What’s up with avocados in Michoacán?

Andrea Barbato reflects on how learnings from a recent IFSTAL workshop resonate with one particular real world issue.

Wicked problems are problems so difficult to define and to solve that they “tend to become chronic.” (Raab, 2016). They are characterised by a high degree of complexity (multiple interacting variables) as well as intractability (difficult to control) and are always require joint endeavours to be tackled.

Examples of wicked problems include food waste in the food system, social/economic inequality or terrorism. In the recent IFSTAL workshop, students were introduced to two frameworks ­ – DSRP and BATWOVE – which can be used to understand wicked problems. These are explained in more detail below through the lens of a complex contemporary case study: avocado production in the western Mexican state of Michoacán.

The rush for ‘green gold’

On 24 February 2013, groups of local farmers from a couple of villages in the state of Michoacán decided to take justice into their own hands. By creating autodefensas – self-defence groups –  they wanted to confront the criminal organisations who were encroaching on their farming land, landscapes that have been famous for their rich agricultural potential since pre-Colombian times.

While maize, beans, tomato and cocoa have been grown all over Mexico, the avocado has dominated the farmland of Michoacán. Despite its peculiar yet accurate etymology (the word means testicle in Nahuatl, the Aztec language), the avocado is a lucrative commodity which has experienced such a boom that it is known as ‘green gold’. In the US alone (Michoacán is the only Mexican state permitted to export there), the consumption of this delicacy has increased 440% in the past two decades (EarthSight, 2019).

Is the Michoacán issue a wicked problem?

In areas where legal enforcement is poor, the narcos (drug traffickers) have asserted their dominance over the green gold (and other crops) by means such as kidnapping, violation of women and imposing fees on farmers. This has resulted in a number of exasperated and resentful campesinos (farmers) and rancheros (ranchers), who have armed themselves to challenge the cartels; first, the Caballeros Templarios and later, the Viagras and Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG). In some areas the autodefensas have become cartels themselves, blurring the fictitious line between good and evil.

Witnessing the autodefensas take over municipalities by force and gain increasing consensus, the state did not stand still. Weak and very distrusted by the michoacanos, the government took a series of confused stances. At first it fought shoulder-to-shoulder with the self-defense groups, before arresting some of the leaders and, ultimately, deciding to legalise the autodefensas by creating new police forces. These police forces eventually collapsed and the numbers of new autodefensas groups have continued to rise, either challenging the cartels or being incorporated into their ranks.

Deforestation deserves an honorable mention too  – since both the farmers and criminal organisations have engaged in illegal logging to create more space for their precious crop.

Taking all the above into consideration, it’s hard to disagree that Michoacán is a perfect example of a wicked problem.

Applying the DSRP and BATWOVE frameworks

When a wicked problem comes forward, ISFTAL recommends using a DSRP framework as an initial approach to better understand its complexity and to take into consideration as many outcomes and consequences as possible.

To make Distinctions and to properly define the problem is the very first step (i.e. What exactly are avocado autodefensas? In what ways do they constitute a problem?). Then, we create a System, where we organise the issue into part-whole groupings, making sure that as many actors and outcomes as possible are considered (avocado production, as we have seen, is part of the broader agricultural system, but also part of the environmental, criminal and global economic systems). Many actors are included, such as the federal and state authorities, cartels, farmers, US buyers, and so on). Then, we connect these elements and create Relationships between them (i.e. How do autodefensas relate to state authorities? How do they relate to cartels? How does the increase in US demand relate to more deforestation?). Finally, we acknowledge different Perspectives and how these change the way we look at the system. In the case of autodefensas, for example, while a state officer might regard all armed groups as equally illegitimate, a local citizen might feel more protected by vigilantes than by the police.

Next, when a wicked problem has been systematised thanks to DSRP, it is time for a BATWOVE approach in order to plan a potential intervention. This framework takes into account a variety of aspects, all of which influence the outcome of the whole system intervention.

Using BATWOVE to conceptualise and understand how to intervene

  • The Beneficiaries, or those that benefit from the change. Will it be the farmers? Or the local police? It might be those involved in the avocado export.
  • The Actors, or those that are doing the transformation, i.e. NGOs or the Michoacán government.
  • Then there is the Transformation – the change you wish to bright about, e.g. to eradicate avocado-led deforestation forever).
  • The Worldview requires looking at culture and ethics, e.g. consider that many locals will support autodefensas despite their illegality.
  • The Owners are those who ‘own’ the process; in this case, it might even be drug cartels.
  • The Victims too are extremely context-dependent, i.e. are autodefensas victims or perpetrators?
  • Finally, the Environmental constraints, e.g. does the state have the capacity to tackle powerful autodefensas and narcos at the same time?

The right set of tools

Wicked problems, such as avocado production in Michoacán, are extremely intricate and challenging, and since the way we frame the issue will determine its outcome(s), it’s important to have the right set of tools to ask the right set of questions. IFSTAL, as we have seen, recommends using DSRP and BATWOVE in the initial phase of problem solving.

Andrea Barbato is on the Latin American Studies MSc at the University of Oxford. He gained a BA in International Relations and Spanish at the University of Sussex. From Italy he is particularly interested in food systems, criminal organisations/drug trafficking and pre-Colombian civilisations.


EarthSight (2019) Global appetite for avocado drives deforestation in Mexico.

Panster, W. G. (2015) We had to Pay to Live!, Conflict and Society: Advances in Research,1(1), pp. 144–164.

Pineda, L. (2014) Autodefensas resisten la contraofensiva del narco en Michoacán. Chicago Tribune (13 Jan).

Tilburg University (2016) Back to Campus: Wicked Problems – Dr. Joerg Raab. Available on YouTube

Image: Hitoshi Namura / Unsplash