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Mexico has a glorious history. Its great civilisations have left spectacular pyramids and archaeological sites all over the country. When the Spanish conquerors arrived, they systematically stamped out the culture they found, but much of Mexico's glorious past is still reflected in the way Mexicans think and are today. They show a talent for grand plans and designs, manifested in many large modern buildings, some of them of great originality and beauty. Mexican aspirations for a return to greatness also show in imaginative and large scale development programmes.

On the other hand, the country seems to be continually thwarted in its aspiration, leading to a sense of disillusion among the people. In the first place, the Spanish conquest, and the centuries of cultural domination that followed, bred diffidence and prejudices similar to those produced by colonial rule in many countries. Furthermore, the dominance of Mexico's large and rich neighbour to the north has also had a deep impact on the way Mexicans view themselves and the world. The economic realities they have been forced to tolerate during the last 15 years have added notably to the disillusion.

From 1955 to the 1970s, Mexico's growth was based on an internal development model that protected the economy by restricting imports. It also maintained an overvalued currency in order to lower the costs of the capital goods and inputs that were required for industry. Inflation was low, and so was the country's external debt. However, this semi-closed economy lacked dynamism, and it was not competitive in international markets. Exports were therefore weak while imports of capital goods increased until, by the 1970s, the country had a chronic balance of payments deficit.

In those same years, as a result of the "oil-shock" and the enormous price increases achieved by OPEC, petro-dollars were flooding the world's financial markets. With banks in many industrialised countries desperate to place these funds, Mexico borrowed heavily. This was the beginning of the dramatic growth in its external debt. It went from US$15 000 million in 1975 to US$70 000 million by 1981.

The discovery of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, and the bonanza it brought in the years 1978-1981, raised hopes of major economic improvements. But despite the oil -or in some cases perhaps because of it - the country has suffered a series of economic crises in the last 15 years.

The first major crisis was in the years 1982-1983. During the heady period of high oil revenues, which made up 70 percent of all export earnings, the Government relied entirely on those revenues to finance its internal and external debt costs. It did not try to help meet the costs by fiscal measures such as higher taxes.

This reliance on oil revenues proved disastrous because, in 1982, oil prices dropped sharply. At about the same time, there was also a steep increase in global interest rates which, of course, increased the cost of debt servicing. Furthermore, and to add to the problems, government spending had been rising rapidly: the public sector deficit, which had always been less than 5 percent of GDP in the 1970s, had reached a record of 14 percent of GDP in 1982. A major economic crisis hit the country. Inflation, which had always been below 15 percent per annum in the 1970s, rose to 59 percent in 1982, and 102 percent in the following year.

An economic stabilization programme was introduced in 1983 with draconian fiscal measures to curb the deficits in public expenditure and in the trade balance, and also to reduce inflation. Some success was achieved, but at the cost of depressing economic growth.

Servicing its external debt was still strangling the country when, in September 1985, an earthquake devastated Mexico City. The effects and the reconstruction are estimated to have cost 2 percent of GDP. As if that were not disastrous enough, in 1986 oil prices plunged again. This new crisis led to support from the International Monetary Fund for a structural adjustment programme to reduce government spending. More draconian measures were introduced. There was a drop in GDP in 1986 of no less than 3.8 percent. Inflation, which had been brought partly under control after 1983, soared again, reaching 86 percent in 1986 and 132 percent in 1987.

When President Salinas de Gortari took office in 1988, one of his publicly declared objectives was to return the people to the living standards they had enjoyed in 1979. However, in 1992, low and medium income families were still earning 19 percent less in real terms than they had been ten years earlier.

Mexicans were left profoundly disappointed and embittered by the economic events in their country during the so-called "lost decade" of the 1980s. But Mexican suffering did not end with that decade: on 20 December 1994, the sudden and forced devaluation of the Mexican Peso to less than half of its previous value against the US dollar triggered yet another deep crisis.

As one Mexican summed it up, "The whole issue of the North American Free Trade Area and the Government's pronouncements had led us to believe that our country was entering the First World, on a par with its new free-trade partners, Canada and the United States. And just when we were confident that all was well, that new horizons of opportunity and prosperity finally lay ahead, the sky fell in on us!"

This last economic crisis, still in course at the time of writing, is the most serious of all that have occurred in recent decades. In addition, the country is trying to adjust to the new circumstances of an open economy and the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA). This is particularly hard on the agricultural sector and on rural people, as we shall see.

The gravity of the economic situation in the last IS years has had a profound negative impact on all agricultural and rural development activities. The rural communication experiences described in this case study must be seen against this sombre backdrop.


Another aspect of Mexico's greatness, and far more recent than the glories of the Mayans, Aztecs and the other peoples of the pre-Colombian period, was the Mexican Revolution. It was the first popular uprising in Latin America against the vast landowners and others of enormous wealth who dominated and oppressed the poor. Beginning in 1910 with the relatively simple objective of ousting President Porfirio Dray, the Revolution turned into a long and often bloody saga of social and economic upheaval. It lasted until the 1940s when its objectives were institutionalised as the basis of future national policy.

Land reform was a main thrust of the Revolution, and the peasantry took an active part throughout. Peasant leaders such as Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa became national heroes. In the 1920s and 1930s there was a drive to distribute land, most of it resulting from the expropriation of the large holdings of the oligarchy.

The legal form adopted for the distribution of land was the ejido. This traditional system, which goes back to pre-Colombian times, provides for common ownership of land but grants individuals usufruct rights on plots assigned to them. Until recently, these rights could not legally be divided, ceded, or leased to others. However, they could be passed on through inheritance. Normally, a member of an ejido will have a plot of 10 hectares of irrigated land, or 20 hectares of rainfed land. There are some 27 000 ejidos in Mexico grouping about 3.5 million farm families.

An ejido is, in effect, a community of farming families. They may live in a single village and the land on which each house is built forms part of that family's ejido rights. On land settled in recent decades under the ejido system, the tendency has been to create new villages of several thousand people. In such a new village there may be a number of ejidos, each with their blocks of land - divided into individual plots - located in the surrounding countryside.

An ejido will typically have a number of internal committees to deal with matters such as health, women's affairs, drinking water, and other social issues.

A group of ejidos may join together to form a second-level association known as a Union de Ejidos. A Union will often provide services to its member ejidos, such as storing and marketing of grain, supply of farm inputs and the like.

Mexico also has legislation determining the amount of land an individual can hold. Fifty hectares of irrigated land is the legal limit for one person, but this has little effect in practice. Over the years, individuals have put their holdings in the name of family members or other nominees. Thus, in the irrigated areas of the states of Sinaloa and Sonora in the north, farms of many hundreds, or even thousands, of hectares are common. In the rainfed areas of the tropics, large ranches of many thousands of hectares exist.

In general, the ejido system embraces peasants in the poorer areas. Many of them are subsistence farmers. The richer irrigated areas are mainly in the hands of individual commercial farmers.


Since the Revolution, and their active role in it, peasants have enjoyed a special place in Mexican society. For many decades, Government intervention in markets kept prices favourably high for farmers. In 1982, subsidies represented about 22 percent of the value of agricultural produce. Then, owing to economic crises, and to structural adjustment programmes that began to open the Mexican economy, the agricultural sector came under serious pressure. Real prices of farm produce dropped dramatically.

For example, from 1980 to 1988 the national index of consumer prices rose 9 800 percent. During that same period, guaranteed prices to farmers for their produce rose only 6 380 percent: a loss to farmers in real terms of about a third. The situation was even more dramatic, if one takes into account the cost of farm inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides: in that same period they rose over 11 000 percent.

This pressure on the agricultural sector has continued since 1988. A factor in this was the fixing of prices for a basic basket of foodstuffs for most of the six years of Salinas de Gortari's presidency. This measure, introduced to keep urban people content - for that is where the political power base lies in all countries - was disastrous for farmers. Faced with high inflation, very high interest rates on their loans, and soaring input costs, many were bankrupted.

Just one example is of an ejido in the tropical wetlands inland from Tampico. After a participatory diagnosis and planning process in the late 1980s, the farmers launched a livestock initiative with credit from a bank. It went well initially, but, while interest payments and input costs rose, fixed prices for the meat they sold ultimately caused them to default on the loan. The bank repossessed the capital equipment and livestock and the peasants were all left with a personal debt, which forced them to seek work away their ejido. Many larger farmers were also put out of business by the fixed price for the basket of foodstuffs.

Another factor in the pressure on agriculture has been the reduction in public investment in the sector; in terms of constant 1980 Pesos, it dropped by 74 percent between 1981 and 1989. Furthermore, by the mid-199Os, industrialised countries on average were still subsidising agricultural produce by more than 30 percent of its value, whereas Mexico was subsidising its by less than 4 percent of its value.


Mexico is in a state of transition. As is well known, the World Bank and other international lending institutions are strongly promoting 'the market' as the driving force for efficiency, modernisation and development.

Chile and the success of its agricultural sector in the last decade or so has been held up as a model to many countries, including Mexico. Indeed, Chile's production of food for home consumption and for export has increased dramatically, especially since the mid 1980s, under policies instigated by the government of General Augusto Pinochet.

One of the main factors in the resurgence of Chilean agriculture was new legislation that permitted the sale of land by about 40 000 small farmers who had received it under agrarian reform programmes between 1964 and 1973. At the same time, the earlier maximum limit of 80 hectares under irrigation that any single farming enterprise could operate was dropped. Furthermore, the labour market was opened up by removing legislation that had helped to protect workers.

Additional factors in the resurgence of Chilean agriculture were fiscal and tariff policies that created highly competitive conditions for farmers and in which smallholders were at a disadvantage. The combined result of the new legislation and fiscal polices was to force many small farmers to sell their land, and to enter the rural labour market or migrate to the cities. At the same time, the lack of legal protection for workers resulted in a significant reduction in farm wages. This gave Chile a comparative advantage over other countries producing similar export crops, particularly labour-intensive ones such as fruit. Clearly, however, Chile's recent successes in agriculture, based on larger and more "modern" farms and cheap labour, have had high social costs.

Mexico is applying similar policies as those used in Chile. Essentially, the ejido sector and other small producers are seen as inefficient and they will have to be sacrificed on the altar of "modernisation". The objective is a large-scale restructuring of the rural sector.

As early as 1985, the Mexican Government began opening its economy. It progressively began to remove the import licenses that had been protecting 780 different agricultural products. By 1990, only 33 products required import licenses, and imports of major commodities also produced in Mexico, such as sorghum, rice and oilseeds, were free.

The implementation of NAFTA is aggravating the situation further. Its impact on agriculture in Mexico has been devastating, especially in respect of basic grains which Canada and the United States can produce more cheaply than Mexico. For example, it is impossible for Mexican wheat, which must be grown under irrigation, to compete with rainfed wheat from the Canadian prairies.

The impact of NAFTA on Mexican agriculture is so important that the Government asked the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) to help carry out a macro-economic study of its implications over the next 15 years. This two-year study was completed in 1995, and it produced some startling findings. An area of some 7.8 million hectares of irrigated and non-irrigated crop land was surveyed, and it was found that on about 30 percent of this area, the production was not economically viable. In other words, the costs of production were not being covered by the sale of the produce. The study also showed that on no less than 70 percent of the land, production was not competitive in terms of international market prices.

As part of its plan to transform its agriculture, the Government of Mexico took a radical and controversial step in 1992. It modified Article 27 of the National Constitution, which concerns land tenure. Under the new provisions, ejido members are being given formal title to their plots and are then permitted to sell them. Essentially, the new Article opens the door for the replacement of the ejido system by much larger farms, even by agro-businesses.

The intention is to achieve the same sort of agrarian reform in reverse as that achieved in Chile. Its critics consider the possible social costs of such a step. Indeed, with about 28 percent of Mexico's people still living in rural areas, and with the number of poor people in these areas having grown from 14.2 million to 18.9 million between 1984 and 15~92, there could be major social impact. The economic circumstances of neo-liberalism and NAFTA may well force ejido members and other smallholders off their land in the coming years. In Mexico in 1995, there was talk of looking after small farmers under poverty reduction programmes in the future.

To counter some of the negative effects of this situation on farmers, the Government launched a 15-year programme called PROCAMPO. This programme pays a fixed subsidy to farmers of New Pesos 300 (about US$50 in October 1995) for every hectare they plant (it increases to New Pesos 900 per hectare for cotton because of its high production costs). The purpose of PROCAMPO is to help farmers adjust to the new circumstances brought about by NAFTA and neo-liberalism.

Even if farmers in many other countries of Latin America are also struggling to adjust to neo-liberal policies, the opening of markets, and reductions in government support, the situation of Mexican farmers appears exceptionally difficult.


Mexico has unique physical characteristics. Much of the country lies in the great desert belt of the earth and almost half of it receives less than 600 mm of rainfall a year. At the other extreme, much of the rest of the country, especially in the tropical areas near the coasts, receives excessive rainfall which averages 1 700 mm a year, but exceeds 2 000 mm in many places.

Between 1950 and 1967, agricultural production increased at an annual rate of about 6 percent, more than keeping pace with population growth. However, by the 1970s, annual increases in production were down to 1 percent, less than the rate of population growth. For many years, Mexico had been self-sufficient in food, but in the 1970s, it was forced to begin grain imports, and these have grown steadily ever since. In the decade of the 1980s, agricultural production declined by 1.2 percent per annum.

Until the 1970s, Mexico's agricultural development hinged on increasing and improving irrigated farming. Vast investment went into this sector, and today the country has about 6 million hectares under irrigation. Of this area, about 3.2 million hectares are in 78 so-called distritos de riego (irrigation districts). These were state-built irrigation schemes, and until recently they were also managed and run by the State. The process of transferring their management and operation to their users started in 1989 and was expected to finish in 1996. It has been an operation of a magnitude unprecedented anywhere in the world. As we shall see, it involved major communication efforts.

The remaining irrigated area in Mexico consists of smaller schemes, known as unidades de riego (irrigation units) which, even if built by the Government, or with government assistance, have been managed by their users since their inception.

After many decades of concentrating its efforts in the irrigated areas, in the 1960s the Government began to look seriously towards the rainfed areas, which make up about 75 percent of all cultivated land. In particular, the tropical wetlands of the coastal plains seemed to offer unique opportunities for a new agricultural frontier. They had been ignored for decades and as a result were given over mainly to extensive and inefficient livestock production. Yet, these lands were rated as being of medium to high potential. To begin to develop them, as opposed to making further investment in irrigation, would represent a major change in government policy.

There were many reasons for the relative lack of development in the tropical wetlands until that time. Firstly, there were physical problems such as frequent flooding during the rainy season, droughts during the dry season, and few access roads into the vast areas of scrub and forest. In addition, there was almost no technical support for production in terms of extension or credit or other inputs. And this was all in a socio-economic context of conflicts over land tenure, as well as widespread resistance among the local population to organize themselves, to adopt technical innovations, or to accept outside interventions.

However, development costs were a central consideration for the Government; it would be much cheaper to install drainage, roads? and other infrastructure in the tropical wetlands than to build or expand irrigation schemes, which had been the priority in the past.


It was in the above policy context that one of the largest agro-industrial projects ever implemented in the tropical wetlands of Latin America was born in the mid1960s. Known as Plan la Chontalpa, it was located in the State of Tabasco. The objective of the project was to drain an area of 83 000 hectares, build dikes, roads and bridges, and settle rural families with all the services they needed. Machinery, credit, inputs, and technical assistance to the farmers were foreseen.

As part of the plan, 60 000 hectares of land were deforested and expropriated to create new ejidos that would incorporate numerous families under a collective farming system. Existing ejidos were also reorganised as collective production units. Uniones de Ejidos were established.

The project achieved notable success in the creation of infrastructure. It built 1 200 km of drains, 600 km of roads, 70 bridges, and installed 85 deep wells. It also built 22 new villages to accommodate 4 400 families, and provided them with schools, health clinics, and processing plants for basic agricultural produce.

Unfortunately, the same success was not achieved on the human level. In effect, Plan la Chontalpa was a massive "top-down" intervention for which there was no prior consultation or agreement with its beneficiaries. All the decisions were taken by the authorities. The strategy of collectivizing production, in the belief that this would lead to greater efficiency and better use of capital and technology, met with resistance. The local population never identified with the project.

As one Mexican described the situation, "To try to involve the peasants more, government officials were constantly telling them that the infrastructure belonged to them. So a peasant, looking at a house built by the project, would ask if it was really his. He would be assured that it was, and so the next night he would remove the roofing material and take it back to improve his old house!"

A more formal description appears in a document produced by the Secretariat for Agriculture and Water Resources (SARH) in 1984: "The extensive infrastructure of the project ... shows serious levels of under-utilization, failure to maintain the works, failure to install drainage in individual plots, and inadequate use of wells, irrigation equipment, and soils. The lack of effective mechanisms for participation of the beneficiaries has been an important cause of this situation."


By the mid-1970s, and despite the negative experience of Plan La Chontalpa, attention was again focused on the tropical wetlands. The country needed to increase its agricultural output, and the 46 million hectares, which equate to 23 percent of Mexico's total area, could not continue to be left out of the nation's development.

In 1975, the country's first Plan Nacional Hidraulico (National Water Plan) was drawn up. This was the starting point for a new approach that took into account the multiple and often competitive uses of water. It had direct implications for the tropical wetlands. The Plan stressed the opportunities for obtaining the extra food production needed by the fast-growing population through tapping the potential of the coastal plains in the tropics.

However, the expensive lesson of Plan la Chontalpa had been well learned. The Secretariat for Agriculture and Water Resources (SARH) decided that development in the tropical wetlands would be planned and executed with the participation of the local people. The identification of the physical, technical, and socio-economic problems would need to be followed by proposals for their solution that were fully appropriate for the communities, and agreed to by them. These proposals would have to take into account the peasants' capacity to respond, and they would also have to be set within the reality of available resources. Furthermore, it would be fundamental to promote better social organisation among the population as a means of overcoming conflictual situations and to promote development through participatory actions. But none of this could be achieved without a communication process, or a dialogue, with the peasants at all stages


The tropical wetlands are a world of paradoxes. Backwardness, illiteracy, malnutrition, disease, and extreme poverty co-exist alongside a wealth of natural resources. These include forests, abundant water resulting from the high rainfall, land of medium to high potential, and most of the nation's oil and gas deposits.

The local effects of the petroleum industry have been generally negative for agriculture. Construction and pollution have often affected the ecology, and the economic growth in the industrial and commercial sectors has raised living costs and reduced the availability of farm labour.

One of the most serious problems in the coastal plains is the ecological degradation caused by excessive demographic pressure on the resources. Shifting cultivation was the norm in the past, and as long as the cycle that brought a farmer back to the same plot was long enough to allow the soil to rest and to recover its fertility, there were no serious problems. In fact, there was a fair balance between man and the environment.

However, in recent decades, large areas of land have been given over to livestock production, reducing the area available for agriculture. This, combined with population growth, has reduced the time cycle of shifting cultivation in many areas, causing serious problems of erosion and loss of soil fertility.

The violence and quantity of the rains cause run-off and erosion of unprotected land, as well as flooding, saturation and compaction of the soils. As a consequence, agriculture cannot succeed without good drainage systems. But, while the high rainfall creates problems for agriculture, it also offers opportunities for pisciculture.

The agricultural communities living in the area have been undergoing a continuing process of impoverishment. At the beginning of the 1980s, 90 percent of the economically active population in the rural areas was earning less than the country's legal minimum salary, and 52 percent of farming families were operating at below subsistence level

The illiteracy level was among the highest in the country, reaching 32 percent of the adult population. Living conditions were precarious: less than half of rural houses had piped drinking water; only 30 percent were connected to a drainage system; and 44 percent had no electricity.

Malnutrition was common, with calorie consumption below that established by international norms as necessary for full health.

The people in the area are characterised by ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity. In effect, 60 percent of the indigenous people of Mexico live in these areas, and not all of them speak Spanish. The communities usually organize their economic and productive lives through a family structure based on selfsuff~ciency.

The human, economic, and physical problems in the tropical wetlands present a major development challenge. Mexico's acceptance of that challenge and its efforts, in exceedingly difficult economic circumstances, are noteworthy. How the problems were tackled by two World Bank-supported projects, and the use made of communication in those projects, are equally noteworthy.

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