Lindsay Naylor, “Harnessing Multiple Movements: The Intersection of Fair Trade and the Zapatista Movement in Chiapas, Mexico”

Woman corn / photo courtesy of Lindsay Naylor.
Woman corn / photo courtesy of Lindsay Naylor.

In the past decade the Zapatista-aligned communities of Chiapas, Mexico have articulated new forms of autonomy and food production systems through practices that diverge from the neoliberal model. Through efforts to strengthen subsistence food production and produce for global fair trade markets, Zapatista-aligned communities are seeking to renegotiate a fundamental dimension of their marginalization within Mexican territory. My dissertation research examines how agricultural production is implicated in the politics of indigenous autonomy in Chiapas, Mexico. With funding from the Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies I was fortunate to spend two months in the highlands of Chiapas in the summer of 2010 to begin my dissertation research. My initial fieldwork focused on exploring the local-scale reverberations of the Zapatista movement, with particular emphasis on the tension between the pursuit of subsistence agriculture as well as fair trade coffee production for the global marketplace.

In my conversations with farmers this past summer, discussions of food and coffee production consistently revolved around the struggle for autonomy. Each family in the communities I visited cultivates a milpa, yet they still face varying levels of food insecurity due to lack or poor quality of land, and to pest problems. Because of these twin issues of insufficient land and environmental maladies, the food supply runs short some years, which profoundly constrains their capacity to be part of the resistance movement led by the Zapatistas and to maintain autonomy from the state. As a result, many communities that I visited are cultivating coffee for the global fair trade marketplace to earn cash income. I learned that this market-oriented production is used as a coping strategy in food insecure times.

The Zapatista movement has articulated a broad discourse that critiques socioeconomic exclusion that is perpetuated by the neoliberal marketplace. While this critique is important to the greater movement, over time Zapatista-aligned communities have had to confront the challenge of surviving in a broader political-economic context still dominated by neoliberal principles. The coffee farmers I interviewed describe their production as “comercio mas justo” or “more fair trade,” meaning fairer than the free trade marketplace. Farmers see an advantage in cultivating coffee for the fair trade marketplace, arguing that it is “a window to better money,” and a way to engage the marketplace in a more inclusive way. Thus, it seems that day-to-day choices about livelihood and sustenance within the communities I am working with are intimately linked to the movement’s broader politics, as they engage in both local subsistence production and global fair trade production to maintain autonomy.

Although I initially intended to conduct research on fair trade coffee and food security, I learned, through conversations with Zapatista agroecology promoters, that what I was really studying was corn and food sovereignty. Food sovereignty refers to a model in which the nation-state and the people have the right to define their own food, agriculture and livestock systems, in contrast to having food systems that are largely controlled by the corporate/global marketplace. What I found was that the resistance communities in the highlands of Chiapas have declared autonomy both from the marketplace and from the state; they are actively resisting the policies of the state to negotiate marketplace entry on their own terms and make their autonomous communities food secure. I believe that this reconfiguration of sovereignty and autonomy through food production practices represents a new axis through which to examine resistance. It is my great hope to return to the field this coming summer to continue my conversations with farmers to learn how the politics of autonomy and food sovereignty play out through everyday food and agriculture practices and through the interaction with the fair trade marketplace.

—A Ph.D. student in the Department of Geography, Lindsay Naylor coordinated the UO Food Justice Conference held in February. Broadly speaking, her work focuses on how individuals and communities demonstrate resistance through their relation to food and agricultural production. Her 2010 summer research was carried out with graduate student research grants from CLLAS, the UO Center for Diversity and Community, and the UO Department of Geography.