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Science & Technology»Co-op Proves that the Poor Can Eat Organic, Too

»Wednesday, April 28,2010

CUENCA, Ecuador, Apr 25 (IPS) - "There is no reason why we poor people have to eat badly," says Ecuadorian farmer Juan Anguisaca. "It's not true that organic products have to be expensive. They can be profitable and within the reach of the poor," Rodrigo Aucay adds.

Anguisaca and Aucay are both members of Coopera (Cooperate), an agricultural services cooperative based in San Joaquín, a rural parish with a population of 5,000 on the outskirts of the city of Cuenca, located in the Andean mountains 440 km south of Quito.

Anguisaca works in the cooperative's collection centre, while Aucay is the general manager.

The cooperative was founded in January 2004 by eight members who contributed six dollars each, for a total of less than 50 dollars. Six years later, it now has 60,000 members and 28 million dollars in assets.

Perhaps even more remarkable is that all of this has been achieved through 100 percent organic production, as Aucay, an agricultural engineer, emphatically tells IPS.

The Coopera collection centre in San Joaquín is one of three operated by the cooperative. All of the vegetables, fruit and meat produced by the members are brought to these centres, where they are sorted, washed, packed and sent off to the cooperative's own stores in Cuenca and Guayaquil, Ecuador's most populous city.



Next to the San Joaquín collection centre there are three hectares of greenhouses equipped with drip irrigation systems. "This is where the agronomists do their crazy things," comments Aucay, proudly showing off an area where they are growing watermelons - something totally unheard of in the Ecuadorean Andes, where even the valleys are up to 2,600 metres above sea level.

"We're experimenting. They're still small," he notes, pointing to the 20-centimetre long melons.

Further along, Aucay shows us an area where chilli peppers are being dried. They will be used to make organic insecticides.

He then points to what look like mustard-yellow plastic flags placed at intervals in the plant beds where they are experimenting with different varieties of tomatoes. "There are no organic insecticides that can deal with the whiteflies that infest tomatoes, so we invented these flytraps," he explains with a smile.

The plastic is coated with a mixture of honey and gum arabic, a sort of natural glue made from tree sap. Once they are drawn there by the honey, the tiny pests are stuck for good.

"This was also our training centre, up until last year," Aucay adds, "but now we give our courses and seminars on a 20-hectare farm that has been loaned to us free of charge by the University of Azuay."

Ironically, this prestigious private university was forced to shut down its agricultural engineering programme because of a shortage of students, while Coopera can barely keep up with the demand for its organic agriculture courses, offered to cooperative members and small farmers from other organisations.

While showing us around the experimental crops being raised in the greenhouses, Aucay recounts the story of the cooperative's beginnings. It emerged from a two-year participatory planning process, headed up by the municipal government of Cuenca, aimed at formulating a rural development plan.

The local residents came to a consensus: that their second priority was to establish an agricultural services cooperative, while their first priority was transportation.

"What people wanted was to establish some sort of entity, regardless of what it was called, that could be used to 'recycle' the resources of the area in order to reinvest them in their own community, without going through the banks in the city," Anguisaca explains to IPS.

The region covered by the initiative, a valley stretching over an area of 800 hectares, of which barely 300 are arable, has historically been used for horticultural production, and has supplied the city of Cuenca with vegetables for centuries.

But as the land passed down from generation to generation of small farmers and was subdivided among the heirs, the amount of land owned by each household had progressively dwindled, to an average of only half a hectare of arable farmland per family.

"We weren't destitute, but we weren't doing very well either, and there was a clear desire to improve the situation," Rosa Parra, who works in the greenhouse as well, tells IPS.

"Essentially, all throughout 2003, the people made two things clear. The first was that they didn't want just another savings and loan cooperative, but rather some sort of institution that would provide services. One of these would be financial services, but they also wanted something that would support production, create businesses, and open up new prospects," Aucay says.

"The second thing was that among these new prospects, they wanted to pursue organic agriculture, because they were fed up with the rising prices of chemical products," he adds.

As a result, the cooperative started out with a totally new kind of approach, says Aucay, whose personal background as a small farmer himself and previous experience in agricultural cooperatives were decisive in guiding the process.

Along the way, they proved that the popular belief that organic produce is more costly is a myth. They set up experimental farms and hired agronomists committed to non-chemical farming techniques, who developed a whole range of organic fertilisers, fungicides and pesticides.

When Aucay takes us to the shipping area, we ask him if the various packaged goods, such as jars of jam, were sold to supermarkets. "No way," he replies. "Why would we want to give away our profit margin to the supermarkets?"

Coopera recognised the need to operate its own sales outlets early on. It started out in Cuenca, then moved to the western province of Guayas, on the Pacific coast, and particularly the poor neighbourhoods of the provincial capital, Guayaquil, with a total population of 2.2 million.

"I had worked in a cooperative in Naranjal (in the province of Guayas), and so we first tried it out with them. Coopera merged with that cooperative in 2007, and we have been able to complement each other's respective production and distribution chains," Aucay says.

Coopera''s model of making organic agriculture profitable by offering high-quality products at affordable prices was consolidated through a decision made by the cooperative in its first years of operation: that its main market would be the poor.

"We not only involve citizens in their own development, by rejecting paternalism and clientelism, but also strive to provide the greatest possible benefits to our customers, by offering them food that is healthy and safe," Aucay adds.

In addition to his role as general manager of Coopera, Aucay is also president of the National Network of Popular and Solidarity Financing, made up of 12 smaller networks that each encompass dozens of cooperatives, associations and foundations.

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