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Mexico: Mapping the roots of poverty and inequality

What makes development projects work? Jennifer Alix-Garcia, a professor of agricultural and applied economics, is diving deep into Mexico’s history to shed light on that question. Specifically, she seeks to illuminate what political, climatic and epidemiological events in 16th-century Mexico tell us about the country’s modern agrarian system—and what role history played in defining the present.

When Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico in 1519, they found an advanced society of about 25 million people. Only six decades later, European diseases and local plagues, coupled with the severest drought in 600 years, had killed 90 percent of the native population. It was one of the worst demographic collapses in human history.

“Such radical depopulation had to have a large impact on the institutions developed by the Spanish colonists,” explains Alix-Garcia. In particular, the population collapse enabled the colonists to claim land once farmed by those who had succumbed to pestilence. This led to the formation of large landholdings (haciendas) that dominated the Mexican economy and society for generations.

“The hacienda owners were able to control the labor force because they owned most of the land,” says Alix-Garcia. Worker shortages led to coercive labor practices that mimicked European feudalism or even slavery.

Though the hacienda system no longer exists, Alix-Garcia and graduate student Emily Sellars PhD’15 show that it continues to shape Mexico’s development. During the 20th century, more than half the nation’s land was redistributed in one of the largest agrarian reforms in history. Haciendas were dismantled and peasants were given common-property parcels—or ejidos—that allow for limited farming rights without direct ownership.

Using data on population and land ownership from colonial days to the present, the team has mapped patterns of land distribution in modern-day Mexico. They find that areas with the highest depopulation saw the greatest increase in land inequality, which subsequently led to high demand for land reform.

“We’re using events occurring four centuries before the reform to predict its intensity,” says Alix-Garcia. “We hope this will help us understand the role of land redistribution on the well-being of today’s rural communities.”

Despite decades of agrarian reform efforts around the globe, evidence on their development impact remains elusive. Recent studies in India and South Africa show poverty reduction effects, but the particular case of Mexico’s reform defies the pattern.

“I want to map Mexico’s development outcomes so that we can see if our theories about the power of institutions are correct,” Alix-Garcia says. “If we can recognize the fundamental sources of inequities in society—the importance of specific local institutions embedded in a long history—we can design policies that truly encourage economic growth.”