28 April 2013

Solidarity Economy in Brazil

One of our most stimulating meetings during the Latin American tour was at the social economy incubator (ITCP: Incubadora Tecnologica de Co-operativas Populares) at the Universidade de São Paulo. The incubator was established in 1998 by Paul Singer, who now works as the minister for social economy as part of the federal government. We met with Diogo Tsukumo, who will shortly be moving to Brasilia to work with Singer, and Reinaldo Pacheco da Costa, who is a professor in the engineering department.

ITCP is engaged in developing small businesses in the favelas along the lines of genuine auto-gestion, including the production of soap and herbs and services such as cleaning. They support the businesses with finance, capacity-building and networking. The history is that in 1998 a group of Singer's students discussed the economic situation with unemployment at 25% and suggested new forms of working, especially co-operatives. They explored the history of co-operatives in Brazilian agriculture and found that they were really consortia of producers and not economically empowering for the poor. They wanted to encourage the development of real grass-roots autonomous co-operativas and so set up the incubator.

Their well-meaning intention was to to do what they call 'extension work' in an urban context on the basis that, as a public university, USP has a duty to create knowledge in collaboration with society. An opportunity presented itself closer than they had imagined: one of the communities they work with is a favela right next to the university that was built by unskilled wokers who built the university! Once it was built they were out of work so the students worked with then to set up a restaurant and organised a grounds-maintenance service. They spread this model across the city and into the southern favelas.

Like many things in Brazil the scale of the solidarity economy is somewhat overwhelming. In 2007 there were 22,000 co-ops compared with 30,000 in 2011. Today there are more than SSE incubators in Brazil. They have recently worked to have a solidarity economy law passed through congress, and the level of support in terms of funding, fiscal advantages, and funded co-operative development work is also impressive.

The ideology of this grassroots economic empowerment is also somewhat unexpected. There are three main influences on the solidarity economy in Brazil:

• liberation theology;
• anarchism;
• communism.

In a synthesis that would seem impossible in any other society, in Brazil somehow they manage to create a positive synthesis between these three.

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