The Owners of the Land: The Case of Mexico

To speak of Mexico’s natural heritage is to speak of ejidos. Up to 83% of Mexican biodiversity and more than two-thirds of the country's water are found in these lands.

 

Mexico, like most countries, is made up of private and public lands. However, our country is an interesting case because there really are very few public lands (federal and state)—less than 1%—and there is a third category that blurs the line between private and public lands. If we could talk about a land where social property is above private property, we are referring to a common land, known in Mexico as “ejido,” in which its community members have usufruct rights rather than ownership rights to that land. If you live or have travelled in Mexico, you have probably visited some of these ejidos—intentionally or unbeknownst—, perhaps on a trip to the beach or during a walk in the forest. More than half of Mexican territory is made up of ejidos and agrarian communities, which means that most of the forests, watersheds, mountains, and other land ecosystems and resources are owned by the people. Up to 83% of Mexican biodiversity and more than two-thirds of the country's water are found in these lands. 

 

Which leads us to the question: What are ejidos, and why are they so important?


 

The existence of collective lands dates to pre-Hispanic times (pre-Columbian era): at that time, according to the hierarchy and class stratification the Aztecs belonged to, they could have private property or collective land. This way, the Mexicas acquired more land for their monarch. The lands called tlatocalli were owned by the king and the pillali lands were divided between warriors and nobles. There were also extensions of communal land where the heads of families divided the lands to be able to cultivate them; they called them calpulli. The monarch had the power to grant or withdraw lands under his power (Chavez, 1997). Then Colonialism came, but during this period there was no radical change in the land distribution, since the indigenous people could not have their own land.

 

The ejido as we know it today is the result of the people demanding the return of the lands to the people who work them. Once Mexico achieved its independence in 1821, it did not focus on land regulation. It was not until 1856 that the "Ley Lerdo" provoked the fight for land distribution. In 1992 the agrarian distribution of the land was decreed finished.

 

The configuration of the ejidos can be contextualized with the following main characteristics:

It is understood that the ejido occupies an extensive area in Mexican geography.

It is considered to be a “farming core” created with quality production purposes to provide and guarantee food for the country.

It can be viewed as the farming core that sustains a community’s way of life, where families and producers are integrated, and more social activities take place.


The climate emergency that we experience today as a result of the excessive growth of industries cannot be detached from the use of land, both private and ejido, in the case of Mexico. There is no doubt that the greatest damage has been caused by industries that can easily acquire private properties and degrade the ecosystems that were originally found there. At a smaller scale, in many cases ejido lands have played an important role as part of the problem due to the conversion of forests and other ecosystems to agricultural lands. However, the ejidos are also part of the solution, since the majority of natural wealth is concentrated within them. The National Agrarian Registry (RAN) mentions that 29,793 ejidos were registered in Mexico during 2020, formed by more than 5.6 million people (mostly rural families) and representing 23% of the population, creating a sense of identity and belonging despite the limitations in agricultural development. Ironically, the most significant environmental impacts are seen in the agricultural sector due to the crops’ sensitivity to temperature changes, directly affecting the population (Fetzek, 2009). These lands are one of the fundamental pieces of the social and environmental structure of the country; ecosystems and collective lands have a direct relationship.

 

The FAO’s study "Socio-economic trends and outlook in Latin America: Implications for the forestry sector to 2020", indicates that in Mexico there are more than 64 million acres of forest and jungle; however, the country is close to the first place in deforestation worldwide. The concentration of natural resources in collective lands is immense and encompasses all ecosystems, that is why it is very important to implement environmental projects developing nature-based solutions (NbS). These refer to actions or policies that take nature as a model for addressing urgent issues such as droughts, deforestation, or climate change. For example, to address the problem of soil erosion (such as landslides that can affect villages or the sedimentation of water reservoirs), a nature-based solution could involve improving and restoring the area’s native vegetation to increase the soil’s permeability, allowing a better infiltration of rain. If the soil holds the water, it does not erode so easily.

 

The aim of these solutions is to protect, restore, and manage land in a socially and environmentally sustainable way, increasing resilience and the capacity to address the challenges that Earth faces.

 

Toroto develops different socio-environmental projects focused on mitigating environmental impacts, which are based on the participation of the ejidatarios or ejido-members in the selected areas. One of the on-going projects is the protection of the jungle of Chiapas, the Lacandon Jungle as it is popularly known, within the El Pirú ejido. This area is one of the last places in Mexico where there are still high evergreen forests along with the forest remnants of the Yucatan Peninsula, northern Guatemala, and Belize. Together, these areas make up the most important tropical forest mass in Mesoamerica, known as the Mayan Forest.

 

For years it has been threatened by various factors, such as changes in land use where deforestation occurs in order to clear land for extensive cattle grazing or palm plantations. Although government support has existed and continues to, as in the case of the Payments for Ecosystem Services (PSA) program of the National Forestry Commission of Mexico, too often it is not enough to dissuade rural communities from intensive cattle grazing, for example, which can reap more economic benefits in comparison.

 

The Lacandon Jungle protection project is directed to working hand in hand with the ejidatarios of the area so that they can have an economic alternative that does not damage the jungle, but quite the opposite. The first stage of the project involves an ejido that has a preserved forest area of ​​more than 2,000 hectares. It seeks to generate carbon credits through the conservation and restoration of the forest using NbS and environmental management plans that contemplate sustainable activities in addition to the carbon credits project. This type of project will not only promote the conservation of the existing forest, but will also increase the forest coverage of the ejidos involved.



Collaboration with these social groups is essential for sustainable development in Mexico. The role that ejidos play in land use, as well as the actions they may take in the future, become the key to great potential change in environmental mitigation. Due to the potential to boost the economy of these communities in a sustainable way, it is essential to develop long-term projects together with them, where these territories are used in a conscious and beneficial way for the ecosystems and for those who inhabit them.

 

Current responses to climate change must focus on inclusion and on reversing social and environmental vulnerability. We should concentrate on managing environmental adaptation and mitigation programs where actions can be articulated with policies that reduce environmental risks, but also broader economic and social policies, where it can be made easier to manage solutions to improve the system in which we operate.

 

Together we can search for solutions, and persist in finding them.

 

References

Chavez, M. (1997). El Derecho Agrario en México.México, D.F.: Porrua.

El Colegio de Jalisco. (2010). Desamortización y Laicismo.Zapopan, Jalisco: El Colegio de Jalisco.

Fetzek, S. (2009). Impactos relacionados con el clima en la seguridad Nacional de México y Centroamérica. Primer Informe. Instituto Real de Servicios Unidos-FUNDAECO. Gran Bretaña.

Rojo, J. M. (2020). Estudio de tendencias y perspectivas del sector forestal en América Latina al año 2020. FAO.

 

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