Beginning in Patagonia, Bob Killmeate is introducing a basic piece of social and economic infrastructure to the rural Southern Cone—the communal marketplace. Through their system of governance and the community they nurture, these markets go beyond their tremendous economic benefits to bridge the social and civic isolation facing rural households.
The New Idea
Bob Killmeate is addressing a key void in the rural infrastructure of Argentina and the Southern Cone. Unlike most other parts of the world, small farmers and producers in Argentina lack access to communal marketplaces to display and sell their products. Bob has seized upon this opportunity, and created a cooperatively managed rural marketplace where local products—from food to leather goods to handicrafts—are sold. In the process of establishing these rural marketplaces, he also broaches a key gap in the social infrastructure, as collaborative processes are essential to boosting the productivity of rural producers and nurturing the social capital necessary for integration into broader society. As market associates move out of isolation and recognize the common problems they face, they begin reclaiming their rights to social and economic citizenship.
Rural poverty in Argentina and the Southern Cone, and particularly in the Patagonia region, is characterized by small populations spread over vast distances, with little infrastructure linking dispersed populations. Unlike their counterparts in other areas of the world, rural Argentines—and their neighbors in Chile and Uruguay—do not enjoy the basic infrastructure that allows rural economies to function and flourish. The small farmers and producers of Patagonia have the barest minimum contact with the national economy and markets and live, much as they have been for centuries, isolated and without access to infrastructure or government programs. This isolation has been reinforced through what can only be considered a quirk of the Latin American context. While Andean and Mesoamerican rural and, in particular, mountain-based communities have long relied on communal markets for social and economic needs, these structures have never thrived in the Southern Cone.
The effects of this situation are predictable. Vast distances limit opportunities for rural populations to join together in the social networks necessary for effective communal and civic engagement. As a result of this limited social capital, rural populations arepoorly represented in the political sphere, and have little influence over the policies and programs that govern them.
In the economic arena, despite the growth of the national economy, poverty has persisted in Patagonia. Poverty levels have remained near 80 percent in Patagonia even while they dipped below 30 percent for the region as a whole. Traditional production practices have stagnated—with no common market structure in place, households have not been able to enjoy the economies of scale that allow for more effective marketing of their products, nor have they been able to access the marketing information (e.g. demands, tastes, and trends) that would allow for their products to be more effectively sold in the rural marketplace.
Through his organization, Surcos Patagonicos, Bob is introducing rural marketplaces to vast regions of the Patagonia that have sorely lacked this basic economic infrastructure. These cooperatively managed and vertically integrated markets—each occupying its own physical space—are providing economic opportunities to vast regions of Patagonia. The markets allow rural families to substantially increase their monthly incomes by providing an effective distribution outlet for the products which they produce on their farms and in their workshops.
The first prototype market, el Mercado de las Estepa, or the Pampas Market, draws its members from nine separate communities spread over an area of 400 square kilometers. Its location, on a main road leading to the large city of Bariloche, supplies it with a steady stream of customers to purchase products such as wool, honey, leather goods, handicrafts, homemade jams and preserves, liquors, and hand-carved gems. Bob expects this year’s market to earn 100,000 Argentine pesos or 1,000 pesos per family. While this may appear to be a pittance, about US$300 a year, it amounts to a 30 percent increase in total household income for each participating family.
The process by which a Mercado is established, in addition to its structure and governance, is designed to build long term bonds of trust, mutual respect and interdependence among widespread rural populations. Through a democratic body, members of the market draw up their own rules of conduct and business, forming a self-policing community over which they take collective ownership. This structure, including two elected representatives from each participating community, presides over the market and resolves any issues that emerge over time. Moreover, the market operates on a “must work” basis; rotating groups travel to the market site, often long distances from their homes, to sell their own products alongside those of their fellow associates. This action transforms each individual from a simple vendor of wares into a community member, trusted and responsible for the well-being of his neighbors. While they may not recognize it early on, market members come to understand that they share common interests and goals.
The market doubles as a physical space and, just as importantly, a communal enterprise in which market information can be shared, product information can be exchanged, and basic business skills can be enhanced. Members of the Mercado instruct their fellow associates in new techniques, and provide critiques of products, which allows for a continuous process of innovation and product improvement. The Mercado is set up to allow access to external resources as well. Bob has linked it with the business communities from major rural centers, e.g. the city of Bariloche, and drawn them in to provide advisory services. He has also transformed the second floor of the market building into a library and resource center.
Bob has positioned the market as a launching pad for additional opportunities for its associates. Surcos Patagonicos works with its members to assist them to take advantage of local festivals and other cultural events where products may be displayed and sold. It also promotes its members’ products through centralized advertising, especially radio, which broadcasts news of local events where products may be available, etc. As market associates gain confidence to sell their products in new locations, Surcos Patagonicos serves as a resource to solve the bureaucratic and logistical challenges that would otherwise stymie Patagonia’s residents. They have lobbied government to shift certification and permit practices in order to exempt markets manned by non-primary producers, and are currently working to resolve tax and legal barriers that stand in the way of expansion.
Replications of the “Mercado de la Estepa” are planned in seven rural communities throughout Patagonia. Bob has been working with the national government entities, as well as the AVINA Foundation, to spread the idea beyond Bariloche—and has identified Calafate, Ushuaia, Puerto Madryn, Comodoro Rivadavia, San Martín de los Andes, Junín del Oeste, and Esquel as the next market sites. Bob’s relationship with the AVINA Network in Patagaonia has proven instrumental in this process, as other AVINA leaders recognize synergies with the interests of their own communities and take on leadership roles in establishing new networks.
Born in Argentina to Irish parents, Bob left his studies of the law and began studying for the priesthood, motivated by what would become a lifelong dedication to the needs of the poor and marginalized. During his years as a student of faith, Bob joined a small group of Catholic priests and students working to incorporate a social justice ideology into ecclesiastical doctrine and practice. While on a trip to Colombia in 1976, the other members of his group were shot dead in what became known as the “Massacre of San Patricio.” Bob was deeply affected, but not scared away from his life mission; despite pressure from the church to leave their ranks, he persevered and until he was ordained in 1978. In the interim, unable to return to Argentina where his life was in danger, he traveled throughout Latin America observing and living the reality of his continent’s poorest people.
The Catholic Church permitted Bob to return to San Patricio, in the center of Buenos Aires, after his ordination on the condition that he only preach the children’s sermon. Complying with this order, he found other ways to involve himself in the broader community. Early on, Bob founded CAVE, an organization dedicated to mobilizing resources, volunteers, and the will of slum dwellers in a collective process for constructing homes. To complement his work with youth, he also created a school for youth leadership and implemented new methods to test newfound leadership skills in practice.
After only a year working in San Patricio, the Catholic Church became alarmed at his activities and reassigned him to the isolated village of Los Juríes in the remote Santiago del Estero region. But Bob has what he describes as “the ability to discover problems,” and so only six months into his tenure, he founded PROINCA, an organization dedicated to training and empowering campesino communities to fight for land titles. Bob fought hard for the landless families that he worked with, but always strove to “place the power with the campesinos themselves.” Over time, PROINCA evolved into a new organization, MOCASE, which was launched by landless workers themselves as a platform from which to work for their cause. During the eight years that Bob worked with the landless movement, campesinoes succeeded in gaining title to 177,000 hectares of land. MOCASE continues as the strongest organization representing the interests of the landless and land-insecure citizens of Argentina.
Bob reflects on his years in Los Juríes as critical to his understanding of local problems. He observed rural producers “working for land rights, working to improve productivity, and working on marketing—but never working with a vision for how to produce a real change in their communities.” To truly foment this type of change, Bob felt that he would have to leave the church and rethink his approach. In the early 1990s, he retired from priesthood and moved to a small farm in Patagonia to experience the life of those he aimed to help. In 2002, he launched Surcos Patagonicos.