I had the pleasure of speaking to a gathering of Brazilian credit co-operatives this week in Nova Petrópolis, Brazil, and to learn of the remarkable reach and growth of the movement in that country. Nova Petrópolis itself deserves attention as the National Capital of Co-operatives, a title recently bestowed by federal law. The city is the birthplace of credit capitals in Latin America, with the establishment there of what is now known as Sicredi Pioneira in 1902, only two years following the founding of Desjardins in Canada. A monument in commemoration of this national title sits in the central square. Its depiction of a handful of people together lifting a large rock above their heads is suggestive of the logo of the International Year of Co-operatives, although I do not believe there was any direct artistic connection.
The image of the rock derives, I’m told, from a story often told by Father Amstad, a Swiss Jesuit who went to Nova Petrópolis in the late 1800’s and recognized the value that the German Raiffeisen credit model, with which he was familiar, could bring to Brazil. In explaining to the people of the region how such a model would be of benefit, he described how impossible it was for a single individual to move a large rock from before their path, and how that could be achieved when people came together for mutual support.
Today there are 6 million members in Brazil’s 1300 credit co-operatives, which makes them second in Brazil in number of branches for a banking system, and seventh in terms of deposits. The conference is a biannual opportunity for the credit co-operatives to come together to share best practices and educate themselves on the best ways to move forward.
As impressive as the Brazilian credit co-operative system is, it is just one part of a vibrant and growing co-operative presence, represented by OCB (the Organizacão das Cooperativas Brasileiras), the extremely well-run and visionary national apex body. OCB provides national support to a co-operative community of 6500 co-operatives with 10 million members and 300,000 employees, and which has been steadily growing its membership year-on-year over the past decade. In recent years, OCB has focused in particular on ensuring state-of-the-art training for co-operative boards and management.
Within the 13 sectors of co-operative activity, the agricultural sector is particularly strong, with 1 million members and 150,000 employees in 1500 co-operatives, and contributing over one-third of Brazil’s agricultural GDP, which is itself already a global powerhouse. Other sectors deserve mention, as well, however, such as health, as Brazil boasts the largest health co-operative in the world, Unimed.
All of this, of course, is occurring against the backdrop of the remarkable economic growth that Brazil itself has seen this past decade, as one of the world’s fastest-growing emerging economies. It is not without its challenges, however, most recently evidenced by President Rousseff’s acknowledgement of inadequate investment in infrastructure and the need to now accelerate that investment. This occurs at the same time that the economy has slowed from its 7.5% rate of growth two years ago.
The co-operatives are demonstrating that they have the leadership and the systems to continue to grow their role in this vibrant economy. In fact, we have recently seen stunning examples of Brazilian co-operative leadership on the global stage, with the push at the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development this Summer to ensure the inclusion of co-operatives in the agreed outcome document; and with the elevation of José Graziano da Silva to the Director-General position of the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), where he is driving a co-operative agenda.
It’s my wager that, by the time of the next Summer Olympics, in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, we will see Brazil at the forefront of global co-operative initiatives.