Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations?[1]

The UN in the 2030 Agenda document has clearly reflected humanity’s concern about climate change: “Natural resource depletion and adverse impacts of environmental degradation, including desertification, drought, land degradation, freshwater scarcity and loss of biodiversity, add to and exacerbate the list of challenges which humanity faces. Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time and its adverse impacts undermine the ability of all countries to achieve sustainable development. The survival of many societies, and of the biological support systems of the planet, is at risk.”[2].

The depth of the environmental crisis is not under debate despite the preaching of interested groups that relativize both its magnitude and the responsibility of humanity in its genesis.

Faced with this, States have committed themselves to protecting the planet against degradation by proposing three lines of action: sustainable consumption and production, sustainable management of their natural resources and urgent actions to address climate change.

We must reflect on how to build, from these lines of action, a cooperative agenda to defend the planet.

  1.   Inputs towards sustainable consumption and production

The United Nations document focuses on the importance of innovation in moving towards more sustainable production and consumption patterns.

But what does innovation mean in terms of production and consumption? This was discussed at the recent IV Summit of Cooperatives of the Americas.

On that occasion, Wim Dierckxsens, a researcher at the University of Nijmegen (Netherlands), explained how the search for an increase in the rate of profit seeks to reduce the useful life of consumer goods, and leads us to unbridled consumerism and environmentally irresponsible. The search for innovation is associated with an acceleration of the processes of obsolescence and the increase of the costs of technology transfer.

Along the same lines, Rodrigo Arocena, of the University of the Republic (Uruguay), pointed out the need for renewed combinations of technology and social organization to improve living conditions durably: “It seems unviable to protect nature and fight against inequality if a collective solidarity action is not expanded, linked to frugal and socially inclusive forms of technical-productive innovation that make the maximum possible use of science”

In schematic terms, or innovation is at the service of increasing the rate of profit, and therefore promotes irresponsible consumerism and forces the obsolescence of consumer goods and capital, or seeks socially inclusive innovations within the framework of collective solidarity actions.

1.1. Co-operatives and national innovation systems

These concerns led us to argue – when we discussed the relations between power, state and market in the IV Summit of Cooperatives of the Americas – that one of the main objectives should be the democratization of knowledge[3].

For cooperatives, this requires analyzing in a critically way the technological innovation in each of the fields where they operate.

Agricultural cooperatives should ask themselves if the biotechnological innovations that are incorporated into the food and fiber value chain are adequate to guarantee the sustainability of their territories.

Electric cooperatives should discuss whether the energy matrix is appropriate and whether innovation proposals effectively take into account the resources and potential of their respective territories.

Consumer cooperatives should help identify when an innovation only creates a fictitious need or involves slave labor or environmental degradation.

From the critical reflection on their own practice, the different sectors of cooperatives can be in a position to bring their demands to the innovation system of each country.

The equation is simple: or co-operatives are resigned to a passive position in front of technological innovation led by concentrated capital, or try to be protagonists in the construction of an I&D agenda linked to the needs of its partners and the communities where they are inserted. There they play the power and the possibility of sustainable development

Together with other actors in the solidarity economy, they must participate in innovation systems, ensuring that investment in research responds to the needs identified by the community itself, and seeks frugal and socially inclusive forms of technical-productive innovation.

1.2. The first innovation is to cooperate

Our main innovation is the cooperative entrepreneurial model, whose logic is based on democracy and solidarity, and is therefore an alternative to the model that generated environmental degradation and inequality.

The history of co-operativism is part of the history of social innovation. From the first consumer cooperatives in Rochdale, who invented an alternative retail distribution system at the service of workers, to the new software production cooperatives, which challenge the model of computer concentration from networks of programmers where free software and democracy are promoted in favor of innovation and social inclusion.

From the first credit bureaus in Germany, which showed how financing systems could be created in favor of local development rather than speculation, to the Nplay services of the public service cooperatives in Argentina that question the territorial control model of the distribution of contents centrally produced by the great players of the communication, seeking the democratization in the access to the services, the territorial integration and the production of own contents with local and regional sense.

All of these are examples of innovations in the way we produce and consume goods and services, which have involved concrete results in terms of the quality of life of partners and the communities where they are promoted.

That is why, in the context of the IV Summit of Cooperatives of the Americas, we discussed the contribution of cooperatives to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), from Cooperar we suggested that the first question to ask is whether there are enough cooperatives to reach the SDG. Or more specifically: Are there enough co-operatives to induce a flow of investment for sustainable development that is meaningful in global terms?[4] As expressed by the International Cooperative Alliance and the International Labor Organization in the context of the debate that gave rise to the SDG, “as the participation of cooperatives in GDP and in the number of enterprises is currently relatively small, the promotion and expansion of cooperatives should be an important instrument to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”[5].

1.1. Social transformation for sustainable development

In this way, the first step for cooperatives must be the incorporation of environmentally responsible practices throughout the production process, promoting initiatives like the Cooperative Green Pact, agreed at the I Cooperative Summit of the Americas (Mexico, 2009).

The second is to establish ourselves in channels of participation to challenge unsustainable modalities.

For example: one of the keys to our model is that it allows the enterprise to be in the hands of the whole community, and this can be key to the defense of the planet, to overcome the usual appeals to individual consumer responsibility, and Think of the consumer as a collective subject and actor in the construction of an alternative model.

There are two challenges that go together: To have environmentally sustainable behavior as companies and to be part of a movement committed to social transformation for sustainable development [6].

  1. Sustainable management of resources: three axes for cooperativism

By history and experience, there are three axes where cooperatives can make a substantive contribution to the sustainable management of resources: water, energy and solid urban waste.

The environmental issues associated with these three exes can’t be solved by the market, but they can’t ignore the autonomous initiative of civil society.

Cooperatives can complete this puzzle by adding autonomous initiative of civil society in the form of cooperative enterprises as a complement to the States’ management.

On March 22, the world celebrated the International Water Day, instituted since 1993 by the United Nations as a day of global reflection on this indispensable, scarce and inequitably distributed resource.

It is probably the resource most associated with environmentally sustainable development: it is the support of all biological systems, its management for irrigation and consumption has been central in the history of civilization and today stands at the crossroads between development and the environment.

2.1. Water and cooperatives: at the crossroads between global and local

In a recent World Bank study [7] it’s argued that, because of the combined effects of population growth, increased incomes and the expansion of cities, water demand will grow exponentially in a context where supply becomes more erratic and uncertain.

The report also warns that the lower availability of fresh water and competition from other uses – such as energy and agriculture – could mean that by 2050 water availability in cities is reduced by almost two-thirds compared to 2015 levels.

It is added that water insecurity could increase the risk of conflicts. Abrupt rises in food prices caused by droughts could activate dormant conflicts and lead to migration. When economic growth is affected by rains, droughts and floods generate waves of migration and outbreaks of violence within countries.

Many regions of the world find themselves in what is called “water stress” due to population and economic growth. In fact, 2.5 billion people (36% of the world’s population) live in areas under “water stress” and more than 20% of global GDP already occurs in areas at risk of water shortage.

Does cooperativism have something to offer at this crossroads? We belive we have: Participation and empowerment of the community regarding access to water and sanitation, based on self-management of the service by the community itself.

Access to water is subject to multiple conflicts: between uses (irrigation, potable water, mining, etc.), between users (irrigators of the same basin, central neighborhoods with respect to peripheral urban areas), with non-users (deforestation or construction which affect natural capacity to provide water), intergenerational (tensions between current needs and preferences and the right of future generations) and interjurisdictional (when the water basin depends on different jurisdictions).

That is why it has been said that water management is conflict management. And the resolution of conflicts is a question of power: if we want to be resolved with the inclusion of all (“no one left behind” in terms of ODS) then it is necessary to ensure the effective participation of all.

And the best way to do this is that participation is not limited to sporadic calls to legitimize decisions already taken, otherwise, it is the users themselves who manage the services of drinking water and sanitation. That is the cooperative proposal.

In the world there is a long tradition of cooperatives and other community water and sanitation services organizations (OCSAS). It is a rich experience that must be enhanced in the benefits of equity, territorial integration and environmental protection. Only in Latin America and the Caribbean there are approximately 70,000 OCSAS.

Within this broad universe of self-managing experiences, we can find cooperatives in three different stages of development.

In the first stage are those that achieve the provision of the service from the organization of the community with criteria of mutual aid.

In the absence of an adequate service, the community makes responsible, for example, for drilling the well, to build a potable water distribution network, to build the sewers and the purification plant, and then to administer all these facilities, financed with a fee charged to its partners / users and usually with financial assistance from the State as responsible for the right to access to water.

In a second stage, based on the learning that the community has done, the cooperative begins to take an active role in all those issues that have to do with the sustainability of the service and the environment.

Issues such as reduction of losses, responsible use of household water, pollution of the lagoons or channels by productive activity, become part of the interest and action of cooperative organizations.

At this point the cooperative has ceased to be simply the entity or company that provides a service based on mutual aid, to be a channel of participation in which the community discusses and promotes the type of development that seeks in its territory.

In a third stage, the cooperative assumes itself as part of a water basin and participates in its integral management in representation of its associates, seeking to take into account the short and long term interests of its community.

Of course, many of them do not go beyond the first stage, and few manage to reach the third, because there isn’t an integrated management system for the basin, and / or because they do not have the economic scale to act in that area.

Water and sanitation cooperatives face a crossroads: either they remain at the first stage of development or are assumed as a platform for their community participation, as part of the global challenge of sustainable management of the planet’s water.

It is not simple, nor can it be autonomously decided by any organization. To achieve this, it is crucial to strengthen the water culture of society and the commitment of the public authorities to this objective.

However – because the environmental deterioration has become more evident or as a result of the efforts that have been made since education – there is an increasing concern and vocation regarding the protection of the planet, which can and should be channeled as a power for the social transformation required by sustainable development.

For this, it is necessary for cooperatives to put their values and principles into action. They have the great potential and attractiveness of being able to align the local actions with the global objectives, from the solidarity mobilization of the community.

The same institution that discusses how to get water to a place, or how to solve the problems of sewerage of a certain neighborhood, is the institutional platform for the community to participate in the debate of global issues and be part of the greatest challenge of humanity: The survival of civilization as we know it today against the risks of the environmental crisis.

2.2. Renewable energies: towards a paradigm shift, but with equity

Energy production is the main contributor to climate change: it accounts for around 60% of total global greenhouse gas emissions.

Facing this challenge is one of the most complex due to the relationship between energy and distribution of economic and political power on the planet: energy consumption from hydrocarbons is one of the main drivers of global economic development and its production is led by groups entrepreneurs in alliance with the states of the main powers. This makes access to fossil energy sources, for example, closely linked to most contemporary war conflicts.

In the 1990s biofuels seemed to be the answer to everything. We were going to allow hydrocarbons, which are scarce, non-renewable and territorially concentrated, to be transferred to a renewable and territorially decentralized energy source.

Shortly after the alarm lights have been turned on. According to the way it is produced and the distance between production and consumption, the carbon footprint of the biofuel can be equivalent to or even higher than the fossil energy footprint (for which the environmental impact is relative), production has been competitive with food (which has led to price increases with an impact on poverty rates), is associated with large-scale production models based on genetically modified organisms (owned by multinationals) and has involved the displacement of Other productive models and the reduction of forest areas, with a direct impact on biodiversity and general environmental conditions.

This does not mean questioning a specific technological proposal, but it is necessary to ask ourselves who and how technological innovation processes should be carried out: the biofuels strategy today is more associated to the development of a business for the concentrated economy -confused with the geopolitical interest of preserve the known reserves of hydrocarbons – than to protect the environment or democratization of the economic power associated with energy.

Similarly, the development of wind and solar energy projects is booming today, but the incorporation models of these technologies also mostly follow the logic of the business over the logic of the service[8].

The question is whether these technologies with much greater territorial dispersion will be an opportunity to advance in the construction of collaborative networks subordinated to the interest of the community and inscribed in a logic of local sustainable development.

There are important experiences in cooperativism that should serve to build this opportunity.

In the United States there are 943 cooperatives that distribute 13% of the consumption, own 42% of the distribution networks, and cover 70% of the national territory. These are rural electrification cooperatives, whose first experiences go back to 1937.

In parallel, a similar process has taken place in Argentina since 1926, with more than 600 electric service cooperatives, which provide 70% of rural electrification, and are present in small and medium-sized cities throughout the country. There are provinces where 100% of the electricity distribution is cooperative, and where even the cooperatives have been before the political conformation of these provinces.

Electric cooperatives in Argentina were pioneers in wind power generation in the mid-1990s. The difficulties in consolidating this process have been closely linked to regulatory frameworks that eventually favored a matrix based on large producers concentrated on mobilization and use of local renewable resources. In any case, projects such as the Rio Grande Electric Cooperative, Tierra del Fuego continue to be promoted, and would become the southernmost wind farm on the planet.

Other cooperatives are already advancing in distributed energy production schemes. The Armstrong Cooperative, also in Argentina, together with university and technology transfer institutions, is promoting the Intelligent Networks with Renewable Energies project, which includes the installation of low power systems (solar photovoltaic and wind turbines) in different urban residential displacements and public spaces.

The model of electric cooperatives, where service management is run by the users themselves, has expanded to other parts of the world – often thanks to the cooperation of US cooperatives – in countries such as Bangladesh and the Philippines (with more of 11 million connections each), Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, among others.

In the Americas there is also an experience in Bolivia, where CRE (Rural Electrification Cooperative), founded in 1970, has 611 thousand consumers and distributes electricity to more than two million inhabitants, representing 35% of the national market.

Together with these long-standing experiences, today we find new initiatives strictly linked to the promotion of renewable energy.

In 2010 Som Energy was formed, a Spanish cooperative based on the organization of volunteer groups that are responsible for promoting the values of cooperatives, informing about the current energy model and promoting a rapid energy transition based on the participation of the associative link of the territory. Today they are developing the new “Generation kWh” project, which seeks to promote investments in renewable energy, based on an energy return rather than a financial return.

In this way, for example, they have built a solar plant of 2 million euros in Alcolea del Río (Seville), to self-produce annually and collectively 3.4 million kWh of green energy.

In other cases, the cooperative work of electricity users cooperates with cooperatives of agricultural producers. For example, Huinca Bio, a society integrated by the Federation of Federated Cooperatives (Fecofe) and the Huinca Renancó Electricity Cooperative, in Argentina.

The initiative is a pioneer in the production of electric energy, thermal, and biofertilizers (solid and liquid) of high agronomic value. Generates biogas from the anaerobic degradation of urban waste and sorghum silage.

All these experiences show the way to promote a process of democratization in investment decisions associated with energy, ensuring that the users of each community have the main voice in deciding what kind of energy sources we want and even what is the volume of energy consumption we assume as environmentally sustainable in each ecosystem..

This will be relevant if this action progresses in close dialogue with the State, particularly with those entities closer to the territory, such as municipalities.

Recently the Municipality of Cadiz has given an example in this sense. It has decided that the Electricity Company of Cadiz, whose majority share capital belongs to the municipality, starts buying in the market and giving its customers only renewable energy. The decision was arranged by the Energy Transition Board, made up of neighbors, social organizations and the government of the city council. The next plan is for the community of Cadiz to start producing their own renewable energy so as not to depend on the energy market.

In conclusion, it is necessary to address the energy model based on hydrocarbons and controlled by concentrated economic power, but for this it is not enough to bet on renewable energy. It is necessary to leave the logic of the business to go to the logic of the service, starting from the protagonism of the civil society of each territory.

The most traditional electricity cooperatives, the new initiatives strictly linked to the consumption of renewable energy, together with all the initiatives of community and municipal character, must develop a common strategy so that the expansion of the production and consumption of clean and renewable energies start being associated to a process of democratization of economic power.

2.3. Recycling: new jobs for sustainable development

The volumes and hazards of waste have been increasing exponentially as a result of the processes of urbanization, the expansion of consumerism and the increase of technological content in the consumption matrix.

Facing this challenge successfully requires a strong cooperative culture: a social environment that promotes and facilitates community engagement.

The complex articulation from the generation of the waste to its recycling and reintegration into the production system will not be the result of a central bureaucratic management or market relations. It will be a product of social responsibility and cooperation, in a regulatory framework that prioritizes community intervention and takes advantage of the economic value of recycling, but always remembering that the main value, the protection of the environment, is not reflected in any mercantile relationship.

And if cooperative relations should prevail, waste management is a paradigmatic area for cooperative enterprises to develop their full potential.

There are many experiences in the world: public service cooperatives that incorporate the recycling of solid urban waste as a new activity, agricultural cooperatives that assume this responsibility to avoid contamination in production areas, cooperatives that provide services of collection, classification and recycled, etc.

There is a huge space to design different management alternatives, and cooperativism is demonstrating its great innovative capacity in this field.

But there is one aspect where they are demonstrating that they can make a particularly significant contribution: recycling as a decent work opportunity.

Waste recycling, especially in large urban centers in less developed countries, often was or is a booty in dispute between large collection companies, without classification and reduction protocols, and people in poverty who found in the residues a possibility of survival, being inserted in informal circuits of recycling.

From this conflict, where economic interests intersect and where the social situation of people in conditions of vulnerability is evident, cooperativism is playing a decisive role.

With the accompaniment of public policies (or in spite of them) informal collectors and recyclers have begun to organize themselves in workers cooperatives, within which they improve their negotiation conditions with the rest of the actors (purchasers of recycled materials, authorities, large waste generators and community in general and manage to progress substantially in the improvement of their working conditions, also contributing a participatory and socially committed vision.

In Argentina a paradigmatic experience is the Cooperative Creando Conciencia, in the city of Tigre, part of the metropolitan area of Buenos Aires.

It was established in 2005 to address the dual objective of recycling solid urban waste and providing answers to the social needs of urban waste workers, seeking to implement alternatives with social responsibility and sustainability.

As its corporate name indicates, the strategy of the cooperative includes a task of awareness in the community, so that each neighbor knows that by collaborating with recycling is defending the environment and is betting on a company that dignifies the work of its partners.

Its operative tasks are the collection of waste separated in origin and its classification and sale directly, or in manufactured form, for example for the construction of urban equipment. They provide home service in neighborhoods and also work with large generators, such as supermarkets and industries.

This is just one example of hundreds that have been strengthened in the last decade, and which are now in the process of forming networks that facilitate the replication of the experience in different places.

These are extremely dynamic experiences, which articulate with multiple initiatives of civil society, such as environmental non-governmental organizations and educational entities.

The link between social inequality and protection of the environment was very conducive to the generation of such initiatives throughout Latin America. The first cooperative of recyclers in Brazil was Cooperativa dos Catadores de Papel, Aparas e Materiais Reaproveitáveis (Coopamare), founded in 1989 in São Paulo, and in 2006 was founded the Red de Economía Popular y Solidaria Cataunidos, an network of associative enterprises of recyclers from all over the country.

As a result of these processes are the different Latin American Congresses of Recyclers, from which statements and proposals have emerged to dignify their work based on their legal recognition and organization, such as the Declaration of Bogotá, which expresses the commitment to “by the progress of recyclers and their organizations in the value chain, to enable access and enjoyment of the income generated by the activity”[9].

Recycling is a new challenge for humanity, and we must discuss how we will organize this task. Cooperatives have a response to defend the planet and promote the progress of the most vulnerable workers: work self-managed and committed to the community.

  1. Build and convene a cooperative agenda for the protection of the planet

There is consensus on the imperative need to protect the planet. We add: we must protect it from the economic system, today hegemonized by financial capital, which sustains and promotes unsustainable models of production and consumption.

As we said on the occasion of the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development organized by the UN on July 2016, when they coincided with the day of Cooperativism we were invited to discuss our contribution to the ODS: “from 170 years ago we have been building alternative roads, because for 170 years, cooperatives have seen that if we do not change the way we produce, the way we distribute, the way we consume, we are on the way to a world that is not sustainable”.

However, this is still not properly prioritized by most nations. The various international agreements, including Agenda 2030, fail to account for the contradictions between sustainable development and the expected behavior of the most concentrated economic agents. A naive, resigned or interested view that they can be reversed or reduced without the need to challenge economic power continues to prevail.

On the contrary, in the encyclical letter Laudato Si’, significantly subtitled “On café for our common home”, Pope Francis asked and answered himself: “Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations? Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention. For new models of progress to arise, there is a need to change “models of global development”; this will entail a responsible reflection on “the meaning of the economy and its goals with an eye to correcting its malfunctions and misapplications”.

“It is not enough to balance, in the medium term, the protection of nature with financial gain, or the preservation of the environment with progress. Halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster. Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress. A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress.”.

The challenge is to show that cooperatives are the model to change the conception of progress and thus defend the planet from the model that causes its degradation. They are able to put into action their principles to promote the social transformation that requires sustainable development.

Defending the planet requires having the courage to denounce the origin of the degradation of the environment and the intelligence of showing alternative paths. And cooperatives can do both.

They can enthusiastically  promote the business organization of consumers and users to promote another form of consumption, to build a system of innovation at the service of sustainable development, to incorporate good practices of protection of the environment in each job, to participate from water management in the construction of sustainable water basin management systems, to build a new renewable energy matrix under the control of the community and to mobilize local work in the service of waste recycling.

These must be the bases of our work in the defense of the planet, a work that requires to commit the local effort with the global interests, and that for this it needs to summon all the women and men who believe that another world is possible and that they are willing to join a movement that has made innovation and economic democracy its flags.

We didn’t reach this point as a result of an unpredictable catastrophe. And we will not leave it with the help of the same model that brought us here. Cooperatives must and can contribute to an agenda for the defense of our planet.

June 2017
Dr. Ariel Enrique Guarco
                                                                                                                PRESIDENT Confederación Cooperativa de la República Argentina (COOPERAR)


[1] Pope Francis, ENCYCLICAL LETTER LAUDATO SI’, 2015

[2] General Assembly of the United Nations: “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, september 2015. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/post2015/transformingourworld

[3] Cooperar: ” The democratization of the economy is a condition for sustainable development ” Document presented in the IV Summit of Cooperatives of the Americas. Montevideo, 2016

[4] Cooperar: “Expandir el cooperativismo debe ser parte de la estrategia para el cumplimiento de los ODS”. Documento presentado en la IV Cumbre Cooperativas de las Américas. Montevideo, 2016

[5] ICA, ILO. “Cooperatives and the Sustainable Development Goals, A contribution to post-2015 Development Debate”. April 2014

[6] This requires, first of all, assuming the protection of the planet as part of our cooperative education efforts. It is necessary to incorporate to the tasks of cooperative education, both internal and external, the theme of environmental protection as a constitutive and main part of the seventh principle. This task would be more evident if an eighth principle related to the environmental issue was incorporated, as proposed by Cooperatives of the Americas without success.

[7] High and Dry: Climate Change, Water and the Economy (Situación crítica: El cambio climático, el agua y la economía), Mayo 2016,  http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/water/publication/high-and-dry-climate-change-water-and-the-economy

[8] In Argentina, 92% of the projects that have taken advantage of the national program for the promotion of renewable energy are foreign companies, which have been offered a business scheme that guarantees their profitability and implies a higher cost than alternative sources, using technology that has no articulation with the national innovation system or with the social actors of the territory where they are implemented https://www.pagina12.com.ar/30093-el-costo-real-de-la-energia-renovable

[9] http://www.mncr.org.br/noticias/noticias-regionais/carta-de-bogota-declaracao-final-do-3o-congresso-latino-americano

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