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LATIN AMERICA: Ingenuity at the Service of Sustainable Business

Humberto Márquez* - Tierramérica

CARACAS, Jul 28 2008 (IPS) - A company will extract silver from the same contaminants it proposes to clean up; a cooperative of the formerly unemployed will export designer clothing; some small farmers are planting new varieties of manioc that double the yield with fewer agro-toxins; others are linking agriculture in the Amazon with protection of the forest.

Producing designer clothing. Credit: La Juanita

Producing designer clothing. Credit: La Juanita

These are four creative sustainable development projects that have enjoyed success in Latin America and that share a common denominator: the possibility of replication elsewhere in the region.


With mining waste accumulated over centuries on the slopes of Cerro Rico in Potosí, Bolivia is the target of an environmental remediation project taken on by the company Empresa Minera Manquiri SA.

The goal is to clean up “pallacos”, “sucus” and “desmontes” spread across the mountain by 470 years of mining activity at this site in southwestern Bolivia, by extracting silver in a closed circuit that does not create any further environmental damage.

“Pallaco” is a silver-rich gravel that has crumbled from the sides of the mountain. “Sucus” are the open-air remnants of tin exploitation using high-pressure hydraulics. And “desmontes” consist of waste rubble from the interior of the mine. All of these contribute to creating acidic runoff into water supplies.

In Cerro Rico, silver was extracted by leaching, mixing the rock in a giant outdoor pool with toxic sodium cyanide, which then filtred into the soil. During the rainy season, it creates acidic runoff, which flows to the basin of the Pilcomayo River, a tributary of the Paraguay River, contaminating crops and pastureland along the way.

“Those materials will be removed, processed to recover the silver content, and finally deposited in dammed storage sites, built in accordance with environmental regulations,” Edmundo Zogbi, Manquiri’s communications manager, explained to Tierramérica.

The project, which bears the name of San Bartolomé, patron saint of Potosí, involves collecting the material in dump trucks, processing anything that is more than two millimetres in diameter in one plant, and carrying the waste by pipeline to the storage sites along a route that sits upon a geomembrane, which in case of a leak would prevent contamination of the soil.

The mining cooperatives of the state-run Mining Corporation of Bolivia are partners of the U.S.-based Coeur d’Alene Mines in the project, which assures it will set aside for environmental protection more than 30 million of the 250 million dollars of its total investment, to produce daily, over one decade, between six and seven silver ingots weighing 100 kgs.


In the 1990s, the Argentine Movement of Unemployed Workers (MTD) of La Matanza, the most populous district on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, rejected government assistance and created La Juanita Cooperative, which today has 42 direct and 600 indirect employees.

Its flagship is a textile factory that produces for both the domestic and international markets, exporting to Britain, Italy and Japan.

“We are producing 2,000 cloth bags that an organic restaurant in Buenos Aires ordered to replace its plastic bags, but our dream is to produce 50,000,” cooperative member Silvia Flores told Tierramérica.

The site also holds a bakery, a childcare centre and a computer workshop. Many of its members have obtained microcredits which have allowed them to produce on their own and sell their wares at community fairs.

With 16 sewing machines, the textile factory produces tee-shirts for a local company and for export.

“These undertakings are aimed at helping young people in the neighbourhood find a quick way to employment,” Héctor “Toti” Flores, founder of MTD and a legislator for the opposition Civic Coalition, told Tierramérica.

“In order to be sustainable, it’s essential to bring together people who have experience and the dedication to lend a hand,” he added.

That is why they have allied with innovative fashion designer Martín Churba, who asked them to sew his clothing designs. Furthermore, he made his commercial contacts available to the cooperative. La Juanita produced original dust coats that were sold not only at Churba’s upscale shop in the Recoleta neighbourhood, but also in the United States and Japan. Later came a contract with the Italian fair-trade chain Altro Mercato.


Working in the shade is a sought-after benefit for those who usually have to toil under the implacable sun of the Brazilian Amazon. Other things on the wish-list include going beyond simple extraction of seeds and fruits from the jungle, and opening profitable ways to make the best use of the ecosystem, stimulating reforestation with native trees.

The RECA reforestation and economic project, which won an award in 2007 from the government of Brazil and the United Nations Development Programme for its contribution towards fulfilling the poverty-fighting Millennium Development Goals, is a positive outcome emerging from the negatives of unregulated migration of farmers from southern Brazil into the area, subsidised by the government in the 1970s to settle the Amazon region, with the result of intensified deforestation.

One group of migrant farmers who settled in the northwestern state of Rondonia created an association of small agro-silviculture farmers in 1989 and launched RECA. There were 86 families involved back then – now there are more than 360, according to its president, Arnoldo Berkenbrock.

Each family received 100 hectares of land and began to plant beans, rice, maize and other crops that were more appropriate for the southern climates than for the Amazon. “We thought the ‘seringueiros’ (rubber tappers, who extract natural latex from living trees) were lazy because they didn’t want to cut down the forest to plant fields, but later we began to change our point of view,” Berkenbrock said.

The migrant farmers decided to harvest Amazonian fruits and nuts like cupuaçú (Theobroma grandiflorum), pupunha (Bactris gasipaes) and cashew (Castanea sativa), which enjoy growing markets both domestically and abroad.

Some former tappers have joined in the growing of fruit-bearing plants, making them more dense and productive, and reforesting areas where native vegetation had been destroyed, for example, by the colonisation promoted by the government in past decades.

RECA combined farming from southern Brazil with the knowledge of the extractors working in the Amazon, mixing cultivation and forests, without limiting themselves to extraction and maintaining sustainability, says Mario Menezes, of Friends of the Earth-Brazilian Amazon.

The difficulties facing the project are the long distances to major markets and the red tape, which drive up costs because of paperwork and high taxes, said Berkenbrock.


With new varieties of cassava (also known as yucca or manioc) and sustainable farming techniques, small farmers in the central Venezuela state of Cojedes began to produce 18,000 kgs of the root crop per hectare in an area where the average is 9,000 kgs.

“Instead of planting one cutting so that one plant emerges, we take to the field a sprig with buds capable of producing up to 50 bushes. These are varieties that are not only more productive, but also more adaptable to the land and more resistant to the onslaught of pests,” Antonio Romero, head of the project at the La Salle Foundation of Natural Sciences, told Tierramérica.

The plants, of the Manihot genus, come from varieties developed by the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, in neighbouring Colombia.

“We work on genetics, not only of cassava but also of root crops like the sweet potato and the yam. Forty-five families have benefited from the jump in the crop yield. On some hectares we harvested more than 30,000 kilos,” said Romero.

Because the varieties are more resistant, less pesticide needs to be used, and the farmers use natural pest controls, which also boost yields, said the expert.

A 60-kg sack of cassava can be sold in Venezuela for 40 to 100 dollars, while the minimum monthly wage is 370 dollars. The Foundation hopes to involve in this more profitable and sustainable practice the people known as “conuqueros” (migrant farmers from the highlands of Cojedes), some 5,000 families who have spent years deforesting the areas where the tributaries of the Orinoco River begin.

(*With reporting by Bernarda Claure in Bolivia, Marcela Valente in Argentina and Mario Osava in Brazil. Originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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