Civil Society, Development & Aid, Environment, Food and Agriculture, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, World Social Forum

BRAZIL: Solidarity Economy Thriving

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jan 15 2010 (IPS) - The initiatives were already there, in the form of cooperatives and a variety of related activities. But they have a new connectedness thanks to the growing solidarity economy, which has opened up new horizons for alternative forms of production and social relations.

The Fio Nobre Cooperative, founded 15 years ago by Idalina Boni, evolved from craftsmaking to textiles, and now produces shirts, blouses, t-shirts, skirts, pants, shorts, dresses and handbags, as well as accessories like necklaces, in Itajaí, a port city in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina.

Once Fio Nobre reached a certain quality level, thanks in part to a fashion designer, it began to export its products. The cooperative already has contacts in Italy and France, and in February Boni will travel to Spain to market its goods.

Before setting up Fio Nobre, Boni was active for years in rural, community health and human rights movements, based on her belief in liberation theology, a progressive current in the Catholic Church that works to empower the poor.

“When you’re young, you think you can change the world,” she told IPS.

But unemployment forced her to come up with a project that could bring in an income on which to survive while she continued her efforts “to at least improve the world,” she said.

That gave rise to Fio Nobre and the organisation of an organic clothing production chain stretching from cotton farming to the final sale, under the Justa Trama brand name.

A number of other collective initiatives based on cooperation and self-management, and free of the employer-employee relationship, have networked at the World Social Forum, whose annual editions were held in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2005 in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, where it first emerged.

The Brazilian Solidarity Economy Forum (FBES) emerged at the 2003 WSF, which coincided with the start of the government of leftwing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who established a National Secretary of the Solidarity Economy (SENAES) under the Labour Ministry.

The movement in Brazil differs from those of other countries, because it combines three dimensions, said FBES executive secretary Daniel Tygel. Besides the economic aspect, which comprises self-management and the creation of cooperatives and networks, it includes a cultural dimension, related to consumption, gender relations and areas like free software, as well as a policy of social transformation.

In the long term, “we want to change the model of production and the direction of development, towards a model that is not harmful to life,” said Tygel.

Brazil’s solidarity economy ranges from agricultural production, which accounts for 60 percent of the groups linked by the FBES, to crafts, apparel, microcredit cooperatives, bankrupt companies that have been salvaged by workers’ cooperatives, community church projects and university incubators of solidarity businesses.

Although the solidarity economy currently represents a “paltry” share of the national economy, as Tygel acknowledged, it is growing fast, despite the scant government resources dedicated to supporting its development.

But although SENAES has a tiny budget, cooperatives and related initiatives also receive financial support from the ministries of Agricultural Development, Social Development and others.

Forging connections between the numerous and varied small local initiatives and making headway in terms of marketing and sales are the big challenges facing the solidarity economy.

But there are successful examples of integrated production chains and networks, like Justa Trama, in which the need to secure raw materials produced under the same shared principles – of horizontal labour relations and environmental sustainability – brought together several textile cooperatives and an association of more than 700 cotton farmers.

Justa Trama and the solidarity economy movement fuelled “the quantity and especially the quality of Fio Nobre’s production,” said Idalina Boni. The cooperative’s output climbed from 1.5 tons in 2005 to eight tons in 2008.

The production chain runs from the “ecological cotton” grown by family farmers in nine municipalities in the northeastern state of Ceará through a textile cooperative that makes yarn and fabrics in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais to three garment-making cooperatives in the south.

Buttons, collars and other components, meanwhile, are made from seeds gathered by members of another cooperative in the Amazon jungle state of Rondonia.

The biggest hurdles faced by organic farming cooperatives are marketing and selling their products.

In the northeast, Brazil’s poorest and driest region, the Xique Xique network of community-focused and solidarity-based marketing, which takes its name from a local cactus, facilitates the marketing of products by family farmers in the state of Rio Grande do Norte, organised in hundreds of groups, which make up nine larger cooperatives.

Agroecology, women’s rights and empowerment, and the solidarity economy are the “three main focuses” of the fast-growing network, which links production and trade, said Viviana Mesquita, a local technical assistant with SENAES.

“Women have a greater vocation for the solidarity economy,” but their strong presence in Xique Xique is also due to the local activity of the World March of Women, said the activist, a sociologist who has been active in the community organising and environmental movements.

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