Jesuits redesigning food systems in Southern Mexico

Emilio Treviso SJ
Emilio Treviso SJ

Emilio Travieso SJ from Florida is studying for a PhD in International Development at Campion Hall Oxford. He recently completed a period of fieldwork in Mexico studying how food systems can be improved. He reports as follows.

Despite producing more than enough food, the currently dominant food system, based on an industrial model of production and a market model of distribution, has failed to feed the world’s growing populations. At the same time, it has created new social, environmental and health-related problems. We need a new system. Many groups are trying to implement food systems which are more equitable, sustainable and healthy, and I am doing research in collaboration with one such group in Chiapas, Mexico.

The Misión de Bachajón is an ecclesial organization where Jesuits have accompanied the Mayan Tseltal people since 1958. What I’m studying is how they've designed an economic model that makes this project viable through the specific lens of food.

Markets cannot be left alone.

We tend to organize our economic lives in two distinct spheres: the market and the community. The market is where we are ‘rational choosers,’ looking out for our own self-interest in short-term interactions. The community, however, is the context of long-term relationships where we share what we’ve bought in the market. The community looks after a common ‘base’, which is made up of the material and symbolic things that allow for the reproduction of the community in the very long term. The problem with unrestricted capitalism is that it tends to commodify everything, even the community and its base.

Rather than stewarding natural resources, for example, the capitalist model would exploit them unsustainably. If left to its own devices, the market undermines the conditions for its own possibility. On the other hand, communist experiments have shown us that it’s not feasible to set up an economy with no room at all for markets. This where the Misión de Bachajón’s innovative model comes in.

They’ve combined a strategy of protecting certain spheres of their ‘base’ from the market with a complementary strategy of engaging the market for needed income, but in a way that ‘domesticates’ the market, placing it at the service of the people.

An alternative strategy

People own land collectively, and each family is allotted enough land to grow their own food. They use agroecological methods, and they protect their natural resources. The community entrusts nearly every adult (usually as a married couple) with a particular role of unpaid service to the common good, ranging from catechists and deacons to health promoters and conflict mediators. In this way, the Tseltal people withdraw the most essential aspects of their economy – their ‘base’ of land, food, ecosystems, and community service – from the marketplace. At the same time, they sell coffee and honey through the Misión’s group of cooperative social businesses, Yomol A’tel.

Their business model goes well beyond ‘fair trade’ (which is about offering a slightly better price for raw materials, thanks to consumers’ good will), aiming to transform the structural relationships of trade instead. They have gained control over the whole value chain by establishing their own roasting plant and their own brand of gourmet cafés in wealthy urban areas. This strategy not only gives them access to a much higher income, it also allows them to stabilize prices by circumventing the financial speculation of the commodities market, and to create skilled jobs in rural Chiapas. Since it’s all built on a model of social and solidarity economy, Yomol A’tel’s economic upgrading translates into social upgrading in other ways as well. Both power and profits are shared, and young people (and especially women) have opportunities for building new capabilities.

Working with the ecosystem

Since Yomol A’tel’s products are grown organically in shade forests, in combination with traditional multi-cropping, the business model not only protects, but even enhances biodiversity, soil fertility and other ecosystem elements. In other words, the design has a built-in positive feedback loop, where the community engages in the market from a position of strength, and this dynamic reinforces the community’s base, which makes its long-term productivity more sustainable. It also provides a benefit for all of us, not least because by conserving the biodiversity of maize (which is the basis of the Mesoamerican diet and one of the top three grains consumed globally), our collective food supply is more resilient.

Increase and multiply

Through the Comparte network of the Latin American Jesuit Conference, the Misión de Bachajón is helping other initiatives throughout the region to replicate this model. My own role as a researcher is to understand the logic and implications of the Misión de Bachajón’s design, not only from a critical perspective but also with a hermeneutic of hope: I am interested first in the potential of the model, and then in the challenges facing it.

Postscript: The Greening of Campion

The Master of Campion Hall has commissioned Emilio to work with a group of Hall members, the Greener Campion Team, to draw up a list of ecological recommendations which can be applied in the Hall in the light of Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Sì. The seventeen proposals they have tabled encompass the themes of energy, food, recycling, lifestyle and shared responsibility.

This article appears in Campion Hall News Trinity Term issue 9, Editor Jack Mahoney SJ