Land, labor, water. Few variables, if any, have been more important in shaping the history of humankind than these three. Their management in the name of modernization and development is something governments in the past one hundred years or so have undertaken with more or less skill and success, always benefiting some people and harming others. The regional variations in these efforts are numerous and complex, but patterns can be found, albeit through a difficult process of analysis, comparison, and synthesis.
This book, a product of a 1991 symposium of the same name organized by the Universidad Iberoamericana and El Colegio Mexiquense (Zinacantepec), unfortunately makes no attempt at synthesis. The idea behind the meeting, according to the prologue, “was to bring together scholars working on one or more of these themes—hydraulic systems, modernization of agriculture, and/or migration—in different countries” (p. 9). This rather vague organizing principle (“alguno o varios”) is useful, even necessary, when planning a scholarly meeting and casting a large net for relevant researchers, but less efficient for a book. All the papers are interesting or important, but they have not been fitted together very coherently, and that is a shame.
The contributors discuss some very important issues based on solid case studies. The editors could and should have assisted readers by pointing out tentative points of agreement or consensus on such issues as the politics of land, labor, and water; regional (river-basin) planning and economic growth; or the commercialization of agriculture and social well-being. Rather than grapple with these problems, however, the editors and publisher simply provide what they call “a notable wealth of data” (p. 12).
Most of the 12 papers adopt a social anthropology approach and focus on contemporary Mexico. Yet the collection is also multinational (with papers on California, Spain, and France), comparative (studies on the Tennessee Valley Authority and Mexico’s regional development programs), and historical (two papers on the Porfiriato and one on the immediate postrevolutionary period). Most of the papers touch on developmental politics, but only one, “Resistencia y acción colectiva,” by Scott Whiteford, examines in detail how groups and communities in various regions struggle over water scarcity.
Juan Vicente Palerm’s essay on “capitalist agriculture in its most advanced phase,” meaning that of California (p. 45), is superb. Palerm demonstrates the government’s decisive role in providing California’s agribusiness (latifundios) with its two most crucial inputs: cheap water channeled from afar and cheap migrant labor, 90 percent of which comes from Mexico. Pedro Arrieta also singles out the role of government in his paper on agricultural “development” in Tabasco (under the Plan Chontalpa). Surely no region provides a greater contrast to California; yet Tabasco’s government planning had some similar consequences: large commercial interests benefited while campesinos and agricultural workers bore the costs of modernization. Whereas Californians were the main beneficiaries of the state’s agricultural development, in Tabasco “external beneficiaries,” such as national and international machinery manufacturers and retailers, Nestlé and the national sugar consortium, and bureaucrats and engineers on the government payroll, appear to have been the real winners.