Monday, September 28, 2009

La gente unida nunca sera vencida

posted Tue, 24 Aug 2004

I’ve been thinking some more about the organic food co-op that closed a few weeks ago – the one with the Zapatista coffee and the sincere employees. There was a story in the paper about the closing. The manager said that there were 500 members of the store and that if each member had spent just $10 a week at the store, they could have stayed in business.

Yes. But. People do not have a moral obligation to shop in a certain place. The prices in this store were higher than you would pay elsewhere, especially for produce. And the best greengrocer in town has a store just one block away from the erstwhile co-op.

The fact is the store was not a good business. Stores like that can thrive if done properly. There is a Wild Oats in town and there is another organic-type store about a mile from the closed co-op. But Square Foods gives customers a reason to come into the store. You can actually do all your grocery shopping there if you want. The co-op’s selection was limited and pricey. Most people, when it comes right down to it, are not going to spend more money than they have to, no matter what their politics.

I tried to play on that liberal guilt aspect when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Chile. My project was working with a group of indigenous women (the indigenous group is called Mapuche) who had a small store where they sold the rugs and blankets they had woven.

Problem was that there were lots of Mapuche women not in the Casa de la Mujer Mapuche – our co-op – who also wove and sold textiles. And they would compete on price. They wanted cash. The wool for the textiles came from their sheep. Some of the dyes were natural (the synthetics were actually prettier, but required cash expenditure). The rest of the value was in the labor. Basically, any amount of cash the vendor could get was a win for her.

So I set up the store to target tourists. Chileans weren’t interested in this stuff. To be honest, it was not as nice as the stuff that comes from Bolivia or Ecuador. The sheep in my area had short, coarse hair so the wool wasn’t very nice. The Aymara have much nicer textiles than the Mapuche.

But I digress. I played up the fact that our group was a co-op of women dedicated to non-patriarchal, non-Western, non-imperialist, non-capitalist, non-hierarchal decision making and organization. Of course, I was silently rolling my eyes as I did this. Rosa, the director of the organization, talked the talk about all this cooperative decision making, but she would tell the receptionist. “Get so and so on the phone for me.” She loved the trappings of power. And as much as she disdained capitalism, she sure didn’t mind taking money from the Inter-American Foundation, the US-funded group that financed Casa de la Mujer Mapuche. (By “US-funded,” I mean by your tax dollars.) Actually, she probably thought the money was her due because the US had somehow oppressed her people.

Whatever. I got so much of that baloney: “Before you white people were here, Mapuches didn’t even know to make a fist. The men never beat their wives.”

Right. Then why did the Spaniards never conquer the Mapuche (one of the few indigenous groups in the world with that claim to fame)? The Mapuche were such vicious warriors that no one could beat them. The Incas never beat them, either.

Rosa would proclaim that the Chileans would have to give the land back to the Mapuches. I would tell her that the Mapuches needed to get their act together: with about 7% of the population, they could be a formidable voting bloc if they would organize. Hardly anyone in the world even knows where Chile is, much less that the Mapuches exist, I told her. No one cares. You want to get something in this country? Organize. Educate your children. Turn them into teachers, doctors, lawyers – and elect them to the legislature.

In Rosa’s defense, the idea of representative democracy was slightly foreign, given that she had been only a baby when Pinochet came into power and didn’t know anything but a fascist dictatorship. Yes, Pinochet had been officially out of power for a few years when I got there, but he still pulled some strings.

But I thought if I could get the tree-hugger backpacker tourists to buy into the mission of the Casa – to empower women – they would be willing to pay 50% more for the products than they would cost elsewhere.

Sometimes it worked. We did increase profits 26% while I was there, but it was an uphill battle every day. We have to make money to stay in business, I would remind my colleagues. It doesn't do the women in the group (about 135 members) any good if we go out of business. I would remind my counterpart of this every time she bought a poorly-made rug from one of the women. We won't be able to sell that, I'd say.

But that argument doesn’t hold much sway when the salaries of those making the decisions are paid from a grant, so the income from the business does not have to cover the expenses. In this case, they got to be 'idealistic' because someone else is paying the bills – which is how it usually works, even in this country. Witness the protesters against “globalization” – if they actually had to work, they wouldn’t have time to protest all day. It’s pretty nice to have a trust fund. But that’s another subject.

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