Introduction

Many alternatives to industrial agriculture are emerging, and small farmers have been the pioneers of one such alternative: agroecology. The term refers to ecological principles and practices related to various aspects of farming, including soil health, water management, cover crops, crop rotation, biodiversity, natural pest control, and more. Agroecologists credit small farmers—with their wealth of place-based, indigenous knowledge—with the co-development of agroecology’s foundational principles.ii,iii,iv Because it is rooted in ecological and human rights based values, agroecology could be integral to a transition from our current food system to one that is equitable and sustainable.

Agroecological practices often emerged as a practical response to socio-political or ecological crises faced by rural communities and rural social movements.v,vi By minimizing the use of external inputs and decreasing dependency on global commodity markets, agroecology bolstered peasant livelihoods despite volatile prices or unfavorable government policies. Agroecology is also a core component of the movement for food sovereignty, a global peasant-led effort to defend the rights and resources of rural communities.

But many farmers are already embedded in an agro-industrial food system that is highly mechanized and dependent on (often subsidized) chemical inputs, and many questions about the transition towards agroecological farming systems remain. This is especially true as countless countries have policies and programs built around an agro-industrial food system, creating institutional barriers to a transition. Thus, the agroecological transition will require identifying best policies, programs and practices that have helped support farmers in such a journey. Not surprisingly, it is the small-farmer movements, and the rural communities at the forefront of the fight for food sovereignty that can shed the most light on some of these questions. By observing processes of change and transition currently happening, we can gain insight into how a transition to agroecological systems may take place.

The following case study turns to one of these movements, the La Asociación Nacional de Empresas Comercializadoras de Productores del Campo, which translates as National Association of Rural Producer’s Commercial Enterprises, and is known as ANEC. ANEC’s organizational model accommodates a diverse range of small and medium-size commercial farmers, with average member cultivating less than 5 hectares, and some members cultivating more than 50 hectares.

Agro-ecological transition in Mexicovii

ANEC, a Mexican farmers’ organization started in 1995, is currently working with over 60,000 members across 17 states.  The implementation by ANEC of ACCI/MICI,viii which translates into Peasant Agriculture of Integrated Knowledge/Management of Resilient Crops, appears to have had remarkable results. In 2016 ANEC had 634 member farmers participating in ACCI/MICI programs and applying ACCI/MICI practices and, in 2017, ANEC has over 1,200 farmers who will be using ACCI/MICI practices on at least one of their parcels, receiving training and technical support as they begin their transition. Farmers report higher yields, a 30 to 50 percent drop in production costs, healthier soils, and crops that are more likely to withstand ecological shocks like drought or frost. ANEC’s experience is especially helpful in illuminating the connection between democratic principles and agroecological transition and provides useful lessons on some of the challenges involved in that transition.

Context:

ANEC’s work is, (and it has historically been as can be seen from its organizational model), in response to, and despite, Mexican policies that have fomented poverty, dependency on state welfare, and a gradual divestment in smallholder agriculture.

Mexican agricultural subsidies are regressive, benefiting large-scale farmers in Sinaloa, Jalisco and Coahuila over small farmers.ix Rural communities have also been hard hit by the global economic downturn. The Mexican peso has experienced a drastic devaluation, leaving imported inputs like seeds and fertilizers out of reach for many farmers. Just last year, a weakened Mexican economy prompted the federal government to slash the annual budget, cutting some rural development programs by more than half.x

ANEC and its allies have documented how small-farmers support rural economies and Mexico’s food system despite the lack of investment. Seventy percent of Mexican farms are small farms, cultivating five hectares or less of land apiece. On these five hectares or less, small farmers produce almost 40 percent of Mexico’s food. Moreover, smallholder agriculture is the bedrock of rural livelihoods, generating three out of four jobs in rural communities. All of these social benefits are realized on 16.9 percent of the arable land in Mexico, much of which has no irrigation and little subsidies from the budget allocated to agriculture production. These statistics, available on the Valor al Campesino website in more detail, show that status quo agricultural policy and politics do not make sense.

Origins of ANEC’s ACCI/MICI- Agroecology by necessity:

“We had been fighting for the return of precios de garantia (guaranteed prices) from the government, and the provision of other programs and services, more credit, crop insurance. But conditions weren’t changing. Our survival depended on finding a way to increase yields and lower costs. We became agroecologists by necessity” (Ing. Toño, or Inginiero Antoño, ANEC’s advisor and community leader).

In 2008, the midst of the global food crisis and with growing popular recognition of climate change and its effects on production, ANEC farmers were seeing higher costs of inputs and lower productivity. So ANEC began reaching out to scientists and organizations who were developing alternative agricultural practices. It drew especially on the experiences of member organizations in Jalisco and Nayarit which successfully implemented programs of vermiculture compost, replacing commercial nitrogen fertilizer with worm castings. These experiences were shared at ANEC’s 2008 national assembly, which made the decision to invest more time and resources into developing alternative production practices.

What is an ACCI/MICI Approach to Farming?

“We want farmers to be producers of knowledge, not consumers of inputs.” (Victor Suarez, founder and Executive Director of ANEC)

The ACCI/MICI approach to farming, like agroecology, is structured around the idea of creating ecologically efficient production systems that are grounded in farmers’ knowledge of their land and their crops. In workshops on ACCI/MICI, farmers learn to use renewable resources, to minimize waste and reduce external inputs to produce their own compost and microorganisms, and to read and manage local agro-ecosystems so as to minimize pests and reduce (and eventually eliminate) the need for toxic chemicals.

Soil soil soil…that’s what we’ve learned. With green revolution paquetes we were taught to feed the plant, now we’re learning to feed the soil.”  (Don Tomas, Chiapas)

Central to the application of ACCI/MICI is the Farm Plan, which farmers develop with the support of their local and regional tecnicos or technical advisers. ANEC provides farmer organizations with information, human and capital resources, and strategies for assisting members in an ACCI/MICI transition for free. It is up to each farmer organization to decide to what degree it participates in the ACCI/MICI transition, after attending the trainings necessary to receive capital for microorganism biofabricas or composting operations.

“With ACCI/MICI, we have to spend a lot more time watching and monitoring our parcels. Any sign of a pest or any time there’s hail or high-winds, we go out and check the impacts and check-in with the our tecnico to devise a response.” – Don Santiago

In addition to investing in farmers’ and tecnicos’ knowledge, each participating organization is given tools to build its own biofabrica to cultivate microorganisms. Some farmers produce their own compost but a number of organizations scaled worm-composting operations to supplement member’s fertilizer needs. Many organizations have small meteorological stations, too. These tools and techniques help farmers work collectively to produce the alternative inputs that ACCI/MICI requires, lowering their labor costs. Also, selling microorganisms and fertilizer helps farmer organizations generate profits to cover local costs.

“Change happens on campesino time—they often have to see results before they spend time coming to a workshop or adopting a new practice.” (Local Tecnico, Nayarit)

The way that ANEC engages farmer organizations in an agro-ecological transition varies depending on farmer’s motivations and capacities. Having a dedicated interdisciplinary team that shares a commitment to democratic principles bolsters the integral and adaptive nature of the ACCI/MICI approach, which is central to the success of ANEC’s agroecological transition. ANEC’s staff and regional and local tecnicos work collaboratively to promote ACCI/MICI by applying four best practices(Meeting farmers where they are; Fostering Dialogue; Looking for Entry-Points; Using Existing Resources) discussed in detail here.

Challenges

While exciting, the transition process is still rather incipient and complicated and, in practice, ACCI/MICI can sometimes seem far from an agroecological ideal, both in terms of agri-food system practices and in terms of democratic processes, as discussed in detail here.

In terms of agricultural and food system practices, three differences are notable. First, many of the farmers participating in ACCI/MICI use a hybrid of agroecological practices and industrial practices, for example, combining worm fertilizer with occasional applications of synthetic nitrogen. Some farmers still apply chemical pesticides. While these practices are not ACCI/MICI ideals either, ANEC sees this hybridization of practices as part of the transitional process. Second, ACCI/MICI does not place the same emphasis on crop diversification as other agroecological approaches to farming. While ANEC mentions the benefits of diversifying crops as a means of promoting ecological equilibrium and diversifying livelihoods in its ACCI/MICI workshops, it is not currently a priority-area. Third, as yet, there is only limited focus on the localization and regionalization of food systems. ANEC is working towards this goal through its advocacy work and alliances with initiatives like the national Valor al Campesino Valor al Campesino campaign,xi which advocates for increased federal funding for small-holder agriculture and promote regional food systems that connect farmers with urban communities.

In a way, these differences in agricultural practices are partially because ANEC is faithful to the agroecological ideal of process: that of working democratically with the farmer members. Integrating women into decision-making processes, and giving them the opportunity to contribute to and learn about ACCI/MICI, is yet another challenge to be addressed. ANEC members, to start with, have been farmers with access to land (titles), who mainly happened to be men.

ANEC introduces certain ACCI/MICI practices or techniques based on what farmers have identified as their most pressing need. By demonstrating that one element of ACCI/MICI can address a most pressing need, ANEC gains in-roads with an organization, and accompanies farmers in an agroecological transition that they appropriate, adapt and ultimately make their own. The introduction of new agricultural practices was bolstered by the strong, trusting relationships cultivated by ANEC’s staff and tecnicos with members, as well as the access members had to other services including capacity building. Lourdes Rudiño, a Mexican journalist and researcher who first wrote about ANEC’s forays into productive innovation, has argued that the increase in yields ANEC realized were because the productive innovation was grounded in ANEC’s organizational model. ANEC’s approach “goes against the current of individualism that is promoted in the public programs implemented in the agricultural sector in Mexico.”xii The combination of a strong organizational structure and existing pathways for transmitting information and fostering dialogue is essential to ANEC’s success in developing and scaling-out the ACCI/MICI approach.

While the ACCI/MICI transition is still incipient, and many challenges remain, ANEC has found a productive approach to farming, and a process of introducing farmers to this approach, that seem to be working. But because ANEC interventions are locally driven, each of ANEC’s local organizations is also in the process of their own, unique agroecological transition.  The longer report examines the transition process of three different locales, and from those it becomes clear that the strength of the local organization—the ability of farmers to work collectively and the capacity of leadership to practice democratic governance—often correlates with the efficacy and depth of the ACCI/MICI transition. Such strong local organizations also contribute to technical innovations and the improvement of the ACCI/MICI approach. Weaker organizations are still capable of engaging in agroecological transition, however their transition is slower. Agroecology has been described as “broad and varied processes of experimentation and innovation […] that have the potential of transforming the dominant agri-food system into a more sustainable one.”xiii This definition of agroecology most closely fits ACCI/MICI.

Lessons from the Agro-ecological transition in Mexico

From the ANEC experience, we can infer the following best practices for supporting farmers in an agroecological transition:

  1. Meet farmers where they are. While ANEC seeks to replace input-dependent industrial agriculture, its approach adapts to the farmers’ needs and capacities.
  2. Look for entry-points, create space for dialogue and knowledge exchange. By creating countless opportunities for farmers to learn about and see the results of ACCI/MICI or the benefits of democratic leadership, ANEC fosters local interest in alternative approaches to production or governance.
  3. Use existing resources. Identify and invest in existing capacities and knowledge of community leaders, tecnicos, staff, and members.
  4. Share information.  Communication and information sharing to help farmers feel supported as they take on new endeavors, like transitioning to different farming system. Transparency and accountability are also essential for building trust too.

In addition, observing the ongoing processes of change occurring in Mexico through ANEC’s work reveals the following lessons: 1.) A transition strategy is more effective if it is integrated, affecting multiple levels of decision-making, policy, and the supply chain. It must envision change in agricultural practices, finance mechanisms and the commercialization of crops. 2.) Working through farmers’ organizations reduces the risks of experiments with new techniques and fosters more effective practices. And 3.) Local farmers’ organizations need the capacity to oversee both crop extension and financial controls to ensure trust, accountability and ownership over the transition process.

Next Steps for the Agro-ecological transition in Mexico

While ANEC has achieved a lot, the agroecological transition process is just beginning. In addition to addressing the challenges above, the next steps could include the following:

  1. ANEC needs to begin to identify ways to guarantee that local tools and techniques (including seeds) remain part of the collective commons. “We want to make sure that our investment in developing tools and innovations remain in the hands of campesinos. We’re not necessarily interested in patenting these innovations but we want to make sure that they aren’t used for profit by anyone else.” (Ing Olga).
  2. ANEC’s experience can serve as resource for other farmer organizations and contribute to improving agricultural policies in Mexico. For this, ANEC’s experience requires more rigorous assessment and documentation.
  3. Rural communities everywhere are struggling to find ways to encourage youth to stay and practice farming.  One of ANEC’s biggest challenges in the next five years will be the inclusion of youth and women into their programs and organizational structure.

Conclusion

The adaptive and flexible approach to sustainable farming that ANEC has developed may not conform with all of the socio-political and ecological principles and practices of an agroecological ideal. Yet, ANEC is successfully helping farmers, who are currently reliant on an input-dependent one-size-fits-all approach to agriculture, transition to more sustainable production practices. This transition empowers member farmers by reducing their dependency on external inputs and subsidies and strengthening their individual and collective capacities to make decisions about their land and their communities.

In conclusion, the strength of the local farmer organization and their capacity to act collectively affects the speed and depth of the agroecological transition. Similarly, the transition process can strengthen farmer’s capacity to act collectively in political and productive decision-making and advocacy.


[i] Note: This short version is excerpted by Shiney Varghese from a longer report with the same title by Zoe VanGelder. The full article will be available at www.iatp.org later this year. All errors are the Author’s own. Thanks to Hector Robles, Lourdes Rudiño, Ivana Fertziger, Jonathon Fox, Timothy Wise, Jahi Chappell, Sophia Murphy, and ANEC’s staff for their help.

[ii] Altieri, Miguel A. 2002. “Agroecology: The Science of Natural Resource Management for Poor Farmers in Marginal Environments.” Agriculture, ecosystems & environment 93(1): 1–24.

[iii] Gliessman, S R, E Engles, and R Krieger. 1998. Agroecology: Ecological Processes in Sustainable Agriculture. CRC-Press. https://books.google.com.mx/books?id=ulyCG70jB_MC; Gliessman, S. R. 2007. “Agroecology: The Ecology of Sustainable Food Systems”, 2nd Edition, CRC Press, Boca Raton, USA.

[iv] Wezel, Alexander et al. 2009. “Agroecology as a Science, a Movement and a Practice. A Review.” Agronomy for sustainable development 29(4): 503–15.

[v] Holt-Giménez, Eric. 2006. Campesino a Campesino: Voices from Latin America’s Farmer to Farmer Movement for Sustainable Agriculture. food first books.

[vi] Rosset, Peter, and Maria Elena Martínez-Torres. 2012. “Rural Social Movements and Agroecology: Context, Theory, and Process.” Ecology and society 17(3).

[vii] This report on Agroecological Transition in Mexico is based on Zoe VanGelders’ observations as she worked alongside ANEC for five years, and is complemented by three weeks of intensive fieldwork by her, accompanying ANEC on visits to 15 different member organizations in the Mexican states of Chiapas, Guerrero, Jalisco, Nayarit, Michoacán and Puebla. ANEC’s internal records and evaluations of ACCI/MICI, along with several external studies about ANEC’s work, bolster the qualitative data collected through interviews with over 40 farmers, local and national staff and leadership. This case study is from ANEC’s point-of-view; the results achieved by ACCI/MICI are results ANEC has gathered and are not independently verified and the majority of the evidence used to make arguments in this paper come from ANEC’s perspective. That said, this case study attempts to maintain a critical perspective on ANEC’s approach.

[viii] Agricultura Campesina de Conocimientos IntegradosManejo Integrado de Cultivos Inducidos.

[ix] Fox, Jonathan, and Libby Haight. 2010. Subsidizing Inequality: Mexican Corn Policy since NAFTA. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, University of California, Santa Cruz.

[x] In September 2016 La Jornada (México) featured a cover story estimating that budget cuts would push 800,000 more peasants in poverty and that it will highten rural poverty to 28 percent.

Laura Poy Solano, “La pobreza en el agro crecerá 28% por el agresivo recorte presupuestal, alertan”, La Jornada, 25 Sept. 2016. http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2016/09/25/politica/010n1pol

[xi]  Valuing Peasant Farmers is a campaign and initiative that aglutinates prominent civil society organizations, researchers and mexican farmer movements. The details of advocacy and research efforts spearheaded by the campaign, including statistics, are available on their website –http://valoralcampesino.org

[xii] Rudiño, Lourdes Edith. 2011. “Iniciativas Para Elevar El Rendimiento Del Maíz de Temporal: Metodología Exitosa Generada Por Campesinos.” Mexican Rural Development Research Reports. Washington, DC, Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.

[xiii] van Mierlo, B C, Anna Maria Augustyn, B Elzen, and Marc Barbier. 2017. “AgroEcological Transitions: Changes and Breakthroughs in the Making.” In AgroEcological Transitions, Wageningen University & Research, 9–16.