Participatory systems of certification and alternative marketing networks: the case of the Ecovida Agroecology Network in South Brazil
Introduction While Brazil’s southern region is best known for its ‘modern agriculture’, it also happens to be the cradle of an innovative and promising experience in the production of organic food, fibre and raw materials. This region (which consists of the states of Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul) is home to the Ecovida Agroecology Network, which was established1 in 1998. This was the result of the confluence of social organization, resistance and political struggle by small farmers seeking not only to adopt new production practices and techniques, but also to establish ‘another way of doing farming’: a shared manner and lifestyle that reflects and embodies a set of common values and beliefs and the sharing of knowledge (Radomsky 2010b). Ecovida Agroecology Network brings together groups of family farmers who follow agroecological principles. These groups are organized territorially, generally within a single municipality, although sometimes the groups span various municipalities. This territorial rootedness engenders the grassroots nature of each organization, which is fundamental for sharing information and technical knowledge and for gaining access to marketing channels to sell the produce. These groups are connected to each other through a coordinating body, which can be a cooperative, an association, or an NGO. This entity takes on the role of linking farmers, farm technicians and consumers within the region or municipality where it operates (Rover 2011, Radomsky 2013). The network currently has 28 regional centres, which serve groups in around 170 municipalities in the three states of southern Brazil. There are 3,500 farmers involved, belonging to some 300 groups. These groups in turn are associated to 35 organizations and 8 consumer cooperatives (Ecovida 2012). The farmers’ groups play an important role: it is here that the farmers make decisions and plan local activities, such as meetings, field work, the assignation of labels, set priorities for farm inspection visits and register farmers with the relevant authorities. These groups are linked via regional centres which also oversee labelling requirements and standards. They offer technical support, provide the structure
needed to meet farmers’ requirements and coordinate and strengthen the network. These centres can adapt the labelling process to local contexts, as long as the standards remain within the criteria established by the Ecovida Network and national standards on participatory systems of guarantee (Isaguirre-Torres 2012, Perez-Cassarino 2012, Radomsky 2010b, Niederle et al. 2013). This chapter examines the innovative practices adopted by these ecological farmers in southern Brazil to create markets for organic products, through marketing strategies that emphasize both their high quality attributes and those related to their socio-cultural and regional embeddedness. Participatory ecolabelling systems play a central role here, helping to create nested markets and promote new pathways for rural development. The chapter draws on several research projects, conducted by the authors with the various regional centres of the Ecovida Agroecology Network. These centres operate as learning spaces that help to promote development in the region. The Ecovida Network exhibits many of the features of nested markets. Van der Ploeg’s analysis (Chapter 2 in this volume) of lamb meat production in Texel (the Netherlands) states that a nested market differs from other forms or types of markets in its distinction, and in the mobilization of local and regional resources and infrastructure, and also in the generation of a common pool of resources. Distinction, he argues, can be generated at three levels: through the social construction of quality with differentiated prices; through building trust between producers and consumers; and by means of symbolic exchanges. Van der Ploeg defines infrastructure ‘as the set of specific artefacts and rules that are used to channel flows of goods and services between places and people’. In turn, common resources emerge from the infrastructure and the distinction of these nested markets, insofar as they allow participants to share their knowledge and build collective values that are locally embedded and shared by larger groups through trust and reputation. This explains why, despite being strongly rooted in a locality or territory, nested markets can reach distant consumers and other agents who share the same values. Ecovida also plays a major role in ‘creating the infrastructure’ that allows producers to connect with consumers. The participative certification process is a mechanism for building bridges that connect ecological producers – who prize and protect the natural and organic bases of their products (that define their distinction and brand) – and consumers – who seek not only a commodity but a food product with a guarantee of origin, quality and compliance with ecological production standards. To achieve this, Ecovida has built a socio-technical network that enables farmers to overcome entry barriers to markets and marketing channels. So, besides providing infrastructure, represented by the trucks and other vehicles to transport agroecological produce to street markets or other outlets, the Ecovida network established a further, and most important, mechanism – the participatory certification (ecolabeling) system. Participatory certification is a mechanism of ‘socio-material infrastructure [that] can be defined as the set of specific artefacts and rules that are used to channel flows of goods and services between places and people’ (van der Ploeg, Chapter 2 in this volume).