Report features twenty best practices from Latin American co-operatives

Cooperatives Europe has released a new report that showcases 20 of the best co-operative practices from Latin America and the Caribbean. The publication, called Building People-Centred Enterprises in Latin America and the Caribbean – Cooperative Case Studies, includes various examples of successful co-operative enterprises in the region, whether in renewable energy, quinoa cultivation, handicraft or credit unions. The report was drafted by Cooperative Europe’s team in collaboration with the Co-operative College and Kooperationen in Denmark, and is based on contributions from experts of the Cooperatives Europe Development Platform.

The examples featured show the impact of co-operative businesses on economic and social development in Latin America and the Caribbean. The publication is a follow up from the conference that Cooperatives of the Americas and Cooperatives Europe jointly organised this year in Cartagena as part of the 3rd Cooperative Summit of the Americas. A previous report by Cooperatives Europe also looked at how co-operatives were used as inclusive enterprises in Africa.

Linda McAvan, chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Development endorsed the report. In the publication’s foreword she wrote: “I am pleased to give my support to this paper, which showcases how some private sector stakeholders can efficiently foster inclusive development. The European Parliament is eager to support inclusive business models such as cooperatives, which empower local communities.”

The report comes at a time when the United Nations (UN) is looking to set out its future development agenda by elaborating on a set of Sustainable Development Goals. As the Millennium Development Goals come to an end, this is an opportunity for co-operative enterprises to highlight an alternative development approach focused on the empowerment of local actors through self-help.

According to the report, Latin American co-operatives play an important role in empowering communities to access and manage essential services such as water, energy, affordable housing and health care. In Costa Rica 99% of energy comes from renewable sources. The country, which has committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2021, has four electricity co-operatives with over 180,000 members. These provide electricity to more than 800,000 homes, mostly in rural areas and represent 15% of the total electric distribution marker in the country. Three Costa Rican co-operatives – Coopelesca, Coopeguanacaste and Coopesantos – also jointly own a wind farm, Los Santos. The report notes that Coopesantos’ Environmental Policy has inspired the co-operative to pursue other green activities such as protecting water resources and achieving carbon neutral certifications. Democratically governed energy co-ops also provide energy at affordable costs, helping to tackle poverty.

Similarly, in Chile the National Federation of Sanitary Services Co-operatives helps produce and distribute drinking water as well as treat and dispose of sewage. Its member co-operatives serve 30,000 people in rural areas of central Chile. Following the 2010 earthquake the federation played an important role in helping to modernise the water infrastructure in the affected areas.

In Uruguay co-operative ownership of housing has started emerging in the 1960s. One of the most prominent co-operatives is Covireus al Sur in the country’s capital, Montevideo. The co-op provides 182 apartments of various sizes and includes units specially designed for people with disabilities. There is also a Federation of Housing and Mutual Help Co-operatives (FUCVAM), which includes 500 co-operatives with a total membership of 25,000 households. Members of these co-operatives are expected to get involved in various activities and help each other. Each family is also expected to contribute 21 hours of work per week, with different tasks allocated to different people, depending on their skills. The federation also works with co-ops in other countries, having exported its model to 15 states. FUCVAM received the UN World Habitat Award for south-to-south co-operation in 2012.

Transport is another sector where co-operatives in the region are making a difference. The report gives the example of Colombia, which has 883 transport co-operatives. These operate in 311 municipalities and offer a wide variety of services, from long-distance coach journeys to short taxi rides. Around 73% of all Colombian transport co-operatives are micro-enterprises. Their policies vary from the rules of other enterprises by offering a reliable income to drivers, who also own the business. Other enterprises pay based on the number of passengers picked up. Coonorte, a transport co-operative in Medellin, in the region of Antioquia, is investing a part of its income into educational initiatives, developing the skills and knowledge of their members and well as people in the local community.

Co-operatives are also playing an important role in formalising the informal economy. In Brazil a waste pickers’ co-operative association is helping to improve the lives and status of waste pickers. ASMARE co-operative now has 380 members who collect 450 tons of waste every month. The association also has two centres for waste separation and sells on the materials to private industry. Through the co-operative the waste pickers have gained access to materials and have been able to invest in storage space so that more waste can be collected. They have also negotiated agreements with local authorities to deal with urban recyclable waste.

In terms of gender equality the report highlights how co-operatives help reduce poverty by empowering women. In Nicaragua CAFENICA brings together 10,000 coffee farmers, strengthening their organisational capacity and supporting them to reach international markets. The association integrates gender equality into all of its programmes and has established an alliance for women in coffee in Nicaragua – The Coffee Flowers. The alliance, which describes itself as a movement of women, has run various activities, providing space for women to exchange experiences and share learning.

Providing access to financial services is another important contribution from co-operatives in the region. The report describes how a co-operative credit union for police in Jamaica, with 17,000 members, has helped members achieve home ownership, purchase cars and continue their academic studies.

Commenting on the publication, Marc Noel, Cooperative Development Manager at Cooperatives Europe, said: “These case studies show to what extent co-operatives in Latin America are key to fostering sustainable development. We welcome the support of the EU Parliament and hope that other Institutions will follow and include the co-operative model in their policies and programming.”