Illusions, hunger and vices: smallholders, environmentalism and the green agrarian question in Chiapas' biofuel rush

Activists and environmentalists all over the world have successfully framed biofuel crops as a major cause of deforestation, land grabbing and rural indebtedness. This effectively reverses earlier promotional pronouncements of biofuels as the answer to ecological problems. The counter-narrative has, however, become a very influential narrative. One important question has remained unanswered: if biofuels are responsible for a large range of social and environmental impacts, why do so many smallholders and poor farmers participate in the production of these crops? Based on key principles from agrarian studies and political ecology literature, this thesis addresses this question for the case of the recent biofuel expansion in Mesoamerica, with particular focus on the oil palm expansion in Chiapas (Mexico). This study shows that economic profit alone does not explain why so many smallholders have joined the biofuel expansion. Nor could producers be simply considered as “deceived” into planting these crops. Past agrarian struggles, the environmental history of study regions and existing political relations between rural producers and the state is what explains why smallholders in Chiapas have found biofuel crops to be advantageous for their own purposes, and why they are joining the biofuel expansion in great numbers.