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Revista mexicana de ciencias agrícolas

versão impressa ISSN 2007-0934

Rev. Mex. Cienc. Agríc vol.8 no.4 Texcoco Jun./Jul. 2017 


Pluriactivity and family agriculture: challenges of rural development in México

Natalia Helena Jarquín Sánchez1  § 

José Alfredo Castellanos Suárez1 

Dora Ma. Sangerman-Jarquín2 

1Doctorado en Ciencias Agrarias. Departamento de Sociología Rural-Universidad Autónoma Chapingo. Carretera México-Texcoco, km 38.5. Chapingo, Texcoco, Estado de México. CP. 56230. (

2Campo Experimental Valle de México-INIFAP. Carretera los Reyes-Texcoco, km 13.5. Coatlinchán, Texcoco, Estado de México. CP. 56250. (


The following paper shows the urgency of incorporating sociological, anthropological and historical foundations for the structuring and promotion of public policies aimed at rural development such as pluriactivity and family agricultural production units. The importance of the analysis from the historicity of the socioeconomic relations of the peasants in their context, of the structure and internal dynamics of rural families, as well as their forms of interaction with the markets is fundamental for the diagnosis and the strategies towards the strengthening of Mexican agriculture.

Keywords: deprivation; family farming; pluriactivity


El siguiente trabajo expone la urgencia de incorporar fundamentos de corte sociológico, antropológico e histórico para la estructuración e impulso de políticas públicas dirigidas al desarrollo rural como la pluriactividad y a las unidades de producción agrícola familiar. La importancia del análisis desde la historicidad de las relaciones socioeconómicas del campesino en su contexto, de la estructura y la dinámica interna de las familias rurales, así como las formas de interacción de éstas con los mercados resulta fundamental para el diagnóstico y las estrategias hacia el fortalecimiento del agro mexicano.

Palabras clave: agricultura familiar; desagrarización; pluriactividad


According to the FAO (2012) (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), family agriculture can be understood as agricultural, livestock, forestry, fishery and aquaculture production which, despite their great heterogeneity between countries and within each country, has the following main characteristics: limited access to land and capital resources.

Prevailing use of family labor force, being the head of the family who participates directly in the productive process; that is to say, even when there might be some division of labor, the family head does not assume exclusive functions of manager, but is also another worker of the family nucleus.

Agricultural/forestry/fishing/aquaculture is the main source of income for the family, that might be complemented by other non-agricultural activities carried out inside or outside the family unit (services related to rural tourism, environmental benefits, craft production, small agro-industries, occasional jobs, etc.).

FAO has proposed as a cooperation objective for family agriculture to collaborate with the Latin America and Caribbean countries in the formulation and adoption of policies and programs aiming to increase the production of goods and services from Family Agriculture in a sustainable manner and, thereby contributing to the well-being of rural families in the Region. This proposal comes from the XXXII FAO Regional Conference, held from March 26th to 30th, 2012 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in which the main challenges and needs of family agriculture were dictated, as well as a FAO’s medium-term strategic framework for cooperation in this area.

The Mexican government, through the SAGARPA (Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food), in response to this proposal, promoted national coverage programs aimed at promoting Family Agriculture based on other programs developed in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile and the European Union. Among these programs is the so-called “peri-urban and backyard family agriculture”, whose objective is to increase food production through incentives for the acquisition of inputs, infrastructure construction, acquisition of productive equipment, capacity development and professional extension and innovation to address disasters caused by natural disasters. Another program, perhaps the most recognized one, is the Strategic Project for Food Security (SPFS), promoted with the support of FAO, and in conjunction with the Rural Development Agencies and the National Technical Units, which started in 2002 as a pilot project in six States of the Republic.

That is to say, even if the historicity of the socioeconomic relations of the peasant in its context and the evaluation of the real diagnosis is still ignored, it is imperative to adapt the public policies of development that for its operation require primary attention on some aspects such as the structure of the family production units.

The following is a list of the main milestones in the history of Mexican agriculture that are considered to have contributed to the erosion of family agriculture.

Development and modernization

The evolutionary process (or involutive if the environmental and social devastation are taking into consideration) of agriculture followed the trend of the industry that first developed in the cities. This mismatch between traditional agriculture and the new model of industrial agricultural production also faced the social and cultural dynamics that were occurring in the countryside and in the cities, completely changing the perspectives one had respect to the other.

Whereas in antiquity the peasant family was an almost self-sufficient economic community since they did not only produce their own subsistence means but also the construction of their home, furniture and other household utensils, as well as working tools, the infiltration of small urban industry in the countryside started in the Middle Ages in Europe, achieving the almost complete elimination of rural domestic industry.

The peasants’ need for money increases, even to provide themselves with what is necessary, they can not continue to plant, or raise animals without it, Kautsky (1978). The dependence of the peasants towards the market also increases, because despite of the efforts to avoid the havoc caused by the droughts or the frosts, no effort is enough to prevent the fall of prices or to be able to sell the surplus of their production, whereas the bad harvests raised the prices, the good ones made them lower. It was the transformation of agricultural production into the production of goods and the old exchange between the producer and the consumer, soon would be more complex to carry out without an intermediary.

In the Mexican case, it is during the Porfiriato (1876-1910) that an accelerated concentration of private territorial property is generated and the agrarian structure is characterized by the great hacienda; agriculture was extensive, based on low technology and capitalization levels, as well as the exploitation of peasants and the expropriation of their lands through the liberal reforms of the Constitution of 1857, which were created to be applied to the Church, during the period of Porfirio Díaz’s government and they served to have the indigenous communities stripped of the ninety percent of their lands (Otero, 2004; Katz, 2004; Escalante et al., 2007).

This stage of history on the situation of agriculture in México was decisive because it was during this period that a large influx of US investments into the country was generated, and with it, the “integration” of Mexico into the world economy.

In the mid-1930s, under the government of Lázaro Cárdenas, a series of modifications emerged that seemed to end with the hegemony of the agricultural bourgeoisie that prevailed mainly in the north of the country supported by generals Adolfo de la Huerta, Obregón and Elías Calles.

However, as Otero (2004) explains, it was only a restructuring of the bloc in power, because in a sense, during the Cardenista period, a space was created that industrialists could access with their investments, the consolidation of the Mexican State prepared to acquire large amounts of foreign exchange, and the imminent “need” to modernize agricultura.

The appropriation of the meaning of words and therefore of concepts has a direct impact on the practice of words, but in the transition from meaning to the application of these concepts there are gaps that hinder and divert the process of the relationship between theory and practice, drowning the possibilities of progress in speeches that seek public policies that hardly achieve their objectives.

The meaning that was appropriate from the imaginary about the development arises in front of the famous speech of Harry Truman on January 20th of 1949.

More than half of the world’s population lives in conditions close to misery. Their food is inadequate, trey are victims of the disease. Their economic life is primitive and stagnant. Their poverty constitutes an obstacle and a threat both to them and to the most prosperous areas. For the first time in history, mankind has the knowledge and capacity to alleviate the suffering of these people.

I believe that we should make available to peace-loving people the benefits of our accumulation of technical knowledge to help them achieve their aspirations. A better life. What we have in mind is a development program based on the concepts of fair and democratic treatment. Producing more is the key to peace and prosperity and the key to producing more is a greater and more vigorous application of technical and scientific modern knowledge Truman (1996).

According to Rodríguez (1993), and according to ECLAC’s general ideas, expressed in its first documents, economic development is expressed in the increase of material welfare, usually reflected in the rise in per capita real income, and conditioned by the increase of average labor productivity. This increase is considered dependent on the adoption of indirect production methods whose use implies the increase of the capital endowment per occupied man. In turn, the greater capital density is achieved as the accumulation takes place, driven by the technical advance, which is necessary to ensure its continuity.

The idea of modernization through the industrialization of economic activities (in this case agricultural and livestock) as a path to development, ie the ultimate goal to be achieved (individually and collectively) through increased production, implies a project that operates exogenously. In this sense, the role of the market is indispensable to give continuity to the center-periphery theory, where social exclusion, spatial segregation and poverty are the everyday life of most “underdeveloped” people, especially the in rural population.

Rodríguez (1993) explains that in the centers, the indirect methods of production that the technical progress generates are diffuse in a relatively short time to the whole productive apparatus. In the periphery, an initial backwardness is created, and as the so-called “outward development” period elapses, the new techniques are only implemented in the exporting sectors of primary products and in some economic activities directly related to the export, which then coexist with lagging sectors in terms of the penetration of new techniques and the level of labor productivity.

This situation evidences the unsustainability of the approach that assumes that the process of unilinear and continuous development, and that it goes from traditional or primitive stages to increasingly advanced and modern phases (Sunkel and Paz, 1981). If this were the case, the sense of capital accumulation would simply be lost and economies such as those of the United States of America, England, Germany, etc., would be seriously affected in the process and would lose their very privileged position among the Nations.

As a result of the extraordinary transfer of productive resources from the countries in the midst of the Industrial Revolution towards the periphery, there is a period at the end of the XIX century of international trade boom unprecedented in the history of mankind, due to its volume, diversity and its geographical breadth (Sunkel and Paz, 1981). The strategy of dependence of “underdeveloped”countries on countries such as those mentioned above went from the need for technology, techniques and measures to increase productivity and exploitation of anything that could be considered a transformable resource for marketing, to domination measures through the expansion of world trade, the rise of exports, the subsequent Free Trade Agreements (NAFTA) and the opening of “incipient” economies facing the unequal competition with “full” economies.

This situation created in developing countries the need to seek measures to catalyze this dream-like process to achieve the status of a developed country, without understanding that these economies had reached that status thanks to historical ideological support for the absence of a peculiar mentality, fostering its secular reasoning and principles applied to its economy and lifestyle of ascetic protestantism as suggested by Giddens (1994) in his work Capitalism and Modern Social Theory. However, despite the historical burden of conquered and dominated peoples, governments in countries such as México began a series of strategies that promoted the industrialization of their productive activities as if it were possible to emancipate themselves from the “yoke” of the past, which ideologically was an obstacle to the economic development of the country.

In the case of the countryside, industrialization and modernization involved a series of measures that, under the auspices of US financing and thought, would cover each of the productive regions within the rural sphere, first, through the adoption of technical innovations that are extended by all means on material and social relations, that is to say, the impact of such technology adoption would affect not only the way of practicing agriculture, but the way of seeing and living through agriculture. Traditional agriculture lost value in the face of the entrance of industrialization in the countryside, the acquisition and application of new technologies and techniques. The work of the peasant was also devalued and the occupation of industrial producer or farmer was intensified, the desire to own more land to increase productivity gains was intensified, although the conjunctural agrarian situation did not help to achieve that dream.

The introduction of machinery, threshing machines, tractors, among others, the application of artificial fertilizers such as ammonium sulfate (NH4)2SO4 under the Haber-Bosch method, the commercialization of fertilizers composed of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, the using of hybrid varieties of crops such as corn and wheat, the application of insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc., the use of the so-called “high yielding varieties” of wheat, rice from economic momentum to research through the so-called “Green Revolution”, agrarian extension funds, public funding and research programs through foundations such as Rockefeller and Ford were strategies that as a consequence of the urgency of industrialization in the Mexican countryside were applied and greatly favored the increase of differentiation between large and small farmers as well as the unequal distribution of land that even today persist.

The average peasant was in a situation of great vulnerability in the face of the new commercialization tendencies that demanded greater extension of land for an intensive productivity, for which it required a strong financial investment and technical support. In view of the difficulty that the majority of peasants faced in order to “modernize” agriculture, the Mexican government began in the mid-1950s the configuration of its agricultural extension model that adopted some characteristics of the model that operated in the United States America.

Once again we replicated formulas towards development and modernization without considering that its functionality depends to a large extent on the historical context and socio-cultural reality of each country. This model was linear and unidirectional, since the information was originated from the researchers, then it came to the extensionists and through them to the producers; that is to say, there was no feedback, the farmers were not heard. It was based mainly on technological supply and demand was not considered (Janssen et al., 2010).

On the other hand, this model implied a strategy for mass dissemination of the fruits of the “Green Revolution” through the dissemination of standardized technology packages with a wide geographic coverage with a strong impact on the introduction of improved varieties of rice, maize and wheat, as well as the promotion of fertilizers and agrochemicals use during the sixties and seventies.

This extensionist model was strongly marked by these characteristics and was called training and visit, it was promoted in more than seventy countries, including México and this model was used until the beginning of the 1990s more or less (McMahan et al., 2010).

The efforts of this extension model were based on offering credits, buying the crops and providing inputs. Institutions such as the National Rural Credit Bank (BANRURAL), the National Agricultural, Livestock and Ejidal Insurance (ANAGSA), the National Company for Popular Subsistence (CONASUPO), FERTIMEX and the National Seed Producer (PRONASE) constituted a network that provided producers the means of supply for the modernization and increase of productivity of the Mexican field. However, this model was obsolete by the measures of trade liberalization that México adopted during the 1990s, since this model operated in a closed economy.

Finally, the signing of NAFTA in 1993 had a direct impact on development and extension policies in the Mexican agricultural sector. The implementation of neoliberal policies, the opening up of trade to a global economy implied in large measure the reduction of public expenditure and the role of the State, when privatizing many of its functions as well as the creation of a new vision of development where the responsibility towards all risks or succes in commercialization and production was entirely on the producer, as well as the access to goods and services, the centralization of resources for rural extension (aimed at encouraging large producers and therefore to marginalize peasants with little land and resources) a growing focus and assistance to poor rural communities causing dependency and fostering paternalism.

Extensive agricultural development model in Mexico

It is important to state some particularities of Mexican agriculture in the face of the model of extensive agricultural development. It should be mentioned that it has caused serious repercussions not only on the economic and social level, but also on the environment, darkening the future of Mexican welfare.

On one hand, the percentage of agricultural land that is favorable to agriculture is scarce in our country, for although México has an area of 198 million hectares, only 23.6 million are labor lands (Torres, 1991). Added to the above is the restriction of natural factors, since water, an element so indispensable to agriculture and in general for life, which is scarce in potentially fertile soils.

In addition, Torres (1991) affirms that we are currently facing the contradictions of the agrarian structure, which is unfavorable for a process of general modernization at the national level, since the other pole, the backward, was a factor that conditioned and encouraged the development of agricultura and rapidly declined in relation to the whole of agriculture and the national economy. On the other hand, the author asserts that the modern sector, especially the one associated with the privileged export sector as well as the transnational agribusiness (or maquiladoras), it has been outstanding since the crisis of 1982, although not in all products and with ups and downs even prone to be affected by contractionary tendencies for the main export products, effect of the beginnings of a new global recession, more serious than the previous ones.

The intensification of the technological process under this development model had, on the one hand, the reduction of fertile agricultural land, as well as a significant decrease in the social value of agricultural products, a function under which the price system operates. This is expressed in the maintenance of permanent extraordinary gains, a condition explained commercially by the fact that large producers supply most of the demand and, because of these favorable circumstances, can impose prices downwards (Torres, 2012).

The de-agrarization process of the Mexican countryside

For Escalante et al. (2007), this series of situations correspond to the second and third phases of what they call the process of “de-agrarization” in México, which refers to the progressive decrease in the contribution of agricultural activities to the generation of income in rural areas, as well as to an increasing migration and aging of its population. It should be mentioned that this term does not refer to the disappearance of agricultural activities, but emphasizes the importance of increased income from non-agricultural activities in rural households.

Against these circumstances and policies that promote a greater specialization of productive units, agricultural activities face a stagnation, coupled with the phenomenon of exclusion from the domestic market, which have to cope with small and medium producers who have gradually opted for abandon agricultural production, even sell-squander their land, migrate (countryside-city) and move from a peasant that owns a land to a wage-laborer.

The growth of the urban population, which intensified as a result of migratory movements during the 1950s to 1970s, mainly in Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey, was largely due to the separation of domestic industry, agriculture due to the industrialization process and substitution of domestic products for industrial products, the specialization of the agricultural sector diminished the labor opportunities in the field, in addition to the important demographic expansion and the profitability crisis of the peasant economy that began in 1957 with the control of the price of maize, worsening over the years with the fall in prices of other key products of the peasant economy such as henequen and coffee, while input prices increased markedly (Grammont, 2009).

Since the 1970s and more clearly during the 1980s, Grammont (2009) states that urban population growth declines compared to the rural population, between 1930 and 1980, the rural population went from 66.5% to 33.7% of the national population, losing on average 6.5 percentage points every ten years, with annual variation declining since 1970. According to estimates by the National Population Council (CONAPO), the percentage of the rural population will go from 25.4% in 2000 to 21.1% in 2030; that is, for that year, the rural population will be 26.7 million, while the urban will be 100.5 million. In this regard, the author considers a stabilization of the ratio between urban and rural population in a proportion of 80-20%.

The study by Reyes et al. (2007) shows that during the period from 1940 to 1970, internal migration to the central and northern Pacific areas of Mexico came mainly from poor rural areas, where rainfed agriculture predominates, while the results of a survey applied to 900 agricultural landowners in seven zones of the country, 26% of rural heads of households were engaged in non-agricultural activities, mainly in trade and services, as well as in industry, mining, transport and construction.

Of the total survey, 13.4% indicated that non-agricultural activities accounted for more than half of their income. In 1960 only 66% of ejidal families reported through the Centro de Investigaciones Agrarias that its main source of income came from agricultural activities (Escalante et al., 2007). On the other hand, Hubert (2009) points out that while in 1992 agricultural income, in monetary and self-consumption terms, accounted for 35.6% of total rural incomes, today it represents only 9.8% of these same incomes. These changes are explained through the transformation of the peasant families who try to counteract the effects of the low prices of their agricultural products with strategies of activities diversification of their members, essentially salaried.

The agricultural activity for families in rural communities has been partially or totally replaced by wage labor, the peasant family lives essentially on the salary of its members or the growing trend of subsidy programs for older adults and single mothers to name a few, and, therefore, survival strategies are taken from the labor market conditions rather than from the market conditions of agricultural products. According to Grammont (2009), a process of transit from an agrarian society with a predominant agricultural sector, to a rural society where this sector not only coexists with other economic activities, but is the least important activity both in terms of the economically active population involved, as well as the number of households and obtained income, which has intensified since the last two decades of the last century.

Rural pluriactivity as a tendency of the process of rural de-agrarization

Undoubtedly rural pluriactivity or the use of natural and cultural heritage (tangible and intangible), as well as occupational employment of members of a rural community for the development of non-agricultural activities to generate economic income, has always existed, however, this concept has generated great interest especially in Western Europe, the United States and Canada in the face of the paradigm shift around the relationship between the countryside and the city, as a phenomenon that, although old, can now be explored as a strategy of economic growth through the diversification of activities that exploit to the maximum the possibilities of the rural environment, as well as the importance of this tendency for the orientation of public policies towards the growth and utilization of the field.

It should be mentioned that the dimensions and perspectives from which rural pluriactivity is studied and understood correspond strictly to the context under which it is analyzed. That is to say, it is no longer possible to pretend to adopt concepts and theorize under a universal Western or Anglo-Saxon conception of phenomena -which keep some similarities- but its explanation is neither compatible nor pertinent to the Mexican context, much less to be considered for the proposition of public politics.

The concept of rural pluriactivity can be understood according to Loughrey et al. (2013), as the combination of agricultural and non-agricultural activities in family-owned farms for the generation of economic income. This conception is shared by authors such as Evan and Ilbery, (1993) Durand and Van Huylenbroeck (2003), Knickel et al. (2003). It can also be understood in terms of disposition and occupation of working time that goes to agricultural and non-agricultural activities.

It is necessary to state that, although in the majority of the expositions on the rural pluriactivity by authors like those mentioned above, or authors like Escalante et al. (2007); Grammont (2009), that refer to the Mexican context, consider the process of industrialization and modernization as key factors for the explanation of pluriactivity, it is necessary to mention that it can not be understood, nor to establish encouraging expectations of this in our country under the same perspective of countries where the countryside and rural families live situations that are very different from our own.

In this sense it should be mentioned that the figure of the Mexican peasant and even more of the peasant family is far from what the agricultural producer represents, or the business figure and the organization of a farm or family farm in a country with better economic conditions, infrastructure, land tenure by the farmer, as well as favorable conditions of the same for agricultural production and the exploration or family business of alternative activities to the agricultural and livestock for the income and life quality improvement.

While in countries with more favorable economies and conditions for the use of opportunities offered by multi-activity, the studies that approach this subject focus on the analytical utility of a business approach to the underlying possibilities of economic growth from the forms of diversification in the agricultural sector in our country as well as in other Latin American countries (Sacco dos Anjos, 2001; Gras, 2004; Escalante et al., 2007; Martínez and Grammont, 2009). The discussion starts from a crisis within the agricultural sector (de-agrarization) and focuses on the study and discussion of the difficulties as well as the challenges that the field in Latin America has to overcome to incorporate pluriactivity to public policies of rural development.

It is important to emphasize that although rural pluriactivity means the alternation of non-agricultural activities with agricultural activities (to a greater or lesser extent) under a system of family production units, this concept can be easily misinterpreted in the Mexican context, since in our country the income of rural families comes increasingly from non-agricultural wage labor, and that the structure of family unit production has changed from the difficulties that agriculture has faced for many decades.

This means that agricultural family production has declined drastically, it is a crisis of family agriculture under which it is even harder to consider rural pluriactivity and diversification as a strategy for rural development.

It is therefore necessary to pay special attention to the conditions of the rural environment with the intention of reviewing access to local and regional markets to promote agricultural activities under a family production system.

It is also important to review the frameworks of political and economic theory that refer to the commodification of the labor process and uneven development, considerations that the rural multi-activity requires to be incorporated into rural development strategies.

It is essential to retake concepts such as capital accumulation and its propagation, on state prominence, class and income relations, increasing complexity and power of the non-agricultural parts of the food chain and contradictions implicit in the “persistence” of family agriculture.

In this regard, Marsden (1990) shows the tendency to consider that family production units do not take place in a world dominated by social capital and that therefore, it has been necessary to explain them from their categorization as a separate social form. Even more disappointing is the inability to incorporate into the analysis a more complete understanding of the internal dynamics of the family and how they interact with market mechanisms.

For example, the author argues that, despite the recognition given to the division of labor patterns of domination and struggle, the influence of gender relations and generational groups on the cyclical life of companies; the analytical frameworks set out to explore these mechanisms have remained frustratingly out of reach for most exponents of Marxist political economy. Therefore, even after a decade of research in the countryside, peasant households remain a kind of black box within the theoretical framework that political economy can not decipher due to its assumptions about social action sources.

It is necessary to establish new dimensions for the current theoretical discourse that avoid the dual character that may be associated with the writings of Lenin and Chayanov, for although Lenin’s ‘Model of differentiation’ included the eventual destruction of peasant forms of production, while Chayanov’s antithesis focused on the viability, internal logic and persistence of family farms in spite of the capitalist invasion, it is now necessary to focus attention on the active role of members of the family production unit, as well as the the way in which the different patterns of agrarian development are presented within the underdeveloped capitalist societies (Marsden, 1990).


As a conclusion, it is considered urgent and necessary to combine the study of pluriactivity with an analysis that explores the historicity of the peasant, as well as the agrarian processes, industrialization, agricultural development models, the agrarian question, the processes of accumulation of capital, class relations, the complexity of the non-agricultural parts of the food chain, as well as the internal dynamics of rural family productive units for the consideration of diversification in activities in the rural environment as a development strategy and the promotion of public policies that contemplate pluriactivity.

The revision of the current situation with regard to the organization and structure of family agriculture, the promotion and procurement of means to ensure the profitability of agricultural activities under the family production system that make it possible to diversify, the undertaking of non-agricultural activities that can be alternated with farming.

In this regard, if it is not clear that family agriculture in México is in crisis, it is not possible to speak of pluriactivity as a strategy for rural development.

It is also urgent to recognize the danger and failure that has meant adopting concepts by tendency, to theorize and even more to consider compatible those terms to the Mexican reality.

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Received: March 2017; Accepted: June 2017

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