Science - September 9, 2004

Alberto Rodrigues at IAC conference: ‘Cooperatives are like a religion to me’

Developing countries need to gain more access to western markets in the name of world peace and democracy. This was the message that the Brazilian minister for agriculture Alberto Rodrigues had when he spoke last Monday at the conference on ‘Agro-food chains and networks for development’.

‘Globalisation has two sides: a positive one, that brings more trade, more production and more wealth; and a negative one, that increases social exclusion and concentration of wealth, and widens the gap between rich and poor. This gap is a threat to democracy and peace, and the challenge we face in the 21st century is to reduce the wealth gap.’ Rodrigues spoke with Brazilian emotion and flair at the Wageningen conference, which was about access of small-scale farmers in developing countries to big western companies and global markets.

That Rodrigues should bring this message on behalf of the developing countries is somewhat curious when one considers that Brazil has some of the richest and largest scale farming enterprises in the world, while the gap between rich and poor in Brazil is one of the biggest in the world. However, Brazil acted as the leader of a group of developing countries that successfully formed a block against western countries in the last ministerial conference on world trade, and Rodrigues led those negotiations.

On the question of how to make sure that small-scale farmers benefit from trade, Rodrigues claimed that he is a firm believer in farmer cooperatives as a way to make sure that farmers get a good price for their products. ‘The degree of organisation of society defines the development of a country. Cooperatives are like a religion to me. It is the only way for farmers to add value to their products, and get inputs and technology. Governments should strengthen the opportunities for farmers to organise themselves in cooperatives. But the paradox is that a cooperative should come from below, government can’t impose it on farmers.’ Rodrigues shared his ideas about what is needed for cooperative action. ‘People must feel that working together is necessary. A cooperative should be economically sustainable, and work as a private company, not dependent on government subsidies. And it needs leadership: within the cooperative to make sure that income is equally distributed among its members, and outside the cooperative the leader should act as a company manager who works for the members and is not corrupt.’ /JT