In February, 1992, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari issued a series of decrees changing the legal status of some lands in Mexico (Cymet 1992: 139). He announced the New Agrarian Law, a change which reforms Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution. The principal objectives of the law are:
- Formalizing a new relationship with the rural population through revised development policies intended to improve their economic and social welfare, create new investment and infrastructure in the countryside, and facilitate the protection and conservation of natural resources;
- Transfer land ownership to ejidos and communities;
- Create the foundations for new forms of economic activity in ejidos, communities, and small private holdings;
- Alter the internal organization of ejidos and communities to make them more consistent with new forms of economic organization;
- Make it possible for ejidos and communities to band together as groups, rural associations, or whatever form of business or civil organization necessary to improve land utilization, production, marketing, processing, or related services;
- To sign contracts among ejidos, communities, and private interests for periods of up to thirty years, and renewable (Reyes Couterier, et al, 1992: 57).
Clearly these reforms create a framework completely different from the original concept of the ejido; the key steps move in the direction of privatizing ejidal lands and creating a market perspective for lands which until 1991 were owned through a collective and worked for the benefit of the community. To put these reforms in practice the government created the Agrarian Solicitor's Office and charged it with the reponsibility of implementing the changes in Article 27. In part this means overseeing the Program for Certification of Ejidal Rights, or PROCEDE for its acronym in Spanish. Although participating in PROCEDE is optional for each ejido, in practice the Agrarian Solicitor's Office tries to convince ejido members of the benefits of privatizing their holdings, which involves "…the preparation and delivery of the appropriate certification and titles." (Procuraduria Agraria 1993: 15).
Once the New Agrarian Law went into effect PROCEDE went to work at top speed. Representatives of the Agrarian SolicItor's Office convened assemblies of the members of each ejido, at which they outlined the process and presumed advantages of participation. If the assembly decided to participate in PROCEDE the next step was mapping and measuring the ejido, a technical operation carried out by personnel from Mexico's National Institute of Statistics, Geography, and Information, a federal agency with the reponsibility for generating census, geographic, and other types of information. Using aerial photography, topographic mapping, and other techniques, INEGI identified, located, and measured the boundaries and area of the ejido. Then, using the ejido's internal maps and instructions from the ejido assembly, the National Agrarian Registry prepared and delivered the Certificates of Tract Ownership, Certificates of Rights to Common Lands, and Titles for Urban Lots, according to the specifics of each case.
The clear connection between these new legal arrangements for ejido lands and archaeological sites in general is that all over the country there are preHispanic sites located on rural or urban ejido lands. While these lands were held collectively and not subject to sale INAH's operating relationship was with ejido authorities to avoid possible damage through agricultural or other use. But with the reforms, those sites located on lands whose rightsholders have opted for certification are now locked in a system of private property, which means they can be freely sold to the highest bidder, or in the best of cases may be incorporated into a production or marketing association dedicated to "improving use of the land" (Procuraduria Agraria 1993: 7). PROCEDE includes provisions for excluding from privatization lands with ecological significance, such as "forests and jungles", but nowhere are lands with archaeological resources reserved from privatization (Procuraduria Agraria 1993. 9), even though the Secretary of Agrarian Reform is a highly-respected member of several anthropological research organizations.
Despite sporadic efforts of INAH to be included in the survey teams to assure that archaeological resources are recognized and repected under the protection of the Federal Law on Archaeological Monuments and Zones, the truth is that speed with which PROCEDE works, its scope (there are over 27,000 ejidos in Mexico, most of which are eligible for participation), and the resources which have been put at its disposal far exceed INAH's capacity to keep up. In Oaxaca, with 784 ejidos in the state, by 1996 PROCEDE's work was well-advanced and only then was an archaeologist named to work with PROCEDE teams in the hope of identifying sites to be excluded from individual distribution. It is clear this was too little too late, as the distribution process by then was well-advanced. Monte Alban and Mitla did not escape the effects of the process as the ejidos of Atzompa, San Pedro Ixtlahuaca, and Xoxocotlan opted for certification, subdividing what had been held collectively. Mitla's ejidal lands lie outside the boundaries of the archaeological zone, but other lands with archaeological value are seriously affected. The fortress of Mitla, a fortified site overlooking the community, not only falls within ejido lands but worse, is the focus of a longstanding legal conflict between the ejidos of Mitla and Union Zapata.
It appears there is a conscious decision to leave certification of the urban ejidos until the end of the process. It is well-understood by agrarian officials that the growth of working class or middle class settlements such as those found on the slopes of Monte Alban are linked to illegal land transactions (Castañeda 1994: 174, Stephens 1994: 10; Murphy 1994: 210). It is clear they foresee higher levels of conflict or tension when the Agrarian Solicitor's Office seeks to regularize the status of land possession in the urban ejidos, given "…the relative advantage of illegal transfers—their low prices—will tend to disappear and at the same time will strengthen the formal real estate market…bringing to an end the subsidy granted by the poor of the countryside—the ejidatarios—to the poor of the city" (Castañeda 1994: 186). This implicit subsidy encourages the proliferation of irregular settlements and sprawl into the archaeological zone, but it confers an important political gain by providing a housing alternative for the poor.
Land speculators have taken advantage of the delay in PROCEDE's operations, arguing prospective purchasers should buy immediately "and build rapidly" (personal communication from Xoxocotlan resident). At present those involved in illegal sale of ejido land have an incentive to price land cheaply in order to move it, a circumstance favoring purchasers with limited resources. A lot within the Monte Alban boundary with official-looking but invalid title costs about one percent of what the same lot with legal title would cost in the upper-middle-class section of Oaxaca. Those who have paid once for a lot will resent further payments to the state to regularize their status (Murphy 1994: 218).
On the other hand, these changes in the law have provoked a renewal of old conflicts over land which the Secretary of Agrarian Reform had considered resolved, as the current members of ejidos now refuse to accept the agreements signed by their fathers or grandfathers (Stephen 1994: 10). According to Stephen, in many of the Oaxaca ejidos where PROCEDE initiated the distribution process work has been slowed or halted by internal or external conflicts over land. This problem has become so common the Agrarian Solicitor's Office coined a term "Agrarian Deferrals", cases which in theory should be resolved by the system of agrarian courts charged with resolving certain kinds of disputes (Procurduria Agraria 1993: 103). In 1996 the ejidos de Santa Maria Atzompa, San Pedro Ixtlahuaca, San Martin Mexicapam, and Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan, all of which have lands inside the Monte Alban boundary, and the ejido of Mitla, were subject to agrarian deferrals. Paradoxically, these delays are to the advantage of archaeological conservation, as while cases are subject to agrarian deferral the traditional structure remains in effect. Indeed, given the dynamics and importance of agrarian conflicts some of these cases may never be resolved.
It is important to understand that the modifications to Article 27 not only alters a set of legal frameworks, but undermines the entire basis of traditional communities in terms of their economies and internal organization. In this respect we could argue that the issues of destruction and commercialization of archaeological sites which so concern archaeologists, e.g., for reasons of access and conservation, in reality are modest losses compared to a changing reality which implies the total loss of a traditional way of life in the Mexican countryside.