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Agricultura, sociedad y desarrollo

versión impresa ISSN 1870-5472

agric. soc. desarro vol.13 no.4 Texcoco oct./dic. 2016



Livelihood strategy in the rural area of the mexican central highlands: the family vegetable garden

José C. García-Flores*  1 

Jesús G. Gutiérrez-Cedillo2 

Miguel Á. Balderas-Plata2 

Maria R. Araújo-Santana3 

1UAEM. Paseo Colón esq. Paseo Tollocan, Toluca, México. 50120. (

2Facultad de Geografía, UAEM. Cerro de Coatepec S/N, Ciudad Universitaria, Toluca, México. 50110. (, (

3Red Interinstitucional de Programas Públicos de Posgrado de San Cristóbal de las Casas, México (


In three municipalities located in the ecological transition zone of Estado de México, the traditional peasant practice of the family vegetable garden was researched as a livelihood strategy that contributes to food security. Peasant agriculture is part of the strategies of family life in rural areas and contributes to facing extreme climate events at the regional level. Through field observation and semistructured interviews with 180 vegetable garden owners, the environmental, social and economic benefits that they receive from them were studied, as well as the use they make of the products of plant and animal origin, their use in the diet and for income generation. The following were identified: 134 tree or shrub species; 54 herbs or vegetables, and 13 animal species. The species were used by the families for their diet and as condiments or for medicinal or ritual uses. The main products obtained from the garden are fruits, leaves, flowers, meat, milk and egg; their principal destination is for auto-consumption; the excess is destined to the sale and exchange, as an alternative to complement the diet. These agroecosystems contribute to conserving regional biodiversity, they favor family food security and provide environmental services and social benefits.

Key words: peasant agriculture; agroecosystems; family livelihood strategy; traditional practice; food security


Food security is a challenge that governments face globally, particularly developing countries like México, related to sufficiency, access, availability and time (Román and Hernández, 2010; Rosado, 2012). For Van der Wal et al. (2011), it consists in the physical, economic and social satisfaction of foods which humanity has the right to enjoy fully, both in quality and in quantity.

According to FAO (2015), close to 842 million people endure chronic hunger, given that they cannot afford an adequate diet. Although in the world there is no longer food scarcity, 70 % of people who suffer food insecurity live in rural areas of developing countries. The obstacles that need to be overcome include low family income and inefficient public policies that have allowed advances to combat poverty, social vulnerability, precariousness, insecurity and exclusion, but which have not solved this situation (Ramos et al., 2009).

This is a process managed by the families through a sequence of natural, physical, financial and social events, where the households affected resort to strategies that allow them to face this situation (Román and Hernández, 2010). The challenge consists in fostering production systems that support a greater access for families of low resources, directed at satisfying future needs for food and resisting climate events.

Peasant family agriculture is closer to the paradigm of sustainable production of foods (Nicholls and Altieri, 2012; FAO 2015). Its priority use is family labor, limited access to land resources, scarce capital investment, and use of multiple strategies for survival and income generation (Toledo et al., 2008; AFAC, 2011). Most of the peasants of the world maintain small-scale diversified agricultural systems, promising models to increase biodiversity, to conserve natural resources, managing to establish the yields without the need for agrichemicals, and thus to provide ecological services and learn lessons of resilience in face of continuous environmental and economic change (Altieri and Nicholls, 2013).

The contribution of peasant agriculture to food security, in face of scenarios of climate change, economic and energetic crisis, consists in smallscale farmers being able to duplicate the production of foods in critical regions, through the use of agroecological methods (Rosado, 2012; Altieri and Nicholls, 2013). Food production in the future should be achieved with the use of technologies that are respectful to the environment and with socially equitable aims (Nicholls and Altieri, 2012).

In this study the hypothesis establishes that “family vegetable gardens are perceived by their owners as agroecosystems that provide products, contribute to food security and conserve plant diversity. In addition, they are systems that contribute environmental goods and services”. The objective is to estimate the importance of family vegetable gardens as a livelihood strategy in Malinalco, Tenancingo and Villa Guerrero, Estado de México.

Theoretical bases

Livelihood strategies of rural families

When peasants make decisions concerning aspects of production, commercialization, savings, investment and consumption, that is, in the economic scope, they do it stemming from parameters, rules or assumptions of their own, which are not always identified with the capitalist market logic. The peasant rationality is directed at survival and auto-consumption, not accumulation (Landini, 2011; Juan, 2013).

The expression of livelihood strategies has been kept for almost five decades on the level of empirical research, motivated by the study by Duque and Pastrana (1973), who showed that stemming from this concept it is possible to analyze the relationships between the sociopolitical, economic and sociodemographic aspects implied in studies within a specific context. Since then, various terms have been used such as survival strategies, existence, reproduction or family livelihood strategies that refer to the activities that families develop with the aim of ensuring their biological and material reproduction.

Ramos et al. (2009) state that livelihood strategies are developed to live day by day in a sociocultural and environmental environment. They involve the combination of activities and decisions that the towns undertake to achieve their objectives in matters of livelihood, defined as availability, access to natural, physical, human, financial and social resources. The strategies are based fundamentally on ecological processes, biodiversity, as well as productive cycles adapted to local conditions. They combine science, tradition and innovation to benefit the environment, promote fair relations and a good quality of life. They empower communities to take control of their needs for food production.

Peasant family agriculture: a contribution to food security

According to FAO (2015), peasant family agriculture involves factors related to the ownership and management of resources, use of family labor, generally in small production units. Small-scale farms are more productive than the large ones, if their productivity is considered more than yields per product. Grains, fruits, vegetables, fodder and products of animal origin are obtained; they contribute additional yields when comparing them to those produced in large-scale single crop systems (Nicholls and Altieri, 2012; FAO, 2015). This strategy of diversifying, sowing multiple species and varieties of crops stabilizes the yields in the long term and promotes a diverse diet (Nicholls and Altieri, 2012).

The wealth of crops and the integration of animals in the agricultural systems, key principles of agroecology, increase productivity due to the complementarity between species, natural pest regulation; they make better use of sunlight, water and soil resources (Nicholls and Altieri, 2012; Altieri and Nicholls, 2013). The peasant practices developed by small-scale owners, family and indigenous farmers, are intensive in knowledge and non-intensive in inputs (Altieri and Nicholls, 2013). They maintain agrobiodiversity as insurance to face environmental change and to satisfy social or economic future needs (Nicholls and Altieri, 2012).

The broad diversity of products obtained provides stability to the family in the physical access to foods; it constitutes an important source of proteins, carbohydrates and vitamins, together with essential fats in the diet. The excesses that are marketed and exchanged favor the economic accessibility to foods that they do not produce (Juan, 2013). These productive units are important for food security (AFAC, 2011; Rosado, 2012).

The family vegetable garden as a diversified system for food production and resilient in face of extreme climatic events

Altieri and Nicholls (2013) mention that after extreme climatic events peasant agriculture has greater resilience, which is intimately related to the biodiversity level. Complex agroecosystems in crops, such as agro-forestry, forest-pastoral or poly-crop, are examples of how diversified systems provide environmental services and have the capacity to resist the adverse effects of climate (Nicholls and Altieri, 2012; Cámara, 2012). The management carried out by many farmers of scarce resources is adapted to local conditions and can lead to the conservation or regeneration of natural resources (Altieri and Nicholls, 2013).

For Gliessman et al. (2007) agroecosystems are based on traditional practices, supported by the peasants’ knowledge regarding their surroundings. In them, environmental, social, economic, cultural, technological and political aspects interact as a whole, with constant flows of energy and materials, as it happens in the nutrient cycle, giving balance to the system (Gliessman et al., 2007; Mariaca, 2012). Among these agricultural systems there is the Agroecosystem with Family Vegetable Garden (Agroecosistema con Huerto Familiar, AEHF).

The AEHF is made up of components that include: garden, house, patio, vegetable patch, animal breeding pen, compost zone, fence and pool (Van der Wal et al., 2011; Colín et al., 2012; Mariaca, 2012; Chablé et al., 2015). The vegetable garden is located near the place of residence (Rivas and Rodríguez, 2013); it constitutes a practice developed by peasant communities, where a wide diversity of species is cultivated. The closeness to the house guarantees their protection against wild predator fauna, and at the same time it eases the work of collecting food (FAO, 2005). It is part of peasant family agriculture for food production (AFAC, 2011; Rosado, 2012). It is a sustainable agroecosystem developed by the families during generations, where ecological, agronomic, cultural and social processes take place (Rivas, 2014). The AEHF contributes to food security at the local level, since it increases family income (GTZ, 2008; Rosado, 2012); it is a strategy for the subsistence of the households (FAO, 2005).

It represents a livelihood strategy for communities in developing countries. It constitutes a wealth for researchers who look for agroecosystems adapted to the environmental and socioeconomic conditions of small-scale farmers (Altieri and Nicholls, 2013). The development of a resilient agriculture requires technologies, as well as practices that are based on agroecological knowledge. This allows enabling small-scale farmers to counteract environmental degradation and climate change, so that they can maintain their agricultural livelihoods in a sustainable manner (Nicholls and Altieri, 2012; Cámara, 2012; Altieri and Nicholls, 2013).

Materials and methods

Methodological stages and procedures

Methodological support was found in Integral Geographic Planning (Gutiérrez, 2013) to define the methodological stages. The research approaches the phases of characterization and analysis of the benefits of the AEHF; it integrated the quantitative methods for the socioeconomic study of the localities, the organization and distribution of the components of the agroecosystem; and the qualitative method, when describing the characteristics of the study area and analyzing the perception that the owners have about the vegetable gardens.

The population in study was families that own vegetable gardens; the period of data collection was from January to March, 2015. The sampling method was “snowballing”. At the beginning it was random, after the first interviews the informants were asked to identify other owners of family vegetable gardens; this technique allows establishing a network of informants for the application of previously designed research instruments. Through direct observation in the field and systematic visits 12 localities were chosen, four for each municipality. The criteria applied for the selection of the study area were: 1. For the localities, it was the presence of a higher number of family vegetable gardens; 2. For the vegetable gardens, it were those that have high flower diversity and which are observed in a good state of conservation; and 3. For the families, their availability to provide information and to contribute their points of view. In each community local authorities were also asked about the relevancy of performing the study.

In each locality, 15 vegetable gardens were analyzed through semi-structured interviews with closed questions and a test for information about the use of the species. The size of the sample was 180 heads of households, 20 to 85 years of age; the interviews were carried out in their households. The instruments were piloted to make corrections in the content and thus make it more understandable to people. The application of the tools took approximately 30 minutes; the software programs Microsoft Excel 2010 and IBM SPSS STATISTIC 22.0 were used for data analysis.

The stages of this study were four: a) Delimitation and characterization of the study area, which refers to the environmental, social and economic conditions of the municipalities; b) Analysis of the characteristics of the agroecosystems addressed by the components of the system, surface, organization and distribution of gardens; c) Analysis of the characteristics of the families, considering age, occupation, and education; d) Analysis of the benefits, where the perception of the owners regarding the environmental, social and economic aspects is studied; and d) Analysis of the exploitation, which identifies the products that the AEHFs contribute to the families.

The delimitation allowed beginning the characterization of the area when choosing the municipalities located in the ecological transition zone (ecotone zone) in the south of Estado de México, which belongs to the Mexican Central Highlands; it houses the greatest natural and cultural wealth of the state. The physical and biotic characteristics of the zone were analyzed based on the location. To determine the socioeconomic conditions of the localities, data from the 12th Population and Housing Census (XII Censo de Población y Vivienda, INEGI, 2010a) were processed, with the aim of calculating the total population, structure of the population by gender, level of schooling, Economically Active Population (EAP), Economically Inactive Population (EIP), population with access to medical attention and characteristics of the households.

The characteristics related to the organization and distribution of the agroecosystems were determined based on direct observation in the field, complemented with additional comments by the people interviewed. With regards to the management practices used to maintain the vegetable garden, it was done based on the statistical analysis of data from the interview.

The tools allowed understanding the use of the AEHFs as livelihood strategy for the families. They also allowed obtaining a view regarding the benefits offered by vegetable gardens; for their analysis, they were divided into three groups: 1) Ethical-aesthetic which refer to family recreation, coexistence, organization for garden management, social relationships and relationship man-nature; 2) Scientific-educational, among which traditional knowledge, environmental education in the agroecosystems, and knowledge transmission are considered, among others; 3) Factors of sustainability and food security, that include the contribution of this traditional practice to the diet.

The exploitation and destination that families give to the products from each species of the agroecosystem were determined through the test. The analysis of these aspects allowed conceptualizing the AEHF as a livelihood strategy; for this, the plant structures of the tree, shrub and herb strata were considered, as well as the products of animal origin.

Geographic and socioeconomic characteristics of the study área

The study area is located in the ecotone zone fostered by the confluence between the Nearctic and Neotropical biographical realms; it covers 24 municipalities in Estado de México (Figure 1).

Source: authors’ elaboration, based on the National Geostatistical Framework from INEGI, 2010b.

Figure 1 Localization of the municipalities within the context of the Ecotone Zone. 

Derived from the latitudinal and altitudinal gradients, it represents a region of geographic, ecologic and socioeconomic importance because it allows the coexistence of plant and animal species that are representative of both realms. Juan (2013) considers that these characteristics contribute to the presence of family vegetable gardens with their environmental, social and agroecological impacts. The association of species favored by the families, in addition to the traditional knowledge that they implement in the AEHFs, favors the diversity of plants and animals (White et al., 2013).

The municipalities of Malinalco, Tenancingo and Villa Guerrero are located between parallels 18° 48’ 58” and 19° 57’ 07” of latitude North and meridians 99° 38’ 37” and 98° 35’ 45” of longitude West. Their approximate joint territorial surface is 614.19 km2 (INEGI, 2010b). The latitudinal and altitudinal location is important since it contributes to the presence of different climates, soils and vegetation, conditions that favor the AEHF.

The prevailing climate in the zone in which the localities studied are located are (A) Ca (w1) (w) (i’) semi-warm, sub-humid with summer rains, with mean annual temperature of 18.5 °C, a maximum of 35.5 °C and minimum of 16.5 °C, with annual average rainfall of 1305 mm (García, 2004). The types of predominant rocks are igneous and sedimentary.

The most frequent soils are Andosol, Vertisol, Luvisol and haplic Feozem. The representative vegetation of the area is mixed pine-oak forest, pine forest, and low deciduous forest (López et al., 2012). The climate and the soil contribute to the inhabitants to develop various agricultural activities; as a result, in the AEHFs they have achieved the adaptation and sociocultural experimentation of a huge agrobiodiversity of herbs, shrubs, trees and animals.

The total population is 45 812 inhabitants; 52 % are women and 48 % men. The population is divided into 11 269 underage, 30 387 adults and 4156 people who are older than 60 years. Concerning schooling, 31 % attends school, 26 % do not, 20 % have basic education, 18 % have post-basic education, and 5 % are illiterate (INEGI, 2010a). The characteristics of the population are representative of rural zones; the school level is related to peasant communities that have mostly basic education.

The EAP is 18 792 people and the EIP 14 868 people. Approximately 38 % of the population does not have access to medical attention and 62 % has this right. There is a total of 12 990 housing units; of these, 84 % are occupied and there are 4 people in average per household. Regarding the provision of basic public services, 70 % have electricity, drinking water and drainage. Concerning the type of construction material of the housing units, 78 % are of long-lasting materials, although without finishing (INEGI, 2010a). These socioeconomic conditions limit the inhabitants in gaining access to better opportunities for work and education, and they place them at risk of social vulnerability.

Results and discussion

Characteristics of the agroecosystems with family vegetable gardens

Table 1 shows the components of the AEHFs; the most frequent ones are the house, the patio or corridor, and the pool. Colín et al. (2012) and Chablé et al. (2015) report these components, but they mention that the characteristics of the property determine its spatial configuration, as well as the distribution and organization.

Table 1 Components of the agroecosystem. 

Source: authors’ elaboration, based on field work, 2015.

In terms of the average surface, almost 40 % of the vegetable gardens are smaller than 560 m2, in which the various components are included. In contrast, Guerrero (2007) reports 800 m2; Santana et al. (2015) and Juan (2013) 400 m2. In turn, Mariaca (2012) and Cahuich et al. (2014) consider that they own 0.5 ha in average; therefore, the area is quite varied. Santana et al. (2015) attribute their extension to land ownership; White et al. (2013) connect it to water availability. Associated to these, in this study the following are identified as factors that also determine the area: age of the person responsible for the vegetable garden and stability of the family’s health.

With regards to the location of the vegetable garden in relation to the house, 52 % of them are located in front of the house; in contrast, Juan (2013) reports that 32.5 % of the vegetable gardens are located behind the house. In 81 % of the cases, the distance there is between these two components is two to seven meters. The location and the distance can be explained because in this manner it is easier to supervise and to perform maintenance activities; the task of collecting foods is also made easier. These aspects contribute to the self-organization of the agroecosystem (FAO, 2005; Juan, 2013).

Concerning the state in which the vegetable gardens are found, it was observed that 70 % of them are being taken care of. It is considered that approximately 15 % of the total AEHFs are being lost; the causes detected included: lack of interest from young people, subdivision of the terrain, scarce transmission of knowledge, and growth of the family, factors that Mariaca (2012) and Chablé et al. (2015) consider for vegetable gardens in the south of México. In their turn, White et al. (2013) have reported them for gardens in the center of the country.

Characteristics of the families

From the interview results, the gender of the people consulted was determined; 77 % are women, which can be because of the time they were applied, since the men leave for work and the women remain in the household. Of the people interviewed, 62 % are 31 to 60 years and 18 % are older than 60 years old. In 85 % of the cases, the number of occupants per household is two to seven people.

Regarding schooling, 32 % have incomplete primary school; 23 % have primary; and 23 % secondary. The main occupation is housewife, followed by peasant activity (Table 2). In terms of family income, 6 % agreed to respond and mentioned that they earn from 1800 to 2900 pesos per month in average, which is similar to what was reported by Guerrero (2007) and Juan (2013).

Table 2 Occupation of the interviewees. 

Source: authors’ elaboration, based on field work, 2015.

When comparing the data of the population interviewed with the data at the municipal and locality levels, it is confirmed that it is a rural context; the information reveals that they are extended families and that the households are inhabited by grandparents, parents, children and occasionally aunts and uncles; 78 % of the members of the family have a basic schooling level and work in economic activities of low pay.

Women are the members of the family that are primarily responsible for the vegetable garden; one reason that explains this is that they remain longer in the household, which is why they devote part of their time to maintaining the AEHF. This situation has already been reported by Colín et al. (2012), who declare that it is women who take care of the family vegetable garden. For Cahuich et al. (2014), they are the ones in charge of the agroecosystem because they understand the potential use that can be given to agrobiodiversity; in turn, Guerrero (2007) relates it to the domestic activities that they have assigned as housewives. With regards to the time destined to taking care of the vegetable garden, 79 % devotes between two to eight hours per week, period when they carry out maintenance tasks.

Environmental and social benefits derived from the family vegetable gardens

Concerning the environmental benefits perceived, most think that the vegetable garden gives them a pleasant climate because when they stay under the shade of the trees they can take refuge from the heat and they manage to maintain a more homogeneous temperature during the day as well as humidity that favor comfort in their household. In addition, they receive the ethical-aesthetic benefit offered by the view of the presence of birds or other wild animals that arrive to eat fruits or to sleep during the afternoons; this is appreciated as part of the leisure and teaching for their children to take care of nature.

The social benefits identified, linked to the ethical-aesthetic aspect, include family interaction and their relationship to other people. More than two thirds of those interviewed responded that these agroecosystems foster the coexistence with neighbors and among the family; this corroborates the importance of the family vegetable gardens for social cohesion and the reinforcement of family ties. The ways in which the AEHF allows relating are linked to the exchange of knowledge and products that are used to complement the diet with foods that they can’t produce in their vegetable gardens; Juan and Madrigal (2005) and Juan (2013) also consider these benefits.

Those interviewed perceive the sociocultural benefits and environmental services of the AEHFs; the most frequent are contributing shade, giving shelter to animals, and maintaining humidity (Table 3).

Table 3 Sociocultural benefits and environmental services perceived from the AEHF. 

Source: authors’ elaboration, based on field work, 2015.

Diverse uses were identified and the ones most related to sustainability and food security are obtaining foods from the live fence, together with other functions related to traditional agroecological techniques that have been preserved, such as species association, organic fertilizing, and planting trees as barriers, as well as various environmental services that favor their productivity and quality of life, such as: microclimate regulation, soil enrichening, and biodiversity conservation. These benefits contribute to the stability and adaptability of the AEHF as resilient and sustainable systems in these localities.

Van der Wal et al. (2011), Mariaca (2012) and White et al. (2013) highlight the importance of the family vegetable garden as a multifunctional system that performs processes as an ecosystem, becoming refuge for many wild plant species that have disappeared from their natural habitat, as well as in important spaces to conserve biodiversity; therefore, we can say that they become microhabitats and reservoirs of genetic material. They are under continuous development process and are an important component of the strategies that contribute to food security at the local level (Juan and Madrigal (2005); Guerrero (2007); Colín et al. (2012); Juan (2013)).

Economic benefits related to the AEHF

The economic importance that the AEHF represents for families (Table 4) lies primarily in the exploitation of products to cover their dietary needs; Van der Wal et al. (2011) and Chablé et al. (2015) report this quality. The wealth of species in the agroecosystem provides them quantity and variety of foods for their diet. The vegetable gardens are also used for other purposes, categorized as scientificeducational; these include activities for play and family leisure, since at the same time traditional knowledge is shared in them. Guzmán et al. (2012), Juan (2013) and Rivas (2014) also associate these purposes to the vegetable garden.

Table 4 Importance of having the AEHF. 

Source: authors’ elaboration, based on field work, 2015.

In relation to the products that the families consume from the AEHF, they perceive that these contribute foods (177 times), medicinal plants (69), as well as condiments (69); this agrees with what was reported by Rosado (2012) and Magaña (2012). This evidences that they obtain a variety of food, medicine and condiment products, which contributes to their food security and reduces the social vulnerability of families.

The proportion of owners to whom the vegetable garden contributes to the family income is 70 %. The agroecosystem remunerates financially when obtaining excess of products that are sold or exchanged; in this manner, the AEHF gives profitability to the families. The money that results from the sale of vegetable garden products and animals is used to buy foods, which suggests that they constitute a strategy to increase the diet; other uses for the income are education and clothing (Table 5).

Table 5 Use of the money from the sale of vegetable garden and animal surplus from the AEHF. 

Source: authors’ elaboration, based on field work, 2015.

Table 6 shows the expenses that the vegetable garden generates for the owners; in their majority, the maintenance does not generate additional costs. Toledo et al. (2008) state that peasant systems require minimum financial investment. It was verified that since peasant family agriculture is developed in a small scale, the principal input is workforce and it is not required for families to invest their capital for their management.

Table 6 Expenses generated from the maintenance of the family vegetable garden. 

Source: authors’ elaboration, based on field work, 2015.

Since they don’t buy the foods that they obtain from the AEHF, the family saves and generates income through the sale and exchange of products from the vegetable garden and animals; therefore, the contribution from the agroecosystem is reflected in the family income. Guerrero (2007) reports that maintaining the vegetable garden does not generate large expenses to the owners; Juan and Madrigal (2005) state that animal breeding can generate income when employment is scarce.

Exploitation and destination of products from the tree and shrub strata

The species registered by strata of the agroecosystem are: 134 trees and shrubs, 54 herbs or vegetables, and 13 animals. The broad agrobiodiversity of the study area is favored because it belongs to the ecotone zone, with special climate and soil conditions, and is used with different purposes: food, condiment, medicine or ritual. The plant structures and products of the tree, shrub, herb, vegetable and animal species complement the family diet, which agrees with studies by Van der Wal et al. (2011), Colín et al. (2012), Juan (2013), White et al. (2013), Cahuich et al. (2014); Rivas (2014); Santana et al. (2015); Chablé et al. (2015).

The flower composition was higher, compared to the vegetable gardens in the center of México, reported by Juan and Madrigal (2005), Colín et al. (2012), White et al. (2013) and Santana et al. (2015), with 91, 48, 165 and 93 species, respectively, but lower to the one recorded by Chablé et al. (2015) with 330 plant species and 17 animal species, in the south of the country, where they traditionally have greater wealth (Toledo et al., 2008).

In the exploitation of the different plant structures of tree and shrub species, the multipurpose function they have for peasant families stands out. The fruits that are most frequently used are: lime (Citrus limon L.) (121 times), peach (Prunus persica (L.) Batsch.) (115), avocado (Persea americana var. drymifolia) (107), loquat (Eriobotrya japonica (Thunb.) Lindl) (86) and guava (Psidium guajava L.) (85). Among the leaves: nopal (Opuntia streptacantha Lem) (76), lime (57), Mexican honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera Schldl) (30) and guava (25). The stems that are used are: bamboo (Bambusa vulgaris) (12), reed (Arundo donax L.) (9) and sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum) (3). The most frequently used flowers are: angel trumpet (Brugmansia suaveolens (Willd.) Bercht. & J. Presl) (40), bougainvillea (Bougainvillea glabra Choisy) (32), and colorín (Erythrina americana Mill.) (25). They also make use of the agave sap (Agave tequilana Weber) (10) and maguey sap (Agave americana L.) (6).

Among the plant structures that are used from this stratum (Table 7), the most frequently used are the fruits, coinciding with what was found by Colín et al. (2012) and Mariaca (2012). The leaves carry out a digestive and medicinal function when used to prepare infusions; the fruit and tea are commonly offered to family visitors. The agroecosystem is important for food security, because the consumption also includes stems, flowers and sap. White et al. (2013) report uses for ten different plant structures, which include roots, bark and seeds.

Table 7 Tree and shrub plant structures from the vegetable garden used by the families. 

Source: authors’ elaboration, based on field work, 2015.

The frequency of times during which the plant structures are used evidences that the vegetable garden fulfills the purpose of satisfying the needs for food, at the same time that the family saves money by decreasing the expenditure in food purchases; this is another benefit that the AEHF generates. Of the total of these species, not all of them are used in a direct way, that is to say fruit, leaf, stem, flower or sap; some fulfill functions such as contributing food for animals, as fence for the plot or ornamental.

From the destination that people give to these products (Table 8), auto-consumption stands out, indicating that the diet of the families is reinforced with products that they cultivate in the AEHF; exchanging and selling are important for the family income.

Table 8 Destination of the products from tree and shrub species used by the families. 

Source: authors’ elaboration, based on field work, 2015.

When analyzing the species, it was found that auto-supply is the main form of exploitation for: avocado (192 times), lime (121), loquat (88) and peach (80). The exchange or barter is for: loquat (29 times), avocado (28), guava (22), lime, mango (Mangifera indica L.) and banana (Musa acuminata Colla) (21). The species that are sold are: avocado (20 times), mamey (Mammea americana) (11) and annona (Annona reticulata L.) (10). The fruits used for exchange and sale have a high value in the market, which explains that they are allotted for this destination. The results corroborated that the AEHF contributes to sustainability and family resilience.

Exploitation and destination of the products from the herbaceous stratum and vegetable patch

The diversity of herbs and vegetables is used as condiment, medicine, food or for ritual. The fruits used most frequently are: manzano chili (Capsicum pubescens Ruiz & Pav.) (50 times), chili (Capsicum annum L.) (20) and maize (Zea mays L.) (11); the leaves of peppermint (Mentha piperita L.) (63 times), epazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides L.) (60), rue (Ruta graveolens L.) (45), and feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium L.) (43) are very useful to them.

The plant structures from this stratum are used to complement the family diet (Table 9). Leaves and fruits stand out, which are used for soup and salad elaboration, tea preparation for illnesses, and as condiments for food.

Table 9 Herb and vegetable plant structures used by the families. 

Source: authors’ elaboration, based on field work, 2015.

The destination of these products is autoconsumption, for species such as: epazote (90 times), manzano chili (55), peppermint (52) and rue (33). Their reproduction is practiced at a small scale; the component of the vegetable patch does not require a considerable surface within the agroecosystem, since they only produce what is necessary for their exploitation. The consumption of herbs and vegetables also complements the diet, contributes to food security, and minimizes the social vulnerability of the families.

Use and destination of the products of animal origin

In a garden several animal species with limited space requirements coexist (Table 10), primarily chickens, hens and in a smaller proportion ducks, goats, quails and calves. The animals are fed with scraps from the kitchen and the vegetable garden.

Table 10 Animals found in the agroecosystemaa 

In the same vegetable garden there are usually several animal species.

Source: authors’ elaboration, based on field work, 2015.

The animals, as the plants, fulfill the function of providing food to the families. Meat is the most consumed product (Table 11). Hens are the animals that contribute the greatest variety of products for family self-supply (74 times), pigs (15) and sheep (8). These species are also destined to sale.

Table 11 Animal products from the AEHF used by the families. 

Fuente: elaboración propia, con base en trabajo de campo 2015

The products are destined for auto-consumption and sale, which has also been observed by Santana et al. (2015), so they are important for family income. Food and maintaining small species does not generate important expenses to the family. The results corroborate their importance to reduce social vulnerability.

Toledo et al. (2008) and Cahuich et al. (2014) highlight the importance of the AEHF compared to other subsistence agroecosystems, such as the milpa. Guerrero (2007) mentions that the vegetable garden and the milpa are an important source for the family economy in rural areas; to Colín et al. (2012), these satisfy basic dietary needs.


Agroecosystems in these municipalities contain a high diversity of tree, shrub, herb, vegetable and animal species; they offer environmental services, such as microclimate regulation and water infiltration, soil protection from the effects of the open sky, preventing its erosion, recycling nutrients, and for bird refuge. Through their management, the AEHFs have created systems adapted to local soil, climate and environment conditions; this complexity favors social and environmental resilience.

The results obtained show the importance that family vegetable gardens represent for families; from these they obtain food for auto-consumption, both of plant and animal origin. The exchange of products that are not grown in their garden contributes to complementing their diet. The sale of products allows them to generate additional income. Animal breeding is perceived as savings, with which they defray expenses at moments of scarce employment, family events or unforeseen situations such as house repairs, as well as diseases and accidents. Some problems detected were the limited space destined to the different components of the AEHF, scarcity of irrigation water, lack of interest from young people over this agroecological tradition, and lack of knowledge transmission from adults to young people.

The AEHFs in Malinalco, Tenancingo and Villa Guerrero, Estado de México, fulfill important functions; from the environmental point of view, they are a reservoir for agrobiodiversity; the exploitation of the resources guarantees their availability, they are ecologically stable, the goods and services that they generate provide comfort to the families. Socially, they foster family integration since the fact that the whole family participates in the maintenance tasks reinforces the family ties; they favor social cohesion through the exchange of products with other neighbors, and when sharing knowledge they strengthen the harmonious relationship between the inhabitants and the localities. Financially, when they cultivate their foods, the family saves since they don’t buy them. Their sale is a support that they can resort to and the low maintenance cost of the AEHF makes it viable.

Family vegetable gardens constitute a livelihood strategy for peasant families in the 12 localities. It is a traditional practice of in situ conservation, contributes to the family diet, and strengthens socioenvironmental resilience and sustainability.

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Received: August 01, 2015; Accepted: May 01, 2016

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