Branding + Mingas + Coops = Salinas

It was not easy to get to Salinas. Only 90 km North-West of Baño, nevertheless it took us several hours of various detours, some crazy driving on the opposite lane of a road under construction (apparently the only way to get where we wanted to get), and a long wait on a queue at 3000 meters due to a bad accident in front of us. We arrived in Salinas at 10 pm, but in spite of the fact that we felt to have arrived in the middle of nowhere, we were greeted with pizza and beer, few smily faces and one of the last rooms in the hostel.

Salinas is a small town (well, actually a village) at 3500 meters in the Ecuadorian Andes, very close to that amazing volcanic giant that is the Chimborazo (6267 mt).

From Salinas selection

The Salinas area is much larger, and comprises 32 communities ranging from 600 to 4500 meters above sea level, thus representing a huge variety of climate and ecosystems (and resources as we will discover later . . .an area comprising the perfect climate for producing coco beans as well as the perfect climate to process the beans into fine chocolate).

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There are about 6000 people living in this area. A middle aged man working in the youth co-operative that manages the hostel where I am staying with my family tells me with some pride that 95% of the population is part of the “organisation” (the other 5% apparently choose not the be in it, but they are benefited by the organisation nevertheless, since they sell their produce to it). The “organization” is in reality a quick name for several associations, foundations, consortia and cooperatives, ranging from cheese producers to textile, ceramic and chocolate making, herbal medicine and trash collection, a radio station an hotel, a hostel, and a “office of community tourism”. To have a general idea of the scale of this, watch the video (in spanish) at www.youtube.com/watch?v=iUH5HWVH7gQ.

When we woke up early in the morning, the small town buzzed with life.

From Salinas selection

From the higher planes, women were coming down with donkeys and lamas carrying milk into the town and to the cheese factory. From the lower planes instead 2 coaches brought teenagers of the technical institute of the town of Guaranda in a study tour. The youth were buzzing around the main square, playing volleyball and hanging around in bands, before learning the biochemistry of cheese production at the local cheese factory. One thing that you could not fail to notice is that everybody you run across — whether a woman carrying a baby and pulling a Lama, or a man walking with tanks of gasoline, or a teenager passing by with a baseball cap, were greeting you with a smile and a “buenos dias”.

There is something intriguing in Salinas, and that is that you do not know when capitalism ends and commonism begins . . .and viceversa. You feel definitively the presence of both and this is unsettling and make someone like me nervous. But I promised myself to keep an open mind, I am travelling to understand commons, the mechanism of their coupling with capital and the limitation of this coupling, as well as the lines of struggle and power relations that emerge in various context of commons.Forty years ago, this was a very very poor town. A salt mine still visible from our hostel room, was the only source of employment. A Columbian family, the Cordovez — who reached the area few centuries earlier with guns and strange pieces of paper with stamps from the Spanish crown saying the common land around Salinas belonged to them — was the only boss employing the locals for miserable wages and forcing them into a state of servitute and semi-feudal dependence. Now, all that land that we could see belongs to the community by means of the “organization”: 33000 acres of it, taken from the church and from the Cordovez!

But it was taken “nicely”, that is it was bought. Forty years ago, in the early 1970s, in an age of land struggle and land reforms, the Cordovez family could not believe their luck when the newly formed credit coop — the very first cooperative to be born here — offered to buy the land. The coop was formed to contrast the money sharks who were preying on the people in times of need like funerals, weddings, emergencies, with the lending rates of usury. Behind the origin of the coop that inititated the cooperative movement in this far away province, and indeed behind the origin of several other coops comprising the “organisation”, there is an Italian priest, who arrived in Salinas 40 years ago for a 3 months mission helping building a community house - and he is still there.

From Salinas selection

Antonio Polo, an energetic 72 years old Padre Salesiano, is a type of “commons entrepreneurs”, someone who is in the business of triggering and promoting commoning processes that sustain and consolidate themselves in some types of commons institutions.

I met Antonio in his house next to the church.

From Salinas selection

The window of the kitchen faces the square, so it is possible to see all movements down below. The kitchen seems to be in itself an open house, people coming in and out, someone waiting for dinner and another selling eggs at a good price. Antonio explains to me that the original choice to buy the land from the Cordovez, rather than taking it, in spite of the fact that the locals had really all the reasons for reclaiming their own land from the Cordovez who effectively stole it from them, was moral and economically rational. It was moral, because it was an anti-violent choice. And it was economically rational, because when people buy land they have an invested interest to make it productive for them (at least in the sense that they have borrowed money to buy it and they have to repay the loan with interest). I have my doubt, as the reasons given seemed to me too ideological. After some probing it seemed to me that the Cordovez family was interested to sell and selling at a relatively good price because of the broader context of land struggle and talks of land reform, hence of “violence” against the private property of the big land owner. The “peaceful” choice was therefore dependent on the “violent” context, making the moral distinction between the two quite thin, and leaving the distinction relevant only from a strategic point of view, that is contingent to the existing condition and opportunity to pool resources together (whether human political resources or money resources). On the other hand, there are experiences of movements of people reclaiming land by trespassing the gates of the large property owners that has led to the formation of institutions such as school and health centers besides allowing the land to be used for productive purposes meeting the food needs of the people. The landless movement in Brazil is a case in point.

Antonio explains how through the years the different cooperatives, foundations and consortia were formed to give work to the locals after the salt mine was closed. He is definitively an engine of ideas for imagining new productive enterprises.

From Salinas selection

The cheese factory pulls the milk from the surrounding areas (and the cheese from the different cheese factories that are established in local communities). The chocolate factory got the coco beans from the subtropical areas where the climate does not allow to process the coco into fine chocolate.

From Salinas selection

The annexed italian Torrone factory — which regularly export its products to fair trade shops in Italy — allows the use of abundant local honey. The herbal medicine laboratory, pulls together the herbs and plants brought by the locals, and the drying mushroom facilities use the mushroom collected under pine trees that where planted in deforested areas — with some environmental concerns, given the fact that pine trees are not really local plant species. All the “social enterprises” of the “gruppo salinas” — the name that was given to brand the activity of the areas for reasons of commercialisation and export — plus its “strategic allies” employ overall 434 people, but the total producers involved are far more than that, ranging from 1600 to few thousands (depending on different point of view). But it is clear that the cooperatives have a core workers employed in the centre, and a range of other members with a different contractual arrangements. The system at times resembles a textbook case of “putting out” system”, in the sense of a method of production dispersed in the home of workers, who mostly work part time for money alternating it with subsistence agricultural production. The important difference with the capitalist pre-industrial version of this, is that the organising tasks of the “boss” is in the hand of the employed members of the coop, and the paying rates, rhythms and general rules for delivery times of the other members are negotiated in coop assemblies (subject of course to the external constraints set by the market).

From Salinas selection
From Salinas selection
From Salinas selection

For example, the textile coop comprises few full time workers designing sweaters and hats and organising distribution of the wool to be turned into finished product. Obviously, they also represent the middle point between the need of the market and the bulk of knitting workers of the coop. In the room at the entrance of the shop, I witnessed a moment of exchange between the full time workers and the part timers (incidentally, the very fact that this exchange occurs under everybody eyes — including the consumers — and not in some back room, is a plus on “transparency”). Two women pull out some sweaters and huts from of a plastic bag. The woman at the other side of the counter, weight them and check the weight against the numbers in a register so as the weight of the finished product is pretty much the same as the wool originally issued. Then they briefly check the quality of the product, searching for irregular stitches etc.. There seemed to be some discussion with respect to the value of the product, and an agreement was quickly reached and recorded on the register, new wool was weighted, recorded and issued.

From Salinas selection

I was told that there is generally no pressure for a worker to finish a job on a given time, a part from when there is a big commission and the workers agree to commit to a deadline. All the payments in all coops are generally made through the credit coop. Assemblies of coop members occurs every couple of weeks to discuss matters of work organisation, and the one for the cheese factory was advertised with a big hand written poster with the agenda in front the of place to collect milk, as it was the one in front of the credit union. I wished I had the time to attend such a meeting.

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I asked to be given some example of how the principle of solidarity works within the “Salinas Group”. One example is in the case of the cheese coop. Every farmer who is a member of the coop, is paid the correspondent amount for the milk she brings in for the production of cheese. However, at the end of the year, the monetary surplus is not distributed among coop members on the basis of their milk contribution, but is shared among them for common projects: either buying new equipment, or transferred to community funds. This way, as our guide told us, “the farmer who has 10 cows is helping the farmer that has only one cow”, allowing for some re-distribution. Another example is the use of Mingas. Minga is a quechua word used by various ethnical groups throughout the Andes and refer to unwaged community work, in which men, women and children all participate in pretty much convivial ways and generally ends up in big banquets. Infrastructure work such as road maintenance, water irrigation, planting, digging, but also garbage collection and cleaning up the square are all type of work that calls for a Minga of different size and are used in Salinas. Yet another example is the important use of foundations, that channel funds earned in social enterprises for projects for the community.

We have therefore a mix of organising principles between private and community production, adaptation to the market and its needs for “competitiveness” and solidarity and communitarian values, a mix that would be interesting to deconstruct and study with some more lengthy field work in terms of how power relations are reproduced or diffused, and how the distribution and control conflicts inherent in market-oriented arrangements are dealt with. But the overall basic question in the back of my mind is this: what is co-opting what? Is capital co-opting the commons or the commons co-opting capital? My impression is that taken as a whole, Salinas offers a context in which dignity is definitively at the centre of doing things, and capital is not all, and perhaps — perhaps not yet — not even the most important thing. However, the limitation of the Salinas’ coupling of market and competitive principles with solidarity and community’s ones become more evident, the more we look at this experience from the perspective of scale. Few observations here.

1) One of the largest acquisitions is an old manufacturing plant to turn the abundant wool from the area, into thread, and thus “vertically integrate” it with the artisan production of sweaters.

From Salinas selection

Although part of this plant was donated, other parts of it was bought on credit. Also, the amount of energy it cost to operate is quite high, and the community does not have access to a source of cheap renewable energy. All this and taking into consideration all the other costs, implies that the break-even point (the point at which the plants does not loose money and does not make any) is 10 thousands Kg of wool thread at month. However, the international solidarity fair trade circuit can offer to buy only 5 hundred Kg a month in sweaters at the given fair trade price (which, although higher than market price has an obvious upper limit, because also the fair trade operators have a business to run and a commodity to sell). This implies that the rest of production of wool ( up to 20 thousands Kg. a month, which is the maximum capacity of the plant), enters the normal market circuits and provides the raw material for underpaid and overexploited textile workers around the world. This is one way in which the damned capitalist “law of value” enter Salinas.

2) One of the most recurring themes in conversations, literature and videos with respect to Salinas, is that its experience can become a model to other poor rural communities. It could of course, but the more it will become so, the more the rule of the “fallacy of composition” would apply: you cannot infer that something is true for the whole from the fact that it is true of some part. Not anymore able to use a market niche (i.e. an area of the market which is relatively free of competition), the salinesitos workers would set their products against the products of other cooperatives around the world, thus undermining their livelihoods (and of course, this is already happening to some extent). It is the same for the “success” of fair trade coffees in our supermarkets, which makes the consumer effectively choose which “fair trade” community to help in building schools or hospital, a choice often influenced by the relative price of the different “community brands”. I think the world we seek is different, is one in which everybody should have access to health and education irrespectively of the price of the commodity they sell. The capitalist ideologues solution for this conundrum is the same as the solution for the conundrum that emerges from income and wealth polarisation: the dogma of the necessity of aggregate growth, which implies the search for always new areas of commodification of life and, as by-product, would destroy communities and the planet. At the systemic level, the Salinas experience is not the solution, although within it, there are definitively important aspects of the solution.

3) In the history of the Salinas social enterprises, there is and there has been from the beginning not only a strong reliance on international solidarity and donations — often but not only channelled through institutions and organisations within the Catholic church — but also an important reliance on debt. With the subscription of debt to promote purchases of capital (hence extend the scale of production), comes the need of selling to repay debt, and the process of subjectification of the locals to meet market deadlines. This is inevitable, as to the extent we rely on market mechanisms for our reproduction, we are subjected to its rules and general laws of operation. Obviously, in the history of Salinas there have been some problems with individuals’ and coops’ delays in making a payment, and perhaps some default. For this purpose, one of the aspects that most attracted my attention is the use of the participation in Mingas (an instance of commoning rooted in local traditions throughout the Andes) as one of the criteria for the classification of coop members as “serious,” hence for the extension to them of credit and other coop services (an instance of subjectification to the market through a disciplinary process). (See Antonio Polo. 2006. La porta aperta. 30 anni di avventura missionaria e sociale a Salinas di Bolivar Ecuador. Quito: FEPP, p. 64). I am not sure how and to what extent this has been the case, but what this reveals to me is the cooptation of commoning to promote capitalist market values and not viceversa.

I have mixed feelings about this Salinas’ experience. There is no doubt that the 69 agro-industrial and 38 service communities enterprises are quite a means for the local population to meet reproduction needs in ways that shield them from the most exploitative practices of other areas in the region and make them active participants in commoning processes centred on dignity. But the increasing reliance on, and strong preoccupation with, global export circuits and on the markets seems excessive, with the risk that experiments like these really become the vehicles for commons co-optation. Also, although there is a clear environmental sensibility in the discourse of this community in the brochures and book I have read (for example, there is an awareness that excessive expansion of cheese production has some environmental impact), there is too much concern about finding new sources of revenues by “adding value” to local resources processed into export products, and none at all about the environmental problematization of global production chains and ones own role within it. There is definitively no consideration for “Pachamama” in the celebration of mushroom or snails meet exports towards European and Asian markets, products that both the Europeans and Asians could and should produce themselves if they so much desire them: a basic element of critical food sovereignty discourse.

Actually this opens up to another critical issue, also recognised by Antonio Polo in our conversation. And this is that the process in Salinas has started from agri-industry, rather than agriculture. The discrete amount of common land available could have perhaps been used more for the community, and only now some experiments are conducted with green houses and different types of plants. I wander whether the Salinas reality would be any different today if 40 years ago, priority was put on the generation of food self-sufficiency within the areas. In any case, the Salinas reality is one that deserves more attention and study, because it helps us to pose the big questions we need to pose if we are preoccupied with processes of radical social transformation. Questions such as: how can local commoners be actors of their own social renewal? How and to what extent can they access the social wealth they need for the pursuit of the good living through their commoning as opposed to their work disciplined by the market? How can they access circuits of wealth generation outside their local circuits? What forms of distribution and exchange can they invent with other commons? To what extent the existing market circuits can be safely used as a way to access wealth? How to set up limits?

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