Exploring farmer knowledge of soil processes in organic coffee systems of Chiapas, Mexico

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More than any other Mexican state, Chiapas dedicates the most hectares to certified organic coffee production, providing a means of survival for indigenous Mayan peasants. Organic coffee producers are restricted from using agrochemicals such as synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, thus depend upon soil management techniques to provide nutrients to their coffee crop. This study assesses farmer understanding of soil fertility enhancement processes that organic coffee producers use as a basis for decision-making and experimentation. Such processes include knowledge of leaf litter decomposition, composting, soil biology, and biological nitrogen fixation (BNF). Research for this study was executed in March through August 1999. Information was collected through 31 semi-structured interviews conducted in three coffee-producing communities, Majosik, Tenejapa; Poconichim, Chenalhó; and Tziscao, Trinitaria. Transcribed texts were coded and analyzed for content to uncover patterns in the farmer's responses. Farmers' hybridized knowledge system included visible phenomena and information retained from organic training workshops. Farmers had an excellent understanding of the transformation from leaf material to soil and a good understanding of mineralization; however, the role of moisture influence, nutrient uptake, and soil organisms was not well understood. Nearly half of farmers thought that compost addition improved coffee plant growth. The significance of soil biology in decomposition was restricted to organisms farmers could see, especially earthworms. Soil microorganisms were rarely mentioned, and a lack of understanding of their role in soil processes was evident. Although more than half of interviewed farmers had seen root-nodules, farmer knowledge of legumes and the process of biological nitrogen fixation were limited. Results indicate that despite training attempts, farmers still possess knowledge gaps regarding phenomena that they cannot see, and future training should address unobservable ecosystem processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)267-287
Number of pages21
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Feb 2003
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
I would like to thank the MacArthur Interdisciplinary Program on Global Change, Sustainability and Justice; Fulbright-Garcı́a Robles/US–Mexico Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange; and the Graduate School of the University of Minnesota for providing the funding that made this project possible. El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR) in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, provided me with essential institutional support in Mexico, especially David Alvarez-Solis, Luis Garcı́a-Barrios, Miguel Angel Lopez-Anaya, and Lourdes Herrera. Unión Majomut, notably Walter Anzueto-Anzueto and Victor Perez-Grovas-Garza, arranged invaluable communication with the study communities. James Abbott, Peter Graham, Helda Morales, Helene Murray, Michael Russelle, plus numerous anonymous reviewers contributed valuable criticism for this publication. Most of all, I offer my greatest sincere gratitude to the producers of Unión Majomut and Cooperative Lagos de Colores for allowing me to become acquainted with their production systems and their thoughts about organic production of coffee. Without their valuable insights and perceptions, this project could not have been carried out.


  • Farmer knowledge
  • Mexico
  • Nitrogen fixation
  • Nutrient cycling
  • Organic coffee
  • Shaded coffee
  • Soil biology


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