Gonzalo Osio Ressini
Fellow Since 1998
Corporación Empresarios Convencia
This description of Gonzalo Osio Ressini's work was prepared when Gonzalo Osio Ressini was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1998.
Gonzalo Osio is addressing the needs of small farmers in Bolivia, creating organizations that foment new agricultural products that make best use of their natural resources, while responding to specific market demands.
The New Idea
A farmer himself, Gonzalo Osio has recognized the difficulties faced by small producers throughout Bolivia in trying to earn a living beyond mere subsistence. He first saw an opportunity in his community to gather farmers together to discuss alternative forms of production and specialization in specific new crops. Gonzalo has spent the better part of his life working on the same land as his fellow farmers, and now uses his experience and knowledge of their circumstances to organize the farmers to create community-specific solutions. Unlike other agriculture projects and institutions that conduct their work in isolation, Gonzalo's idea integrates the areas of credit, technical assistance, training, and marketing under one umbrella organization, in small localities throughout the country. With the groups that he has established, he also concentrates on the long term, as opposed to frequently promoted short-term solutions. While there have been many technical assistance programs geared towards working with farmers, the "experts" typically come from outside the country and try to impose fixed solutions, without considering the cultural and socio-economic factors affecting Bolivian agricultural workers. Previous small, non-integrated projects have failed and wasted resources, leaving farmers frustrated and hopeless. Many rural organizations have been created to deal with issues of health and education, and are usually born of some emergency or short-term issue. When it comes to issues of productivity, however, the farmers tend to be very individualistic, and hesitate to work collectively to solve the challenges of improved productivity and joint marketing. Gonzalo's understanding of the individualist nature of the small farmer affords him credibility as he convinces farmers of the importance of working cooperatively on certain tasks to increase the value of their products and negotiate for their development interests. He is acutely aware of the need to factor in marketing trends to ensure that a demand exists for the products they can harvest, given the characteristics of their land. Though he works with small communities, his plan holds potential for broader reach. On the one hand, he is creating a replicable model to bring farmers to work together and analyze their collective situation. On the other, the solutions that these organizations create to deal with their community-specific issues will be unique in each region.
Farmers throughout Bolivia have had difficulties producing crops that allow them to live beyond subsistence. Instead they produce only to survive, cultivating as many as 80 different low-quality crops on their parcels. Farms have been neglected, production yields have plummeted, and farmers have begun to lose economic and political influence. The average farmer earns only $400 annually. This amount is approximately $1100 less than the per capita wage for Bolivians, and $2000 less than the average for all of Latin America. Many have instead turned to coca production to earn a living. Farmers who cannot come up with innovative ways to successfully exploit their resources to earn a living, are typically forced to migrate to urban areas, leaving behind lands which still hold great productive potential. Yet they lack the access to information which could assist them in improving their production, as they know little about market demand, new technologies, and access to credit.According to the Bolivian Ministry of Human Development (1994), the quality of life of rural people in the state of Chuquisaca, the current focus of Gonzalo's work, is critically low. More than 97% have no access to electricity, 95% have severe basic health problems, 87% have at least one member of the family with no education, and 60% have no access to convenient health centers. The poorest sector of the population consists primarily of those working in agriculture, upwards of 80% in rural areas. In the absence of effective grassroots strategies to reactivate small-scale production, in ways that are consistent with the dynamics of local and global markets, the rate of rural-urban migration will only increase, contributing to population pressure and unemployment in urban areas even as the local cultural heritage is eroded. This destructive trend is as apparent throughout the Andean region as it is in Bolivia.
Gonzalo is the President of APPAC, the Association of Small Agricultural Producers of Cinti, a farmer's organization which he founded in 1987. This organization is geared towards improving the lot of small producers in the region by convincing them of the importance of working together as a collective to achieve increased productivity and joint marketing of crops. The group's integrated strategies take into account ecological sustainability, the specific social characteristics of the region, a clear understanding of external markets, and long-term planning. The participating farmers have presented projects for rural agricultural credit, irrigation and potable water systems, technical assistance, fruit dehydrators, garlic production and export and have developed long-term strategies for regional development. The association is currently committed to the reactivation of fruit production - along with 6 municipalities, 5 NGOs, and 2 other farmer associations - and a 5-year development plan which includes credit, marketing, training, and financing. In the short term Gonzalo will reorganize APPAC and prepare new leaders to take over the work of studying the land and external markets to determine new areas of specialization for the farmers, as he will soon step down to replicate his work in other regions. Gonzalo provides the farmers information they need about market demand to maximize their incomes and crop production, providing the link between the market and production which many farmers in the Andean region lack. Radio programs both in Tarija and Santa Cruz transmit the prices of agricultural goods each day to farmers in the region. Gonzalo then uses this vital information in community diagnostic studies on the feasibility of producing various crops. International demand for garlic has motivated the people of Cinti to dedicate portions of their land to garlic production for export to Brazil and soon to France, while Chilean wine production has sparked the cultivation of grapes and acquisition of Chilean technologies. To strengthen this link between farmers and the market, Gonzalo recently created CYCASUT, an organization which brings together NGOs, small farmer associations, and businesses. Small producers bring their goods and CYCASUT helps them find the markets.After dedicating the past four years to the consolidation of farmers' organizations in Cinti, Gonzalo is now prepared to take his model to other struggling farmers across the country. In Chuquisaca and Tarija departments, he has created the Federation of Agricultural Producer Associations to join together 6 small farmer organizations based on his model. The national Fund for Rural Development, through their project for technical assistance, has asked Gonzalo to give seminars to farmer leaders throughout Bolivia in the administrative, productive, and organizational components of his model. Through a Dutch development agency, Gonzalo will apply his methodology to 6 additional farmer organizations and give workshops to rural farmers' economic organizations. Gonzalo has been very capable at raising international funds for such organizations in the past, from the Dutch Cooperation Development Service, CARE and Peace Corps, to name a few. To replicate his idea in other countries, Gonzalo has received 2 volunteers from Costa Rica, will publish an article in the Latin America-wide magazine "Agricultor de las Americas," and will appear on a television program in Argentina.Gaining the confidence and trust of farmers throughout the country, Gonzalo will establish organizations similar to the ones he has already established in Cinti and assist these groups to create their own solutions, while focusing on issues of ecological and market sustainability and group cooperation. After the local association is created, Gonzalo acts as a facilitator, bringing farmers the information they need to increase their production. Using information on market demand, the associations prepare diagnostic studies on the feasibility of producing competitive, high-quality crops for export. Gonzalo also links these associations with institutions which could provide resources for their proposals. Gonzalo provides the information, mechanisms to achieve self-sufficiency, links to funders, and technical support so the farmers themselves are able to make their own decisions for long-term project management and viability.
Gonzalo's love for farming began when he was a child growing up in Sucre. Every summer his family would take him out to the countryside, where he began farming at the age of 12. He took his interest in farming and pursued a degree in agriculture. As he studied he continued to return to work on the farm where he had spent his childhood vacations. When his university was closed down for a long duration under the dictatorship of General García Meza, he returned to the farm full-time, and decided to stay there. His passion for farming firmly established, he began to see around him his fellow farmers' economic situation growing more dire. Gonzalo also began to observe that widespread individualism amongst farmers was preventing them from working together to combat their worsening collective situation. At that point he decided to dedicate his life to working with farmers and facilitating cooperative organization, problem solving, and long-term development planning.Gonzalo founded several farmers and development organizations in his community, through which he has already made great advancements in the development of his community. He has also been tremendously successful in raising large amounts of both national and international funds to support the work he has been conducting over the last 11 years in community development. Additional accomplishments include securing an agreement with the National Highway Service to maintain a road which unites two communities and allows the interchange of products to flow easily from one area to the other; obtaining funding and plants for a reforestation program; and the construction of three multi-functional sporting fields. Gonzalo's nominator, a Peace Corps representative, says that Gonzalo "has an amazing social vision focusing on agriculture, and nothing will stop him from implementing his dreams."