Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Mazatec life revolves around the production of maize, beans, chilies, and squashes. Any surplus of these staple foods is sold in local markets. Various noncultivated foods are also gathered to complement the diet. Mamey ( Calocarpum sapota, a member of the Zapote family), sapodilla, mango, banana, papaya, tamarind, citrus, and avocado trees are planted for their fruits.
The cultivation of maize is not only an economic activity, but is the foundation of the group's social organization and symbolic interaction. Generally, in the cultivation of maize and that of the group's other subsistence cultigens, cooperative forms of food production are the rule. Two maize crops are grown annually: that of the tonamil (the dry season, extending from November to May) and that of the rainy season, harvested in October.
Besides providing subsistence, there is also an important commercial aspect to Mazatec agriculture. In the highlands of the sierra, coffee is cultivated extensively, but because of the infrequent use of fertilizers, productivity per hectare is far below the national average. Sesame is grown in the lowlands, as is sugarcane (which is sold directly to the area's sugar mills), and large tracts of land are set apart for pasture for cattle. On a lesser scale, tobacco, cacao, and achiote (which is used as a spice) are harvested and sold in the local market. In the area of Ayautla and Jalapa de Díaz, great mullein, a tuber from which certain hormones are obtained, is collected and sold to both national and international pharmaceutical companies.
The Mazatec have organized their commerce along two levels: national and international commerce for commercial products and, parallel to that, local commerce, wherein people of the sierra deal with people from the lowlands, exchanging products of regional specialization like clay pots, chairs, clay griddles, paper made from the bark of amate trees, leather sandals, bread, salt, fruit, eggs, candles, chilies, and so forth. This local commercial network is very important because it is a mechanism for integrating the more isolated producers. Exchange is by cash or barter. Handicrafts include the embroidering of textiles for the manufacture of huipiles. These traditional Mazatec women's garments are shifts with round necks and short sleeves; they are richly embroidered with floral or faunal motifs, depending on the village. Some artisans create ceramic objects or weave basketry from cane or palm leaves.
Land Tenure. Land is held communally, privately, and by ejidos. Until shortly before the Papaloapan Commission development project, private landownership was rare. Since then, as a result of the influx of capital and the movement and relocation of large contingents of the population, the dispossession of land has been facilitated, especially in the lowlands, and land has been redistributed into private hands. As of 1992, with the modification of Article 27 of the Mexican constitution, the judicial status of the ejido system was altered, and, as a result, problems regarding landownership are becoming more acute in the area.