Reas - Alternative and 'solidaria' economy network.

The idea of Reas is to create an alternative to the mainstream economic system. While sustainable food is not the focus of Reas, there are many food enterprises involved, and equality/fairness is a key aim both for Reas and for us at Kindling (and Feedingmanchester and Manchester Veg People). Patricia has talked to me in the past about Reas, and after looking at their website I felt inspired by the idea of such a grass roots network, as well as by the idea of a revolution of the trading system as a whole (not just the food system), and felt we could learn a lot from it.

The challenge is to create economic structures in which people and organisations work in solidaridity with each other, an economic structure that is not exclusive or speculative, that serves people and not the other way round. What I feel now is that we need a whole other visit dedicated to learning from Reas as well as from Mondragon (who I've been reading more about and am so excited about it that I almost can't wait to get home and get on with doing it in England!). But in the meantime here are some initial thoughts from Patricia about Reas....

Patricia (see photo above) is a very good friend of mine who I met in Scotland (nearly 20 years ago!), who lived and worked with us for a year helping to set up MERCi (and making me learn spanish), she is one of the founding members of Birosta a workers co-operative running a vegetarian bar in Zaragoza (a very unusual enterprise to start in Spain). Birosta is a member of REAS Aragon (which is one of the stonger regional networks), and Patricia used to be the reprensentative of Reas Aragon at the national Reas meetings (before taking time off to have Lupe and Mateo), as well as having worked in various co-ops in the past, and having strong links with various co-ops in Zaragoza.

Each region or independent state has a Reas (network) (Aragon, Navarra, Catalunya, Valencia, Basque Country etc.), and then there is a network of those networks (www.economiasolidaria.org). Different regions/states have slightly different conditions on membership, so in Catalunya associations/projects (including for example religious organisations) can also be members, where as in Aragon you have to be an enterprise to be a member. However the prinicpal condition for becoming a member of anyy Reas is that you sign up to the 6 principles of an economia alternativa y solidaria:

  • Equality – to satisfy in a balanced way the respective needs of the different protagonists with an interest in the enterprise (members, workers, consumers, the local community etc.)
  • Employment – create stable employment, giving access to disadvantaged people or people with few qualifications. Also to ensure good working conditions for all workers (fair wages, personal development and taking responsibility).
  • Environment – that you favor actions, products and methods of production that don´t damage the environment in the short term or long term
  • Co-operation – that you favour co-operation, rather than competition, within and outside the organisation.
  • Not for profit – in that the end aim isn´t to make profit, however that doesn´t rule out balancing the books or making a profit, just that you then use it for social good.
  • Commitment to the social environment – working together co-operatively with other organisations to create a model that is an economic and social alternative

The website is amazing. It covers loads of themes and shows a wide range of activities in the different regions/states:

  • Asesoria social (Social auditing) - the members audit their impact and achievements but with more of a social and ecological focus than mainstream auditing - like MERCi and Sustaining Change. Reas has a focus on self auditing, although in some regions certain organisations offer support to do this (maybe in Navarra where it seems to be working the best, it might be interesting to see how this has worked for them and how they fund it incase that´s useful for Merci)
  • Banco (Alternative banks) – a bit like a credit union but for enterprises – the bank makes loans to enterprises who would fit into the category of economia alternativa y solidaria (and also projects who are socially beneficial). The loan is to enable the enterprises/projects to create jobs in this alternative system. Individuals can invest money (and make interest on their investments) but can´t borrow money.
  • Mercado social (Social/Alternative market) – a brand that enterprises can use to say they are part of the local/alternative economy. They don´t have to be a member of Reas to use this brand (as there are many small businesses of just one person who don´t have time to be involved in Reas, but do offer a local alternative to Tescos etc.). In Aragon this is just starting, although other areas already have quite a developed mercado social.

Patricias main conclusions on Reas are:

1) That it works and it is amazing what they have achieved and what they aim to achieve (the network working at a national level and offering a complete alternative to the current system), but it works/develops very slowly. Reas has been going for years, people our parents age set it up when they were young. There´s a lot of talking involved - working in this ways is a long process. They have meetings (of representatives of the different regions/states) every three months and then you go away to talk to others in your network and then come back again three months later (doing all the work at the last minute because you've got too much to do already - sound familiar?!).

2) Some of the networks are strong (Navarra, Aragon, Catalunya, Pais Vasco) and others are weaker (Reas Rioja for example has only just started – there are only a few members). So they are at different stages. There´s nothing wrong with that, and those that are weaker or newer can learn from the stronger networks (and save time that way). Following on from that some networks have people and resources so they can get more done than those who don´t.

3) There´s a real mixture of everything in the networks. For examples some members are radical where as others aren´t. So some things you are in agreement with and others you aren´t.

4) There are a lot of good intentions, but things don´t always get done. For example all the members really want to do the social audit but don´t have time on top of their daily work, or restaurants really want to buy only organic food but can´t afford it at the moment.

5) As well as the meetings 3 times a year Reas holds an annual 2 day event for all members of all the different Reas. It consists of discussions and workshops sharing information and experience about a range of themes. It also gives people a chance to meet each other in person, put faces to names, rather than just communicate through emails and phone calls, and is a really positive event.

The aim of the mercado social is that consumers can see a brand that they trust that encourages and helps them to buy from a local business that works in this ´solidaria´/co-operative way. But it is also important that the different enterprises/service providers (and their members), buy from each other - if we don´t buy from each other what are we saying/doing?!

However how you encourage (and control) this is a big question, there needs to be a lot of awareness raising. Some of the regional networks are doing better at this than others. Aragon is just starting but Catalunya and Valencia are quite far ahead with the mercado social – it would be good to talk to them about how they are doing with this if I get the chance.

So just some initial thoughts. It feels like there is already lots happening in the UK (and in Manchester) on this subject, but also that there's loads we could learn from the very grass roots and co-operative nature of the movement/network here in Spain. Patricia is encouraging me to talk to more people here about where it's up to since she left, but I reckon someone else needs to write a little Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship proposal for this one!

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