and sharecroppers were nevertheless a (heterogeneous) social group of major importance from the 18th century onwards throughout western Mexico. They formed the majority of the emigrants who moved to Cotija and then Coalcomán before going further to the Pacific coast.

5As a resuit, the origins and differentiation of the agrarian System in Sierra de Coalcomán cannot be understood without referring to this slow farmers’migration, its deep-seated causes, its fundamental mechanisms and its successive historical expressions.


6Towards the end of the colonial period, a large proportion of the maize produced was not grown directly by the haciendas of “the granary of New Spain”. Independent tenant farmers and sharecroppers harvested most of the maize but, with the exception of small independent farmers, they were obliged to hand over a large fixed or proportional fraction of their harvests. Large landowners thus creamed off a large percentage of the harvest and had a monopoly of the storage and marketing of grain. Landowner-speculators made profits by taking advantage of price rises during crises caused by several successive poor years when stocks of Staples were exhausted in the villages. Whereas it was in the interest of the hacendados to enhance this monopoly by increasing their control of the land, the small farmers tried to cover the minimum requirements of their families and ensure regular supplies.

7Although technically possible, intensification was not envisaged since the agrarian System of the New Spain “granary” was blocked by permanent social relations which prevented change. In order to increase their control of grain marketing, it was in the large landowners’interest to increase the size of their holdings and the number of “associated” sharecroppers rather than to develop more intensive techniques to increase yields. The latter remained small (about 5 or 6 quintais per hectare) and the swing-plough was the only ploughing implement used.

8For the small sharecroppers and tenant farmers in the centre of the country, émigration thus appeared to be the best solution to handle the steady fall in the productivity of their labour. These people moved doser to the south-west edge of the altiplano and profited from the large, less-populated areas subjected to less strict control by the owners. Another farming System - slash and burn cultivation - was possible in the still sparsely inhabited areas running down to the “Hot Lands”.

9Nearly a century later, when the agrarian society that they had helped to build was at its peak (in Cotija) but strongly differentiated by the continuation of the same social relations (share-cropping), conditions for the intensification of farming did not prevail.

10The plough was known almost everywhere, but most sharecroppers continued to use the swing-plough on the few hectares placed at their disposai. They could not afford to buy ploughs, and such an investment was not in the landlords’interest. In shifting slash and burn cultivation, a population increase leads to a reduction in the regrowth period and decrease in yields.

11The development of heavy transport Systems (railways) and the regional specialisation that this enhanced encouraged large landowners to change their relations with small farmers. Sharecroppers still grew rainfed maize but within the strict limits of the requirements of the labour force. Cash crop maize grown by sharecroppers was no longer in the landlord’s interest as sales further away prevented a strong decrease in price after bumper harvests. Likewise, the sugarproducing hacendados tended to replace the sharecroppers who still had access to sugar-cane fields by hired day labour. Owner-farming increased at the expense of share-cropping since salaries (which did not increase) became considerably less than the value of the halfharvest left to the sharecropper.

12Once again, emigration enabled some peasant farmers to escape impoverishment and stem the decrease in labour productivity. The absence of technical change gave the strong population increase at the end of the 19th century all its “power of expulsion”.

13With the abolition of mortmain rights, the sharing and batch sale of the Coalcomán Indian community land was an opportunity for families from the Cotija region for easy, almost free installation in the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains.

14The old right of every native family to use land throughout the community territory was replaced by permanent, individual rights which precluded any periodic redistribution of land: this was private ownership. Land was not a good before the immigrants took possession of the territory. The exchange value of a plot had been limited to the amount of labour accumulated (cutting, burning, sowing, etc.) but became nil after growth of the grain crop as all the labour had then been recovered. A long period of forest fallow was required to ensure the viability of the farming System and the labour accumulated during a cropping cycle formed no part of the following cycle. There could therefore be no “individual memory” of the cultivated plot or the holding. The Indians willingly accepted the money, alcohol or glass goods offered by the half-breed immigrants when the administration forcibly shared out community land. The Indians considered that such goods had a better exchange value than what they considered to be worthless land. They realised too late that these “sales” had deprived them of usufruct and that the despoiling was final and definitive. The immigrants weapons silenced complaints and led rapidly to the physical elimination of all the members of the Coalcomán Indian community. When all the land of the latter had changed hands, the movement partially affected the Indian communities of Huizontla, Aquila, Maquili, Coire, Ostula and Pómaro, whose lands were on the Pacific slope of the Sierra.

15While the first immigrants from the Cotija highlands and those who possessed the small capital required to appropriate part of the former Indian land became rancheros in their turn, other poorer people became sharecroppers. They formed the major part of the labour required by the new landholding units (ranchos) in the Sierra de Coalcomán.


16The slash and burn cultivation practiced by the Indians for several centuries was still used on the new ranchos of Sierra de Coalcomán. Yields (calculated according to the real sown area and not the whole of the cultivated ecosystem) were distinctly higher than those of the land farmed with swing-ploughs in the region that the immigrants had come from. No heavy work was involved in this farming System - apart from felling operations - and labour productivity was fairly high.

17However, not all rancho sharecroppers practiced slash and burn cultivation. As soon as they had settled on the former Indian community land, they cleared the most level plots to enable surface cultivation with swing-ploughs. Chick peas were then sown towards the end of the rainy season and harvested in April. This was followed by maize sown as soon as the rains started.

18The new farming System had heavy labour requirements since weed control (not complete after use of the swing-plough) required long periods of manual labour. Productivity was therefore lower, but complementary working calendars and two crops (maize and chick peas) made it possible to combine pig breeding, the only commercial form of use of grain surpluses. Every year, large herds of lard pigs made the long journey from Sierra de Coalcomán to the towns, where lard consumption was high.

19A second animal product was put on the market: draught cattle bred in extensive operations in the Coalcomán mountains. These were sold once a year at the large Peribán fair. Farmers came from the central part of Mexico to buy their draught animais.

20With the development of communications (the railways), the prerevolutionary period was marked by strong regional specialisation. Although it was very isolated and far from the railway System, Coalcomán integrated the new division of labour by producing the energy required for the development of cultivated areas in the central Bajío region (by providing draught animais) and animal energy required for human consumption (lard).

21The number of sharecroppers “associated” with the owner was the measure of the importance of a rancho and determined the number of pigs sold on the urban market. By taking half the grain harvest of ail the sharecroppers, the owner could accumulate large amounts of maize and chick peas for fattening pigs, while the share of the grain kept by the sharecroppers was used to feed their families and a pig and for a small surplus. In spite of the amounts taken by the landowner, the amount of grain kept by the sharecroppers often exceeded that needed to cover the minimum requirements of their families.

22Real access to half of the fodder produced would have enabled the sharecroppers to keep small herds and to increase their capital. However, the sharing of crop residues (fodder) and the grazing rights awarded by the landowner were the subject of many disputes. In fact, the sharecropper never controlled the 50% of crop residues that were theoretically his since the landowner’s cattle entered the fields as soon as the grain had been harvested. In addition, it was strictly forbidden for him to have more than two or three head of cattle; increasing grazing rights was the main request - even more so than the distribution of half of the grain. This would seem to show that the sharecroppers had a real margin of accumulation and that their small herds could increase. If not, why would the landowners consider the strict limiting of grazing rights to be so important?

23The situation of Coalcomán sharecroppers was not too bad in comparison with that of those of the more central parts of Mexico who had not emigrated to the Sierra Madre del Sur highlands. This explains why the flow of immigrants did not stop after the purchase of ail the land of the former Indian community in Coalcomán by the firstcomers.

24However, landowners’limits on grazing rights and hence on accumulation by sharecroppers maintained the latter in a precarious situation and encouraged mobility. They often changed “bosses” after their various dismissals and visited many villages. Many were tempted by the proximity of common land belonging to the Indian communities along the Coastal fringe.

25Whereas a true agricultural revolution took place in the Coalcomán “highlands” (based on private appropriation of land, large grain production, the generalisation of share-cropping as the dominant production relation and participation in inter-regional division of labour), the Indian communities on the coast remained at the edge of the process and were little involved in commercial exchanges. They still had many of the features described in 1580 by the early chroniclers who visited the region. Slash and burn shifting cultivation and common land remained the basic elements of the System.

26However, there was no fixed, impermeable frontier between the “new” agrarian society founded in Coalcomán by the half-breed immigrants and the coastal Indians. There was in fact a slow, diffuse advance of a real “colonisation front” which, generation after generation, continued the southward population drift at the expense of the community land belonging to Indian populations. Owners always followed their cattle in the front line where common land was taken over. However, the sharecroppers participated actively in the movement as settling in Indian land relieved them of dues to landowners. In spite of the existence of a decreasing productivity gradient nearer the coast (there is less, more irregular rainfall), they could hope for a harvest larger than half of their harvest on the rancho where they used to work.

27The Mexican Revolution and agrarian reform laws did not affect the emergence and development of ranchos. The Indian communities along the coast were too weakened to obtain the “return” of the land which had been taken from them and the Coalcomán community was wiped out. A few ejidos were formed in the 1930s on land controlled by the haciendas. However, the rancho System was unaffected by this distribution of land. On the contrary, it became stronger and encroached on the land of moribund haciendas. The cohesion of the new agrarian society was even increased by its active participation in the Cristeros peasant revoit which stood up to the govemment from 1927 to 1930.


28From 1960 onwards, the inter-regional and international division of labour gave the Sierra Madre del Sur a new role. Over a period of a few years, a set of changes upset farming methods and the organisation of work within the ranchos. Sierra de Coalcomán became an area for the production of young bulls and cannabis and most other crops were abandoned.

29The changes began with a specific crisis. Chick peas were infected by fungai diseases and this had repercussions on the whole of animal draught cultivation. It was progressively abandoned and the former cattle land was left wild. Grain production (maize and chick peas) fell strongly, causing a rapid decrease in lard pig production. Although the abandoning of cultivated land seems to have been the cause of the collapse of pig production, the same phenomenon would doubtless have been observed if grain production had been kept high. Changes in diet (urbanisation) and the growth of world oil plant production caused the definitive replacement of animal fats by vegetable products.

30The draught cattle market collapsed simultaneously. The replacement of oxen by draught horses in the Bajío and then the progressive motorisation of numerous farms removed Sierra de Coalcomán’s main market. The production of oxen for training decreased strongly and was then completely abandoned. While cattle breeding is increasing considerably in the humid tropical regions in the Gulf of Mexico, many young cattle fattened in the east are born on the drier Pacific side of the country. The Coalcomán region therefore produces store cattle about 18 months old whose phenotype is increasingly marked by crosses with zebu races. They are transported by truck to the fattening regions at the end of the rainy season (September - October). A “pastoral vocation” is thus emerging in the Sierra Madre del Sur as a direct resuit of increased regional specialisation.

31Slash and burn cultivation is still central to the structure, but it has changed. It used to be practiced for maize but has also become the most effective way of obtaining grass and is now part of the basis of the development of cattle breeding. However, the appearance of the cultivated fields has changed. The vegetation eut and burned is merely thin tree scrub only a few years old. Grass now covers the plots from the first weeks of the rainy season and grain yields are decreasing. There is a crisis in slash and burn cultivation of maize today. But what kind of crisis is it?

32Forage grasses were introduced from 1960 onwards and sown on all burned fields bearing maize. Arable pasture is sown at the same time as the maize or even a few days before. The new arable pasture lasts for several years (3 to 6) when the maize has been harvested before gradually reverting to shrub fallow. All farmers now use herbicide but this is not specific and only kills dicotelydon weeds. The fact that the product used does not kill grass means that the arable pasture combined with maize is now as important as the latter. Finally, application of Chemical fertilizers became more frequent from 1970 onwards. Far from halting the downward spiral of maize yields, fertilizer (ammonium sulphate) is more profitable for the associated forage grass.

33More than the pressure of population on the ecosystem (the population is still less than 10 persons per sq. km), the new maize-arable pasture-fallow combination/sequence and the use of new means of production (herbicides and fertilizer) cause a shortening the forest regrowth period. The development of arable pasture causes graduai savannisation of the ecosystem followed by a decrease in the amount of land suitable for growing maize. The pasture delays regenerative growth and the use of herbicides and fertilizer is making it possible to clear younger and younger fallow growth. Forest was central to the slash and burn cultivation System and the basis of its effectiveness. It now serves no purpose. It is felled so that forage can be grown. Grass used to be the major enemy of crops and is now the main object. Every effort is made to help it to grow instead of controlling it.

34The forage capacity of the new maize-arable pasture-fallow rotation is greater than that of the former rotation in which fallow and forest formed nine-tenths of the cycle. However, the quantity and quality of the forage available at the end of the dry season - the criticai period - have not improved. Crop residues (maize straw and chick pea haulm) are a decreasing forage resource and forage tree resources are reduced by deforestation. It can be seen that in all the holdings where extensive animal husbandry is replacing grain production the total forage capacity of the rancho does not increase but the number of forage units (FU) per worker does. This increase in labour productivity is accompanied by the departure of many sharecroppers as a resuit of the crisis in animal draught cultivation, the increased area under grass and deterioration caused by the cultivation conditions of the slash and burn maize crop.

35Only sharecroppers and small tenant farmers are affected by the maize crisis since the crop is difficult to sell profitably on the market and is no longer of much interest to landowners. The sharecroppers have the task of establishing arable pasture but do not gain greater grazing rights and draw no benefit at all from the fodder produced. Some manage to acquire the whole grain harvest but in this case must finance the crop entirely. In contrast, no concessions are obtained for animal husbandry, the only activity likely to produce some cash income. Whereas extra work by sharecroppers was taken in the form of maize and turned into lard by the landowners, the establishment of arable pasture now draws rent from the land.

36Maintenance of pasture has a high labour cost for large cattle breeders and it is much more profitable to let it lie fallow and then establish new pasture several years later. This costs nothing and slash and burn cultivation is by far the most economical method and has the highest labour productivity.

37Large cattle breeders are thus not concerned with intensifying their forage System since the productivity of extensive breeding, which requires little labour, is three times as high as that achieved by small tenant farmers. In contrast, the latters’holdings are too small and they are obliged to intensify to a maximum to compensate for this. Even though animal husbandry is for many an essential activity and the main source of monetary income, balance is always sought between the area under grass and that used for grain crops. Intensification is the only way in which small producers can increase their incomes, but few have the means to make the necessary improvements. Any kind of accumulation seems to be impossible for most of them and there is a tendency for the farm capital to be used up gradually (degradation without replacement) to ensure that minimum family survival requirements.

38Since they are prevented from increasing their capital and from increasing the productivity of their labour, many sharecroppers and small tenant farmers choose to emigrate once again since the struggle for better land distribution is failing and not enough jobs are available in the region (forestry and mining) for all the former sharecroppers. The cultivation and trafficking of drug plants (cannabis, opium poppies) is reserved for large landowners or farmers with good protection and is not an alternative open to small farmers.


39Formerly a migrants’destination for farmers from the centre of the country, Sierra de Coalcomán became a source of migrants from 1960 onwards. Many left for the United States either permanently or on a seasonal basis. Others were drawn by the large irrigated perimeters in the neighbouring state of Colima.

40However, the outstanding feature of the new population movement is emigration to the Indian community land on the Pacific slope of the Sierra. It is a continuation of the slow peasant migration which started in central Mexico two hundred years ago. The agrarian changes in the ranchos in Sierra de Coalcomán and the new regional specialisation (extensive breeding of store cattle) have led to a sudden return to the taking of community land. After the abandoning of arable land and faced with the progressive savannisation of the ecosystem, many sharecroppers and small tenant farmers prefer to try their luck in an area where land is still free and not covered with forage grasses.

41In a period of a few years, a large proportion of the land which still belongs to the Indian communities along the coast has been occupied illegally and fenced by these farmers from Coalcomán. The new arrivais soon specialised in breeding young cattle, profiting from their control of enclosed land and considerable access to forest rangeland which is still unfenced but rich in forage trees.

42The small margin of accumulation of sharecroppers from Coalcomán and cash earned from the sale of a small plot of land or a few head of cattle is enough to buy several rolls of barbed wire. This has become the most important means of production, representing the accumulation gap between the cattle farmers and Indian farmers and is the basis for the widening of this gap. The labour productivity of the small cattle farmers who enclose part of the community land is twice as high as that of Indian farmers, whose farming system is still based on slash and burn maize cultivation and common land. The labour productivity of the small cattle farmers is also greater than that of small tenant farmers and sharecroppers in Coalcomán. The difference is accounted for rush to appropriate a plot of “free” Indian community land. The dynamism of the progressive alienation of the Indian communities is based on pre-existing differences in accumulation and on the productivity differential which they help to create.

43The Indian farmers do not possess the capital required to practice enclosure and are pushed towards the coast; they are obliged to adapt their farming System to a decrease in accessible land and less favourable climatic conditions. Many seek to survive through other activities and the distribution of subsidised maize by the authorities is encouraging them to abandon food crops.

44Accumulation for some and crisis and impoverishment for others are the two contradictory facets of a single “development” process - that of extensive animal husbandry and the production of store cattle. The same general regional specialisation trend is causing the “extensification” of animal husbandry in the ranchos in Sierra de Coalcomán, invasion of the community rangeland belonging to the Indian communities in the coastal region and the resulting marginalisation of farmers who are incapable of completing these changes.

© IRD Éditions, 1993

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