Inter Press Service » Cooperatives Turning the World Downside Up Wed, 17 Sep 2014 00:30:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Organic Farming Taking Off in Poland … Slowly Thu, 21 Aug 2014 07:07:24 +0000 Claudia Ciobanu Organic farmer Slawek Dobrodziej with volunteers from Warsaw helping on his farm. Credit: Courtesy of Malgosia Dobrodziej

Organic farmer Slawek Dobrodziej with volunteers from Warsaw helping on his farm. Credit: Courtesy of Malgosia Dobrodziej

By Claudia Ciobanu
WARSAW, Aug 21 2014 (IPS)

Polish farmer Slawek Dobrodziej has probably the world’s strangest triathlon training regime: he swims across the lake at the back of his house, then runs across his some 11 hectares of land to check the state of the crops, and at the end of the day bikes close to 40 kilometres to and back from a nearby town for some shopping.

That Dobrodziej would still want to enter the triathlon, despite working daily in the fields from dawn until well into the night, speaks volumes about his supra-human levels of energy.

But it takes this kind of stamina to succeed as an ecological farmer in Poland.Community-supported agriculture “could help promote farm biodiversity because consumers buy different types of vegetables and products in this scheme, and it could also help to spread the certified organic model, which is only marginally developed in Poland today” – organic farmer Sonia Priwieziencew

Today, around 3.5 percent of Poland’s agricultural land is taken up by organic farms. Their number has been growing steadily over recent years, yet farmers complain of obstacles. Of the country’s some 1.8 million farmers, just 26,000 have organic certification (though some of these farms are just meadows and do not necessarily produce food), and only 300 of these are vegetable producers.

Under the most recent national policies (adopted in parallel to the new European Union’s 2014-2020 budget, which will finance Polish agriculture), Polish authorities have been cutting subsidies for medium and large organic farms, and they have practically eliminated public support for organic orchards.

Smaller organic producers have to struggle with complicated bureaucratic procedures in place for obtaining national or European funding.

Slawek Dobrodziej and his wife Malgosia clearly have the determination to penetrate these procedures. Over the past eight years, the couple have managed to build up a successful organic farm in the village of Zeliszewo, near the western city of Szczecin. They sell some 100 types of fruit and vegetables to consumers in several Polish major cities, including the capital Warsaw.

According to Malgosia, the book-keeper of the family farm, the first years were particularly rough. Selling large quantities of one product to food processing companies did not pay off: organic farming, which uses no pesticides, is labour-intensive, and the prices paid by the companies were not enough to cover costs.

The family managed to access some national and European funds, but the amounts were barely sufficient to buy some basic machinery. European money must often be co-financed by the recipient, meaning that obtaining more funds would be impossible without becoming heavily indebted to banks.

The Dobrodziej’s fortunes improved once they diversified their vegetable production and found opportunities to sell their produce directly to consumers in big cities. Selling to a bio bazaar in Warsaw was a turning point.

Additionally, for the first time this year, they started selling to consumers via two community-supported agriculture (CSA) schemes in the cities of Szczecin and Poznan, through which the roughly 30 consumers in each scheme pay them in advance for vegetables they will receive weekly throughout the summer and autumn months.

The CSA model is based on the idea that consumers share risks with the farmers: consumers enter the scheme agreeing to take whatever vegetables the farmer is able to produce given weather conditions. They are also able to volunteer on the farm, which provides an understanding of seasonality and farm work that few city inhabitants have. Malgosia says that CSA is an excellent way of offering financial stability to a small farm.

The first CSA was created in Poland in 2012 in Warsaw, and this year six such schemes are operational in the country, including the two served by the Dobrodziej. More schemes are expected to be launched next year, given the warm welcome the model has received from city consumers and the farming community.

At the moment, the Dobrodziej’s week is a mad rush among various cities in Poland, with night-long drives to deliver fresh products, followed by days in the field. Yet Malgosia hopes that next year, once the bank credits are paid, they will be able to rely only on the two CSA schemes and sales to bio bazaars in Warsaw and Katowice. Meanwhile Slawek dreams of setting up an organisation to promote the model nationally.

“We do absolutely too much work right now, and we spend too much time packaging half kilos of vegetables to sell to small organic shops,” explains Malgosia. “The CSA model seems very promising, because we get rid of the packaging ordeal and we also get money in hand at the start of the season from which we can make investments in the machinery we need.”

“I think many Polish farms could go this way, because the model is really economically viable for farmers,” says Sonia Priwieziencew, who together with her partner Tomasz Wloszczowski, runs a 6 hectare organic farm in the village of Swierze Panki, 120 km northeast of Warsaw, which has been serving the first CSA in Poland for three years.

Priwieziencew and Wloszczowski had been active for years in NGOs promoting organic farming in Poland and they wanted to put theory into practice.

“CSA could help promote farm biodiversity because consumers buy different types of vegetables and products in this scheme, and it could also help to spread the certified organic model, which is only marginally developed in Poland today,” says Priwieziencew.

After years of experience with advocacy work and promotion of the organic model among farmers, Priwieziencew is quite critical of the authorities’ approach to ecological farming. According to her, despite the fact that the vast majority of farmers in Poland today have small plots of land, the policies issued both by the Polish government and the European Union are more favourable to large-scale industrial farming.

Despite the new Common Agricultural Policy adopted this year in Brussels, which is supposed to provide guidance to farming in the European Union for the coming years, paying much lip service to organic farming and small-scale agriculture as means to ensure food security, limit climate change and preserve biodiversity, national policies and financing do not necessarily follow this direction, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe.

Yet, over recent years, citizens in these regions have become increasingly aware of the faults of industrial food production and numerous initiatives intended to safeguard small farming and promote ecological agriculture have been created across both regions.

This month, Warsaw saw the opening of the first cooperative shop bringing vegetables and other foods directly from producers, most of them local, and selling them at a discount to members of the cooperative who volunteer work.

Cooperatives and vegetable box schemes exist in most big Polish cities and are even developing at the level of neighbourhoods. A newly discovered passion for urban gardening in the country has led museums in Warsaw and other cities to open up their green areas to local inhabitants who want to grow vegetables.

Other countries in the region are not lagging behind. At least 15 CSA initiatives exist in the Czech Republic and, in addition, vegetable box schemes and urban gardens are continually appearing. In Romania, CSA groups exist now in at least six different cities, with some of the farms explicitly employing people from marginalised social categories.

”Every such new initiative gives small-scale ecological farmers a new chance to sell more and develop in Poland,” says Warsaw-based food activist Piotr Trzaskowski, who set up the first CSA in Poland. ”These farmers must survive because they are real caretakers of the land and the environment, unlike large-scale conventional producers who commodify the land, buying it, using it up and ignoring the impact on biodiversity, people and the environment.”

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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Salvadoran Peasant Farmers Clash With U.S. Over Seeds Sat, 05 Jul 2014 14:49:53 +0000 Edgardo Ayala Cruz Esmeralda Mejía, Maybelyne Palacios and Rosa María Rivera growing plants from improved maize seed in the La Maroma cooperative, in the Bajo Lempa region of El Salvador. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Cruz Esmeralda Mejía, Maybelyne Palacios and Rosa María Rivera growing plants from improved maize seed in the La Maroma cooperative, in the Bajo Lempa region of El Salvador. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

By Edgardo Ayala
JIQUILISCO, El Salvador, Jul 5 2014 (IPS)

Under a searing sun, surrounded by a sea of young maize plants, Gladys Cortez expresses her fears that her employment in the cooperative that produces seed for the Salvadoran government may be at risk, if United States companies achieve participation in seed procurement.

“This is our source of income to support our children,” Cortez told IPS as she continued her regular farming tasks at the La Maroma cooperative, one of the seed producing establishments located in La Noria, in the municipality of Jiquilisco, in the eastern department of Usulután.

The U.S. government, through its ambassador in El Salvador, Mari Carmen Aponte, has set conditions on the delivery of a development aid package worth 277 million dollars from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. foreign aid agency. It wants the country to open its seed procurement process to U.S. companies.

Aponte told local media that excluding U.S. companies violates the Free Trade Agreement between the United States and Central America- Dominican Republic (DR-CAFTA), which was signed by El Salvador in 2004.

Since 2011, the Salvadoran government has bought 88,000 quintals of maize seed annually from 18 producers, for distribution to 400,000 small farmers as part of its Family Agriculture Plan. Each farmer receives 10 kilos of improved seed and 45 kilos of fertilisers a year.

Among the 18 producers are the La Maroma cooperative and four others in the Bajo Lempa region, in the south of the department of Usulután.

These lands were divided up and distributed to ex-combatants of the former guerrilla organisation, now a political party, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) after the 1992 peace accords that put an end to 12 years of civil war that cost 75,000 lives.

The first FMLN government, in power since 2009, opened certified seed procurement to local producers.

The administration of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former guerrilla commander who took office on Jun. 1, is maintaining links with the cooperatives, but has also indicated willingness to include international companies in the seed tendering process.

Certified seeds are varieties with higher yields and better resistance to adverse climate effects. They are produced by crossing genetic strains that have not been modified, in contrast to transgenic seeds. The cooperatives also produce some native seeds, on a smaller scale.

Seed quality is monitored and approved by the Salvadoran Ministry of Agriculture, which paid a total of 25.9 million dollars on seed purchases in 2013, most of them maize and beans which are staple foods in El Salvador.

Until the new model was implemented in 2011, 70 percent of the market was cornered by a subsidiary of U.S. biotech giant Monsanto, Semillas Cristiani Burkard. Since then, other producers have entered the field, like the cooperatives, with better quality certified seeds and more competitive prices.

Last year’s seed was purchased by an executive decree of December 2012, with the approval of Congress, and in practice U.S. companies were excluded. The U.S. embassy demanded a public and “transparent” tender process.

In January 2014, lawmakers approved a new decree allowing international companies to participate in the tendering process. However, the bidding in April was won by the same 18 producers.

Ambassador Aponte is now pressing for a different procurement process that will favour U.S. companies. This position is being criticised by social organisations and rural producers, who protested in front of the embassy in San Salvador in June.

“The embassy’s position serves to promote Monsanto’s seeds,” environmentalist Ricardo Navarro told IPS, referring to the world leader in transgenic seeds, against which many protests have been held in Latin American countries.

Aponte did not mention Monsanto in her comments, but according to Navarro “it is obvious she is referring to Monsanto, the largest company in the sector,” whose local branch “lost a market they thought belonged to them.”

The embassy did not grant an interview with economic adviser John Barrett, requested by IPS.

But in a press release on Wednesday Jul. 2 it expressed “satisfaction with the government’s expressed commitment to carry out future purchases of corn and bean seeds in a transparent competitive manner that respects both Salvadoran law and DR-CAFTA.”

As for Monsanto, it only sent IPS an e-mail signed by spokesman Tom Helscher, denying any part in the embassy’s campaign.

The discord has reached Washington. Sixteen members of Congress sent a letter Jul. 1 to Secretary of State John Kerry, expressing concern over the pressure exerted by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) in favour of the embassy campaign in San Salvador.

Nathan Weller, the head of EcoViva, a U.S. organisation that works on development projects in Bajo Lempa, told IPS that some U.S. companies have won contracts from the Salvadoran government, not through public tendering, but by direct purchasing or invitation.

Both methods are legal, but they lack the transparency that the embassy is calling for for seed procurement.

For example, in 2009 and 2010 Chevron Caribbean was awarded direct contracts for fuel supply, for 340,000 and 361,000 dollars respectively, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

The company “offered products at a much higher price (than the competition), and yet USTR made no comment,” Weller complained.

Seeds of a better life  

Growing seeds has also promoted employment in an area with a lot of poverty.

In rural areas, 43 percent of households live below the poverty line, compared to 29.9 percent of urban households, according to the 2013 annual survey by the Ministry of Economics.

“In addition to creating employment, we are demonstrating the productive potential of the local cooperatives,” campesino (small farmer) leader Juan Luna, the coordinator of the Asociación Mangle agricultural programme, told IPS.

Gladys Cortez, hard at work caring for young maize plants at the La Maroma cooperative, has work thanks to the seed programme.

“As well as the jobs, we are given seeds to grow to feed ourselves,” said Cortez, a 36-year-old single mother of a 17-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl.

Alongside her, about 50 men and women worked in the maize fields of La Maroma. Most of them wore long-sleeved shirts and hats to protect them from sunburn, on the day IPS visited the cooperative. They are all paid five dollars a day.

In the Bajo Lempa area alone, about 15,000 campesinos are employed growing improved seeds, the cooperativists estimate. They have work for longer periods than on traditional plantations, because more care and attention is required.

“We don’t earn a great deal, but the fact of having an income is very positive for a single mother like me,” Cortez said.

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Mauritian Sugar Farmers Squeezed by Low Prices as Bagasse and Ethanol Become Popular By-products Tue, 10 Jun 2014 08:38:39 +0000 Nasseem Ackbarally Sen Dabydoyal, a farmer and leader of the Médine Cooperative Society, shows a pack of special sugar produced by sugarcane farmers from Mauritius. Credit: Nasseem Ackbarally/IPS

Sen Dabydoyal, a farmer and leader of the Médine Cooperative Society, shows a pack of special sugar produced by sugarcane farmers from Mauritius. Credit: Nasseem Ackbarally/IPS

By Nasseem Ackbarally
PORT LOUIS, Jun 10 2014 (IPS)

While Mauritius has been forced to transform its sugar industry because of low prices for the commodity, the country’s small-scale sugarcane farmers who contribute to it say they are barely earning a living.

Previously, Mauritius produced only raw sugar from the cane plant. Now it produces value-added refined and special sugar, electricity from bagasse, ethanol and will soon produce bio-plastics.

“We are paid for the amount of sugar produced from our canes and some peanuts for the bagasse they use to produce electricity and nothing for the electricity which they sell to the national grid, or for our molasses or for the ethanol,” Jugessur Guirdharry, a farmer for the Union Park Cooperative Society, in the south of the island, told IPS. Farmer Salil Roy believes sugar cane is a victim of its own success “in the sense that it helped farmers support their children’s higher education, locally and abroad.”

With the end of the Sugar Protocol in 2009, an agreement between the European Union and African, Caribbean and Pacific states since 1970 wherein the latter supplied sugar to the EU at a much higher price than was available on the world market, meant that this Indian island nation stopped receiving high prices for its sugar. Instead, Mauritius was producing sugar at 500 dollars a tonne but selling it at 433 dollars a tonne.

To keep the industry alive, the government implemented drastic reforms. It centralised private sugar production factories and from the original 17 there are now four flexi-factories that crush cane, produce special and refined sugars, molasses, ethanol and renewable energy from bagasse — the fibrous pulp left over after cane is squeezed for its juice. Soon they will also produce bio-plastic.

This island nation now produces 400,000 tonnes of special and refined sugars that are sold on markets in Europe from where they are sold directly to big EU firms.

About 75 percent of the sugar produced in Mauritius is value-added refined and special sugar that is sold mainly in Italy, Spain, Greece, United Kingdom and Belgium while the rest is sold to a hundred clients in niche-markets in the United States and China.

However, the 17,000 small-scale farmers contribute to about 28 percent of the national sugar production are not happy. They say it is very difficult to make a living out of cane cultivation only.

Farmers complain of high production costs and costs of inputs like fertilisers, herbicides and manpower and transport.

“If a farmer does not do part of the work in the fields himself, he’ll not be able to make his ends meet,” Guirdharry added.

Without the contribution of farmers like him, this industry would not have survived, Issah Korreembux, a small-scale sugarcane farmer, told IPS. Indeed, the Mauritius Cane Industry Authority (MCIA) says that many smallholder farmers have abandoned between 5,000 to 6,000 hectares of land that had previously been sugar plantations.

“If they are not given their due, more will do so because of lack of manpower, high costs of inputs and an ageing population among the farmers with the youth staying away from agriculture,” Sen Dabydoyal, a farmer and leader of the Médine Cooperative Society, in eastern Mauritius, told IPS.

Guirdharry pointed out that by producing bagasse, small farmers contribute to the production of clean energy.

“If we use coal only, the impact on the environment would be devastating. We are thus preventing the import of about 250,000 tonnes of coal annually,” he explained.

Small-scale farmers like Dabydoyal are looking for other means to increase their income. About 5,000 of them have joined the fair-trade movement. They produced 21,000 tonnes of sugar under this label in 2013, which brought them an additional income of 60 dollars per tonne above the normal price of 530 dollars.

Under this certification by an international firm FLO-CERT, the small-scale producers develop good agricultural practices, make good use of the soil, use less chemical products and follow an integrated management plan for pests and diseases to improve the crop.

“This is a very good thing for small-scale farmers and we are encouraging all of them to join the movement,” Sooradehoo Punchu, president of the Mauritius Fair-trade Federation Cooperative Ltd, told IPS.

Farmer Salil Roy believes sugar cane is a victim of its own success “in the sense that it helped farmers support their children’s higher education, locally and abroad.”

“Today, these children have grown up and become professionals but have turned their back to the plantations,” Roy told IPS. Small and medium farmers have launched an Alliance of Sugar Cane Planters Association (ASPA) to defend their rights.

Its leader Trilock Ujoodha says a revision of the distribution of cane revenue will solve many problems faced by small and medium producers, which includes among them the issue of abandoned land.

Other farmers recalled that their income from sugar that represented 95 percent of their total revenue in the past stands today at 94 percent, despite the slump in local sugar prices.

“It should have decreased more,” observed farmer Jugdish Rampertab. However, Roy believes small farmers are faring well but “they could do much better with a fair distribution of sugar revenue.”

Mauritius has transformed its main product that is sugar cane into several valued added products. It’s not the end of the road yet, as this industry prepares to face another big challenge in two years’ time with the end of the sugar quota system in the EU scheduled for 2017.

This will again lead to volatile prices of this commodity. “How far can we diversify our cane industry?” Dabydoyal asks.

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Traditional Wisdom to the Rescue in Cyclone Season Mon, 12 May 2014 17:49:17 +0000 Malini Shankar A rare sight of a traditional hut of the Nicobarese in the post-tsunami era. Seen here is a Nicobari family that has retained its traditionally designed hut alongside a “permanent shelter” made of concrete that was given by the government as compensation for loss of household in the Asian Tsunami. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

A rare sight of a traditional hut of the Nicobarese in the post-tsunami era. Seen here is a Nicobari family that has retained its traditionally designed hut alongside a “permanent shelter” made of concrete that was given by the government as compensation for loss of household in the Asian Tsunami. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

By Malini Shankar
PORT BLAIR, Andaman Islands, India, May 12 2014 (IPS)

May and November bring the most vicious cyclones to the Bay of Bengal rim countries in Southeast Asia.

Local governments must scramble disaster mitigation measures, including food storage, cleaning cyclone shelters, stocking up water supply, sanitising infrastructure, and evacuating people to safety in all the regions bordering the bay.“Going by economists’ definition of supply and demand forces of the market, the Jarawas live in opulence." -- Prof. Anvita Abbi

The cyclones are the harbinger of the monsoons that play out in various densities for months on end across the subcontinent, often putting lives and livestock at peril.

Risking rejection of culture-insensitive food distribution to the evacuees, the governments generally resort to survival rations that stress shelf lives and transportation logistics, often ignoring the native wisdom in nutrition balance and distribution that complements local agro-meteorological and hydro-geological conditions.

For example, in times of cyclones or unseaworthy weather, “the Great Andamanese resort to hunting and gathering,” said Anvita Abbi, a professor at the Centre for Linguistics, School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University,who has deciphered the language of the Great Andamanese in the Andaman Nicobar Islands.

“When a particular bird sings a song, they know it is time to go turtle hunting on the beach instead of fishing in the sea,” Prof. Abbi told IPS.

The tribes defer to geomorphological conditions and respect Nature’s benevolence for disaster resilience. The governments’ panic might seem redundant to the tribes: no wonder they are at odds with the mainstream society and shun contact with a corrupted system that favours a few.  The tribes’ traditional wisdom helps them literally coast to safety.

“The Nicobarese and Jarawas switch to harpoon fishing in shallow waters during inclement weather. They have boats for deep sea fishing and dugout/outrigger canoes and catamarans for coastal fishing,” said A. Justin Superintending, an anthropologist at the Port Blair Regional Centre of Anthropological Survey of India.

The outrigger canoes and dugout boats are eco-friendly to coral reefs in shallows seas. “The people of Chowra are best known for making fishing boats. In return they barter other goods and services that money cannot buy in the tribal district of Nicobar Islands,” Justin told IPS.

“The Great Andamanese shift their fishing activities to streams and rivers inland when the sea is rough,” added Prof. Abbi.

In Orissa, the tribes and people of the state use five different varieties of rice to complement the seasonal changes in the disaster-prone state.

Alternate cropping with complementary crops that can act as natural pesticide is another tradition of the Soligas in B. R. T. Hills in Karnataka in India. The Soligas also know the art of refrigerating food in bamboo stems.

The tribes of Ladakh refrigerate yoghurt in yak hide bags to make butter tea. “To cope with extreme weather in Ladakh’s cold desert, they consume fatty foods and drink lots of butter tea,” Chewang Norphel, a social worker in Leh, told IPS.

“The tribal houses are made of sun-dried mud brick with mud plaster and low roof. Small sized door and windows facing the north side are other features of ecofriendly architecture.”

According to Dr. Avula Laxman, senior deputy director in the Division of Community Studies of National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau – National Institute of Nutrition, “Yes, tribals do adopt coping strategies, especially during natural calamities like droughts/floods.

“They adopt different measures such as consumption of low cost foods, reduce food consumption, borrow food or cash depending on their socio economic status, seek assistance from Government or Administration, use stocked grains, or food stocks or rely on savings, may migrate for employment or sell assets to buy food” according to a survey conducted by the National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad, Laxman told IPS.

The practise of communal cooking and communal eating is based on sharing resources, and individualism is anathema to tribal society.

Another best practice that they have “transferred as a low cost technology” to modernised humanity is breast milk banks.

Traditional wisdom has it that if a mother dies at childbirth and the child survives, any other lactating mother in the community or even in a hospital assumes the responsibility of breast feeding.

Even when a natural mother lacks enough breast milk, other nursing mothers take over to provide the infant essential nutrition and resilience. In Jarawa society, in fact, every lactating mother breast feeds every newborn infant to foster a bonding in the newer generations, according to the book “Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the 20th Century” by Kiran Dhingra.

“Their kinship terms have evolved. It is not surprising that lactating women who stay back in Strait Island get to babysit the kids of those away in employment in Port Blair. It is therefore not surprising that they breast feed another infant,” said Abbi.

This tradition permeates a cross-section of Indian society, transcending barriers of caste and creed. This is the root of the concept that there are no orphans in tribal societies even if they have “precise linguistic expressions for bereavement of siblings and in laws,” according to Prof. Abbi.

Laxman said that, “Tribals are trying to adopt urban and rural cultures, because of encroachment/migration of rural populations into tribal areas. The tribals’ unique culture is totally changed.

“Because of the Public Distribution System programmes, the tribals are compelled to eat rice continuously, because rice is chiefly/easily available at fair price shops. They are changing their healthy lifestyles to modern unhealthy lifestyles. This was observed especially in Kerala tribal population, leading to high stress, insecurity in their lives, leading to high hypertension and high diabetes even among tribal populations.”

Call them fair weather friends but the hill tribes like “Gaddi and Lahauli tribes of Lahaul and Spiti in Himachal Pradesh India adapt to the geomorphological conditions in the avalanche-prone area to shift their livestock to greener pastures in the plains during summers and stock up food grains and dry rations for the long winters,” said forest officer Hira Lal Rana in Lahaul, Himachal Pradesh.

Prof. Abbi sums up the import of traditional wisdom for disaster resilience. “Going by economists’ definition of supply and demand forces of the market, the Jarawas live in opulence because their demand and supply of their needs is favourably tilted towards the Jarawas.

“The forests supply more than enough of what they need so they live in opulence.  Economists say reaching an equilibrium point of demand and supply curve is the hallmark of development. This is met by the forests. They don’t need and they don’t want our system which creates subservience.”

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Community Electricity Lights Up Spain Tue, 06 May 2014 12:33:48 +0000 Ines Benitez Clean sources of energy - challenging the prevailing energy model

Solar panels on one of the buildings of the Museum of Science and Technology of Catalonia. Credit: Chixoy CC BY-SA 3.0

By Inés Benítez
MÁLAGA, Spain , May 6 2014 (IPS)

Until recently it was inconceivable for small groups of organised citizens in fully electrified industrialised countries like Spain to generate their own power from clean sources of energy, challenging the prevailing energy model.

But now anyone who wants to become an “agent of change” can be a co-owner of community projects that promote renewable energy, such as the Huerta Solar Amigos de la Tierra, a 20-kW solar energy plant in the municipality of Sisante in southeast Spain.

Friends of the Earth Spain and the non-profit company Ecooo are behind the creation of the plant.

“We have to change the 20th century paradigm, where energy equals fossil fuels, and citizens are seen as mere consumers,” Héctor de Prado, head of energy and climate in Friends of the Earth Spain, told Tierramérica.

“Buying shares, starting at 100 euros, people become co-owners, and receive profits,” Ecooo spokesman José Vicente Barcia explained to Tierramérica. Ecooo has 65 collective solar installations placed on rooftops in rural and urban communities around Spain.“The most ecological and economical kilowatt is the one that isn’t consumed.” -- Ecooo spokesman José Vicente Barcia

Ecooo, which forms part of the Platform for a new energy model, made up of over 300 organisations, also installs and maintains solar panels for private individuals and carries out energy audits to analyse consumption.

“Installed capacity is higher than what is needed, to the profit of the energy corporations,” said Barcia. “What is needed is a culture of energy savings, because the most ecological and economical kilowatt is the one that isn’t consumed.”

Another possibility for energy consumers who want to support clean energy collectives is to switch from a traditional power utility to one of several “green” cooperatives operating in Spain, such as Zencer in the southern region of Andalusía, Som Energia in Catalonia in the east, or GoiEner and Nosa Enerxia in Galicia in the northwest.

“We want to make consumers participants in managing the energy they consume,” architect Francisco Javier Porras, founder and president of Zencer, told Tierramérica.

Zencer has been supplying electricity generated by renewable sources at a national level since January 2013.

The cooperatives can purchase electricity from the traditional utilities, but they guarantee that all of the energy they sell comes from clean sources, by granting renewable energy certificates to producers of clean energy.

According to Porras, between 30 and 40 percent of the energy produced in Spain now comes from renewable sources.

In his office in Fuengirola in the southern region of Málaga, Porras said consumers “are reluctant to accept changes in terms of energy supply” even though their electricity bills have soared in recent years.

The cost of electricity for the members of the cooperatives is no higher than what consumers pay for power from the big corporations like Iberdrola, Gas Natural Fenosa, Endesa, HC and E.On, and it can even be lower, while users have the satisfaction of knowing they are helping to support clean energy, say advocates of the cooperatives.

In this southern European country, where unemployment stands at 25 percent and the cost of electricity continues to climb, there is a new phenomenon: energy poverty.

The number of people who are finding it hard to pay their electricity bills grew by two million from 2010 to 2012 in this country of more than 47 million people, according to a report by the Association of Environmental Sciences (ACA).

The study found that the proportion of households affected by energy poverty has risen to more than 10 percent – or more than four million people.

José Luis López, who led the study, believes that collective energy management initiatives can have “a certain influence” on reducing energy poverty when they are able to bring down the costs of the members’ energy bills, although he said “there is no immediate short-term effect.”

Promoting renewable, independent energy production also reduces dependence on fossil fuels, thus bringing about a reduction in the millions of euros in fixed costs for the state coffers, López added.

Friends of the Earth Spain complains that the government is standing in the way of the progress of renewable energy in this country, whose enormous potential is not being harnessed, it says, while other European Union countries see green energy as a way to combat emissions of greenhouse gases.

“The government has some nerve to do what it is doing,” said Marc Roselló of Som Energia, referring to the government’s energy policies, which privilege large corporations that use fossil fuels.

In July, the centre-right government introduced an energy reform, and in December it approved an amendment to the electricity sector law, which was opposed by the hundreds of members of the Platform and 14 opposition parties.

Roselló told Tierramérica that in late 2010, a year after the energy market was liberalised, Som Energia transferred to Spain the solid experience of companies like Ecopower in Belgium or Enercoop in France.

“We don’t only sell energy; we also produce energy through our own projects,” he said. The cooperative’s bills provide the more than 14,000 members with details on the origin of the electricity it distributes. In 2013, for example, the energy distributed by the cooperative came from solar, wind and biogas plants.

Zencer’s Porras also sees “the big objective” for the 600-member cooperative, which is accredited to distribute energy throughout Spain, as producing energy through small-scale electricity generation projects using its own funds.

Although a few years ago social participation in the energy system was not possible, thousands of people from all walks of life – investors concerned about the environment, ecologists and others – are now taking part or investing in clean energy projects, like Viure de l’aire, a community wind energy project in Catalonia.

“Each green kWh that you add to the energy grid is one kWh less from burnt fossil fuels,” said Héctor de Prado.

This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.

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Tanzania’s Farming Cooperatives Struggle to Bear Fruit Fri, 04 Apr 2014 10:32:27 +0000 Adam Bemma John Daffi on his piece of land that is part of a cooperative that began in 1963 in Upper Kitete. However, recent attempts by the government to revive cooperatives have been a failure. Credit: Adam Bemma/IPS

John Daffi on his piece of land that is part of a cooperative that began in 1963 in Upper Kitete. However, recent attempts by the government to revive cooperatives have been a failure. Credit: Adam Bemma/IPS

By Adam Bemma
ARUSHA, Tanzania, Apr 4 2014 (IPS)

John Daffi climbs to the top of a hill overlooking a scenic Rift Valley wall and the Ngorongoro forest, where wildlife migrates between the world famous Ngorongoro crater and Tanzania’s Lake Manyara. Daffi, 59, looks down upon his family’s farm below and reminisces about the time his father first brought him here as a boy.

“Upper Kitete was a model farming village set up by the government of Tanzania. My father received a call while he was in Arusha from his brother in Karatu telling him to apply. We were selected as one of the first 100 families,” Daffi told IPS.

In 1962, British agriculturalist Antony Ellman came to Tanzania and from 1963 to 1966 helped establish the Upper Kitete Cooperative Society on 2,630 hectares located in the Karatu district of northern Tanzania, about 160 kilometres from the city of Arusha.“Even though the population has increased, the land hasn’t. Every inch of it is cultivated.” -- farmer, John Daffi

“It was a very exciting time as Tanzania just received independence and it was a real opportunity for aspiring farmers to have access to great land,” Ellman told IPS.

Daffi’s father, Lucas, relocated his family from Mbulu village in Manyara region to Kitete village in Arusha region. The villagers selected began a social experiment, and distinguished themselves from other nearby villages with the name Upper Kitete.

The cooperative movement pre-dates independence. Professor Amon Z. Mattee, from Tanzania’s Sokoine University of Agriculture, told IPS that the prosperity of cooperatives in the 1960s made the government want to create a level playing field for all.

“Coops started in the 1930s for some of the cash crops like coffee and cotton and for many years up to the time of independence in 1961. They were really member-based and offered excellent services in terms of research, extension, inputs, profitable markets and even social services like education for members’ children,” Mattee said.

Tanzania’s founding President ‘Mwalimu [Teacher]‘ Julius Nyerere started the village settlement programme where farmers were encouraged to work cooperatively hoping they would prosper economically. Eighteen months after independence in 1963, the Upper Kitete Cooperative Society was born and it continues to this day.

“The soil was so fertile. We began farming cereal crops like wheat and barley. Now we’re much smaller scale and farm mainly maize and beans, our staple crops,” Daffi said.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), Tanzania remains primarily a rural country with an agriculture-based economy that employs the majority of the national labour force. Its economy is still highly dependent on predominantly rain-fed agriculture that contributes an estimated 30 percent to the GDP and accounts for 64 percent of all export earnings.

Its main traditional export crops are coffee, cashews, cotton, sugar, tobacco, tea, sisal and spices from Zanzibar. Maize is the main food crop alongside sorghum, millet, rice, wheat, beans, cassava, bananas and potatoes, according to the FAO.

Pius and John Daffi hold up a map of Upper Kitete, showing the original plot of land that was allocated to the farming village when it was set up by the Tanzanian government. Credit: Adam Bemma/IPS

Pius and John Daffi hold up a map of Upper Kitete, showing the original plot of land that was allocated to the farming village when it was set up by the Tanzanian government. Credit: Adam Bemma/IPS

“For the first 10 years Upper Kitete was on an upward path. People worked together willingly and life was improving for everyone. They continually had better yields, built bigger homes and the services improved as a result,” Ellman said.

In 1974, the dream faded as Nyerere forced reluctant Tanzanians from urban and rural areas to move into villages causing environmental and organisational strain to existing villages like Upper Kitete. At this time, its population ballooned from 210 to 1,200 residents.

A 2001 study by academics Rock Rohde and Thea Hilhorst called ‘A Profile of environmental change in the Lake Manyara Basin, Tanzania’ examines the stress put on the land due to government directives.

“Ujamaa [Nyerere’s brand of socialism] aimed to move the entire Tanzanian rural population into cooperative villages and achieved this under ‘Operation Vijijini’ when land was redistributed and several million peasants and pastoralists resettled in new, more compact villages, often under duress. [It] had a profound social and economic effect, especially on the highlands of Karatu where wealthy commercial farmers were deprived of their land holdings,” the study states.

Since then, Daffi has witnessed the land at Upper Kitete become scarce as it was divided into smaller portions for the growing community. This village of 500 people in 1963 is now a town of nearly 5,000. Now, the cooperative produces much less than it previously did because it has less land.

“Even though the population has increased, the land hasn’t. Every inch of it is cultivated,” Daffi said.

Mattee researches farmers’ organisations in Tanzania. He said recent attempts by the government to revive cooperatives, like the 1997 Cooperative Development Policy, were a failure.

“The government has since the 1990s tried to revive the cooperative sector by introducing new policies, but the coops were already too weak and farmers had completely lost faith in them,” Mattee said.

Ellman reflects on his time at Upper Kitete with great nostalgia. But he realises they face the problem all remaining agricultural cooperatives in Tanzania face — a lack of unity and insufficient resources to support the fast-growing population.

“I keep in touch with many people at Upper Kitete and I visited again in 2012. They’ve asked me to record its history,” Ellman said. “It’s been difficult. With such a dense population they need to adopt more intensive forms of land use and even diversify out of agriculture. Tanzanians are resourceful people. They can do it.”

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Rural Costa Rican Women Plant Trees to Fight Climate Change Wed, 02 Apr 2014 13:39:21 +0000 Diego Arguedas Ortiz Olga Vargas next to the greenhouse with which the Quebrada Grande de Pital Women’s Association began to revitalise its sustainable business, whose priority is reforestation. Credit: Diego Arguedas Ortiz/IPS

Olga Vargas next to the greenhouse with which the Quebrada Grande de Pital Women’s Association began to revitalise its sustainable business, whose priority is reforestation. Credit: Diego Arguedas Ortiz/IPS

By Diego Arguedas Ortiz
PITAL, Costa Rica , Apr 2 2014 (IPS)

Olga Vargas, a breast cancer survivor, is back in the countryside, working in a forestry programme in the north of Costa Rica aimed at empowering women while at the same time mitigating the effects of climate change.

Her recent illness and a community dispute over the land the project previously used – granted by the Agrarian Development Institute, where the women had planted 12,000 trees – stalled the reforestation and environmental education project since 2012 in Pital, San Carlos district, in the country’s northern plains.

But the group is getting a fresh start.

“After the cancer I feel that God gave me a second chance, to continue with the project and help my companions,” Vargas, a 57-year-old former accountant, told IPS in the Quebrada Grande forest reserve, which her group helps to maintain.

She is a mother of four and grandmother of six; her two grown daughters also participate in the group, and her husband has always supported her, she says proudly.

Since 2000, the Quebrada Grande de Pital Women’s Association, made up of 14 women and presided over by Vargas, has reforested the land granted to them, organised environmental protection courses, set up breeding tanks for the sustainable fishing of tilapia, and engaged in initiatives in rural tourism and organic agriculture.

But the top priority has been planting trees.

A group of local men who opposed the granting of the land to the women from the start demanded that the installations and business endeavours be taken over by the community.

The women were given another piece of land, smaller than one hectare in size, but which is in the name of the Association, and their previous installations were virtually abandoned.

“I learned about the importance of forest management in a meeting I attended in Guatemala. After that, several of us travelled to Panama, El Salvador and Argentina, to find out about similar initiatives and exchange experiences,” said Vargas, who used to work as an accountant in Pital, 135 km north of San José.

The most the Association has earned in a year was 14,000 dollars. “Maybe 50,000 colones [100 dollars] sounds like very little. But for us, rural women who used to depend on our husband’s income to buy household items or go to the doctor, it’s a lot,” Vargas said.

The Association, whose members range in age from 18 to 67, is not on its own. Over the last decade, groups of Costa Rican women coming up with solutions against deforestation have emerged in rural communities around the country.

These groups took up the challenge and started to plant trees and to set up greenhouses, in response to the local authorities’ failure to take action in the face of deforestation and land use changes.

“Climate change has had a huge effect on agricultural production,” Vargas said. “You should see how hot it’s been, and the rivers are just pitiful. Around three or four years ago the rivers flowed really strong, but now there’s only one-third or one-fourth as much water.”

In Quebrada Grande, the Agrarian Development Institute dedicated 119 hectares of land to forest conservation, which the Womens’ Association has been looking after for over a decade. Credit: Diego Arguedas Ortiz/IPS

In Quebrada Grande, the Agrarian Development Institute dedicated 119 hectares of land to forest conservation, which the Womens’ Association has been looking after for over a decade. Credit: Diego Arguedas Ortiz/IPS

In San Ramón de Turrialba, 65 km east of San José, six women manage a greenhouse where they produce seedlings to plant 20,000 trees a year.

Since 2007, the six women in the Group of Agribusiness Women of San Ramón have had a contract with Costa Rica’s electric company, ICE, to provide it with acacia, Mexican cedar, and eucalyptus seedlings.

The group’s coordinator, Nuria Céspedes, explained to IPS that the initiative emerged when she asked her husband for a piece of the family farm to set up a greenhouse.

“Seven years ago, I went to a few meetings on biological corridors and I was struck by the problem of deforestation, because they explain climate change has been aggravated by deforestation,” said Céspedes, who added that the group has the active support of her husband, and has managed to expand its list of customers.

Costa Rica, which is famous for its forests, is one of the few countries in the world that has managed to turn around a previously high rate of deforestation.

In 1987, the low point for this Central American country’s jungles, only 21 percent of the national territory was covered by forest, compared to 75 percent in 1940.

That marked the start of an aggressive reforestation programme, thanks to which forests covered 52 percent of the territory by 2012.

Costa Rica has set itself the goal of becoming the first country in the world to achieve carbon neutrality by 2021. And in the fight against climate change, it projects that carbon sequestration by its forests will contribute 75 percent of the emissions reduction needed to achieve that goal.

In this country of 4.4 million people, these groups of women have found a niche in forest conservation that also helps them combat sexist cultural norms and the heavy concentration of land in the hands of men.

“One of the strong points [of women’s participation] is having access to education – they have been given the possibility of taking part in workshops and trainings,” Arturo Ureña, the technical head of the Coordinating Association of Indigenous and Community Agroforestry in Central America (ACICAFOC) , told IPS.

That was true for the Pital Association. When they started their project, the women received courses from the Instituto Nacional de Aprendizaje (national training institute), which made it possible for two illiterate members of the group to take their final exams orally.

Added to these community initiatives are government strategies. More and more women are being included in state programmes that foment agroforestry production, such as the EcoMercado (ecomarket) of the National Forest Finance Fund (Fonafifo).

EcoMercado is part of the Environmental Services Programme of Fonafifo, one of the pillars of carbon sequestration in Costa Rica.

Since Fonafifo was created in the mid-1990s, 770,000 hectares, out of the country’s total of 5.1 million, have been included in the forestry strategy, with initiatives ranging from reforestation to agroforestry projects.

Lucrecia Guillén, who keeps Fonafifo’s statistics and is head of its environmental services management department, confirmed to IPS that the participation of women in reforestation projects is growing.

She stressed that in the case of the EcoMercado, women’s participation increased 185 percent between 2009 and 2013, which translated into a growth in the number of women farmers from 474 to 877. She clarified, however, that land ownership and the agroforestry industry were still dominated by men.

Statistics from Fonafifo indicate that in the EcoMercado project, only 16 percent of the farms are owned by women, while 37 are owned by individual men and 47 percent are in the hands of corporations, which are mainly headed by men.

But Guillén sees no reason to feel discouraged. “Women are better informed now, and that has boosted participation” and will continue to do so, she said.

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Women Turn Potatoes into Gold in Zimbabwe’s Cities Sun, 09 Mar 2014 14:46:31 +0000 Jeffrey Moyo Potato plants in the backyard of Lina Chingama, 44, from Zimbabwe's Norton town, 40 kilometres west of the capital Harare. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/IPS

Potato plants in the backyard of Lina Chingama, 44, from Zimbabwe's Norton town, 40 kilometres west of the capital Harare. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/IPS

By Jeffrey Moyo
HARARE, Mar 9 2014 (IPS)

Shyline Chipfika, 26, is one of thousands of Zimbabwean women in urban centres who have struck gold by growing potatoes. And a lot of their success has to do with an import ban.

“I used to be a mere housewife, and my life has changed in a big way after I ventured into potato growing,” Chipfika told IPS.“Who said women can’t provide for their families? Really, watch what the potato magic has done for many women here." -- Grace Mbiza

Chipfika’s husband, faced with joblessness, turned to hawking at a local commuter omnibus terminus in the capital, Harare, after the company he worked for shut down in 2008 owing to the hyperinflation that crippled many sectors of the economy.

Chipfika’s rags-to-riches story is a very rare one in Zimbabwe, and she boldly declares she will not abandon the potato-growing venture anytime soon.

“I used to stay in a small apartment, but thanks to this venture, I have managed to extend my apartment into a respectable piece of property,” she said.

The potatoes do not require large amounts of land, just ordinary backyards, where the women plant seeds in sacks filled with fertile soil.

“The potato growing method on urban yards by women here is very simple yet extremely productive, although since time immemorial, urban yards have often been wasted by many who have not seen any value in them,” agricultural extension officer Mike Hunde, based in Zimbabwe’s Mashonaland East Province in Marondera, 70 kilometres outside Harare, told IPS.

The officers are engaged by the government to facilitate agricultural research that enhances productivity.

The government promotes potatoes for food security, and as a way of backing local producers like Chingama and many others. In 2013, it banned imports of this staple food, and the crop took off.

Taking advantage of the ban, women in Zimbabwe’s towns and cities have since formed associations to get financial aid from pro-women non-governmental organisations to intensify local potato production.

According to the Urban Women Farmers’ Union, a trade union for women potato growers in Harare, there are 151 associations that women in towns and cities have formed to mobilise funding to cater for their potato growing ventures, with 16,150 women involved in potato production.

“Since the ban of potato imports here, as women potato growers only, we are supplying potatoes to eight percent of the national market, with huge scale indigenous potato growers dominating 88 percent of the market, while a few urban men who have emulated us are supplying the other four percent of the market,” Abigail Mlambo, secretary general of the Urban Women Farmers’ Union, told IPS.

“As an association of 12 potato growers here, we approached non-governmental organisations to seek funding to advance our urban potato growing project,” Nancy Chikwari told IPS.

After securing 1,000 dollars to buy inputs, Chikwari said their project expanded rapidly. Today, the women’s association boasts of sending their children to colleges and universities without financially straining their husbands.

“In 2013 alone, we harvested 30 tonnes and sold each 15-kilogramme packet for eight dollars, raking in thousands of dollars in profits,” Chikwari told IPS, adding that all of them now owned a car and a house in the capital thanks to potato growing.

Women in this Southern African nation make up the majority of jobless. According to the Central Statistical Office, of the country’s 13 million people, 60 percent (7.8 million) are women and 66 percent of them (5.14 million) are unemployed.

Official figures from 2013 indicate that only 850,000 people are formally employed.

The World Food Programme estimates the unemployment rate in Zimbabwe to be around 60 percent, despite the large numbers of people employed in the informal sector.

But for many urban women now undertaking potato farming at home, unemployment has become a thing of the past.

“Women like me no longer worry about employment. I make extensive sales from the potatoes I reap from my backyard,” 44-year-old Lina Chingama from Norton, a town 40 kilometres west of Harare, told IPS.

Chingama said she harvests the potatoes three times in a year and gets 1,200 kilogrammes of potatoes each time. A 10 kilogramme bag of potatoes fetches about 10 dollars at the local market.

This means Chingama pockets 1,200 dollars for the 1,200 kilogrammes she harvests each time.

Traditionally regarded as dependent upon their male counterparts, owing to urban potato farming, many women have even become breadwinners.

“Who said women can’t provide for their families? Really, watch what the potato magic has done for many women here. We are not just sleeping in towns, but rather fending for our families too,” Grace Mbiza, a women’s rights activist, told IPS.

Independent environmentalist Archibald Chigumbu said the process used by women to grow the potatoes is ecologically friendly.

“Their method does not harm the environment, as ordinary sacks with potato plants are placed within urban yards to nurse potatoes as they develop,” Chigumbu told IPS. He said common potato varieties grown here include Amythest, Mont Claire, BPI, Jacaranda, Opal and Emerald.

Ronald Museka, chair of the Potato Council of Zimbabwe, an organisation representing growers, told IPS, “We want to ensure there is enough production for the local market and urban women are just doing that. Soon they may start exporting.”

Zimbabwe’s Agriculture Minister Joseph Made is strongly supportive of these urban women’s ventures.

“Women have championed a grand move, maximising potato yields in their ordinary domestic yards and at the end of the day smiling all the way to the bank. We will not hesitate an inch to support them in every way possible,” Made told IPS.

But women potato growers here may face another hurdle with unpredictable local authorities, as the by-laws on such projects in towns are unclear.

“Yes, women are doing well, but council authorities haven’t approved urban agriculture and I’m unsure about what may or may not befall their potato projects,” a top local authority official speaking on the condition of anonymity, told IPS.

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Sun Shines on Forest Women Fri, 07 Mar 2014 08:13:17 +0000 Stella Paul Forest women in Anantagiri forest in the south-east of India check out their solar dryer. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS.

Forest women in Anantagiri forest in the south-east of India check out their solar dryer. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS.

By Stella Paul
ANANATAGIRI, India, Mar 7 2014 (IPS)

Chintapakka Jambulamma, 34, looks admiringly at a solar dryer. It’s the prized possession of the Advitalli Tribal Women’s Co-operative Society- a collective of women entrepreneurs that she leads.

She opens up a drawer in the dryer, scoops out a handful of the medicinal plant Kalmegh and exclaims, “Look, it’s drying so fast.”“We work hard, gather good quality herbs and seeds. Our life depends on this money. Why should we settle for less?”

Around her, women from the co-operative break into laughter.  The women are from the Koya and Konds tribes in the Eastern Ghat mountains of southern India. The forest has always been their home and their source of sustenance. Now, these women are tapping the sun that shines through it.

The solar dryer has four panels attached. It was installed two years ago by the Kovel Foundation – a non-profit group that helps forest tribes defend their rights and improve their livelihood.

The dryer – one of the two such machines installed by the foundation so far, cost about a million rupees (17,000 dollars)  says Krishna Rao, director of the foundation.

The investment has been worth it, he says, because the women are using it to run a business sustainably. “There are 2,500 women from 20 villages in the cooperative. None of them have studied beyond the junior school. Yet, they know how to run a business well,” Rao tells IPS.

“They are organised and work well as a team. Also, they are learning how to collect the roots, leaves and fruits without harming the mother plant, so that their resources don’t run dry.”

The forests of this region yield more than 700 non-timber forest products that include leaves, edible herbs, medicinal plants, fungi, seeds and roots. Most popular among them are honey, gum, Amla (Indian gooseberry), Tendu leaves, Mahua flowers and soap nuts.

Koyas and Konds have made a living for centuries off such forest products.  Penikala Ishwaramma, 23, is one of the herb gatherers. On a good day she gathers 20-25 kg of herbs. This year there is a bumper growth of the kalmegh herb in the forest, and Ishwaramma has gathered 116 kg of it.

The forest department buys much of this produce – 25 products must be sold to the department alone. But tribal people find the department’s procurement process slow and its prices lower than the market price. The forest department pays 45 rupees for a kilogram of gooseberry, while the existing market price is more than 60 rupees (about a dollar).

It’s this disappointment with government prices that drove the women to build their own collective business of selling forest products. Within two years, they are close to earning the 200,000 rupees (3,300 dollars) the Kovel Foundation loaned them.

The foundation had also provided basic entrepreneurial skill-building. Every day women like Ishwaramma bring their bounty directly to the cooperative where the managing team weighs and buys them, paying much higher than the government rate.

“We work hard, gather good quality herbs and seeds, “ says Ishwaramma. “Our life depends on this money. Why should we settle for less?”

But making a profit for the cooperative depends on producing good quality herbs quickly and efficiently – a difficult task as the women lack proper infrastructure to store or dry their produce. In addition, forests villages are very vulnerable to extreme weather, especially cyclonic storms.

According to the Disaster Management department of Andhra Pradesh state in southern India, the area has witnessed over 60 cyclones in the past 40 years, and the frequency is rising.

Using solar energy to dry their herbs has helped the women minimise risks of damage. In 2013, their forest was hit by five big cyclones – Mahasen. Phailin, Helen, Lehar and Madi. Yet the group didn’t lose much of their produce.

“Before a storm approaches, we try to dry as much of the herbs as possible and quickly pack them,” says Jambulamma. “We no longer need to leave them in the courtyard to dry.”

With drying and packaging no longer under weather, the group is now focusing on building a network of regular buyers, which would help them break even.

Bhagya Lakshmi, programme manager at the Kovel Foundation which connects the women with herbal product manufacturers, agrees. “They have already got their first big client which is a Bangalore-based herbal pharmaceutical company called Natural Remedies Private Limited. Currently, they are buying kalmegh in bulk quantity. We are trying to find more firms who will buy other products from them.”

Besides establishing a clientele, the women are planning to upgrade their technology. Krupa Shanti heads five forest villages in the area. Shanti says she is proud of the women’s cooperative and would like to see it grow bigger.

The government has installed a solar photo voltaic station at a nearby school that can convert and store solar power. Shanti is lobbying authorities to install one such station in her village.

“The government has so many welfare schemes. But for forest women like us, the best scheme is one that will help us become economically independent. If the government installs a solar charging station in each of our villages, we can expand this business and change our future.”

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Vegetable Gardens Ease Poverty in El Salvador Mon, 03 Mar 2014 20:41:08 +0000 Edgardo Ayala and Tomas Andreu Agronomist Francisco Ramírez, a member of the Cuscatlán vegetable producers’ cooperative, and his family, in one of the greenhouses where they grow tomatoes. Credit: Tomás Andréu/IPS

Agronomist Francisco Ramírez, a member of the Cuscatlán vegetable producers’ cooperative, and his family, in one of the greenhouses where they grow tomatoes. Credit: Tomás Andréu/IPS

By Edgardo Ayala and Tomás Andréu
EL CARMEN, El Salvador, Mar 3 2014 (IPS)

Vegetable growing is flourishing in Cuscatlán, the smallest department in the tiny country of El Salvador, with the help of a national programme to promote family agriculture and lift hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty.

On one and a half hectares of land, four of the Ramírez brothers used to grow only maize, without much expertise. Today they sell fruit and vegetables to the Walmart transnational chain.

They were determined to make the most of the Family Agriculture Plan (PAF), launched by the government in February 2011 to give support to more than 300,000 producers, improve their yields and incomes and fight hunger.

Government technicians trained the Ramírez brothers in horticulture and the creation and management of a cooperative. They learned to build greenhouses to control pests and rainfall, as well as dropwise irrigation techniques.

Entrenched poverty

The policy of the centre-left government of President Mauricio Funes is being supported by several regional and international organisations, as part of a wider fight against poverty, which has had some successes in this country of 6.3 million people.

• 34.5 percent of households are poor
• 8.94 percent of households are extremely poor
• 43.3 percent of rural households are poor
• In 2009, 37.8 percent of households were poor and 12 percent were extremely poor.

Source: Multi-Purpose Household Survey, El Salvador Ministry of Economy, May 2013.
The Asociación Cooperativa de Producción Agropecuaria Hortaliceros de Cuscatlán (Cuscatlán vegetable producers’ cooperative) was founded in 2013. It already has 18 members and is one of several that supply national and transnational supermarkets.

In the canton of Santa Lucía belonging to the municipality of El Carmen, the cooperative produces tomatoes, chili peppers, squash, pumpkin, sweet potato, bananas and guavas. Production gradually increased, and so did the families’ incomes.

“I like to work the land that belongs to us, instead of being in a ‘maquila’ (export assembly plant) earning next to nothing,” Andrea Beltrán, the wife of Francisco Ramírez, told IPS as she sorted foods before packaging them.

Her husband was walking along the rows of tomato plants, followed by his three children, checking the colour and ripeness of each fruit.

The cooperative makes three food deliveries a week to supermarkets in El Salvador owned by the U.S. corporation Walmart, generating monthly sales of 12,500 dollars.

Its members share the greenhouses and irrigation system, and each farmer grows their own produce, delivering what they harvest to a collection centre which handles sales and distribution to the markets.

The more a member produces, the more he or she earns, unlike traditional cooperatives in which all income goes into a central fund which is distributed equally between the members.

“The cooperative started with four brothers, and since then our family concern has grown,” said Francisco Ramírez, who has graduated as an agronomist.

The PAF is directed at two main sectors, very poor subsistence farmers and other farmers who, while still poor, have introduced some improvements and have some excess crops for sale, a group comprising some 60,000 producers.

The Ramírez brothers are among this group of poor rural people who nevertheless have a small plot of land that has allowed them to produce enough to pay for Francisco’s studies at the University of El Salvador, which is virtually free.

Another advantage the cooperative has is the Collection and Services Centre (CAS), which also handles produce from other cooperatives in the area, and carries out quality and hygiene monitoring before sending the products to their final sales points.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the country has 35 CASs funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), which up until late 2013 benefited 45,000 producers.

Lorena Guadalupe Fabián joined the cooperative two years ago, at no cost. Previously her life consisted of buying products and re-selling them in street markets.

“I would leave for work at three in the morning and get back at seven at night, but the PAF changed my life,” she told IPS.

She has received training “that has been very useful.” And now she grows vegetables, but also takes part in quality control, and the reception and dispatch of produce. “I am not only a member, I also have a job,” she said.

“Only yesterday, we sold Walmart 2,000 chilis,” she said enthusiastically.

Another beneficiary is José Arnoldo. He looks after the planting and harvesting, has a steady job, and has become an expert on treating produce, especially in the use of agrochemicals.

The cooperative is a few steps away from becoming a supplier to Súper Selectos, the largest supermarket chain in El Salvador.

It is also negotiating with ALBA Alimentos (ALBA Foods), a subsidiary of ALBA Petróleos, an initiative born of an agreement between mayors’ offices in the hands of the governing (formerly insurgent) Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA, and which is broadening its scope to other fields.

“Now we have to carry on growing a lot more,” said Francisco Ramírez.

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Ghana’s Small Women’s Savings Groups Have Big Impact Fri, 28 Feb 2014 09:22:23 +0000 Albert Oppong-Ansah Dunwaa Soayare, 45, shows her savings book that tracks her weekly contributions to the Asong-taaba Women’s Group, a cooperative in Denugu, Upper East Region, northern Ghana. Credit: Albert Oppong-Ansah/IPS

Dunwaa Soayare, 45, shows her savings book that tracks her weekly contributions to the Asong-taaba Women’s Group, a cooperative in Denugu, Upper East Region, northern Ghana. Credit: Albert Oppong-Ansah/IPS

By Albert Oppong-Ansah
DENUGU, Ghana, Feb 28 2014 (IPS)

Dunwaa Soayare, 45, a smallholder farmer, widow and mother of five had the sort of economic profile that meant she was denied access to credit from Ghana’s mainstream banking institutions.

She had no collateral, no bank account and found it impossible to provide three meals a day for her children, let alone ensure that they stayed in school.

But after joining the Asong-taaba Women’s Group, a cooperative in Denugu, Upper East Region, northern Ghana, her life has changed dramatically. Not only has she been able to provide for her family by moving them from their mud hut into the brick house she built, she’s also been able to provide tertiary education for children and has seen two of them qualify as teachers.  “This is a small project with a big impact…even though we are poor we can save." -- Solomon Atinga, programme manager of the Presbyterian Agricultural Station at Garu Tempane

“Aside from taking care of my children’s education I have expanded my farming from half a hectare to two hectares. I now cultivate one hectare of maize, half a hectare of millet as well as half a hectare of groundnut,” she told IPS.

Soayare explained that from one hectare of land she harvests 15  bags of 84 kilograms each, which she sells for 70,000 Ghana Cedis (380 dollars) – a huge sum.

The group, which started in 2008, raised 5,000 dollars at the end of 2013 from the weekly contribution of its 25 members – almost all smallholder farmers and the breadwinners in their families.

Every Monday, the women meet under a shea tree and pay their contributions of between 50 cents to five dollars. They are allowed to apply for a loan, which many use to fund alternative businesses if their crops fail.

For Soayare it’s meant that she and her family are no longer vulnerable during the lean season. In Upper East Region the rainy season usually starts in May and ends in October. However, changes in the weather pattern now mean that the rains fall much later.

So when the rains don’t come, instead of suffering through a crop failure, Soayare borrows money from the group and makes soap and buys vegetables for resale.

“I don’t know what I would have done without this savings initiative,” Soayare said.

But Asong-taaba is one of 500 groups in the district that involve almost 12,000 people, mostly women, scattered across the Garu Tempane district in Upper East Region. These cooperatives were started under a Care International project called Enhanced Savings and Credit Association for Poverty Eradication.

Soayare and these thousands of women are living better lives thanks to the savings cooperatives.

A Ghana Statistics Services 2011 survey shows that 31 percent of households in Ghana are headed by women. Regional director of the National Population Council, Zangbalum-Bomahe Amadu, said that due to polygamous practices in northern Ghana some men refuse to take care of their children, often leaving the burden to the women.

“The situation becomes bad if the man dies…most women, who are mostly illiterate in the rural areas strive to take care of almost all the needs of their children,” he told IPS.

Musah Abubakari, deputy coordinating director of Garu Tempane district, told IPS that the cooperatives have helped reduce poverty among many families in the area.

“Most of them are engaged in different forms of economic activities. Many of them are concerned about the education of their children, so school enrolment has also increased in the last three years,” he said.

Collins Kyei Boafoh, an outreach specialist at the Agricultural Cooperative Development International/Volunteers in Overseas Cooperative Assistance (ACDI/VOCA), told IPS that the village savings and loans concept played a critical role in the livelihoods of women and was also a climate change adaptation measure.

“It is an open secret that for the past five years the savannah belt of Ghana, consisting of Northern, Upper East and Upper West regions, continue to experience low rains and long drought periods. This is not supportive of farming, which employs about 80 percent of people in the region,” he explained.

Boafoh said the women’s cooperatives are now using their funds to venture into other activities like petty trading to supplement their incomes.

“After the short farming periods, the women gather their monies in the form of community savings and offer themselves petty loans for trading, aggregation and processing. This gives them a sustained income and job security,” he said.

Boafoh suggested that the initiative must be adopted, modernised and expanded by the government as a poverty-reduction initiative in the four poorest regions in the country namely Northern, Upper East, Upper West and Central Regions.

Solomon Atinga is programme manager of the Presbyterian Agricultural Station at Garu Tempane – another Care International cooperative.

He said the initiative, which extends to about 100 communities in the district, has had a positive impact on the lives of women here. They are able to take care of their children and support their extended family members.

“In fact the living standard of the women and their families has improved tremendously,” he added.

“This is a small project with a big impact…even though we are poor, we can save. The least amount a group usually raises at the end of the year is 2,000 dollars,” he said.

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World Bank Arm Admits Wrongs in Honduras Loan Fri, 24 Jan 2014 01:18:03 +0000 Jim Lobe By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Jan 24 2014 (IPS)

In an unusual statement, the World Bank’s private-sector arm has threatened to cancel a controversial investment in a Honduran palm oil company that has been implicated in serious human rights abuses, including numerous killings, over the past five years.

A member of the Aguan Valley Palm Producers Association holds the fruit from which palm oil is extracted. Credit: USDA/cc by 2.0

A member of the Aguan Valley Palm Producers Association holds the fruit from which palm oil is extracted. Credit: USDA/cc by 2.0

The statement came two weeks after the release of a damning report by the Office of the Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman (CAO) of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) that concluded, among other things, that Bank officials should have raised serious questions about the alleged complicity in those abuses by Corporacion Dinant before approving a 30- million-dollar loan to the company in 2008.

The company, which is owned by Miguel Facusse Barjum, “the wealthiest, most powerful businessman in the country,” according to a State Department cable obtained by Wikileaks, is based in the lower AguanValley, a region populated by hundreds of campesino cooperatives established there as a result of a far-reaching land-reform programme initiated in the 1960s.

Conflicts over Dinant’s efforts to buy up these communities’ lands under a 1992 law designed to favour the country’s burgeoning privately-owned agro-export industry, account for many of the abuses.

Since the 2009 military coup, which ousted a pro-reform president and which was reportedly backed by Facusse, nearly 100 people – mostly campesinos, as well as some Dinant employees – have been killed in the valley, according to press reports, although Rights Action, a Washington-based group that has closely monitored the conflict, estimates the campesino death toll at “well over one hundred.”

“IFC has not disbursed funds to Dinant since 2009, and will not disburse further funding until Dinant fulfills its commitments in the Action Plan (worked out between the IFC and Dinant in light of the ombudsman’s report), including strengthening its community engagement and environmental and social standards, and reviewing its security practices,” the IFC said.

“Should Dinant fail to meet these commitments, IFC stands prepared to exercise all remedies available, including cancelling the loan,” according to the statement, which also promised to “refine” its action plan to take account of recent criticism by international and Honduran civil-society organisations (CSOs) and “reflect on” internal problems that led to mistakes.

While many CSOs welcomed the IFC’s latest statement, comparing it favourably to the agency’s initial, more ambiguous reaction to the CAO report, they said it still fell short of what is required to redress the situation.

“The only real difference from its previous statement is that they explicitly said the possibility of cutting off the loan remains open if the action plan is not complied with,” Annie Bird, who directs Rights Action, told IPS.

“The action plan that the IFC is proposing is completely inadequate. People are going into hiding, afraid of being killed, and entire communities remain in constant fear of being evicted from their land. And the IFC really isn’t doing anything to do about it. It’s just calling on the Dinant Corp to work with the government.”

Her disappointment was echoed by Berta Caceres, co-ordinator of the Honduras-based Indigenous Lenca organisation (COPINH). “There is a risk that the situation of violence and impunity which exists in the Bajo Aguan will repeat itself in the future, if the World Bank does not investigate this company’s activities nor consult indigenous communities, farmers, and Garifunas,” she said.

The original 30-million-dollar loan – part of a 100 million dollar package that included Germany’s development bank, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration — was signed in April 2009 to fund expansion of Dinant’s snacks and edible-oils processing facilities.

In November 2009 – four months after the military coup that ousted elected President Manuel Zelaya – the IFC disbursed 15 million dollars in support of the project.

One year later, a coalition of CSOs asked the CAO to audit the project and its implementation in light of the human-rights situation in the valley.

The German development bank cancelled its 20 million dollar loan in 2011 after one rights group, Food First Information and Action Network (FIAN), submitted “evidence of the involvement of private security forces hired by Dinant and other companies owned by Miguel Facusse in human rights abuses and, in particular, in the murder of peasants in Bajo Aguan.”

In its 72-page report, the CAO concluded that IFC staff had violated the agency’s own rules by failing to undertake due diligence in assessing and responding to risks of violence and forced evictions and to consult adequately with the agency’s environmental and social specialists on the project.

These deficiencies, it found, were in part due to its culture and incentive system that effectively encouraged staff to “overlook, fail to articulate, or even conceal potential environmental, social, and conflict related risks.”

“IFC has important policies to protect human rights and the environment,” noted Jessica Evans, senior international financial institutions researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “But the Dinant case shows that staff treat them as optional. That needs to avoid more tragic outcomes.”

In response, the IFC took issue with some findings but agreed with others and set forth an “Action Plan” which was immediately denounced by most of the CSOs, including HRW, as inadequate. Their reaction, as well as negative international media coverage, reportedly triggered the Bank board’s demand that the agency revise its plan – details of which have not been disclosed — and issue a new statement.

The statement differs mainly from the IFC’s initial reaction in the apologetic tone it assumes, stressing, for example, that it “acknowledges that there were shortcomings in how we implemented our environmental and social policies and procedures…

“As noted in the audit, IFC must take a broad view of the country and sector risks when considering projects. Additionally, we need to pay more attention to a client’s security practices and preparedness in fragile country situations,” it said.

But its contrite tone failed to appease the CSOs or some Honduras experts.

The IFC’s reliance on the Honduran government in resolving the land conflicts and addressing the human-rights situation made little sense, according to Dana Frank, a Honduras specialist at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

“There’s a reason why the national government is not intervening in the Aguan valley to stop these killings of campesinos and why there’s complete impunity for the security forces and private security guards who have been killing them,” she told IPS. “It’s because Facusse is a formidable power in the national state.”

Indeed, the Facusse family, of which he, at age 90, is considered the partriarch, is widely seen as the most important and influential in what is essentially an oligarchic system.

Rights Action’s Bird also complained about the inadequacy of the response, insisting that the IFC should not only cancel the loan but also work with the affected communities to redress the abuses they have suffered.

She also complained that the IDB, whose own private-sector facility, the Inter-American Investment Corporation (IIC), had participated in the loans to Dinant, has never audited its own performance. “Instead, the IDB is initiating a 60 million dollar loan to create a police intelligence unit that human rights organisations in Honduras are screaming about because the security forces there are out of control,” she said.

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Digital Age Demands Educational Transformation, World Forum Says Fri, 24 Jan 2014 00:54:09 +0000 Clarinha Glock Participants in a panel on “Pedagogy, territories and resistance” at the World Education Forum in the Brazilian city of Canoas. Credit: Clarinha Glock/IPS

Participants in a panel on “Pedagogy, territories and resistance” at the World Education Forum in the Brazilian city of Canoas. Credit: Clarinha Glock/IPS

By Clarinha Glock
CANOAS, Brazil, Jan 24 2014 (IPS)

The challenges of the digital age call for schools to develop an alternative model of education, with teachers who incorporate new technology and employ a more critical pedagogy, participants said at the Fórum Mundial de Educaçao (World Education Forum) in this southern Brazilian city.

Guadalupe Jover, a Spanish education expert, told IPS that information and communication technologies (ICT) must be used as a tool for building collective knowledge through pedagogical renewal, and not to perpetuate the worst aspects of the prevailing educational system.

“We are talking here about the offensive strategies of the markets aimed at those who want to be involved in education, that is, sales through ICT,” said Jover, the coordinator of Spain’s Platform of Citizens for Public Schools in Spain, at the forum held Jan. 21-23 in Canoas, 19 km from Porto Alegre, the state capital of Rio Grande do Sul.

In suffocatingly hot weather, more than 4,000 participants from 13 countries debated the forum’s central theme: “Pedagogy, Metropolitan Regions and Peripheries,” holding three plenary meetings and working groups on six sub-themes.

Porto Alegre was the cradle of the World Social Forum, an alternative movement which first met in 2001 under the slogan “Another World Is Possible.” Thousands of social organisations and movements from all over the world participate in its meetings, which are held in different regions of the developing South.

Jover was a panellist at the meeting on “Pedagogy, Territories and Resistance,” which discussed the problems posed by present-day curricula and the prevailing neoliberal concept that students should be trained to satisfy the needs of the market.

Jaume Martínez Bonafé of the University of Valencia, Spain, told IPS that “pedagogy continues to be autistic, obsolete, because previously the whole world was explained in classrooms, whereas now the focus is on the major commercial hubs.”

His concern, he said, is that ICT “will only change the tools without altering educational content.”

According to educators from different regions, ideally curricula should contribute to the growth of persons and their emancipation, as proposed by Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire (1921-1997), one of the most innovative educational theorists of the 20th century, who did for education what Liberation Theology did for the Catholic Church.

His influential ideas heralded alternative education, through unorthodox formulas of learning based on freedom, and through his concern for promoting equality through education and increasing access to schooling for the oppressed.

Two Argentine educators inspired by Freire, Carla Azul Cassineiro and Laura Mombelli, travelled a long distance from their country to participate in the forum. Cassineiro teaches physical education and and Mombelli accounting. They are both popular educators in La Cava, Argentina’s second largest shanty town, in Buenos Aires.

Their students have access to the digital world, but many of their families see their devices and want them to buy food and get jobs, creating conflict and violence, they told IPS.

Cassineiro said the government Universal Child Allowance programme, which over the past five years has paid Argentine families with incomes of less than the minimum wage 31 dollars a month for each child, on condition that they attend school, has “helped integration and social containment.”

While Latin America is the second most urbanised world region, in Africa the school population is 60 percent rural, Aidil de Carvalho Borges, project manager for educational reform in Cape Verde, told IPS.

“This accentuates every kind of inequality, especially in relation to technology, which is only available in the cities,” she said. This hinders what ought to be a priority in education, that is, “for all children to have the same rights, no matter where they live.”

“Needs and demands are growing constantly,” said the Cape Verde education ministry official. “In some countries there may be one or two politicians who want to change the situation, but I think only radical social movements can bring about changes, or at least concessions, in education.”

Moacir Gadotti, the head of the Paulo Freire Institute, said that “schools need to discuss the kind of country they want, the kind of neighbourhood they want; there must be no fear of being free.”

He talked about the new Brazilian phenomenon of “rolezinhos”, in which large groups of young people from disadvantaged or peripheral areas occupy leisure spaces, especially shopping malls, after some of them, mostly Afro-Brazilian and poor, were expelled from one of these malls in São Paulo in late 2013.

“These young people have aspirations, they want to participate in the new Brazil,” Gadotti said. “Young people are connected to the social networks and this is something that politicians often do not understand or pay attention to.”

Popular educator Alberto Croce, the founder and president of Fundación SES in Argentina which promotes social inclusion of young people with limited resources, believes that the “rolezinhos” are a way of defying the system, connecting the movement with protests against educational and social exclusion in countries like Chile or Colombia.

Croce said that it is true that poor people are now better off in Latin America, but it is also true that inequality has increased in this region, the most unequal in the world.

The differences between educational models in big city schools and those in the poor suburbs is, in a way, a reflection of the contradictions of that inequality, he said.

The general run of schools prioritise the neoliberal model of preparing students for the labour market, but in the shanty towns and poorer districts there is resistance to this model because it discriminates against them and makes them invisible.

“One of the keys to education is respect for diversity. When education values cultural differences, integrates and incorporates them, then we can talk of quality education,” Croce said.

“Digital inclusion is a phenomenon that is present” in society, he said. Previously, young people wanted fashionable shoes, “but now they want to buy cell phones; there has definitely been a change, because access to technology is valued.”

In his view, young people have chosen mobile phones, the most personal device, to access ICT. “Inclusion is limited, but it has without doubt created a transformation,” Croce said.

It is a transformation that education cannot turn its back on, said participants at the Canoas forum, in debates on topics such as “Education as a human right,” “Education, environment and sustainability,” “Education in the emerging paradigm,” and “Education, diversity and inclusion.”

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Seedpods Worth More than Gold in Argentina’s Arid North Thu, 02 Jan 2014 15:48:21 +0000 Fabiana Frayssinet Teolinda Coronel gathers ‘algarroba’ pods with her granddaughter in San Gerónimo, Santiago del Estero. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

Teolinda Coronel gathers ‘algarroba’ pods with her granddaughter in San Gerónimo, Santiago del Estero. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

By Fabiana Frayssinet
GUANACO SOMBRIANA, Argentina , Jan 2 2014 (IPS)

Tired of the drought driving away their men and killing their livestock, the women of Guanaco Sombriana, a town in northern Argentina, have found a new source of income by using the seedpods of native trees that up to now merely provided shade in this arid landscape.

The football pitch is a graphic symbol of this semiarid region in the department of Atamisqui, 120 km south of Santiago del Estero, the capital of the province of the same name.

Two goalposts made of dry branches are set amidst the thin vegetation of cactus plants and low bushes on the white saline soil of this rural district of some 10,000 people.

The empty, unused pitch reflects a bleak reality: the players – husbands, brothers, sons and fathers – have gone off again to find seasonal work, this time harvesting maize and blueberries, in the south of the country.

“I have been left on my own with my seven kids for up to eight months a year,” says Graciela Sauco. “To get by I raised cows, baby goats, baby pigs and chickens. We would sell them, and have something left for our own consumption. But because of this drought we’ve been suffering for the past two years, many animals have died.”

Locals say this is the worst drought they have seen in a decade. There is no money for fodder, and the animals die as the farmers look on, helpless. They are poor, with farms up to 50 hectares in size, passed down through the generations but without legal title deeds.

Nor can they plant squash or maize to feed the livestock, as they used to, because there is no water.

“I would like my sons to have better work, so they wouldn’t have to go so far away. I miss them,” says Sauco, between sobs.

Eleuteria Ledesma says “My last son left today for the maize harvest in Buenos Aires. They live in prefabricated little houses, they suffer from the heat and sleep on cots.”

For the year-end holidays, “they didn’t give them permission to come home” – making things even sadder for the women of Guanaco Sombriana.

But now there is a new feeling of hope in the air.

A decade ago the women organised, setting up the Association of Small Farmers of Salinas Atamisqueñas (APPSA Guanaco), which today groups 80 families in this village of 566 people.

It wasn’t easy at the beginning, says Lastenio Castaño, an extension worker with the agriculture ministry’s Undersecretariat of Family Farming.

“Sometimes there’s no water, not even for people’s consumption, let alone for the livestock or for watering crops,” he says. “The only thing that can be raised here are goats. But even though they are hardy animals, a lot of goats have died in the last few years.”

Nor does the local flora – scrub forest consisting of open, low vegetation – offer many alternatives “for any kind of productive enterprise,” he tells Tierramérica. “There is very little variety of species.”

But the local farmers hope the adobe shed they built will be “a place to store harvested wild fruits and pods as well as grains, to provide balanced feed for their livestock,” Castaño says.

APPSA, with support from the Undersecretariat and from the Unit for Rural Change (UCAR), also has a small mill to produce flour from the seedpods of the ‘algarrobo blanco’ (Prosopis alba), known in English as the Argentine mesquite or white carob tree, and the ‘algarrobo negro’ (Prosopis nigra), the black mesquite or black carob tree – typical native trees that even appear in the Santiago de Estero provincial folk songs.

In the past, the seedpods were only used in Guanaco Sombriana as livestock fodder when times were tough. But the members of the Association took courses on how to produce flour and baked goods using the pods, which are popular now in organic food markets and shops.

The flour is aromatic and sweet, with a taste similar to cacao, and is rich in fibre, protein, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, iron, pectin, tannins and vitamins.

“We used to grind up the pods with a mortar and pestle,” says Lili Farías. “But with the new mill, we can grind up a lot really quickly. Not just the pods, but anything we want to grind, including maize.”

Tierramérica is visiting the APPSA building on a busy day in December, in the middle of harvest season.

A pickup truck full of bags of seedpods pulls up outside the building. The Association now has enough funds to buy harvested pods from other villages.

The women weigh the bags and keep the accounts in a small notebook. Others grind the pods, in a race against time. Temperatures can get up to 50 degrees C at this time of year – the southern hemisphere summer – and the pods can be full of pests, they explain.

To keep their accounts, they use the calculators on their cell-phones, “which are only good for this, and for taking pictures, because we have no signal here,” complains Marcela Leguizamón.

Each member of the Association brings a bottle of water from their well. The women are drinking mate – a traditional caffeinated herbal brew that is popular in Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay – and celebrating the milling of some 2,000 kg of flour.

“This has been a very important step for the Association, which has grown and has become more independent; we now have funds to work with,” says Claudia Rojas. “We used to get by with our member fees, and by holding raffles. Now, with the sales of the flour, we bring in a profit.”

Castaño says they need to improve the distribution and transportation of their products, as well as access to basic services like electricity and piped water.

But APPSA has become an important local interlocutor, bringing grievances and demands to the authorities.

With a revolving fund of around 21,000 dollars for Guanaco Sombriana and other communities, APPSA is able to buy livestock fodder and grant micro-loans for projects like building corrals and digging wells.

The revolving fund is financed by UCAR’s Rural Areas Development Programme, an initiative with national scope aimed at strengthening “social and productive cohesion” among small farming communities, with an emphasis on local and regional economies.

APPSA’s members dream of having computers “to keep records of everything, because papers sometimes get mislaid,” says Leguizamón.

The incomes of local families have begun to improve. The extra money is spent on food, clothing or motorcycles, the mode of transport par excellence in this region, where roads are often impassable.

“We are seeing that young people who usually go off to find work as migrant farmworkers are starting to stay here to work with the harvested pods,” says Farías. “Why go somewhere else to work the land, when they can take advantage of what we have here?”

An estimated 75 percent of Argentina’s territory is drylands, and 40 percent of that portion is showing signs of desertification.

The government wants to extend the project to other regions where the white and black carob trees grow.

A similar initiative is being carried out in San Gerónimo, in the neighbouring department of Loreto.

Teolinda Coronel and her daughter, niece and granddaughter are heading out to the countryside to harvest seedpods at 6:30 AM.

“We bring the thermos and drink mate, and come back at midday,” she says. “By that time each one of us has gathered 35 kg or more.” They head back out at 5:00 PM, when the scorching sun has lost some of its glare.

She hopes her sons will come back. With what they earn as migrant farmworkers, “they can’t even pay their bills.” But with the income from the seedpods, they have been able to buy clothes and shoes, and to help their mothers.

The tour through the areas where the carob pods are almost worth their weight in gold ends at a table with pastries and cakes, washed down with ‘aloja’, a mildly intoxicating beverage made from the pods, and the thick, sweet syrup made from the fruit of the chañar (Geoffroea decorticans), another native tree.

The pods also bring other kinds of benefits that aren’t jotted down in the notebooks.

“I used to be stressed out at home, thinking about how to earn a little money, and now people come to my house to buy my products, and I’ve seen other places and met other people,” says Graciela Ardiles, a farmer from the town of Arraga, who used to bring in some money cleaning other people’s houses.

“Now I have my own independent job. And my kids will be able to get an education, which I wasn’t able to do,” she adds.

* This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.

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Rebuilding Lives Skilfully Fri, 27 Dec 2013 08:34:01 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai Women who lost their menfok in terror attacks develop new skills to rebuild their lives. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS.

Women who lost their menfok in terror attacks develop new skills to rebuild their lives. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS.

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Dec 27 2013 (IPS)

Farhat Bibi, 43, was left to fend for her three young sons after her husband was killed in a bomb attack in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) three years ago. A few days later, she landed at a camp for people displaced by violence. “The camp proved to be a blessing in disguise,” she says.

“It helped me learn skills and now I earn enough to buy clothes, food and fulfil the other needs of my children,” she recalls. She embroiders clothes and makes cushions, bags, wicker baskets, bracelets and other ornaments, earning around 150 dollars a month.

“I am also teaching these skills to other tribal women,” Farhat Bibi tells IPS.

The works of 100 displaced women like her were showcased at an exhibition here titled ‘Hunnarmande Guthey’ (skilful fingers). The colourful array of products on display belied the tragic past of the hands that made them.Most of the women displaced from Orakzai Agency due to military action have lost their men and desperately need help."

The show was organised by the NGO Centre of Excellence for Rural  Development (CERD) in collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It presented handicrafts made by women from Kurram Agency in FATA who now live at the New Durrani Camp, home to 29,607 displaced families.

Violence has played out in FATA, bordering Afghanistan, ever since Taliban militants moved there after the fall of their government in Kabul in 2001. As a frontline ally of the U.S. in the war on terror, Pakistan has carried out military operations there.

CERD coordinator Kashif Islam, citing UNHCR statistics, says about two million people have been displaced from FATA. “Women constitute 50 percent of the displaced population. They need vocational training to empower them,” Islam tells IPS.

Caught in the conflict, many FATA residents have fled to the adjacent Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

“We have been imparting training to 200 women every month in Hangu district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Most of the women displaced from Orakzai Agency due to military action have lost their men and desperately need help,” Islam says.

He says women widowed by the conflict in FATA are the main beneficiaries of their UNHCR-sponsored endeavour. “We hold exhibitions every month to seek markets for these handicrafts which depict the skill and creativity of displaced FATA women,” he tells IPS.

Visitors to these shows are left marvelling at the creativity and grit of these women. Most of them are illiterate. Many of them were worried and depressed when they arrived at the camps, but they have learnt to look ahead.

Jamila Bibi, a 33-year-old woman from North Waziristan Agency, is one of them. She was devastated when her father was killed by a stray bullet. But the camp gave her courage.

She learnt embroidery, sewing and other skills and now supports her two sisters, a brother and a widowed mother. Sitting at a stall displaying her wicker baskets and trays, Jamila Bibi says had she not come to the camp, she would have been begging on the streets.

“I supply handicrafts to a nearby market. It has brought respectability to our lives as we are no longer dependent on charity and handouts by NGOs,” says Jamila Bibi.

Saeeda Gul, a CERD trainer, says the displaced women are trained before being provided raw materials.

“They come to three community centres near the camps where they learn to make things with wicker,” says Gul. “The women are very happy with their newly acquired skills because it helps them earn a living in a decent way,” she says.

Most of the women start from scratch, picking up the skills at the community centres.

Shukria Khan, a trainer, says “We just help them make the products in a more professional way and give them three months of training, besides raw materials.” The women are required to be at the community centre for four hours every day.

Khan says the women show a keen interest in fine-tuning their skills and making good quality handicrafts.

And the efforts don’t go unrewarded.

Aziz-ur-Rehman, a local businessman, says he displays the handicrafts at his showroom. “The items reflect the creativity and skills of tribal women and mostly manage to find buyers,” he tells IPS.

It is heartening to see that these women haven’t given up despite the harsh reality of their lives, he says. “The training has brought dignity to their lives. They are more empowered now.”

Buyers lap up these handicrafts because they are high on aesthetics and are inexpensive, he says. “Some items like handmade clothes also sell out fast.”

Kashmala Shah, a tribal woman from Kurram Agency who benefited from the programme, has now opened her own centre where she is training 30 women.

Shah says the displaced women now hope for a better future for themselves and their families. She tells IPS, “I lost my father and brother in the conflict but that doesn’t mean I should sit idle and wait for charity. It is a big opportunity and we are seizing it.”

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In Haiti, Planting Trees Is No Simple Matter Fri, 29 Nov 2013 16:48:57 +0000 Correspondents Agronomist Ludson Lafontant looking at one of the recently constructed ledges during a visit to Doucet in August 2013. It contains a young mango tree plant, a grass plant, and peanut plants. Photo: HGW/Milo Milfort

Agronomist Ludson Lafontant looking at one of the recently constructed ledges during a visit to Doucet in August 2013. It contains a young mango tree plant, a grass plant, and peanut plants. Photo: HGW/Milo Milfort

By Correspondents
Doucet, Petit-Goâve, HAITI, Nov 29 2013 (Haiti Grassroots Watch)

Reforestation and soil conservation programmes costing many thousands of dollars in this rural community have resulted in hundreds of small ledges built of straw or sacks of earth. In certain areas, the earthworks seem to be lasting, but in others, they are disintegrating.

The construction and destruction of the anti-erosion ledges – all made with foreign development and humanitarian money – offer an example of how at least some of Haiti’s reforestation projects turn out.No matter what promises were made, a farmer will always be concerned with the immediate need of feeding and clothing his or her family first.

In the years since the 2010 earthquake, the 11th and 12th communal sections of Petit-Goâve, located 60 kilometres southwest of the capital, have hosted several soil conservation and agricultural programmes with budgets in the tens and even hundreds of thousands.

The U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), Helvetas and Action Agro Allemande (AAA), sometimes working with a local development organisation – Mouvman Kole Zepòl (MKOZE) – oversaw projects aimed at rehabilitating the watershed of the Ladigue River.

The steep slopes around the river “are very vulnerable to water erosion and mudslides,” MKOZE explained in a report on one project that had a budget of 91,534 dollars. “During rainy season, the waters from the Ladigue River dump a lot of sediment and rocks at the river’s mouth, destroying fields and causing homes to flood. Sometimes harvests, homes, animals and even human lives are lost.”

In the Petit-Goâve region, deforestation started about a half-century ago, according to many residents. It began with the devastating 1963 Hurricane Flora, which caused great damage and over 5,000 deaths in Haiti’s western and southern regions.

Molière Jean Félix, 62, remembers. “There were a lot of mango trees at the top of this mountain. We grew corn and rice. Now you can’t even plant Congo beans there,” recalled the farmer.

Haiti has less than three percent tree cover, down from about 60 percent a century ago, and perhaps 80 percent when Christopher Columbus first disembarked. In Haiti, trees are cut down primarily for fuel.

Most energy consumed in the country for cooking, industrial bakeries and dry cleaning – in fact, 75 percent of all energy used comes from wood and charcoal, according to government figures.

Missteps to Learn From

A few observers noted some bad choices made in the projects. For example, although Louis Calixte worked for AAA as a technician, he thinks the structures will not last.

“Some of the structures are good, but others are not good because of the kind of tree they planted. You can’t just plant a mango any old place. You have to plant it in a certain environment, where it will flourish. The same goes for eucalyptus. You can’t put it in a place meant to produce food,” Calixte explained.

After visiting many of the hillsides, agronomist Ludson Lafontant noted that some of the the techniques used offer advantages. For example, the dried grass used for some of the ledges will eventually decompose and serve as compost for weeds. However, the agronomist agreed that eucalyptus is not the best choice for reforestation.

“All plants use water,” he said. “But these kinds of plants – eucalyptus and also neem – I would not put them near rivers or wells or farmers’ fields. They suck up all the water around them.”

Félix sees tree-cutting almost every day. “Today, young people don’t have any way to make a living. They don’t produce coffee, they don’t raise pigs. So, they cut down trees in order to send their children to school,” he said.

In Doucet, as well as other parts of Haiti, foreign organisations often fund projects where local residents overseen by technicians are paid 200 to 300 gourdes a day (4.65-6.98 dollars) to build ledges made of sacks of dirt, dried reeds and wattle. The ledges are then planted with tree seedlings.

In addition to assisting with reforestation, development organisations also see the projects – known as “Cash for Work” (CFW) in English – as a kind of post-disaster emergency income programme.

“[CFW] helps us hire a lot of families and assures that they get a minimal revenue. This provides immediate assistance and is therefore a real advantage,” AAA’s Beate Maas told Haiti Grassroots Watch (HGW).

Reforestation vs. everyday needs

All around Doucet, many hills are decorated with hundreds of the new little ledges holding seedlings of fruit or eucalyptus trees. But there are many others where the ledges are disintegrating: mud is spilling out, and the saplings are dead or dying.

Farmers have planted peanuts, peas and other crops around the structures. In a few months, the hillsides will be as naked as they were before the reforestation project.

Ilomène Tataille is a mother, a landowner and a member of one of the voluntary committees set up to keep an eye on the ledges and the new plants, to assure that animals don’t eat them and to make sure the ledges are drained after each rainfall. Another task, she explained, is to make sure farmers don’t plant anything on the eroding slopes, and especially not peanuts, a popular crop in the region.

According to Tataille, even though the CFW workers and landowners all agreed at first not to disturb the hillsides, it is almost impossible to stop people from farming. Even she breaks her promise.

“Yes, I plant there also. We live in a very dry region. We can only farm peanuts. That is our profession. Sorry, but we don’t have any other job,” she said.

Tataille noted that another problem is the fact that landowners lease out their land, so even if they have made promises to AAA and MKOZE, they can’t force their tenants to follow suit.

Staff who work on the projects are aware of the vicious-circle element.

Agronomist Esther Paynis was a consultant to AAA for a project carried out with MKOZE between September 2012 and August 2013.

“We told people not to plant peanuts and other crops that involve digging into the earth, like yam and sweet potato. In the training sessions we held, everyone promised to respect those principles,” Paynis told HGW in a Sep. 30 email.

“If we give them advice that they later ignore, that’s not our fault. We told them the disadvantages of planting peanuts and how that could lead to the total degradation of the zone.”

During a visit in August 2013, journalists saw many young peanut plants on a number of hillsides near the ledges. Two months later, in October, many recently made structures on those same hillsides were in various states of disintegration. Many had been destroyed and tree saplings and other plants were dead, either drowned or buried by earth, both the result of the lack of maintenance.

One reason might be because the committees are voluntary.

“The committees don’t have any support. Some people agree to work for free, but others do not,” Junior Joseph, a member of a local peasant association, explained. “That’s when the structures deteriorate.”

In order to get an independent opinion, HGW consulted an agronomist who had not worked on the project. Agronomist Ludson Lafontant agreed with some of the criticism voiced by local farmers.

Reforestation is necessary but failure to implicate local farmers is a big problem, he said. No matter what promises were made, a farmer will always be concerned with the immediate need of feeding and clothing his or her family first.

Lave men siyè a tè?”

During a visit in August 2013, Lafontant said he feared the reforestation project would be another example of wasted money, of the Haitian proverb “Lave men siyè a tè,” which means “wash your hands, dry them on the ground.”

But Lafontant also criticised the population and the government.

“I always say we ought to love ourselves more than others love us. In other words, the non-governmental organisations come here, they write projects, they look for the money and they do the project,” he said.

“The money has to be justified so they can be proud to say they have worked on a X number of hectares, built contours on a Y square metres of land and given Z number of people jobs. That’s how they justify their money. But whose problem is it? Whose country is it? It’s ours, here in our home. We need to become conscious of that.”

Haiti Grassroots Watch is a partnership of AlterPresse, the Society of the Animation of Social Communication (SAKS), the Network of Women Community Radio Broadcasters (REFRAKA), community radio stations from the Association of Haitian Community Media and students from the Journalism Laboratory at the State University of Haiti.

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Private Initiative Finds Garbage Profitable in Cuba Wed, 23 Oct 2013 12:33:02 +0000 Patricia Grogg A waste picker unloads empty soda cans at the San José de las Lajas recycling cooperative in Mayabeque province. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

A waste picker unloads empty soda cans at the San José de las Lajas recycling cooperative in Mayabeque province. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Patricia Grogg
HAVANA, Oct 23 2013 (IPS)

As self-employment and cooperatives expand in socialist Cuba, they are making incursions into new areas, such as waste picking and recycling – for many a means of subsistence, but for others, a gold mine.

“Pitusa” said the trash thrown out by the people of Havana is an inexhaustible source of useful materials. “I don’t waste anything – I collect, select, clean and keep for myself when I need it,” said this middle-aged Cuban who uses discarded components to fix windows or make “multi-functional” furniture.

“I’m 43 years old and I’ve been working in recycling for 19 years,” he told Tierramérica*, after asking to be identified merely as Pitusa, because he does not have a permit to be a self-employed worker or “cuentapropista”.

“I do so many different things that I wouldn’t know how to register and pay taxes,” he said, to justify his lack of a permit.

He said the garbage yielded everything from broken furniture to bottles, glass, plastic tubes, steel pipes, fishing reels, or old sofas, doors and windows. “Nothing is completely useless, although to make a new piece of furniture from a piece of junk isn’t easy. For me it’s an artistic thing to give a use to something that was abandoned and no one wants anymore,” he said, with a touch of pride.

Pitusa is a “buzo”, as waste pickers who salvage reusable or recyclable materials are known in Cuba.

“At this time there are 5,800 recoverers with cuentapropista permits, but we know that there are many more who aren’t registered,” said Marilyn Ramos, assistant director general of the Unión de Empresas de Recuperación de Materias Primas (UERMP) – the state association of companies that salvage raw materials, which recycles scavenged trash.

Odilia Ferro has dedicated herself to collecting and selling recyclable waste – “legally” she stresses – for the past 20 years in San José de las Lajas, the municipal seat in Mayabeque, a province that borders Havana.

“Sometimes I go out on the streets and look for stuff myself. But because people know that I work in this, they come to my house to sell things to me,” she told Tierramérica.

She buys aluminium, bronze, steel, plastic and empty rum or beer bottles. Until July she sold them to the state-run salvage company of Mayabeque, which has since then become a cooperative of nine members, four of whom are women.

“The good thing is that now they always have money to buy what you bring them, and in cash,” Ferro said.

In Cuba’s centralised economy, for many years cooperatives were only allowed in agriculture. But in mid-2013, the government of Raúl Castro made it possible to establish cooperatives in other areas, as part of wider reforms to boost “prosperous, sustainable socialism.”

Of the first 124 cooperatives established outside of agriculture, two are involved in salvaging waste materials.

The government’s aim is for each of the country’s 168 municipalities to have a waste recovery cooperative.

Ramos said the UERMP association is not equipped to go door to door collecting recyclable waste materials. That task is left to the growing private sector, while the state reserves for itself the large sources of recoverable waste products, she explained in an interview with Tierramérica.

Ignoring the stigma traditionally faced by waste pickers, Eida Pérez, a 39-year-old accountant, has found the recovery of waste materials to be surprisingly lucrative. In just two months, the cooperative she heads earned a profit of 14,750 dollars. (The average salary in Cuba is 19 dollars a month.)

“Three years ago, we couldn’t imagine this could happen” she said. Pérez said her cooperative is moving towards labour autonomy, overcoming fears and obstacles from a recent past when people only did what was indicated “from above.”

“We have increased the products we recover…Now we see ourselves as more efficient, and at an advantage compared to the state companies, because I don’t face restrictions. We operate in cash, we can pay more if the product merits it, lease our trucks and hire the services of cuentapropistas,” she said.

“We earn a 50 percent profit on all of the products we buy,” Pérez added. Her fellow cooperative members, who elected her as president, hope to reach the end of the year with a strong profit margin. But in the last two months they have already managed to pay off the initial interest-free loan of 5,400 dollars.

At the start, most of the new cooperatives were created on the initiative of the state, which later handed operations over to employees.

“It’s a bad way to start, because one basic principle of these forms of business management is individual enterprise,” an economist who preferred to remain anonymous told Tierramérica.

But in Ramos’s view, “the benefit is double. We increased the recovery of recyclable waste materials and kept them from going into the dump – in other words, there’s also an environmental impact.

There are 986 garbage dumps in Cuba, which received just over 5.3 million tonnes of trash in 2012, according to the government statistics office.

In the past year, around 420,000 tonnes of waste were recovered, including steel, cast iron, lead, bronze, aluminium, paper, cardboard, plastic, textiles, electronic scrap and glass bottles.

These products were exported or sold to national industries, like the metallurgical industry, wire and cable production factories or paper and cardboard companies.

If local industry had had to import these materials, it would have cost the country 120 million dollars, Ramos said. “We want to increasingly industrialise this work and increase the value added of recycled products.”

The UERMP recycling association wants to foment the creation of provincial cooperatives that would carry out “at least basic” processing of waste products, Ramos said. Today there are only two garbage separating plants.

The ideal thing, she admitted, would be to get households to classify their own garbage. But that achievement, which would require heavy investment, is still a far-off dream for Cuba.

* This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.

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Building a Better World, One Block at a Time Tue, 08 Oct 2013 21:58:59 +0000 Stephen Leahy The Bristol pound. Credit: Mark Simmons/IPS

The Bristol pound. Credit: Mark Simmons/IPS

By Stephen Leahy
NANTES, France, Oct 8 2013 (IPS)

One evening in the small village of Ashton Hayes in Cheshire, England, someone started a conversation about climate change and energy at the local pub. It was 2005. Two years later, residents had cut their carbon dioxide emissions and energy costs by 20 percent.

Ashton Hayes now aims to be England’s first carbon-neutral community."What we're doing could apply to thousands of cities and towns. And we have lots of parties and fun doing it." -- Bristol's Mayor George Ferguson

“People know major changes have to be made in the face of climate change and resource depletion,” said Rob Hopkins, one of founders of the Transition Town movement in which local people get together to find ways to make their streets and neighbourhoods more sustainable.

“It started with friends and neighbours saying ‘what can we do as ordinary people knowing that our governments are not going to sort it out,’” Hopkins told IPS.

Plagued by a mounting trash problem, residents of the South African community of Greyton jammed trash into plastic bottles to make ‘ecobricks’. These make good building material with a high insulation value, and are now being used to construct things like toilet blocks in Greyton.

In Portugal, where unemployment is over 20 percent and wages are depressed, the transition movement is focused on reducing the need to use money. One small town banned money for three days. People shared or exchanged services instead.

“We can make things happen,” said Hopkins, who is author of the book “Power of Just Doing Stuff – How local action can change the world”.

There are now over 1,000 communities involved in Transition Towns, a volunteer, non-profit movement. These communities are inventing their own ways to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels while increasing local resilience and self-sufficiency in food, water, energy, culture and wellness.

According to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2000+page report released Sep. 30, temperatures between 1983 and 2012 were the warmest they have been in the past 1,400 years in the Northern Hemisphere.

The cautiously-worded report details observed impacts such as increased temperatures, precipitation changes, weather extremes and more. It also confirms that these and other impacts will worsen as CO2 emissions increase.

“Cities have the biggest role to play in getting to zero carbon,” said George Ferguson, the mayor of Bristol, a city of half a million people in the UK.

“Bristol emphasises active transport, walking and cycling and we plan to double our tree canopy. We want to improve air quality and the health of residents,” Ferguson told IPS.

One of the first Transition Towns, the city is a living lab for ideas and experiments in creating an ecocity for everyone, he said. Cars are banned on many streets between 3:00 and 5:00 pm to allow children to reclaim them for play. That’s sparked a street-play movement in many other communities.

Bristol is also the recycling champion of Britain and plans to launch a city-owned sustainable energy company. Beginning next year school children will learn about ecology by determining where and what kinds of trees they will plant in their neighbourhoods as part of an annual city-funded greening effort.

“The children will teach their parents important eco-lessons, I believe,” Ferguson said.

He takes his entire salary in the local alternative currency called the Bristol pound. It can only be spent at local businesses.

“I bought my bike, my pants, my food and got my hair cut using the Bristol pound,” he said.

There are over 400 alternative currencies in use around the world and the number is growing quickly in response to globalisation and corporate domination of many businesses. While residents can pay their local taxes in Bristol pounds, the corporate-owned supermarkets won’t accept it, he said.

This summer Bristol was rewarded for its efforts, becoming the European Green Capital for 2015, the first British city to win.

“What we’re doing could apply to thousands of cities and towns. And we have lots of parties and fun doing it,” said Ferguson.

Saint-Gilles-Du-Mene is a rural French village in Brittany that was losing residents and failing economically. It decided to reinvent itself as a community-owned net energy producer. Today, using a combination of wind, solar, biomass and biodigesters and improved housing insulation, it produces 30 percent of its own energy. By 2025, residents hope to sell energy to other communities.

“Our energy transformation has created new jobs and synergies. We have a new video-conferencing facility and produce our own biodiesel for farm tractors,” said Celine Bilsson of the village’s renewable energy commission.

Bilsson said her village was inspired by the example of the Austrian town of Güssing, a once-poor town that was the first in Europe to operate completely on renewable energy in the late 1990s. It cut its energy use 50 percent through efficiency and now makes millions of euros selling renewable energy to others.

“We didn’t spend time doing studies. We just reacted. You just do it,” Bilsson said.

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Homeless Again Fri, 04 Oct 2013 22:01:57 +0000 Ines Benitez Families and activists protest the Oct. 3 eviction from the Buenaventura squatter community. Credit: Inés Benítez/IPS

Families and activists protest the Oct. 3 eviction from the Buenaventura squatter community. Credit: Inés Benítez/IPS

By Inés Benítez
MÁLAGA, Spain , Oct 4 2013 (IPS)

A police cordon kept everyone out of the Buenaventura “corrala” on Thursday after the police evicted 13 families living in the occupied building in the centre of this southern Spanish city early in the morning.

“Tonight we’ll sleep at a friend’s house. I don’t have any work or money. We have to start over again from scratch, and it’s really complicated,” Catalina González, 39, told IPS, crying.

The families, who have been living here since February, unable to afford other housing, have a total of 12 children between them.

The corralas are communities of squatters that have emerged in crisis-stricken Spain in the last few years, as foreclosures and evictions have skyrocketed due to the housing and mortgage crisis.A total of 362,776 people in Spain lost their homes because of mortgage arrears and foreclosures between 2008 and 2012. -- Platform for Mortgage Victims

The term corrala refers to the galleried tenement buildings with common courtyards and shared services that proliferated in working-class neighbourhoods in Spain’s cities in the 16th to 19th centuries, and has been adopted to stress the sense of community in the occupied buildings.

González, who comes from Barcelona in the northeast, sought shelter in one of the apartments in Buenaventura, a four-storey block of flats, two months ago. She had just arrived from Italy, fleeing her husband who she said mistreated her sons, four-year-old Leónidas and three-year-old Manuel.

The children were playing, sitting on the ground with their two dogs, near a police van while several officers tried to reach, with the help of fire fighters, three activists who were resisting the eviction order and protesting from their perch on the rooftop of the building.

Dozens of people who have been evicted, members of social movements like Stop Desahucios (Stop Evictions), the 15M “indignados” movement, and squatters from other corralas in Málaga gathered for several hours in the street under intermittent rainfall, chanting slogans like “people without a home, homes without people, how can this be?” or “another eviction, another occupation”, until the authorities arrested several activists and left.

The Buenaventura building belonged to the Bankinter bank, which acquired it after the construction company went under and sold it – complete with families living in some of the apartments – to Gestiones Hospedalia, a real estate company.

There are some 3.5 million vacant housing units in this country of 47 million people, equivalent to 14 percent of the housing stock, and 700,000 of them are in the southern region of Andalusia, according to the National Institute of Statistics (INE).

Although most of the people who were occupying the Buenaventura apartments have found a place to stay for the time being, “some families have nowhere to go,” José Cosín, a local lawyer, told IPS.

Cósín is an activist with the Platform for Mortgage Victims (PAH), which helps block evictions and foreclosures and repairs empty buildings to provide housing for people in need, while trying to negotiate social rents.

Montse, who has an 11-year-old daughter and preferred not to give her last name, told IPS that she was going to live in a trailer.

Andrés Clemente said he would ask a friend if he could stay in his garage again.

Carolina, who also wanted to remain anonymous, and her children will stay for now at a friend’s place in the La Suerte corrala – another occupied building.

Since the start of the economic crisis in 2007, the number of occupied buildings has soared. Many of the buildings are brand-new, and owned by banks or real estate companies.

The squatters in Buenaventura held months-long talks with the local and regional authorities, the bank and the company that owns the building.

“But in the end we got nowhere. They’ve been fooling around with us, and merely referred us to the social services,” said Leticia Gómez, 32, who was living in the corrala because she “had nowhere to go” after breaking up with her partner.

The Málaga city government gave each family evicted from the corrala an average of 1,000 euros (1,362 dollars) to cover the cost of rent for the first few months. But those who received the payment say it is not enough help, and are asking for the empty units to be converted into affordable housing, where each family pays according to their income.

“They gave me 900 euros (1,226 dollars) for three months rent. And after that what am I supposed to do? We’ll be back on the streets again,” said Yuli Fajardo, 42, hugging her cinnamon-coloured dog.

José Manuel, standing next to her, said he would occupy an apartment in another empty building. He described how early that morning, the police broke through a human chain that had formed around the corrala to prevent the eviction operation.

Finding a place to rent is not easy for these people, who often have no guarantor to sign for them and no formal job, and who can’t afford to put down a deposit of several months’ rent.

Some of the people who were evicted complained that the police used excessive force and “tore the doors off.”

The police, however, told IPS that the operation “went normally.”

“Even the heavens are crying for us,” Kira Vela, 37, exclaimed when she heard thunder.

Vela ended up in Buenaventura after she lost her home in the Málaga neighbourhood of Ciudad Jardín because she got behind on her mortgage payments. One of her three children, Yolanda, was also living in the corrala with her one-year-old baby.

A total of 362,776 people in Spain lost their homes because of mortgage arrears and foreclosures between 2008 and 2012, according to a report by PAH.

So far, the organisation has managed to block 757 evictions and has rehoused 712 people.

Soaring unemployment, which stands at over 26 percent in Spain – the highest rate in Europe after Greece – has led many families to lose their homes when they are unable to meet rent or mortgage payments. Dozens of people have committed suicide because of the evictions.

“There are many empty homes,” Carmen Gil, who lives near Buenaventura, commented to IPS while watching the protesters shout at a dozen police officers posted at the entry to the building. “They should give them to these families with kids. It’s not a crisis, it’s a scam.”

A number of the people evicted from the building have been out of work for years. Many of them used to work in the construction industry.

“If I could afford to pay rent, I would,” Clemente, a carpenter, told IPS.

In April, the government of the autonomous region of Andalusía, where Málaga is located, approved a decree-law on the social function of housing, establishing the need for a stock of social housing units.

The regional law also provides for the temporary expropriation – for a period of three years – of the housing units of families facing imminent eviction, “in cases where there is a risk of social exclusion or a threat to the physical or mental health of persons.”

“Why do we have to leave?” eight-year-old José asked his mother Silvia, who was holding him and his six-year-old sister Esther by the hand during a protest demanding “the right to a roof over our heads” the day before the eviction.

In May, the legislators of the governing right-wing People’s Party (PP) passed a law containing measures to strengthen protection for mortgage-holders, make more affordable housing available, and require banks to renegotiate mortgages.

The law was originally based on two bills: one presented by the executive branch, and the other by PAH, which collected 1.5 million signatures and presented a “popular legislative initiative” to Congress.

But the PAH proposals were eliminated from the final version of the bill.

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“Bring What You Want, Take What You Want” Sun, 08 Sep 2013 12:12:10 +0000 Marcela Valente Nothing is for sale at this street market in Plaza Italia, in the Palermo district of Buenos Aires. Credit: Juan Moseinco/IPS

Nothing is for sale at this street market in Plaza Italia, in the Palermo district of Buenos Aires. Credit: Juan Moseinco/IPS

By Marcela Valente
BUENOS AIRES, Sep 8 2013 (IPS)

Disillusioned with an economy that promotes individualism and ruthless consumption, thousands of people in Argentina are giving things away in street markets, organising car pools with strangers or offering free accommodation to travellers from abroad.

These are early trends in this South American country, but they are expanding, based on Web 2.0 platforms. Users share a concern for the environment and a rejection of consumerism. But they also have a desire to strengthen a sense of community and trust.

“We need much less than we consume. The basis of our street markets is detachment, the need to free ourselves from the concept of private ownership,” said Ariel Rodríguez, the creator of La Gratiferia (The Free Market) which operates under the slogan: “Bring what you want (or nothing), take what you want (or nothing).”

Launched in 2010, the first market was in Rodríguez’s home, in the Buenos Aires district of Liniers. Rodríguez offered friends and neighbours books, CDs, clothes, furniture and other goods that he had accumulated and didn’t need. He offered food and beverages as well.

In time, people began to follow his lead. He recalls that the 13th market “went out on the street and exploded” with dissemination on social networks. “This breaks with traditional mindsets,” Rodríguez said. Visitors are initially incredulous, in doubt about whether or not they can really take things without leaving something else in exchange.

People can come to a gratiferia with the stuff they wish to get rid of, and they do not have to worry about whether someone will take it. The idea is that someone will be interested in extending items’ useful life, instead of buying new goods.

“It’s a reorganisation of material objects that also generates an interesting kind of socialisation, by creating a sense of community,” Rodríguez said.

Gratiferias have spread to cities in some of the provinces, as well as to Chile, Mexico and other countries, he said.

This free give-and-take, according to Rodríguez, did not arise during a situation of crisis, like the bartering systems that were so popular during the 2001-2002 economic and social meltdown. “This is an attempt to respond to a much longer crisis in our relationship with material goods,” he said.

The practice has caught on in other areas. At the University of Buenos Aires engineering department, a group of students is offering lecture notes and study materials at a free fair this month.

“The idea is in the spirit of the gratiferias, and it should be a wider movement involving other departments, but for the moment we are trying to establish it in engineering,” Santiago Trejo, one of the students organising the fair, told Tierramérica*.

These are original forms of “collaborative consumption”, an expression coined in the United States to describe mechanisms for sharing or exchanging electrical appliances, books, clothes, shoes, instruments, furniture, bicycles and even cars.

In 2011, Time magazine named collaborative consumption one of the 10 ideas capable of changing the world.

Similar ideas have emerged among people who regard travel as not just going to another part of the world, but having a human and social experience with people who live in a different country.

“When I went to Europe I stayed at hostels, and when I came home I realised I hadn’t much idea of how people lived in those countries, or what they thought of ours,” 24-year-old Aranzazú Dobantón, who is working and studying film, told Tierramérica.

Four years ago, she uploaded her profile on Couchsurfing, an international platform that puts people willing to host foreign visitors in touch with would-be travellers. The exchange involves no money: just sharing a roof, and the experience.

The local group has 5,000 registered users.

“So far I have hosted about 15 people from different parts of the world, many of them from Denmark, and also from Mexico, the Philippines, France, and a Turkish person who lived in Germany,” Dobantón said.

As the hostess, she sets the conditions. She and the potential guest correspond by e-mail, and once the visitor is in Buenos Aires they meet first in a public place.

“The visitors are very willing. Sometimes I cook for them, sometimes they prepare the food. They realise it’s not easy to look after guests when I’m working. But they are ordinary people, with the same concerns that I have, although the reality of where they live is different,” she said.

The visitors later write on the website about how they felt staying at her home, and these comments encourage other people to make the same trip – or not. Dobantón, in turn, can use the network to stay at someone’s home when she wants to travel. So far she has only tried out the system in neighbouring Uruguay.

Collaborative consumption is growing so big in the United States that the brokerage and financial services firm ConvergEx wrote an article claiming it could have “catastrophic” ripple effects on the economy.

Carpooling has grown the most in Argentina. With the aim of saving money and cutting down on pollution and traffic congestion, a number of platforms exist to connect people willing to share a car, the journey and the expenses.

“Vayamos juntos” and “En Camello” are two of the Argentine networks where interested parties publish their offer or requirements for point-to-point journeys. Some just want to share rides from home to work, while others wish to travel from one province to another, or go to a concert or football match.

In other countries, like Mexico, there are different forms of shared transport, such as multi-user cars which provide access to a vehicle when needed for an hourly rate, or a monthly or annual subscription. As with public bicycles, cars are picked up in one parking lot and left in another.

In Argentina, each of the options already has thousands of registered users.

This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.

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