Home Of Milpas, Eggs and Baskets

Of Milpas, Eggs and Baskets


The huitlacoche is an edible fungus which grows on young corn cobs. Photo: Fulvio Eccardi

Armando Bartra

The work in the Advancing sustainability through a gender approach and territorial vision by promoting diversified strategies in rural social enterprises project, undertaken by CONABIO and the Instituto Maya in 2015 and 2016, confirmed the hypothesis that multiple use by families and communities of the various natural and economic resources in their environment is the basis that sustains their survival, occasional prosperity and the preservation of the environment. I will summarize some of the conclusions below.

There is no doubt about it: peasants create milpas, a multi-crop growing system. Only a few of them still sow corn, beans and squash together, but they all “create milpas,” if we understand these as a metaphor for the synergistic plurality that gives life to families and rural communities. And this multi-activity is increasingly important today when climate change, market problems and other adverse factors jeopardize small producers’ livelihood. Usually, when they go beyond the family or community sphere, peasant economic organizations focus on a single commercial product. They are forced to specialize by the conditions imposed by the competition. So some organizations “create milpas”, but most are “monocultures”. And that’s OK.

However, this specialization becomes socially limiting and environmentally harmful when it becomes practically the sole focus of public policies and programs and technicians’ vision. This one-sidedness ignores and discourages the harmonious polyphony on which the survival of small farmers and the health of their natural environment depend. Pluriactivity is the basis of rural life simply because it is embedded in the variegated nature that supports it. And the peasant organizations that have adopted it have proved more resilient and appealing to their partners than specialized ones.

Whether or not this virtuous strategy will extend to other organizational processes will depend largely on whether their counterparts in the public sector and professional services embrace the paradigm. How can organizations explore the possibilities of diversifying productive activities or services? Experience has shown that examining both the territory’s current and potential uses and meeting families’ most pressing needs in the voice of their women are two key approaches that light the path to rural polyphony. 

Mexican agriculture, the country, the world… are experiencing both a severe environmental and an economic crisis that peasant families are coping with through diversification strategies. But that does not suffice. Challenge and opportunity: the global crisis calls for a reorientation of the models and practices of rural organizations, because unless they are transformed, they will not progress. The changes required go in two apparently opposed yet actually complementary directions. On the one hand, they need to be more efficient in the basic productive activity around which they are clustered, which means specialization.

On the other, they need to reduce their vulnerability in the future by exploring other products and markets, which means diversification. In other words: it is necessary to produce more and better eggs without putting them all in one basket. The emergency caused by the crisis makes everyone prioritize what they think is most important. So families diversify their sources of income while organizations try to improve the production in which they specialize. This is inevitable and positive in the short term, but in the medium and long term, unless farmers become better producers of what they sell while continuing to be polyphonic, they will not survive. And nor will organizations unless they include synergistic diversity in their strategies while continuing to be efficient. The key would seem to be the right combination of specialization and diversification. But in any case, now is the time to rethink the future. Afterwards, it will be too late.