COVID-19 has demonstrated the deficiencies of a globalized, neoliberal marketplace. In the midst of crisis, planners and policy makers tend to turn toward technologists and bureaucrats for solutions. Using the framework of the solidarity economy, we argue that innovative and sustainable infrastructure for the post-COVID-19 world exists within the Global South. This article suggests that the groundwork laid before the onset of the pandemic allowed communities to move rapidly to localized trade structures and community-based sharing initiatives. We use a case study example of a rural community in Uruguay that has innovative social structures including a local food economy, sharing networks, and co-operative arrangements. These structures render community members resilient and adaptable in the face of a global crisis. We discuss what lessons may be transmitted to the Global North as people there look to build a more sustainable and resilient society post-COVID-19.
Solutions to the problems laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic are hiding in plain sight, if we can only remove our prejudices as to who is seen as an ‘innovator’ or ‘thought leader’ in our global society. Often, in times of crisis, we look to the technocrats: highly trained doctors and bureaucrats whom we may perceive to be smarter, better educated, and savvy to processes that the general public is not privy to. However, as we are seeing now, the systems that have put these once-trusted individuals in power are failing globally, especially in some of the richest and most powerful nations on the planet. We can therefore no longer rely on those who built the system to fix the problems it has caused. We need whole systems change. So, where do we look to embrace this change? Do we call on these same ‘best’ and ‘brightest’ to imagine a new future? Do we start from scratch? Or do we look somewhere beyond the seams of the map?
In the past century or more, people from more developed countries have been traveling across the globe to impose their dominant ideas or ways of life on less developed, less formally educated, more ‘primitive’ cultures and societies. This imposition once took the form of colonialism. Today, it manifests itself through grants from international foundations which preach the gospel of industrial agriculture and technological solutions to subsistence food producers and peasants. These foundations frame the foodways of these food producers and peasants as less sophisticated or efficient and impose more industrial forms of agriculture under the guise of ‘green’ or ‘sustainable development.’ The intense reliance on technology within ‘sustainable development’ ultimately advances the dual neoliberal goals of increased surveillance and increased intellectual property control over the basic services of life.[i]
In one such example, ‘smart’ green cities, Shoshanna Saxe of the University of Toronto suggests, “will be exceedingly complex to manage, with all sorts of unpredictable vulnerabilities.”[ii] Instead, Saxe advocates for ‘dumb’ cities. She is not anti-technology, but rather insists that “for many of our challenges, we don’t need new technologies or new ideas; we need the will, foresight and courage to use the best of the old ideas.”[iii] Julia Watson, a lecturer in urban design at Harvard and Columbia Universities, has:
Visited the Ma’dan people in Iraq, who weave buildings and floating islands from reeds; the Zuni people in New Mexico, who create “waffle gardens” to capture, store and manipulate water for desert crop farming; and the subak rice terraces of Bali. Watson walked the living tree-root bridges that can withstand adverse weather better than any human-made structure, and that allow the Khasi hill tribe in Northern India to travel between villages during the monsoon floods.[iv]
We suggest that we must look to cases such as these, tried and embedded ecological solutions, to emerge from the crisis in which we are embroiled.
Another example of a neoliberal, greenwashed solution is lab-grown food, which not only has unknown, untested social and ecological health consequences but also allows for massive intellectual ownership of the plants, bacteria, and processes used to make this food. The widespread implementation of this ‘solution’ would result in massive corporate profits and a draconian control over food supplies and food sovereignty.[v] Alternatively, Indian author and activist Vandana Shiva suggests that we might be able to foment the creation of ‘real food’ if we were to rely on indigenous food practices:
“Real food gives us a chance to rejuvenate the earth, our health, our food economies, our food freedom and food cultures through real farming that cares for the Earth and people. Through real food we can decolonise our food cultures and our consciousness. We can remember that food is living and gives us life. Food is the currency of life.”[vi]
It is important that we do not advance greenwashed neoliberal ideas in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. Instead, we suggest that we look to the sustainability, creativity, innovation, and resilience of underrepresented voices like the first author’s rural Uruguayan neighbors, many of whom are family farmers.
We argue that it may be helpful to look to often-overlooked social contexts for templates of alternative social structures that can guide us as we strive to build a healthier and more resilient future. Like other international scholars looking at alternatives arising as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, in this piece we look generally at such initiatives in Latin America and, more specifically, at those in the case study of Uruguay.[vii] Some argue that localized ecological knowledge and indigenous voices should be at the center of the conversation around solutions to COVID-19’s various disruptions.[viii] We suggest that, as a result of living within a ‘less developed’ nation, individuals within Uruguay have coping mechanisms to face crises and make do with less overall wealth. These coping mechanisms have led to a specific set of social structures that result in less efficiency, but more resilience. We propose that leaders in the Global North might find what they are looking for in unexpected rural Uruguay as they look to re-make and re-imagine a most sustainable post-COVID world.
The solidarity economy is a “post-capitalist framework that emerged in Latin America and Europe in the 1990s” and is rooted in participatory democracy, anti-racism, feminism, ecology, and economic liberation across all forms of oppression.[ix] Kawano and Matthaei nicely sum up the solidarity economy:
“In contrast to the narrow self-interest, competition, and struggle to dominate others that are at the heart of racist, patriarchal capitalism, the solidarity economy is centered on a culture of solidarity, mutuality, caring, and cooperation, including social responsibility, economic human rights, and the rights of Mother Earth.”[x]
As Kawano and Matthaei assert, “we do not have to ‘wait for the revolution’ because [solidarity economy] practices exist all around us today.”[xi] Thus, “our task is to make these practices visible, and to grow and connect them.”[xii] This article seeks to make visible both the local and solidarity economy practices that exist in rural Uruguay.
The local food economies of Uruguay and Latin America at large offer a heartening blueprint for what a resilient and constructive solidarity economy might look like within the context of a re-imagined United States food system. Solidarity economies are already present within the United States and can be both bolstered and mobilized in the face of COVID-19 by drawing on the example of solidarity economies and localized food movements of Latin America, such as La Via Campesina. In his defense of what he calls “epistemologies of the [Global] South,” de Sousa Santos calls for “an alternative thinking of alternatives.”[xiii] La Via Campesina and other solidarity economic alternatives of Latin America offer exactly that: a way of conceptualizing relationships to self, others, land, and food that lays outside of the dominant neoliberal imaginings of the United States.
As de Sousa Santos asserts, “we must change the world while constantly reinterpreting it.”[xiv] In a recent interview, João Pedro Stédile, the leader of Brazil’s Landless Peasants Movement (also known as Movimento dos Trabahaldores Rurais Sem Terra or MST) also called for us to “begin with changes to the ideological struggle, starting with a debate about the nature of necessary changes” before diving into responses to COVID-19.[xv]
Solidarity Economy in Uruguay: A Case Study
In this section, the authors will be drawing upon the methodology recently described by Columbia University sociologists Hidalgo and Khan, called blindsight ethnography, which arose in the process of doing fieldwork in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.[xvi] Hildalgo and Khan suggest that one must see the COVID crisis as an exceptional moment which reveals certain aspects of social life that would otherwise go undetected in ‘normal’ times. Because, in many cases, during crisis we are not allowed to directly observe certain social phenomena, the authors of this article use ‘blindsight ethnography’ to “detect without seeing…[focusing on] that which the researcher comes to know, but through indirect means.”[xvii]
Uruguay is a small country located between the two larger and much more populous nations of Argentina and Brazil. Uruguay has a population of about 3.5 million, half of whom live within the capital city of Montevideo. The country’s economy centers around agriculture and has among the highest GDP per capita in Latin America at about $15,000 USD.[xviii] Colonia Valdense is a small village in the rural countryside in the eastern part of the Colonia department of Uruguay. Beyond the Argentineans who routinely speed past this town to get from Buenos Aires to their summer vacation spot of Punte del Este, Colonia is a corner of the world unknown by those who may ever be considered ‘global thought leaders.’ Yet, here where the first author lives and works in immersive participant observation research and activism, there is a social system in place that has not only fared well in the face of this pandemic, but sets an example of a sustainable livelihood that the whole world might take note of, if they just upended their ideas of who is worthy of emulation and where to look for solutions.
What makes Uruguay stand out as an example? Uruguay is a country that is known as being amongst the most progressive in Latin America. The country already has impressive policies in place. Two prime examples are its nearly 100% renewable energy grid and former President, Pepe Mujica, who was known for being the ‘poorest president in the world,’ as he eschewed consumerism. Uruguay also has policies and practices which encompass participatory democracy, an expansive social safety net, and overall low inequality, making for a relatively stable country. Quarantine in Uruguay has yielded an impressively low number of cases despite being voluntary. These low numbers affirm the possibility that we do not necessarily need to utilize authoritarian measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 if we can foster an embrace of solidarity and civic responsibility. Uruguay’s social welfare projects such as universal access to healthcare and a ‘laptop for every child’ initiative make coping with the crisis in this social context easier than in other places in the world. Uruguay is a small country that is used to being self-reliant, and has built its own respirators, developed testing capacity that rivals the wealthiest nations in the world, and mapped the genome of COVID-19 present in country.[xix]
Uruguay is not a wealthy nation and people here are used to getting by with less. In my experience as an ethnographic researcher immersed in this setting, I have seen an incredible adaptability, which leads to a community built for resilience. Since the pandemic started, my neighbors and friends immediately began adapting. My texting groups were filled with new ways of exchanging ideas, goods and services, reaching out to the least fortunate to help, and developing networks of mutual aid, all while maintaining social distancing guidelines. Local family farms worked together to build a website where people can locate them, find out what kinds of products they produce, and get in touch with them. To sell goods, food producing groups organized a central pick-up site and on-your-honor payment system. Women’s groups set up anonymous hotlines for calling or texting for women experiencing domestic abuse during the pandemic. I began to see online seminars of individuals sharing strategies for building their farms using agroecology during times of crisis. A local center for organic agriculture crowdsourced seeds and seedlings from the community to build food gardens for a few low-income families who would otherwise be without fresh food during this time period. Another local cultural center got to work building a community garden. A nearby small-scale hotel had to shutter its doors and instead started a weekly farmer’s market for sustainable farmers and a farm-to-table lunch with locally sourced ingredients.
Our sociological analysis is that it is precisely because people here are used to living with less that they have learned how to adapt to crisis. These adaptation methods revolve around social solidarity, localized systems of production, and lower overall material needs and rates of consumption. In many ways, society in Uruguay mirrors some aspects of pre-industrial life: families work out of their homes (and therefore spend many more hours with their families and friends), many people are engaged in backyard and home food production, people cobble together livelihoods through multiple strategies, and supply chains and solutions are low technology and local (see Table 1).
Table 1 Weber’s characteristics of pre-modern and modern eras (adapted from the work of Foster and Holleman 2012).
This is not the high-tech, high-consumption, high-efficiency future we are promised by prominent governments around the world. These solutions are slow, small-scale, local, low-tech, and community-centric. Hopefully, many of the solutions quickly arising out of the pandemic in more highly developed nations can mirror this second future.
In the midst of crisis, the United States has an unusual opportunity to draw hope and inspiration from the lessons that Latin American solidarity economies and local food systems have to offer. The United States has much of the infrastructure needed for communities to embrace aspects of the solidarity economy and we argue that the solutions we are looking for do not need to be imagined from scratch. Nor should they come from the technologists and bureaucrats who built the very exact failing system that got us here in the first place. The people of the Global South and less privileged communities in the Global North have developed a variety of resilient livelihoods, often for centuries, and have worked through iterations of success and failure. If we can stop seeing them as people to be taught, and instead as people who have something to teach us, we may just find the future we are searching for.
In order to get there, we argue that we must embrace solidaristic thinking. “Unlike identity, solidarity is not something you have, it is something you do – a set of actions taken toward a common goal…[It] is the practice of helping people realize that they – that is to say, we – are all in this together.”[xx] This shift in thinking comes not only from conversations, but the act of organizing and connecting across difference. According to writer and activist Naomi Klein:
Countless numbers of working people are starting to actually believe that they could exercise transformative power, simply by escaping the various structures isolating and dividing them. It is an awakening, in the truest sense of the word — the collective construction of a new group identity in real time… while a great many Americans are asked to kill and die for their country, they are almost never asked — across divisions of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and nationality — to stand up and fight for one another. And if we did that, if we were able to escape the idea that our only job is to ferociously fight for ourselves or, at most, our own narrowly defined identity group, it would irrevocably alter the arithmetic of power in this country.[xxi]
We would argue that this alternative set of principles should also include international solidarity with those across the world engaged in similar transformative initiatives in the era of COVID-19.
We suggest that next steps include placing emphasis and resources on two simultaneous initiatives. First, developing international networks for sharing skills, resources, and information with others practicing forms of solidarity economy. Those with privilege should utilize their power to platform these alternative voices, especially in policy spaces. Second, already-burgeoning initiatives like local food, cooperatives and mutual aid in North America and Europe should be the focus of immense attention and the recipients of resources. It is in the midst of crisis that societies can and must begin to work to prepare for future social issues.
- [i] Amy Fleming, “The case for making low-tech ‘dumb’ cities instead of smart ones” (The Guardian, 2020); Vandana Shiva, “Rewilding food, rewilding farming” (The Ecologist, 2020).
- [ii] Amy Fleming, “The case for making low-tech ‘dumb’ cities instead of smart ones” (The Guardian, 2020), 1.
- [iii] Amy Fleming, “The case for making low-tech ‘dumb’ cities instead of smart ones” (The Guardian, 2020), 1.
- [iv] Amy Fleming, “The case for making low-tech ‘dumb’ cities instead of smart ones” (The Guardian, 2020), 1.
- [v] Vandana Shiva, “Rewilding food, rewilding farming” (The Ecologist, 2020).
- [vi] Vandana Shiva, “Rewilding food, rewilding farming” (The Ecologist, 2020), 1.
- [vii] Miguel Altieri and Clara Nicholls, “Agroecology and the reconstruction of a post-COVID-19 agriculture” (Journal of Peasant Studies, 2020), 47(1); Jan Douwe van der Ploeg , “From biomedical to politico-economic crisis: the food system in times of Covid-19” (Journal of Peasant Studies, 2020), 48(1).
- [viii] Survival International, “10 reasons why indigenous peoples are the world’s best conservationists” (2020).
- [ix] Emily Kawano and Julie Matthaei, “System Change: A Basic Primer to the Solidarity Economy” (Nonprofit Quarterly, 2020), 1.
- [x] Emily Kawano and Julie Matthaei, “System Change: A Basic Primer to the Solidarity Economy” (Nonprofit Quarterly, 2020), 1.
- [xi] Emily Kawano and Julie Matthaei, “System Change: A Basic Primer to the Solidarity Economy” (Nonprofit Quarterly, 2020), 1.
- [xii] Emily Kawano and Julie Matthaei, “System Change: A Basic Primer to the Solidarity Economy” (Nonprofit Quarterly, 2020), 1.
- [xiii] Boaventura de Sousa Santos, The End of Cognitive Empire: The Coming of Age of Epistemologies of the South (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2018), viii.
- [xiv] Boaventura de Sousa Santos, The End of Cognitive Empire: The Coming of Age of Epistemologies of the South (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2018), viii.
- [xv] Sergio Sauer, “Interview with João Pedro Stédile, national leader of the MST-Brazil” (The Journal of Peasant Studies, 2020), 1.
- [xvi] Sergio Sauer, “Interview with João Pedro Stédile, national leader of the MST-Brazil” (The Journal of Peasant Studies, 2020).
- [xvii] Anna Hidalgo and Shamus Khan, “Blindsight ethnography and exceptional moments” (Etnografia e ricera qualitativa, 2020), 188.
- [xviii] Milton Vanger and Martin Weinstein, “Uruguay” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2020).
- [xix] Guru’guay, “In a pandemic, there’s no place I’d rather be than here in Uruguay” (2020).
- [xx] Astra Taylor and Leah Hunt-Hendrix, “One for All” (New Republic, 2019), 1.
- [xxi] Naomi Klein, “How the transformative power of solidarity will beat Trump” (The Intercept, 2020), 1.