Everardo Van Zoeler

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Mexico
Fellow since 1992
COMAGRO
This description of Everardo Van Zoeler's work was prepared when Everardo Van Zoeler was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1992 .

Introduction

Rapid change is occurring in the Mexican economy and legal structure, which will most certainly transform the lives of millions of farmers (mainly working small plots of land) who are members of ejidos. He is in the process of forming a non-profit consulting organization which will work closely with ejidos in developing the strategic initiatives and organizational capabilities that will help them deal with the coming changes.

The New Idea

After the Mexican Revolution, during the Presidency of Lazaro Cardenas in 1934-40, Mexico expropriated most of the great haciendas and gave them to the ejidatarios. Today, about 3 million ejidatarios farm approximately half of Mexico's total agricultural territory, including some of its best irrigated and richest land. However, the conditions of most ejidatarios have deteriorated in the last 15 years, and new economic policies will not help them if they are not prepared to take advantage of the changes.Everard feels he can make the greatest contribution by helping ejido organizations understand the problems they face and aid them in developing their own agricultural and business strategies for the emerging competitive environment. Ejidos can also be helped to pursue effective strategies for influencing national policy. Accordingly, he and four colleagues are forming a non-profit consulting organization to provide such help to ejido organizations. This consultancy will advise ejidos on such issues as crop selection, investment, productivity enhancement, commercialization, and the establishment of business relationships. Rather than perform administration and marketing functions for the ejido organizations, they will help the ejido organizations develop their own capabilities in these areas. They will also aid in the design and establishment of new corporate entities needed at local, regional and national levels.This consulting organization is carefully designed to accomplish much more than an ordinary group of 5 professionals, however talented. To ensure that their organization is fully oriented toward and trusted by the ejido organizations, the board will include a number of the most outstanding ejido leaders. The consultancy has also engaged a council of advisors in order to draw on the most knowledgeable, progressive, and innovative people in the academic, political, and business worlds.The consulting organization is forced to charge a small fee to the ejido organizations in order to stay afloat. However, Everard is seeking additonal funding for special projects, and his group may do some contract work for government agencies.

The Problem

Some of the ejidos are very productive, but many are not. In the next few years, those that can increase their agricultural productivity and their business management capabilities to international market standards will prosper enormously, and contribute greatly to the development of the country. Those that do not are likely to lose their lands, adding to Mexico's already large-scale unemployment and migration to urban areas.

The current government is eliminating the control of input cost controls, more or less guaranteed credit, and price supports which provided a measure of protection for the ejidos. It is also disbanding various para-statal organizations (such as the controllers of fertilizer production and distribution) and ministries that were intended to help the ejidos. These organizations become too expensive for the nation and were filled with bureaucratic obstacles and corruption.

Though the details of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, have not yet been worked out, it is likely that ejidos would not be subsidized and would be faced with fierce competition from the more modernized and highly subsidized U.S. agriculture. As part of a general move to the free-market system by the Salinas administration, the government is amending the Mexican constitution to permit ejidos to give their individual members property rights to the land they have farming. These new landowners will be able to sell their land individually or pledge their land as security for loans.

The implications of these and other changes depend on quality of land in various ejidos, the capability of the ejidatarios, and many other factors. But it is clear that the challenges of the marketplace and the new freedom of many campesinos will result in a transformation of millions of lives.

The Strategy

Even before the creation of this particular consultancy, Everard has played a dramatic role in helping the ejido organizations. When the government privatized the para-statal organization responsible for fertilizer production and distribution, many officials attempted to pass control of the remaining franchises to private businessmen and other politicians. Bypassing the political maneuvers that often thwarted some of the ejido organizations' leaders, Everard organized an ejido-controlled fertilizer company and exercised the influence needed to obtain valuable distribution franchises. In view of the scale of ejido operations in Mexico, this new company has a chance to become a major player in the fertilizer industry -- handling 10 percent or more of fertilizer distribution in Mexico and negotiating the lowest-cost purchases in Mexico and abroad.

Everard and his colleagues in the non-profit organization are also working locally in Jalisco with ejido organizations to develop investment, production, and commercialization strategies for corn producers, which will probably involve creating a new, corporate-type company to enable them to operate as effective competitors of private agribusiness. Early in this process, they have identified one ejido with productivity at or above international standards, but the majority are at a half or quarter of that level. The consulting organization will work to help all ejidos learn from the most productive. Everard is already exploring a business relationship with one of the major producers of flour in Mexico, in which the company would provide investment funds, technical assistance, and guaranteed prices to the ejidatarios. The members of the organization are also working on strategies for other major crops. And Everard is closely involved in national discussions regarding the specific terms of changes in key government policies.

Such thinking and initiative are essential if ejidatarios are to survive and prosper in the emerging competitive environment. Everard's work is extraordinary because of the attention he has given to engaging the most capable ejido leaders in thinking through the situation they face, developing the strategies for response, and leading the initiatives. In fact, he is often not in the room when negotiations are occurring with the government or leaders are discussing options with their colleagues. What is also extraordinary is the time and attention that Everard gives to training a broad group of leaders of ejido organizations to build the internal organizational capabilities which will establish competitively successful going concerns. Within the organization, he has defined leadership development and business and financial management as his two areas of principal focus.

The Person

Everard's background has prepared him well for the role he is assuming in Mexico. He was born to a farming family in Holland, and grew up with a keen appreciation of agricultural technology and economics, as well as what it takes to run successful agricultural cooperatives. (Holland has some of the world's longest-established and most successful cooperatives.) He also knows what it is like to be looked on as a "country bumpkin" in an urbanized country.

He earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural economics and a master's in Holland, as well as a license in agricultural economics in Peru, and a master's in rural sociology in Mexico. During his time in Holland, he led an effort to establish a special major in agricultural economics in the Third World. He and colleagues developed such a compelling curriculum and did their lobbying so well that they gained university approval, despite opposition from the economics faculty and the president of the faculty senate, who was also the president of the Dutch Senate.

Everard has developed a deep appreciation of the realities of campesino life. While earning his license in Peru, he worked with a Sierran community in studying the commercialization of carrots. In Mexico, he spent three years working with the members of a single ejido in development of wells for irrigation and in lowering their costs of production -- simultaneously teaching community development in the local post-secondary prep school (a new school established for the children of campesinos, whom government schools were not serving well).

He and his Mexican wife are committed both to the country and to making it possible for the small Mexican ejido workers to survive and prosper through this economic revolution.