A Brazilian Alternative to Neoliberalism: Solidarity

Brazil's Sem Terra MagazineWhen one way of thinking dominates the world, one has the impression that nothing will ever change. This is especially true when one thinks about the World Economy. In Brazil as well as other countries, to talk about dismantling capitalism is to talk heresy, principally among the conservative sectors of the society.

However, as social-political activist circles show, there are alternatives to capitalism. They demonstrate that the current economic model can be broken.

One example of this are undertakings of solidarity economy and ethical and responsible consumerism, two areas which are gaining more attention among social movements.

A solidarity economy may be defined as a way of organizing activities of production, consumption, savings and credit which work to equalize the rights of all that are involved in these activities.

These undertakings have one thing in common: decisions are made based on discussions involving all participants.

Essentially associative, solidarity economy is incompatible with typical owner-worker relationships. It uses a model of cooperatives in various areas: production, credit, training, health, education, banking, etc.

But it is necessary to point out that not all undertakings which use the name cooperative are examples of solidarity economy as many do not practice common decision-making.

How is it possible, then, that economic and consumer terms, so linked to capitalism, be considered “solidarity?” This is a question which always arises in discussions around this topic.

The National Secretary of Solidarity Economy and Work, Paul Singer, explains that the idea of economy is not synonymous with capitalism. He points out the fact that the separation between those that have property/capital and those who work for a salary is not the only way to organize economic activity.

“There are diverse modes of production: individual, familial, non-profit, and solidarity. Under the form of cooperativism, solidarity economy has already existed for 200 years in practically all countries of the world.”

Another positive aspect of solidarity economy is in the area of geography. In spite of its continental dimensions, Brazil’s economic activities are focused in very specific regions [mainly in the metropolitan areas along the coast].

“The model of the formal sector today in Brazil is a producer of concentration in income and territory because, while the economy is concentrated in determined areas, it leaves others completely out.

This is the problem, principally in a country like ours which has so many treasures but have yet to be discovered,” commented João Roberto Lopes, coordinator of The Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analysis.

However, Lopes goes on to say that solidarity economy has possibilities of mobilizing in areas that big capital cannot: the integration of the local realities into solidarity economy. This drives the development of these undertakings and encourages growth in the local communities.

One of the treasures that Lopes mentions can be found in the Association of Small Farmers of Valente Municipality (Apaeb). Localized in the semi-arid region of the state of Bahia, the cooperative is the fruit of a movement which happened at the end of the 70’s.

During that time the farmers of that region organized a march to the capital of Bahia, Salvador, and demanded for the end of a tax they were paying to sell their products in a farmer’s market.

Due to the extraordinary turnout of the march, the Bahian government gave in to their request. Amazed at their own success, the workers returned to their city and began to organize themselves into a cooperative.

Twenty years later, Apaeb has generated nearly 800 jobs, and continues to struggle for a life of dignity for men and women of the semi-arid region.

The coordinator of Apaeb, Ismael Ferreira, said that the first activity of the association was to create a selling post where the farmers and associates commercialized their products and bought others at a low prices, with the idea that no one would generate grand profits.

The next step was to organize the population to sell en masse “sisal,” which is a widely-found plant of the region whose fibers can be used to make rugs and carpets. Slowly, Apaeb began to diversify, investing in milk production and a tannery.

They also promoted workshops and activities, which helped the people become more aware of their rights and duties as citizens. According to Ferreira, 95% of the costs of their projects are paid for out of the resources of the association itself.

This is just one of the cases of successful solidarity economy in the country. There are others, like the women working in the area of palm tree production in the Northeast of the country who organized themselves to protect their plantations and to defend themselves from the pressures of local ranchers.

In the region of Médio Mearin, 300 kilometers from São Luís, capital city of Maranhão state, one group was able to acquire a press to make soap which they then export to Europe.

And the settlements of agrarian reform also have inserted themselves in this model, producing foods and helping provide a life of dignity for rural populations.

But it is not only in rural areas where solidarity economy is showing signs of success. In December of 2004, the 3rd Metropolitan Fair of Solidarity Economy was held in São Paulo.

For two days, clothes, food and artisan products made from recycled materials were on display from all solidarity economy groups from around the metropolitan area.

Kelma de Oliveira from Jardim Ângela, located on the periphery of the city, was displaying her artisan products. She has been an artist for years, but only in the last couple has she joined forces with other women in the neighbor to begin production.

“This has helped me a lot. Alone, I couldn’t do anything, but in a group, yes. In Jardim Ângela, we do a lot of good work. I even noticed that the level of violence in the neighborhood has gone down.”

In this same neighborhood, there is a project called Cosmovision Association, which promotes training courses, workshops, and seminars for the local population.

Itamar Bueno Freitas, the president of the association, commented, “We emphasize the need for each one to generate employment, and at the same time alway working to better one’s work. But the best of all is the friendships that one establishes with other people.”

This article appeared originally in the Sem Terra magazine.

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