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Beloit College

Publication Date

Fall 2004

Program Name

Mexico: Grassroots Development and Social Change


As one of the most ethnically, culturally, and biologically diverse states in the Mexican Republic, Oaxaca proved to be a good location to learn about alternative forms of social organization. With 570 municipalities, Oaxaca has 23% of the municipalities in the entirety of Mexico. The vast majority of Oaxaca’s municipalities—480—are politically and socially organized through communality, a traditional form of self-government widely known as usos y costumbres (uses and customs). Within the four weeks allotted for this research project the majority of my time was spent in the Northern Sierra Juárez in the state of Oaxaca.

I first visited the Sierra Juárez for a week in October to work with a local NGO in Guelatao. While on a trip to Ixtlán, a larger, neighboring community, I noticed signs in the entrances to both communities which read, “Private property does not exist in this community; PROHIBITED: The buying and selling of communal land”. The classic economist argument of the “Tragedy of the Commons” immediately came to mind, and I wanted to find out how the theory and the community’s reality co-exist, harmonize, and/or dispute one another.

How is it possible that private property doesn’t exist? Nearly everything I knew as far as property and ownership in my home community focused around private property, and certainly what I had learned in my economics classes had taught me the value if not necessity of private ownership. I had always had my doubts about the assumptions surrounding the economic theory, but had never witnessed an alternative. I wanted to better understand how these communities organized and sustained a livelihood that centers around a communal existence which denies private property.

In mid November I had returned to Guelatao and the Sierras to learn more about how the economist’s theory was or was not played out in the communities. I came to examine if and how the traditional political and social organization manage the commons. To do this, I did both formal and informal interviews within three communities—Ixtlán, Guelatao, and Santa María Yahuiche—all of which are politically and socially organized through varying degrees of the traditional means of communality. The majority of my time was spent in Yahuiche, the most traditionally organized of the three communities.

Yahuiche is a small community of 250 (although precise statistics become complicated by migration) and is not a municipality but an “agency” of the larger neighboring municipality of Ixtlán which has a population closer to 3,000. My observations and interviews in Yahuiche will provide the basis for my analysis of communality and the commons.

The four main institutional structures which make up communality are: cargoes, tequio (communal work), communal terrain, and fiesta. Cargoes are unpaid positions of authority and power which each community male between the age of 18 and 60, and widowed or single women with property, are obligated to fulfill on a rotating basis. In Yahuiche the cargoes of the agency such as agent (the head of authorities), police staff, and chief of work, rotate every year with eight months to rest before beginning a school cargo (and only men with school aged children are obligated to fulfill these cargos). The rotation between rest and different cargoes is as follows :

January-January – Agency Cargo

January-September – Rest

September-September – Fathers of the Family Cargo/ Committee

September-January – Rest (then the cycle will repeat)

Women also rotate cargos between Mothers of the Family Committee/Cargos (again, only

women with school-aged children are obligated) and cargos within the town health center.

A complementary institution to cargos is the assembly, or the decision making body within communality. It is within the assembly that cargos are named and disputes are settled thorough discussion and direct vote of each eligible male citizen. Almost every Sunday of the year, excluding a month in June or July to allow for harvest, and the last weeks of December, the citizens in Yahuiche hold assembly or tequio.

Tequios are communal work days in which each eligible male citizen is obligated to lend his services to the benefit of the community from 9am to 2pm on the designated Sundays. The work often involves maintenance of streets and water sources, but can also include the construction of new community buildings. My first visit to Yahuiche happened to be for the inauguration party of their new agency building, which was built through four years of tequio.

Through an examination of the core institutions of communality and the culture in which it is embedded, this paper will examine how communality has evolved and currently plays out in the modern debate between private and communal property. Through this analysis it becomes apparent that the culture and institutions of communality allow for successful management of the commons through a fundamental acceptance of obligation. Following a brief section on methodology, the history of indigenous communities’ traditional forms of self-government will introduce the development of the modern-day functioning of communality. The paper will then examine how communality currently takes form to provide for social and political organization ensuring the participation of it’s members through institutional and cultural sanctions and punishments. The final section of the paper will be a theoretical analysis examining how Garrett Hardin’s article, “Tragedy of the Commons” provides misleading insights to the (mis)management of communal property in light of the communal structures of coercion and sanctions.


Place and Environment | Politics and Social Change | Rural Sociology


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