Agroecology has become a powerful alternative paradigm for rural development. In contrast to conventional approaches, this paradigm shifts the emphasis from technology and markets to local knowledge, social justice and food sovereignty, to overcome rural poverty and environmental degradation. However, the spread of this approach faces several obstacles. This paper deals with one of these obstacles: the 'preference' of smallholders for industrial farming. We specifically analyse the widespread uptake up of oil palm by smallholders in Chiapas. Contrary to agro-ecological assumptions, oil palm proved favourable to smallholders in Chiapas because of historical and contemporary state-peasant relations and the advantageous economic circumstances within the oil palm sector. Based on this research, we identify four challenges for agroecology: (i) the existence of contradictory interests within the peasantry as a result of social differentiation; (ii) the role of the state in making conventional development models relatively favourable to smallholders; (iii) the prevalence of modernization ideologies in many rural areas; and (iv) the need for this paradigm to acknowledge smallholders' agency also when engaged in industrial farming. These challenges need to be tackled for agroecology to offer viable alternatives in a context of agro-industrialization.