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This is how the first Conscious Consumption Cooperative in Galicia was born (not the first consumer group), based in the city of Vigo. The first steps were taken in the year 2000, obtaining a premises, in which the cooperative still operates, which served to receive the products. The differences between these products and those that could be found in other shops were several: they were produced in an ecological way, they respected the rights of animals and they looked for nearby projects. Through these products it was sought to establish relationships between people and productive projects. All these characteristics are still in force almost 13 years later.
Cooperative as a legal formula: advantages and disadvantages If there is something that differentiates us from other projects of conscious consumption, it is the fact that we are constituted as a cooperative. The choice of this legal formula is not something alien to the daily operation but affects different levels, structural and organizational.
Being constituted as a cooperative allows us to interact with other entities of the same legal formula throughout the Galician territory. Specifically, we actively participate in the Sinerxia Cooperative Federation, whose main objective is to spread cooperativism as a formula for collaborative work. This formal structure also allows us to serve as a point of support for other “informal” groups that can benefit from Árbore's work. The most common example is the facilitation of orders for small groups, who find it more difficult to reach certain minimum orders from suppliers (in order to reduce transport costs normally).
On the other hand, organizing ourselves based on a more formal style, helps to give consistency to what we consider one of the strengths of Árbore, the heterogeneity of its members. The people who participate in the cooperative come from different political and vital experiences and although all the members assume the general principles, this does not mean that we agree on all the approaches or that we participate in the same way. Having a formal structure allows both highly politicized people and those without any political participation to feel that they can be part of the project at different levels.
But this last point is also a participatory difficulty. The Cooperatives Law requires the creation of a rigid and perhaps excessively hierarchical structure that does not allow as much permeability in participation, as can happen in small consumer groups. We try to get out of this more classical formula (governing council, workers, assembly ...) through the creation of work commissions that allow us to get involved in issues that address specific objectives and achieve tangible results.
Finally, it is important to bear in mind that projects such as participatory certification require a greater effort as they are subject to a legal figure than if we did it from an informal platform. Being "within the system" means being limited in relationships with organic producers but without a label.
Participation Although it began as a project in which all the members collaborated, it soon became necessary for some of them to dedicate an important part of their time to making it work. Placing orders, receiving them, studying new products and attending the store is a job that requires time and knowledge. It is for all this that at the moment there are three people working in and for the cooperative, accompanied at all times by the rest of the members who participate in decisions and in political-social work.
More and more people think that the control of our sovereignty is only possible at the local level and in self-managed groups, which allow direct and horizontal participation. A little more a little less, here we all feel anti-consumption activists with a need to react and respond to the system, that is why participation is one of the fundamental axes in the functioning of the cooperative.
In Árbore, participation begins in the "General Assembly", the highest decision-making body. Two meetings are held a year, and if time permits they are held outdoors, next to a river mill surrounded by trees (discussions are more bearable when fresh air is breathed), and with community food giving to the assembles a festive playful look. It is the assembly that decides and approves the lines of action of the cooperative, and also the one that elects the people who will form part of the “Reitor Council”, in charge of monitoring and managing the cooperative. In its more than ten years of life, Árbore has been recycling its Reitor Council, reinserting itself to bear new fruits.
The complexity of the "enramado" has led to the creation of various commissions (six in total, some permanent and others temporary), which are in charge of specific issues. All of them are open to proposals from members according to motivations and participatory capacity. Fortunately, and thanks to their experience and involvement, Árbore's workers collaborate in the management of the cooperative by participating in the Reitor Council, coordinating the different commissions and the information that reaches the cooperative daily.
The result of all this is a transparent and horizontal management model, promoting the principles of cooperation and mutual support both internally and externally. It is about creating or recovering spaces of autonomy capable of growing or replicating themselves, and of interacting in increasingly complex networks. In fact, Árbore participates in numerous local events such as organic product fairs, talks and workshops and various calls for the market and the social economy, advertising them and attending on an individual basis of the members or representing the cooperative. The store
The daily activity of the cooperative takes place around the cooperative store. They have always tried to offer fresh and local products of ecological origin, bulk and many packaged products that try to cover, within our limitations, both food and personal hygiene and cleanliness, based on the purchase criteria that we handle.
These criteria try to include issues of health and dignity for people and animals and of course for the environment that welcomes us, and they are deployed in the evaluation of social, environmental and quality criteria of the products that are sold. However, we are not free from ethical, practical and commercial conflicts, and therefore from a periodic review of the different criteria that can be applied, always trying to improve these aspects.
The information offered in the store includes a small library and various publications on Responsible Consumption, Fair Trade and Agroecology, and also several publications edited in collaboration with other cooperatives and consumer groups that address fair trade issues, cooperatives…. In addition, the cooperative workers try to transmit the information they have due to the role they play and their experience
The cooperative applies discounts for the members on all the products offered from the beginning of the same, although in recent years a work of discrimination of margins and discounts has been started for the different categories of products and for some of them in particular. The intention is clear and is in the usual practice of other cooperatives and consumer groups, to intentionally favor the consumption of products that include:
- Advantages from the point of view of responsible consumption and food sovereignty. Thus we could highlight the proximity, the biodiversity of crops, social criteria, packaging and transport conditions, etc.
- Nutritional value. Discounts for fresh products, cereals, pulses in bulk and other products that are considered important in people's nutrition are increased. This idea came out of the discussion of how to facilitate the consumption of organic products to people with fewer economic resources and this was the alternative that required less supervision and that we believe more operational.
- Support for nearby production projects, reducing the margins with which the cooperative works and our weight as intermediaries. Networking
In the last decade similar projects were started in different parts of Galicia, joining them in recent years a large number of consumer groups IMG_1000. Although there is disparity in the legal formula between the different projects and therefore the operation and the organization are different, the fundamental bases are the same for all: building relationship models through consumption. That is why we also interact between the different projects, sometimes in a particular way, as between the consumer group in Moaña and Árbore, and other times in a broad way, as in the Rede de Galega de Consumo Consciente1.
But we understand that people do not live solely on consumption and that in the process of building spaces of respect and good work away from capitalist functioning, we must weave a network with other initiatives. Specifically from Árbore we have a special relationship with projects of the social economy, perhaps due to the fact of being a cooperative, with what this figure implies. We are founding members of the territorial section of Coop57, we participate in the local Fiare group and we are members of O Peto, an entity dedicated to financing social projects. We believe that the social economy is not only different ways of buying and selling but it also matters where you put the money that moves in the process. At the Cooperative Assembly in December 2012, a series of lines of collaboration (Agreements) were approved that are intended to be established with other groups, ties that facilitate mutual knowledge, and when possible, collaboration. Our relationship with projects such as Asociación Caleidoskopio, Raíña Verde, Mundos, Ecoenvío and Nornas, among others, has long since taken place.
In addition to this, we try to get to know the new projects that arise within the agroecological and, as far as possible, offer our collaboration from our experience.
On the other hand, all the information that moves in Árbore through computers goes through free software tools, a model that we consider essential if what we are looking for are forms of collaborative work and that at the same time escapes the hands of multinationals, capitalist structures from which we are fleeing. In this case, we have worked hand in hand for years with the Promathea collective dedicated to the implementation of free software and which is currently developing an ERP management program.
The urban approach to food sovereignty Looking back at rural areas is more than advisable, and not exactly for tourism. Gradually we are seeing glimpses of recovery of the rural environment: rehabilitation of abandoned towns, ecovillages ... despite the few facilities that the administration provides. It is not by chance that a significant number of members of the cooperative cultivate a peri-urban garden.
Árbore works to be that point of return and connection to and with rural areas and to open a door to food sovereignty in the city. We are aware that we live in an environment that produces few sustainable material goods and that consumes most of the vital resources (water, food, energy), generating a large amount of waste. Thanks to the cooperative we have all been learning and evolving (and we continue to do so) towards a more responsible consumption model.
It is not just about buying "green" things, in the simplification that certifications sometimes cause in the market, but about analyzing each product we consume and calculating, even minimally, its impact, its "footprint". For this reason, we give more and more value to what is produced nearby, trading with fair prices for the producers, consumers and workers of the cooperative, and applying ethical criteria to the profit margins in the different products that are in the store .
In general, it is not easy for many people, accustomed to the low price policies of large stores, to accept more "fair" prices, but the truth is that the number of members continues to increase, which shows that people are increasingly sensitive to these issues.
The organic certification dilemma The main activity that Árbore has been carrying out since 2001 is the sale of organic products, but as we have said, not in the same way that other sales channels are doing, such as large stores or organic supermarkets in recent appearance. The force with which these channels are entering the sector puts us in the dilemma of having to compete with them or rethink even more the essence of what organic products really are.
In our opinion, the European regulations governing the production, distribution and sale of organic products have been drafted in a rather shortsighted way, favoring large companies in the food sector and punishing, even excluding, small producers, who they are unable or unwilling to bear the costs of certification, and yet they are the main players in terms of food sovereignty. It is not that we deny the value of the official seal in terms of protection and expansion of the commercial space of organic products, but we should ask if a carrot grown in monoculture exploitation and that travels more than a thousand kilometers to our plate is really an ecological product and can be certified as such.
We have recently set up a guarantee commission, with the idea of studying these issues in depth. The supply of fresh local products is growing progressively both in number of producers and in variety of products, in many cases not certified but following agro-ecological cultivation patterns.
One of the greatest aspirations of the guarantee commission is to implement a participatory guarantee system (SPG) that allows direct association of producers and consumers in order to be able to certify themselves without the need for third parties, and following criteria based on mutual trust. We are seeing that in various Latin American countries and also in Andalusia and Levante, GSPs are being very effective as a defense and control of food sovereignty at the local level, in addition to favoring agroecological, food and socio-labor transition processes, it is a project that will need of time and dedication but that has begun. Utopia, as Galeano says, serves to keep walking.
1 A Rede Galega de Consumption Responsable is made up of different Cooperatives and Consumer Groups, it does not have its own website but you can meet some of the members on our website www.arbore.org/enlaces/na/galiza
NOTE: This text is written entirely in feminine with the aim of including all the person (s) that make up the project, both men and women. Using the feminine we not only refer to the person (s), but we also emphasize the presence of women, who in a world subjected to patriarchal functioning are invisible in projects and in language.
Food Sovereignty, Biodiversity and Cultures http://www.soberaniaalimentaria.info/