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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Certified to Migrate: Property Rights and Migration in Rural Mexico


Improving security of tenure over agricultural land has recently been the focus of a number of large land certification programs. While the main justification for these efforts was to increase productive investments and facilitate land rental transactions, we show that if access rights were tied to actual land use in the previous regime, these programs can also lead to increased outmigration from agrarian communities. We analyze the Mexican ejido land certification program which, from 1993 to 2006, awarded ownership certificates to 3.6 million farmers on about half the country’s agricultural land. Using the program rollout over time and space as an identification strategy, we show that households that obtained land certificates were 28% more likely to have a migrant member. The effect was larger for households with ex-ante weaker property rights and with larger off-farm opportunities. At the community level, certificates led to a 5% reduction in population, and the effects were larger in lower land quality environments. We show evidence of certificates leading to sorting, with larger farmers staying and land-poor farmers leaving in high productivity areas. We use satellite imagery to determine that, on average, cultivated land was not reduced because of the program, consistent with increases in agricultural labor productivity.  Furthermore, in high productivity areas, the certification program led to an increase in cultivated land compared to low productivity areas.

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