Faced with nationwide unemployment rates of 14%, and poverty levels of 33%
what´s a municipality to do? The city of Rosario, Argentina’s third largest
city with a population of 1.3 million, has developed some innovative responses
to address the effects of Argentina’s economic crisis. Instead of resorting to
privatization, the municipality is trying to redevelop the economy based upon
local means while encouraging a cooperative as opposed to a capitalistic
In 2001, the municipality opened the office of the
Solidarity Economy. The basic goal of the department is to create and promote a
city economy based on principles of solidarity and social equity. As Luis
Martinez, the sub secretary for Solidarity Economy explains, this involves five
- Educating and working with unemployed people to help
them develop and maintain democratically run cooperative enterprises. (e.g.
educational workshops and training in cooperative management)
-Developing new forms of production and financing for
these solidarity enterprises. (e.g. a communal warehouse for supplies,
exclusive discounted loans)
-Working with the media and communication networks to
develop a new consumer mentality based on solidarity principles. (e.g.
community bulletins, public advertising)
-Developing municipal legislation that makes it easier for
solidarity enterprises to operate successfully. (e.g. making registration
easier, tax exemptions)
-Establishing and legitimizing the new solidarity economy.
(e.g. developing and evaluating indicators to measure progress)
The Program for Food Production and the Office of
Cooperative and Mutual Action are two programs run by the Office of the
Solidarity Economy that incorporate the above activities.
Cristian, a resident of a shantytown in Rosario, is a
participant in the Program for Food Production. After he shares with me some of
the challenges of meeting consumer demand with his resources and his plans to
expand and improve his enterprise, I tell him that he sounds like businessman
and he smiles self-consciously hiding a touch of pride. Having completed two
years of secondary education, it seemed unlikely that he would one day have his
own business. In 2002, however, by attending a series of classes organized by
the Program for Food Production, he learned how to make a variety of jams and
jellies and preserve them in sanitized jars.
The Program for Food Production provides training in
producing and selling foods such as: preserves, dried pasta, breads, desserts,
flavored liqueurs and chocolates. The Program promotes cooperative action and
discourages competition among the resulting enterprises. For example, the
municipality sets equal prices for like products and encourages businesses to
buy supplies in bulk together.
The municipality facilitates the development of these
small businesses by providing small subsidies at the early stages of the
business and adapting its local ordinances. Because the national food inspection
program is inaccessible to these small, often family-based, businesses, the
municipality created its own food certification program and sends its own
inspectors to monitor the kitchens of participants in the Program.
To assist in providing a market for the goods, the
municipality organizes seven weekly fairs held in public squares in prime city
locations. The municipality provides specially designed checked tablecloths,
matching aprons, headscarves and bright yellow tarps, and even transports the
products to the fairs. At these fairs, participants in the Program for Food
Production sell their goods alongside produce grown in Rosario’s urban
Cristian sells his products at two of the weekly fairs,
though the majority of his business comes from selling his products to friends
and people in his community. Now Cristian is even starting to exchange his
products for fruits that he can transform into preserves. When I asked him what
he has learned from his experience with the Program for Food Production he
replied, “It’s helped me be more solidario.”
Creating a culture of solidarity is also one of the goals
of the Office of Cooperatives and Mutual Action. The work of the Office
encompasses two projects: facilitating development of new cooperatives and
acting as a liaison between cooperatives and the municipality.
Unemployed workers regularly come into the six-person
basement Office of Cooperatives and Mutual Action following rumors of job
opportunities. While the office does not provide jobs, it does provide
trainings and services. Once a group of six people has been assembled who are
interested in forming a cooperative (though not all parties may even be sure
what that means) the office arranges a series of workshops.
Workshops guide participants in identifying their skills,
evaluating the market, and deciding what services their enterprise will offer.
Training courses are also needed, because “the notion of capitalism is
ingrained,” explained Juan Martin Atencio, a legal intern in the Office.
Participants learn that a cooperative is a business that is jointly owned and
democratically controlled, based on the values of mutual aid, responsibility,
democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. The municipality provides a
handbook, containing this definition as well as a chart identifying the
differences between a capitalist business model and a cooperative one. The
trainings also cover the history of cooperatives and the laws governing
cooperatives in Argentina. The training can take up to two months depending
upon the level of education of the participants.
Once the training process has been completed, the office
helps the participants complete the paperwork required by national and
provincial governments to register cooperatives (a service private lawyers
often charge 500 pesos for). Though the fledging businesses must pay filing
fees and taxes, the municipality does provide subsidies to them to purchase
In addition to providing trainings, the Office of
Cooperatives and Mutual Action serves as a liaison between cooperatives and
municipal offices. According to a local ordinance, municipal offices must opt
to contract with a cooperative if one exists that supplies the need. When a
government office needs to hire a painter, electrician, plumber, landscaper, or
cleaning service, for example, they write a letter of request to the Office,
who puts them in touch with a cooperative that can provide the service. This is
the only program of its kind in Argentina.
The Office also ensures that members of the cooperative
will do the work and that the cooperatives´ papers are in order. In 2004, the
municipality made 412 contracts with approximately 45 different cooperatively
run businesses. The total value of the contracts was 2,060,00 pesos. As the
number of coops is growing at a faster rate than the number of government
contracts available, the city is beginning to promote cooperatives to the
private sector, meeting with trade associations such as the hospitality
industry encouraging them to contract with cooperatives.
Through the Program for Food Production and the Office of
Cooperatives and Mutual Action, the Office of the Solidarity Economy of the
municipality of Rosario is trying to integrate the most vulnerable members of
Rosario´s population into an economic system based on fairness and equity.
Though there are limits to the municipality’s power -- for instance, products
made as part of the solidarity economy still sell for more than their
mass-produced counterparts sold at supermarket chains -- the programs of the
solidarity economy are promoting dignified work for the under and un-employed,
based on an alternative to the capitalist model.
Article reprinted from www.upsidedownworld.org
Renate Lunn is currently traveling in Latin America.
Read her travel blog at http://linesofflight.net/isittravel/