Potosi, Bolivia: photo Gerd Breitenbach
Cerro Rico, known to the Spanish conquistadores as the world's richest mine, was sacred to indigeneous Quechua as Sumaj Orko, the Majestic Mountain; it is said to have financed the growth of the Spanish empire, the building of the British Navy, the conquests of Napoleon, and the first two World Wars. It is also known as 'the mountain that eats men' where eight million natives and uncounted African slaves died. Today, the mountain is on the verge of collapsing because of the warren of mines crisscrossing its center, and every rainfall causes rivulets of toxic effluent to flow down its surface, endangering the health of the local population—over 75 percent of whom are considered poor and 45 percent, “extremely poor"... despite this atmosphere of poverty and oppression, many are turning to “green” and “cooperative” business as models for their future economies. Locals see this process as a recuperation of ancient ways. (1)
La Paz, Bolivia
photo © Clifton Ross
Consider, for example, Mama Naturaleza, a "green" cafe in the tourist district of Bolivia's capital. Manager Gabriela Gemio believes that with this family-run enterprise, she can restrain, if not reverse, the cycle of exploitation and environmental destruction. The furniture in the café is all made of regional pine wood, the interior is lit with low-energy light bulbs, and most of the food is organically grown on the Gemio farm, in the hills above La Paz. Lettuce and spinach are grown in greenhouses (called “walipinis”) covered with clear plastic, which maintain a relatively warm temperature even during the cold nights at 12,000 feet above sea level. To protect the plants from the intense mid-day sun, Hector has improvised a screen made up of a thin layer of dirt laid over the plastic, which is easily rinsed off when needed. Crops requiring higher temperatures are grown in underground greenhouses, called “sayari.” Hector learned agriculture from his elders growing up in Los Yungas, a semi-tropical region east of La Paz populated by the descendents of escaped African slaves from Potosi. In Los Yungas he learned to make insecticides from tobacco and llama manure...Running a truly green business in a Third World country is not easy, admits Gabriela. She cannot afford cardboard containers for packaging food which have to be imported at a cost that Gemio cannot afford. There is also the local custom of serving drinks with plastic straws. “I hate to use plastic,” admits Gemio, but she feels she has no other choice. (1)
Green jobs in Venezuela
In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez wants to revive Bolivar's dream of a united and independent Latin America, based on the “bioeconomics” and "endogenous development" ideas of Chilean economist Osvaldo Sunkel's Development from Within. Chavez says he is moving from the “capitalism of Judas,” towards the “socialism of Jesus.” A key component of his Bolivarian revolution is the formation of green co-ops. In the last decade, over 120,000 have been funded from oil revenues.
La Matoma neighbourhood co-op repairs streets in Caracas
Chavez regularly calls on the cooperatives to share their profits with the most needy in their communities, but such calls to altruism have never really worked in any other context to effectively eliminate poverty and are unlikely to produce results even in Venezuela. Still, cooperatives based on sustainable development and an economic orientation that works with, rather than against, nature can only be seen as an improvement over what existed before. (1)
Bottom-up development by NUDES
Under Núcleos de Desarrollo Endógeno (NUDES), which translates as "nuclei of endogenous development", communities develop their own proposals. Both the leadership and the decisions come from within the community... Secondary cooperatives grow up around the primary nucleus. Campesinos in the corn-growing state of Guárico organized to share equipment and knowledge, built a mill and produced “arepas,” thick Venezuelan corn cakes. agricultural cooperative. In this "green" system of bottom-up development, a crop is grown, processed, sold, and consumed locally. Any surplus is sold to bring in cash for other necessities. (1)
The Cooperativa Cinco Aguilas Blancas (Five White Eagles Cooperative) is named for the five snow-covered mountain peaks that surround Merida. 15 women started this cooperative internet cafe, open seven days a week with two shifts of workers per day. (Each member gets one day off per week.) They learned skills in Vuelvan Caras, the Bolivarian government's job-training program, then got a loan from Banmujer, the Venezuelan women's bank. Profits from the café have been low, and the president of the co-op, admits that most of their income comes from the Internet center. Each woman makes under $10 U.S. per day. It is difficult to imagine 15 working class Venezuelan women being able to put together the roughly $30,000 U.S. dollars they needed to start the cafe. The “easy credit” provided at low or no interest has meant that each of the women had only to invest an initial (largely symbolic) amount of 10,000 bolivares, or about $5.00 U.S. (1)
Vuelvan caras: turn your faces
Surrounded by Spaniards in the war of independence, a rebel general ordered his troops to "vuelven caras"... stop being the victim, turn and attack the enemy. The new enemy is unemployment. Zaida Rosas, a grandmother of 15, works in the newly constructed textile co-op Venezuela Avanza, employing 209 barrio women. Most were formerly jobless. Their homes on the surrounding steep hillsides in west Caracas were almost all self-built. Zaida works seven hours a day, five days a week, for $117 a month, much less than the state minimum wage of $188. The cooperativistas voted this policy "so we can pay back our [government start-up] loan," she explained regretfully. As in most producer co-ops, they are not paid a salary, but an advance on profits. "We hope our working conditions will improve with time," she said. The Ministry of Popular Economy (MINEP, now renamed MINEC) had given them small scholarships to train in cooperativism, production, and accounting. Says Zaida proudly, "My family is a lot happier—I've learned to write and have my 3rd grade certificate." Her factory is is now also part of a larger local web: two producer co-ops, both built by a local bricklayers' cooperative, that, along with a clinic, a supermarket co-op, a school, and a community center, make up a so-called "nucleus of endogenous development." (2)
Green coops are a strategic response to the dependent and unsustainable model of resource exploitation... critics contend that they lack managerial skills, are oil-financed, with plans imposed from above. Still, by any measure, the remaining co-ops have to be considered a stunning success because they most affect those long neglected sectors of Venezuelan society: women, minorities, and the poor.
Camila Piñeiro Harnecker, who has done field research in Venezuela, reports that up to 30 percent of the MINEP co-ops may not be economically viable. Traditional cooperatives protest that the Chavez scheme is "irresponsible and opportunistic... creates cooperatives with members who don't share the proper values and corrupts them by providing easy credit and too much paternalistic aid”. the NUDES are being "used for political agendas".
Does generous government funding of cooperatives help or hinder the consolidation of worker-ownership? If financing comes too easily, if the struggle to construct the cooperative is won in a day of paperwork, is there a danger that the members might devalue the organization and not give themselves entirely to the struggle to build a worker-owned and controlled business? Anyone who has ever worked in a cooperative recognizes the crucial importance of “worker buy-in”... Otto Fernandez, an organizer and facilitator from Chiguará, talks about the need for Venezuelans to break with a paternalistic culture developed over many years. “We're used to a Daddy government stepping in to do things for us, but we need to learn to take the initiative ourselves.” Another Venezuelan put it more bluntly: “You can't expect to build an enduring cooperative movement by throwing money at it. A moth has to struggle to get out of its cocoon… if you help it, it will die... I think the same thing is true for those of us working in the [Venezuelan] cooperatives.”Ana, from Cooperativa Cinco Aguilas Blancas, disagrees with the moth analogy. They have enough of a struggle to keep their doors open each day, and “without the loans from the government and Banmujer, we wouldn't be here.” (1)
See also Camila Piñeiro Harnecker, The New Cooperative Movement in Venezuela’s Bolivarian Process Dec 2005; Venezuela and the Hackers' Revolution blog 4 Nov 04 on open-source training; the poem Caminante no hay camino / se hace camino al andar by Spanish poet Antonio Machado; Wikipedia on Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution and Bolivia's Evo Morales; Benjamin Dangl's book The Price of Fire.