From June 29 through July 12, 2008 an International Agroecology Shortcourse was held in the Yucatán of Mexico. Sponsored jointly by the Tropical Natural Resources Management Department (PROTROPICO) of the Autonomous University of the Yucatán (UADY), the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC), the U.S.-based non-profit Community Agroecology Network (CAN), and the local non-profit PROENLACES, the course was titled "Traditional knowledge, sustainable rural development, and global change: challenges and opportunities." By living in a rural part of the heart of the Yucatán Peninsula and working in the agroecosystems of the local Maya farming communities, the 40 participants in the course from 6 countries gained a first-hand look at the impacts that the current food crisis are having on local food security and food sovereignty. The express goal of the course was to build capacity and methodologies for incorporating the fundamentals of Agroecology into the design and execution of food system policies, programs, and practices focused on rural people. The course confronted the challenge of how local grassroots efforts of food system development can be successful in the face of the many pressures created by a globalized food system.
Known as one of the cradles of the development of agriculture dating back several thousand years, the Maya region today is still rich in local and traditional agricultural knowledge. Sophisticated intercropping systems such as traditional corn, bean, and squash, complex forested home garden agroecosystems, and diverse integrated farming systems continue to show remarkable productive capacity and local self-sufficiency. Identifying the indicators of sustainability of these systems became a principal activity of the course. Yet at the same time that indicators showed the strength of these agroecosystems, it was clear that they had many weaknesses. And most of these weaknesses have become most manifest in recent years. Local food systems with a long history of co-evolution and adaptation to local environments, markets, and culture show too many signs of unraveling in the face of a crisis whose root causes come primarily from the outside. Some of these pressures include the dependence on oil as prices spike, locally-grown corn abandoned for cheap imports, the increase in food prices as basic grains are shifted to energy uses, the cost of imported animal feeds quickly becoming too high for small-scale producers, migration in search of low paying jobs on the Maya Riviera, distant urban areas, or the U.S., inappropriate technology transfer such as GMO seed, and the most recent development of large-scale biofuel crops that displace local food production and impoverish local food systems even more.
But each of these pressures creates opportunities for change. The Agroecology course immersed itself in the ways local communities are confronting the crisis by integrating local knowledge and agroecological knowledge. This integration of knowledge systems is reducing dependence, rebuilding local self-sufficiency, creating opportunity, and building sustainability back into rural food systems. It is connecting producers and consumers more directly with alternative market structures provides better prices and higher returns for both. It is shifting farming practices back to a local knowledge base, but strengthening this base with an understanding of how alternative inputs and practices improve sustainability. It is building hope back into local communities, where they believe in the work they are doing, the way of life they are leading, and the opportunities existing in the future. Sustainability in all components of the food system is our goal.