In 1992 the Mexican government under President Carlos Salinas de Gortari enacted a new agrarian law that reversed several key provisions of Article 27 of the Constitution of 1917. In keeping with the Salinas administration’s broader program of liberalizing markets and opening trade, the law ended the government’s formal obligation to distribute land to the peasantry and to maintain production guarantees on basic grains for land recipients. Under the old ejido system, regional or village-based groups held inalienable use-rights to parcels of land, which they farmed collectively or individually. The laws enacted in 1992 permitted ejidatarios to privatize and sell land and to enter into a variety of partnerships with the private sector; they also facilitated the efforts of ejidatarios to make improvements on their lands.

Much of the public debate over the Article 27 reforms, however, reduced the discussion to a simple dichotomy between privatization and state ownership. It failed to consider how peasants themselves would perceive the reforms in relation to de facto local arrangements and how the legal reforms would interact with multiple other forces, such as immigration, urban expansion, and external trade dynamics. The 18-chapter volume edited by Wayne Cornelius and David Myhre, The Transformation of Rural Mexico, the product of the multiyear Ejido Reform Research Project of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego, provides a welcome corrective to earlier debates about the Article 27 reforms. Presenting recent data and case study research by 26 noted scholars of Mexico, the authors argue that while the impact of Article 27 reforms may be potentially significant in the long run, the results are in fact slower moving and more regionally heterogeneous than most on both sides of the policy debate predicted.

The volume’s breadth and lucidity make it useful reading for scholars of Mexican rural sociology and for analysts of the political economy of free-market transition — particularly those with an interest in sectoral analysis. However, considering the converging themes and complementary findings that are expressed throughout the volume, it is surprising that the book contains no concluding chapter. Together, the chapters do in fact suggest three strong arguments about the ejido system. First, all authors seem to argue that as a whole the ejido sector is deeply troubled, both financially and politically. Despite bright spots and innovative market experiments (examples are mentioned in chapters by Luin Goldring, Carol Zabin, and Robin Marsh and David Runsten), smallholders remain tremendously vulnerable to volatile interest rates and dwindling production capital (see chapters by Myhre, Kirsten Appendini, Lois Stanford, Scott Whiteford et al., and Billie DeWalt). Farmers also lose income due to corruption and financial malfeasance (see chapters by Stanford, and Gareth Jones and Peter Ward). Violence also takes its toll on ejidatarios, as Neil Harvey’s chapter on Chiapas attests. A second conclusion suggested by the volume’s contributors is that the Article 27 reforms are unlikely to produce immediate results in many localities because many ejidatarios, if not a majority, have treated their lands as semiprivate assets for a long time. Bypassing absurdly inefficient bureaucratic hurdles, hundreds of thousands of ejidatarios have routinely sold, bought, traded, and rented ejido lands. Chapters by Helga Baintenmann and Wayne Cornelius, for example, point to instances in which children, spouses, and extended family have taken over production from original land recipients without transferring use-rights on paper, or in which ejidatarios have migrated and abandoned their lands entirely. In these instances, ejidos may continue functioning and governing themselves in a fashion, but not on the terms envisioned by the central government. The third conclusion suggested by the essays in this volume is that while the Article 27 reforms have not yet produced strong aggregate demographic or market trends, in the long run the reforms likely will affect millions of smallholders by accelerating attendant economic processes such as urban development and the restructuring of financial markets. Emphasis on lucrative but resource-hungry export crops may also contaminate or deplete water tables, or accelerate soil erosion (see chapters by Runsten and Marsh, and Whiteford et al.). Significantly, nearly all the authors who undertook local case studies indicate that shifts in property regimes also stand to reignite long-standing feuds over land, waterways, and forest commons. These three broad arguments illustrate the necessity of examining policy and practice at local levels in order to understand the potential impact of sweeping market-based reforms at a national level.