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DESMI: Building a New Way to Grow

An Innovative Model in Chiapas, Mexico

Imagine this: an economic model that takes the needs of the entire community into account. One that respects the rights of people and the planet. A market system that favors both the consumers and the producers.

Called “Solidarity Economy,” this ideology is what guides DESMI – one of the oldest and most reputable community-based organizations in Chiapas, Mexico.

DESMI, a Thousand Currents partner since 1992, works closely with nearly 200 indigenous communities in the state. They strengthen local grassroots organizations and provide the skills they need to build economic empowerment. What DESMI helps to create is a true alternative to the profit-over-all-else economy.

The Solidarity Economy in Practice

DESMI has two decades of experience seeing the solidarity economy model in practice. This economic model builds on indigenous economic practices such as the trueque (barter system) and the tequio (community improvement projects undertaken collectively).

Impressively, under the Solidarity Economy, economic growth is both fair and inclusive. This is no small feat considering Chiapas is Mexico’s most impoverished province, with the largest number of indigenous communities, many of whom live in extreme poverty and are excluded from development.

One example of their innovations is DESMI’s revolving loan fund. The fund has helped get dozens of cooperatives off and running– including grocery stores, bakeries, organic coffee ventures, vegetable farms, livestock corrals and honey-making projects. The profit and income from these cooperatives benefits the entire community. And cooperative members collectively decide where the income is directed – towards farming, food, education, or helping a family with its medical needs.

Development is a huge issue in Chiapas: while many in the region live in poverty, it’s also one of Mexico’s most resource-rich provinces. In recent years, the federal government has continued to pursue their interests in attracting foreign investment in mining, petroleum and tourism industries – at the expense of indigenous communities.

Communities remain in constant struggle to defend their lands and their rights. The Solidarity Economy is a viable way for these excluded communities to come together, fight for their rights, and create sustainable livelihoods –but it also puts them in conflict with the neo-liberal policies of the government.

The Zapatista Connection

Not only is DESMI’s team in an unenviable position of carrying out its programs under the watchful eyes of a distrustful government, but they also operate in a conflict zone under the authority of the Zapatistas.

In 1994, the Zapatistas (a revolutionary leftist group supported mostly by rural indigenous people,) declared “war” on the state of Mexico. This war has been mainly defensive and in response to Mexico signing the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA), which the Zapatistas see as increasing the gap between the rich and the poor and allowing large multinational corporations to seize land and resources from indigenous communities.

DESMI’s relationship with the Zapatistas is one of the most interesting aspects of their operations. Twenty years old now, the Zapatista movement is a vibrant and interconnected social movement that continues to influence grassroots struggles around the world. They have successfully created space for an economic model that puts collective organizing and indigenous rights at the forefront.DESMI is in a unique position in that it is one of the only outside organizations that the Zapatistas trust. Like all of Thousand Currents’ partners, the programs that DESMI runs address the needs the communities themselves have identified.

The Case of Coffee Production

In addition to ongoing political tension, indigenous communities in Chiapas contend with environmental challenges that are worsening with climate change. Conditions in the region – heavy rains in some areas, infertile land in other parts – are a daily struggle for people who practice sustenance farming. All of these challenges are on top of artificially low prices paid to farmers because of trade agreements that favor cheap US imports.

Take, for example, the issue with coffee production: it’s the main cash crop of the area but the price being paid for beans remains low. The low coffee prices are further exacerbating the situation of many families, since this is the only agricultural product they sell. The lack of resources can cause desperation among families. It is not uncommon for the men of the families to take risky and unfortunate measures, such as selling their land and going to the United States, leaving women and children behind.

An Organic Response

 When government programs started distributing chemical fertilizers and genetically modified “improved” seeds, DESMI responded with programs in sustainable, organic farming.  They formed education centers to teach community members agroecology: eco-friendly agricultural techniques like using natural fertilizers and reclaiming native seeds. Their workshops have increased the practice of sustainable farming – improving soil fertility and eliminating the need for toxic and expensive chemical fertilizers in the process.

DESMI also provides ongoing training to each group that receives a loan in topics like cooperative values and accounting. Local communities also share what they have learned through “farmer to farmer” trainings – reaching many more people throughout the region.

Women Leading the Charge

In its many years of partnership with DESMI, Thousand Currents has seen measurable and sustainable change. The community cooperatives that DESMI supports have resulted in a robust civil society network. Workshops on agroecology have given indigenous communities the tools to manage natural resources. The revolving fund has succeeded in generating income in impoverished communities.

Another key win is that women are becoming more visible in collective work and are setting a good example to the next generation, encouraging young women to assume leadership roles.

One excellent model for leadership is María Estela Barco Huerta, DESMI’s director and a powerful leader committed to indigenous rights, community development and food sovereignty.

Barco is the recipient of the 2014 Global Exchange International Human Rights Award, a prestigious award that recognizes extraordinary contributions to human rights.

Barco has played a leading role in organizing learning exchanges that bring together activists from across Latin America to create innovative solutions and confront the challenges of GMOs and encroaching agribusinesses.

As Chiapas was and still is “ground zero” for NAFTA and its devastating impact on Mexican agriculture, Barco’s work to create solutions for small indigenous farmers is nothing short of critical.

Barco and DESMI understand women play a key role in food production and security.


“We gather for the wish to build hopes,” Barco says. “We want that no one and no community has lack of access to food. We trust in learning from each other.”


When women farmers can access the resources and skills they need to cultivate nutritious crops, their production increases, making it less likely that their families are hungry and malnourished.

For example, DESMI has helped launch nearly 80 family vegetable gardens – nearly all managed by women. As food producers, seed savers, and resource managers, it is the women who are on the frontlines of ensuring food security for their communities.

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