Arturo Garcia is helping small farmers obtain real economic power after decades of powerless poverty and decades of violent, destructive confrontation.
The New Idea
Garcia has created a successful model of peasant-owned and operated cooperatives which have been more effective than the government institutions which were created to help the campesino population. Garcia has created these parallel structures of self-help cooperatives which are helping campesinos control the production, marketing, and distribution of local cash crops, especially coffee, wood, and coconuts.For years, Atoyac, in the state of Guerrero, has been the epicenter of a violent struggle between poor farmers who are fighting for their livelihood and the repression of this group by a privileged minority who control the production, distribution, and marketing processes. Garcia grew up in a family of 13 children, the son of a poor farmer, in Guerrero, and developed a clear understanding of the struggle and the failed strategies of the farmers. After an apprenticeship during which he developed small cooperatives just outside the Atoyac region, Garcia created a new model of campesino organization which has been extremely effective. The model is based on three key components:
(1)It is focused on economic rather than political objectives. For example, campesinos, who are wary of any "organizers" following the long, bitter years of government repression, meet other campesinos from successful cooperatives and hear of the economic benefits that have been achieved through cooperative work. They develop a new understanding of rural development, in which the individual is an active participant, a controlling player in the development of the community.
(2)The model of campesino organization is non-confrontational. Garcia goes directly to government institutions and functionaries and explains the campesinos' new plans and strategies for economic development. He has opened a new dialogue (to the surprise of many government leaders) between the campesinos and the political leaders in this region. In effect, he has moved away from political confrontations and instead brandishes economic production reports which authenticate the campesinos' economic reform demands.
(3)The campesino organizations parallel the government institutions which haven't been successful. For example, Garcia's campesino bank, because it is free of detailed control and government bureaucracy, offers lower rates of credit with easier terms than the Government Banco de Credito Agricola. Garcia's distribution centers, which are not held back by the inefficiency and corruption of the government distribution network, are far more successful economically. His organization has even begun selling its coffee direct to sympathetic cooperative organizations in France, the U.K., and Germany.
As one moves south in Mexico, social and land tenure conditions in wide areas increasingly resemble those that have helped make so many of the small countries south of its borders a mess. Garcia's home state of Guerrero, which ironically stretches along the Pacific coast behind and on either side of Acapulco, has been a painful example for generations.
It is intensely poor. More than a million people live on the margin of existence. Illiteracy and unemployment are high; roads, schools, and other services scant. Even when government has set out to help, corruption and the influence of the powerful have siphoned off or diverted much of the intended benefits.
The land has been dominated by a small number of people, and bitter, often bloody struggles over the land stretch back to the years of Spanish rule. In the 1930s armed struggles pitting campesinos against landowners began anew. Over the last decades new armed uprisings brought an intense effort by the Mexican Army to repress the violence. Hundreds were killed. Bitterness, distrust, and public fear of organizing are part of the heritage Garcia faces.
One of the reasons the area's farmers, especially the small producers, have found it so hard to profit and save has been their dependence on layers of middlemen. The government's effort to replace middlemen with government purchasing has turned out to be as unsatisfactory: whatever benefits accrue disappear in high costs and/or are transferred elsewhere.
Garcia is building an efficient network of cooperative organizations, all of which reinforce one another. He has pressed quickly to achieve economies of scale -- administratively, in bulk purchasing and selling, in distribution, and in building a solid base of support.
Garcia has designed his approach so that participants can both run it and help spread it to their neighbors. Farmers from successful cooperatives travel to new locations, where the farmers may still be unsure of the viability of cooperative networks, and share their experience. In some cases a member of Garcia's organization will stay and live with the coop's new farmers for up to 1-2 years to make sure that they understand and successfully adapt the model.
In Guerrero, Garcia has organized between 10 and 90 percent of the farmers, depending on the crop. He hopes the model will spread to the rest of Mexico. Toward that end he has over the last several years helped build a new national non-party alliance of campesino organizations.
Garcia grew up in Guerrero, the 10th of 13 children of a poor coffee farmer. His commitment to helping the small farmer -- and his remarkable talent for leadership -- were apparent early. In high school, for example, he took 15 of his friends into rural areas, where they helped build cooperatives in Puebla, Tlaxcala, and Morelos.
From that beginning Garcia has never stopped learning. He worked in factories, helped organize rural support for striking workers, tried to run for union office with friends, and went to the Costa Chica to begin testing and launching his approach.