Emilio came to Campion Hall as a research student in the Oxford Department of International Development. For his DPhil thesis, he spent time with the Tseltal people of Chiapas, in southern Mexico. After expelling plantation owners from their ancestral territory in the 1990s, the Tseltal are working to restore their sovereignty. Emilio partnered with one of their main organisations, the Misión de Bachajón, to serve as an ally while seeking to understand the economic viability of the vision.
Paradoxically, the Tseltal model is based on two contradictory ways of decommodifying their food system. On the one hand, they have decided that their land and their staple foods should be off-limits to the market, in order to preserve food sovereignty. Land is owned collectively, and essential foods are mainly produced for household consumption or reciprocal sharing. In this sense, the Tseltal have “decommodified” food by redefining it as something other than merchandise; it is no longer subject to the capitalist logic of plantations.
On the other hand, the Tseltal also need money to live, and they make money primarily by selling coffee. Coffee, though, is a cash crop that has become associated with poverty, precisely because it is a “commodity” in the sense used by economists: it is a simple product subject to perfect competition, and therefore to low and volatile prices determined by outside forces. The Tseltal are regaining control over the wealth they produce by adding value to their coffee. They roast their own gourmet coffee and run their own brand of urban coffee shops. In this sense, they are “decommodifying” coffee by turning it into a high-end, differentiated product.
The two senses of decommodification – radically anti-capitalist with regard to one aspect, and radically capitalist (in the Schumpeterian sense of entrepreneurial innovation) with regard to the other – generates a creative tension. Emilio’s ethnography of the Tseltal model shows how the poles of the tension are articulated through agroecology and social and solidarity economy, and how it results in economic, social, and ecological virtuous circles. While still small and fragile, it is a source of inspiration and hope for other actors attempting to redesign their own food systems in life-giving ways.
As an interdisciplinary, impact-driven academic community where big, relevant questions are the matter of everyday conversation, Campion Hall was crucial for Emilio’s research. Various events sponsored by the Hall, such as the Connecting Ecologies symposium and a workshop on theology and development in Latin America, allowed him to interact with scholars from across the university and beyond. After finishing his doctorate, Emilio moved to Haiti, but he remains connected to the Hall, and to the research he began there.