25 March 2010

Following Up the Shanty Town

I promised to return with further facts concerning that abandoned shanty town near Mineral de Pozos that we visited on February 8. In the interest of following through, here are some additional refinements to the story.

The whole situation grew out of the ejido system of land reform that was in place in Mexico during the middle part of the 20th Century. I will briefly explain. For the odd couple of people who are interested in more information, I refer you to that Wikipedia article.

Mexico celebrates a centennial and a bicentennial this year. This is the bicentennial year of the declaration of independence from Spain in 1810. This is the centennial year of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. (The wars resulting in both cases lasted about 10 years, but these are the years officially celebrated to mark the events.) As in the rest of Latin America, the central problem here has always been concentration of wealth in the very few—historically, the landowners. The motto of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 was Libertad y Tierra, “Liberty and Land.”

After many false starts following the Revolution, the celebrated president Lázaro Cárdenas took office in 1934 and initiated the ejido system of land reform. This is the same Cárdenas, by the way, who expropriated the oil industry in Mexico from foreign ownership with compensation.

In this case land was expropriated from the owners of large tracts and made available to small farmers through a kind of homesteading system. The small “homesteading” farmer, or ejidatario, did not become an owner of his tract. The government owned the tract. But the ejidatario could use the tract in perpetuity so long as he did not abandon it for more than two years running. Ultimately, the ejido system was abolished in 1991.

The tract on which that shanty town is located is expropriated ejido land still owned by the government. It had been abandoned by everybody for the obvious reason that it is absolutely barren, the soil riddled with shards of rock. A descendant of the original large landowner got the idea that he was entitled to claim this particular land back from the government. The government denied his claim. Whereupon, he become angry and in effect said, “Okay, if you want homesteaders, I will provide you with homesteaders.”

At that point the man bought advertizing on the radio in all the larger cities nearby, San Luis Potosí Guanajuato, Leon, Querétaro, and more, announcing that free land was available on this tract. They came in droves. Local notarios made money from these people by drawing up “documentation” of their claims. After a lot of confusion, the government finally expelled them from this government land.

The result is this bizarre and haunting landscape that I have tried to show you in photographs.


Stagg said...

The pictures are breath-taking!!!!!


Bloggerboy said...

Thanks for the follow-up, Steve. I'm one of the "odd couple". The fake sale still indicates that there is a lot of pent-up demand for land, even if it is barren.

The ejido sounds a lot like the commons in European villages that were in use even in the 20th century for grazing livestock. Each farmer paid the shepherd a fee to watch his stock, and the commons were the primary grazing lands.

My inner do-gooder thinks that there is a project in there for an organization like Habitat for Humanity, assuming of course that there is sufficient demand and a decent plan that has a realistic chance of functioning. A lot of ifs. Something for you if you get bored?

Señor Steve said...

Bloggerboy, the general meaning of the word “ejido” is commons. You are right on target with this comparison.

As a matter of fact, I do intend to do something myself. I am giving it a lot of thought. It will be something to do with children, if nothing more than initially getting blankets to them for the months of January and February. I now personally have an appreciation of the need for that. This past winter was extraordinarily difficult in these parts.

There is a community of about 10,000 expatriates here, mostly American and Canadian but certainly not all. As much as I bitch about them, there are many active charitable groups among them. They do much good in this area.

There is an implacable fatalism inculcated in the adult poor that is very discouraging to encounter. The wealthier Mexicans are not big on charities because in their view it accomplishes nothing. In a very real sense they are right.