Economic Development and Occupational Change in a Developing

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University of Missouri, St. Louis
UMSL Global 1-1-1978
Economic Development and Occupational Change in a Developing Area of Mexico
Stuart Plattner
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Recommended Citation Plattner, Stuart, "Economic Development and Occupational Change in a Developing Area of Mexico" (1978). UMSL Global. 267. Available at:
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Occasional Paper No. 786 April, 1978
Stuart Plattner

Stuart Plattner Research Associate, Center for International St-t1dies Associate Professor of Anthropology, Department of
Sociology/Anthropology/Social Work

Introduction The Chiapas highlands of southeastern Mexico are well known in
the anthropological literature as the home of some well-studied Mayan Indians (Cancian 1965, 1972; Colby 1966; Collier 1975; Laughlin 1975, 1977; Vogt 1969), and as a prime example of an underdeveloped reqion (Aguirre Beltran 1967, Stavenhagen 1975). I studied a community of Ladinos (people who speak Spanish and consider themselves Mexican rather than Indian) in this region in 1967 and again in 1977. During this time the Mexican federal government instituted major projects of economic development in the Chiapas Highlands. I will describe the impact of this development upon a traditional sector of the urban community: long distance itinerant peddlers. These traders live in the barrio of Cuxtitali, a small endogamous neighborhood in the central city of San Cristobal de Las ca·sas, Chiapas, Mexico. 1
The Chiapas Highlands Highland Chiapas is an area of_roughly 15,000 square kilometers
occupied by about 335,000 people (PRODESCH 1976). This represents about a tenth of the land area and a little more than a fifth of the total population of the state of Chiapas, which borders Guatemala's Western frontier. The highla~ps are mainly occupied by
Mayan Indian peasant farmers living in communities which range from about 1,500 to 2,500 meters of altitude. The communities are usually dispersed in small hamlets surrounding township centers of varying

sizes, degrees of urbanity, and proportion of non-Indian (Ladino) population. The traditional central town of the region is San Cristobal de Las Casas. This town was founded by the Spanish conquerers in the early sixteenth century, and was at one time the state capital. It now has a rapidly growing population of Ladinos and Revestidos (literally, redressed, denoting those who are in the process of changing their ethnic identity from Indian to Ladino). The town had about 22,000 inhabitants at the end of the 1960's.
If Mexico is a "less developed country", then Chiapas is an "undeveloped" state, and the Mayan highlands of Chiapas are the "underdeveloped core of the state. This means a:re the highlands of the periphery, but does not mean that they have been unconnected to the economy of Central Mexico. Chiapas has imported processed goods and exported agricultural goods for hundred of years. Ladinos in the highlands occupy an elite class position and control most of the small manufacturing enterprises and all of the few large factories (a sugar mill, rum factory, and textile mill). Ladinos also control the import of manufactured goods and the export of farm goods from the region. · They enjoy the benefits (and costs) of urban life and such technological comforts as each town provides, and each family can afford, at the long-run expense of a generally depressed life style for the large class of Ind i an peasants. While the overwhelming majority of Ladinos are wealthier than most Indians, Ladino society is much more internally stratified than Indian society. Thus the bulk of Ladinos consider themselves poor in relation to the small

group of middle-and upper-class ladinos. A small number of Indian leaders are wealthier, in absolute terms, than the majority of Ladinos.
Chiapas does not have a complex hierarchical system of periodic markets similar to the system in Western Guatemala so brilliantly analyzed by Smith (1976). Until recently the town-farm exchange took place by means of itinerant agents using human and animal transportation. Thus cows, pigs, coffee, tobacco and corn were traditionally purchased on the farm by agents. Part of this exchange was effected by Ladino long distance itinerant p~ddlers based in San Cristobal, who took cloth, clothing and small hardware items out from the city and brought pigs and po~ltry back in return. Within San Cristobal this trade was concentrated in the barrio of Cuxtitali, where peddling, pig processing and pork distribution has been the traditional occupation for at least 300 years. The wives of the Cuxtitali men sold pork in the daily city market.
When the road system of the highlands was composed of dirt mule trails, the peddlers integrated the agricultural hinterlands with the .central trading and processing town. They presented manufactured goods on the doorsteps of hinterland Indians in dispersed hamlets, at cheaper net prices than the Indians would have obtained if they had travelled to town themselves. The peddlers' ability to provide cheaper prices was due to economies of scale on their part, the very high cost of primitive transportation in the mountainous area,

and the dendritic form of the distribution system (Smith 1977), in which almost no secondary centers existed aside from the primary central town. When all-weather roads were built into the hinterlands, transportation became cheaper, secondary centers began to flourish, and the economic basis for the traders' price advantage disappeared. The occupation of peddler began to disappear, too.
The Pan-American highway was not paved in Chiapas until the 1950 1s. Since then the federal government spent small but continually increasing sums of money on developing the state's economic infrastructure (roads, telephone and telegraph lines, hospitals, water systems, and other health services) until the 1970's when the pace of this investment was dramatically increased. A special bureaucracy was created, titled 11 Program of Socio-Economic Development in the Highlands of Chiapas 11 (acronym PRODESCH), funded by the Mexican government and the United Nati ons, to coordinate economic development in the region. Over a period of five years (1972-1976) a total of 44 million dollars was spent on projects which included the construction of over a thousand kilometers of new roads,electrification and teleco11111unications lines, and other economic development projects (Table 1). For the Chiapas highlands, these figures are significant. The most impressive development was the construction of twice as many all-weather roads than had existed before, including an all-weather road from San Cristobal through the Ocosingo region. This opened up the heart of Highland Chiapas to motor transportation. The federal government's

interest was probably due to the recent discovery of oil in the region, and to the fact that coffee and cattle are exported from the state.
Although the development of the highlands was focused on the total region, which is predominantly agrarian, as always a disproportionate share went to the urban areas. San Cristobal gained two major new hospitals, a new telecommunications building, and became the site of numerous federally funded agencies with missions ranging from the coordination of regional interdisciplinary research in applied ecology to the support of folk crafts such as weaving and ceramics. Each new project brought with it an urban oriented staff who required middle class housing, educational, economic, and social services. The irrmediate effect of largescale economic development was thus a frenzy of urban construction to meet the demands of the incoming specialist population, at the same time that construction jobs in the region were multiplying as the transportation and communications projects themselves were brought into being. These were "external'' causes of increased construction.
There were also local causes, due to the continued inflation of the Peso. This led to the devaluation of the Peso (in 1976), which further exacerbated the increases in prices. Contributing perhaps to local inflation was a rise in the price of coffee (grown in part of the region) from about 200 Pesos per sack in 1967 to 2,500 Pesos in 1977. This seemingly endless rise in prices caused

local people to invest their savings in basic materials such as housing. They felt that the prices of materials were rising so fast that any hesitation in the present might mean that they would not be able to afford the materials in the future . Thus many new jobs were created in local construction of brick and reinforced concrete buildings.
The specialists brouqht into San Cristobal by the economic development projects also demanded middle class goods. Clothing stores spruced up their displays, and major appliance stores offered a greater variety of expensive electrical appliances. This aspect of the changing scene directly affected the itinerant peddler community because the new middle class people consumed more meat and purchased more vegetables than the existing population of the city. Thus at the same time that the traditional suppliers of pork (those peddlers who sold cloth and bought pigs) were decreasing in number, the demand for pork and produce in the city was increasing.
In the long run, new roads and communications systems should stimulate market production in the hinterland areas of the state. Farmers settling new communities in the rainforests of Ocosingo, for example, could export the high quality peppers and other hotcountry fruits and vegetables grown there if they could ship out produce in bulk. If regional production and trade increases, jobs should be created in central transfer points like San Cristobal to handle the increased conmerce.2 However such long-run optimism is usually proper only for the wealthy. The poor must scramble to keep

and permanently employed men. 3 Women were likewise employed in commerce. Although sixty percent of the women worked as housewives, over eiqht.Y percent of those wives with occupations in the public (non-family) economy were vendors of pork and produce. Husbands and wives tended to match their occupations to achieve economies of scale at the household level (Plattner 1972).
Cuxtitali in 1977 The primary effect of the new roads was that people and goods
could flow in and out of the hinterlands with greater ease than before. Trips which took four days of walking (and therefore three niqhts of arranging sleeping space, provisions, etc.) now took less than one day. Indians could come into San Cristobal and shop there while they conducted other business in bureaucratic offices. Indians who never had much business in San Cristobal discovered a source of aid at the PRODESCH offices.
Traffic also increased in the reverse direction, from the center out. People with trucks could offer wholesale terms to stores in the secondary hinterland centers. Since these hinterland stores could now order qoods directly from large wholesalers in Tuxtla Gutierrez {the state capital), or even from Central Mexico, the dealers in San Cristobal who traditionally monopolized this trade now had to give competitive tenns. Thus, at the same time that the rural Indians were able to do more shopping in San Cristobal, the hinterland commercial centers were dramatically expanding. All this

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Economic Development and Occupational Change in a Developing