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Textual: análisis del medio rural latinoamericano

On-line version ISSN 2395-9177Print version ISSN 0185-9439

Textual anál. medio rural latinoam.  n.72 Chapingo Jul./Dec. 2018 

Economics and public policies

Food sovereignty and environmental risk in the social construction of rural territory in San Juan Ixtenco, Tlaxcala

Luis Llanos Hernández1 

Eugenio Eliseo Santacruz de León2 

1Universidad Autónoma Chapingo (CIESTAAM-GIIES). Doctor en Ciencias Sociales, área de especialización: sociedad y territorio. Profesor-investigador Universidad Autónoma Chapingo, CIESTAAM-GIIES. Integrante de la Red Internacional de Estudios sobre Territorio y Cultura (RETEC). Autor de correspondencia.

2Universidad Autónoma Chapingo. Investigador Asociado al Grupo de Investigaciones Interdisciplinarias en Estudios Socioambientales del CIESTAAM (Universidad Autónoma Chapingo). Correo electrónico:


The rural territories, like any territory in Mexico and the world, are constantly reconfiguring their social space. In San Juan Ixtenco, in the Mexican state of Tlaxcala, these changes result from socio-cultural and political processes influenced by guidelines from international organizations, federal policies, as well as the actions of local social actors. On the other hand, the culture and organization of social actors constitute community processes that lead to their social cohesion and the preservation of culture. Food sovereignty is a process of these, which is based on the customs and traditions of peasant culture, and which innovates when new forms of community participation are built. In this vision, the perception of environmental risk by the communities also affects the reconfiguration of the rural territory of Ixtenco. In this town of Otomi origin, the social actors establish their links with the national and global society through food sovereignty and their perception of environmental risk. The cultivation of corn and the manufacture of tortillas made by hand are processes that allow the social construction of food sovereignty and an ecological defense of their territory. Keywords: rural territories, food sovereignty, peasants, communitary sovereignty, environmental communitarianism.

Keywords: peasants; environmental communitarianism; food sovereignty; rural territories; globalization


Los territorios rurales, como todo territorio de México y el mundo, están en continua reconfiguración de su espacio social. En San Juan Ixtenco, estos cambios son resultado de procesos socioculturales y políticos relacionados con directrices que provienen de los organismos internacionales, de las políticas federales, así como de la acción de los actores sociales locales. Por otro lado, la cultura y la organización social de los actores sociales configuran procesos comunales que llevan a preservar la cohesión social y su cultura. La soberanía alimentaria es uno de estos procesos que descansa en las costumbres y las tradiciones de la cultura campesina y que se innova al construir nuevas formas de participación comunitaria. En esta perspectiva, la percepción del riesgo ambiental por parte de las comunidades también incide en la reconfiguración del territorio rural de Ixtenco. En este poblado de origen otomí, los actores sociales establecen sus vínculos con la sociedad nacional y global a través de la soberanía alimentaria y su percepción del riesgo ambiental. El cultivo del maíz y la elaboración de tortillas artesanales constituyen procesos que posibilitan la construcción social de la soberanía alimentaria y una defensa ecológica de su territorio.

Palabras clave: campesinos; comunitarismo ambiental; soberanía alimentaria; territorios rurales; globalización


San Juan Bautista Ixtenco is a territory of Otomí origin. Today its culture still preserves important elements of its pre-Hispanic past that have been transformed over the centuries. One of the central pillars of its culture is the milpa, a crop-growing system used throughout Mesoamerica, and the consumption of plants from this agrosystem, mainly corn. Its geographical location in relation to the state of Tlaxcala, of which it is part, as well as its belonging to Mexico and the world, constitutes a vertex where the verticalities and horizontalities of the space that give meaning to social life in Ixtenco intersect. In this place, economic and social processes of a local, regional, national or global scope are intertwined.

They are the vectors of the economy, politics and technology that converge with the horizontality of local processes, which are articulated at different scales with those of a regional, state, national or even global nature. This set of events socializes rural life, where culture, traditions, social organization and its festivities act in the structuring of the space that shapes rural daily life.

This continuously transforming territory has managed to preserve and improve the cultivation of native corn through the milpa agrosystem. This is one of the activities that distinguishes this community and that supports the processes associated with the food sovereignty1 of this people, a sovereignty that is built from their social practices that make up various subsystems of the social space. They are social and political transformations where culture is the foundation that guides the individual and collective action of the rural community.

Food sovereignty and environmental communitarianism are processes that arise in the rural community of Ixtenco; both are solidarity relations that oppose food security policies, components of the hegemonic food model (Sammartino, 2014), which are promoted by governments, international organizations and transnational companies through different types and forms of association. These are processes that are highlighted in the present research.

In order to address the above-mentioned processes, several methodological frameworks were used. The first identified the vectors related to verticalities, as well as the spatial horizontalities that cross this territory (Santos, 2000). The verticalities, expressed in the economic or political forces that come from globalization or from the national state, are very diverse: the loans granted by the World Bank (WB) or the International Monetary Fund (IMF), trade deals such as the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) or the trade rules established by the World Trade Organization. These guidelines represent these types of vectors that originate beyond national borders. Also, the environmental crisis was defined as a vector whose policies to address it come from the global agreements that national governments have assumed in various international forums such as the Kyoto Protocol (1997) and the Paris Agreement, in 2016, as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Horizontalities signify solidarity and internal cohesion, are present in the community and are also extended through their regional, state, national and even international relationship with other populations and social actors. Horizontalities are manifested through the normativity of peoples, festivities, culture, or the solidarity of national institutions, and NGOs. In the case of the present research, horizontality as an object of study is manifested through the social construction of food sovereignty and environmental risk and, to that end, a question was asked that guided the course of this research: how has the territory been transformed by food sovereignty and environmental risk in San Juan, Ixtenco?

Once these processes that explain the particularity of the study area were identified, the units of analysis in which the territory of Ixtenco was disaggregated were defined. In this work, two units were taken: artisanal tortillerias (tortilla bakeries) and peasant families who perceive the threat posed by the presence in this territory of the transnational Monsanto, a company that is one of the promoters of the food security discourse. The techniques used to gather the information were: the field notebook, semi-structured interviews and a review of historical sources such as the municipal archive.

Disagreements on food security and sovereignty

Currently, in the conceptual field of food policy, the concepts of food security and food sovereignty are subject to analysis and discussion. The analytical documents regarding the former have an economic-administrative approach, with the goal of improving food production (productivity and profitability) and food trade. The work carried out under the food sovereignty approach assumes critical anti-systemic positions.2

In the 1980s, in the context of the discussions and negotiations to incorporate food into the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the then U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, during Ronald Reagan’s pres idency, John Rusling Block3(1981-1985) said eloquently: “The effort of some devel oping countries to become self-sufficient in food production should be a reminder of past times when they could save money by importing food from the United States” (Gómez, Martínez, Rivas, & Villalobos, 2016:316).

One of the most conspicuous points in the discussion on world food problems was presented at the First World Food Summit, held in Rome from November 13 to 17, 1996. High-level meetings were held with representatives of the European Community and representatives of 185 countries. At this summit, the Rome Declaration on World Food Security and the World Food Summit Plan were adopted, with the objective being to reduce hunger by 50 % by the end of 2015 and to identify appropriate measures to achieve universal food security (FAO, 1996). At this summit, the solitary voice of Via Campesina appears, advocating the path of Food Sovereignty.

At this summit, the FAO stated that “food security, at the individual, household, national, regional and global levels (is achieved) when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (FAO, 1996).

Five years later, the World Food Summit was again held in Rome; on that occasion, Kofi Annan, then Secretary-General of the United Nations, said: “There is no shortage of food on the planet. World production of grain alone is more than enough to meet the minimum nutritional needs of every child, woman and man. But while some countries produce more than they need to feed their people, others do not, and many of these cannot afford to import enough to make up the gap. Even more shamefully, the same happens within countries. There are countries which have enough food for their people and yet many of them go hungry” (FAO, 2002:13).

On that occasion at the summit, it was repeatedly noted that 800 million people were suffering from hunger and it was there that the goal of reducing that number by 400 million was set. The Director-General of FAO, Jacques Diou, presented figures showing that the target set at the first summit had not been reached, and further stated that if progress continued at the same rate, it would not be reached for another 45 years. On that occasion, FAO presented the global Anti-Hunger Programme.

"In documents formulated for public discussion, the FAO (Gordillo & Obed, 2013: 6) has set out to “achieve food security for all, and make sure people have regular access to high-quality food to lead active, healthy lives ... to improve nutrition, increase agricultural productivity, raise the standard of living in rural populations and contribute to global economic growth.” In the same document, it is vaguely stated that “the concept of food sovereignty is based precisely on verifying the asymmetry of power in the different markets and spaces of power involved, as well as in the spheres of multilateral trade negotiations. It appeals, then, to the balancing role that a democratic state can play, and conceives that food is more than a commodity” (Gordillo & Obed, 2013: 6). It concludes that... “the concept of food sovereignty is neither antagonistic nor an alternative to the concept of food security.”

In the case of Mexico, this vision has been assumed by the federal government, which considers that food sovereignty is achieved by strengthening food security. To this end, it has aligned its agricultural policy by signing international treaties. Starting from a different perspective, in this research, in the country’s current conditions, it is assumed that food security policies, as well as those of food sovereignty, constitute opposing paradigms that advance in a different direction, as they are the result of visions and interests different from those of the social actors of rural society in Mexico.

In 2007, the International Forum for Food Sovereignty (IFFS) was held in Nyéléni, Selingue, Mali. Its declaration stated: “Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations” (IFFS, 2007). At this forum, six pillars of food sovereignty were established: 1. focuses on food for people, 2. values food providers, 3. localizes food systems, 4. puts control locally, 5. builds knowledge and skills, and 6. works with nature. A seventh pillar -food is sacred- was added by members of the Indigenous Circle during the People’s Food Policy process (Food Secure Canada, 2017).

While this definition of food sovereignty reflects the interests of communities, peoples and the nation, the following hypothesis is put forward: Food sovereignty is based on the decision of communities and peoples to grow and produce food on their lands and territories. This is not just a production decision; it is, above all, a political and cultural decision that is based on the will of the people. Food sovereignty is based on the cultivation of people’s basic foodstuffs and is opposed to the aims of food security that seeks to liberalize agricultural produce markets. Food sovereignty is a broad concept and is related to formal and informal government mechanisms of the communities.

Food sovereignty and environmental communitarism socially unite communities and peoples and oppose national economic and political arrangements arising from food security. Food sovereignty is not a social process of resistance and change that is widespread in the country, but culturally the nation retains its attachment to the consumption of corn, beans, chili, squash and other native plants, and in some indigenous and peasant communities they are deeply rooted processes. Federal policy has sought to impose, through economic and market mechanisms, conditions for communities and peoples to adopt and adapt to the conditions of the food security policy; many times they have been forced to accept productive reconversion processes by adopting cash crops, which has led them to replace traditional crops related to their diet. The federal government has promoted the insertion of farmers and peasants into the “new global agrifood order” (Massieu, 2010: 43).

The implementation of free market policies that sustain food security, or those that imply opposition to them, such as food sovereignty, have transformed the territory of the communities. There is no place in rural society, be it a community, a town, a city or a country, that has not been territorially transformed. The territories of communities and peoples have incorporated new object and action systems (Santos, 2000), where culture and local production systems have become intertwined with new economic, political or cultural processes that originate outside national borders. They are communities that spatially have had to innovate and transform themselves in the current context of globalization.

Food sovereignty as a socio-cultural process

Ixtenco is a town of Otomi origin, whose Altepetl (usually translated as city-state), Matlalcueye, is in the Mesoamerican worldview a Tonacatépetl, the “Mountain of sustenance,” where corn is kept until it is delivered by Quetzalcóatl to the gods (Leyenda de los Soles 1945: 121-122). This is produced under the ancestral milpa system, in a corn-squash or corn-beans pairing. Several varieties of corn can be integrated into the milpa system: “blue, red corncob, white, purple, wheat, pink, cream, red, blood of Christ, mottled...the colors of the corn exceed our imagination” (Avendaño, 2016), which are manifested in the preparation of their food (Photos 1 and 2). One particular variety is garlic corn, a special corn, a very primitive race, also known as tunica corn; although it has little commercial value, it is retained by this community (Hernández, Monsalvo, & Trueba, 2016).

Author photo

Photo 1. Native corn in Ixtenco. 

Author photo

Photo 2. A rainbow of native corn. 

In Ixtenco, the milperos (corn growers) distinguish: 1) purple corn; 2) blue, creamleaved corn; 3) blue, purple-leaved corn; 4) yellow corn; 5) cream-leaved cacahuacintle; 6) purple-leaved cacahuacintle; 7) wheat corn; 8) xocoyul corn; 9) wide corn; and 10) white native corn. Gato (cat) corn varieties are pintos, resulting from mixtures. Several farmers cultivate two or three different types of corn, but very few go as high as ten. The families report different uses: pinoles, atoles, tamales, tortillas. The xocoyul atole, famous both for its characteristic pink color and for its flavor, competes with purple and blue atoles. On the other hand, yellow corn is planted in order to have fodder for livestock. Wide and cacahuacintle corn are used for pozole. Tortillas are made mainly from white, wheat and blue corn (Lazos, 2014: 208).

The milpa, an ancestral practice of Mesoamerican origin, is the way in which corn is cultivated. The milpa is the livelihood of the Mesoamerican peoples and its conservation is still related to the food that is consumed today, this being its most important basis. Native corn is the result of a process of continuous selection by hundreds of generations of indigenous peoples and peasants who select the best grains from an ear for the next harvest. This is an ancient selection process and enables the peasant to take control of the milpa crop. The selection of the corn seed is a cultural process of the peasant, it is a type of technical knowledge, and it is part of the genetic improvement process of this species that will result in a new object created by humans that will be inserted into a production process. Corn and land constitute the root of the national culture; it is the basis of peasant production and corn is the most important food of the country. The seed and its selection are an important part of the knowledge of the peasant culture.

The milpa is part of the cultural heritage of the inhabitants of Ixtenco, an inheritance that reaches a national scale among the peasant population. The people of Ixtenco reject the introduction of hybrid corn cultivation under the monoculture system, which was expanded into the country’s rural territories beginning in the Green Revolution, and was part of the modernization of the countryside. This production "system requires hybrid seed and techno- logical packages that are based on the intensive use of agrochemicals. “The green revolution, the symbol of agricultural intensification, not only failed to ensure the production of abundant and safe food for all people, but was instituted under the assumption that there would always be abundant water and cheap energy and that the climate would not change” (Altieri & Nichols; 2012:65). The use of hybrid seed results in more intensive land use, increased demand for industrial inputs, and a process of genetic erosion and loss of diversity of corn and other milpa species4 (Dyer, López-Feldman, Yúnez-Naude, & Taylor, 2014; Rodríguez-Pérez, Sahagún-Castellanos, Peña-Lomelí, Hernández-Ibañez, & Escalante-González, 2016).

The peasants of this community grow native corn as the basis of their diet. Corn nixtamalization is an ancient process that forms part of Mesoamerican culture and persists as part of the processing of corn consumed in the form of tortillas. The tortilla is part of the cultural and culinary identity of the Mesoamerican peoples, of a large part of the Mexican Mestizo people, and of large groups of Mexican migrants (Calleja & Valenzuela, 2016). This is a simple process that consists of cooking the corn grain accompanied by lime; once it has been cooked, it is left to rest overnight and is then washed to separate the husk or residues that remain. It is then ground in a metate or mill to achieve the dough to make the tortilla. “The development of nixtamal occurred about 3000 years ago and is one of the great food contributions of Mesoamerica to the world” (Bourges, 2013: 236). The invention and development of the culinary process called nixtamalization meant the technological innovation and development of other implements and utensils (Long, 2010).

This process is different from the industrial processing used to make flour for the production of tortillas.5 Nixtamalization favors a texture, smell and taste of the tortillas that are appreciated by those who consume them. In Ixtenco, white or blue corn are used for the preparation of tortillas. “Sometimes we make blue or white tortillas, but blue corn has an 80 % lower yield than white corn; this decrease is a loss for us, because people pay the same price for the blue or white tortilla” (Personal communication, August 31, 2017). Food as culture constitutes the specific form under which peoples are related to their ecological diversity and thus the domestication of the species they took for their use.

Among the inhabitants of Ixtenco, there is a marked rejection of the cultivation and consumption of hybrid corn, or improved corn as it is also known: “Only two peasants have decided to cultivate hybrid corn; the rest of us only cultivate native corn” (Personal communication, September 2, 2017). The problem with hybrid corn is its rapid drop in yield per hectare, since the use of agrochemicals reduces soil fertility. One season a good harvest can be obtained, but in the next, its results are very limited.

The link between cultivation and consumption is ancestral because it is related to tradition, to a way of eating and to a social organization, where religious festivities are articulated with the process of growing corn. This community is self-sufficient in corn; the fact its lands are located on the slopes of “Matlalcueye” volcano, better known as “La Malinche” volcano, make it possible to grow corn in the lowlands or highlands, even in difficult times.6

Once the harvest is over, the peasants store the corn that they are going to consume during the year. If they have a surplus, they will market it with intermediaries from other states of the country; they will be able to sell part of their stored corn if they have any emergency expenses, or, if in the course of the year their corn supply runs out, they will buy the amount they are lacking from local sources.

In Ixtenco, the pursuit of self-sufficiency in corn is a sovereign decision of the community to produce its food. It is a community whose population has remained relatively stable in recent decades.7

Food sovereignty and social space

The cultivation of native corn is a cultural practice and the foundation of food sovereignty. It is a horizontal dimension of the social space. “The horizontalities of social space are centripetal forces, aggregation forces and convergence factors” (Santos, 2000:241). They give strength to the solidarity and cohesion of the community and oppose the disintegrating effect of international and national policies that seek to homogenize all spaces in order to submit them to the ends of the globalization processes promoted by large transnational corporations. Ixtenco’s social cohesion has several expressions, with the clearest residing in its decision to continue growing native corn; another, which forms part of the process of social construction of food sovereignty, is seen through the consumption of tortillas. The tortillerias that are distributed throughout Ixtenco’s urban area exemplify the community’s capacity to provide itself with its staple foods using its own resources. In this area, it is a self-sufficient community that does not depend on the international corn market to feed itself, because when there is insufficient corn in the locality, families obtain it in the regional markets.

Ixtenco has 37 stores where artisan tortillas are made and sold for family consumption. There are five mills that grind nixtamalized corn and transform it into dough; three mills-tortillerias that perform both functions; and four businesses that process tortillas in a machine and have their own mill. These businesses use commercial hybrid corn, one of the expressions of the intrusion of verticality called food security. The tortillerias where the tortillas are processed in a machine hire hourly workers for their operation (Photos 3 and 4). Artisanal tortillerias are small family businesses.

Author photo

Photo 3. Tortilla making machine. 

Author photo

Photo 4.  Corn kneading mill. 

In other parts of the state or the country, machine-equipped tortillerias represent the paradigm of progress faced by the tradition or custom of making tortillas in an artisanal way; this type of tortilla is made by hand, unlike that which is processed in a series through a machine. The former is the result of the knowledge, experience and satisfaction of making tortillas; they are tortillas that bear similarities in their shapes, but, above all, have a taste and texture that distinguishes them. The latter is the result of a mechanized process, whose product keeps a uniformity, and they are processed with a commercial corn that fails to project the taste and aroma of artisan tortillas. The time it takes to make an artisan tortilla and a machine-made one differs, as the process is faster in the latter; and yet, in Ixtenco, there are several businesses of this type that have failed because the population prefers artisan tortillas for family consumption. The making of artisan tortillas has the following characteristics: preparation of the corn for cooking and consequent nixtamalization. The milling of the corn is carried out in the mills for its transformation into dough. These tortillerias never process hybrid corn; instead, they make the tortillas with native, white or blue corn. The tortillas are handmade and heated in round comals (Photos 5 and 6).

Author photo

Photo 5.  Tortilla comal. 

Author photo

Photo 6.  Tortilla making. 

Tortillerias are small family businesses distributed throughout the nine neighborhoods that make up the territory of Ixtenco. The artisanal tortillerias or the machine-equipped ones represent two techniques for the processing of their product. The former depends on the work and creativity of the women, whereas the mechanical-type one requires the presence of men, since the milling of corn represents work that requires physical strength. But not only are there two techniques for making tortillas, there are also two different spaces, two object and action systems, and two different intentionalities. It should not be forgotten that “the description of a system of objects depends on the description of a system of practices” and that the intentionality of the production process of things (Santos, 2000:76) are inseparable; the object and action systems that configure a social space are interdependent.

The artisanal tortillerias are installed in a space of approximately 3 meters long by 3 meters wide; women are responsible for making this product, although there are also some exceptions. The spatial organization of these businesses is basic, constituted by a system of simple objects: a 20-liter plastic container to preserve the dough, a table to knead and moisten the dough, a butane gas tank, a simple press that is manually operated to shape the tortilla, a comal of a meter and a half in diameter and a scale to weigh the tortillas. This object system is interrelated with a system of family-type actions. It is a rustic hybridization of objects and actions that configures a simple but transcendental space where community cohesion is built and food culture is reproduced. It is a small space that symbolizes the resistance of food sovereignty to the onslaught of food security trade policies, which seek to introduce the widespread consumption of commercial corn that comes from other regions of the country, or from abroad, mainly from the United States through other companies such as MASECA (a play on words between the Spanish words masa and seca, which mean dough and dry respectively in English).

The artisanal tortillerias are spatially distributed in Ixtenco’s urban area. Their location ensures that families can acquire this food very quickly. The decision to go to one and not to another tortilleria does not depend on proximity alone, as empathy is also important. It is not a simple mercantile act of buying and selling in an impersonal way, but the bonds of neighborliness, friendship and familiarity are present. Dialogue and communication are always a possibility. Each tortilleria represents a nucleus of relationships where trust and keeping one’s word are present in this exchange process. These are the invisible bonds that give cohesion to the community.

The tortillerias that make the tortilla on a machine are more impersonal. The counter separates the consumer from the business area. Inside these premises, the object system consists of the machine, a mill, a deposit to moisten the corn, a gas installation, the counter and a scale. Unlike the artisanal tortillerias, here it is hourly workers who operate the small business, usually two or three workers: one or two men and a woman.

Machine-based tortillerias have greater efficiency than the artisanal ones, as the first system is more productive. And yet, this type of business has failed because Ixtenco’s inhabitants prefer to consume artisan tortillas. Their tortillas do not have the same taste as a traditional tortilla because they are made with hybrid corn. This artisanal system is more effective in the context of the culture of this population, although it is less productive from the perspective of market efficiency.

Consequently, it can be seen that the making and consumption of tortillas are cultural facts. They have a history, a present and a future. The strength of this history and of the culture of the population is what preserves the community’s cohesion by rejecting the presence of industrialized corn that does not correspond to the taste and food tradition of the population in Ixtenco. Nonetheless, the tortillerias are part of a logic that reigns in the community. There is a conflict between progress, symbolized by machine tortillerías, and the tradition on which the artisanal tortillerías are based. However, it is the breath of the culture that imposes itself and characterizes the food production and consumption system in Ixtenco. The community has decided to retain its staple foods and thus its diet, although in other areas of its family life it has decided to open up to technology and communication that link it to national and global processes.

Verticalities and horizontalities in the territory of ixtenco

The social processes that can be analyzed as horizontalities of Ixtenco’s social space are continuously reconstructed. Food sovereignty is not only a principle, but is also one of these social processes where new object and action systems emerge that renew the social process of territory construction. This is the case with the Corn Fair (La Feria del Maíz), a collective action initiative with the clear purpose of exposing its cultural richness for the preservation of its different corn varieties. It exhibits the diverse foods and beverages typical of the community, including corn, regional dishes and sweets, as well as handicrafts, typical clothing, and texts about its history. The fair is a new social space subsystem in Ixtenco that began in 2010 from locally constituted actions. It is a basis of peasant life that promotes the collective interest: the defense of their native corn. This activity, which has a broad community solidarity action, extends its links with other towns and cities where the importance of the Corn Fair is disseminated and recognized. Solidarity is a horizontal articulation of social space (Santos, 2000).

The organization of the Corn Fair is not just a cultural act related to Ixtenco’s food sovereignty. It is a political action of the community in defense of its native corn against the latent threat of interference by the transnational company Monsanto. It is a cultural and political action based on the exercise of sovereignty that requires an organization and a collective disposition to act in pursuit of the common good. This is not the political sovereignty of a state like the one analyzed by Rousseau (2014) in his work “The Social Contract,” but it is a sovereignty that is built from the community as a political, cultural, social and economic action. Sovereignty rests on collective action and guides individual interest in the pursuit of the common good. Food sovereignty opposes the rules of food security and puts pressure on the national state in order to redirect national food sovereignty to the origins of its philosophical principles.

It is in the context of food sovereignty that Ixtenco’s inhabitants preserve their ability to provide themselves with basic food, often in the face of various types of threats, which can be of a political or economic nature; moreover, there are also natural risks that can damage crops, such as excessive rains or drought in some seasons, frost or hailstorms. To protect themselves, the peasants cultivate chalqueño and conical corn, which are resistant to water scarcity, instead of hybrid corn that is susceptible to it (Lazos, 2014). In recent decades, sudden changes in climate or the emergence of meteorological phenomena with a strong impact on the territory have occurred, the reason for which is debated among scientists. In this regard, Lezama (2008) considers that natural risks today are also risks caused by human action that have as a possibility “the self-destruction of human life on earth” (Beck, 2008: 27).

In this perspective, the perception of climate change projects a greater understanding among peasants than the notion of environmental crisis. They relate natural disasters with greater certainty to climate change than to environmental crisis, which incorporates human action as one of the causes; this population fails to elucidate that “in advanced modernity, the production of wealth is systematically accompanied by the social production of risks” (Beck, 2008, 26). In spite of this, environmental crisis and climate change have modified the peasants’ perspective. They succeed in linking the natural disasters that originate in other parts of the world with the negative effects on their crops; their understanding goes beyond the borders of their region. Peasants today are farmers with a global perspective who relate the condition of their crops with environmental risks, and with the industrial and consumption processes of other nations. Their vision is no longer limited to just caring for the crops of their community; their concern now includes the planet itself, although it is not clear to them that since 1970 modern agriculture, along with the current economy in general, has been criticized because it involves fossil fuel expenditure, environmental pollution and a greater loss of diversity than occurs with “traditional” agriculture (Martínez, 2011: 377).

The change in perspective is a different way of perceiving the environment, the national reality and the global link. But the attitude towards this happening will generate different responses among peasants. The introduction of transgenic corn among peasants has been promoted as a “clean” technology that takes care of the environment. One of its assumptions is that the use of agrochemicals in the production of transgenic corn is not required. But this technology is looked upon with great suspicion by researchers, environmentalists and peasants who have forms of organization that unite them.

Transgenic corn is a technology that has been developed in the laboratories of transnational corporations involved in food production. Monsanto is the company that is pressuring national states to accept this technology in their agricultural fields. This is a verticality that when it reaches the rural territories will reconfigure them. “Verticalities are vectors of a superior rationality and of the pragmatic discourse of the hegemonic sectors, which create a daily and disciplined order” (Santos, 2000, 241). But in this type of verticality, solidarities are also generated among the bodies or organizations themselves that are interested in this type of policy; it is a solidarity that leads them to the establishment of agreements that result in governmental policies with a national and international scope. They are alliances established between transnational corporations and national governments that are introduced through agricultural policies for the farm sector. It is the organic solidarity of which Durkheim (2001) speaks that arises as a result of the social division of labor that currently reaches a global dimension, from which the social division that arises within rural communities does not escape.

Technologies related to transgenic corn are constituted in vectors originating in the laboratories of transnational companies seeking to subdue the local rural territories. This is possible when peasants lose con trol over their production; “verticalities are centrifugal forces, (and) can be considered a disaggregation factor when they deprive the region of the elements of its own control. Now it must be sought outside and far from there” (Santos, 2000: 241). The introduction of transgenic corn in Ixtenco would reorganize the rural territory with a new object and ac tion system that would be under the control of the transnational company, constituting a vertical process of control over the corn crops. The milpa is the way of cultivating corn and is part of an ancestral knowledge; the milpa system, its techniques and sowing times are a cultural heritage of the peasant. Production, exchange and consumption are carried out by a logic of peasant organiza tion. The introduction of transgenic corn in Ixtenco’s rural territory would lead to the disintegration of peasant agriculture and the emergence of vertical control by trans national corporations. The risk is not only environmental; it is also an economic and political risk for food sovereignty. The risk is socio-environmental in nature.

Food sovereignty and environmental crisis in the territory

The territory of Ixtenco, like any place in the world, is a meeting point between the vectors that originate in other parts of the world, and the horizontal dimensions of cohesion and solidarity that are built from the places. They are processes that fertilize resistances, changes, and innovations. Territories never remain static; they are always in motion. Political and commercial agreements between transnational corporations, such as Monsanto, and national governments result in national policies that negatively impact rural populations. These are the policies that have shaped the food security strategy that tends to dismantle community organization; however, since social processes are not linear, they also generate unthinkable events, as new social resistances are generated that strengthen the solidarity and cohesion of communities.

The environmental discourse of Monsanto, through its subsidiary Agrobio-México, whose mission is “to create a favorable environment for the development of this technology in our country,”8lacks credibility among Ixtenco’s rural residents. In reality, the peasants of Tlaxcala have assumed an attitude of rejecting genetically modified organisms. This company, and the verticality of its policies that the federal government intends to impose, receives the support of international organizations such as the FAO and national governments with neoliberal policies. This is a neoliberal association whose purpose is to promote the opening of international markets under the orientation of free market and food security policies.

The threat of interference by the transnational Monsanto in Ixtenco has generated reactions that tend to strengthen the community. There is a social distrust related to this company and its associated companies such as Agrobio-Mexico, a fear and a rejection that is present and reproduced throughout the state of Tlaxcala. This is a perception that is formed from the information about the transgenic products that this company produces, as well as the claims that there are in the world against them. The opinion of the peasants in this community contrasts with that of other peasants in broader studies in the state of Tlaxcala. Lazos (2014: 232) points out that “the contrasts over the adoption of transgenic corn are noteworthy: while in one case the refusal to allow the entry of such seeds is expressed forcefully, in three cases there seems to be curiosity, albeit with mistrust.

The risk of environmental imbalance that these companies can cause in rural territories leads the inhabitants to take on a sheltering and protective behavior. In the community, the environmental risk that has as its origin the external vectors will be confronted with another environmental discourse that is built from the communities and their solidarity networks: academics, activists, NGOs, peasant organizations, neighboring communities, and the government of the State of Tlaxcala. Thus, environmental risk becomes a space for dispute, which seeks social legitimacy; it is a space where scientific paradigms confront each other: transgenic agriculture versus traditional agriculture.

Among the population of Ixtenco, environmental risk and food sovereignty meet, are not excluded, and are related to generate community processes of cohesion and solidarity. From the perspective of food sovereignty, the way corn is produced ensures a production that preserves native corn and also protects the land, since it avoids the use of agrochemicals. The milpa is the association of basic crops in the food consumption of the population; it is a form of sovereign production and is not harmful to the natural environment. The milpa avoids the environmental risks related to transgenic agriculture and feeds the culture of the inhabitants.

Moreover, community resistance also translates into innovation in the field of politics and culture. This community, together with others in the state of Tlaxcala, achieved the publication, on January 18, 2011, of the Law for the Promotion and Protection of Corn as Original Heritage in Constant Food Diversification for the state of Tlaxcala. This legal provision corresponds to the principle of food sovereignty and environmental communitari anism that constitute a social practice in Ixtenco. It is also a way of building the political sovereignty of rural communities. Environmental communitarianism constitutes the solidarity and collective action of the communities by constructing a discourse, a practice, and an economic, social and cultural project opposed to the interests of transnational corporations, related international organizations, and the policies of neoliberal governments that seek to build a consumer society through food security.

The creation of the Native Seed Bank and the Corn Fair also represents collective actions taken by the community of Ixtenco; they are emerging community actions that seek to preserve the biodiversity of the inhabitants’ territory and culture. The preservation of native seeds does not only represent the care given to their biological richness. Native seeds build a nation and political and food sovereignty. They are social processes that arise at the initiative of the inhabitants, as new forms that contribute to give a different content to national sovereignty in the era of neoliberal globalization.


Food sovereignty and environmental risks are social processes present in territorial configuration. In Ixtenco, the territory is ordered in a logic opposed to the perspective of food security policy. Food sovereignty and environmental communitarianism constitute emerging processes that are driven by the communities and, through them, cohesion and solidarity strengthen the horizontal dimensions that articulate the community. These processes confront and resist those vectors that arise in other parts of the world and that seek to open up rural territories so that they harbor the impacts of the policies of transnational corporations.

Every territory deploys the processes that arise from the place and extends its links with the territories and regions of the territory-nation of which it is part; the territories do not have a disarticulated existence of the national space, but they also receive the impact of the vectors, of those political and economic or technological forces that originate in the diverse territories of the world economy.

Food sovereignty and environmental communitarianism are social processes that in Ixtenco structure the territory under a communitarian logic, reconstruct the community and its social space, and orient it to seek new forms of association and exchange. They lead them to deploy new strategies, discourses and social, economic and cultural practices. They represent the possibility of creating an economic and social model different from that of the market economy. Food security creates consumer societies; native corn provides cohesion to cultures and nations.


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1 We use this concept which, like its counterpart (food security), originated in the Western cultural matrix, since it is adapted to the critical and counter-hegemonic narrative that we want to make visible here. We have conversed with both male and female peasants and they have appropriated it, because it is the one that somehow captures their vision of attachment to the land and their territory.

2The initial concern for food problems was expressed in the 1930s, in the process of creating the League of Nations, when the then Yugoslavia requested that the League of Nations through the Health Division disseminate information on the world food situation, being the first report on the world food situation (Ignatov, 2014). The world food situation acquired greater relevance with the food market crisis of the 1970s (Schejtman & Chiriboga, 2009).

3After serving as a member of the presidential cabinet, he was a John Deere executive, President of Food Distributors International and a member of the Board of Directors of the World Food Program (now known as the World Food Program USA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the UN World Food Program and its efforts to end world hunger.

4(Blanco, 2006) documented the genetic erosion in the milpa of Zoques Popoluca.

5Although the companies producing "nixtamalized" corn flour report that they apply the process, apparently the modifications for industrialization do not respect the characteristics mentioned here as giving this process to the dough.

6As already indicated, it is conceived as a Tonacatépetl ("Mountain of sustenance").

7Data from the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (CONEVAL for its initials in Spanish) indicated the following: year 2000, 5,840 inhabitants; year 2005, 6,279; year 2010: 6,791; year 2015: 7,080. It is a community with a stable population, with land whose productivity in native corn is low, 3.2 tons per hectare.

8It refers to agricultural biotechnology, which is the knowledge area related to the creation of transgenic corn.

Received: November 22, 2017; Accepted: May 27, 2018

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