As Verónica Salas drove through the poverty stricken Chilean countryside in the early months of year 2000, she waved her hand to a woman and two youngsters picking berries along the road. Instead of waving back, they hid beneath the bushes. She later learned that although peasants were normally affable and congenial, they did not like being seen picking fruits or mushrooms.
Gathering wild fruit was not considered a reputable activity in the area, looked down upon as a menial job performed by females and young children. Even unemployed men refused to perform the backbreaking and poorly paid harvesting activity. Middlemen buying the highly perishable berries and wild mushrooms from the peasants made a profit through sales to wholesale distributors in the area. Peasants had no negotiating power with the middlemen, who arrived each evening in their big trucks. It was simply take it or leave it, and the peasants had no choice but to take it; otherwise, the fruit would spoil and be worth nothing.
Salas, a graduate of the Université Catholique de Louvain and leader of a Chilean community development non-profit organization—Taller de Acción Social (TAC)—wondered if it would be possible to organize wild fruit harvesters to develop their own business initiative. That way, they could bypass the middlemen and deal directly with the produce marketers. She realized this would not be an easy task. First of all, the gatherers were not a community. They lived in far-flung rural villages or the countryside, with very little formal education and few ties among themselves. The TAC team had been very successful in strengthening communities with a sense of identity—not the case of the gatherers. She realized that they would need to form an identity and create bonds to collaborate with each other. Basic skills training would simply not be enough.
“I knew if we were to be successful we would need to start from scratch,” Salas commented. “First, we had to bring the peasants together and create the conditions so that in spite of being scattered and relatively distant from each other they could become ’neighbors.’ In other words, we would have to lay the groundwork so they could become a community. In all our previous experiences we had started with literacy programs and training inspired in the model developed by Paulo Freire. But this time, we needed to build a sense of community first and most important, instill dignity into the job.”
To meet the challenge, Salas and her team worked with census data in order to choose an appropriate geographical area. They opted for the second poorest region of the country, Región del Bio-Bio. Relatively close to Santiago thus allowing the TAC team to commute easily, Bio-Bio also had one of Chile’s highest rates of unemployment: 9.7% for males and 17.4% for women. Although the region harbored large forest-based enterprises, fishing and agricultural businesses, the mechanization of labor translated into jobs for only a few workers, especially the better qualified. The rest had to find low paying jobs as farm laborers, complementing their meager wages with the income from the harvesting activities of the women and children of the household.
Salas recounts how TAC identified six groups in different communities. “[We] started knocking doors to introduce ourselves,” she recounts. “We met the poorest of the poor in our nation, people that lived in extreme conditions of isolation, in a state of misery that affected all dimensions of their existence. Gatherers did not live in areas with easy access. Their homes were spaced miles apart. Many of the families did not have running water or electricity.
“Often the households were headed by single women who had to bear the brunt of feeding their hungry children, keeping them warm and healthy during the winter months, bringing fresh water daily, collecting wood for the stove… We discovered their strength, sensibility and wisdom and that made all our efforts to reach them more than worthwhile.
“Often we had to travel through muddy rural roads in dire conditions to get to them. Some places could only be reached by foot, sometimes two or three hours walking distance from a shabby train station. If we happened to miss the train it meant being stranded for two or three days in the middle of nowhere at a time when we did not have cellphones,” she recalls. TAC then began to host regional conventions of gatherers, stressing that anybody—male or female—was welcome. TAC paid for travel and accommodation expenses holding its first meeting in the town of Chillán in 2001.
Salas realized the need to infuse dignity into the work performed by the gatherers and to build value into the activity. The peasants had to become aware of the connection between their history and traditions and the role of picking wild fruits in the sustainability of their life and culture. The knowledge accrued in the process of centuries of harvesting the wild fruits of the land had played an important role in peasants’ subsistence and development and could become a valuable asset now. TAC devoted resources and efforts to help peasants develop a genuine sense of identity and pride into this activity and they apparently succeeded in boosting their self-esteem, as expressed in the words of Panchita Rodriguez: “gathering wild fruits has been done historically by peasants and natives, it’s [an] ancestral [activity]. Women and men of the countryside have always extracted from nature what we need to survive, to improve our nourishment, to feed our animals, to build our houses, to use in arts and crafts… Gathering wild fruits distinguish our people for what they do, and also distinguishes local communities and is expressed in local festivities.”
The meeting in Chillán served as the starting point to establish a collaborative network between people and communities. Salas observes, “At the time the harvested fruits were not valued, in part because of the meager price paid by the middlemen. In fact, most women did not use these in food preparation. So we thought it would be a good idea to stimulate them to discover how good they were and how highly valued they were by the city people that bought them. We taught them how to prepare a variety of new dishes, like chicken and mushrooms, which we ate together afterwards…For them[the gatherers] to value their work, we arranged visits to the agro-industrial businesses that bought their produce from the middlemen so they would see with their own eyes the end product of their labor. Many had never realized that their fruits underwent a process of cleaning and dehydration before being packaged and sold to customers and they were impressed to see how good their products looked.” But what finally boosted the feelings of self-worth in their endeavor came out of a fortuitous event. One of the most prestigious shows of a local television channel learned about the nascent communities of gatherers and decided to run a program that documented their efforts. When the gatherers saw themselves on television they felt dignified and validated as workers.
Salas was aware that dignity was a necessary but not sufficient ingredient to move the gatherers from their marginalized status. They had to dream of a better future, and take action towards the improvement of their living conditions. The venue to achieve this was to organize themselves into a business enterprise to sell their produce directly to the agro-industries and obtain a better price. Thus, subsequent meetings in Chillán organized by TAC included modules that aimed to train them in vitally important business skills. Agro-industry executives, university faculty members from the Universidad de Concepción and local government officials were invited to share their expertise with the gatherers, to help the gatherers to organize themselves into productive units and to develop a cogent business strategy. With TAC’s help, the nascent enterprise conducted an in-depth exercise in strategic planning analyzing strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats. This exercise identified needs for training and support in order to pave the way for the development of a successful business initiative.
The communities of gatherers soon realized that a good way of obtaining a better price for their products was to dehydrate the fruits and vegetables and sell them already processed to the agro-industries. The Food Technology department at the Universidad de Concepción played a vital role in training the gatherers to dehydrate their produce, providing technical support with the first dehydrating oven, which allowed the gatherers to enter the world of mass production. They dried and packaged their products, selling them directly to national agro-businesses, as well as foreign markets. By dehydrating the fresh produce, they could obtain five times the value. Additionally, their work could be extended from a seasonal activity to a year-round endeavor if they expanded their range of produce to incorporate a variety of vegetables and herbs.
By 2006, the organization had gone a long way. They created the Coordinadora Regional de Recolectoras y Recolectores del Bio-Bio a governance entity that managed, marketed for and represented eight local communities of gatherers from different counties. Each community elected two leaders of a board that met monthly to oversee the chain of production and marketing. Leaders shared information with all the members of their communities, issuing a public statement of costs and revenues in order to foster transparency and accountability. Salas continued to support the nascent business initiative attending the monthly meetings and collaborated with the gatherers-cum-managers with sales and distribution decisions.
The Coordinadora developed a collaborative network with forestry and agricultural businesses so that members of the eight communities were allowed to collect fruits from their property, a previously prohibited area. For years companies had forbidden the entrance of gatherers to their land for fear they might accidentally start a fire. To assuage these worries, an agreement was reached that specified the conditions and precautions to be followed by gatherers would follow. Both parties gained from this arrangement: Gatherers had access to new reaping sites and the companies earned their goodwill and the approval of the local community.
Salas expresses with pleasure, “This is a first step that has translated into a stable albeit small monthly income for the gatherers in the Coordinadora. And even for those gatherers in the Bio-Bio Region that are not part of this business organization there have been positive consequences. Competition has prompted middlemen to pay higher prices for their products. There are over 200,000 gatherers in the country. If they can replicate this initiative there is hope that rural poverty can be overcome some day. Overcoming poverty is not matter of giving people money. Poor people have often lost their dignity and their ability to dream of a better world with a promising horizon of business opportunities. We need to empower them by helping them regain a sense of worth and offering them the tools to become part of the wider society…”
COORDINADORA REGIONAL DEL BÍO-BÍO: SOME DATA
- In 2006, seventy persons (57 women and 13 men) were members of Coordinadora. The total number of family members that benefited from this initiative was 280.
- From year to year their sales increased rapidly. In 2004, total sales reached US$2,120 and grew to US$8,380 in 2005. By June 2006, they already totaled US$18,620. Coordinadora had signed a contract with a national distributor to deliver medicinal herbs to supermarkets nationwide. They also were expanding their market internationally, since the Coordinadora had received a request to export a large order of mushrooms to Sweden.
Mónica Silva is an associate researcher at the School of Business Administration at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. A trained psychologist with a Ph.D. in educational psychology from Indiana University, she specializes in educational assessment and research methods.
The red and orange leaves of autumn drift past my window. It’s hard to believe that more than two months have gone by since I returned to ReVista from a year’s sabbatical on a Fulbright Fellowship in Colombia.
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