Appointed As

Department of History


ACLS Emerging Voices Fellowships program


The Ohio State University

PhD Field of Study

PhD, History, University of California, Davis

Dissertation Abstract

Dissertation: “Guacamole Ecosystems: Agriculture, Migration, and Deforestation in Twentieth-Century Mexico”

Conventional views portray Latin American peasants and their lands’ biodiversity as the targets of predatory transnational agribusinesses. Similarly, this scholarship tends to assume that modern indigenous cultures necessarily protect biodiversity. This dissertation, focused on the modern history of avocado production in the western Mexican state of Michoacán, challenges these assumptions. The Mexican avocado belt extends along 27 municipalities in Michoacán’s Sierra Purhépecha. In the 1940s, pine trees dominated the sierra’s landscape. Peasants cultivated Criollo and Verde avocado trees, two native varieties, to shade the fields where they planted various subsistence food-crops at once. Today, Michoacán grows thirty percent of Hass avocados produced worldwide every year. The avocado is native to Mexico, but in the 1920s, Californian farmers bred the Hass variety that is now ubiquitous. Unlike other food-commodities in Latin America, a transnational corporation did not monopolize avocado cultivation in Michoacán. Although Mexican bureaucrats, entrepreneurs, and U.S. scientists introduced the Hass avocado into the region in the 1950s, the belt’s astounding expansion did not occur until the 1980s, when mestizo and Purhépecha peasants decided to abandon their traditional lifestyle as agriculturalists and lumbermen to become avocado growers. By focusing on the emergence and expansion of the avocado belt in twentieth-century Mexico, the dissertation asks three questions: What social and ecological conditions made Michoacán the largest avocado growing region in the world? Why did peasants wait for three decades before growing avocados in their lands? How have outside agricultural technology and the global market reshaped Michoacán’s sierra and peasants’ livelihoods?
Drawing on archival research in Mexico and the U.S., and ethnographic fieldwork in Michoacán, this dissertation shows how both indigenous and mestizo peasants use agricultural technology to reshape regional economies and ecological landscapes. Michoacán’s peasants did not initially take up avocado production in the 1950s due to the high capital costs of growing the agrochemical-responsive, high-yielding Californian Hass avocado variety. Nevertheless, peasants were later able to invest in commercial agriculture by saving remittances from relatives working in the United States. Although Michoacán’s rural people grow avocado all along the sierra, levels of deforestation and ecological degradation are different among the municipalities forming the avocado belt. Peasant communities with greater consensus on how to grow avocado and the largest inflow of remittances opted to grow the fruit as polyculture and conserved a fraction of their communal lands as protected forested areas. In other words, the greater a peasant community’s social consensus and cash-flow, the less the deforestation and biodiversity loss, both in indigenous and mestizo communities. I argue that export-oriented agriculture is not always incompatible with agrodiversity, as some avocado belt communities prove.
Although there is no dominant avocado producer in Michoacán, the over 25,000 growers are not the primary beneficiaries of the fruit’s global consumption. As intermediaries, Mexican and foreign brokers determine avocado prices and profit the most from the market. The way we grow food in the present leads rural people to pay with land, labor, and the transformation of their local landscapes for city dwellers’ diets. In the development of this unjust food system, those who mediate between growers and consumers are the largest beneficiaries. The significance of understanding the development of the food system extends beyond the boundaries of the Mexican avocado belt as the agricultural frontier keeps expanding, one of the principal reasons for Latin American diversity loss.