For most people, international cooperation is a vague concept that is often criticized. And yet there are projects that truly help improve living conditions for hundreds of individuals. The people we met in Bolivia are living proof.

SOCODEVI has developed high level expertise in key development sectors thanks to the commitment and involvement of its member institutions, such as La Coop fédérée. These institutions take an active part in running SOCODEVI and offer technical assistance for development projects, while raising awareness among their members about the challenges of sustainable development. It is with this in mind that we undertook a report on an oregano growing project involving Bolivian cooperatives.

The story begins in 1998, well before our visit, when SOCODEVI became involved with agricultural producers in the department of Chuquisaca, an arid region in the centre of Bolivia. The goal was to diversify local income-generating activities and thereby improve living conditions by helping set up a new cooperative industry for growing, processing and commercializing herbs and spices. From the start the project received financial support from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and SOCODEVI member institutions. Since 2001 it has been co-financed by the Bolivian foundation for technological development (FDTA-Valles).

Oregano quickly proved to be an interesting crop since it can be grown on small plots in desert-like conditions and still provide a good rate of return. It was important that subsistence agriculture not be entirely replaced by the new crop, since that would have left the growers dependent on outside sources for food. The majority of the growers that we met devoted roughly half an acre to oregano, or less than 25 % of their arable land.

Oregano is a hardy plant from the Mediterranean region where it grows in conditions that are similar to those in Chuquisaca. Its great advantage over traditional crops is that it can be harvested three times a year. In addition to doubling the average income of growers, this ensures a source of revenue throughout the year.

A cooperative structure
The oregano project is coordinated by Agrocentral, a second-tier organization of farming cooperatives in Chuquisaca, made up of the Tomina, Serrano, Padilla, Sopachuy and Redención Pampa cooperatives, all located some 150 km east of Sucre. In 1998, a few farmers agreed to take part in the new project. Today, over 1000 families from these cooperatives are involved, along with 110 producers from the cooperative in the Tarija region, in the south of the country.

Thanks to the support provided by SOCODEVI, Agrocentral ensures coordination of the growing component. In each cooperative a permanent employee carries out technical follow-up with the farmers. These technical advisors, trained in agronomy, visit the farmers on a regular basis, helping them solve their problems and maximize harvests while also providing special supervision for those growing oregano for the first time. The advisors are all Bolivian, mostly born in the area, which makes it easier for them to make contact. At the same time this ensures greater involvement of the target community in running the project.



Oregano production

The heart of the project is at Tomina, a small village of 1500 inhabitants. This is the location of the plantation where the mother plants are grown, the source of new oregano plants. Several village women work propagating plants from cuttings. In order to share revenue more equitably in the community, the person in charge has even shortened the work shifts, making it possible to hire more employees without interfering with their normal activities.

Once the cuttings are ready, they are kept in two nurseries, paid for by a donation from CIDA, until they are big enough to be planted in the fields. When the cultivated plants have been harvested and dried, the oregano returns to Tomina to be prepared for sale. A factory has been set up for final processing of the oregano. Here, in a dust-free environment with restricted access, mechanized sieves are used to ensure that the final product is uncontaminated by foreign matter (twigs, dust, etc.) and meets standards for quality. At the end of the process, the oregano is packaged according to variety and grade and carefully stored in the warehouse until delivery to clients.

Although each cooperative has industrial drying facilities, they increasingly favour the construction of homemade dryers used by two or three farmers. These installations, which cost little and are easy to build, produce a higher quality of dried oregano. This is because they are built near the fields so that farmers handle the fresh oregano, which is fragile and blackens easily, less often.

Today, the industrial dryers, which consume a great deal of power, are only used when the weather is less favourable. This has resulted in considerable savings.
 
Valentina Benates prepares cuttings.
Marcellino Mamani ensures that mother plants at the Tomina farm are properly cared for.
Freddy Sardan and Antonio Herredie inside a homemade dryer.
Mechanized sieves are used to ensure the final product is clean and meets standards.
Computer technology enables agricultural technicians such as David Segoia to better monitor crop results.


Agriculture depends on water, but here in the mountains even the rivers are reduced to a trickle
during the dry season.

Ready for the big time
The progressive increase in production (200 tons in 2007-2008), combined with constant improvement in the final product, has earned Bolivian oregano a place and a reputation on the international herb and spice market. Now it is possible to demand a fair price and think about making a profit.

For this purpose, a private shareholder company, UNEC (Unitad de negocios de especias y condimientos – Spice and Condiment Business Unit), has been set up to project a more marketable and dynamic image on the international market. UNEC receives the dried oregano and ensures final processing, marketing and sales. The new enterprise is the main exporter of agri-food products in all of Chuquisaca, with exports to Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil.



Traditional crops such as corn, peppers, potatoes and beans still fill most cultivated land.

In addition to the installations at Tomina, UNEC has offices in Sucre. This where marketing operations are based. Since the start of 2008, there is also a small team in charge of diversifying market opportunities. The team is working on the production of essential oils and derived products. While we were there, testing was being done on soaps made from essential oils to be sold at nearby tourist markets.

In view of the successes achieved and the increased engagement of local stakeholders, SOCODEVI plans to terminate its financial support within three to five years. This means that in less than 15 years a project was created that set up an innovative agricultural industry run entirely by the local community. The ties established and the resulting confidence in the cooperative model have resulted in financial stability for over 750 families and solid bonds between the members and their cooperative.

From his small farm in the mountains, Pedro Vela must walk more than three hours to deliver his oregano to
the Tomina cooperative.

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