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Mexico finds it can't keep up with peasants' demands for land

When some 20,000 peasants streamed into Mexico City last month to demonstrate on the capital's Zocalo, or main plaza, they brought along old grievances. They demanded more and better land, payment for expropriated land, deeds for their properties, and technological aid.

The peasants' march was a signal that Mexico's land reform program, rooted in the 1910-1917 revolution, is far from over.

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Land reform has been largely successful in Mexico in terms of providing land to a large number of peasants - 3.8 million people have received farm plots. But the revolutionary promise of land for all has not, and some say cannot, be carried out.

The ideals of land reform are stymied by Mexico's population explosion. There may simply be too many Mexicans and too little land to go around. The red tape involved in distributing land, inflation, agricultural distribution problems, and corruption also are taking a toll on the land reform program.

When the revolution started in 1910, there were about 3.5 million landless peasants, whose goal in fighting was to dismantle large landholdings and to obtain plots for themselves. One of the first priorities of the revolutionary government of 1915 was land redistribution, a program that every Mexican administration since then has followed.

But today campesino union officials say there are some 4 million landless peasants, more than before the revolution. Some analysts say the country is running out of land to distribute. The pro-government National Peasants Confederation says there are about 10 million acres available. Leftist union leaders claim there are up to 60 million acres.

The campesino unions also charge that some land remains illegally in the hands of large landowners. Some farmers have managed to retain large estates by bribing officials or putting land in the name of relatives or friends, these union officials allege.

Those who have put in for their land often find it a long, frustrating process.

''The lapse of time between the moment peasants file a request for land and the time they get it is very long - sometimes 30 or 40 years,'' says Rodrigo Medellin of the Analysis, Development, and Management Group, a consulting firm that helps peasants develop their land and market crops.

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''There are many cases where the original petitioner has died and the children continue the case,'' he added.

Obtaining land usually does not solve peasants' problems. New landholders sometimes wait years, or generations, to receive deeds to property because of bureaucratic red tape and corruption.

The plots may also be too small to sustain them. Inflation, which has hovered near 100 percent for two years, means credit is out of the reach of many campesinos.

Intermediaries may also frustrate their ability to get market prices for their crops.

''The whole commercialization system is built in such a way that campesinos have to give them their products at the lowest possible price,'' Mr. Medellin says.

''Intermediaries exploit peasants,'' he says.

Juana de Gadillo agrees. Her husband tills eight acres of sun-parched land in the central state of Tlaxcala, one of the poorest in Mexico. He produces enough to feed the family of six, but no surplus food to sell for cash to buy seeds, clothes, school supplies, or medicines.

Mrs. de Gadillo says that intermediaries forced her husband to sign a contract two years ago stating that he would get 600 pesos (about $3.30) per barrel of pulque, an alcohol made from the leaves of agave cactus, which seems to be the only plant that grows well in Tlaxcala.

The ragged family lives in an adobe farmhouse with a tile roof through which the sunlight filters on the dirt floor. There is no electricity and no drinking water.

''The buyers have not increased the price in two years, and it can go on for ever,'' de Gadillo said. ''But if my husband had not signed the contract, they would have refused to buy his pulque.''

Down the road from de Gadillo's farm, the members of an ejido, or farming community, had a different story to tell. The peasants said they are able to get 800 pesos per barrel of pulque. This gives them just enough money to produce more food and to sell the surplus.

Inflation also takes its toll. The government's increases in the guaranteed prices of basic crops have not compensated farmers for increases in the price of fuels, they said. And it is almost impossible to borrow money.

''In the past two years, dozens of people have left to work in Mexico City as laborers,'' said Rivera Hernandez.

Despite these problems, analysts like Medellin say the land reform is largely successful. ''They have made great progress in land distribution and in production,'' he added. ''They are now pushing for changes in the commercialization system. I see the farming sector now as the most dynamic in the nation and the one that has the most potential for changes.''

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