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Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems
ISSN: 2168-3565 (Print) 2168-3573 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/wjsa21
Agroecology: a brief account of its origins and
currents of thought in Latin America
Miguel A. Altieri & Clara I. Nicholls
To cite this article: Miguel A. Altieri & Clara I. Nicholls (2017) Agroecology: a brief account of its
origins and currents of thought in Latin America, Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems,
41:3-4, 231-237, DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2017.1287147
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/21683565.2017.1287147
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Agroecology: a brief account of its origins and currents
of thought in Latin America
Miguel A. Altieri
and Clara I. Nicholls
Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California Berkeley,
Berkeley, California, USA;
International and Area Studies, University of California Berkeley, Berkeley,
This article briefly traces the origins of agroecology in Latin
America, and its application by nongovernmental organiza-
tions in rural development, its evolution and contributions in
academia, and its adoption and dissemination by social rural
Agroecology; Latin America;
peasant agriculture; social
On the origins of agroecology
Although it is correct that the term agroecology can be traced back to
agronomists such as Bensin (Russia) and Hénin (France), the German ecol-
ogist/zoologist Tischler (Wezel et al. 2009), as well as Italian scientists Azzi
(1928) and Draghetti (1948), agroecology’s re-emergence in the late 1970s
and early 1980s occurred in Latin America influenced by a number of
intellectual currents (anthropology, ethnoecology, rural sociology, develop-
ment studies, and ecological economics) that enriched the intellectual pedi-
gree of agroecology thus far dominated by agronomy and ecology. Since the
1980s, agroecologists have valued and sought to better understand the
experiential agroecological knowledge of farmers as a necessary component
to develop a more sustainable agriculture. This was clearly illustrated in
Gliessman’s early work (Gliessman 2016; Gliessman, Garcia, and Amador
1981) in the Mexican tropics which focused on understanding the ecological
bases of traditional Mexican agriculture, and which drew from the scholar-
ship of Efraím Hernández-Xolocotzi (Duch 1985). This empirical informa-
tion, based on observation and practice, and which also integrates cultural
aspects, was viewed as a source of knowledge to conceptualize and apply
agroecology (Méndez, Bacon, and Cohen 2013). The contributions of Toledo
and Barrera-Bassols (2009) on ethnoecology describe how indigenous knowl-
edge about nature formed the base on which agricultural knowledge was of
great importance. Such knowledge led to complex farming systems, adapted
CONTACT Miguel A. Altieri email@example.com Department of Environmental Science, Policy and
Management, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.
Part of the special issue “A Brief History of Agroecology in Spain and Latin America.”
AGROECOLOGY AND SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS
2017, VOL. 41, NOS. 3–4, 231–237
© 2017 Taylor & Francis
to the local conditions, which over centuries have helped small farmers to
sustainably manage harsh environments and to meet their subsistence needs,
without depending on mechanization, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or
other technologies of modern agricultural science.
Several tropical ecologists working in the Latin American tropics warned
that replacement of polycultures used by traditional farmers by monocultures
enhanced the possibilities for deforestation, soil erosion, nutrient depletion
disease and pest incidence, loss of genetic diversity, etc. (Dickinson 1972;
Igzoburike 1971; Janzen 1973). A central idea of many ecologists was that a
tropical agroecosystem should mimic the functioning of local ecosystems,
thus exhibiting tight nutrient cycling, complex structure, and enhanced
biodiversity. The expectation is that such agricultural mimics, like their
natural models, can be productive, pest-resistant, and conservative of nutri-
ents (Ewel 1986).
Agroecology and rural development
During the last two decades of the 20th century, Latin America was the world
region were agroecology expanded rapidly, initially adopted by hundreds of
NGOs concerned with the ecological and social consequences of the Green
Revolution (Altieri 1999). NGOs felt the urgent need to combat rural poverty
and to conserve and regenerate the deteriorated resource base of small farms,
and saw in agroecology a new approach to agricultural research and resource
management strategies that lent itself to a more participatory approach for
technology development and dissemination (Altieri 2002). Agroecologists
argued that to be of benefit to the rural poor, agricultural research and
development should operate on the basis of a “bottom-up”approach, using
and building upon the resources already available: local people, their knowl-
edge, and their autochthonous natural resources.
Many agroecologists quickly recognized that the inventive self-reliance
of rural populations is a resource that must be urgently and effectively
mobilized. Today, hundreds of agroecologically based projects have been
promoted by NGOs throughout Latin America which incorporate ele-
ments of both traditional knowledge and modern agricultural science
(Altieri and Toledo 2011). Technological approaches emphasizing diver-
community involvement and participation point to the fact that human
resource development is the cornerstone of any strategy aimed at increas-
ing options for rural people and especially resource-poor farmers. The
growth and impact of the Campesino and Campesino (farmer to farmer)
movement in Central America and Mexico and later in Cuba is a testa-
ment of the impact of the mobilization of peasant creativity (Holt-
232 M. A. ALTIERI AND C. I. NICHOLLS
The Consorcio LatinoAmericano de Agroecologia y Desarrollo (CLADES),
a network of NGOs led by the Centro de Educacion y Tecnologia (CET) in
Chile, Centro de Investigacion, Educacion y Desarrollo in Peru, and
Agricultura Familiar e Agroecologia in Brazil, played a key role in capacity
building on agroecology of hundreds of NGO technicians and peasant
promoters which in turn disseminated agroecological principles and practices
which crystallized in a variety of projects featuring resource-conserving yet
highly productive systems (Altieri 1999). In general, data show that over time
these agroecologically managed systems exhibit stable levels of total produc-
tion per unit area, produce economically favorable rates of return, provide a
return to labor and other inputs sufficient for a livelihood acceptable to small
farmers and their families, and ensure soil protection and conservation as
well as enhanced biodiversity (Altieri and Nicholls 2012).
The academic growth of agroecology
At the end of the 1970s, Steve Gliessman and his group offered what may be
considered the first course on agroecology at the Colegio Superior de
Agricultura Tropical in Tabasco, Mexico, followed by a similar course taught
by Ivan Zuluaga and Miguel Altieri at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia
in Palmira, emphasizing an ecological approach to agriculture. After the
publication in 1982 of the Spanish version of “Agroecology: the scientific
basis of alternative agriculture”(Altieri 1987), interest in agroecology grew
rapidly especially among agronomists who started to see the value of ecology
in guiding agricultural design and management and also by some ecologists
who began to use the agricultural systems as study plots to test various
ecological hypothesis. Other books although not directly related to agroecol-
ogy (Gasto 1979; Montaldo 1982; Primavesi 1982; Hart 1985; among others)
reinforced the foundations of the new emerging agroecological science.
In 1992, CLADES was instrumental in developing a course to train
young university professors who later on introduced agroecology into the
agricultural curriculum of their institutions as well as developed research
programs that are still active (M. Astier and J. Sanchez in Mexico, S.
Sarandon in Argentina, J. Rodrigiez and A. Contreras in Chile, I.
few). Many agroecologists affiliated with CLADES supported the graduate
programs on agroecology developed by Eduardo Sevilla Guzmán at the
Universidad de Cordoba and Universidad Internacional de Andalucia in
Spain. This group developed the theoretical framework of the sociological
dimensions of agroecology (Sevilla and Woodgate 2013). Many students of
this program created important university initiatives in Bolivia, Brazil, and
Mussoi, and others tailored extension programs with an agroecological
AGROECOLOGY AND SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS 233
approach directed at family farmers in many parts of Brazil. M. Gonzalez
de Molina and G. Guzmán have continued educational and research
initiatives in Spain which continue to impact the agroecological formation
of dozens of young professionals each year.
In the late 1990s, Peter Rosset, then at Food First, published the book “
The greening of the revolution”(Rosset and Benjamin 1994) which narrated
the efforts of Cuban scientists linked to ACAO (then Asociacion Cubana de
Agricultura Organica later absorbed by ACTAF-Asociacion Cubana de
Tecnicos Agricolas y Forestales) who together with many farmers offered a
technological production alternative during a time when the Soviet subsidy
in the form of petroleum, pesticides, and fertilizers was coming to an abrupt
end. Cuban researchers such as R. Garcia, F. Funes, M. Monzote, N. Perez, L.
Garcia, and others shared with the rest of Latin America their advances and
innovations (Funes et al. 2002).
The academic current of agroecology was consolidated at the regional
level, with the creation in 2007 of the Latin American Scientific Society of
Agroecology (SOCLA) which created two doctoral agroecology programs: at
the Universidad de Antioquia in Colombia with the collaboration of C.
Nicholls, T. Leon, S. Marquez, and G. Guzman and at the Universidad
Nacional Agraria de Nicaragua under the leadership of F. Salmeron. Both
doctoral programs have led to the formation of a high-level critical mass of
agroecologists. In collaboration with Centro para la Investigacon en Sistemas
Sostenibles de Produccion Agropecuaria (CIPAV—www.cipav.org.co) and
other organizations such as Swiss Aid in Nicaragua, Universidad Federal de
Santa Catarina in Brazil, CET-Yumbel in Chile, etc., SOCLA organizes
several short courses on agroecology that reach hundreds of people on a
SOCLA also created regional research programs, such as the Red
IberoAmericana de Agroecologia para el Desarrollo de Sistemas Agricolas
Rsilientes al Cambio Climatico (REDAGRES-www.redagres.org), which
explore agroecological strategies to enhance the resiliency of farming
systems to climate change. SOCLA maintains an active publishing record
with numerous books and articles published in various journals (www.
SOCLA collaborates with several universities, as well as research and
extension institutions in the region, and has close links with agroecologists
in Europe and North America, and through alliances with the Third
World Network offered training courses in Africa and Asia. SOCLA also
collaborates with farmers’organizations such as the Via Campesina and
organizations at the national level (Asociación Nacional de Agricultores
Pequeños (Cuba), Asociación Nacional de Productores Ecológicos (Peru),
Federación Nacional Sindical Unitaria Agropecuaria (Colombia), and
234 M. A. ALTIERI AND C. I. NICHOLLS
Agroecology and rural social movements
Early on, many agroecologists embraced the critiques of top-down rural
development and recognized and supported the peasantry in their new role
in the resistance against the advancement of industrial agriculture and
neoliberal policies. These political dimensions in agricultural research and
development contributed to the “jump”of agroecology from academic insti-
tutions and development NGOs, to becoming a strategic ideological element
in agrarian social movements. Many organized peasant and indigenous-based
agrarian movements, that is, the Via Campesina, espouse a more “militant
conception of agroecology”and consider that only by changing the export-
led, free-trade based, industrial agriculture model of large farms can the
downward spiral of poverty, low wages, rural–urban migration, hunger,
and environmental degradation be halted. These movements embrace the
concept of agroecology as a pillar of food sovereignty which focuses on local
autonomy, local markets, and community action for access and control of
land, water, agrobiodiversity, etc., which are of central importance for com-
munities to be able to produce food locally (Rosset and Martínez-Torres
The expansion of agroecology in Latin America initiated an interesting
process of cognitive, technological, and sociopolitical innovation, intimately
linked to new political scenarios such as the emergence of progressive
governments and resistance movements of peasants and indigenous people.
Thus, a new agroecological scientific and technological paradigm is being
built in constant reciprocity with social movements and political processes.
The technological dimension of the agroecological revolution emerges from
the fact that contrary to Green Revolution approaches that emphasized seed-
chemical packages and “magic bullet”recipes, agroecology works with prin-
ciples that take multiple technological forms according to the local socio-
economic needs of farmers and their biophysical circumstances.
Agroecological innovations are born in situ with the participation of
farmers in a horizontal (not vertical) manner, and technologies are not
standardized but rather flexible and respond and adapt to each particular
There are many epistemological innovations that have characterized the
agroecological movement in the region (Altieri and Toledo 2011), including:
●agroecology integrates natural and social processes joining political
ecology, ecological economics, and ethnoecology among the hybrid
AGROECOLOGY AND SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS 235
●it uses a holistic approach; therefore, it has long been considered as a
transdiscipline that integrates the advances and methods of several other
forms of knowledge around the concept of the agroecosystem viewed as
a socioecological system;
●it is not neutral and is self-reflexive, giving rise to a critique of the
conventional agricultural paradigm;
●it recognizes and values local wisdom and traditions, creating a dialogue
with local actors via participatory research that leads to a constant
creation of new knowledge;
●it adopts a long-term vision that sharply contrasts with the short-term
and atomistic view of conventional agronomy; and
●it is a science that carries an ecological and social ethics with the goal of
creating nature-friendly and socially just production systems.
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