Mexico -- a country whose bold agricultural experiments helped improve farming around the world -- is facing a tremendous agricultural crisis of its own:

The nation's population is mushrooming at such a rate that the nation's farmers cannot feed them.

And among the poorest of Mexicans are the farmers themselves. Millions plots in the nation's central plateaus.

It is the rural poor who have the highest birthrate. The prospect of dividing their tiny, barely productive farms into still smaller plots for children is dim, indeed.

In just 36 years, Mexico's population has quadrupled from 18 to 72 million people. Norman E. Borlaug, an Iowa plant breeder who received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for work in wheat genetics, says, "No society can rope with such rapid growth. Mexico's failure was not to curb population growth when it still could."

Only since 1960 have the numbers really begun to get out of hand.

Mexico had 14 million people in 1909; it has gained that many again in just the past six years. Projections say there will be 130 million Mexicans 20 years from now. Because 46 percent of Mexicans are under age 15, demographers think Mexico's population may reach 200 million before the growth rate can be curbed.

Providing food and employment for all these people has become a critical problem. Western diplomats say a high 40 percent of the Mexican labor force is jobless.

The Mexican government now promotes birth control: TV commercials urge viewers to control the size of their families and the government provides contraceptives at no cost. But many planners say Mexico's got into family planning very late. It began to provide contraceptives in 1974 -- that was 20 years behind India and China. There are between 500,000 and 800,000 illegal abortions each year.

The growth rate peaked in 1977 at between 3.4 and 3.7 percent per year. The Mexican government says the rate has dropped to 2.7 to 2.8 percent a year. Yet such a drop seems too dramatic, perhaps, in just three years. In the villages, pregnant women and infant children seem as numerous as ever. (The US Embassy in Mexico City uses a more cautious growth figure -- 2.9 percent.)

Mexico was self-sufficient in corn until the mid-1960s, in wheat until 1973, in sugar until last year, and in beans until this year.

Beans and tortillas have always been Mexico's staff of life. When famine struck in 1943 and 1944, $1 million worth of American corn and beans were rushed in to feed people who were starving. This year Mexico is importing $1.6 billion worth of US food (9.4 million tons), up from $667 million worth (4 million tons) last year.

The $14 billion Mexico will earn from oil and natural gas this year can pay for food, but Mexico has only one major port, Veracruz, and its port, rail, and truck systems are badly clogged. Distribution of food would be extremely difficult.

Last March President Jose Lopez Portillo announced a plan he thought would be a big step toward solving the agricultural problem. Called SAM (Sistema Alimentario Mexicano), it would give part of the nation's accumulating oil wealth to the poor. Funds would go toward improving diets and subsidizing fertilizer, credit, crop insurance, and technical assistance. Small irrigation systems would be improved, or constructed where they did not exist. Until now a third plots were too small, too fragmented, and too dry. The larger than aim is to make Mexico self-suficient in food again.

Most Mexicans believe that their agriculture is deeply in trouble. This is something of a paradox, however, because it was in Mexico, between 1943 and 1967 , that US scientists made the breakthroughs in tropical plant genetics that led to a tripling of India's wheat production from 10.5 million tons in 1965 to 34.7 million tons last year, and that lead to China's stunning rise in wheat production from 45 million tons in 1976 to 60.5 million in 1979. Within a year or two, China is expected to become the world's biggest grain producer. All of south Asia is approaching self- sufficiency.

So what is the problem in Mexico itself?

Although the nation's northwest coastal plains -- where the agricultural breakthroughs were made -- are extremely fertile, the Central plateau, where most Mexicans live, is semiarid.

In addition, Mexico's population kept growing.

It was in the northwest states of Sonora and Sinaloa that the Mexican government and the Rockefeller Foundation worked together in the 1940s to boost agricultural productivity. That area is now blessed by vast irrigation systems. Most of Mexico's 4.8 million irrigated acres are here. Wheat production rose threefold, and Mexico doubled its total food production to 44 million tons between 1945 and 1965. In Sinaloa alone, modern mechanized farms of 50 to 100 hectares produce 25 percent of Mexico's food on 3 percent of its farmland.

But that was just the fertile northwest plains. And population just kept growing.

The so-called green revolution works spectacularly well in societies, northwestern Mexico included, where there is a controlled water supply, general literacy, fairly equitable landholdings and rural income, adequate farm prices, available fertilizer, a good agricultural extension system, and sufficient transport, storage, and marketing.

But virtually none of these things exist on Mexico's mountainous central plateau, which covers 40 percent of the country and where 60 percent of Mexicans live.

Among the problems in central Mexico:

1. Bad weather and erratic rainfall. When it does rain, much of the water washes down craggy barrancasm (ravines) to the sea. Some 85 percent of Mexico's rain falls on 15 percent of the land, mostly in the southern tropical rainforests where the topography is too rugged for farming.

2. Millions of poor farmers and farm workers on tiny plots. Of some 8 million Mexicans employed in farming, 75 percent are very poor; 4.5 million are landless peasants.There are also 1 million private landowners working plots of 2 to 3 hectares. And there are 1.5 million Mexicans on tiny ejidom plots -- state-owned land managed by the farmers.

For government and peasant alike, obsession with land ownership remains a serious impediment to solving the rural crisis. So does the ejidom system, under which 1.5 million farmers on 2-to-3 hectare holdings work state- owned land, usually without fertilizer or modern methods. The ejido system developed after the Mexican revolution (1910 to 1920), when the government allowed farmers to stay on these plots as long as they worked them. Mr. Lopez Portillo's government had talked of collectivizing ejidom plots and managing them itself. But there is strong resistance from the peasantry. Sixty-five years of indoctrination on the importance of individual land ownership is hard to undo.

3. Poor soil, misused for centuries. Modern farm science has yet come up with a technology that can help small, unirrigated holdings above 5,000 feet. Half the farmland in Mexico is badly eroded. This dismal farm situation is one of root of Mexico's poverty. The nation has a total area of 196.7 million hectares but only 35 million of this is arable.

The Mexican outlook is far from hopeless, however. The Lopez Portillo SAM program could help improve agricultural production. And a switch from farming to small-business enterprises, such as handicrafts, and small-scale industry could put pull many of the rural poor out of poverty.

Farming experts say that even a small cry-land farmer, if he uses modern techniques, can grow 4 tons of maize per hectare. SAM fund could help here.

Mexico's average maize yield is 1.2 tons (compared with 5.5 in the US). Maize is planted on 7 million hectares, 2 million of which are often too dry; the crop is often lost. But even if the peasants were to grow 2 tons per hectare on 7 million hectares, they would produce 14 million tons, exceeding current consumption.

In a pilot project at Puebla, scientists from the International What Improvement Center (the organization that promoted Asia's green revolution) showed that Mexican farmers can easily grow 2.6 tons per hectare by using sufficient fertilizer even on traditional maize varieties in eroded, sloped soil.

The key problem is educating the farmers about improvement procedures. Here again SAM can help.

Mexico had 4,000 trained agricultural extension agents by 1976 and 8,000 by this year, but it needs 20,000. Another problem is that agents lack transportation to get to the villages and to find fertilizer, credit, and other items not generally available.

In Michoacan state I recently found villagers complaining that 70 extension workers simply sat in their office in a nearby town and "never come to our fields." Worse, fertilizer at the subsidized government price had disappeared; farmers could only buy it at 2 1/2 times the cost on the black market, too expensive for peasants with small holdings.

The village of Huecorio on Lake Patzcuaro in the central highlands is typical of many of the problem farming areas. This writer lived in Huecorio for six months in 1977. Most of the fields around the village were lying fallow. What maize there was was stunted for lack of rain.The majority of men had gome to el nortem as illegal migrants; apparently nobody got caught crossing the frontier as not one man came back. There was a general mood of defeat and despair. Usually there were three or four men staggering around the village plaza drunk in the middle of the afternoon.

It seemed like one of the bleaker Oscar Lewis portrayals of Mexican life, something it had not seemed three years earlier.

But one village is never the whole story.

Fields around Erongaricuaro, a village on Lake Patzcuaro, at the time I visited were planted in triticale, a man-made high-protein cross between wheat and rye that was starting to catch on locally.

Industrious farmers here would allow poor farming conditions to get the better of them -- nor poor farm prices.

Don Mateo, one of the villagers, explained the Erongaricuaro farmers' philosophy: "To fallow every third year is an old tradition. But MExico cannot afford to leave any land idle now with so many people to feed. We don't grow wheat . . . because the price is too low."

Tzintzuntzan, a village down the lakeshore from Erongaricuaro, is an example of how decentralized industry may be one of the solutions to the Mexican agricultural problem. It is as prosperous as Huerorio is poor. Money comes from manufacturing and merchandizing pottery and other handicracts.

George M. Foster, an American anthropologist who has been studying change in Tzintzuntzan since the 1940s, says that since 1960 the village increased the number of privately owned gas stoves from 1 to 150, and cars and trucks from 1 to 65. Now half the village homes have TV sets. Almost every family sends one or two children to high school.

"In 35 years I've seen a really astonishing improvement in Tzintzuntzan," he said.

Mexico now has some money to transform its Huecorios into Tzintzuntzans, thanks to its developing oil industry.

Mexico's proven oil reserves are 50 billion barrels, possibly up to 120 billion barrels (Saudi Arabia's proven reserves are 150 billion barrels).

In addition, oil is only 4 percent of Mexico's economy. Mexico turns out 6 million tons of steel and 450,000 cars and trucks a year. If industry was stepped up, Mexico would have another source of revenue and jobs.

Right now, most industries are concentrated in three cities: Mexico City (population estimates now range from 13 to 17 million), Guadalajara (2.5 million), and Monterrey (2 million).

Dr. Borlaug, the prize-winning plant breeder, shares what seems to be the emerging consensus among both MExicans and veteran foreign observers. "The answer lies in dispersing industry and starting new industry in the countryside. The big constraint on expanding agricultural productivity is water. There are now too many people for the available water and irrigation."

Instead of anti-wetback outcries, he says, the US needs to be thinking of ways to help Mexico with the task of education, organization, and management that a decentralized industry would require.

And Dr. Foster, the anthropologist, estimates that 95 percent of what Mexicans call "undocumented migrants" (US citizens call them "illegal aliens") are simply peasants who temporarily leave Mexico because there is not enough land for them and no amount of land redistribution can make enough; they go to earn dollars to take or send back home. The Mexican village remains their home.

Short of building a 1,950-mile fence and constructing a symbolic iron curtain with Latin America, there's no way to keep them out. The cure has to be within Mexico's villages.

As one ex-migrant in Tzintzuntzan village put it, "In the US even in little towns like this, I saw tall smokestacks, and at the bottom of the smokestacks, lots of people were working. Here our villages have no smokestacks."

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