issue 182 - April 1988
After the Revolution
High-yield crops, fertilizers, pesticides: with the Green Revolution
science promised to put an end to world hunger. Why then did it make
Mexican peasants Lupita and Emilio poorer still? Mike Rose explains.
Lupita and Emilio Martinez join the crowd gathered in the village plaza of Tepoztlan to hear a visiting politician speak about improvements in Mexican agriculture. Against a spectacular backdrop of sand-coloured mountains, he evokes the names and ideals of Mexico's tumultuous revolution in which over a million died.
The revolution freed peasants from the rural slavery and poverty of the past, he says. Then he hails the Green Revolution as their key to prosperity in the future. Born in Mexico in the early 1940s, the Green Revolution was exported to the rest of the world as a guarantee that 'famine and hunger need never again blight the peoples of the world'.
He informs them that Mexicans have been better fed since this scientific revolution in agriculture. Then he extends his arms towards the crowd, shakes his head vigorously and passionately exclaims: 'Without your help, comrades, without the help of your parents and families, the great work of the Green Revolution would never have been possible. You, the agricultural backbone of Mexico, contributed to this giant step for mankind (sic). Now you must enjoy the fruits of your labour'.
To polite but restrained applause the politician steps off the platform into his revving, air-conditioned limousine for the next stage of his whistle-stop tour.
Lupita and Emilio are disappointed. They had hoped he would bring some practical evidence of the Government's intention to help peasants like themselves improve their farms. Instead they received nothing but an earful of revolutionary rhetoric.
They walk slowly back to the one-hectare homestead they share with two sons and two daughters, a son-in-law, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren. Their house is made of the dried-mud-and-twig mixture called adobe, topped by a rough thatched roof of plant and sugar-cane residue.
As their family has grown, Lupita and her husband, both in their 40s, have felt the strain of coping with extra mouths to feed. So they have been forced to rent another two-hectare plot of land they hold under the ejido system, which grants a plot to a particular family in perpetuity and which cannot be sold. The plot was allocated to Emilio's father in 1936 under the presidency of Lazaro Cardenas, the popular General who enacted a sweeping agrarian reform law to distribute 31 million hectares to nearly half of the rural people in Mexico.
Cardenas launched rural literacy programmes, health services, relevant schooling and modest rural communications. And rather than 'modernize' agriculture along US lines, he concentrated on improving traditional farming methods. It worked - until the subsequent administration turned the policy on its head.
Suddenly so called 'industrial greatness' became the goal. And rural well-being took a back seat. This policy dovetailed perfectly with the interests of the US, which was as hungry for cheap Mexican-produced food as it was for cheap Mexican industrial goods to support its war effort. In 1943 the Mexican Government welcomed the Rockefeller Foundation to the country and together they launched research which led to the Green Revolution.
'I can remember how in the time of Cardenas my parents talked about things getting better,' Emilio recalls. 'The yields of corn and beans had improved with Government help. We were eating better and had more to sell in the local market. We had beds and could afford new clothes'.
But with the coming of the Green Revolution things rapidly deteriorated. 'All of a sudden, it was science this and science that. Government officials told us they had developed new seeds, fertilizers and pesticides which would increase growth, kill off insects and stop plant diseases.
'But when we asked for help with obtaining them, we were told they were not suitable for the type of crops we wanted to produce. They were for irrigated land. They said we would need to change our farming methods. When we asked how we could do this, they told us it would cost a lot of money and that credit was only available to what they called "viable enterprises". They told us to carry on producing beans and corn as best we could.'
Unable to purchase the inputs for their ejido plot, and unable to leave it fallow to allow soil regeneration, Lupita and Emilio put more and more effort into producing less and less each year. Eventually they were forced to accept an offer from a Mexico City market-gardening firm which wanted to rent their land for about S30 a month.
'They are now producing rich crops of tomatoes for sale in Texas and California. If we could afford the amount of fertilizer and pesticide they use we could have a booming business. It is sad to see our land being used for a wealthy person's advantage through no fault of our own. This wonderful Green Revolution has done us no favours, despite all the fancy words.'
To make ends meet the Martinez family work long and hard hours: cultivating beans and corn on their exhausted one-hectare plot, making rope from the fibre of the maguey cactus. Emilio and his two grown sons get jobs as casual labourers whenever they can, earning a few dollars a day, on nearby farms or plantations growing cash crops for export. Emilio sometimes finds himself picking tomatoes grown on his own rented land.
This is a cruel irony for men. But a larger share of the family's hardship is borne by the women. As in Africa and South America, Mexico's Green Revolution has been aimed at producing cash crops for sale overseas. While the men are away working as peons on the plantations, the women have to farm, gather wood, fetch water, make rope and look after children alone. It is the women's labour that underpins production of cash crops.
It's a question of 'boom or bust' in the Green Revolution: boom for large-scale commercial agriculture, with an overall increase in world food stocks. And bust for the poorer peasants unable to compete with their giant neighbours. The result is a perverse paradox: increasing malnutrition and hunger in a world of plenty.
The development of high-yielding seeds boosted the production of wheat and rice, two of the world's major food crops. These seeds worked wonders on farms with good soil, plentiful water and enough capital or credit for the necessary fertilizers and insecticides. They brought immense benefits to medium and large farmers in areas already favoured by nature. But they did little to help small farmers growing staples like beans, cassava, yam, millet, sorghum and maize.
Even with good land, small farmers could not get the credit needed for the chemicals and new seeds required. And millions of peasants lived in areas that were not suited for the new varieties in the first place - in hilly, arid or swampy regions with poor, leached soils, subject to droughts, or floods, or both.
In Mexico small-holders like Lupita and Emilio were overlooked as the Government ploughed hundreds of millions of dollars into vast irrigation projects in the northern states of Sonora and Chihuahua, turning them into vast open-air factories producing grain, animal foodstuffs and prime cuts of beef for the discerning carnivores north of the border.
Land values soared as speculators rushed to buy suitable land, putting pressure on small-holders unable to sell up. And it became impossible for them to acquire additional land to grow food for their families. Peasants renting land found that their rents soared. Many were forced to leave their holdings, swelling the ranks of urban slum-dwellers in the cities. Land became concentrated in fewer hands and the mechanization of agriculture meant there were fewer jobs available in the countryside.
Yet there is no inherent reason why the science of the Green Revolution should not benefit the poor as well as the rich. But society must prepare the way first - by ensuring equal access to the necessary inputs for all farmers. This means redistributing control of all food-producing resources, including land. In Cuba, for example, nearly 90 per cent of rice hectarage is planted with high-yielding seeds, and the advantages are felt by the whole society rather than a select few.
The message is clear. Science is only as good as the political and economic system in which it operates. If that system is truly democratic the benefits of a Green Revolution will be widely distributed. Until such reforms are enacted in Mexico, Lupita and Emilio Martinez will continue to feel the Revolution has let them down: despite their annual dose of revolutionary rhetoric.
Mike Rose is a freelance journalist specializing In Latin America.