COP28: Sustainable growth must involve cooperatives

14 Dec 2023

Held between 30 November and 13 December in Dubai, the 28th UN Conference on Climate Change (COP28) brought together leaders from governments, businesses, NGOs and civil society to find concrete solutions and preserve a livable climate. Cooperatives were involved in these conversations, with coop representatives taking part in a range of events.

On 9 November, the Organization of Brazilian Cooperatives (OCB) organised a panel discussion around the theme Cooperatives: allies of environmental sustainability and food security. The key message of the event, which took place at Espaço Brasil at COP28, was that sustainable growth must involve cooperatives.

Moderated by the OCB’s Superintendent, Tania Zanella, the panel highlighted the contributions of cooperatives to socioeconomic development and the inclusive growth of communities in Brazil, Africa and Europe.

“The solution to climate change is not only in the hands of governments and organisations, but also in the hands of ordinary people,” said Ms Zanella. “We believe that active and conscious involvement through cooperativism is essential to achieving carbon neutrality and thus effectively and inclusively facing these challenges.”

Participants also heard from Sebastião Nascimento de Aquino, Board Member of the Central Extractive Commercialization Cooperative in Acre (Cooperacre), who shared how his cooperative helps to preserve the Amazonian rainforest. Cooperacre is the largest producer of processed Brazilian nuts. Its activities cover 18 municipalities and benefit more than four thousand families. 

In the state of Acre, where the co-op is based, 87% of the territory is tropical forest. “We are a leader in organic and toxin-free production, and we invest in technology and innovation to guarantee the quality and safety of our products,” he said.

He called for more financial support, technical assistance and resources to enable cooperatives like his to further increase their contribution to the environment. 

Another panellist was Marcelo Cerino, Superintendent of Integrated Logistics at Frimesa Cooperativa Central, who shared his cooperative’s sustainability initiatives. One of the country's largest pork and dairy producers, Frimesa stands out for its actions to reduce the environmental impact of its activities. “Our ESG program foresees achieving total carbon neutrality by 2040,” he said. “We invested in the production of biogas, biomethane and biogenic CO2, replaced the use of fossil fuels and reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 33%. We are considered the second most innovative organisation in Brazil and our programmes also include investment in solar energy, forest conservation and reducing drinking water consumption. We have 187 innovation projects underway.”

Similar actions are being taken by Brazil’s credit unions, explained Ênio Meinen, Director of Systemic Coordination and Institutional Relations at Sicoob, Brazil’s largest cooperative financial system. He described the transformative role of the sector in building an inclusive and fair financial system. “We promote prosperity responsibly. We consider sustainability a strategic and transversal issue. We support innovative entrepreneurship and the sharing economy, fundamental themes for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and social peace, a major goal of the United Nations.”

He added: “Studies show that, in locations where credit unions are present, there is a 5.6% increase in GDP, in addition to a 16% increase in commercial establishments per year. The financial inclusion we provide generated, between 2016 and 2021, savings of US$17.4bn for those who chose us when looking for resources for their businesses.”

Susane Westhausen, President Cooperatives Europe, and Dr Sifa Chiyoge, director general of ICA Africa, also participated in the panel. Ms Westhausen argued that cooperatives have both “a heart” and “a brain”. “This characteristic makes the business model more democratic and the best option when we consider that climate issues need to be addressed as a whole, with a complete look at the value chain,” she said.

Dr Sifa explained that cooperatives form part of the natural way of living in Africa and mentioned initiatives carried out by African cooperatives in the areas of solid waste recycling, reforestation, reducing the use of fossil resources and reusing materials.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) also held an event on 11 December to explore the contribution of social and solidarity economy to the SDGs and the role of trade policy. Speakers included Claudia Contreras, Economic Affairs Officer at the Trade, Environment and Sustainable Development Branch UNCTAD; Chantal Line Carpentier, Head, Trade, Environment, Climate Change, and Sustainable Development, Division on International Trade and Commodities, UNCTAD; Cintia Kulzer, Assistant Professor, Department of Innovation, Technology and Entrepreneurship, United Arabs Emirates University; Dhanush Dinesh, Chief Climate Catalyst, Clim-Eat; and Fabíola Motta, General Manager, Organization of Brazilian Cooperatives (OCB).

Ms Motta explained that cooperatives are a different, people-based business model that promotes inclusive development. Brazil is home to 4,600 cooperatives with 20 million members. They generate more than 520,000 jobs and are responsible for 80% of the grain production. Brazilian credit unions also make up the largest banking services network in the country.

Ms Motta also talked about the role of Brazilian cooperatives in international trade, giving the example of Aurora cooperative, which is owned by 100,000 small-scale farmers. Through their cooperative, these farmers can market their products to 100 countries. 

Another example mentioned was Cooxupé, the largest exporter of coffee bags in the world. The cooperative is made up of 18,000 members who export 6 million coffee bags annually.

“These cooperatives provide a voice to many that are voiceless, enable access to share resources and implement cutting edge technologies and practices,” she said.

She added that even though cooperatives generate collective prosperity and drive social development at the same time, they are not known or recognised by governments and policymakers.

“By not having any knowledge of what a cooperative is and what their impact is, governments lose the chance to implement SDGs and to foster a more just economy,” she said.

OCB works on raising awareness about the model while engaging with policymakers to help them understand cooperatives.

The social economy was also the topic of a panel discussion that formed part of a series of events hosted at the Just Transition Pavilion in Dubai, an initiative of the ILO and the European Commission. Themed Putting people and the planet first: Social economy ecosystems contributing to a just (green and digital) transition, the event featured a range of speakers, including Chantal Line Carpentier and Rie Vejs-Kjeldgaard (Director, ILO ENTERPRISES Unit).

Another online event organised by the European Association of Cooperative Banks (EACB) looked at how its sector can contribute to building sustainable food systems. The full report on the discussions can be read on the Co-op News website.

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