Posted by: Mike Grenville | 21 July 2009

Energy descent and transition in Mexico


Holger Hieronimi reports from rising awareness in Mexico (with thanks to Emmanuel Sullivan & Kristin Sponsler for review & corrections)

“In Mexico nothing happens, until it happens.” This is an old proverb here, and it can also easily apply to the current situation. Everything feels tranquilo and smooth, as if it is nothing out of the ordinary. However, as history shows us, once something begins in Mexico, it generally develops rapidly, and can end up being intensely spectacular.

In the last few months, amongst every day’s news about the unfolding financial meltdown, the dramatic decline of Mexican oil extraction was about to be forgotten. When recent propoganda about the so-called “swine flu”-outbreak is combined with the fact that the central government is about to lose any capacity to control the mighty drug cartels (a situation that has already reached crisis proportions), the decline seems to be just another serious issue among many. But the more you investigate the current situation, energy descent turns out to be the underlying cause of the Mexican crisis, which is only destined to get worse in the near future.

Unlike many oil companies, PEMEX has been comparatively open with its data. Therefore the state of Mexican oil reserves was well known to geologists quite some time before the peak actually occurred in 2005/ 2006. In November 2003, this delicate situation was announced and discussed in the ASPO Newsletter (1).

The rapidly changing economic and socio-political situation in this large and diverse country within the last two and a half years has taken everyone apparently “by surprise”. But with an admitted 9.2% oil production decline in 2008 (some analysts say it is more than that), Mexico is a showcase of how Peak Oil and fast energy descent may play out in the so-called “emerging” countries.

This article is an attempt to relate aspects of Mexico’s history and society with the realities, challenges, and opportunities this country faces in the context of the imminent transition to a post-peak oil future. It has been in process since August 2008 (but since reality changes faster here than one can write, it has changed shape and content several times). It is intended as a contribution to the mostly internet-based discussions around Peak Oil and energy. I have followed the debate around global energy descent and the Transition movement for quite a while, and I’m always quite surprised on how the debate is usually centered around the situation in affluent countries.

My contributions are clearly biased, coming from the perspective of a German-born permaculture activist, who has been working and living with his family in rural Mexico for the last 16 years. Most of this time I have been involved with projects and initiatives related to sustainable rural development, ecovillages, permaculture teaching and design (2). I have completed most of my permaculture-related studies and experiences here. I am not Mexican by birth, but have some insight into its life and culture (if you ever can get to “know” such an incredibly diverse and complex cultural mosaic).

My awareness of Peak Oil was raised quite late in the game, thanks to David Holmgren and Su Dennett. I had the opportunity to meet and co-organize a series of courses and presentations with them during the Mexican leg of their Latin-America tour in July and August of 2007. Since then, my family and I have been involved in progressively understanding, internalizing and living “The Great Change.” We are focusing our attention mainly on improving the resilience of our family, our small permaculture-inspired homestead (3), our social networks and bioregion, and working “bottom-up”, as this is the “permaculture way.” So, living the unique opportunity of transition á la Mexicana….

II. Mexico today – some not so official impressions

Up to now, an astonishing 60% of PEMEX revenues goes directly to support Mexico’s huge bureaucratic governmental system, which directly and indirectly employs hundreds of thousands of Mexicans. Conservative governments, in power since the beginning of the millennium, initially planned to reduce this inflated bureaucracy. They quickly gave up and continued with the current system. Apart from tourism, or jobs at a miserable salary in agro-industry or factories producing consumer goods for the crumbling US market, employment opportunities outside the governmental structures are practically nonexistent.

Don Agapíto revisando sus campos

Official energy “security” strategies are erratic at best, and include the following developments: (these include just a few of the dozens of curiosities we have found in recent news reports):

Due to some surplus corn production which exists as a result of its irrigation-based agriculture, the Sonoran state recently built a state of the art corn ethanol plant. Surprisingly, it is better business to turn that surplus corn into a very low-yielding fuel than to provide tortillas for the dry regions in the northern parts of Mexico, where conventional agriculture is becoming virtually impossible due to exhausted deep-water reservoirs and unpredictable rain patterns.

On the other side of the country, huge expanses of regrown forest in Campeche, Yucatan and other regions are cut down to plant genetically modified eucalypt for future biofuel production.

Meanwhile, in southern Mexico (especially Chiapas), state and federal governments are implementing with corporate money and a lot of television propaganda the concept of “rural cities.” About a dozen newly designed and built urban areas, planned to attract and relocate all those indigenous communities dispersed in the mountains, are “officially” stated to provide services, education, supermarkets, and work. The first one of thess projects was inaugurated a few months ago. The hidden intention seems to be to exploit the natural resources in the mountains that will be freed up once the original inhabitants abandon their homes, especially some rather small oil fields that lie in part of the Lacandon rainforest. This area is still extremely contentious as the indigenous rebels of EZLN also have influence, as well as the fact that a huge zone bordering Guatemala was declared a biosphere reserve in the early nineties.

Since energetic and economic decline is more likely to happen extremely fast in Mexico, it is very possible that many of these projects will fail to pass an early state of implementation. This would conserve a vast pool of experience and human resources for David Holmgren’s earth stewardship scenario response (4).

The spectacular rise of organized crime and open violence between different drug cartels that has dominated international news since 2006 (until this topic was recently replaced by the “swine flu” outbreak), is not necessarily an indication of the strength of these structures, but rather provides more evidence of the weakness of the central government and its institutions. Despite considerable efforts and immense resources invested by the current government into military and police systems, it’s evident that there is simply not enough energy to maintain control, unlike during the late eighties and nineties.

The narcotics business is not something new in Mexico. After all, the huge marketplace is just next door, and has ironically grown ever since Reagan declared his “war on drugs” in the mid-eighties. Organized crime, fueled by its billion-dollar tax free revenues, occupies large, impoverished, and often rural areas that have been neglected by government and institutions for too long. Parallel (often criminal) power structures are now firmly established, having influence in regional politics, economies, and institutions, in many parts of the country.

On July 5th there will be elections for senate, congress and in many municipalities. This event probably will end up as a huge manifestation of the frustration most Mexicans feel in relation to political parties and the general democratic system. It´s interesting to observe some parallels that exist between Mexico and a country with a comparably dramatic energy decline: England. We´ll hopefully see a similarly strong Transition movement evolve in Mexico as this seems to be the case in Britain. But rational “planning” has never been a strengh of Mexican culture, so we can only hope that its characteristic ingenuity and spontanity, combined with the strong family and community links that still exist here, will cushion at least some of the worst effects of the fast economic and energetic collapse this country is heading for.

III. Evolution of social and environmental initiatives

I will now explore how “alternative” movements, “grassroots” initiatives, and civil society in general have evolved, trying as well to identify experiences and resources that have potential to support the transition in Mexico.

For readers in the so called “developed” countries, it is important to understand that the energy crisis of the 70’s played out quite differently in Mexico and Latin America than it did in most of the affluent-world countries.

In the US, Europe, and Australia, the questions of “limits to growth”, resources, available energy, and the environment were part of the cultural landscape, and thus discussed widely even in mainstream society. The “first wave of environmental awareness in modern history”, as David Holmgren calls it (5), provoked many serious investigations and experiments in sustainability related issues. Biointensive gardening, intentional communities, organic agriculture, alternative economics, and the permaculture concept were pioneered during this period of considerable societal activism, mostly in the industrialized countries of the northern hemisphere (plus Australia).

un banco con cob

South of the Rio Bravo, quite the opposite happened. In Mexico, the energy crisis found its reflection in accelerated fossil fuel extraction to supply global energy markets. This resulted in strong and paternalistic governments with enough power to incorporate, control, or if necessary, suppress visible articulation and effective organization in civil society.

Most other Latin-American nations were governed by military regimes quite successful in stemming the tide of social expression that had emerged in the late sixties in the rest of the world. Furthermore, in Chile where A. Pinochet imposed a military government with considerable support from the US in 1973, the first nationwide test of Friedmanite free-market economics was launched. This experiment tested the viability of what was going to be promoted and implemented in much of the the rest of the world a decade later.

The seventies were a difficult time for alternative expression and experiences in Mexico, and all of Latin America for that matter, although there were exceptions.

This situation changed dramatically with the economic crisis of the eighties, and even more after the earthquake in Mexico City in September, 1985. In the aftermath of these events, the ineffectiveness of governments and institutions was so evident that it provoked a strong search for alternatives within a wider spectrum of society. Community organizations took shape in Mexico City in asambleas de barrios (6). Intentional communities were founded (7). The first independent social-ecological initiatives emerged, and many of them evolved into NGOs which carried out much of the early education in sustainability-related issues from the mid-eighties up to the end of millennium.

I would identify a first wave of environmental awareness emerging in Mexico during the eighties, which was a very difficult era for the sustainability movement in the US and Europe. I would even guess that a certain “exodus” of some activists from the north, provoked by widespread disillusion about the re-establishment of high energy patterns in the affluent world during that era, was responsible for some of the early stages of this activism.

By the end of the 80s, economic stability and the “first-world-dream” which soon promised to become a reality, temporarily silenced the call for a different way of doing things. Thus many “bottom-up” initiatives entered a consolidation period.

Between 1991 and 1998 an annual gathering called “Vision council – Guardians of the earth”, brought together a colorful and diverse collection of activists and initiatives involved in different aspects of social, ecological, and cultural transformation. This event, and others with a similar inclusive philosophy, prepared the ground for a “second wave of environmental awareness in Mexico.” This new wave emerged strongly in the mid-nineties in response to economic and political crisis. The Zapatista uprising in the state of Chiapas brought the complex re-emergence of indigenous cultures into the agenda. In this context, Mexico was to become one of the first places in the world where the negative impacts of globalization were widely reflected upon. Bioregionalism, organic agriculture, permaculture, the concept of Eco-villages, and, most of all, rediscovery of traditional sustainable culture and practices in rural and indigenous Mexico, attracted stronger interest and acceptance in the wider society.

This perceivable need for change was then successfully harvested by public relations campaigners to provoke an electoral “change” in government in favor of the right-wing/conservative PAN (Partido Acción Nacional), in 2000. In the aftermath, most of the now relatively urbanized Mexican society was ready to believe, for a little while, in the dream of a working electoral democracy and “efficient” government. Interest and support for alternative expressions diminished, and once again, these initiatives entered a consolidation period. In the process, many pioneering NGOs disappeared, or were forced to transform themselves into private enterprises.

The polarization of Mexican society around and after the 2006 elections, combined with the ever more evident economic, ecological, social, financial, and resource crises, are provoking another intense activation of Mexican society, emerging at the same time as Mexican Peak Oil (2005/2006).

IV. Permaculture in Mexico

Clase con Don Carlos Caballero

Having been up to now relatively silent about my own background in sustainable land management, I can’t keep myself from this little diversion analyzing the significance of permaculture and the eco-village concept in Mexico.

One of the early Mexican sustainability pioneers is Carlos Caballero, who traveled to the US in 1951 to study biodynamic agriculture with Prof. Ehrenfried Pfeifer. After he returned to his family ranch in the highlands of the central-Mexican state Tlaxcala, he was to become with his wife and family one of the first promoters and practitioners of agroecological and biodynamic concepts in Mexico. Don Carlos Caballero later earned wide recognition for the effective methodology he developed to restore large areas of disturbed landscapes in the temperate tropics to healthy, managed forests again within a period of 20 to 40 years.

Beginning in 1986, his daughter Alejandra Caballero organized regular permaculture courses. Alejandra was also the first person to successfully adapt permaculture principles to the diverse ecological, cultural, and ethnic landscapes of rural Mexico. This process resulted in the inspiring book Agricultura sostenible – un acercamiento a la permacultura first published in 1991 (8).

In the late nineties, several permaculture design courses were held in different regions of Mexico, many of them facilitated by Australian educator Skye (from Earthcare Education) and Nelson Denman (from the Permaculture Drylands Institute, USA). Since 2005, some of the worlds “leading experts” in permaculture and ecovillage-development have offered courses here, most notably Max Lingegger (in 2005 and 2006), Geoff Lawton (2007), and permaculture’s co-developer David Holmgren (in 2007).

clase acerca de la "lectura del paisaje" con Alejandra Caballero

All this contributed significantly to the formation of a loose network of Mexican permaculture designers and activists who have helped to “spread the word”, and more importantly, inspire dozens of projects and individuals to test and experiment with its principles.

The Mexican sustainability debate was also re-infused and newly inspired by the publication of the book Ecohabitat by Arnold Ricalde y Laura Kuri, in 2006 (9). It describes applied examples of eco-villages and permaculture-related initiatives in Mexico, as well as providing more conceptual info about planning and design.

However, in Mexico it is easy to get trapped in upper/middle-class green tech developments, and end up designing rich peoples “fraccionamientos” a bit more ecologically, or “sustainable” luxury eco-resorts. When I see some of these projects I find it difficult to see them as sustainable in any severe energy descent scenario. I understand the seduction of this trap (and personally fell into it several times) because you do have to make your living. It’s also attractive to design and implement developments in conditions where money and labor is abundant, but most of these designs lack relevance for the vast majority of Mexicans, who live under much tighter economic conditions.

The greatest limitation for ecovillage and permaculture design in influencing mainstream sustainability strategies in Mexico in a more convincing way is probably that most colleges who participated in permaculture courses or learned the basics of ecovillage design, are part of the more affluent upper/middle class, which represents a relatively small percentage of Mexican society. Here you can observe some resistance to “getting your hands dirty”, which is deeply rooted in the Mexican class structure. You can always find a worker for 10 dollars a day to throw over the compost heap or double dig your biointensive garden. This means that there is a lack of practical experience in implementing and especially maintaining systems. Too often the common hands-on approach to permaculture leads also to a new “specialization” in building dry toilets, biodigestors, constructed wetlands or energy-efficient wood-burning lorena stoves, all very important elements but too often presented in an isolated way and and sometimes implemented out of context.

On the other side, there are some very positive and vibrant projects to report. Alejandra Caballero and her partner Francisco Gomez have developed in recent years the “Proyecto San Isidro” initiative in the the state of Tlaxcala. They are combining the restoration of 22ha of degraded landscape with natural building, low-input farming, a school project in the nearby community, and a diverse educational program that has influenced hundreds of individuals over the last two decades. (10)

visita guiada por el bosque de niebla con Ricardo Romero

visita guiada por el bosque de niebla con Ricardo Romero

In the Mexican state of Veracruz, Ricardo Romero and his family during the last fifteen years have turned a 300 hectare former dairy farm into a quickly regenerating cloud forest, while exploring organic, low input agriculture on a 4 ha. section of their property. They maintain a huge biointensive garden, experiment with integrated edible food forests, and maintain Mexicos’ up to now single working seedbank for open-pollinated heirloom varieties, while sharing their experiences in dozens of courses and seminars. “Proyecto agroecologico Las Cañadas” recently initiated a cooperative that includes approximately 30 members from the nearby village, who are given the opportunity to use part of the land to obtain firewood and cultivate corn and beans organically for their own subsistence. (11)

In our small family project “Granja Tierramor” we are developing a “mini-farm” on a small property (2500 square meters) using permaculture principles since early 2003. The land is located in the village of Erongaricuaro besides lake Pàtzcuaro at 2200 meters above sea level in the mountains of central Mexico. At this time, our land is providing all of our greens, vegetables, and herbs for our family (2 adults, 2 kids) as well as some products to be bartered with friends, neighbors, and on the local market. Small fields for corn, oats, wheat, beans, and peas are integrated into the design. Fruit trees and more perennial plant production will hopefully provide more regular harvests in the next years. We also keep chickens and ducks, which have been part of our system for the last two years, providing us with fresh eggs and other ecological services. The soil conditions have greatly improved by using well known strategies such as bocashi-composting, earthworms, and legume interplantings, or green manure crops. (12)

V. “Mexico Profundo” (Deep Mexico)

Of course, a quarter of an acre is not enough to provide for all our needs. This realization has motivated us to develop a network with neighbors and local farmers, who were willing to produce (or let us produce) organically on their land. We quickly became aware of one of the greatest, and possibly most powerful, assets Mexico has for energy descent: the cultural memory of a self sufficient low-energy lifestyle, which is fading, but still quite alive in rural Mexico,especially if you compare it to the situation in affluent countries.

In our village, just some forty years ago, money was not necessary for survival. Most people were growing food for themselves, and barter was a common practice at the weekly village market. Even some 15 years ago, when we first arrived here, agricultural cycles were dominating the life in our region.

Most of the local farmers we are working with are well into their sixties or seventies. The most enthusiastic of them, Don Agapito from the village Arocutin, has recently completed 80 years on this planet. As he himself told me, he has spent 70 of them farming corn, beans, squash, chili, oats, wheat, tomatoes, and much more. He is still working his approximately 7 hectares of communal ejido (13) land. His house is surrounded by a wonderfully chaotic, but incredibly productive, food forest, where there is always something edible to harvest. At his home, you will find corn, beans, and wheat stored in amounts that many Peak Oil or permaculture activists only dream about.

When I sit on Don Agapitos’ veranda, observing the combination of fruit trees, medicinal plants, berries, and vegetables, I understand why the grandfather of European forest-gardening concept, Robert Hart, found some of his initial inspiration in the description of traditional “house gardens” (huertas de traspatio) that surrounded the houses of indigenous villages in rural Mexico. (14)

There must be dozens of third-generation campesinos like Don Agapito in every rural Mexican community. Critical knowledge is hidden here which is rapidly disappearing. In Mexico, the dialogue of knowledge and generations must be considered an integral part in any serious design-strategy for creative energy descent response.

VI. Food and Agriculture

Don Agapito y su familia en la cosecha

A quick analysis of the present state of the food production systems can be quite depressing. Mexico as a nation lost its self-sufficiency long ago and is a net importer of basic grains (including corn and beans). How Mexico will feed its population of a hundred million people, now mostly urban, in extremely degraded landscapes and without fossil fuels, remains unclear to say the least.

The “green revolution”, implemented by government policies during the late sixties and seventies, was quite successful in weakening and sterilizing the soils. It also forced formerly self-sufficient farmers into a dependence on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and tractors, all of which were supported by cheap and abundant fossil fuel.

The NAFTA Free Trade Agreement, in effect since 1994, has been extremely destructive to the subsistence agriculture that was a traditional way of life for millenia. It has spread the western consumer culture as well as the ideology that you have to produce “for the market”, (mainly as exports to the US). This led to a massive loss in both experience and human capital, since many especially younger families have left the rural areas to head for the cities, or even more commonly, directly for the US. Many of the people who stayed have transformed their land into agro-industries.

In our bioregion, avocado farming has become one of the greatest agricultural “developments” in the recent past. This has me thinking about how we will redesign those tens of thousands of hectares planted during the last ten years once export markets collapse (which will probably happen quite soon).

But the winds of change are blowing ever stronger into the face of the farmers here. In the last three years, chemical fertilizers have doubled in price, making conventional methods of agriculture increasingly impossible. This reality is providing many with the motivation to form a framework for organic and low-input farming.

Some of the most effective strategies to restore agricultural soils massively degraded by chemical agriculture have been developed during the last decade through the work of Columbia-born agronomist Jairo Restrepo and the Brasilian soil scientist Sebatiao Piñedo. They are teaching now through the organization COAS (Consejeros de Agricultura Sostenible y Permacultura). Their proposals for “agricultura orgánica” have greatly enriched the pool of resources to assist campesinos in the conversion from systems all-too dependent on external resources and energy, towards an agriculture that could work for energy descent.

As it looks at present, we have to be prepared for a massive return to an agrarian society. But this is only if climate change doesn´t provide us with some unexpected surprises.

In urban areas, the ideas of food gardens on rooftops are spreading rapidly, especially in Mexico City. Many groups of young “chilangos” (as the inhabitants of Mexico City are commonly called), some NGOs, and urban subcultures of “Permaculture-Punks” and street kids, are promoting and implementing “azoteas verdes.” (green rooftops). Food production systems on the rooftops of Mexico City are growing. This is apparently becoming a serious movement in the city, and is to some degree supported by the city government (15).

VII. Conclusions

On the economic field, Mexico is facing the rapid decline of its three most important incomes: oil, as we all know, tourism (around 40% decline in one year in the state where I live), and “remesas”, money sent by the millions of Mexicans working in the US to their families (which was one of the most important direct incomes for many rural families). In these times, thousands of Mexican workers are returning since there is nothing to do but spend dollars in North Americas’ crumbling economy.

At the same time, the crash of the US automobile industry and general economy have had devastating effects on the “maquiladora” industry that has developed in Mexico during the last two decades to supply US markets with cheap consumer goods.

Meanwhile, the living costs are rising here as everywhere. For most Mexicans, this is an extremely complicated situation only alleviated thanks to the strong family and community networks.

How this will work out for the big governmental structures we will see in the upcoming months. In Mexico, it seriously looks as if these systems are in great danger of running short of fuel quite soon.

Maybe all this is not so very different in style and direction from what will happen in the US and in many other parts of the world where people have got used to large net energy injections over the past decades. It just has a bit more spicy Mexican chili on top!

H. Hieronimi,

June 2009


(1) See ASPO Newsletter No.35 (November 2003)

(2) See authors biography (in Spanish)

(3) A small presentation of our permaculture-inspired Homestead in Michoacán, México can be consulted.

(4) Here I relate to David Holmgren´s work on “Future Scenarios” – the fast Mexican energy decline suggests “Earth Stewardship” or “Lifeboat” Scenarios as the most likely outcomes on the Mexican transition.

(5) David Holmgren Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability, 2002, Holmgren Design Services, Preface p. XVII

(6) asambleas de barrio – were popular responses to deal with the crisis in the aftermath of Mexico City Earthquake in 1985

(7) Huehuecoyotl, one of the oldest intentional communities in Mexico, was founded in 1982 as a direct consequence of the economic crisis.

(8) “Agricultura sostenible – un acercamiento a la permacultura” first published in 1991. This book although now out of print, was and still is a reference for integrated sustainable development in Mexico and Central America. Up to now, it´s the only book ever published in Mexico making direct reference to permaculture.

(9) “Ecohabitat – Experiencias rumbo a la sustentabilidad”, Arnold Ricalde y Laura Kuri (Compiladores), 2006, SEMARNAT, CECADESU, Organi-K, Mexico D.F., downloadable as PDF.

(10) see Proyecto San Isidro for more info on this project

(11) see Las Cañadas: Bosque de niebla for more info on this project

(12) see documentation (in spanish) with many image-galleries of the authors family-project

(13) ejidos were a land management form that developed in rural Mexico after the Mexican Revolution, and was strongly implemented during the government of Layaro Cardenas (1934-1940). It means a communal administration of the agricultural lands, while the management was individual.

(14) see first chapter of Robert Hart`s classic Forest Gardening, published in 1991, by Green Books, Ford House, Bideford, Devon EX39 EE, England

(15) For more info on city gardens in Mexico City see

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