nicaragua, wales and co-operativesPosted: November 19, 2012
2012 is the UN International Year of Co-operatives. In a recent conference in Manchester, Nicaragua was celebrated as an example of how co-operatives can make a real difference. Closer to home, the Wales Co-operative Centre has published a series of reports highlighting the contribution of co-operatives to the Welsh economy and Welsh life.
Last week the Centre published ‘Community Co-operatives in Wales’, which celebrated 23 community co-ops with initiatives in food, energy, shops, pubs, hotels and community services (see here). They also recently published “Co-operatives in the Welsh Economy”, which looks at the wider economy (see here). According to the report by the Bevan Foundation, co-ops contribute 7,000 jobs and £1 billion of turnover. This is probably over-egging the pudding – do half a percent of the Welsh workforce really contribute nearly 3% of the GVA of the country? A much more credible estimate of the sector’s contribution can be found here, in a piece in 2011 by Simon Harris.
What the reports do show are a growing interest in co-ops. This shouldn’t be a surprise. In many ways the co-operative movement was founded on the ideas of Robert Owen, who hailed from Newtown. The Miners Next Step, written by South Wales miners a hundred years ago, is based on syndicalism and local workers control. At the moment Plaid Cymru are re-discovering the ideas of D J Davies, put forward in Towards an Economic Democracy in the late Forties, and based on the experience of Scandinavian countries. The latest vision of what co-ops could achieve for Wales comes from the Wales Co-operative Centre itself, in an article by it’s Chief Executive during the summer (see here). Co-operatives should be at the heart of the Welsh economy lays out the lessons from the Mondragon Group in the Basque country, one of the main drivers of that country’s success.
What’s all this got to do with Nicaragua? The country is a co-operative success story. As early as 2000 20% of the country’s coffee (it’s most important export) and 50% of it’s sesame were exported through co-operatives. Though much of this was due to the influence of fair trade, Nicaraguan co-operatives have much deeper roots, being developed through government policy during the Sandinista revolution, but also going as far back as the model co-operative set up by Sandino in the late 1920s in ‘liberated territory’ in his war against the US army of occupation (for more information on co-ops in Nicaragua see the latest Central America Report).
Nicaragua’s co-operative movement is now developing in the context of ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of the Americas. Nicaraguan co-operatives have been sharing their experience with producers in Venezuela and Cuba, as a model of how to support some of the poorest growers in the country. In Nicaragua co-ops exist on different levels – first, with your immediate neighbours and community; secondly within a bigger area, where co-ops from a number of communities come together; and thirdly at a regional level, where these bigger co-ops are grouped together (there are currently three in existence for coffee). The strength of this arrangement is that it enables support and expertise to be delivered where it is needed, and has given Nicaraguan co-operatives, however small, the ability to deal with global markets.
How co-ops have developed within the ALBA is described in an interview with Nick Hoskyns (by the Campaign’s own David McKnight), available here. Some of the tensions withion the co-operative movement, both within Nicaragua and with the international fairtrade movement is described here in an article in Envio – Coffee with an aroma of co-ops– by Rene Mendoza Viduarre.
There are, as always, problems, and not only those described in the article in Envio. Like almost everywhere else, the notion of industrial democracy is non-existent in Nicaragua. Whilst the position of trade unions is more solid under the Sandinistas, at the same time the position of capital to call the shots is also growing. Foreign Direct Investment is at a historical high (and much, much higher than in previous governments), whilst the number of jobs and exports from Free Trade Zones also stands at record levels (as of figures anounced last week). In the energy sector too, foreign investment is powering Nicaragua forward in both providing a stable electricity supply (unthinkable before the Sandinistas took power in 2007) and the development of renewable energy (50% of electricty production and climbing).
These undoubted advances have not contributed to the advancement of social ownership, though government influence and control is stronger through mechanisms like ALBANISA. It begs the question, are we seeing Nicaragua develop a two model economy: one based in agriculture, more and more co-operative; and one based in industry, little different from other countries, but led by a government with a commitment to social justice?