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Rainfed agriculture and climatic variability in Oaxaca, Mexico

Rainfed agriculture and climatic variability in Oaxaca, Mexico


Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.


The study of agriculture practiced by the Mixtec people, or "the people of the rain" (Ñuu savi), in the highlands of southern Mexico reveals successful adaptation strategies for growing rainfed crops in an unpredictable and ever changing climate. Both culture and environment have been shaped by a long and challenging history, which continues to bear relevance in this era of globalization and climate change.

My research from 2009 - 2011 focused on farmer strategies for dealing with climatic variability in the Mixteca Alta Region of Oaxaca, Mexico. It was the product of a close collaboration with the farmer-to-farmer training network, the Center for Integrated Small Farmer Development of the Mixteca Alta (Centro de Desarrollo Integral Campesino de la Mixteca Alta, CEDICAM). I was impressed by the depth of farmer knowledge about sustainable agriculture. In fact, what appeared lacking was the grassroots mobilization and political action needed to foster dignified rural livelihoods and environmental stewardship. This topic deserves much greater attention in future research by agroecologists.

My dissertation is organized in four chapters. Chapter 1 contextualizes my research by examining farming traditions of the Mixteca Alta that originated in different historical moments. I also provide a summary of the political economy of labor and sustainable farming.

Chapter 2 examines the social, environmental, and cultural conditions of farming in the Mixteca Alta. Based on in-depth interviews with farmers from two communities, I trace how changes in farming systems has re ected both traditions of farming and an increasingly globalized economy.

I found that a combination of agroecological strategies were important for families to approach self-sufficiency in grain production under highly variable rainfall conditions. Important changes in cropping systems were occurring, particularly shifts towards more precocious crop varieties. It appears that changes in cropping systems have been the result of social disintegration, soil degradation, and climatic changes.

The farmers that I interviewed understood the ecology of their systems. However, were not necessarily farming sustainably. Shift in farming systems were concentrating agricultural labor into the rainy season, thus allowing farmers to work outside their communities for several months during the dry season. While such changes were ostensibly be intended to save labor, they may in fact accomplish the exact opposite. New farming could potentially increase costs in terms of time and money for families, thus diverting attention away from sustainable agricultural practices. Stemming the labor squeeze from farming regions such as the Mixteca Alta likely will require concerted political action, including grassroots mobilization.

Chapter 3 describes participatory research with farmers in the CEDICAM network, as well as climatic studies, that aimed to place climate change mitigation and adaptation into the hands of small farmers. I facilitated workshops in which groups of small farmers described how they had adapted to and prepared for past climate challenges. Farmers reported that their cropping systems were changing for multiple reasons: more drought, later rainfall onset, decreased rural labor, and labor-saving technologies. Examination of climate data found that farmers' climate narratives were largely consistent with formal climatology data products. There have been increases in temperature and rainfall intensity, and an increase in rainfall seasonality that is likely perceived by farmers as later rainfall onset.

Farmers identified 14 indicators that they subsequently used to evaluate the condition of their agroecosystems. Farmers ranked landscape-scale indicators as more marginal than farmer management or soil quality indicators. From this analysis, farmers proposed strategies to improve the ability of their agroecosystems to cope with climatic variability. Their recommendations, as well as the methodology used in the workshops, holds relevance for farmers and their allies. Notably, they recognized that social organizing and education are required for landscape-level indicators to be improved. This outcome suggests that climate change adaptation by small farmers involves much more than just a set of farming practices, but also community action to tackle collective problems.

I conclude with Chapter 4, which highlights CEDICAM's contribution to mobilizing farmers in the Mixteca Alta region. They are taking action to reforest territories and advance agroecological farming. This chapter also reflects on how collaborative research outcomes contributed to CEDICAM's future outlook on farmer led research. CEDICAM was particularly interested in improving soil cover management and crop selection. CEDICAM as a network continues to promote the social conditions for agroecology to flourish.