ArticlePDF Available

Peasant balances and agroecological scaling in Puerto Rican coffee farming: Crisis, coffee, and agroecological scaling in Puerto Rico



This paper examines the relationship between agroecological scaling and the agrarian question, based on Puerto Rico’s contradictory agricultural and demographic tendencies in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. We find that labor-based intensification, literally rebuilding and recovering the diversity of farms devastated by the hurricanes, is a necessary step toward scaling out agroecology in Puerto Rico. The rebuilding of farms requires both ample manual labor and accumulated local knowledge, two elements which are difficult to bring together in Puerto Rico due to a complex interplay of historical and social factors. Decades of public policy based on the belief that the small farmer is not essential to Puerto Rico have produced a series of obstacles for farmers who wish to recover their farms. The peasant economy, a field of study that recognizes peasant farmers as capable subjects of their own historical resistance – within and against economies of empire – can be a powerful tool in the effort to recover local food systems and (re)create a vibrant small farmer sector. Here, we explore peasant balances, a capacity to aggregate daily farm management decisions into coherent, multifunctional economic strategies that allow for dynamic responses to changing environmental, social and market conditions, and how these balances relate to Puerto Rican coffee farmers’ capacity to stay on the land and transition toward agroecological production. Fieldwork included qualitative interviews with leaders of small farmers’ organizations, Puerto Rican government officials and farmers in the mountainous central region between August 2017 and March 2018.
Full Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at
Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems
ISSN: 2168-3565 (Print) 2168-3573 (Online) Journal homepage:
Peasant balances and agroecological scaling in
Puerto Rican coffee farming
Nils McCune, Ivette Perfecto, Katia Avilés-Vázquez, Jesús Vázquez-Negrón &
John Vandermeer
To cite this article: Nils McCune, Ivette Perfecto, Katia Avilés-Vázquez, Jesús Vázquez-Negrón
& John Vandermeer (2019): Peasant balances and agroecological scaling in Puerto Rican coffee
farming, Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2019.1608348
To link to this article:
Published online: 25 Apr 2019.
Submit your article to this journal
View Crossmark data
Peasant balances and agroecological scaling in Puerto
Rican coffee farming
Crisis, coffee, and agroecological scaling in Puerto Rico
Nils McCune
, Ivette Perfecto
, Katia Avilés-Vázquez
, Jesús Vázquez-Negrón
and John Vandermeer
School for Environment and Sustainability, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA;
Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica de Puerto Rico
This paper examines the relationship between agroecological
scaling and the agrarian question, based on Puerto Ricos contra-
dictory agricultural and demographic tendencies in the aftermath
of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. We find that labor-based intensifi-
cation, literally rebuilding and recovering the diversity of farms
devastated by the hurricanes, is a necessary step toward scaling
out agroecology in Puerto Rico. The rebuilding of farms requires
both ample manual labor and accumulated local knowledge, two
elements which are difficult to bring together in Puerto Rico due
to a complex interplay of historical and social factors. Decades of
public policy based on the belief that the small farmer is not
essential to Puerto Rico have produced a series of obstacles for
farmers who wish to recover their farms. The peasant economy,
a field of study that recognizes peasant farmers as capable sub-
jects of their own historical resistance within and against
economies of empire can be a powerful tool in the effort to
recover local food systems and (re)create a vibrant small farmer
sector. Here, we explore peasant balances, a capacity to aggre-
gate daily farm management decisions into coherent, multifunc-
tional economic strategies that allow for dynamic responses to
changing environmental, social and market conditions, and how
these balances relate to Puerto Rican coffee farmerscapacity to
stay on the land and transition toward agroecological production.
Fieldwork included qualitative interviews with leaders of small
farmersorganizations, Puerto Rican government officials and
farmers in the mountainous central region between
August 2017 and March 2018.
Peasant balances; agrarian
political economy;
Chayanov; agroecology; just
Introduction: disaster capitalism and food imperialism in Puerto Rico
Along with the rest of the Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico was devastated by the
unprecedented hurricane season of 2017. Puerto Ricos lack of national sovereignty
was an immediate barrier for receiving emergency aid from neighboring countries,
due to colonial legislation of the US federal government (Jones Act 1917)thatbars
any ship not of US make or bearing the stars-and-stripes from landing in the San
CONTACT Nils McCune University of Michigan, USA
© 2019 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
Juan port. But even before the twin hurricanes of Irma and Maria tore down
hillsides, sliced through highways and leveled forests in September 2017, Puerto
Rico was agonizing in eye of an invisible cyclone: a debt crisis that the US
government had used to usurp the already-feeble capacity for policy-making of
the Puerto Rican government in order to push through neoliberal shock therapy.
Indeed, Puerto Rico has a long history of being a guinea pig of the colonial-
modernization project. Centuries after the sweat of enslaved indigenous and
African peoples made plantation agriculture profitable, Puerto Rico continued
to provide cannon fodder, offshore tax havens, and lands for contaminatingwith
depleted uranium. Table 1 is a brief periodization of colonialism in Puerto Rico,
with emphasis on the agrarian and food regimes that correspond to each
historical stage. As the corporate food regime has reached a high level of
development, the democratic veneer of Puerto Ricosstatusasafree associated
stateof the US has practically disappeared, revealing dramatic levels of poverty,
vulnerability, and dependency.
A study by Harvards T.H. Chan School of Public Health on deaths
resulting from Hurricane Maria estimated that over 4,600 people may have
died, many due to delayed medical care (Kishore 2018). Over a year later,
parts of the archipelago remained without electrical power and post-
traumatic stress has led to skyrocketing rates of suicide and depression, as
up to 14% of the remaining population of 3.4 million people was expected to
leave by the end of 2019 (Meléndez and Hinojosa 2017). These trends
compound the general composition of the aging Puerto Rican population.
Since 1960, the percentage of the population under 14 years old has declined
steadily from over 40% to under 20%, a trend that feeds into school closures,
a reduced workforce and a dwindling tax base, even as the ratio of elderly
dependents to working-age population has soared, from 10% in 1955 to 23%
in 2016 (World Bank 2017).
Coffee farming, the most stable mainstay of Puerto Rican agriculture since
the 1800s, has been reduced to just one-fifth of the area it occupied in 1985
(Borkhataria et al. 2012). Even more dramatic is the loss of shade coffee,
which has lost over 90% of its area in the same time period. With electricity,
water and education in line for privatization in post-hurricane Puerto Rico,
small-scale agriculture continues to be deeply impacted. Public transporta-
tion is unavailable, so producers must maintain vehicles that can transport
harvests. Rural clinics and hospitals are being closed down, forcing farmers
to travel farther and lose more work days to health care. Sending children
and grandchildren to school requires that family members live in cities or are
willing to embark on expensive daily commutes. The lack of services also
means a lack of workers, even during peak periods of coffee harvest or
plantation establishment.
Massive layoffs have compelled some young people to return to family
farms, but by and large, there is an aging agricultural population with little
Table 1. Periodization of Puerto Rican agriculture and food regimes in relation to colonialism.
Spanish colonial period (15021898)
Characterized by peasant agriculture with important entrepreneurial colono sugarcane, tobacco and coffee
plantations directly connected with imperialist value chains and transnational slave economies, but
without the same level of financing and technology as in other centers of sugar production, such as
Cuba or Louisiana (Scott 2005).
US direct military occupation (18981917)
Weak de-peasantization process in inland areas, as the major changes take place in coastal sugar
plantations, which become increasingly consolidated as US capital assumes a controlling share. Initial
concerns among Creole elite of US capitals instrumentalization of sugarcane colonos and the
replacement of the elite family-owned ingenios by more corporate centrales linked to financial interests.
US direct colonial regime (19171945)
Sugar endures a crisis after US import tariffs are lifted at the end of the World War, US markets are
flooded by cheap beet sugar and prices collapse (Nazario Velasco 2014). Ensuing recovery implies
a greater degree of exploitation of workers, increasing economies of scale, more pervasive direct
ownership of land by US companies, and intensified labor strife (Nodín Valdés 2011). Coffee battered by
hurricanes in 1928 and 1932 as well as Great Depression. Eugenics experiments, sophisticated FBI
repression of independence movement, repeated US military massacres of civilians, and growing
opposition to US sugar interests comprise political trends.
US indirect colonial regime in context of Cold War (19451992)
Structural reform of Puerto Rican economy begins slowly after 1940, and accelerates with Operation
Bootstrap, in 1947. Export-focused industrialization based on US corporate direct investment and tax
breaks creates powerful pull factor to stimulate migration from the countryside, as do programs to
encourage migration to US mainland (Berman Santiago 1998). Later, in the 1970s, the inclusion of
Puerto Ricans in federal food stamp programs pulls more labor out of the countryside, as farm wages
are not necessarily competitive with livelihood strategies of full dependence on anti-poverty programs.
Sugarcane production is the first victim of the new development strategy, while USDA policies support
industrial farming medium and large-scale monocrops (mainly plantains and coffee) begin to push
out small farmers in regions of the island previously characterized by peasant production.
With the advent of food stamps, there occurs a simultaneous leap in food consumption and food imports:
local producers were unable to take advantage of the increased purchasing power of food consumers,
as supermarkets came to control food consumption (Carro-Figueroa 2002). In 1989, Organización
Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica (Boricuá) is formed by a diverse group of Puerto Ricans actively
participating in struggles related to environmental justice, independence and health who decided to
focus on ecological agriculture as a material basis for sovereignty.
US indirect colonial regime in neoliberal period (19922016)
As the need to portray Puerto Rico as an unmitigated success wanes in the post-Cold War period, several
of the policies that guaranteed ongoing US capital investment in the island also disappear, particularly
the tax breaks entailed in Section 936 of the Federal Tax Code. By the time the final provisions of
Section 936 are phased out in 2006, the islands pharmaceutical industry has entered a crisis that would
continue over a decade later (Schoan 2017). Industrial employment declines, and the service sector
proves unable to produce adequate employment opportunities. The government used triple-exempt
bonds to compensate for the loss of industrial income. At the same time, the US military maintains
a large number of military and military intelligence facilities, including the base in Vieques, where it
bombs the inhabited island with conventional and chemical weapons until international outcry leads to
a moratorium in 1999 (Lindsay-Poland 2009). The Vieques base is even rented out to the militaries of
other nations to carry out live-ammunition exercises, with no compensation for the local population of
farmers and fisher people who endure an ongoing crisis of cancer and other chronic diseases.
In the meantime, the agricultural subsidy regime which had become firmly established, begins to give
way (Borkhataria et al. 2012), with less technical assistance, more paperwork, less state support for
cooperatives, etc. The quantity of small farms continues its downward trend. Large land purchases by
transnational corporations takes place, and massive production of GMO seeds is carried out by
Monsanto, Pioneer, Dow, Bayer and Syngenta. Puerto Rico Coffee Roasters, fully owned by Coca-Cola, is
founded in 2008 and purchases the 11 largest local brands, effectively monopolizing the market for
green and roasted coffee. Puerto Rico has a higher ratio of Walmart stores to unit land area than any US
state or indeed any country where Walmart is present (Cintrón Arbasetti 2014).
US direct disaster colonialism regime under fiscal control board (2016-present)
generational renewal taking place. Land remains a commodity too expensive
for many would-be farmers. Corporate behemoth Monsanto rents tens of
thousands of hectares in southern Puerto Rico from the Land Authority to
produce genetically modified corn, soy, cotton, and sorghum seeds (Martínez
Mercado 2013), and was reportedly among the first farm entities in Puerto
Rico to receive insurance payments in the months after the hurricanes. Small
farmers, in contrast, have consistently faced obstacles renting land from the
Land Authority, and received late and insufficient crop insurance payments,
putting hundreds of farm operations in peril in the coffee sector alone. The
Coca-Cola beverage company, through its subsidiary founded in 2008,
Puerto Rico Coffee Roasters, has quietly purchased nearly all the Puerto
Rican coffee brands.
Amid the disaster capitalism that has enveloped Puerto Rico, there is
a vibrant resistance movement of small-scale farmers, food workers, students,
and consumers. This article compiles evidence from open-ended interviews
before and after the hurricanes with coffee farmers, farm workers, members
and national leadership of Organización Boricuá, as well as researchers and
government officials. We sought to understand Puerto Ricos potential food
system recovery from ecological, cultural, socioeconomic and political per-
spectives, recognizing the inseparability of the food question and the national
sovereignty question, particularly in times of growing intolerance emanating
from the US government. Alexander Chayanovs theory of peasant economy
(Chayanov 1986a,1986b), expanded and contextualized by authors such as
van der Ploeg (Van der Ploeg 2008,2013) is useful for connecting the dots
between food empires, everyday resistance, and alternative economies for
scaling agroecology. The social relations that structure agriculture will need
to be dramatically transformed in order for Puerto Ricans to recover and
manage their own food systems, and one of the first steps has been for
movements to find ways to work outside the formal, commoditized economy
(Félix, Rodríguez, and Vázquez 2018).
In this journal, Sevilla Guzmán and Woodgate (2013) wrote an author-
itative history of how heterodox sociological thought contributed to the
Table 1. (Continued).
In light of Puerto Ricos unpayable sovereign debt and a shrinking economy, Obama signs the PROMESA
Act into law, effectively claiming federal control over Puerto Ricos public policy, and designates an
unelected seven-person fiscal control board to negotiate, in the name of Puerto Rico, the largest
bankruptcy in US history. The PROMESA board, or junta as it is known in Puerto Rico, is untouchable to
Puerto Rican law as it enacts a privatization and austerity program that threatens public education,
health care and social security on the islands (González 2017).
By 2016, 85% of the food consumed in Puerto Rico is imported. In 2017, up to 90% of crops are lost due
to the catastrophic damage inflicted by Hurricane Maria (Robles and Ferré-Sadurní, 2017). Supermarkets
experience shortages for months as the situation becomes a humanitarian crisis. Meanwhile, both US
and Puerto Rican governments lose prestige because of their mishandling of the crisis and incapacity to
revitalize agriculture in time to prevent acute economic shortfall among small and medium farmers.
development of agroecological theory. In section one of this paper, we build
upon these authorsseminal work by locating Chayanovs contribution to the
agrarian question, highlighting the differences between capitalist economies
and peasant economies, and exploring how these differences influence agroe-
cological scaling. Then, we focus on the concept of peasant balances as the
mechanism by which farmers use labor-based economies to avoid or mitigate
the impacts of shocks in ways that fully capitalist farms cannot do, giving
small-scale farmers that opt for the peasant pathan important advantage in
the era of climate instability.
In section two, we examine Chayanovian balances in Puerto Rico, using data
from interviews carried out with coffee farmers in 2018, just months after the
hurricanes of September 2017. We find that demographic issues such as out-
migration and an aging farm population, combined with the legacy of decades of
anti-peasant policy, imperiled small-scale farmers long before their plantations
were destroyed by hurricanes. We also find a long-term process of differentia-
tion among small farmers, in terms of their relationships with markets, the State,
and grassroots organizations. The farmers that have been most completely
incorporated into the policies of the Puerto Rican government are divided into
two camps: one tiny group of successful, middle tolarge monoculture farms, and
one large group of families that are in downward economic spirals with no
solutions in sight. On the other hand, those farmers who have sought autono-
mous development through the use of Chayanovian balances tend to be
embedded in dense social relations, strategic participation in markets, and
ongoing local processes of agroecological transition. Our results lead us to
conclude that the forms of resistance and persistence of small farmers parti-
cularly those organized in visible, dynamic agroecological movements man-
ifest the importance of peasant economies in overcoming system perturbations
and developing a labor-based strategy for scaling agroecology.
Peasant economies and agroecology
The agrarian question was born out of Marxspremise that capital expands in
the countryside through primitive accumulation mechanisms such as land
enclosure and resource grabs. Dialectically, these movements to free up capital
also displace people from their territories, creating surpluslabor that can be
utilized in extractive industries, plantation agriculture or the factory system
(Wood 2002). Marx (Marx 1991, 949) noted that capitalist property relations
provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism,
a metabolism described by the natural laws of life itself.Primitive accumulation
associated with the European invasion of the Americas and slave economies
became the primordial means for depeasantization, on one hand, and the
development of imperialist and industrial powers on the other. Subsequent
development of agricultural capitalism and proletarization, in each specific
context, were by no means endogenous transitions, but rather related to the
expansion of a global capitalist economic system (Wallerstein 1979).
Peasants are often defined by their deep connection with and control over
the farming activities occurring in a specific place, self-organization of labor
at the family level, and emergence as a social class whose economic activity is
subordinated to capital, yet not capitalist (Bryceson 2000). Often the com-
munity level of social organization, mediating between family and class
dynamics, is highly important for peasant societies. Peasantries are the
historic result of agrarian labor processes that constantly respond to chan-
ging environmental, political, cultural and economic conditions of produc-
tion and reproduction. As capital relations have expanded into the
countryside, theorists have debated the fate of the peasantry, in what is
known as the agrarian question (Kautsky 1988; Lenin 1961). Many have
used arguments of efficiency, labor productivity and even natural resource
conservation to insist that the peasantry is bound by the laws of history to
disappear, as capitalism encloses its lands and differentiates it socially into
opposing groups of agrarian bourgeoisie and proletarians (Bernstein 2010;
Lenin 1961). There is a hegemonic tendency to discount the peasant pathof
autonomous democratic development in Marxist and liberal economic ortho-
doxy, both of which have enthusiastically supported industrialization and
equated a growing social division of labor with progress (Moyo, Jha, and
Yeros 2013). Steckley and Weis (Steckley and Weis 2016, 1) note that while
critical agrarian studies tends to focus more on the ways that capital shapes
conditions facing peasant producers, there has been much less attention to
the ways that peasant decision-making can restrict how capital operates.
The peasantry has not disappeared, and some authors see its absolute
numbers to be growing (Van der Ploeg 2008). A counterhegemonic view of
the peasantry, based not on its perceived inferiority to capitalist economies
but on its capacity to resist and survive despite them, has survived in the
margins of Marxist and emancipatory thought for over a century and a half,
and contributed to the creation of agroecology as a discipline (Sevilla
Guzmán and Woodgate 2013). In the early Soviet Union, agricultural econ-
omist Alexander Chayanov (18881937) carried out empirical studies of the
workings and internal organization of peasant family economies. Chayanov
(1986a) found that, unlike capitalist economies in which each factor of
production can be represented in monetary values, peasant families operate
natural economiesbased on the interaction of labor and ecological pro-
cesses in which a gambit of non-monetary concerns are present in decision-
making. Despite being embedded in market economies, peasants are able to
autonomously decide what and how to produce, based on internal calcula-
tions and priorities.
In the prevailing context of agrarian capitalism, farms are compelled by
competition and production costs to capitalize: maximizing the generation of
surplus value even at the cost of future productivity. In contrast, even while
existing within larger capitalist economies, peasants create economies with
internal organizing principles that limit the effects of competition and avoid
production costs by maintaining access to non-commodified factors of pro-
duction, such as land and labor, as well as historically guaranteedfactors
provided by their own previous labor cycles, such as well-adapted seeds and
animal breeds, fertile soil and homemade plows. In Table 2, we present
a comparison between peasant and capitalist economies with regard to key
issues for agroecological scaling, such as labor, resource use, knowledge, and
Chayanov (1986b) observed that the family labor units main objective is
to provide for its own food consumption. To that end, the family will be
willing to engage in high levels of labor output until all mouths are fed.
However, once the familys needs have been met, additional labor is seen as
drudgery detrimental to family well-being. Van der Ploeg (2013) further
develops the notion of Chayanovian balances, recognizing the balances that
peasants manage between past and present production, income, and ecology,
as well as individual and collective responsibilities. By using non-
commoditized labor and concentrated local knowledge, peasants exercise
the power to mediate their relationships with other components of their
agroecosystems. This enables peasants to develop autonomy from markets
to the degree that it is advantageous to them. At the same time, merchants
and capitalists look for ways to co-opt peasant production using through
low prices, but increasingly through such mechanisms as payments for
environmental services in order to support processes of capital accumula-
tion (Giraldo and Rosset 2018; Steckley and Weis 2016).
Chayanovian balances have been identified as mechanisms wielded by
Haitian peasants who resisted transforming their farms into mango planta-
tions, despite pressure from the state, private capital and transnational
institutions and NGOs after the 2010 earthquake (Steckley and Weis 2016).
In Brazil, Petersen and Silveira (2017) found that intensification can be
capital-centered, which tends to lead toward depeasantization and rural out-
migration, or driven by skilled labor applying specific management strategies
dependent on local ecological contexts. Labor-driven intensification, in their
study, is dependent on access to communities of agroecological thinking and
practice. Fraser et al. (2018) explore the political economy of the mutuality-
market dialectics of Amazonian peasants who develop community labor
regimes in concert with ecological cycles, unless market forces coerce them
into becoming extractivists. Valencia Mestre, Ferguson, and Vandermeer
(2018) propose that the patterns of tree cover in Panamanian cattle pastures
can be understood as resulting from the continuum between peasant and
capitalist economies. In each of these cases, peasants are found to be active,
collective subjects who constantly shift their degree of self-sufficiency and
Table 2. Comparing capitalist and peasant agricultural models (adapted from work by
Chayanov 1986a; Rosset 2003; Van der Ploeg 2008).
Category Capitalist Agriculture Peasant Agriculture
Basic goals Maximize production and profit Achieve sufficiency and stability
Value Value is not added, but taken away, mainly
by expropriating resource bases,or
mobilizing capital and labor in short-term
exploitative production processes that
appropriate surplus value by externalizing
environmental and social costs. Mobilized
value moves toward the financial sectors of
the economy.
Peasant farming is geared toward
producing as much added value as possible
under the given circumstances. This value,
once created, can materialize as use-values
or exchange-values, depending on the
needs and plans of the household, i.e.
selling a cash crop in order to build a new
bedroom for a growing family.
In capitalist exploitation, labor is mobilized
in order to maximize accumulation.
In family labor units, accumulation is
a means by which to provide employment
and assure the reproduction of labor.
Resource base Capitalist agriculture must expand the
production of commodities in order to avoid
crisis; to do so, it exists upon a constantly
expanding resource base by becoming more
dependent on market or states, i.e. by
grabbing water, taking out loans to rent
more land and/or becoming part of
a subsidy program to maintain profitability
of monocrop production.
The peasant unit of production and
consumption generally works with
a limited and threatened resource base.
Peasants seek to maximize output by
working with the existing local resources,
implying a resistance process based on
gradually increasing technical efficiency.
Investment Capital is mobilized externally through the
market, i.e. banks, reducing the flexibility of
operations. Debts must be serviced, so
productivity is key, leading to labor
exploitation, pollution and overproduction.
Within the peasant economic unit, labor is
generally more abundant than the objects
of labor, such as land or animals. This
means that capital is formed and expanded
through labor investments, rather than
through loans or external development
Production takes place through intensive use
of externally-sourced technologies that de-
skill farming, enrich transnational
corporations and gloss over differences
between agroecosystems.
Related to the previous aspects, the
productivity and future development of
a peasant farm depend upon the quantity
and quality of labor, highlighting the
importance of labor investments (terraces,
irrigation systems, crop and animal
varieties, etc.) and skill-oriented
Control over
The resources of the farm system are
privatized and parceled into parts controlled
by banks, loan sharks, input companies,
corporate land renters, profiteers or the
The available social and material resources
represent an organic whole that is
controlled by those directly involved in the
labor process not loan sharks, corporate
land renters, or other outside actors. The
peasant farm is a self-regulating unit.
to Food
Capitalist agriculture and food consumers,
alienated through chains of intermediaries,
have contrary interests with regard to
prices, health, and labeling.
The peasant family tends to be the primary
consumer of the farms products.
Relationships with other consumers are
flexible and may include barter, trade, direct
marketing or other means.
to Time and
Hit-and-run investments are by nature short-
term, with no lasting physical or cultural
Peasant agriculture is typically grounded
upon previous cycles and embraces
relatively autonomous, historically
guaranteed reproduction.
market orientation in order to guarantee future productive cycles. Peasants
shift along balances including social and natural demands, production and
reproduction, the scale and intensity of farming, internal and external
resources, and autonomy and dependence (Van der Ploeg 2013).
Chayanovian balances in Puerto Rican coffee farming
Qualitative interviews were carried out with leaders of small farmersorganiza-
tions, Puerto Rican government officials and coffee farmers in their homes in the
mountainous municipalities of Utuado, Jayuya, Adjuntas, Lares and Orocovis,
between August 2017 and March 2018. Interviews before the hurricanes tended
to focus on the agroecological movement and the impact of austerity measures
on farm subsidies and supports, while 31 farmers 29 of them coffee farmers
interviewed after the hurricanes often talked about the trauma of having their
farms destroyed and being without food and water for weeks, communications
and electricity for months.
Two-thirds of the farmers could be considered conventional farmers, in
the sense of using agrochemicals, paying waged labor and participating in
government programs that subsidize certain inputs. The other 11 farmers
either do not use any agrochemicals (9), pay no waged labor (10), or avoid
government programs (7), or overlap these strategies in some way or
another. The conventional and non-conventional farmers showed strongly
divergent paths in the wake of the hurricanes of 2017.
Among the 20 conventional farmers, only 2 were rebuilding their farm or had
mostly rebuilt their farm by the time of fieldwork in JanuaryMarch of 2018.
These two were among the largest family-owned estates (>25 ha.), and made up
of mostly sun coffee in monoculture, reflecting their capacity to mobilize capital
in order to rebuild. Another five could be considered middle farmers that were
strongly impacted by the hurricanes, and were not rebuilding because they had
other sources of income. This category includes some farmers from professional
backgrounds who were already operating at or near a loss and cannot currently
continue to operate their farm. The largest section, however, of conventional
farmers was comprised of 13 small farmers who faced severe economic hardship
and total loss of income after the hurricanes. This group, of whom seven were
over 65 years old, is particularly vulnerable to selling their land and migrating to
the United States. Table 3 describes the impacts of Hurricane Maria on these
farms and their products.
Labor availability plummeted after the hurricanes as many workers left
without electricity, water, schools, health clinics, and jobs migrated to the
United States. In January 2018, Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rosel
announced plans to sell the public utility company and introduce a charter
school system to replace public schools. All of the highways and roads between
farms were lined with abandoned houses. None of the farmers had yet received
insurance payments, so even when there existed available labor and a desire to
rebuild, the economic possibility of doing so was very limited.
Interviews showed that farmers had diverse reasons for no longer contracting
farm laborers or hiring fewer workers. Many made reference to an agrarian
economy that no longer works for small farmers, particularly as family size has
declined, the farming population has aged and farm labor has become scarce in
recent decades:
I am waiting to receive my insurance payment.(n = 26)
Since Maria, I have no income.(n = 20)
Workers no longer arrive here to my farm.(n = 8)
Working isnt worth the trouble. Theyre better off not working.(n = 6)
There isnt a workforce anymore, and what exists is no good.(n = 5)
Here, half of Puerto Rico could be unemployed and they still wouldnt
pick coffee.(n = 1)
The lack of labor makes family farming much more difficult, as elder farmers
are called upon to carry out the work that they would rather assign to
younger family members or hired workers, or simply must reorganize the
farm based on having less labor to mobilize. Farmers without the capacity to
shift toward more labor inputs were basically stuck waiting for State inter-
vention to recover their farms, because they were physically isolated and
alienated from non-monetary means to mobilize labor.
The conventional farmers interviewed lacked relative autonomy from
market institutions and the State. The decades-old, bureaucratic system of
subsidies for small farmers entered into crisis along with the rest of the
Table 3. General situation of small, conventional coffee farmers affected by Hurricane Maria.
Before Hurricane Maria Production of coffee, plantains, banana, citrus and tubers with shade trees
Coffee is the main income-earning crop and is used to enter into a system of
subsidies: agrochemical packages, half-priced seedlings and half-priced
Citrus is a favorite of farmers: simple management, trees can be forgotten most
of the year, one straightforward harvest, good income source
Plantains and bananas represent a cash flow, with harvests each week or
monthly, depending on the farm
Tubers are for eating, selling or giving away among neighbors
After Hurricane Maria The situation in unbearable, after months without electricity
Major losses of citrus, coffee, Musaceae and shade trees, but with large
variability from one hillside to another
Increased out-migration and farm labor is scare
Farmers are selling tubers or firewood, but the income is insufficient
Economic Principles of
It is more advantageous to live from insured crops with steady demand, even if
this means formally considering farms as monoculture to access insurance
Citrus are a complement to coffee and are oriented toward markets
Other crops (such as plantains, banana and tubers) are mostly for home
consumption, although their sale is an option
Puerto Rican economy, becoming a source of acute vulnerability for farmers
who had developed a path dependence upon government support. Contrary
to expectations, it was not only the most market-focused farmers that
depended on the State. Rather, dependence on subsidies took several forms
among interviewed farmers and spanned the differences in economic status
and distance from cities (Table 4). These pillars of dependence upon federal
programs are the most direct legacy of Puerto Rican neo-colonial public
policy since the creation of the free associatedstatus in 1950 (Dietz 2018).
Food stamps make up a fundamental part of the family economy for over
half of the farmers interviewed. The relationship between Puerto Ricans and
federal anti-poverty programs is complex and problematic; created during
the Cold War, consumer food subsidies dramatically increased food con-
sumption while not deterring agricultural decline (Carro-Figueroa 2002;
Weisskopf 1985). Federal welfare programs compete with locally available
wages and encourage people to avoid full-time non-professional employ-
ment. Interviewees mostly felt that the food stamp program had accelerated
the disintegration of the small farmer sector; however, in the post-hurricane
context, food stamps were what prevented a more desperate humanitarian
disaster, and many small farmers lived on food stamps as they waited to
rebuild their farms. In this very limited sense, participation in food stamp
programs can be considered part of a peasant strategy to balance consump-
tion with autonomy.
In stark contrast to the dire situation of conventional small farmers, 10 of
the 11 unconventional farmers had made significant advances rebuilding
their farms. Only one was in a similar situation as the five middle farmers
mentioned above not rebuilding her farm while she focused on her alter-
native income source. Of the 10 who had partially or completely rebuilt their
farms, seven had done so through agroecological brigades groups of people,
often other farmers, who traveled to farms in the days, weeks and months
after the hurricanes to physically rebuild damaged structures, plow fields, fix
greenhouses and replant farms, focusing on short cycle crops that could
produce food quickly. In this group, age was less of a factor: three of the
10 were over 70 years old. This suggests that age is not as much a limitation
Table 4. Pillars of dependence, knocked out by combined effect of Hurricane Maria and austerity
Type of subsidy or support received by
Number of interviewees receiving the support
Before Hurricane
Being received at the time of the
The government paid half the salary of each
19 4
Farmer received fertilizer and herbicide 22 0
Subsidies to buy equipment 6 0
Harvest or plantation insurance 25 0
for mobilizing labor as is isolation from autonomous organizational pro-
cesses in the countryside.
The only farms that had been replanted in their entirety were those of farmers
who participate in Organización Boricuá, a Vía Campesina member organization
founded in 1989 through farm labor exchanges. Boricuá had been organizing
reconstruction brigades in agroecological farms since 21 September 2017, the day
after Hurricane Maria passed over the island. These agroecological brigades were
made possible through broad alliances of urban and rural social movements in
Puerto Rico and the United States, and particularly through the leading efforts of
Organización Boricuá, which would be honored with the Food Sovereignty Prize
in October 2018 for its innovative approach to disaster recovery.
The post-hurricane agroecological brigades were examples of a peasant
moral economy (Scott 1976), as volunteer labor teams, generally infused with
high levels of political and ethical commitment to peasant farming, mobilized
labor that the conventional economy has not been able to mobilize before or
after the hurricanes. Félix, Rodríguez, and Vázquez (Valencia Mestre,
Ferguson, and Vandermeer 2018, 1) explain further:
These brigades followed months of impromptu, voluntary immediate relief bri-
gades in which members of these organizations engaged to support farmers and
their communities. Organización Boricuás brigades were held in the format of
moving camps, spending 3-4 days in each farm rebuilding farming structures,
houses and planting. These brigades incorporated spaces for political training,
dialogues, workshops, cultural exchanges and reflection while promoting active
group participation during the process. Exchanges like these not only help farmers
get stabilized and better positioned to confront the next hurricane season(s), but
also help bolster the movement work of organizers, educators, activists and farmers
that often spills over beyond a farms perimeters into diverse communities and
across many issues.
Historical and personal connections run deep between grassroots groups and
social movements in the US, Latin America and the Caribbean due to the shared
history of colonialism, occupation, and slavery that characterizes the Caribbean
region and the development of the global agricultural sector. The groupsefforts
served to strengthen relationships and knowledge exchange between farms as
a regional resiliency strategy that embraces the campesino-a-campesino metho-
dology and combats the physical, social, and emotional isolation that can
characterize reconstruction and recovery. The brigades serve to not only speed
up production preparations and infrastructure reconstruction, but to re-energize
farmers and those who support them to continue the work that is now more
urgent than ever.
A high initial labor input has been noted as a necessary ingredient in agroecological
transitions by both proponents and detractors of agroecology (Altieri and Hecht
1990). Few authors, however, have recognized the transformative potential of the
knowledge-intensive labor involved in agroecological change (Timmermann and
Félix 2015). The organized agroecological movement transforms the need for large
amounts of labor from a weakness, as it exists in conventional economics, into
a strength, as a pretext for building new social relations and consolidating organi-
zations.Thehurricanesbecameanopportunity for developing stronger organicity
(Rosset 2015) in the countryside, and tested the movementscapacity to fill a need
that neither the State nor the market could fill.
Of the 10 unconventional farmers who had partly or completely rebuilt
their farms, three had done so through family labor alone, without a Boricuá
brigade. These were the few large families that had enough young people
living on the farm to mobilize the labor needed to rebuild. As a general trend,
however, the reliance on work brigades appeared to be a phenomenon likely
to continue growing. Furthermore, the brigades appear to be linked to
a cultural process of decolonization. As one farmer reflected after a day of
brigade work:
The root of Boricuá is cooperative work. Habi comes here and helps me, I go to
Habis farm, and we both succeed in bringing in our harvests. I dont call it
voluntary work because we all benefit. Its like a change of paradigm, right? You
know, capitalism makes it impossible for you to live. So, what we are doing are
alternatives so we can live with dignity. This work in solidarity is the only
alternative that one has in order to survive. These people are friends we have
had for a long time and we all knew what we came to do today. The routine of
capitalism is from home to work, from work to home, and it takes away the social
aspect. But if you talk to people from the countryside, this is what they did before.
The peasants visited each other, and worked. It was a time for sharing, for relaxing,
having a beer and telling a joke. It is something that is ours. It is in our collective
memory, its there. The history of humanity is this kind of cooperative work.
The sense of belonging was closely linked to whether or not farms had been
rebuilt. The sense of historical memory is evidence of a Chayanovian balance
between past and present, as well as between individual and social goals. The small
conventional farmers unable to rebuild often recounted stories of family troubles
or children who had left as migrants with as great a sense of tragedy as their lost
crops, implying that farmers perceived a causal relation between their familysloss
of a long-term relationship to the land and their incapacity to rebuild after
Hurricane Maria. This suggests that conventional farmers were experiencing the
loss of a balance between past and future production.
The high level of economic vulnerability that conventional agroecosystems
showed after the disturbance of Hurricane Maria indicates that decades of public
policy since 1945, and austerity measures introduced since 2016, have created
dependencies rather than robust food and agricultural systems. Instead of allowing
for the autonomous development of peasant economies, farm policy has distorted
peasant balances by focusing on productivity indicators. The Puerto Rican
development model has discounted the reproductive sphere and the need for
farming to exist within a rural culture that renews itself over the course of time.
Neither subsidies for agrichemicals, nor complex and ineffective crop insurance
programs, nor food stamp programs, have helped make small farming a more
viable and sustainable way of life. Furthermore, the demographic tendencies of an
aging population in Puerto Rico are combining with the increasing risk of climate-
related disaster to contribute vulnerability to household-based coffee farming and
increase the risk of continuing depeasantization.
Long-term increased vulnerability, especially for small farmers and rural
people in general, are unfortunately consistent with trends of US colonialism
in the Caribbean and Pacific Ocean, as well as in changing climates under global
capitalism. Just as Patel and Moore (2018) have noted that it is easier for most
people to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, it is easier for
more Puerto Ricans to imagine migrating to the US than agreeing on how to
build a sovereign Puerto Rico. In the meantime, the ongoing role of the
agroecological movement is fundamental for developing local food economies,
a sense of belonging on the land, and momentum for scaling up agroecological
The capacity of young people to enter peasant farming may depend on their
ability to become peasantsby applying balances that previous generations
were unable to do. The long apprenticeship toward becoming a peasant farmer is
extremely challenging in the austere environment of post-Maria Puerto Rico.
Becoming a peasant farmer is much more of a conscious decision, and even
a form of principled political and social resistance, than ever in the past (Van der
Ploeg 2013). One of the flagship agroecology schools, Proyecto Agroecológico El
Josco Bravo (Organización Boricuá member project), was facing an eviction
order and incipient criminalization process at the time of fieldwork, despite its
impressive achievements successfully training hundreds of young people in the
arts of agroecological peasant farming.
In the aftermath of the dual hurricanes, the ability of farmers to
activate social organizations and mobilize labor outside of commoditized
economies is crucial for rebuilding farms. Continuing challenges include
reconciling the need to survive on food stamps and the need to sell at
high-priced farmersmarkets in order for family farmers to maintain
themselves on the land, with priorities of a social and organizational
order. Farm labor brigades are an ancient practice that have become
highly relevant in the wake of the collapse of the conventional labor
economy in Puerto Rico. Peasant balances that bring together production
and ecology, elder knowledge and youth interest, family economies and
food sovereignty, are key mechanisms in the struggle for agroecology and
against food dependency in Puerto Rico.
Authors are grateful to the family farmers of Puerto Rico and to Jan van der Ploeg for
providing valuable insight on the topics addressed in this research.
1. Proyecto Agroecológico El Josco Bravo is carried out on land rented from the Puerto
Rican Land Authority, which, despite holding tens of thousands of hectares of unused
land, has opted toward an aggressive anti-peasant policy that uses bureaucratic means
to pressure the few small farmers who rent small parcels of land. It also rents thousands
of hectares of farmland to transnational corporations such as Monsanto for the
production of genetically modified seeds.
Notes on contributors
Nils McCune is a Research Fellow at the School for Environment and Sustainability of the
University of Michigan.
Ivette Perfecto is the George W. Pack Professor of Ecology, Natural Resources and
Environment, at the School for Environment and Sustainability of the University of
Katia Avilés-Vázquez is a member of Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica de
Puerto Rico.
Jesús Vázquez-Negrón is a member of Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica de
Puerto Rico.
John Vandermeer is the Asa Grey Distinguished University Professor of Ecology and
Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan.
Nils McCune
Act, J. (1917). Sixty-fourth Congress, Session II. Chap. 145. An Act To provide a civil
government for Porto Rico, and for other purposes. [sic]Accessed February 8, 2019.
Altieri, M. A., and S. B. Hecht (Eds.). (1990). Agroecology and small farm development (No.
306.349091724/A468). Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press. doi:10.1099/00221287-136-2-327
Bank, W. 2017.Data bank: Age dependency ratio (% of working age population). Puerto Rico.
Accessed November 14, 2018.
Berman Santiago, D. 1998. Puerto ricos operation bootstrap: colonial roots of a consistent
model for third worlddevelopment. Revista Geográfica 124:87116.
Bernstein, H. 2010.Class dynamics of agrarian change, Vol. 1. Halifax, Canada: Kumarian
Borkhataria, R., J. Collazo, M. Groom, and A. Jordan-Garcia. 2012. Shade-grown coffee in
Puerto Rico: Opportunities to conserve biodiversity while reinvigorating a struggling
agricultural commodity. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 149:16470.
Bryceson, D. 2000. Peasant theories and smallholder policies: Past and present. Disappearing
Peasantries 1: 136.
Carro-Figueroa, V. 2002. Agricultural decline and food import dependency in puerto rico:
A historical perspective on the outcomes of postwar farm and food policies. Caribbean
Studies 30 (2):77107.
Chayanov, A. 1986a.On the theory of non-capitalist economic systems. in: The theory of
peasant economy. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Chayanov, A. 1986b.The theory of peasant economy. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Cintrón Arbasetti, J. (2014). Walmart: Salarios bajos todos los días. Centro de Periodismo
Investigativo 6. Accessed March 28, 2018.
Dietz, J. L. 2018.Economic history of Puerto Rico: Institutional change and capitalist develop-
ment. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Félix, G., H. Rodríguez, and J. Vázquez. (2018). Puerto rican ecofarms after maria: Bouncing
back with a little help from our friends. FoodFirst Blog 3. 12.2018.Accessed May 24, 2018.
Fraser, J. A., T. Cardoso, A. Steward, and L. Parry. 2018. Amazonian peasant livelihood
differentiation as mutuality-market dialectics. The Journal of Peasant Studies 45
(7):1382409. doi:10.1080/03066150.2017.1296833.
Giraldo, O. F., and P. M. Rosset. 2018. Agroecology as a territory in dispute: Between
institutionality and social movements. The Journal of Peasant Studies 45 (3):54564.
González, J. (2017). Puerto Ricos $123 Billion Bankruptcy is the Cost of US Colonialism. The
Intercept, Accessed May 9, 2017.
Kautsky, K. 1988.1899. On the Agrarian Question. Vol. 1. London: Zwan Publications.
Kishore, N., others (15 authors). 2018.Mortality in puerto rico after hurricane maria. New
England Journal of Medicine 379:16270. Accessed September 24, 2018. https://www.nejm.
Lenin, V. 1961. The Agrarian Question and the Critics of Marx..InCollected Works, ed.
V. Lenin, Vol. 5, 1901 103222. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing.
Lindsay-Poland, J. 2009. US Military Bases in Latin America and the Caribbean. In The Bases
of Empire: The Global Struggle against U.S. Military Bases (pp. 7195), ed. C. Lutz. London:
Pluto Press.
Martínez Mercado, E. (2013). El dinero público subsidia a Monsanto. CPI. Accessed October
23, 2018.
Marx, K. 1991. 1894. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 3: 949. New York: Penguin
Meléndez, E., and J. Hinojosa. 2017.Estimates of Post-Hurricane Maria Exodus from Puerto
Rico. City University of New York: Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College.
Moyo, S., P. Jha, and P. Yeros. 2013. The classical agrarian question: Myth, reality and
relevance today. Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy 2 (1):93119.
Nazario Velasco, R. 2014.El paisaje y el poder: La tierra en el tiempo de Luis Múñoz Marín.
San Juan: Ediciones Callejón.
Nodín Valdés, D. 2011.Organized Agriculture and the Labor Movement Before the UFW:
Puerto Rico, Hawaii, California. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Patel, R., and J. Moore. 2018.A history of the world in seven cheap things: A guide to
capitalism, nature and the future of the planet. Oakland, California: University of
California Press.
Petersen, P. F., and L. M. Silveira. 2017. Agroecology, public policies and labor-driven
intensification: Alternative development trajectories in the Brazilian semi-arid region.
Sustainability 9 (4):535. doi:10.3390/su9040535.
Rosset, P. 2003. Food sovereignty: Global rallying cry of farmer movements. Food First
Backgrounder 9 (4):1.
Rosset, P. (2015). Social organization and process in bringing agroecology to scale. In:
Agroecology for Food Security and Nutrition- Proceedings of the FAO International
Symposium. Rome, Italy.
Schoan, J. (2017). Heres how an obscure tax change sank Puerto Ricos economy.
26 September, 2017. Accessed August 25 2018.
Scott, J. 1976.The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia.
New Haven: Yale University Press.
Scott, R. 2005.Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba after Slavery. Cambridge: Harvard
University Press.
Sevilla Guzmán, E., and G. Woodgate. 2013. Agroecology: Foundations in Agrarian Social
Thought and Sociological Theory. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems 37 (1):3244.
Steckley, M., and T. Weis. 2016. Peasant balances, neoliberalism, and the stunted growth of
non-traditional agro-exports in Haiti. Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean
Studies/Revue Canadienne Des Études Latino-Américaines Et Caraïbes 41 (1):122.
Timmermann, C., and G. F. Félix. 2015. Agroecology as a vehicle for contributive
justice. Agriculture and Human Values 32 (3):52338. doi:10.1007/s10460-014-9581-8.
Valencia Mestre, M. C., B. G. Ferguson, and J. Vandermeer. 2018. Syndromes of production and
tree-cover dynamics of Neotropical grazing land. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems 43
(4): 124.
Van der Ploeg, J. 2008.The new peasantries: Struggles for autonomy and sustainability in an
era of empire and globalization. Sterling: Earthscan.
Van der Ploeg, J. 2013.Peasants and the art of farming: A chayanovian manifesto. Winnipeg:
Wallerstein, I. 1979.The capitalist world-economy, Vol. 2. Cambridge, England: Cambridge
University Press.
Weisskopf, R. 1985.Factories and food stamps - the puerto rico model of development.
Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Wood, E. M. 2002.The origin of capitalism: A longer view. London and New York: Verso.
... Authors have since used these balances to provide a mechanism to explain the range of agricultural forms, or "farms in between" observed under varying socio-ecological conditions. For example, Puerto Rican coffee farms range from small-family run operations to large-scale conventional systems, which varied greatly in their capacity to rebuild following recent hurricane events (McCune et al., 2019). Larger farms were the only farms with the financial capital necessary to rebuild, which the authors argue exemplifies a loss of autonomy in the autonomy-dependency balance of Puerto Rican farms. ...
... From a mathematical perspective, this requires the peasant syndrome to be stable so that the benefits of becoming increasingly capitalist should outweigh its costs and that there must be some non-zero benefit of farming that would prevent its total abandonment (Figure 2A). From our review of the literature, the latter may depend critically on government policy and public investment to foster an environment that makes peasant farming a secure and remunerative career (Schipanski et al., 2016;McCune et al., 2019). The former requires placing the peasant syndrome at an advantage over the capitalist alternative. ...
... This history has led many to fear that improving trade relations between Cuba and the U.S. could threaten hard-won advances in agroecology (Fernandez et al., 2018). Though many farmers in Cuba support both agroecology and improved trade relations, underlying shifts in environmental threats including costly tropical storms and hurricanes in the Caribbean could theoretically cause agriculture to shift toward capitalist systems like in Puerto Rico, where only large farms were able to rebuild post-hurricane Irma and Maria (McCune et al., 2019). Our theoretical perspective provides evidence that a holistic view is imperative for sustaining changes to agroecological alternatives. ...
Full-text available
In the face of climate change, rising hunger and mass extinctions, scholars stress the need to transition food systems from fossil fuel-dependent conventional farms to agroecological alternatives that can store carbon, improve food security and harbor biodiversity. Theory provides a systematic approach for organizing knowledge on agroecological transitions across the natural and social sciences and summarizing the primary needs of future research. This paper reviews the socio-ecological literature related to agroecological transitions from a mathematical perspective that is derived from complex systems and critical transition theory. We organize the literature according to mathematically tractable concepts, including syndromes of production, agents, barriers and drivers of change that operate across three major frameworks of analysis: socio-ecological, socio-technological and social norms and networks. Our approach embeds the current agroecological transition theory within a critical transition framework that considers the stability of peasant and capitalist syndromes in response to various inhibitors and drivers of change. We find that the majority of our theoretical knowledge of food systems change is derived from the social sciences and limited primarily to examples from the Americas. Our work suggests a need for broader regional representations of change and transdisciplinary work aimed at better understanding how biophysical factors collide with socio-political conditions to hinder or reverse food systems change. Though scale and context are important considerations, we find that theory can generate general mechanisms that link separate case studies. For example, drivers of food systems change that shift balances between the costs and benefits of peasant and capitalist modes of production may be particularly important for explaining poverty and gilded traps in agriculture. We discuss this and other lessons learned from taking a theoretical perspective on agroecological transitions.
... Farmers managing cacao agroforestry systems in Brazil reported that they were not always able to incorporate additional agroecological practices because of the increased workload involved, and their inability to afford or find hired labor (Fernandes Nogueira et al., 2019). McCune et al. (2019) in Puerto Rico describe the ways in which agroecological farmers manage their work as a form of Chayonovian "peasant balances," which they define as "a capacity to aggregate daily farm management decisions into coherent, multifunctional economic strategies that allow for dynamic responses to changing environmental, social and market conditions" (p. 810). ...
... In light of these changes, there is considerable evidence that agroecology can enhance livelihoods, and it is promoted as a pro-poor alternative to input-intensive agriculture (Altieri, 2009;Bezner Kerr et al., 2019a;McCune et al., 2019;Mdee et al., 2019). At the same time, there is also evidence in some contexts that agroecological production involves unpaid, tenuous, self-exploitative, and at times highly labor-intensive work. ...
Addressing human and social values is a core element of agroecology, including questions of equity and social justice in food systems, supporting autonomy and well-being of food producers, fostering meaningful, dignified forms of food systems work, and reshaping ways of interacting with nonhuman species and ecosystems. In this article, we review peer-reviewed literature related to human and social values in agroecology. We identified a growing social science literature on agroecology and related social theory. We organized and summarized our review around the following themes: social well-being, livelihoods, meaningful work, and gender and social equity. There is considerable evidence that agroecology can improve social well-being, in part through increased food security and improved dietary diversity, which often contributes to culturally meaningful foodways. There is less literature demonstrating how agroecological approaches can increase people’s livelihoods through increased income, reduced dependence on inputs, greater financial autonomy, and increased self-provisioning. In some cases, more embedded local markets build connections between producers and consumers and increase employment. Some case studies of agroecological territories point to the salience of understanding how to shift discourses and support social innovations. While there is evidence that agroecology offers an alternative path away from industrial approaches to agriculture, there is minimal research on the meaningful and dignified nature of that work itself. There is also limited research on gendered implications of agroecology, such as impacts on care work, although emerging literature points to transformative methods that address structural inequities for women and other marginalized groups in agroecological initiatives. There is a small but growing literature on racial inequities and agroecology, primarily in the Americas. Major research gaps include racial inequity and agroecology in different cultural contexts, the health impacts of agroecology, such as through the reduced use of pesticides, and the meaningfulness of work derived from a shift to agroecology.
... Island-wide governance within the agricultural sector must address these deficits and, beyond that, move towards policies that support farmer autonomy and agency. Instead of current production-oriented incentives (e.g., subsidies for agrochemicals, crop insurance programs)-which may provide small, short-term financial aid but have, ultimately and historically, distorted rural economic developmentgovernment policy must aim to reduce propensities towards dependence and make way for social movements that uphold sovereign, culturally regenerative, and ecologically sustainable local food economies (McCune et al. 2019). ...
Full-text available
Climate change is a threat to food system stability, with small islands particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events. In Puerto Rico, a diminished agricultural sector and resulting food import dependence have been implicated in reduced diet quality, rural impoverishment, and periodic food insecurity during natural disasters. In contrast, smallholder farmers in Puerto Rico serve as cultural emblems of self-sufficient food production, providing fresh foods to local communities in an informal economy and leveraging traditional knowledge systems to manage varying ecological and climatic constraints. The current mixed methods study sought to document this expertise and employed a questionnaire and narrative interviewing in a purposeful sample of 30 smallholder farmers after Hurricane María to (1) identify experiences in post-disaster food access and agricultural recovery and (2) reveal underlying socioecological knowledge that may contribute to a more climate resilient food system in Puerto Rico. Although the hurricane resulted in significant damages, farmers contributed to post-disaster food access by sharing a variety of surviving fruits, vegetables, and root crops among community members. Practices such as crop diversification, seed banking, and soil conservation were identified as climate resilient farm management strategies, and smallholder farmer networks were discussed as a promising solution to amass resources and bolster agricultural productivity. These recommendations were shared in a narrative highlighting socioecological identity, self-sufficiency, community and cultural heritage, and collaborative agency as integral to agricultural resilience. Efforts to promote climate resilience in Puerto Rico must leverage smallholder farmers’ socioecological expertise to reclaim a more equitable, sustainable, and community-owned food system.
... The term peasant has its origins in Russian family farming used for subsistence production and today, peasants create economies of non-commodified products such as labor and land to maximize autonomy and decrease drudgery, or menial labor, within the larger capitalist economy (Ploeg, 2018). In the 1920s Alexander Chayanov theorized that by using family labor, peasants increased productivity of the land to the degree that is required to feed all family members and beyond this point of subsistence, labor expenditure results in drudgery (McCune et al., 2019). Peasant farming is characterized by low-input, small-scale, subsistence production by family labor in an effort to secure the right to food (Ploeg, 2013;Trauger, 2014). ...
There is growing consensus that agroecology is needed to improve the sustainability, equity, economic viability, and climate resilience of farming. Agroecology is burgeoning in scientific literature and has been practiced by peasants to resist corporate and state oppression for over a century, but case studies of agroecological transformation in the U.S. remain sparse and public funding remains limited. In the heart of the Midwest, this case study provides a narrative of alternative agriculture, illustrating the strengths and weaknesses of agroecology in a landscape and country dominated by agribusiness interests. I interviewed female and Black, Indigenous, and Latina/o farm support actors and small-scale farmers of livestock, cut flowers, diversified vegetables, and agroforestry. From these interviews, I assessed which elements of the FAOs 10 principles of agroecology are being supported and practiced in southeast Michigan. All farmers are increasing diversity, resilience, efficiency, and synergies across their farm on their own. This is aided by co-production of knowledge and investments in the solidarity economy. All principles need to be strengthened, but recycling, responsible governance, and culture and food traditions were the least prevalent agroecological principles among these farmers, with the lattermost principle being limited by the diversity of interviewees. Farmers were not invested in internalizing recycling processes, most notably for seeds and compost, and bottom-up responsible governance was deemed aspirational, not practical. Recommendations include securing the knowledge that is being robustly produced and ensuring agroecology is operationalized through active, reciprocal partnerships between farmers, universities, and farm support actors. Other recommendations include developing a set of local policies, propelled forward by policy councils already established, that address equitable access to land and markets for Black, Indigenous, and Latina/o farmers and development of mid-sized markets. Lastly, recycling of inputs and independence from agribusiness should be strengthened through seed commoning.
Full-text available
The objective of this initial conceptual essay is to question conventional approaches and propose a new reading – from the perspective of the peasant world – of the concept of resilience. There is a need for critical reflections on resilience that take into account the subjects of resilience, particularly in the case of peasant agriculture. We argue that to be useful in the case of peasant societies and peasant agroecology, the concept must evolve by incorporating an understanding of the peasant condition, as well as of decolonial thought and methodologies for epistemic decolonization. We emphasize that in the peasant world there is a close relationship between relative autonomy and what we call peasant resilience.
Full-text available
Resumen Objetivo: conocer la resiliencia campesina a choques externos y el papel que desempeñan las milpas de las familias que pertenecen a cooperativas de café en dos regiones de Chiapas, México. Metodología: estudio cualitativo con enfoque de análisis de contenido mediante recorridos, visitas y entrevistas a las familias de los socios, divididas en tres categorías en cuanto a la práctica de la milpa: 1) las que la abandonaron para dedicarse sólo al cultivo del café; 2) las que nunca la abandonaron y 3) las que la abandonaron, pero luego la retomaron. Resultados: se interpreta la resiliencia en términos de balances chayanovianos, autonomía relativa y otros elementos en 47 entrevistas. Valor: Dichos balances abonan información a la discusión sobre la resiliencia. Conclusiones: el sistema de resiliencia está conformado por un mecanismo de balances interrelacionados dirigidos a ajustar los grados de campesinidad necesarios para mantener la reproducción social de la unidad familiar bajo condiciones cambiantes. Abstract Objective: To learn about peasant resilience to external shocks and the role played by the milpas of member families of coffee cooperatives in two regions of Chiapas, Mexico. Methodology: Qualitative study with content analysis scope through visits and interviews with member families divided into three categories in terms of the practice of milpa: 1)
Full-text available
Latin America has long been a hot bed for social movement organization and innovation, and for dialogue among different types of knowledge (‘dialogo de saberes’). This has included dialog between academic knowledges framed by Western science, popular and ancestral peoples knowledges and wisdoms, and so-called critical thought from global and Latin American revolutionary traditions. From these conditions, we postulate that a specifically Latin American agroecology has emerged from these dynamics, as a sort of regionalism from below. While dominant academic writing recognizes that agroecology is simultaneously a science (in the Western sense), a movement, and a practice, it is the emergent Latin American version that is the most politically charged and popularly organized. We postulate that the joint forces of Latin American rural movements, intellectuals and scientists have uniquely forged a significant form of regional integration and regionalism from below, and that an agroecological variant of Critical Latin American Thought underpins this regionalism. This contribution uses a survey of selected Latin American agroecologists to illustrate this regionalism and its conceptual content.
Full-text available
In this chapter, we introduce the origins and history of agroecology, outlining its emergence as a science and its longstanding history as a traditional practice throughout the world. We provide a brief review of the evidence of the benefits of agroecology in relation to productivity, livelihoods, biodiversity, nutrition, climate change and enhancing social relations. We then outline our approach to agroecology which is rooted in the tradition of political ecology that posits power and governance have always been the decisive factors in shaping agricultural and other ‘human’ systems.
Latin American cattle ranchers have long been depicted as one of the major perpetrators of deforestation. A new conceptualization of Chayanov’s Theory of Peasant Economy is employed to understand ranchers’ perceptions of tree management in Panama. Chayanov’s theory proposes that the family farm is governed by a balance of decisions farmers make between the utility of producing one more item, with the drudgery of producing that item. Farm visits and interviews with 54 Panamanian farmers indicates that trees are actively maintained as part of the utility–drudgery balancing process. These findings suggest that rather than seeing cattle ranchers as perpetrators of deforestation, more research that considers the benefits and tradeoffs farmers confront with tree management could promote productive partnerships among parties invested in farmers’ livelihoods and forest conservation.
Full-text available
BACKGROUND Quantifying the effect of natural disasters on society is critical for recovery of public health services and infrastructure. The death toll can be difficult to assess in the aftermath of a major disaster. In September 2017, Hurricane Maria caused massive infrastructural damage to Puerto Rico, but its effect on mortality remains contentious. The official death count is 64. METHODS Using a representative, stratified sample, we surveyed 3299 randomly chosen households across Puerto Rico to produce an independent estimate of all-cause mortality after the hurricane. Respondents were asked about displacement, infrastructure loss, and causes of death. We calculated excess deaths by comparing our estimated post-hurricane mortality rate with official rates for the same period in 2016. RESULTS From the survey data, we estimated a mortality rate of 14.3 deaths (95% confidence interval [CI], 9.8 to 18.9) per 1000 persons from September 20 through December 31, 2017. This rate yielded a total of 4645 excess deaths during this period (95% CI, 793 to 8498), equivalent to a 62% increase in the mortality rate as compared with the same period in 2016. However, this number is likely to be an underestimate because of survivor bias. The mortality rate remained high through the end of December 2017, and one third of the deaths were attributed to delayed or interrupted health care. Hurricane-related migration was substantial. CONCLUSIONS This household-based survey suggests that the number of excess deaths related to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico is more than 70 times the official estimate. (Funded by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and others.)
Full-text available
Agroecology is in fashion, and now constitutes a territory in dispute between social movements and institutionality. This new conjuncture offers a constellation of opportunities that social movements can avail themselves of to promote changes in the food system. Yet there is an enormous risk that agroecology will be co-opted, institutionalized, colonized and stripped of its political content. In this paper, we analyze this quandary in terms of political ecology: will agroecology end up as merely offering a few more tools for the toolbox of industrial agriculture, to fine tune an agribusiness system that is being restructured in the midst of a civilizational crisis or, alternatively, will it be strengthened as a politically mobilizing option for building alternatives to development? We interpret the contemporary dispute over agroecology through the lenses of contested material and immaterial territories, political ecology, and the first and second contradictions of capital.
Full-text available
Economistic approaches to the study of peasant livelihoods have considerable academic and policy influence, yet, we argue, perpetuate a partial misunderstanding – often reducing peasant livelihood to the management of capital assets by rational actors. In this paper, we propose to revitalize the original heterodox spirit of the sustainable livelihoods framework by drawing on Stephen Gudeman's work on the dialectic between use values and mutuality on the one hand, and exchange values and the market on the other. We use this approach to examine how historically divergent mutuality-market dialectics in different Amazonian regions have shaped greater prominence of either extractivism or agriculture in current livelihoods. We conclude that an approach centered on the mutuality-market dialectic is of considerable utility in revealing the role of economic histories in shaping differential peasant livelihoods in tropical forests. More generally, it has considerable potential to contribute to a much-needed re-pluralization of approaches to livelihood in academia and policy.
Full-text available
The institutional recognition obtained by family farming in Brazil over recent decades has translated into the launching of a broad and diverse set of public policies specifically aimed towards this sociopolitical category. However, the design of these policies was heavily influenced by the productivist bias derived from the agricultural modernization paradigm, making the sector increasingly dependent on input and capital markets. In this same movement of institutional evolution, policies consistent with the agroecological approach created new margins for maneuvering for development trajectories founded on the use of local resources self-controlled by rural families and communities. Taking as a reference the recent trajectory of rural development in Brazil's semi-arid region, the article analyses the role of the agroecological perspective in the strategic combination between territorially endogenous rural resources and public resources redistributed by the State. Based on the analysis of the economy of agroecosystems linked to two sociotechnical networks structured by contrasting logics of productive intensification, the study demonstrates agroecology's potential as a scientific-technological approach for the combined attainment of various Sustainable Development Goals, starting with the economic and political emancipation of the socially most vulnerable portions of the rural population.
This paper provides a conceptual framework for analyzing the dynamics of tree cover transformations in the cattle pastures across the Neotropics. It proposes that tree cover variability across cattle pastures can be envisioned as a set of ‘syndromes of production,’ among which transformations may be linear, non-linear, or multivalued. Our framework is informed by a review of the literature from which we define the components that make up tree cover and the socioecological drivers of tree cover in cattle pastures. We propose that the drivers of tree cover are the continuum between two economies: the peasant and the capitalist.
Many impressive studies on the changing nature of the global food system have been published, and nearly all address changes at the macro level. The far less visible changes occurring at the micro level have received relatively little attention, especially in the realm of critical rural studies. This book is a reflection of the far reaching and complex transformations of food systems that have occurred as a result of liberalization and globalization. This book focuses on the structure and dynamics of peasant farms and the historically highly variable relations that govern the processes of labour and production within the peasant farms. Jan Douwe van der Ploeg argues that peasant agriculture can play an important, if not central, role in augmenting food production and creating sustainability. However, peasants today, as in the past, are materially neglected. By building on the pioneering work of Chayanov, this book seeks to address this neglect and to show how important peasants are in the ongoing struggles for food, food sustainability and food sovereignty.
Social theorists have long regarded those production relations which we now call capitalist as especially well suited for generating economic dynamism. This is true of Adam Smith, Karl Marx and Max Weber, as well as virtually all lesser notables. Indeed, Marx went so far as to say that, compared to capitalism, all ‘earlier modes of production were essentially conservative’.1 So, if historical materialism is applicable to economic systems generally, as we tentatively claim it is in Chapter 1, it ought to be especially relevant for understanding capitalism. Our argument in this chapter is that the cogency of the theory does indeed improve significantly when applied solely to capitalism, but the high degree of persuasiveness still falls short of complete assurance. However, if the reference is narrowed further to advanced capitalism, confidence that historical materialism is essentially correct is again significantly raised. In this more restricted domain, the influences operating to constrain the development of the productive forces have weakened very significantly. This is true for both types of constraints: those recognised by historical materialism itself and those that qualify the validity of historical materialism as a theory of economic systems.