The Campesino a Campesino Movement: Linking Sustainable Agriculture and Social Change

Eric Holt-Giménez | 02.22.2015

In celebration of our 40th anniversary year, Food First is revisiting past publications from our rich archive of analyses on the root causes of hunger and social movements fighting for the right to food around the world. We hope you enjoy (re-)reading these trail-blazing pieces, which remain highly relevant today.

Before Eric Holt-Giménez became Executive Director of Food First, he contributed essential research and writing, including this 2006 Backgrounder on the campesino a campesino (farmer to farmer) movement, adapted from the book Campesino a Campesino: Voices from Latin America’s Farmer to Farmer Movement for Sustainable Agriculture. Decentralized, farmer-to-farmer models of education and transformation remain integral to the movement for food sovereignty. Here, Holt-Giménez discusses the potential of the Campesino a Campesino movement and the larger systemic challenges to its success in making sustainable agriculture the rule rather than the exception.

Campesino a Campesino coverTen years ago I wrote a Development Report for Food First about the Movimiento Campesino a Campesino (farmer to farmer movement). At that time little was known about “MCAC” and many development professionals had high hopes that the farmer-to-farmer methods for developing sustainable agriculture would help transform Mesoamerican agriculture. A decade later, we are still hopeful, but it has become clear that in the face of powerful global agribusiness interests, the sustainable transformation of agriculture will require more than farmer-led techniques and methodologies.

The development of sustainable agriculture will require significant structural changes, in addition to technological innovation and farmer-to-farmer solidarity. This is impossible without social movements that create political will among decision-makers to dismantle and transform the institutions and regulations which presently hold back sustainable agricultural development. Sustainable agriculture requires broad, multinational organizing by farmers and their supporters.

The Campesino a Campesino Movement has linked campesino communities across village, municipal and national divisions using agroecology and horizontal learning networks.

For thirty years, the Movimiento Campesino a Campesino, now with several hundred thousand farmer-promoters, has helped farming families in the rural villages of Latin America improve their livelihoods and conserve their natural resources. The promoters of MCAC have shown that, given the chance to generate and share agroecological knowledge freely amongst themselves, smallholders are perfectly capable of developing sustainable agriculture, even under highly adverse conditions. The capacity to develop agriculture locally is not only the agroecological key to sustainable agricultural development; for campesinos it is a matter of survival. This explains in a very fundamental way why the movement has spread as widely as it has: It works!

I think we should not fall in the trap of seeing agroecology by just looking at the physical aspects of the farm or just at the economics. Agroecology is not just a collection of practices.  Agroecology is a way of life… We can’t have an agroecological change without a campesino movement. — Nelda Martínez, Nicaragua

However, the Campesino a Campesino experience still leaves us with the question: If sustainable agriculture is so great, why aren’t all campesinos doing it? What keeps it from scaling up? Why is it still the exception rather than the rule?

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The transition to sustainable agriculture ultimately depends on a combination of efforts between farmers and economic and social institutions: the markets, banks, government ministries, agricultural research institutions, farmers’ organizations, churches, and nongovernmental/nonprofit organizations (NGOs). Each of these institutions—including the market—has its own strengths and weaknesses, and each responds to the political agendas of the actors who are able to use it. Scaling up the successes of any experience in sustainable agriculture, including MCAC, is therefore not simply farmers teaching other farmers to farm sustainably, but a political project that engages the power of these institutions to permit, facilitate, and support sustainable farming.

Campesino farmer leading a farmer to farmer training session in Mexico by Eric Holt-GimenezSmallholders have relatively little control over the institutions shaping agriculture. If MCAC has provided them any influence at all, it is because the movement’s successes expose the glaring failures of conventional agricultural development. Though they may still be just “islands of sustainability,” MCAC’s farmers have tremendous social and political potential, simply because conventional agriculture has failed to produce anything better—for campesinos, for the environment, or for the food security of the millions of poor rural and urban dwellers in Latin America. However, without structurally enabling institutional changes, a few hundred thousand agroecological smallholders will not tip the balance away from conventional to sustainable agriculture.

Campesino a Campesino’s extensive knowledge networks have been highly successful in generating and spreading sustainable agricultural practices on the ground. In effect, MCAC has decentralized the practice of agricultural development. This is both a measure of and an explanation for its successes. If agriculture is to be sustainable, it must not only be based on the ecology of the specific agroecosystem where it is being practiced; it must evolve from the social structures and cultures in which the system itself is embedded. But if sustainable agriculture is to become the norm rather than the exception, then these embedded, agroecological experiences must scale out, geographically; and up, into the institutions that shape agriculture’s social, economic, and political terrain; and in, into the culture of agriculture itself. To go to scale, Campesino a Campesino must not only be effective on the ground; it needs cultural, social, and political power to affect the structures and policies that hold back the development of sustainable agriculture.

Click here to read the full Backgrounder.