Report from the 1st Solidarity Economy
Social Forum & World Fair, Santa Maria
and Porto Alegre, Brazil - Jan 22-29, 2010
By Emily Kawano
Center for Popular Economics
and US Solidarity Economy Network
Santa Maria, in the southern-most state of Brazil, likes to call itself the solidarity economy capital of the world.
There's some truth to that. I recently had the privilege of attending the 1st Solidarity Economy Social Forum and World Fair at the invitation of the FBES (Brazilian Forum on the Solidarity Economy), SENAES (National Secretariat of the Solidarity Economy) and Marist Solidarity. The invitation was extended to the RIPESS* Board, and five of us were able to make the trip: Carlos Amorin (Uruguay), Ana Leighton (Chile), Eric Lavillunière (Luxembourg), Nancy Neamtan (Canada) and myself from the U.S.
For 15 years they have been hosting a Solidarity Economy Fair. This year it drew an estimated 150,000 people who came to shop for handicrafts, wine, cheese, sausages, pastries, bread, cookies, fruit and vegetables that are produced by solidarity economy enterprises. Many of these are worker cooperatives, while others are family-owned and run small businesses.
There were coops from the Amazon region like Polo Pro Bio, that sold lovely leaf shaped hot mats made out of sustainably harvested and processed rubber, and women's cooperatives selling jewelry made out of colorful locally harvested seeds and other natural materials. Local vendors sold cold, freshly squeezed juices, sweet pastries, and hot turnovers with meat and cheese. There were many stalls selling the popular regional tea erva mate, which is sipped through a silver straw tipped with a strainer. Many people carried along a thermos of hot water to keep their tea topped up. Vendors were mostly from Brazil, but some traveled from other Latin American countries. At times it was hard to move because the aisles were so crowded.
Here's a link a video that provides a general overview of the Fair and Social Forum.
Cultural performances livened up the Fair throughout three days. Obù Oja, a youth group of Afro-descendents performed a dance that drew on their cultural roots and Raizes Americanas of Chico Sosa showed off their hip-hop moves. You can see a video of these performances at this link:
Solidarity Economy Social Forum
Solidarity Economy in the Opening March, World Social Forum, Porto Alegre
Running alongside the Fair was the first Solidarity Economy Social Forum that kicked off with a march of energetic chanting, drumming, singing and dancing from a local church to the fairground. For the next 3 days, hundreds of people from around the world, though mostly from Latin America, exchanged their views and experiences, debated and strategized. There were five themes:
" Building a Solidarity Finance System
" International Workshop on Education, Culture and the Solidarity Economy
" Building Economic Integration based on Solidarity
" Building solidarity production, marketing and consumption
" Building sustainable, healthy food sovereignty
Despite the ferocious heat that even the locals complained about, the workshops were well attended and good spirited. Over the course of the next couple of days participants forged a set of proposals in each of these five areas.
On the 25th the Solidarity Economy Forum moved to Porto Alegre to join up with the World Social Forum (WSF), which was marking its 10th anniversary with reflections on accomplishments and challenges over the past decade and thinking about the future. Daniel Tygel, the Executive Secretary of the FBES (Brazilian Forum on the Solidarity Economy) reflects on the development of the solidarity and WSF over the last 10 years: Interview. On January 29th, the final day of the WSF, the five sets of proposals on the solidarity economy were presented.
The summary of proposals is not yet available, but we will circulate them when they are.
I was particularly inspired by the innovative thinking and experimentation with initiatives to scale up the solidarity economy. I will focus on the following two areas: 1) education and training and 2) mapping and economic integration.
SE Education and Training
There was an emphasis on the importance of education and training which takes a number of forms and is provided in various ways. In Brazil, one of the most effective sources of seeding SE initiatives is through the University-based SE incubators. The government-supported PRONINC (National Programme for Popular Cooperative Incubators) provides competitive funding for university programs. These programs provide local groups with the training and support that they need to start up cooperatives or other social enterprises, similar to business incubators in the U.S. It is significant that there is an explicit intent to change the traditional hierarchy of knowledge and expertise into one of mutual respect and exchange between academic 'scientific knowledge' and 'popular knowledge.' The role of scientific knowledge is to systematize popular knowledge born of practice and experience, thereby improving and helping to spread successful practices. In the process the university transforms itself into a community partner that contributes to public well being through practical and concrete research, training and application.
Mapping and economic integration
Many of the discussions focused on how the solidarity economy can scale up through economic integration. Again and again, speakers and participants spoke of the importance of meeting people's needs through solidarity economy production and distribution. In order to do this we need better integration amongst solidarity economy producers, marketing, finance and trade.
Justo Trama is an example of a solidarity economy supply chain in which every stage of production is done by a collectively managed enterprise. Justo Trama is a network of cooperatives that employs 700 workers to produce beautifully printed t-shirts and bags. Justo Trama links up organic cotton farmers, designers, dye-makers, cloth manufacturers, and garment workers. This is the kind of economic integration that we need to be supporting on a much larger scale.
In order to develop SE supply chains we need good data on who is producing what and what inputs they need. We also need tools that enable producers, suppliers, distributors and consumers to connect with one another. There are a number of web-based platforms that help make these connections.
In Brazil, the Brazilian Forum on the Solidarity Economy (FBES) has created a Solidarity Economy Map of over 20,000 SE enterprises with information about what they produce as well as their key inputs. So for example a cooperative of rice farmers could search the Rio de Janeiro area for businesses that buy rice.
What was included in the Brazilian solidarity economy map? One of the criteria of inclusion was worker or collective self management. Other important dimensions such as gender equality and sustainability are tracked through survey questions, although these are not criteria for inclusion or exclusion. The SE movement in Brazil is broader than what is included in the mapping project and the boundary is relatively fluid and organic. However, for the purpose of mapping and research they decided after many lengthy discussions to use this self-management criteria.
A complementary system called Cirandas enables businesses to connect through a social networking platform. Each SE enterprise can create its own page with pictures and information about their products, prices, location, history and mission. In addition, organizations, networks and individuals involved in the solidarity economy can connect through similar pages. A search engine enables SE enterprises to locate suppliers and customers. IBASE and University of RJ are collaborating.
Cirandas is working to improve its categorization of SE enterprises. They have adopted the idea of a tree of products, each of which will have a unique ID. It will integrate route sharing for delivery, an ordering system for consumer organizations and they are working on SE certification and labeling. The local SE forums would be responsible for certifying their local enterprises. The One challenge is that of the 22,000 SE entprises that have been mapped, only 2000 actually use email.
REAS has pledged 1000 euros to support an automatic aggregator for the international projects: Cirandas, ZOES, Solidarius.
ZOES, in Italy, is another platform that integrates mapping with the social networking. They are in still in the process of improving the site and fixing bugs, but already have 6,000 users registered including individuals, organizations, networks and businesses/enterprises. They use a self mapping process in which users must be in agreement with a set of principles and also must be introduced by another user. Users also validate the enterprises and there is space to comment on whether or not it is a good fit.
ZOES does not use exclude enterprises that are not collectively self managed, but they do include information about the businesses' environmental practices and worker involvement in decision-making.
Their next steps are to internationalize the site to enable solidarity enterprises, organizations, networks, and movements from all over the globe to self map. They also will give users the ability to engage in e-commerce through this platform.
Solidarius is an international web-based platform for network building and for the development of local economic networks. It integrates an ecommerce tool as well as its own system of money. Solidarius also has developed other tools for building up a business plan, which have financial, economical, ecological sustainability. The methodological approach about the sustainability in these 3 dimensions. Solidarius is in dialog with ZOES, CIRANDAS.
One of the main challenges is for the different platforms around the world to be able to talk to one another. Solidarius has been working on developing SIS methodology so that it can communicate with other platforms and also be scalable. Solidarius changed the language to java and a developed a better database for big movements and transactions.
Towards a common frame of reference
Due to the youth of the solidarity economy framework and its commitment to de-centralized and pluralist development, it is not surprising that there are multiple definitions of the same terms as well as multiple terms for the same thing. Solecopedia is like a wikipedia to develop a common frame of reference for key concepts and terms, without necessarily having to all adopt the same definitions. Take for instance the term solidarity economy. It comes with a whole history and cultural context in different countries, regions and even communities. In cases like these, it is important that at least we know what it means in Brazil, versus Italy, versus the U.S. We do not have to agree to the same singular definition. At the same time it is good to nurture convergence where possible and Solecopedia seeks to encourage and bridge building between the different experiences.
Solidarity economy trade
Eduardo Letelier discussed the Espacio Mercosur Solidario which was created in 2006 to bring together countries, consolidate experiences, discuss challenges, and promote an understanding that the construction of a new world needs to adopt the concepts and practices of solidarity economy. It works to foster regional economic integration in Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina. Various Solidarity economy networks and movements meet once a year in Uruguay to coordinate is joint construction of SE economic policies and hope to start having a second annual meeting in Santa Maria, Brazil. One of the major challenges is to defend our concept of solidarity economy so that it does not get 'captured' by governments that would seek to use it to address social problems in a way that has little t o do with the principles of the solidarity economy.
There is also an interesting discussion about fair trade that is consistent with SE values. Issues include how much of the profits are being reaped by the northern fair trade businesses, how much of fair trade is dominated by transnational corporations, how much decision making power do the producers have, what about local and regional fair trade (as opposed to North-South)?
In summary, the 1st Solidarity Economy Social Forum and World Fair was a great success in terms of advancing thinking about how to grow the solidarity economy in scale and scope. What I covered here is just a fraction of the many invaluable discussions and exchanges that took place. As always, we all made new connections and strengthened old ones. It was an experience of collective inspiration to see all the vibrant work and experimentation that is going on throughout the world, but especially in Latin America.
Finally, this event was significant in raising the visibility within the World Social Forum process. Clearly, the solidarity economy has benefited from the open space that the WSF provides, but at the same time, the WSF has benefited from the concrete and positive vision of the solidarity economy. We look forward to continued integration between the WSF and solidarity economy movements. Onward.