Cooperative Trade

One of the articles in Dancing Toward The Future (IC#32)
Originally published in Summer 1992 on page 6
Copyright (c)1992, 1996 by Context Institute

In El Rodeo, Mexico, Estela Bernardino and Eva Santos are learning to weave cloth, a lost art they believe was traditional in their area "at the time when the legends were formed." The women belong to a co-op whose members have learned to weave simple garments for their families from donated wool yarn. This spring they are learning to weave fabric appropriate for a wider market. When the handwoven fabric is ready, Magdalena Feliciano will help to fashion it into garments and items suitable for export. Magdalena, a widow raising her own children as well as several orphans, is one of the members of La Esperanza, a sewing cooperative in El Rodeo.

These industrious women are finding support for their efforts to better their own lives from "compañeros" in the United States – the Paraclete Society International of Portland, Oregon. Paraclete, a non-profit alternative trade organization (ATO) with a mission to help impoverished rural people start and manage their own worker-owned businesses, has channeled donated equipment, supplies, technical expertise, and small cash advances to the El Rodeo co-ops and will market their finished products in this country.

Meanwhile, in Xapuri, Brazil, members of the Rubber Tapper Cooperative gather nuts in the Amazonian rainforest for processing in their own factory. The Brazil nuts are brought to market by Cultural Survival, a non-profit ATO based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Cultural Survival pays the workers three to ten times the going local rate for their products, returns 5% of the retail price to rainforest projects, and donates 20% of net profits to rainforest conservation. In addition, 20% of profits goes to environmental groups and 10% to "1% for Peace."

And in Surrey Hills, New South Wales, the World Development Tea Cooperative Ltd. demonstrates the possibility of a trade system that benefits the producing countries rather than the multi-national corporations which keep returns to growers at the lowest possible level. The Tea Cooperative strategy is to sell through church networks and community groups, while providing opportunities for its Australian customers to learn more about the ways the current international trade system works to the disadvantage of third world countries.

These ATOs are part of a growing international movement to provide alternatives to exploitive trade practices, a movement emerging out of the realization that financial aid programs are not a sufficient means to achieve self-reliance in impoverished communities. The concept is not new. SERRV Self-Help Handcrafts, a Mennonite organization in New Windsor, Maryland, has been selling handcrafts from developing countries for fifty years.

ATO activity in the United States has remained minimal, however, until the ’70s. By 1991 ATO sales here accounted for an estimated $15 million gross, only a tiny portion of the billions spent annually in the US on imported food, clothing, crafts, and household goods. Catalog sales accounted for 30-35% of the volume, church sales, fairs, and storefronts for the rest.

ATOs are more common in Europe, where from humble beginnings in the ’60s alternative trade has grown to $100 million in sales in 1991, with about forty outlet organizations, in addition to independent shops, cooperative networks, and church organizations.

ATOs also exist in Japan and Australia. The International Federation for Alternative Trade, which includes a few American members, uses its collective voice to increase the flow of information, speak out against specific injustices, improve market access, and facilitate international partnerships. Hundreds of producer groups, most often small entrepreneurial cooperatives, are found in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and among Native Americans in the US and Canada. Contact with ATOs outside their regions reinforces such groups in reducing the hold of local middlemen on distribution – and profits.

ATOs market everything from silk scarves and jewelry to honey and coffee, but handcrafts and textiles are the most common items, corresponding most closely to the needs and potentials of peasant communities by adding value to the raw materials available to them.

In addition to training for third world peoples that respects their values and their dignity and enhances their ability to direct their own lives, many ATOs include educational components (often through their catalogs and newsletters) for first-world consumers. In 1991, Paraclete offered an internship to a representative from a Mexican village cooperative. He had the opportunity not only to learn about cooperatives and product retailing, but to speak to citizen groups in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.

Some ATOs, such as MarketPlace: Handiwork of India, offer employment opportunities to women, disabled persons, and others ordinarily outside the mainstream. Paraclete hopes eventually to put disabled and hard-to-employ persons in the Portland area to work in processing their imports. And most ATOs are concerned for safe and environmentally sound working conditions and products as well as social and economic justice.

Paul Freundlich, founder of Co-op America, more recently started the Fair Trade Foundation, which seeks to create and explore market opportunities for third world communities. Freundlich points out that alternative trade activities must expand greatly if they are to address the need. He believes that growing public interest in "green" issues will bring the expanding market that will be necessary if alternative trade organizations are to have real impact on the towering poverty of the third world.

He worries about keeping the ethical component uppermost in alternative trade organizations in the face of such expansion. "It is difficult to distinguish," he says, "between those who are in it simply to make money and those making money with viable products while protecting the environment and the working conditions, as well as assuring fair wages for producers."

ATOs offer socially and environmentally concerned consumers an alternative to distribution systems which exclude and exploit the poor people of the third world. They provide a chance to vote with dollars for organizations that place people before profit.

Original file name: Lucas

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