Grassroots Marketing and Control

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The struggles of small grassroots groups exist in almost every corner of our world. In Latin America and Mexico, grassroots organizations seem to be increasing in number of scope. This due in part to the urgency of meeting very basic needs and in part to an increasing political sophistication that sees organized efforts as one of the only ways to achieve positive improvements.

Most often, these groups are made up of people who have been economically and politically marginalized, excluded from participating in the structures and decisions that affect their lives. Mayans of Guatemala are organizing to overcome a repression that borders on genocide in some areas. Thousands have been cut off from their land and depend heavily on their tradition of weaving to support themselves.

The Buri people of Olongapo, Philippines, are organizing neighborhood collectives in the slums. Their main thrust is to fight the negative impacts of the US naval base, such as prostitution and the drug trade. They link their activities to national issues and finance their work through the sale of collectively produced items.

The Tarascans of Michoacan, Mexico, organized their communities around Lake Patzcuaro to protest the wanton pollution of the lake by factories and city sewage facilities. Now, they are expanding their organization's work to include other issues that affect their existence.

These are just a few examples of grassroots initiatives that require active support. Often these efforts are organized around the very immediate issues of economic and/or cultural survival, but if their existence as an organization meets with some success the members are more able to expand their involvement to long-term issues, including ongoing struggles for land rights. The obstacles facing such organizations are often overwhelming at the beginning, and many groups fail because of the lack of resources needed to maintain and strengthen their efforts.

Most conventional developmental approaches tend to be "top-down" and distant in their relationships to "target" groups. These schemes derive from governmental sources and include an unwillingness or inability to deal with the necessity for some degree of structural change as a prerequisite for alleviating poverty and marginalization. Changes in land and resource control and in the relationships of local groups to the wider economy are among the only things that can significantly improve the situation for the majority of people. If development efforts do not empower people economically and politically, then they change little.

In Central America there is no shortage of highly motivated groups organized around income-producing ventures. By providing appropriate services to such groups Pueblo to People gives them broader access to resources and reduces their risks. Product sales on the US market finances these grassroots efforts. The market is a medium for telling their story. Pueblo to People is trying in its own way to create an alternative channel for the flow of resources and information between people. Such actions between countries are now more possible than ever and represent one of the few ways to counter some of the more negative aspects of US relations to these countries.

Case Study: Cashew Growers in Choluteca, Honduras

"As the beginning of the project, none of us knew anything about cashews except that they tasted good. Neither the peasant cooperatives who had planted the cashew trees, nor we at Pueblo to People had ever dealt with a crop such as this. With clear-cut ideals and no small amount of trepidation we decided to join forces with the peasants in trying to do something with their first year's harvest."

The peasants of Choluteca, Honduras, were trying to work themselves out of a potentially ruinous developmental debacle that had initiated by the US Agency for International Development (AID). Living in the poorest region of the second-poorest country in this hemisphere, they had come to expect the worst when dealing with foreigners, bankers, landowners or large companies. In the 1950s and 1960s large timber companies had ecologically devastated the region with clear-cutting practices that caused severe erosion of the topsoil in an already arid region. As a result, their subsistence crops still yield only one-third the amount of other regions in Honduras. The visible signs of poverty, including malnutrition in children, are appallingly evident throughout the Choluteca countryside. They approached our Honduran staff partly out of desperation and partly out of their knowledge that we were already working successfully with other Honduran peasant organizations.

The story they told us was all too typical of "development" schemes the world over. In 1975, AID had done a feasibility study that showed cashews to be a suitable cash crop for the Choluteca region. A loan was initiated through the Central American Development Bank to fund 105 peasant cooperatives for the planting of cashew trees in the region. This land was to be repaid when the trees began producing cashews for sale. Technical assistance during the planting and nurturing of the trees was either entirely lacking or terribly administered. The support relationship was, at best, a very distant one. Little understanding of the peasants' economic plight was demonstrated. Furthermore, because of the compulsory loan, the peasants were unable to receive credit for their other crops.

When the cashew trees began producing seven years later, the peasants were in a quandary about how to deal with this new crop. Nothing had been set up for processing, packaging or marketing. It seems that in the original AID plans there was to be a cashew processing plant built and run by Standard Fruit. Export cash crop schemes such as this usually mean that the peasants gain no more control over their lives, but instead would be linked to the wider economy in the traditionally exploitive manner. Fortunately as it turns out, the plant was never built.

The first step we took after agreeing to work with this project was to research cashew processing methods. We made contact with as many experts and technical organizations as we could and from them we learned a great deal. Much of the initial experimentation took place in out kitchens. In Choluteca our staff and the farmers began building mud ovens for roasting and working to perfecta safe method for processing the cashews. Packaging was also a trial and error process in the beginning, but after struggling with infestation problems, nitrogen flushing and cellophane bags we felt we had reasonably marketable commodity. While this was going on in Honduras the Houston staff was doing market research and developing marketing strategies. Soon we had a flow of cashews ready to be sold.

The first years' crops were inevitably difficult but can be considered successful if for not other reason than community perseverance. Last year (1986) over 10 tons of their cashews were sold on the US market. For the peasant coops of Choluteca this represents the first successful cooperative effort in which foreigners have been involved. The most important aspect of the whole operation is that the peasants themselves control their resource base and the total process. The confidence and skills gained from this cooperative experience have spilled over into other areas of their lives as well. The income from the cashews, of course, goes first to meet the most basic of needs, but much of it is invested in such things as the building of schools. An ancillary project has sprung up as well. Solar driers are being used to dry the cashew fruit, thus preserving it for local consumption or sale.

Even though the Choluteca peasants are still poor, they feel more in control of their lives than before and this gives them more forward direction. Their affiliation with the national peasant organizations of Honduras involves them in issues that concern other peasant groups and it gives political coherence to the smaller group efforts. Through the national organizations they can struggle more effectively for meaningful land reform and a democratization of access to resources.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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