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“Land, Freedom…and Cooperation!”

By Betsy Bowman

Longtime GEO editors Bob Stone and Betsy Bowman visited a budding network of co-ops in the state of Hidalgo, in central Mexico, in November, 2003 and again in June, 2004. Here is a glimpse of something hopeful and s/heroic going on right next door.

These days it takes more than “Tierra y Libertad”— Land and Freedom, the rallying cry of the Mexican revolution—for third world farmers to subsist by raising a few animals and crops. It takes planning, government funding—and cooperatives!

The Mexican state of Hidalgo is home to the Otomi Indians, descendants of the people who built the famed pre-Columbian site of Teotihuacan in the second half of the first millenium. Like half the planet's population, the Otomi have survived by practicing subsistence agriculture and living largely outside the money economy.

But increasingly, the money economy is coming to them. For instance, though education is “free” in Mexico, parents often have to buy uniforms, books, paper and pencils. They also must transport their children some distance to get to school. And, there simply aren't enough schools. Often high schools are so far away that students have to live away from home as boarders. Many families cannot afford this expense. Now, they are forming co-ops to produce cash crops to complement their subsistence lifestyle.

New law supports co-ops

Thanks to a change in Mexican law in 2001, local organizations can get government monies directly from the Department of Agriculture for cooperative development. Once the co-ops are legally registered, they can apply to the Alianza Apoyo for funds for specific projects. The government funds 70 percent of the project and the cooperativistas fund the rest.

Luis Martinez and Patricio Bravo, two local organizers, have already registered four cooperatives in the area around Luis' home town of Alfajayucan, and 15 co-ops around Patricio's home town of Chilcuautla. Luis says there are applications pending for eight more co-ops in his area and four more in Patricio's area. They have also organized a second tier co-op, the Empresa Integradora para el Desarrollo Rural or Integrated Company for Rural Development; they call it simply the Integradora. This co-op provides technical assistance such as legal and accounting help, as well as marketing assistance. The crops these farm families grow are high profit ones such as Zeta mushrooms, tomatoes, chile peppers, peaches, and olives. They raise goats and produce cheese from the milk. Higher up in the mountains is a women's co-op which makes a nutritious spread from the Maguey cactus called “miel de Maguey” or Maguey honey. (The Otomi people have one hundred different varieties of cactus!)

Big returns on modest investments

Most of the co-ops are in the early stages of development. At one co-op member's farm, we sat on a porch eating delicious tomatoes, flanked on one side by a machine which turns kernels of corn into flour, and on the other by another machine that turns the flour into dough for tortillas. From our perch we had a breath-taking view of the valley with mountains beyond it, and we could see the homes of members of the extended family who live there.

Tomatoes are an important commercial crop here. To market them, farmers need to be able to deliver a reliable volume of tomatoes, more than can be grown in just one hothouse. So they are building a second one. One of the structures is irrigated by photovoltaic panels which pump water uphill to a holding tank. The World Bank provided funds for the solar-powered pumps.

Another project, to grow chile peppers, was just a cleared field with tall metal trestles in the ground ready for the plastic covering that will transform them into a hothouse. The farmers have gotten approval for government funding, but they do not have the thirty percent matching funds they need in order to collect it. With low interest loans for rather modest amounts of money—from $2,000 to $15,000—they would quickly move from the nineteenth century into the twenty-first.

A major concern of the communities is to provide a livelihood for the young people so they won't be tempted to go to the United States to work. Some young people hope to start a rabbit co-op. So far they have a building, but not the funding they need. The teenagers need a low interest loan of only $2,000 to get their co-op going. Such modest loans can make all the difference in the world to them.

Hope grows in cooperative soil

The co-op growing Zeta mushrooms, when we visited them last November, had just lost an entire crop due to an unusual freeze. In addition to getting more fungus to start a new crop, they also need a dark room for the mushrooms' gestation period. Dona Paula, President of the co-op, explained that though she and others may not be able to read or write, they know how to work in a group and make a success of their endeavor. We were very touched by this group. I wondered to myself, “Well really, how much money would they need to get more mushroom fungus, get a heating and cooling system, and get production going?” The answer is that they need a low-interest loan of about $1,800. They have applied to the Mexican government for about $7,000; with the $1,800 match the co-op can get the government monies and be back in business.

To those of us used to a first-world standard of living, these peasant farmers appear very “poor.” Most families have neither electricity nor running water. But they are not hungry, and they work for themselves. They are not subject to a factory or plantation boss.

And the smiles on their faces and the spark in their eyes tells us that they are hopeful for the future. They are working together to meet their needs. All it will take is a little help from their friends, the world's cooperators.


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