Food sovereignty and beyond: an alternative from the Tseltal of Chiapas, Mexico

23 June, 2017

In response to the need for more sustainable, just and healthy food systems, social innovators are experimenting with alternative models, notably through initiatives that combine agroecology with social and solidarity economy. I have been researching one such initiative, the Misión de Bachajón in Chiapas, Mexico, where Jesuits work with the Tseltal people to achieve not only food sovereignty, but a more integral 'sovereignty without adjectives'.

Market and non-market approaches

To make this economically viable, the Misión de Bachajón combines two different approaches, each with its own logic. The first has to do with elements that are essential for the very long-term reproduction of the community; these are largely outside the realm of market commodification. So, land is owned collectively, food is grown for self-consumption and reciprocal exchange, natural resources are stewarded, and their ‘cargo system’ of self-government is run on unpaid service work. At the same time, the Tseltal need money to buy some goods and services, so they trade gourmet organic coffee and honey through national and global markets.

Power imbalances in the coffee trade

Coffee is one of the most traded commodities in the world, and Chiapas is the top producing state in Mexico, which is, in turn, one of the world’s top ten producing countries. It is a product with a long value chain, and – like wine – with subtle distinctions of taste that create an opportunity to optimize value at every link of that chain. However, the coffee-producing municipalities where the Misión de Bachajón is located have extremely high rates of multidimensional poverty relative to the rest of the country.

The Misión interprets this paradox through the lens of power: outside firms are able to capture most of the value created in the chain, because Chiapas producers generally do not have access to roasting or retail; they typically sell parchment – dried but unhulled – coffee, through intermediaries, as a commodity. Financial speculation in the commodities market leaves them vulnerable to price volatility which is driven by factors outside their control, and the fact that they are typically paid by weight, as opposed to quality, takes away the opportunity to optimize value. Inspired by Latin American dependency theory, the Misión has set out to engage the market on more sovereign terms, by a process of economic upgrading.

Economic upgrading

Economic upgrading is carried out in four main ways. Functional upgrading is achieved through forward vertical integration: the Mision’s group of cooperatives and social businesses, Yomol A’tel (founded 2000), includes its own roasting plant in Chiapas and a chain of cafés located in wealthy parts of urban Mexico. This not only creates higher returns, but also allows for a stable price, by circumventing the commodities market.

Process upgrading entails a continual effort, led by industrial engineers and business managers, to make the production and distribution process as efficient as possible. Quality upgrading helps ensure that Yomol A’tel has access to high-end niche markets, which not only means higher prices, but also an environment in which a small newcomer can be competitive. Finally, Yomol A’tel completes circuits of ‘value systems’ (interconnected chains that mutually reinforce each other). So, along with added-value product lines (such as honey-based soaps), it has created a microfinance bank, a carpentry workshop for honey beehives, and a catering service.

Photo: Yomol A'tel

Social benefits

Yomol A’tel is also designed to ensure that the economic value created by this upgrading strategy spills over into social benefits. The producers are part of a cooperative; its board of directors participates in the governance of the roasting plant, the cafés, and the honey processing plant, which are all run as social businesses for now, but are in the process of becoming cooperatives themselves (Yomol A’tel is inspired by the Mondragon model, a cooperative of cooperatives). This ensures equitable distribution of income and sharing of power. Profits are reinvested in the form of social property through the cooperative’s bank, which invests this capital in new initiatives.

A cross-cutting educational component, ranging from on-site training to sponsorship of professional university degrees and diplomas, ensures that all members grow in capabilities. Women are included in high-value and non-traditional jobs. The creation of non-agricultural jobs with increasing marginal returns on investment, which still depend on intensive agricultural production (where value productivity is based on quality and scope rather than capital extension), is a way of fostering sustainable rural livelihoods in a context of increasing population density.

Photo: Yomol A'tel

Ecological enhancement

All of Yomol A’tel’s production is organic (and its coffee is shade-grown), using agroecological methods. This is important not only because of the inherent value of ecosystems, or because of the market premium for eco-friendly products, but also because all economic and social re/production is embedded in and mediated by a material, ecological base. So, the way in which these elements are entwined can either contribute to or undermine the long-term sustainability of an economic model.

In this case, the advantage is that the standardized gourmet tastes with highest market value, for both coffee and honey, happen to coincide with good agroecological practice. Shade-grown coffee, micronutrient-rich soil, and frequent skilled care of trees all translate into a higher end price. Honey that is produced from a biodiverse range of flowers is also valued in the market for its taste, and precludes the use of poisons.

Virtuous cycles

Agroecology incentivized in this way has further implications. It is knowledge and labour-intensive, rather than capital or input-intensive, and it produces yields of scope rather than single-commodity yields of scale (that is, it produces enough of everything, rather than a lot of one thing). This means agroecology has an elective affinity with a 'middle peasant' model that combines food production alongside cash crops, by small landholders who use their own skilled labour, which is easily transferable between the two types of production. The knowledge required, and the food sovereignty that this model enables, go hand in hand with Tseltal cultural reproduction, which in turn is mutually reinforced with the cargo system. These factors of social cohesion contribute to the long-term thriving of the cooperative, and vice versa. Yomol A’tel has connected the dots of the 'triple bottom line', to create a virtuous cycle.

Wider impact

Yomol A’tel is active in many networks, including the Comparte network of Latin American initiatives that are building viable models of social and solidarity economy. Through this network, Yomol A’tel has inspired other organizations to replicate various aspects of its model. For example, the Instituto Mayor Campesino in Colombia has just partnered with several associations of smallholder coffee producers to launch their own Garittea café. Network members share knowledge and skills, but most importantly, they show each other – and indeed, us all – that another economy is possible.

This post draws on a paper presented at a workshop on 'Latin America in the era of sustainability: questions at the interface between development and the environment' held at ODID on 5 May and organised by Emilio Travieso along with DPhils Santiago Izquierdo-Tort and Felipe Roa-Clavijo.

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About the author(s)
Emilio Travieso
Research Student