November 22, 2003
Interview with Joaquim Alves de Souza, Cooperativa Agroecológica Pela Vida/COOPEVIDA (Agro-ecological Cooperative for Life) - São Raimundo das Mangabeiras, Maranhão, Brazil.
Joaquim is a member of COOPEVIDA. At present he is the General Coordinator of CENTRU-MA (Educational and Cultural Center for the Rural Worker) and Vice President of CCAMA (Association of Agriculturalist Cooperatives of Maranhão). Together with his family, he owns a 33-hectare (81.5-acre) property in Mangabeiras County, southern Maranhão.
Marcos Arruda

I - What is the main goal of your economic activity?

JAS: First, to support my family. Second, to go beyond the family level in order to build a cooperative. I consider a productive family, like mine, to be a model for an economy that is under construction. We have a 33-hectare farm where the following activities take place: small animal raising; agroforestry production of over 40 types of plants; rice, bean and corn production; and a reservation area in which we produce honey and contribute to the protection of a species of bees. We’ve stopped using the traditional methods of burning and seeding. We’re considering devoting a certain area to begin raising goats and sheep, and another area for cashew tree crops. Our aim is to make the most using the smallest area possible. In the family the tasks are divided: the wife manages and everybody works according to his or her possibilities. The project of family-run agriculture and cattle production is a collective one: we work to build the cooperative, the COOPEVIDA community. We have 51 members, belonging to 14 families. We are now beginning to substitute buriti (the fruit of a Brazilian palm tree) jam -which is produced by eight families- for coconut oil. All the surplus we produce -of honey or fleshy fruit, for example- goes to the cooperative. We have a basic proposal, directed to the catholic project agency, CERIS, for the purchase of other products. The CCAMA is creating a brand for the products of its affiliated cooperatives: AGROVIDA. The honey is sold without price control; we follow the prices of the market.

II. Are you engaged in a DIFFERENT economy? How does it differ from the dominant economy?

JAS: Yes, we are. The main difference is in having the family as the starting point. Handing the surplus over to the cooperative means we have to wait until the sale is made to collect. The cooperative goes beyond the economic level. It is a union of “cooperativized” families. My work with my family is a result of the cooperative dynamics. There is a need for further discussion about the advantages of a cooperative – the advantages of producing as a cooperative. We want to know more about other experiences and learn from them. From the original group sprang another one, consisting of 15 families, 10 of which wanted to form grassroots production groups. So the experience is spreading. The cooperative is a place for families to discuss and progress. The factory we are building is intended to process the excess cashew nuts that remain after marketing. It may cost a little bit more, but the overall gain is greater. The cooperative is a factor of progress for the families. The surplus goes to the cooperative; everyone profits from it. This develops a vision of shared goods, a feeling of community. And that is what we want for the whole of society.

III. What does ‘ABUNDANCE’ mean to you? Is material abundance an aim or the means to achieve something else? What is that something else?

JAS: It is the fulfillment of the necessities of a human being from an integral perspective. Capitalism generates profit, it concentrates wealth. Accumulation is like a disease, an obsession. Abundance is the means for something else. The fulfillment of material needs is not enough. Abundance has to be for everyone. Human beings always want something better. The long term is not necessarily an illusion.

IV. What VALUES do you and your fellow workers put into practice in your daily life and at work? Is it possible, in your opinion, for these values to become the predominant values for society as a whole? How can they be mainstreamed?

JAS: A family in harmony. Decentralization. Empowerment of the individual within the family. Transmitting and exchanging experiences. Collective management. I think we have to work with these values on a day to day basis, and I also think that they can become the predominant values for society. We must take the family as a multiplying unit, and gradually help more and more people and families to assimilate these values.

V. What innovations have you developed in terms of organization, management and appropriation of the fruits of labor?

JAS: Having a woman to manage our family undertaking is an innovation. Children sharing work in a fair way and in solidarity. The whole family taking part in the gatherings and meetings of the cooperative and in community tasks. The cooperative spreading a “fire-free culture”, convincing peasants that there are better ways of working the fields than burning it. Work is done in a collective way, from the production to the processing of the fruit flesh. Nine families sell all their surplus to the cooperative. Then there are some families that sell the fruit flesh only if they are paid immediately. The cooperative spirit is slowly setting in, still mixed with the pressure of surviving at any cost. Real innovation comes when confidence has truly set in. In terms of organization, we started with three-year courses to train in cooperative practices and self-management. We innovated by placing the farmers’ families at the center: eliminating, in the first place, their dependence on intermediaries, and, in the second place, getting them to devise their own plan and perform their own accounting. From there we created the GPGs -grassroots production groups- consisting of 3 to 15 families, according to their possibilities. Now we have 85 GPGs in the region and our aim is to include them in municipal cooperatives. We are also innovators in that we are farmers who care for nature, who refuse to accept the irrational and indiscriminate use of tractors, machinery and fire. We even innovated by showing that the cerrado (an enclosed or fenced field) is an ecosystem that has its own cycle; if we respect that ecosystem, we will be more productive. In this sense, we have chosen permanent crops for commercial production, beginning with the native fruits of the cerrado. We also want to innovate by overcoming the bad habit of turning to other people for solutions to our problems. External resources are important, but the internal ones are paramount. And we want to innovate by forming intellectuals different from the ones we form today, who leave, earn a degree and never return. We need them back, or even better, we need for them to be educated right here.

VI. Do you think working in solidarity networks or in solidarity production chains is important? What are these in your opinion?

JAS: I need to learn more about productive chains and networks. Cooperatives have to overcome their small egos. They must work hard to achieve this. It is not impossible. Apart from CCAMA we have the Feira do Cerrado (an open fair for the products of the cerrado), which has been held every year in Goiânia since 2001. It includes rural unions, farmers’ associations, cooperatives, and others. The Centru is part of the Managing Board of this Fair. But there’s still much to be done to continue progressing.

VII. Does your activity influence the life of the community? How and in which spheres?

JAS: Of our activities, the ones that most influence the community are the cultivation of permanent fruit crops and the utilization of the resources of the cerrado. It took me some time to bring home the first plants that were ready to be transplanted, and to plant them. The transformation of my family took place as a result of the cooperative discussion. In Nova Descoberta there are now 15 families, that’s a considerable progress.

VIII. What is work in your experience? What is its value and meaning in life?

JAS: Exchanging with others, preparing reports, participating in seminars, like planting and harvesting, and representing the cooperative, all of that is work and, therefore, production. It used to be that work was just using a hoe. A liberated society changes the way it works. I had no leisure activities in my youth. I went to my first party when I was 20 years old. Today, I go to parties to discuss, to work. I want the opposite for my family, I want them to go to parties to relax and have fun.

IX. What role do WOMEN play in a cooperation and solidarity-based economic initiative?

JAS/ The issue is not centered on gender but on ability. Most leaders at the cooperative are women. Not because of their gender, but because of their ability to empower. Women have a greater ability than men. As president of Coopevida, I stepped down half way along the line - I was more of an educator than a manager. Sonia had more authority, she was more political, more of a manager. Thanks to her, I learnt to be humble. And I learnt a lot with Manoel da Conceição. When you have an individual project within the collective project you are more likely to be tempted by power. I stopped thinking that I knew it all. I will never take the place of someone who can be better than me at a task when it comes to what the community needs, whether male or female. I discovered that difference can be positive if it is regarded as complementary.

X. How can public policies and the State contribute to the advancement of a Solidarity Socioeconomy?

JAS: The State is a place that needs to be worked on, and should be perceived as an open space. Government was discovered as if it were a merchandise. Actually, its possibility of strengthening or weakening the Solidarity Socioeconomy depends on who administrates it. The great risk is that someone may take over the Municipal Government and continue in power “forever”, administrating the already established system. Preparing to govern without taking the people into consideration shows that we are not ready for another form of government.

XI. Do you believe that globalization of cooperation and solidarity is possible? How can it come true?

JAS: After the many experiences that you shared with us in the seminar, the dream is more vivid! Some time ago, I only had my father’s property. When I was a teenager and I had to leave the property on foot, I was afraid, it seemed I was going to the end of the world. I’ve only been a citizen since 1988. I used to be isolated. Now I can see far beyond. And I see that a cooperative and solidarity-based world is possible. How can we build it? Consolidating experiences that stem from the family and from cooperativism in the country-side and in the city, exchanging experiences, building networks, building everything.