The Mexican ejido and the second and third deaths of Emiliano Zapata.”

The ejido, a communal land system, is a distinctive part of Mexican history. Ejido lands were traditionally the lands surrounding native villages. Until the early 20th century, ejido lands increasingly came under the control of the formerly Spanish oligarchy and owners of the large estates, known as latifundios.

Major changes came in the 1930s under President Lazaro Cárdenas. Along with the nationalization of the petroleum industry, now known as Pemex, and the creation of a national labor union, millions of hectares of land were redistributed to Mexican peasants under the ejido system.

Emiliano Zapata’s battle cry, “The land belongs to the people who work it,” was the anthem of the ejido movement. Farmers who I recently talked to still quote the words of Zapata when referring the ejido system.

By the 1990s Mexico’s 28,000 ejidos accounted for half of the national territory, albeit consistently the worse half.

Over the five decades since their inception however, the ejido system became deeply corrupt. Much of ejido land ended up, once again, under the control of the oligarchy and latifundistas.

Eduardo Galeano, in his classic book of the 1970’s, The Open Veins of Latin America, about the exploitation of Latin America by oligarchical and European powers, called the corruption of the ejido system “the second death of Emiliano Zapata”, who was betrayed while pursuing a truce and killed.

In the early 1990’s, under the infamously corrupt (for his involvement in the drug trade) presidency of Carlos Salinas, the process of privatization of ejido lands began and continues today.

Forest and water rights, while in the past simply sold illegally under the pre-1990s system, are now being sold legally under the privatization process. Bill Weinberg, in his densely informative 2000 book Homage to Chiapas, calls the privatization of the ejidos “Zapata’s third death” – it being simply the legalization of a corrupt process.

Under the privatization of ejido lands, small farmers, if they end up with any land, have often sold their land for pennies on the dollar.

Working hand and hand with this process has been NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and the market-driven fall in corn prices – the crop that traditionally has been the backbone of the Mexican small farmer. (Actually it is difficult to call the fall in Mexican corn prices market-driven, since it is cheap corn from heavily subsidized US farmers that is responsible for the low prices.)

It is estimated that six million farmers will have sold or abandoned their ejido land and fled to the already overcrowded cities as part of the NAFTA process.