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LibreOrganize 0.6.0 - Documentation

Agribusiness: Our Modernity’s Deadly Burden

from the March 15, 2023 Bulletin

immigration & border issues guns & violence Mexico-US history

Jayson Maurice Porter, a Voss postdoctoral research associate at Brown University, studies the intersections of the environment and food systems, science and race, throughout México and the Americas. An editorial board member of the North American Congress for Latin America, NACLA, Porter also serves as an environmental specialist for Noria Research's México and Central America Program. An article he co-authored last year with Brian Williams, Cotton, Whiteness, and Other Poisons, appears in the Environmental Humanities journal.


What experience led you to make a connection between Black and Mexican workers?

I’ve lived in Arizona and Mississippi for six years each, and traveling in those states I saw plantations being worked by Black, Mexican, and poor farmers. Given the historical sensitivity for place and power — that I gained from my maternal grandparents who fought for justice for Black communities in Philadelphia in the 1960s and 1970s — I began to ask questions in college about how environmental history connects shared histories of race, resistance, and hope. 

The history of how US Black and Mexican farm workers came to have a shared story began many years ago. Back in 1910, during the Mexican Revolution, peasants made land a major demand. Did they get what they wanted?


Before the 1910 Revolution, most land had wealthy Mexican and foreign owners, and México had many large haciendas, plantations. Peasant farmers, mostly indigenous and also mestizo and Afro-Mexican, wanted to regain access to and control of land. They wanted haciendas broken up and land owned by foreigners returned to México. 

Photo: Jim Sugar, Getty Images

The post-Revolution presidents still represented landed interests, so land redistribution in the 1920s at first remained minimal. But land reform did finally take place in the 1930s under President Lázaro Cárdenas, and those years accelerated the ejido system of communal land use. Throughout the 20th century, the government helped establish 29,500 ejidos on 43 percent of Mexico’s arable land.


Landless farmers, in the long and slow process of requesting and receiving ejidos, faced a variety of factors that made the transition to collective land ownership difficult. Pests, especially locusts in southern Mexico in the 1920s, had become a huge issue, with the military the only institution capable of responding. The Mexican government considered this military response necessary because agrarian reform was happening at the same time that rising capitalism and urbanization were creating a growing national demand for food that México’s farms needed to meet. During this period of land reform, the need for efficiency also helped legitimize a state and military presence in rural areas.


Caciquismo, or the rule of local bosses, became another obstacle to land reform. Some ejidos came to be run by “caciques,” local power brokers who ruled the ejido communities to their own advantage. In some cases, U.S. businessmen also became caciques and found ways, after the Revolution, to circumvent the rules against foreign land ownership. In coastal Guerrero, for instance, Afro-Mexican, Afro-Indigenous, and poor mestizo sharecroppers continued to work in the cotton fields and soap factory of Charles A. Miller after the revolution. The days of hacienda-style farming, with its negative impact on poor, racialized farmers, had not ended.


The Revolution destroyed many oppressive aspects of Mexican life, but agribusiness would not be one of them. Larger-scale farms became state-run industries, and capitalist expansion connected many ejidos to the government, urban centers, and global markets. Ejidatarios made some attempts to maintain their sovereignty, but agricultural modernization was developing at their expense.

The market and the desire for profit demanded higher production. Does that explain why pesticides began affecting ejido farms and farmers?


As historian Nicole Mottier writes, the ban on US ownership of land in México did not scare off US companies like Anderson Clayton and Company, or ACCO, a major cotton-trading company. On the contrary, these companies saw opportunity. After all, they didn’t need the land, they just needed the product. 

M.D. Anderson in a cotton warehouse.
Photo: Texas Medical Center

So firms like ACCO bankrolled the ejido system and granted loans for new ways to maximize production. In the 1920s, they began testing pesticides on cotton in Sinaloa and Sonora. 


These chemicals helped render poor farmers expendable, and this toxic pattern only accelerated in the Green Revolution that ran from 1943 through 1960. By the 1980s, nearly 300 farmers a year were dying from acute and chronic pesticide exposure in Sinaloa, a stat that shows dramatically who was bearing the burden of modernity. 

How did arsenic, the first widely used pesticide, move between México and the US?


Arsenic came mostly as a byproduct from the smelting of copper and silver, a large-scale enterprise in late-19th century México. American companies imported arsenic into the US to make glass, paints, and insecticides. US agriculturalists like ACCO began experimenting with arsenic as a pesticide, especially on cotton, and this arsenic became a staple on US cotton plantations in the early 20th century.


The geographer Brian Williams has found that in the 1920s the USDA produced videos to show landholders how to teach Black people to use arsenical insecticides!

Photo: Stamford Advocate

By the 1930s, US companies were sending arsenic-based pesticides back to México for use on cotton plantations. Arsenic happens to be toxic to humans as well as insects, but the deadly effects of arsenic, a cumulative poison, took a long time to recognize. In both México and the United States, the Mexican and Black workers who dominated the farm labor sector suffered the most from the deadly effects of arsenic and other pesticides.


What can undo this historical damage and stop the current damage?


My grandmother Mary Jane used to say that “shoulds” and “ifs” do not exist. I think she meant that we can’t always think about what should be the case or what would be possible if something were the case. We have to work with what we have, and what we have includes examples from history that we can learn from and much more as well, everything from the interconnected environmental networks growing on both sides of the border to the courageous journalists working to keep agricultural-sector dangers in the public eye.


Most importantly, we also have ancestors who worked the land and who can remind us how to care for it. And we need to remember the hard lesson peasants learned in 1910: A revolution may not always be enough. So what can we do to get closer to what we want? We can look to history for answers, to help our revolutionary projects overcome the obstacles that confront us.