The invasion and redistribution of large land holdings

After gaining greater confidence, organizational skills, and unity through combating other problems, finally the poor farmers were ready to tackle the most basic problem contributing to hunger and poor health: the inequitable distribution of the fertile, river valley farmland. They began to systematically invade and cultivate some of the large holdings of rich families--land to which they knew they had a constitutional right. They divided up the land fairly and then demanded ejidal land titles from the government. When the authorities at the state level ignored their demands, the poor farmers sent a committee to the Ministry of Agrarian Reform in Mexico City. The villagers persisted until the officials finally relented, and ordered the state authority to grant title to the poor farmers' land claims.

To date, the peasant farmers have reclaimed, won legal title to, and parceled out nearly half of the local riverside farmland. To increase food production, they purchased water pumps and began to irrigate the land during the dry season. This enabled them to harvest two crops a year instead of one. As a result, their families were able to eat better, to earn income by selling some of their produce, and to save some money for medical emergencies and other needs.

The impact of these various actions toward greater fairness--between rich and poor and between men and women--has had a significant impact on health, especially that of children. When the villager-run health program began in 1965, the Under Five Mortality Rate for this remote mountainous area was around 340 per thousand. Today it is down to between 50 to 70 per thousand. Equally important, there are now far fewer malnourished, sickly, and stunted children. More youngsters are healthy, growing well, and bursting with energy and life.

Undoubtedly a number of factors have contributed to the impressive drop in child death rate. Most families agree that the Piaxtla health program has played a key role in reducing child death and improving health. But if you ask "What actions brought the biggest improvements?" few people will say curative or preventive medicine. Many will mention organized action to reclaim their rights and their land. Most families realize that the main reason why so many of their children used to get sick and die is that often they didn't get enough to eat. With their collective efforts to set up a peasant-controlled maize bank and cooperative fencing program, to combat excessive use of alcohol, and above all, to more fairly distribute the best farmland, the families of the village have been able to increase their economic base and to put more food on the table. All in all, they have gained more control over their health and their lives through cooperative action.

Since the early years of the health program, there has been a visible shift in power at the local level. In the first years, village council meetings had been strongly controlled by a few forceful land barons and cattle owners, but as the poor gained strength and unity, the few wealthy men who previously dominated decisions were so disempowered that they seldom attended ejido meetings. Outnumbered, they could no longer swing votes by threatening to evict sharecroppers or refuse them loans. In this way, the local struggle for health, which had turned into a struggle for land and liberty, also led to a more democratic and equitable community with greater accountability of leaders.

However, the process remained local and incomplete. The campesinos realized that if improvements in health were to be sustained, more good riverside land needed to be invaded and redistributed: not only in the Piaxtla valley but throughout the country.

Of course, this struggle for land, liberty, and health in the Sierra Madre was not an isolated event. In many parts of Mexico, grassroots groups were beginning to organize and demand their rights. As these groups gained in numbers and strength, high level attempts to silence them became more frequent and repressive. On occasion, Piaxtla health workers were jailed. And in a program which the Piaxtla team had helped to start in the neighboring state of Durango, two health workers were killed by the state police for organizing local residents to stand up for their timber rights. (An American plywood company was paying the corrupt leaders of the local ejido for the timber they removed. When the health workers organized their local ejido to demand fair disbursement of this money among all the families, the lead health workers were assassinated by the State Police.)

In response to this and other misfortunes, grassroots groups felt the need to unite in mutual self defense. To stabilize their tenuous gains, the health team joined with other grassroots programs to organize educational interchanges. This eventually led to both a national and a regional network of community-based health programs, covering Mexico and Central America. These grassroots networks share the conviction that the struggle for health is a struggle for liberation from hunger, poverty and unfair social structures.

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