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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Agroecology and Solidarity Economy in Ipe, Brazil (Latin America)

October 13, 2010
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In mid-August, I arrived with my small family in the south of Brazil to volunteer at a small farm family member of the non-governmental organization (NGO) Centro Ecologico, ?the Ecology Center.?  Both the farm family and the NGO are members of the Rede Ecovida, ?the Eco-Life Network.?  The Centro Ecologico is located several hours from Porto Alegre, the capital of Rio Grande do Sul state, which, because of its progressive administration and participatory budgeting, became the host city to the first World Social Forum.  The state of Rio Grande do Sul has a history of successful initiatives in social responsibility.  The Brazilian Landless Workers Movement, MST (?Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra?) was founded in the state, and earlier in the century so was the first surviving co-operative in Brazil.  Rio Grande do Sul´s capital is coastal Porto Alegre, which is located a full day?s busride south of Rio de Janeiro, and perhaps a little shorter ride to Buenos Aires in Argentina to the south.  The Rede Ecovida itself is a network of people and organizations which came to my attention in light of their pioneering work to provide low cost organic certification to its small farmer members.  Toxic pesticide use internationally is one of a complex of practices promoted by many corporations, sympathetic academics, and their political sympathizers in governments and international agencies.

                 The diverse problems caused by toxic pesticides are among the more recent of the toxic legacies of the industrial revolution.  While concerns such as those from the effects of burning coal had begun in the 17th Century, the synthetic pesticide DDT was only developed in 1939. Rachel Carson, a biologist and award-winning writer, was one of several biologists who prompted a broader public environmental movement.  While Barry Commoner spurred awareness of nuclear radiation dangers and Paul Ehrlich later that of population growth concerns, in 1962 Rachel Carson wrote of the synthetic pesticide DDT?s harmful effects following its commercial use after World War II.  Although Carson and her work were subjected to an intense smear campaign by the chemical industry and their supporters, the integrity of many lead to a U.S. ban in 1972.  Significant support for environmental issues had surrounded the efforts of Carson and the issue of DDT.  Efforts for nature protection had begun with groups like John Muir?s brainchild the Sierra Club in 1892, the 1909 international congress in Paris, the 1948 International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the first Earth Day in 1970, the founding of Greenpeace the next year, and the U.N. Stockholm Conference the year after.  

 The international organic agriculture organization the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements, IFOAM, was founded in 1974, a year reflecting the trajectory of several key events in the origin of the modern environmental movement.   Although several organizations and events had been organized in the previous 120 years, such as the founding of the U.S. Sierra Club in the 1890s and the 1909 international congress in Paris for nature protection, modern environmentalism emerged as biologists like Barry Commoner, Rachel Carson, and Paul Ehrlich began to spur wider public consciousness through their writing and speaking.  Rachel Carson?s graceful and probing report of the disastrous effects of the pesticide DDT, Earth Day in 1970, pioneering U.S. environmental legislation,  the newsworthy campaigns of Greenpeace, and the U.N. Stockholm conference were some of the key events.  Even the space race lead by the U.S.S.R.?s launching of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin involved the NASA astronauts? photos of a limited, relatively small blue planet. 

Even less well-known, but corresponding to these events nevertheless, numerous consumer food co-operatives and natural food stores were founded especially in the U.S. and Europe, and then in Japan, in the interest of promoting a healthier lifestyle, including especially the availability of organic, non-agrotoxic produce.  Better known is the 1976 founding of The Body Shop by Anita Roddick on the basis of natural ingredients and community sourcing, the rapid growth in the number of the company?s outlets, and their promotion of NGO environmental and human rights campaigns began to expand the image of progressive economic activity.  Of more recent prominence is the story of Whole Foods Markets.  By the early 1980s, the owners of a small Austin, Texas-based natural food store initiated a growth strategy which lead to the founding of the U.S. nationwide Whole Foods Markets chain and its current ventures into international markets.

                The hi-technology, industrial corporate ?Green Revolution? in agriculture following World War II had achieved certain innovations, which were promoted in such a way that an unsustainable dependence of small farmers on profit-oriented corporate suppliers was being established.  From almost 10 million tons of chemical fertilizers in 1940, farmers and agrobusiness applied more than 45 million tons in 1980.  The increases worldwide were even greater in proportion, World Bank and International Monetary Fund lending was being promoted for these and other projects. 

                In Brazil, the environmental consequences of industrial farm practices by 1985 lead a group of agricultural scientists to start a project to promote ecological agriculture.  After several years of successful testing, the scientists began to organize farmers into associations practicing ecological approaches.  By 1997, the organization?s vision had expanded to put ecological production practices in their broader social and economic contexts.  That same year, Stephen Gliessman also published a groundbreaking book, Agroecology.    They assumed their present name, Centro Ecologico, and participated in the formation of the Rede Agroecologia Ecovida, ?the Ecolife Agroecology Network.?  A significant accomplishment of the Rede Ecovida has been to arrange for a lower cost method of organic certification.       

Internationally, events corresponded to developments at the Centro Ecologico.  As these practices coincided with commodity market activity, small farmers were finding they were being paid low prices for their products.   In 1997, the international Fair Trade organization, Fairtrade Labelling Organization (FLO), was formed.  Less than a decade earlier in 1988, the first Fair Trade label was created by Dutch citizens and NGOs to promote an adequate payment and support services for agricultural products.  Concerned citizens in other industrial nations steadily followed by organizing their own NGOs and Fair Trade certifications until the 1997 founding of the FLO.  Because of the ?Green Revolution,? many farmers needed to return to the necessary farming methods along with the required fees in order to gain organic certification.  Fair Trade arrangements, including the formation of co-operative enterprises, had begun to enable small farmers to earn sufficient income to pay for organic labeling.

                The precipitating conditions of the expanded vision of the Centro Ecologico, CE, follow the formation of the World Trade Organization in 1995 and its related problems promoting corporations and their strategies and interfering with protections for small producers.  Parallel efforts to the CE resulted in the founding of the World Social Forum in 2001.   

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