By Elybeth Alcantar
The picturesque village of San Mateo Etlatongo in the Nochixtlan Valley of Oaxaca is known for its role in the “Sembrando Vida” project spearheaded by Mexico’s Secretariat of Welfare. This municipality first came to national attention in February 2021 when Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known by his initials AMLO, visited Etlatongo to inaugurate the program. In Etlatongo, the main agricultural crop planted and cultivated through the Sembrando Vida project is the maguey, or agave, which is used for the production of mezcal.
Seeking to bring a new vision of sustainability and development to rural communities of Mexico, the Secretariat launched the Sembrando Vida project to mitigate rural poverty and environmental degradation (SEB, 2020). To participate in Sembrando Vida as so-called sembradores (planters), individuals must be above the age of eighteen, live within a rural village, and possess 2.5 hectares of land that can be used for agricultural productivity (SEB, 2020). The land is assessed for its potential to recuperate biodiversity; to what extent the soil is eroded or if there is a loss of vegetation due to erosion; if it can be reconverted to corn, avocado, and other agriculturally productive plants; and if it has been disturbed by environmental disasters, plagues, or diseases (SEB, 2020). Sembrando Vida began its program in Oaxaca, including in the Mixtec village of San Mateo Etlatongo, in the early months of 2020. In 2021, the national government released a report on the Sembrando Vida project in Etlatongo where they listed a total of twenty-nine sembradores, including eleven women and eighteen men (Lopez Obrador, 2021).
The prevalence of maguey in the agricultural production of Etlatongo can be traced to narratives of indigeneity reproduced at the outset of the Sembrando Vida program. When AMLO spoke at the makeshift presidential podium erected in Etlatongo on February 13, 2021, he represented the sembradores of the village as knowledge holding individuals who knew the traditional agricultural practices of their ancient Indigenous forbearers (Lopez Obrador, 2013). The Sembrando Vida program subsequently pursued a strategy to encourage sembradores to plant maguey, and to thus strengthen Oaxaca’s competitive position as mezcal producer.
This representation of Mixtec Indigeneity and attempts to incorporate the communities into national development goals can be traced to the 1940’s, when anthropologists funded by INI (Institución Nacional Indígena) and ENAH (Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia) began studies of Indigenous peoples for the sole purpose of devising modernization strategies. Alejandro Marroquin and Moises de la Peña, both funded by ENAH and INI, compiled a survey in 1940s of the Mixteca Alta, which cited land erosion and “overpopulation” as key factors of the “underdevelopment” of Indigenous Mixtec communities (Dillingham, 2021, p. 36). Marroquin and De la Peña also argued that the Mixtec language inhibited their modernization (p. 39). The modernization of Mexico required that Indigenous people integrate into modern society by forgetting their language, and thus, forgetting as much as possible of their Indigeneity. In the case of La Mixteca, after the publication of this study, many projects were implemented in this region through INI to ‘modernize the Indian’ of La Mixteca.
As a result, although Sembrando Vida is presented as a development project to create sustainable communities in primarily rural regions, the promotion of the production of maguey poses a risk to native maize (corn) species that community members’ livelihoods depend on. Although sembradores are provided economic support that is meant to assist them in accumulating wealth, the reliance on the production of maguey removes a source of subsistence for Mixtec communities who depend on maize to survive, live, and exist. In order to meet the demand for commodified mezcal, Mexican national development projects therefore exploit Indigenous communities under the guise of development and sustainability.
Drawing on the framework of critical development studies, this case illuminates how development policies remain grounded in Western and Eurocentric discourses of ‘underdeveloped’ and ‘developed.’ As Arturo Escobar’s (1996) explains through his anthropology of modernity, Western empires pursue the modernizing project by offering concrete models for programs and financial support to “underdeveloped” countries (Escobar, 1996, p. 11). As in the case of Sembrando Vida, development models still embody Western, capitalist notions of individualism, as the project is designed to foster a culture of saving in communities that are considered rural and impoverished.
As Rankin (2009) notes, “Critical development studies shares this preoccupation with transformative agency; the orientation here is not only to the contradictions of capitalism, but also to the ways in which other hegemonic projects manifest as governmental programs that unintentionally produce social groups sharing a common experience—of eviction from a state forest, for example, or being ‘technically assisted’ to grow cash crops instead of subsistence foods” (p. 223). Through Sembrando Vida, Mixtec communities are threatened with structurally debilitating poverty. Although Sembrando Vida seeks to uplift sembradores by microfinancing their maguey production, recruit workers, and stimulate the development of jobs in the communities, this program threatens the livelihoods of many and undermines indigenous knowledges associated with maize production.
Instead, supporting the subsistence farming of maize rather than maguey can serve as a holistic and decolonial approach for the Indigenous communities of San Mateo Etlatongo. A critical development approach considering Indigenous epistemes and traditional ecological systems can greatly benefit the environmental and social sustainability of the communities in ways that do not reproduce a neoliberal model of commercial production and export. An indigenous ontological model of development that opposes Western development imaginaries, for example that of Buen Vivir or sumak kawsay in Bolivia, can provide an alternative model of development that centers indigenous epistemes and care for the environment and that does not exacerbate environmental degradation (Gudynas, 2011). By embracing Indigenous ontologies of land and territory, the Secretariat of Welfare may better foster sustainability and development through programs that are actually designed for Mixtec communities. Decolonizing models for sustainability and development rooted in Mixtec ontologies of cuerpo-territorio, or body-land, relationships, can serve to support the social fabric of the community of San Mateo Etlatongo while improving its economic future (Perry & Rappaport, 2013; Zaragocin & Carreta, 2021).