Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Plant and Soil Science

First Advisor

Victor E. Mendez


One of the most pressing challenges facing the world today is how to sustainably feed a growing population while conserving the ecosystem services we depend on. Coffee landscapes are an important site for research on agrifood systems because they reflect global-scale dynamics surrounding conservation and livelihood development. Within them, we find both what is broken in our global agrifood system, as well as the grassroots struggles that strive to change the system by building socio-ecologically resilient, sustainable livelihoods. Research shows that smallholder shade coffee farmers steward high biodiversity and provide essential ecosystem services. At the same time, studies in the last decade demonstrate that many smallholder coffee farmers in Mesoamerica suffer annual periods of seasonal hunger, as well as pervasive poverty. This dissertation explores household livelihood strategies, with a particular emphasis on agroecology, and how they can contribute to build sustainable systems that secure food and maintain biodiversity in coffee communities of Chiapas, Mexico.

Research was conducted using a mixed methods approach, which included the collection of quantitative and qualitative socio-ecological data through focus groups, surveys, semi-structured interviews, participant observation and plant inventories. Surveys were conducted with 79 households in 11 communities, all located within the buffer zone of a biosphere reserve. A stratified random sample of 31 households from these 79 were surveyed again to collect more in-depth data, including the collection of biophysical data in their subsistence and coffee land use systems. The following research questions were explored:

1) What are the major ecological, social, economic, and political drivers of seasonal hunger?

2) What is the relationship between agrobiodiversity (plant and livestock diversity) and food security (months of adequate household food provisioning and dietary diversity)?

3) What household livelihood assets and strategies contribute to or limit food security and food sovereignty?

Across the sample population, total agrobiodiversity and maize and bean production were strongly correlated with improved food security. Coffee income was not strongly correlated with improved food security, which suggests that income is used for priorities within the household other than food, despite seasonal food shortages. Results demonstrate the importance of balancing subsistence and commodity (i.e. coffee) production in these communities, where subsistence food serves as a risk management strategy to buffer against volatility in coffee prices, in addition to offsetting income that might be used for food towards non-food expenses. Subsistence production, which typically applies agroecological practices in this site, also holds important cultural and environmental value. The results of this research indicate that government policy and development practice should enable farmers to maintain the social, ecological and cultural processes that support the management of agrobiodiversity for subsistence and coffee.



Number of Pages

237 p.