Co-ops should be given a seat at the table when the government makes plans for disasters, recovery and resilience-building, says a new report from Australia’s Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals (BCCM).
The report says existence of strong co-operatives in rural communities helps them recover after natural disasters – and backs the argument with four case studies of recent co-op responses to disaster.
Among these is the Cobargo Co-operative, which helped its local community in the aftermath of the devastating wildfires which broke out on new year’s eve in 2019. In addition to acting as a central meeting place, the co-op distributed donations to residents through its strong social network. Furthermore, the co-op used a AU $15,000 grant to fund a tool library, which is now a separate not-for-profit organisation lending tools for free.
Likewise, the Tobacco & Associated Farmers Co-operative Limited has supported its members and community through multiple disasters, focusing on group buying, providing access to fencing equipment and weather monitoring, and establishing a farmers’ market to promote its members’ produce and deepen social bonds.
Meanwhile ORICoop supported its organic farmer members across Australia following the 2019-20 bushfires, 2020 floods in NSW and 2021 storms in Gippsland. It provided organic farmers with expert biological support to rehabilitate their land and map out a recovery strategy, and mobilised to provide personalised disaster relief donations for organic farms and emotional and social support for members. The co-op also gave $89,000 to assist 15 bushfire affected farmers to restore soil quality and return to farm activity in seven different parts of Australia.
Similarly, the Sweeter Banana Co-operative helped its farmer members when Cyclone Olwyn destroyed 100% of the crops in March 2015. The co-op supported the clean-up, clearing trees, replanting, fixing irrigation, and helped growers plan for future production.
“This report demonstrates that member-owned businesses, where people have real skin in the game, are often the best positioned to assess risk and plan for disasters,” said BCCM chief executive Melina Morrison.
“Where a local co-operative was able to coordinate a local disaster response, our report shows the community recovered quickly and in some cases built a stronger economy post disaster. We know that the bushfires will come again.
“This report shows a clear way forward to ensure our communities are well prepared to meet that threat by giving greater recognition to the co-operative business model. The health crisis of COVID-19 has also heightened community awareness and concern about food security. Agricultural co-operatives help secure vital supply chains in times of disaster.”
The report makes several recommendations to the government, including giving co-operatives greater access to business support as part of any recovery programmes, and engaging with the sector in disaster response and recovery planning. BCCM says community ownership structures should be incentivised in the immediate response and recovery phase because their business models allow resources to be pooled for greater impact. Another recommendation is to establish member-driven resilience funds and insurance pools for primary producers.
Bridget McKenzie, minister for emergency management and national recovery and resilience, said: “We cannot disaster-proof the country, but we can certainly work hard to ensure those communities most at risk are more resilient to the ongoing threats of living with Australia’s harsh climate.
“Co-operatives have an important role to play in formulating strategies to assist communities in regional and rural Australia to deal with the effects of natural disasters.”