n November 1911, the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata solidified his agrarian ideology in the Plan de Ayala, a declaration calling for the protection of peasants' rights to land and liberty (Wolf 1969). Now in 2018, a coalition of peasant, indigenous, and Afro-Mexican organizations has put forward the Plan de Ayala Siglo XXI (21st Century Plan of Ayala), which renews this platform on peasants’ rights to resources, government entitlements, and political representation.

Though a century may separate these two declarations, there are strong parallels in the political context and material conditions in rural Mexico. In the early 20th century, the accumulation of agricultural land by a distinct class of large landholders sparked a revolution; similarly, today’s rural unrest stems from government policies that have predominantly benefited a small group of modernized, large-scale farms (Wolf 1969).

In this piece, I explore the utility of infrastructure as a heuristic for understanding the conditions within which peasant agriculture might thrive. Using the distinct demands within these two junctures in Mexican history, I seek to understand agrarian movements as a struggle over the “infrastructures of peasant farming”: in other words, the structural conditions necessary to enable the viability of peasant forms of agriculture. In presenting the agricultural system as built upon a historically distinct infrastructure, I aim to politicize the development of capitalist agricultural markets, while highlighting past and present struggles for control over the conditions that define peasant livelihoods.

Peasant Movements and the Agrarian Question

Both the Mexican Revolution and modern peasant movements can be understood as situated responses to the “agrarian question.” Kautsky (1899) framed the agrarian question as a political challenge, one of how to understand the changing nature of farming under capitalism. At a time when socialist theorists struggled to situate the countryside within leftist political movements, Kautsky thought the answer lay in a deeper understanding of “whether, and how, capital is seizing hold of agriculture, revolutionizing it, making old forms of production and property untenable and creating the necessity for new ones” (12).

The agrarian question is one of peasant politics; it is a useful way of understanding how the expansion of capitalism has transformed the nature of smallholder farming, just as peasant farmers have influenced the form that capitalism takes in the countryside. I propose that this struggle for a particular relationship between peasant farming and capital can be understood as a political process of constituting an agricultural infrastructure.

Infrastructure is understood here as the material and social configurations required to organize “both market and society” (Larkin 2013: 328). Capitalist agricultural markets for instance, have been constructed through the legal recognition of private property, state supports for agricultural industrialization, and a network of international trade agreements. This modernizing approach to agriculture has served to depoliticize relationships between the market and peasant farmers, offering only technocratic and technology-based solutions to better integrate smallholders into said markets. On the other hand, peasant movements reassert the political nature of food provisioning, by demanding their rights to define the conditions under which peasant agriculture could thrive: an infrastructure of peasant farming.

Defining Land and Agrarian Reform

Infrastructure plays a critical role in facilitating the circulation of commodities in a capitalist economy (Robbins 2007: 25). One foundational component of capitalist markets is the legal definition and state protection of private property. The expansion of capital into the countryside is an ongoing process of enclosure, as “the meaning of property and its manifestations are produced and reproduced through complex ideological and material conditions (O’Neill 2013: 442),” continuously reclaiming and repurposing land to serve the needs of capitalist agriculture. As Karl Polanyi (1944) famously argued, commodifying the inputs for capitalist production, including nature and human labor, is a necessary and deliberately enacted precondition for establishing capitalist markets.

Peasant livelihoods are derived from a distinct relationship to the land, one that often diverges from legal understandings of property. For landed estates in Mexico in the period leading into the Revolution, land was understood as an input to generate surplus value and secure political control over the emergent Mexican state (Otero 1989: 277-9). By contrast, for Indigenous communities with claims to specific territory, smallholders that meet their subsistence needs through farming, and landless or migratory agricultural workers, land is much more than an economic asset: it is a vital resource for the reproduction of peasant livelihoods, social relations, political values, and traditional growing practices (Wolf 1969).

Stemming from these divergent understandings of land, peasant struggles have prioritized land reform as a precondition for agrarian development. During the Revolution, peasants used land seizures as a key political tactic to re-establish their resource rights (Wolf 1969: 28). Given the volatility of peasant uprisings, the post-Revolution liberal government was unable to ignore peasant demands for land, which ultimately pressured them to include a land reform clause in the 1917 Constitution (Wolf 1969: 42-4).

Article 27 of the Constitution established land redistribution through the ejido system, in which individual and communal plots of public land could be assigned to peasant farmers, with the requirement that the peasant who works the land hold the title. With the establishment of the ejido system, the Mexican state created a mechanism to expropriate land from large landholdings (Otero 1989: 281-2), and by the end of the Lázaro Cárdenas presidency (1934-40), nearly 18 million hectares of land had been redistributed to over 814,000 peasant farmers (Otero 1989: 283-4). The ejido system was a material and political mechanism for peasants to reproduce their livelihoods through access to land. As such, it played a formative role in producing the early 20th century agricultural system, representing one component of an infrastructure designed to maintain the economic viability of peasant farmers.

Beyond redefining land as a legal category, peasants continued to advocate for institutions to support smallholder farming. The ejido sector created a formal space for organizing, including channels for political representation, the establishment of regional labor unions and cooperatives, and access to credit through the centralized Ejidal Bank (Otero 1989: 284-5). In the 1961, the Mexican state established a guaranteed price minimum for corn purchased through CONASUPO, the state marketing agency (Appendini 1996: 3), in order to stabilize farming incomes. Adding to these formal institutions, the viability of peasant agriculture in this period was firmly rooted in social arrangements and traditional practices, including labor exchanges within communities, seed sharing, and surplus redistribution to meet communal subsistence needs (Barkin 2002).

During this period, the agricultural system can be understood as constituted by a series of mechanisms — including material entitlements, political instruments, economic policies, and social arrangements — which together underpinned a functioning peasant farming sector. None of these mechanisms alone could guarantee the viability of peasant farming, however together they represent an infrastructure capable of providing the material and social conditions that made peasant farming tenable.

This illustration of the period following the Revolution is not meant to suggest a single, functioning model for an infrastructure of peasant farming. Scholars have pointed out many shortcomings in the ejido system — including the relegation of smallholders to marginal land, size restrictions on ejido units, and rampant political clientelism — which hindered the impact of agrarian reforms on the livelihoods of peasant farmers (Eakin 2014; Otero 1989). Rather, this example points to the ways in which past reforms have targeted the conditions of peasant farming. The agrarian reform of this period was based on the idea that smallholder farmers are viable productive units and political actors in their own right. This lies in contrast to the period beginning in the 1960s, in which national modernization hinged on capitalizing larger farms, opening agricultural markets to international trade, and retrenching many forms of state support (Appendini 1996).

From Liberal Reforms to Modern Peasant Movements

In the 1960s, the Mexican state began targeting mid-sized landholdings with technology packages, technical assistance, and access to credit, designed to increase their performance in the global market (Eakin 2014: 136). At the same time, mechanisms used to support smallholder farmers began to shift from investment in their productive capacity, to a poverty reduction model. By the mid-1990s, the state had eliminated CONASUPO, and in place of direct price supports had established a number of individual social service programs, including education and healthcare supports, cash transfers for peasants impacted by trade liberalization, and access to micro-lending institutions. At the same time, the ejido sector underwent a titling process, which converted parcels into privately owned land, and opened up the possibility of selling, renting, or converting ejido land to non-agricultural functions (Appendini 1996).

Norman Borlaug, a plant breeder with the USDA, works with Mexican farmers in the adoption of high-yielding corn varieties. Photo: CIMMYT


These changes resulted in a system of state support that was bifurcated into two distinct sectors of the rural economy: the modernization project targeted at ‘productive’ large-scale farms, and the poverty reduction model targeted at peasant farmers (Appendini 1996). Peasant agriculture has been squeezed into a marginal sector of the economy by an infrastructure that is set up to facilitate a market-oriented, productivist model of agricultural development. As an infrastructural system, the mechanisms set in place beginning in the 1960s are designed to eliminate or assimilate peasant farmers into a capitalist model of food production.

This is the context that produced the 21st Century Plan de Ayala. The modern Plan de Ayala lays out thirteen points that demand for state recognition of peasants’ rights. They renew the call for land reform and political representation, while bringing to the fore new demands, which are born out of the neoliberal state’s failure to provide the conditions for a viable system of peasant agriculture. The document calls for an end to fragmented, poverty-reduction programs (“no más programas que ‘bajan’”), proposing a harmonized public policy on the countryside that would better meet the diverse needs of peasant farmers. It also calls for an immediate end to the drug war, which has sewn insecurity in the countryside, stolen children from rural households, and forced the migration of countless peasant farmers.

Members of the peasant social movement attend signing of 21st Century Plan de Ayala by then presidential candidate, now president-elect, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Photo: Movimiento Campesino Plan de Ayala Siglo XXI

As peasants struggle for formal infrastructural change, peasant agriculture continues to be enacted within the interstices of formal agricultural infrastructures. Trade liberalization has not washed away the smallholder, nor has it torn apart the rich social relations that hold together agrarian communities (Eakin 2014). Even as peasant farmers are marginalized by the formal infrastructure of capitalist agriculture, an informal infrastructure thrives through the everyday enactment of peasant farming. In the words of one peasant farmer, recorded by Perramond (2008), “Yes, I’ve been globalized, but I’m the boss too!” (369). His words speak directly to the lives of social movements actors and peasant farmers alike: while peasant farmers refuse to succumb to the consequences of their marginalization in the present, movement actors maintain the struggle to define an agrarian future.

This coalition of agrarian voices has laid out their vision for the conditions within which smallholder agriculture can work, what I understand here to be an infrastructure of peasant farming. As was seen in the early 20th century, no single intervention can secure peasant livelihoods into the future. The value of thinking through infrastructures, is that they reveal the ways that material reforms, political institutions, economic interventions, and social structures form distinct configurations that constrain or enable particular models of agriculture. An infrastructure of peasant farming then, represents the innumerable mechanisms that together provide the conditions necessary for peasant farmers to secure and reproduce their livelihoods. 


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