The Cooperative Movement as a Model of Ecological Equilibrium

Carlos Gustavo Palacino Antia 1


With its interwoven values of mutual assistance, solidarity, self-management and democracy and its pursuit of economic and social objectives geared towards development of the community as a whole, the cooperative movement represents a model of development whose very nature and definition link it inextricably to the environment and related domains, whether these be the protection of biodiversity, the safeguarding of forests, the appropriate use of technology or education on ecological matters.

The cooperative approach has tools of invaluable scope and effectiveness for improving the social, economic and cultural conditions of populations and thus for combating one of the primary factors causing the degradation of forest areas and the environment in general, namely poverty.

The generation of self-employment, creation of production chains, vitalization of local markets, inclusion of marginalized population groups into the production system, participation in the entrepreneurial running of the community and ease of transfer of collective awareness of the need for environmental care are all characteristics of cooperative associations and, as such, provide millions of impoverished people with a realistic means of substantially improving their social and economic condition and of participating in the building of a model that is inherently sustainable.

The promotion of the cooperative model as an instrument to eliminate poverty, one of the greatest destroyers of the environment, would ensure a better management of natural resources, the conservation of wildlife and the rational use of natural forests.

A new development model

As no other species, the human race has the intelligence and organization to adapt its natural surroundings to its advantage. It has thus managed to substantially change its environment, making humans the planet's dominant species and making life easier by the day. But these changes to the natural surroundings and the structures of social organization have also had negative consequences.

Advance of the human species has required a disproportionate consumption of human resources and drastic changes to the planet's ecosystems. It was only in the mid-Twentieth Century that we began to note the disastrous failings of an approach to development that only saw nature and the environment as a tool or resource for human progress.

Astounded, we began to note the thousands of species that had become extinct or very rare, the millions of hectares of native forest that disappeared each year, the depletion of water resources and the prevailing change in climate. We soon realized that unless we changed our approach to development, we the human species could also face extinction.

Meanwhile, the various concepts of `development' that the world's cultures had adopted throughout history had created ever-wider economic, social and cultural divisions among individuals in society, engendering marginalization and inequality, two strong determinants of environmental degradation. Civilization as we know it highlighted development at the expense of environmental degradation. Ethnic wars, populations five hours from the nearest water point, illiteracy and new forms of slavery are still common problems today, brought closer by the long reach of the mass media.

Against such a backdrop, humanity as a whole has had to seek a new concept of development that will both prioritize the need to try to improve living conditions and reduce social and economic inequalities but that will also focus on maintaining equilibrium with nature. We are beginning to understand that we are part of a natural whole and that the accomplishment of our collective goals is bound to the existence of symbiosis with the environment.

Equilibrium among the different forms of life on Earth will only come about through development that resolves the needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to resolve the needs of tomorrow.

What is needed therefore is a social and economic model that will promote the integrated development of both individuals and the society to which they belong, that can be self-determined, that will allow all members to participate democratically and that will fight effectively against social and economic divisions. The cooperative movement, formed in England at the height of the Industrial Revolution and successfully implanted on five continents, would appear to have some of the answers.

Poverty as an agent of forest degradation

A lack of economic resources, marginalization and exclusion clearly trigger maltreatment and misuse of forest resources and the environment in general.

Poverty-linked factors causing forest degradation include land settlement, expansion of the agricultural frontier, uncontrolled logging and mining, the growing of illicit crops and the illegal trade of wildlife; all contributing to the alarming reduction of natural forests and undermining the conservation of ecosystem biodiversity.

One quarter of the world's population has to live on US$1.08 a day (source: World Bank) and another large proportion on little more. In their struggle for survival, these people must inevitably make disproportionate use of forest resources and biological wealth. The destruction of the ozone layer, the need for regeneration of the soil or the imminent extinction of a species carry little weight for families having to seek food or income to alleviate their destitution.

Furthermore, much of the land that has a high concentration of forest and thus serves a vital function as the planet's lungs, lies in countries or regions that have a high incidence of poverty (e.g. Latin America and Central Asia), which makes it particularly vulnerable in ecological terms.

This ecological threat from the high concentrations of poverty in regions of forest abundance and biodiversity is compounded by a lack of protection, with existing environmental legislation too feeble to curb unrestrained harvesting by poor local communities or uncontrolled logging and resource appropriation by multinationals and enterprises.

The impact of poverty on the environment and its concentration in the developing countries was confirmed in Principle 6 of the Rio Declaration: "The special situation and needs of developing countries, particularly the least developed and those most environmentally vulnerable, shall be given special priority. International actions in the field of environment and development should also address the interests and needs of all countries." (UN, 1992).

The cooperative approach as a model of sustainable development

"The cooperative movement that emerged as a social response to the economic and social structures that underlie the problems that unmistakably exist today could not, and cannot, be excluded from this pressing need to analyse the threats that we face as a species or from the formulation of solutions" (José Manuel Naredo).

The ideology of the cooperative approach, based on principles of solidarity, mutual assistance, participation and interest in the community, implicitly signifies development that takes future generations into account, i.e. sustainable development. There is no doubting the lead role that cooperative associations are called upon to play in building a viable model of development.

Besides their ideology and philosophical principles, cooperative associations adopt an administrative structure that is characterized by collective management, ongoing education and interest in the community, all aspects that are conducive to genuine sustainable development.

Importantly, the entrepreneurial organization of poor communities along cooperative lines not only seeks to satisfy basic social and economic needs but also permits local development and sustainable use of forest resources.

Economic inequality, high levels of unsatisfied basic needs, low levels of education, infant malnutrition and many other factors linked to poverty and impacting directly on environmental degradation can be effectively combated by forming agricultural or agroforestry cooperatives, cooperative centres guaranteeing supply chains under favourable conditions and cooperatives of trades and crafts, and so forth.

In practice, the cooperative approach can help build a better future and reduce poverty and marginalization through the following means:

A good example of the kind of work that the cooperative movement has been doing for the appropriate management of forest resources is that of the "Inter-American Network on Sustainable Forest Management", an initiative promoted by the International Co-operative Alliance for the Americas (ACI Americas) and the Société de Coopération pour le Développement International (SOCODEVI). The central objective of this network is to strengthen sustainable forestry in Latin America in order to help improve the quality of life of members of cooperatives and other associations and of their families.

This network has scored notable successes in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Canada, Bolivia and Uruguay, not only in terms of rational harvesting and use of agroforestry resources but also in terms of channels and means of cooperation between organizations.

As the cooperative movement is a sustainable entrepreneurial model that is also socially and economically viable, governments need to be urged to encourage such an approach by providing an appropriate legislative framework that will promote cooperatives and allow them to compete on equal terms with other forms of entrepreneurial activity.

This is therefore a call to champion the cooperative approach as a model of development that is not only inherently sustainable but that also has the means to deliver.


Blanco, Joaquín Mateo. 1996. Formación Cooperativa y Desarrollo. Spain.

Report of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, June 1992.

Message of the International Co-operative Alliance for the Americas, 68th International Co-operative Day, 7 July 1990.

Naredo, José Manuel. Cooperativismo y Medio Ambiente, selected texts at

Rompczyk, Elmar. 1997. La Conservación de la Biodiversidad en Revista Desarrollo y Cooperación No. 2 March/April 1997. pp. 93-106.

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