Grassroots International has developed a program of grantmaking that is designed to provide critical support to the most exciting social change organizations in the global south, particularly rural movements that are struggling for the right to food, land and water. Some of these movements began as confederations of cooperatives, while others originated as movements that created cooperatives in order to organize production.
We have learned that co-ops are excellent recipients for the two major categories of grants that we make: “seeds and tools” grants, which provide the basics necessary for a dignified, sustainable livelihood and community-led development projects; and movement building grants, which nurture leadership (especially among women and youth) and help our partners organize, advocate and communicate with their constituents, their governments and the world at large, and defend the civil and political rights of activists who are persecuted during the inevitable clashes with power that activists everywhere must endure. In many cases, including the three detailed below, we find that these grants work best when the two categories are combined, so that our partners can provide both the concrete tools and the technical and political education necessary to make these projects work in the long term.
Building a development model based on community led-development in collaboration with grassroots social change movements is challenging. While we trust that our global South partners have identified the most crucial work that is necessary in their communities, these projects do not always coincide with the latest fashions in international development funding, which can make it challenging for us to raise funds for particular projects. Working with social movements also requires a willingness to accept their political autonomy, and a commitment to working through the inevitable differences of opinion that will arise. In the current “globalized” political and economic context, it is also important that our partners not be isolated in local communities, so we seek partners who are engaged in national and international networks that are advocating for policies that respect their economic, social and cultural rights.
Grassroots’ Brazilian partner, The Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), aims to build a society without environmental or human exploitation, with a just distribution of land and wealth; and the realization of full economic, political, social and cultural rights. The MST, through its member communities, emphasizes a comprehensive approach that includes education, communications, health, culture, gender relations, human rights, international relations, youth leadership, cooperative production and the protection of the environment.
By focusing on voluntary cooperative use of the land, the MST is helping to confront the social injustices that have plagued Brazilian society while addressing resource limitations among the rural poor. They have developed over 400 cooperative production units, including marketing and service associations and 96 small and medium-sized agricultural food processing plants. MST settlements (or new village clusters) have established 1200 primary schools and 60 secondary schools with 150,000 pupils. Settlement activity has created 900,000 new jobs in the area of agriculture alone, with at least as many related jobs created in nearby cities. Social indicators, including infant mortality and school attendance, are generally dramatically better in MST settlements than in the rest of rural Brazil. The MST has also been a major force in mobilizing Brazil’s national rural movements, and in building the international movement for resource rights and agrarian reform as a member of the Via Campesina, a global confederation of small producers including peasant farmers, fishers and landless rural workers.
The MST’s state-level organization in Maranhão (MST-MA) has built a cashew processing plant in the Juçara Settlement to enhance family nutrition and the local economy through cooperative production and marketing of the cashew fruit and its by-products. Cashew trees have become a principal crop, whose potential economic benefit remains untapped. MST trainers have helped families in the Juçara Settlement establish cultivation and processing systems. In 2005-2006, Grassroots’ support has enabled MST trainers to continue to train and offer technical assistance to help settlement communities to process and market cashew nuts and fruit.
Through this initiative, the MST emphasizes agricultural techniques that preserve the local eco-system and help ensure long term sustainability. For example, MST trainers work with community teams in the planting and care of the cashew trees. One of the MST’s greatest challenges is the increasingly violent resistance they have met due to their initial successes, including assassinations and police repression. (That’s one reason Grassroots is also committed to supporting civil and political human rights monitoring to support the economic development and social change work of groups like the MST.)
Our partner K’inal Antzetik (Land of Women) in Chiapas, Mexico is a women’s empowerment organization that is the founder of an indigenous women’s weaving cooperative. Grassroots has supported their efforts at economic diversification by providing funds for several other local cooperatives. They have built a professional-quality workshop for their carpentry collective, including industrial strength tools like a copy winch and an industrial-sized table saw. K’inal has also launched a cooperative shoe factory to produce much-needed income, and provides training, equipment and supplies for a cooperative bakery to meet local needs and reduce reliance on food imported from outside of the community. In addition to providing tools and materials, K’inal provides education and organizing to involve the women in local decision-making and national and international policy debates. The early successes of the weaving cooperative have not yet been matched by the newer projects, and the women of K’inal are still struggling to find their space as women in the larger national movements of rural and indigenous people.
Another Mexican partner, CAMPO (Center for the Support of the Oaxacan Popular Movement), supports cooperative development projects in dozens of communities in Oaxaca. In 2005 CAMPO launched 16 new cooperative production projects including worm cultivation for composting and the production of organic honey. The organic honey production project got off to a good start in four Chinanteco communities with 51 Chinanteco peasant farmers receiving beehives, equipment and training. CAMPO assisted community enterprises by convening a regional meeting of honey producers and providing technical assistance to help market the honey. CAMPO helps support the co-ops by facilitating meetings with municipal authorities and other organizational partners. Building on their work in local, often isolated communities, CAMPO also encourages networking and resource-sharing among communities through regional events. In the past year, more than 1000 people from isolated communities have participated in these training events.
CAMPO is an excellent example of the kinds of challenges many of our partners face: no matter how good their work is on the community level, the people they work with are still living within the context of national and international free-trade regimes, with limited access to all but the most local markets (thanks to the international dumping of commodities like corn and rice) and limited support from their local and national government.
The solution to this isolation is unity: individuals working together as co-ops, co-ops as part of national and international movements committed to a development model based on human rights and human dignity, movements working in collaboration with Grassroots and other progressive NGOs and in solidarity with our supporters here in the US.
If you want to get involved, you can donate to organizations like Grassroots, get involved in local movements in your own community to end hunger, and support US policies that will help family farmers around the world.
Grassroots International is working domestically with the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC) to support a progressive US farm bill (the Farm Bill is up for renewal in 2007). Together, with the power of unity, we can make the world a more just place.