There are two Spains, one wet and one dry, and there are also two Mexicos: one very rainy, especially near the Gulf of Mexico and along the Pacific, in the cocoa-growing area of Soconusco. But the greater part of the country is dry—the whole of the central plateau, and the northern part of the coastal zones, particularly in the west—or even completely arid, an extension of the “living desert” of Arizona, stretching from Lower California to the north-central area and the famous Laguna of Torreon. Mexico also has a very rugged relief, with two great ranges along the coasts, the higher one near the Pacific, and a very high plateau. From this we would expect very diversified fanning, with crops ranging from equatorial to temperatezone products; but with relatively limited possibilities for such a vast country.

According to A. G. Gallardo, one-quarter of the soil of Mexico —with gradients exceeding 1 in 4—can support only forests or pastures, and even these not everywhere. On the three-eighths which is arid, cultivation is absolutely impossible without irrigation; more than another quarter, which is dry, requires irrigation to guarantee crops. And 2 per cent, on the contrary, requires drainage or protection against floods before it can be used at all; there thus remains only 9 per cent of soil which can be cultivated without prior improvement of the land. Of Mexico’s 492 million acres (more than three and a half times the area of France), the land which is really cultivable is in the region of 90 million acres. Over and above this, only 38.5 millions are “available for cultivation”; of these, in 1960, 10 millions were watered by gravity, pumping, or natural humidity; 6.25 millions by modern techniques; 2 millions by private installations, especially pumping; 4.25 by older forms of installation.

From 1950 to 1954, there were 22.5 million acres under cultivation: 8.5 acres per inhabitant, against 9 for Italy, 4.5 for China: but the Mexican acre has an inferior yield. And while the population remained stable until 1920, from 1921 to 1960 it more than doubled— expanding from 14.3 to 34.6 million inhabitants (in 1950 there were 25.8 million inhabitants). With an annual increase of 3.1 per cent (a birth-rate of 4.4 per cent and a death-rate of 1.3 per cent) Mexico now exceeds most records, leaving China (2.3 per cent) and even Algeria (2.6 per cent) far behind. The amount of arable land is already strained to keep up with this rate: intensified farming, the key to which is the supply of water, has become the prime problem of Mexican agriculture. But, even in maintaining the record rate of 1951–52, a total “mastery of water resources” can hardly be assured before the end of the century: it will then have won by irrigation about 20 million extra acres.footnote1 But at that point, if the present surge continues, the Mexican population will have passed the 100 million mark, nearly double the population of France. Here again, no solution is possible without industrialization—the motor power of a national economy. Fortunately Mexico understands this: the “cult of agriculture” is receding. Secondly, no solution is possible without birth control.

Mexican agriculture has a long history of difficulties behind it, which would have ended by reducing its potential. In Yucatan and Central America, Mayan civilization depended upon tools of stone and wood, pottery, the needle, and the milpa or field of maize (a plant which probably originated in Mexico) which was displaced at the same rate as the soil became exhausted. The Mayans also produced beans and melons, sweet potatoes and pimentos, and numerous fruits (cocoa and vanilla, avocado-pears, sapodilla-plums, apples, pineapples, paw-paws), which were later cultivated in Europe. They used melon shells for bowls, and made cotton shields strong enough to resist arrows . . . but not bullets.

Aztec civilization, which came from North America, brought the cencal, a square container with sides made of small sticks, which was the forerunner of our crib for drying ears of maize. The Aztecs, like the Mayans, had no knowledge of iron or of domesticated animals, of the wheel or the pulley. The agave, suited (like the French grape) to a dry soil, furnished the second staple food, after maize. By the roadside, our driver showed us that these stalks of maguey, besides their sweet sap and a fibre, can also furnish a needle (the sharpened point of their leaves), and a parchment to write on (the surface of the leaves). Two species of agave (sisal and fourcroya) provide a tough fibre; and two others (agave atrovirens and salmiana) are “pulqueros”—that is, they are cultivated for their sap. “Honey water” accumulates in a cavity scooped at the centre of the stalk, after the central bud has been removed when the plant is about seven or eight years old, just at the time when the flower is about to appear. It may flow for eight to ten months, at the rate of four to ten pints a day at first; drawn off by a reed, it is fermented for 24 to 36 hours. Besides alcohol, it provides certain proteins and vitamins which are useful supplements to the otherwise purely “maize and beans” diet of the peon. Less beneficial are certain spirits—tequila and mezcal, extracted from the stalks of other agaves, by cooking in a kiln which transforms their unfermentable pentosans into glucose; the sap, once fermented, is then distilled, releasing toxic vapours in the process. Gringos or North-Americans not being very popular in Mexico since the Texan war, my colleague Borlaugh refused to get out of the car one Sunday afternoon while a tyre was being repaired: most of the villagers seemed, indeed, quite drunk.

Writing of the agricultural system of the pre-Columbian communities, H. Desroche, citing an ancient chronicler, states that land belonged in common to the calpulli (local group); whoever worked the plot could not sell it, but could benefit from it during his lifetime and leave it to his sons and heirs.footnote2 This holding, the tlalmilpa, often from 5 to 7½ acres, had to be cultivated by its holder, who lost his rights if he left it uncultivated for two successive years. This sort of primitive community was, however, already decadent, because of the increasing complexity of society and excessive differentiation in the size of holdings, which varied from 2½ to 50 acres. In addition, the holdings of the chief, the courtiers, the priests and the warriors were cultivated for them by the members of the calpulli. These “mayeques”, working land for the profit of a master, were thus held in a kind of serfdom.

Desroche goes on to show us how the local aristocrats, the caciques, profiting by the disorder of the Spanish Conquests, extended their properties at the expense of public, clerical, and community holdings, and reduced the free villagers to the condition of terrasgueros, or tenant-farmers. Soon afterwards the Spanish took their place, at first by means of “land favours” granted to those who had fought during the Conquest: 15 and then 100 acres for each horseman, much less for a foot-soldier. But much more for livestock ranches: these constituted private appropriation of collective property.