Farmers on the Front Lines: Mexico’s Cacao Crops Are Recovering Thanks to Women Like This

Author: Adam Critchley

Meghan Dhaliwal for Global Citizen

Yaneth Zavaleta Padilla is a Mexican agronomist who supervises 120 smallholder farmers that grow cacao, plantain, and palm oil in the states of Tabasco and Chiapas. 

The 42-year-old mother of two provides technical assistance as part of the Agrovita program, a collaboration between Fundación PepsiCo and Proforest, a UK-based nonprofit that implements agricultural production practices and responsible sourcing.

Her technical assistance is certainly hands-on. 

Yaneth travels from her home in Pichucalco, Chiapas, to remote villages and farmsteads along roads in poor states of repair that wind upwards through the verdant hills, using the infrequent public transport and, on some occasions, mounting a horse to reach the more inaccessible parcels of cacao. This trek also involves walking long distances over mountainous terrain and enduring the tropical heat year round.

Agrovita, which launched in 2021, aims to boost the productivity of 900 farmers over three years through actions that improve their communities’ food security by implementing regenerative farming practices across almost 30,000 acres. The program also aims to ensure that 50% of its beneficiaries are women. 

Rosa Maria Dominguez Diaz, a farmer and producer who works with AgroVita, on a parcel of land belonging to Marilu Gonzalez Mendez in Ejido la Catedral de Chiapas, Ostuacán, Chiapas on March 24, 2023.
Image: Meghan Dhaliwal for Global Citizen

Regenerative agriculture involves avoiding soil erosion, reducing the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizer to improve soil quality, using natural compost to increase the soil’s mineral content, and maintaining crop diversity.

Since its inception, Agrovita has installed 12 model parcels, nine community orchards, nine rainwater collection systems and community water storage, all of which benefit 211 communities.

A Woman in Farming

Yaneth joined Proforest in 2021, which meant moving from her home village in the center of Chiapas state to Pichucalco, a five-hour drive away. 

Long bus trips were nothing new to the agronomist, having left her hometown as a teenager for Texcoco, a town just northeast of Mexico City, to study at the Universidad Autónoma Chapingo, the country’s most prestigious agronomy school.

Yaneth Zavaleta Padilla (third from right) addresses a group of farmers and community members in Ejido la Catedral de Chiapas, Ostuacán, Chiapas on March 24, 2023.
Image: Meghan Dhaliwal for Global Citizen

“The life of a woman, peasant farmer is one of suffering,” Yaneth tells Global Citizen. “My father was a farmer and I studied in rural schools, a little isolated from civilization. I was taught to be a housewife, to make tortillas and cook, wash clothes. ‘Prepare your daughters to be housewives,’ my father told me.”

But Yaneth had other ideas, and paid more attention to her teachers than to her father.

“During school holidays, I used to get up at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning during the bean and corn harvest. There were lots of day laborers at the farm and me and my two sisters had to cook for them,” she says. “But the teachers at school would tell us to study, that there was a whole world out there to discover. I used to hear about other regions of the country on the radio, and I would see airplanes fly over.”

Yaneth studied in the evenings after finishing the day’s chores at home in order to sit the university entrance exam. 

“It was a case of studying, or staying there forever. It was my only chance,” she says.

Her father wanted her to stay at home and help her mother, but her mother said it would be better for her to go. After passing the entrance exam, Zavaleta was granted a fellowship to study at Chapingo.

“I am so grateful to that university. I’d never even used a computer, or a microscope,” she says. “At first, I failed all my exams, and I said to my classmates, ‘Help me, teach me how to use a computer.’ I was the only one of my sisters to go to university.” 

After graduating, Yaneth worked for the federal government for 17 years, engaged in assistance programs for farmers, before joining Proforest.

Today, she supervises the crops of 120 smallholders, who each cultivate an average of 7.5 acres. 

Investing in Smallholder Farmers

Daniel Lopez Gil (left) and Vidal Casteñeda Villareal build garden beds for small cacao trees and other species of plants on the cacao farm of Adan Gil Lopez in the region of Pichucalco, Chiapas, Mexico on March 23, 2023.
Image: Meghan Dhaliwal for Global Citizen

According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the UN agency focused on reducing poverty and food insecurity in rural areas, developing the capacity, productivity, and market participation of smallholder farmers is key to increasing their contribution to growth and job creation, food security and nutrition, and the environmental and climate change agendas.

“Investing in rural people is a long-term solution to so many of the problems we face today. Hunger, poverty, youth unemployment, and forced migration — all have deep roots in rural areas; and all can be vastly improved through investing in small-scale agriculture and inclusive rural development,” IFAD states.

In her day-to-day work, Zavaleta visits plantations to offer technical assistance to farmers.

“Some of whom need more help than others, and some of whom I visit six times a year because they need me,” she says.

One of those farmers is Adán Gil López, who grows cacao, and who she describes as “a leading producer” and his parcel of land as “a model farm.”

“I’d like my 120 producers to all be like Adán, and I bring other farmers to his farm so that he can be a source of inspiration,” Zavaleta explains. “It’s all about creating awareness, to help these farmers and help the planet, so that these producers remain with us. It’s been a lot of work to get to this level, and we want to continue working with them. Apart from the crops themselves, we have more than 50 indicators with which to measure the progress of the Agrovita program, including the social impact.”

Farming on the Frontlines

Farming on the Frontlines
Adan Gil Lòpez stands under a mahogany tree that shades his cacao trees in the Pichucalco region of Chiapas on March 23, 2023. Gil grows and harvests with a team of about three, including himself, and uses a composting system to keep his soil healthy.
Meghan Dhaliwal for Global Citizen

Farming on the Frontlines

Farming on the Frontlines
A cacao fruit on a cacao tree grows on the parcel of land belonging to Adan Gil Lòpez, photographed on March 23, 2023. Cacao requires humidity and shade, so keeping large trees around is beneficial to the plants.
Meghan Dhaliwal for Global Citizen

Farming on the Frontlines

Farming on the Frontlines
A ripe cacao fruit picked from the cacao trees growing on the parcel of land belonging to Adan Gil Lòpez, in the region of Pichucalco, Chiapas, Mexico on March 23, 2023.
Meghan Dhaliwal for Global Citizen

Among the indicators are how well the farmers have implemented environmental measures, like regenerative techniques, the environmental impact, such as reforestation and water use, and how well Agrovita’s guidelines have been followed in aspects such as eliminating child labor and respecting the human rights of agricultural day workers.

Adán says the Agrovita program has revitalized Mexico’s cacao industry, which suffered a setback in the 1990s with the outbreak of the monilinia fungus. Local producers have been able to combat the disease by planting more resistant varieties and employing the grafting technique, in which a fungus-resistant rootstock is joined to a scion to create a more resistant plant. 

This has been key to growers overcoming crop-damaging plagues that made farmers turn to other crops, Adán tells Global Citizen.

“We love cacao and we want it to blossom again here in Chiapas, and it brings a lot of satisfaction to see the crop producing again, and that growing it is profitable again,” he says, adding that Agrovita has provided a lot of support to growers of the crop.

“It’s like a 50/50 arrangement,” he says. “They give us the plants and we look after them, doing our work to give something back.”

“Growing cacao was an activity of our ancestors,” Adán adds. “Our grandfathers and fathers grew cacao, and we want to do the same and teach our children how to grow it too.” 

He says, however, that domestic demand for cacao in Mexico outstrips supply, with demand met by imports. 

“We have to take advantage of the fact that we have good soil and increase our yields. All we need to do is work, it’s the only solution, working the land,” he says. “Here we say that, to be strong, we drink chocolate.”

Adan Gil Lòpez checks on one of his younger cacao trees in the region of Pichucalco, Chiapas, Mexico on March 23, 2023.
Image: Meghan Dhaliwal for Global Citizen

Adán has a 12-acre parcel on land 100 meters above sea level — land that, he says, is optimum for cacao, of which he plants five varieties and estimates that his production is 80%, which means that for every 100 cacao pods planted, he harvests 80. Each tree produces around 150 pods per year, which is five to six kilograms of cacao.

He also grows corn, carrots, chili, coriander, soursop, and rambutan, both for his family’s consumption and as cash crops.

““We want farmers to cease to be independent, small-scale producers and instead form part of a collective, for which it is also easier to procure financing,” Mariana Ávalos Duarte, a project manager at Proforest, told Global Citizen. 

Despite cacao being plentiful in Mexico and its cultivation dating back to pre-Hispanic times, the country is not among the world’s top 10 exporters of the fruit, with Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Ecuador reported as the biggest exporters in 2021. Mexico’s exports represent around 0.01% of the global supply, while the country consumes around 5% of global production, according to the country’s study center for sustainable rural development and food sovereignty (CEDRSSA), which also estimates that there are around 45,000 cacao farmers in Mexico. 

Tackling Barriers in the Field

In addition to visiting each smallholder farmer under her supervision, Yaneth organizes in-the-field workshops attended by growers, in which she teaches new techniques to improve yields, such as creating natural compost to reduce the use of fertilizers; planting techniques that allow for better drainage during the wetter months; and advising on which other crops to sow to provide shade cover.

“I’m there for whoever needs me,” she says, adding that she will spend four or five hours with a farmer on their parcel to provide assistance and advice.

But her advice goes beyond the technical aspects of farming.

“We offer the farmer's training, but also [training] in human rights, to discourage the use of child labor, encourage dignified housing for laborers, dignified hours of work, clean water, and gender equality — [we show them] that women working in agriculture have the right to state their opinion, to be entrepreneurs, that they do not [need to] suffer sexual harassment, and that farmers don’t [need to] use pesticides,” she says. “It’s a question of raising awareness, and we approach people to promote a change of culture, and it has had an impact, I have seen the changes.”

Women’s participation in agriculture in Mexico is almost half compared to males. According to the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), which is based in Texcoco, close to the university where Yaneth studied, 14% of the people who work in agriculture and who are responsible for the management and decision-making of the production unit are women, but it is estimated that women represent more than 40% of the actual labor force.

Farming on the Frontlines

Farming on the Frontlines
Rosa Maria Dominguez Diaz, a farmer and producer who works with AgroVita, is photographed on a parcel of land belonging to Marilu Gonzalez Mendez in Ejido la Catedral de Chiapas, Ostuacán, Chiapas on March 24, 2023.
Meghan Dhaliwal for Global Citizen

Farming on the Frontlines

Farming on the Frontlines
Viki Madai Lopez Guillén, a member of the community of Ejido la Catedral de Chiapas, Ostuacán, Chiapas, and a farmer/producer of cacao, stands for a portrait on March 24, 2023.
Meghan Dhaliwal for Global Citizen

Farming on the Frontlines

Farming on the Frontlines
Marilu Gonzalez Mendez, a farmer and producer who works with AgroVita, on her parcel of land in Ejido la Catedral de Chiapas, Ostuacán, Chiapas. She says she is proud that her family has created something that they can pass down to their children.
Meghan Dhaliwal for Global Citizen

“When we look at progress, we have to look at the social side … The hardest battle we fight is in the [rural] communities,” Yaneth says, in reference to implementing new approaches and techniques for farm work.

But her presence in the communities has also broken down stereotypes, she believes.

“I’ve visited communities on horseback, as that was the only transport available — the only way to visit such remote places — and I saw how people approached me more easily, as they saw that I was willing to travel up there to those communities, and it changed their perspective,” she says. “At the beginning, there was a lot of mistrust, but then they saw how I went into their parcels of land and helped them.”

On the Front Lines of Climate Change

Changing a community’s customs is just one challenge Yaneth faces in her work.

Mexico’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development has warned that the country is one of the world’s most vulnerable to climate change. This will affect crop yields, generate loss of livestock, and extreme variations in temperatures will cause a faster spread of pests and diseases, with devastating consequences for the agricultural sector. 

“Climate change may lead to a 40-70% decline in Mexico’s current cropland suitability by 2030, which could soar to an 80-100% decline by the end of this century,” according to the Climate Reality Project. “[This could lead to Mexico] potentially losing over half its workable farms in less than 12 years — and all of them by 2100.”

(L) Rolling hills in Chiapas. The state faces challenges from deforestation for livestock and mono crop growth. (R) Members of the community of Ejido la Catedral de Chiapas, Ostuacán, Chiapas cross a small stream as they walk to the parcel of land.
Image: Photos by Meghan Dhaliwal for Global Citizen

One of the communities in Chiapas state included in the Agrovita program is La Catedral, where around half of the program’s producers are located. The region was largely a coffee-growing area until the outbreak of coffee leaf rust disease in 2012, which devastated coffee production and threatened the livelihoods of coffee smallholders, with 10-55% of arabica coffee crops lost across Central America in the following three years. Such outbreaks are a result of global environmental change, according to a report by the Stockholm Resilience Center,

The devastation of coffee plantations led to communities in Chiapas to turn to raising livestock, but many are now converting back to cacao, and the techniques implemented by Agrovita aim to mitigate the effects of climate change.

One of La Catedral’s inhabitants is Marilú González Méndez, who is also an emerging cacao farmer. 

“For me, this has been a great opportunity,” she tells Global Citizen, explaining that she, her husband, and son began planting cacao after saving up to buy the plants. 

A year and a half after having planted the crops, the family was invited to join the Agrovita program, which has offered them guidance on reducing the use of pesticides, creating their own compost, and not using slash and burn techniques.

“Now we are beginning to produce, and that spurs us on,” she says. “I come out to the fields to help and, as a woman, that really motivates me, and we are diversifying to strengthen the soil and make it more fertile,” she explains, pointing to banana, corn, tomato, chili, and sweet potato crops alongside the cacao.

“This program is going to give us progress, and it helps us. I am really happy to be a part of it, and I want to continue planting and growing,” she says. “When you’ve got the desire to work you can achieve things, and make progress, all from the family’s labor.”

Vicky Madail López Gullén also became a beneficiary of Agrovita, after her husband, a livestock farmer, was invited to participate in the program. 

“I told him that my father was a cacao grower, and that I could apply what I learned as a child, and that I was also going to be part of this”, she says, also noting the importance of the technical assistance provided by Yaneth, such as how to produce compost. 

“It’s hard work, but the cacao appreciates it, and it’s a family job, and that’s a beautiful thing. We sowed cacao 18 months ago and now we are starting to see its flowers, and that really motivates us,” she tells Global Citizen. “We want this to be something for our son to inherit; he’s 13 and he already knows how to plant, how to prune.”

The smallholder farmer says the Agrovita program surpasses its immediate goals because it also helps parents teach their children about sustainability. She hopes that her son will be able to live off of the cacao crops one day.

“That knowledge is not something that you can acquire just anywhere, it’s something very valuable. It’s going to be wonderful to see this parcel full of cacao,” she says. “It’s something that we couldn’t have imagined … Our view of agriculture has changed.”

Members of the community of Ejido la Catedral de Chiapas, Ostuacán, Chiapas on the parcel of land belonging to Marilu Gonzalez Mendez (fifth from right), pictured on March 24, 2023.
Image: Meghan Dhaliwal for Global Citizen

Farmers on the Front Lines is a three-part series that explores the challenges, resilience, and practices of female farmworkers.

Disclosure: This series was made possible in part with funding from the PepsiCo Foundation. Each piece was produced with full editorial independence.