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Innovations to Strengthen Communities and Assure Food Sovereignty

Rural communities are diversifying food production, introducing new activities to strengthen their economies and biodiversity.

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Lead Applicant Organization Name

Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Xochimilco and Iztapalapa Campuses

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Researchers: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Campus Morelia; Universidad Autónoma Agraria Antonio Narro; Universidad Autónoma Chapingo; Universidad de Guanajuato; Universidad de la Sierra Juárez; Universidad Veracruzana, Centro de Investigaciones Tropicales Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Forestales, Agrícolas y Pecuarias; Centro de Investigación y Desarrollo de Agrobiotecnología Alimentaria Small NGOs: Academia de la Comunalidad; Universidad de la Tierra; Colegio Paulo Freire Other: (International) Indigenous Community and Conservation Areas Consortium; Peasant and Indigenous Communities in Mexico

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 10+ years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Mexico City

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?


Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Indigenous and peasant regions in central-south Mexico (Oaxaca, Chiapas, Yucatan; Puebla, Hidalgo, Michoacan, Nayarit, Jalisco)

What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

The recognition of the multiple worldviews characteristic of rural societies in Mexico, and the acknowledgement of the country’s valuable biocultural diversity, has sparked the curiosity to understand the richness of productive and livelihood alternatives that they are applying through the nourishing of local traditional knowledge. Our team has collaborated with these communities for more than 30 years in developing a co-research methodology that sheds light on the transformation processes involved in the construction of post-capitalist societies. During this time, these peasant and indigenous communities have demonstrated a willingness and ability to collectively enhance their well-being and conserve or recover their ecosystems; they’ve strengthened their communitarian institutions and diversified their productive base. This motivates us to continue collaborating and moving further with our objective to build a convivial society.

This collaboration to promote food self-sufficiency in regions characterized by strong historical and communitarian traditions, with self-government institutions, is anxious to introduce new productive activities and protect the environments. Our team of researcher-activists has joined with communities committed to collective solutions to improve their quality of life, using traditional knowledge and post-normal science to increase and diversify production. The integrated process proposed in this application represents an effort to bring together the disparate collaborative activities in which we have engaged to develop an overall vision of the possibility that these communities provide an alternative to the development models currently applied in public policy.

 These communities are focusing on their bio-agroforestal potential and exploring other innovative areas: “rescuing” activities such as cotton and silk production, improving coffee and cacao harvesting, honey collection systems, and distillation of mezcal.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

The rural communities are in the most marginal regions of the poorest states in central and southern Mexico, many in mountainous regions; the several ethnic groups include the Maya, Wixarika, Nayeri, Nahuas, Tutunakus, Zapotec, Purépecha, Huasteco. Their production structures offer important sustainable bases, evolving from a vision of a balance between society and nature, where the bond with the natural environment entails responsibility, and community membership requires the redefinition of labor, based on non-market values. Their communitarian view of property determines the care and use of their ecosystem and usufruct rights limit the possibility of private property or sale. Over the past 40 years, these societies have realized the importance of local self-governance and are actively involved in recuperating traditional knowledge, worldviews, and ecosystem management techniques. They are aware of the public health crisis of obesity and diabetes in Mexico and are committed to strengthening their ability to avoid it. They are particularly proud of the variety of indigenous cuisines and the importance of local sourcing for their diets. The dominant food crop is the diversified milpa system, which consists of the harmonic polyculture of corn, beans, squash, pumpkin, and chile, among other products. They also produce coffee, cacao, eggs, pork, mezcal, native cotton, silk, honey, and many fruits and vegetables that vary through the wide region.

They speak a wide variety of languages, although Spanish is the Lingus franca. The variety of geographic and topographic environments in which we gather also lends itself to sharing local celebrations of religious and cultural significance, enriched by a delightful variety of flavors and sounds as each region enjoys its own panoply of musical instruments, many of which are fabricated locally.

An underlying dynamic motivating community participation to move beyond the options that were available in the past, is the growing recognition of the significance of the constitutional right of autonomy that is now accepted as a tenet of intercultural relations in Mexico. This was reinforced by Mexico’s accession to Convention 169 of the ILO and the two UN Conventions on the “Rights of Indigenous Peoples” and of “Peasants” which have the force of constitutional law. Indigenous peoples have begun to codify their unique worldviews (cosmovisions) and founded institutions to explore their significance for building a truly “multicultural” society (two of these are part of our network). The new openness is evident in the growing enrollment of students from these communities in higher education offerings that are sensitive to the unique disciplinary and technical approaches they require for returning to their communities; another collaborator is a small NGO (unincorporated university) that has a well-designed program to respond to the aspirations of community leaders.

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

The challenges for achieving food sovereignty in Mexico, and particularly in the rural areas, are many. Deforestation, water availability, mass tourism, and mining and hydropower conflicts are putting the natural patrimony at risk, and in some cases threating communities’ autonomy over their territories. Furthermore, the political power of soft drink companies and highly processed industrial foods, heightened by the free trade agreements add difficulty to counteract the importation of food and other products; the communities are consciously trying to defend their traditional diets and food systems. Another big menace is the industrial model of intensive agriculture that continues to put pressure by promoting the use of agrochemicals or invading the fields with GMO crops, both of which are now tightly regulated by the new government. In this sense, the major challenge for these communities to be able to (re)organize their institutions to achieve their peoples’ and environments’ well-being, is the insensitivity to the richness of biocultural diversity in the country as it rises a conflict of paradigms between traditional and modern productive systems.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Our “food vision” explicitly addresses this problem by collaborating for the introduction of new activities that can involve local people in the production of new products that can enjoy privileged access to protected markets. Our continuing collaboration with these communities will be oriented to strengthening their food self- sufficiency through various approaches of diversified production, such as agroecology, etno-agroforestry, the milpa system interspersed with fruit trees, or the metepantle system, of a cultivation pattern that combines agaves with food crops. Another fundamental element of the project consists on the educational programs designed and implemented by the communities themselves which enables them to share and expand their local traditional knowledge while enhancing and reflecting on the political consciousness that builds the basis for their self-managed organizations. Additionally, by organizing processes explicitly oriented to the generation of surpluses for their commercialization in protected conditions, the communities’ organization will be fortified. The construction of these fair trade and solidarity markets, will build a network of communities with the capacity to satisfy their needs and more resilient to the ambush that the global capitalist economic system often promotes.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Our project proposes to strengthen the resilience of these communities in the face of the incursions of the global market and the further disruptions of local markets as consolidation of international marketing conglomerates restructures markets. The heighten pressures of agroindustrial interests to occupy the most fertile agricultural regions and to claim rights to the increasingly precarious underground water resources will accentuate social conflicts and raise food prices. We take inspiration from the Zapatista movement, which has led an enduring process of community construction, reaffirmation of indigenous identities and the consolidation of a diversified productive system, with an improvement in the quality of life and environmental protection. We envision a highly collective participation guaranteeing the provision of the material needs of the community, but the social and caring services that make life viable and more pleasant. Strengthening local economies requires that production conforms to the needs of democracy and genuine sustainability. Food sovereignty entails not only the production of food, but also the creation of networks and alliances to coordinate linkages to markets, fair prices and limit the challenges from industrial and agro-export chains. It is not only the survival of these cultures that is at stake, but the opportunity to transform our societies by learning the valuable lessons that their experiences offers, as in the process, alternative definitions of well-being are being disseminated.

Our project also generates opportunities for urban based students and communities to become involved with other models of living and producing. We find that these “alternatives to development” attract some of our students to explore different career paths and ways of life. In the face of the heightening crises, the search for new life paths and the offering of viable alternatives appears more welcome than ever.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Food Sovereignty (FS) offers an effective strategy to promote environmental justice by empowering the producers to confront the strictures of traditional policies to promote rural development. As presently practiced and promoted around the world, FS is a strategy grounded in the collective actions of producers who organize to promote their own welfare, assure appropriate techniques for cultivating the land and, organizing local, regional and national markets that facilitate the exchanges among them.  In our vision for strengthening an evolving food system we propose that the organizations presently advocating the implementation of a FS approach to rural development offer a great many conceptual and practical lessons. The communities with which we are collaborating are actively engaged in social and institutional processes to reinforce their possibilities of assuring their own basic needs, including but not limited to food, while expanding their capacity to produce other products that will enable them to acquire those goods and services that they cannot obtain locally. This involves a concerted effort to build alliances and develop networks for mutual support and exchange, broadening their opportunities and strengthening their ability to negotiate with the national economic and political institutions with which they must interact.

The wide-spread fallacy that the prevailing industrial agriculture structure is an appropriate solution for addressing society’s food needs takes as its point of departure the ability of the marketplace, that wonderful ahistorical institution, to accurately determine the appropriate prices for all the elements required in the production process as well as for all the resulting products. The implications of this epistemology for the food system are quite far-reaching. They contributed to the development of a whole package of industrialized paradigms applied to different agricultural production systems, most notably with the development of the green-revolution approaches to seed development, to confront piecemeal the various natural limitations identified by the experts.  They also led to the supposition that any exploitative techniques that might lead to the impoverishment of the natural systems could be compensated for by the application of newly formulated inputs to replace nutrients or eliminate biological threats that might generate limits for increasing productivity. Even more boldly, the supposition that “man-made” forms of inputs might substitute for their natural forerunners has become increasingly more significant as gene manipulation technologies have facilitated the production of “transgenic” products in both agricultural and livestock systems.

In contrast, the basic tenets for a system based on FS require assuring all members of the society the satisfaction of their (socially defined) basic needs, in both material and cultural dimensions; in today’s world, this requires providing not only for the basic sustenance of the society, but also attending to the institutional requirements that guarantee the ability of all people to participate in the community’s governance, in the conservation and transmission of its culture, and to attend to the requirements to assure their health and other dimensions of their well-being. Of course, in an operative social system, these elements must be accompanied by a commitment to conserve the ecosystems on which they depend, and, if necessary, the rehabilitation of those that have deteriorated or been damaged by previous generations. In our vision, FS involves a definition of the conditions of production, the processes, and the impacts that this production has on the environment and on the people involved. By emphasizing process and impacts, the FS approach places its emphasis on the ways in which food systems promote a dynamic integration of communities with an all-inclusive concern for the relationship between producers, production, and the ecosystems within which they function. FS is important as an organizing tool and political platform for implementing a program that offers a meaningful alternative to the inability of the international community to meet its quite laudable declarations to eliminate hunger on a global scale (Sustainable Development Goals).

The Food Vision presented in this application is informed by the ample experience of practitioners on the international scene. The basic argument of those supporting FS is that it offers an effective alternative to the official approach to rural development to assure environmental justice. One of the major international groups promoting this vision is La Vía Campesina (LVC) that currently brings together some 200 million peasants in more than 80 counties. In consonance with the six interconnected themes of this call for proposals for a “Food System Vision”, LVC defines the six pillars of the FS approach:

1. Focuses on food for the people by: a) placing people’s need for food at the center of policies; and b) insisting that food is more than just a commodity.

2. Values food providers by: a) supporting sustainable livelihoods; and b) respecting the work of all food providers.

3. Localizes food systems by: a) reducing the distance between suppliers and consumers; b) rejecting dumping and inappropriate food aid; and c) resisting dependence on remote and unaccountable corporations.

4. Places control at a local level by: a) placing control in the hands of local food suppliers; b) recognizing the need to inhabit and share territories; and c) rejecting the privatization of natural resources.

5. Promotes knowledge and skills by: a) building on traditional knowledge; b) using research to support and pass on this knowledge to future generations; and c) rejecting technologies that undermine local food systems.

6. Works with nature by: a) maximizing the contributions of ecosystems; b) improving resilience; and c) rejecting energy intensive, monocultural, industrialized and destructive production methods.

An important facet of this focus is the empowering of farming communities to take a major role in ordering food provisioning. This involves concern for production and distribution as well as accepting responsibility for ecosystem health. Thus, there is an explicit devolution of powers to institutions that can coordinate production and distribution – including assuring adequate supplies for all social groups within their area of influence.  In the present context, our “Food System Vision” proposes strengthening the global space of convergence and encounter among diverse rural and peasant cultures, different epistemologies and hermeneutics that has evolved over many years in Mexico through a process called Diálogo de Saberes in Spanish, which roughly translates to ‘dialog among different knowledges and ways of knowing,’ [that] is key to the convergence and persistence of significant diversity. It is a process where different visions and cosmovisions are shared on a horizontal, equal footing basis. Part of it can be thought of a peasant/indigenous way of solving or avoiding conflicts, because there isn’t one knowledge system to be imposed on others.

Our proposal envisions complementing attention to strengthening the local food production system with a full range of complementary activities that focus on community institutions and the diversification by broadening attention to complementary activities that contribute to social well-being and environmental balance. Based on evaluations of regional biodiversity and market possibilities, we have identified a number of specialized products that are of particular interest to out collaborators in the communities; these include: ‘low-fat’ pork, omega-3 enriched eggs, fruits and vegetables, cotton and silk production, coffee and cacao, honey collection, and distillation of mescal; of course, local biodiversity also provides attractive inputs for various handicraft industries that contribute to strengthening cultural values and traditions. Many of these lines of production, such as the meat products, fibers, and intercropping patterns, involve considerable collaboration with the laboratories in the participating universities to improve the seed varieties and technological-production processes.

Perhaps the most important contribution of the proposed “food system vision” is the strengthening of the dynamic of intercommunity communication and collaboration. Our experience in the international Indigenous Community and Conservation Areas Consortium (ICCA) has shown that the exchange of experiences and the mutual assistance seminars (and webinars) have been particularly beneficial for the participants, as have been the peasant-to-peasant ‘schools’ that have been convened as extra-campus activities by one of our partners, the Universidad Autónoma Chapingo, a model also used productively by LVC. In the present moment, where the pressures from the national government, international trade agreements and markets, and foreign investment are clearly heightening tensions and attempting to limit the scope for action by local communities the alliances offered by the dynamics we propose to strengthen in this project should prove invaluable.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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Attachments (1)

Barkin_Communitarian revolutionary subject.pdf

An academic article published in English that describes some of the theoretical and empirical background that summarizes the work members of our team have developed over the past years. The Spanish version of this article has as its co-authors other recent graduates from our program in Ecological Economics. Many members of the multistakeholder team participating in this application have contributed to its development and some of the participating communities made substantial contributions.


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