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.”

Creating a Healthier World

YOU CAN’T SPOT THEM RIGHT AWAY—they’re hidden in plain sight, often disguised as majors in the life sciences—but there are thousands of undergraduates on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus who, in terms of their future careers, consider themselves “pre-health.”

What are their reasons? For some students, the motivation is acutely personal. As a child, Kevin Cleary BS’13 (biology) felt an urgent need to help as he watched his father deal with recurrent brain tumors. “By age 11, I knew I had a future in health care,” says Cleary. Many others aren’t yet sure what role they will play, but they are eager for guidance on how to use their majors to address an array of global problems including hunger, disease, poverty and environmental degradation. Says senior biochemistry major Yuli Chen, “I want to make an impact on people, and I believe that every person has the right to be provided basic necessities such as clean water, education and food.”

For much of the past century, young people seeking to address health-related suffering may have felt relatively limited in their options. Most considered medical school (still the gold standard to many), nursing school or other familiar allied health occupations that are largely oriented toward addressing disease after it occurs.

In recent years, however, health experts worldwide have placed an increasing emphasis on the importance of prevention in achieving health for the largest possible number of people. This was illustrated at UW–Madison in 2005, when the University of Wisconsin Medical School changed its name to the School of Medicine and Public Health, offering the following reason: “Public health focuses on health promotion and disease prevention at the level of populations, while medicine focuses on individual care, with an emphasis on the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Ideally these approaches should be seamlessly integrated in practice, education and research.”

The founding in 2011 of the interdisciplinary Global Health Institute (GHI), a partnership of schools, colleges and other units across campus, broadened the university’s approach to health still further:

“We view the health of individuals and populations through a holistic context of healthy places upon which public health depends—from neighborhoods and national policies to the state of the global environment. This approach requires collaboration from across the entire campus to address health care, food security and sustainable agriculture, water and sanitation, environmental sustainability, and ‘one health’ perspectives that integrate the health of humans, animals and the environment.”

Demand by UW students for educational options built around this broad concept of health had been growing for some time. Before the creation of the GHI, an Undergraduate Certificate in Global Health was introduced to offer students an understanding of public health in a global context. The certificate explores global health issues and possible solutions—and shows students how their own majors and intended professions might make those solutions reality. Although administered from CALS and directed by CALS nutritional sciences professor Sherry Tanumihardjo, the certificate accepts students from across campus and highlights ways in which teachers, engineers, farmers, social workers, journalists, nutritionists, policy makers, and most other professions can play a role in global health. Funding is provided through the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates, grants and private donations.

Earning the certificate requires completion of core courses focusing heavily on agriculture and nutrition, the importance of prevention and population-level approaches in public health, and the role of the environment in health. Students also complete relevant electives (examples: women’s health and human rights, environmental health, international development), and—most transformative for students—a field course, usually a one- to three-week trip either abroad or to a location in the United States where a particular global health issue is being addressed by one or more local partner organizations in ways specific to the place and the people who live there.

Bridging Borders

WHAT KATIE BEHNKE BS’08 MS’10 remembers most from a CALS trip to Mexico is the sight of cows grazing under coconut trees. It was on a farm in the Mexican state of Jalisco, she says, that she really understood the importance of diversifying farming practices.

“They grazed in this area near the ocean that provided food for the cows. The farmers harvested the coconuts, and I think they also used the cows for meat as well as milk,” Behnke recalls from the two-week field study, which followed up on material learned in a semester-long seminar called “Agriculture in Emerging Economies: Dairying in Mexico.” “They don’t have the type of specialization we have here in Wisconsin because there is so much uncertainty in their markets. So if the price of milk is down but coconuts are up, they’re protected.”

Now, as the University of Wisconsin–Extension agriculture agent for Shawano County, Behnke says she puts to use the things she learned in that course every day—and not just what she learned about diversification as a tool for risk management, the subject of her subsequent in-class presentation. She’s come to embrace diverse practices more generally.

“What I learned is that each farm is unique,” she says. “So when I go to a farm now, I understand that each one has its particular challenges. I have learned to embrace the differences.”

That’s what Michel Wattiaux, a CALS professor of dairy science, aims for when he teaches the popular undergraduate course. “My goal is to help Wisconsin dairy students broaden their understanding of the world,” says Wattiaux, who recently was honored with a CALS Excellence in International Activities Award. “Learning about Mexico is also a way to learn about the United States, Wisconsin and themselves.”

Wattiaux, who grew up on a dairy farm in Belgium, says he saw himself early on in his students, many of whom hail from rural areas of the state. He wanted to make relevant the global effects that influence their lives.

Almost 10 years ago, Wattiaux found a way to do just that. Students were beginning to notice California’s growing competitiveness in the dairy industry due in part to inexpensive labor from across the border. Then Hispanic immigrants began to appear in significant numbers on farms here in Wisconsin. Both phenomena prompted Wattiaux to develop the seminar, which is designed to drive home the interdependencies between the United States and Mexico. Two weeks are devoted to debating issues surrounding immigrant labor.

His approach works. The course, says Stephanie Plaster, a student who went on to serve as Wattiaux’s teaching assistant, “makes us see the world from the eyes of a Hispanic worker on a Wisconsin farm, or from the perspective of a smallholder who lives below the poverty line in the highlands of Mexico.”

Katie Behnke says that kind of content will help in her work with Mexican immigrants. “It makes communication easier because you understand what’s behind the thought process and you understand their previous experiences,” she says. “Just because they do it differently in Mexico doesn’t mean they do it wrong. We’re not better farmers, we’re just different farmers.”

Of course, immigration is only part of the picture. Looking at emerging economies like Mexico’s, Wattiaux says, helps students understand how Wisconsin’s agricultural industry is tied to not only the national but also the global industry.
Accordingly, the course includes study of policy papers, current affairs and trade agreements to underline the global nature of agriculture. Beginning with a worldwide overview of food production, livestock agriculture and trade, the course then focuses on U.S.–Mexico agricultural relations and the Mexican dairy industry.

“Mexico is the largest dairy export market for the U.S., and I’m trying to be respectful of that,” Wattiaux says. “If students want to go into that business, then I want them to be as informed as possible.”

Leaving economic competition aside, Wattiaux says, “If you have a bachelor’s degree in dairy sciences from the University of Wisconsin, don’t you think you should know a little about how milk is produced and consumed in other countries? This class is about diversity. It’s about thinking from different perspectives.”

By the time students leave for the optional field study, they also have an understanding of the history and cultures of the people of central Mexico. “I touch on some stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with science but everything to do with everyday life,” Wattiaux says.

For Erik Dolson, an agricultural and applied economics major who took the course last semester, the opportunity to learn about the entire spectrum of the industry is what drew him to the course.

“I was excited for the opportunity to get such a close look at issues like livestock and agricultural production that are so pertinent to another country and its development,” he says. “Plus I love learning about other cultures and speaking other languages.”

Arguably, it’s the two weeks visiting with Mexican universities and smallholder and subsistence farmers in central Mexico that has the biggest impact on the students, some of whom have never been on an airplane, much less applied for a passport or visited a travel nurse.

Accompanied by colleagues from the University of Guadalajara, students also visit a small-scale cheesemaking factory in Aculco, a family-owned diversified poultry and dairy operation with its own industrial scale feed mill in San Juan de los Lagos, and a cooperative of small and mid-size dairy farmers in Acatic.

But some of the best experiences come from the one-on-one interactions with farmers who welcome them onto their land. As dairy science student Will Springer wrote after last year’s field study, the best part of the trip “was when we would visit with the farmers either over lunch or still in the field and they would be beaming with pride … Their way of life may not be more modern than ours, but it is not less in any way.”

As Wattiaux puts it, once they see a farmer plowing land with a horse, students quickly come to appreciate that individual needs breed necessary differences.

“It’s one thing to see it on the Discovery Channel. It’s another thing to see it for yourself,” he says.

The Case for Queso

Everyone knows about Wisconsin cheese—but that doesn’t mean that everyone likes it. For many Latino consumers, for instance, our cheese just doesn’t cut it.

“It’s not viewed as authentic,” says Scott Rankin, an associate professor of food science. “When a (Latino) consumer sees a package of blended Colby, Jack and Cheddar labeled ‘Mexican-style’ cheese, it’s almost insulting.”

With the growth of the Latino population in the United States, Latin American-style cheeses have become one of the U.S. dairy industry’s fastest-growing markets. Production of these cheeses jumped about 36 percent from 2003 to 2006, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. But Latino consumers are also “very attuned to a cheese’s performance, such as melting qualities,” says Rankin. “The shape, color and package all have to work.”

For the past two years, Rankin has studied Latin American cheeses to learn why American-made ones don’t measure up. With graduate student Luis Jimenez-Maroto and postdoctoral researcher Arnoldo Lopez-Hernandez, he has analyzed the chemical, microbiological and physical components of three popular types of cheese sold in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.

The team found that some American-made cheeses compare favorably to the taste of authentic Latin American cheeses, which have a simple flavor meant to complement other foods. But there were other differences between these cheeses that may factor as heavily as taste.
One of the biggest surprises was the importance of packaging and marketing. Cheeses from Mexico are usually round and prominently display the red, white and green colors of the Mexican flag on their labels. In Mexico, these cheeses are often sliced from larger blocks directly in the store. “The experience of buying cheese is important,” says Rankin, noting that consumers typically have close relationships with merchants and show strong loyalty to local varieties.

Partly because American-made cheeses don’t offer the same experience, there’s now a growing black market for authentic Latin American cheeses, which raises concerns about food safety. And that may be all the more reason for Wisconsin cheesemakers to take a closer look at the Latino market.

“There is no great technological hurdle to making this change,” Rankin says. “The cultural change on the part of American producers is the hardest thing right now.”