My pal volunteers for a countryside agrarian charity and one day received an offer to buy some land there at a very reasonable price, so he took me out to see the property. Not wishing to state the obvious, I queried him about the land being part of an “ejido” (pronounced eh-hee-dough), which is land set aside for the indigenous people of Mexico, and pondered if a foreigner could own land there. That led me down the long and fascinating history of ejidos.
An ejido is an area of communal land mainly used for agriculture, on which community members farm designated plots and collectively maintain communal holdings.
To understand why ejidos came to be, let’s go back to 1930 San Miguel de Allende when the town featured:
- 10 grocery stores
- 3 lawyers
- 1 engineer
- 1 bank
- 3 drugstores
- 8 clothing stores
- 1 bookstore
- 6 hardware stores
- 1 shoe store (obviously this was before the invention of the San Miguel Shoe)
- 1 hotel
- 1 soap factory
- 1 textile factory
- 32,680 inhabitants (23,964 in the countryside and 8,716 in the city)
- 14 automobiles (comparatively a small number, but the roads were poor)
- 6 trucks
- 1 mule-drawn trolley operating between Centro and the train station
Since the late 1700s when San Miguel de Allende lost the textile edge to Leon, agriculture has been king. The main crops are corn and beans, but also barley, wheat and alfalfa. The city itself had over 14,000 fruit trees. The countryside had over 60,000 head of cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and mules.
After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the federal government created a communal resource-holding institution, called ejido, to redress long-standing land inequality. As part of the 1917 Constitution, ejidos were intended to end exploitation by large landowners and activate economic development.
Ejidos were government land grants for use, but not ownership, plus the right to inherit the land as long as the fields were maintained in production and the people remained members of the community. Ejidos existed side-by-side with the private property sector. As a result, millions of indigenous farmers were no longer dependent on landowners, but were directly linked to the land they farmed through their ejido.
Between the 1930s and late 1970s, ejidos were formed from federal and previously privately-owned land until about half of Mexico’s entire land mass was transferred into ejidos.
In 1930, the countryside around San Miguel de Allende featured 250 large estates or ranches, often formed from the Spanish hacienda system. By 1940, 47 percent of all arable land was in ejidos. Cruz de Palmar was the first official San Miguel de Allende ejido in 1931.
In reality, the land assigned to ejidos was often of lower quality and therefore inherently less productive than privately held land, a common story well known to U.S. Native Americans living on a reservation. Still, subsistence production remains an important survival strategy for many Mexicans.
By the 1970s and 1980s, the countryside around San Miguel de Allende was a mosaic of small-to-medium-size private properties intermixed with ejidos. In the 1990s, rural lots had become more attractive for people seeking greater tranquility with larger, cheaper lots than can be found in the city.
At the same time, agriculture was replaced by tourism as San Miguel’s economic bread and butter. Suddenly, lots used for farming since the Colonial era were far more valuable as potential sites for a hotel, water park or gated community.
By 1992, a constitutional amendment allowed the sale of ejido land if approved by the ejido council, which promised a new revenue opportunity for indigenous people.
So, should you buy ejido land? It is a complicated legal process that requires expert legal assistance. Even if you receive title to an ejido property in your name, there is first right of refusal to the other members of the ejido, workers of the land, and any family members before you can sell the property.
I don’t recommend the purchase of ejido land unless you have a lot of money, time and legal representation to complete the process.