Based on his long and successful experience launching diverse small-producer economic enterprises in Oaxaca, Hector Marcelli is now creating a network to link "fair trade" producers, advisors and distributors across Mexico to maximize their access to international markets
The New Idea
Hector Marcelli understands that the key to economic advancement for small producers is finding markets for their wares, creating distribution channels, and establishing brand recognition. Since 1983, when he founded Ecosolar, an organization dedicated to fomenting economic activity in rural Oaxaca state, Hector has had extensive interaction with producer organizations, the citizen groups which provide them with technical assistance, the socially-responsible business entrepreneurs who invest in their efforts, and the international markets to which their products require greater access. He is convinced that there is a tremendous wealth of experience and opportunity in existing efforts to market organic produce, eco-tourism projects and local handicrafts, but that current relationships between producers, technical facilitators, investors and consumers are too disorganized to take full advantage of the openings.As a result,Hector is creating Bioplaneta, an ambicious network designed to capitalize on the underlying vibrancy of Mexico's small producers and maximize the benefits available to them through participation in broader national and international markets. Hector has already formed a team of leading experts in production, technical assistance and marketing who, like him, have experience in commercialization of ecological, organic and indigenous goods. Through expeditious use of a computer database and an extensive communications strategy, Bioplaneta will research and link all the disparate actors in the production-consumption chain so as to harmonize the process of marketing "fair trade" products, while at the same time creating a recognized brand name and quality certification process. Bioplaneta does not seek to be another "middleman," getting rich on sales commissions - it is quite literally an association of producers, technical assistance providers and investors who participate on an equal footing in the network. The Bioplaneta team is also considering setting up a distinct for-profit company, with the same "shareholders," to actually market the produce as the volume increases.
In the face of falling prices for staple subsistence crops, politicization of access to credit, and declining yields caused by environmentally unsustainable farming practices, the rural population in Mexico and throughout Latin America has been in crisis for the past several decades. Recent political developments, such as the liberalization of trade regimens (leaving farmers unable to compete with cheaper foreign imports) and the removal of once-familiar state subsidies and regulating bodies, have exacerbated the problem. To imagine the impact of the rural crisis, one need only consider that in Oaxaca, for example, according to INEGI (National Institute of Studies in Geography and Information), 75% of the economically active population works in agriculture, and illiteracy rates are above 30%. In Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero, armed movements have risen up to protest the inadequacy of state efforts to mitigate the effects of trade policies on the rural sector. Many Mexicans fear increasing social instability as a result.
In order to stem the tide of urban migration, lighten the burden of poverty and reduce conflict and social tension in rural areas, community groups and social service organizations have increasingly turned to more specialized production that emphasizes their comparative advantage in local handicrafts, organic produce and non-traditional tourism. While such projects have met with success in some cases, their impact is typically limited by their inability to produce at a scale that promises market advantages, to maintain a consistent level of quality, or to access the markets where their produce would most be in demand. In the absence of information and organizing mechanisms which allow small-producer associations to combine their efforts so as to reach scale, learn about quality control procedures and identify markets, the gains from the "alternative production" approach to rural development are too limited to have a significant impact on the overall problem - or, to present the situation from a different perspective, to take advantage of real opportunities that would be available with better marketing techniques.
Bioplaneta has its roots in Hector's experience with Ecosolar in Oaxaca. Initially, this organization drew awareness to the need to deepen ecological protection of reserve areas in Mexico, denouncing various forms of environmental degradation. By 1993, Ecosolar included in its mission the promotion of alternative economic development models which promoted sustainable development and responsible consumption based on ethical and ecological principles. Ecosolar's actions currently involve public education on conservation issues, promotion of fair production and commercialization of agricultural goods, technical support and professional assistance for rural producers, and certification mechanisms that serve as a seal of approval for community products. Hector's most successful project is a cosmetics factory on the coast of Oaxaca, run by the wives of local fishermen, which has grown 100% during the last three years. This self-sustaining business complies with European quality standards, and its principal client is "The Body Shop." At present, 13 cooperatives are members of Ecosolar, working in eco-tourism, cosmetics, preserves, chocolate, agriculture, organic gardening, printing, construction and adobe production. Hector's role with these cooperatives has been to act as manager, consultant and promoter.
Reflecting on the success of Ecosolar, Hector began several years ago to explore the possibility of a similar but larger network that could work on an international scale. He approached colleagues and friends and bounced his idea off them, before launching a process to legalize Bioplaneta as a civil association which will draw on his team's extensive contacts among producer associations, technical assistance organizations and business investors, to recruit them as members of the network, committed to sharing information and increasing access to international markets. Bioplaneta began by building an extensive database of these contacts, and facilitating communication among them, starting from the principle that any collaborative ventures must be beneficial to all parties.
This is the moment for Bioplaneta to move to the next level. In the short term, as Hector leaves his responsibilities at Ecosolar to other colleagues and assumes the direction of Bioplaneta, his challenge is to expand his research on existing networks of organic and "alternative" producers, with an emphasis on non-perishable agricultural goods, products processed at the local level, handicrafts, and services such as training and eco-tourism. Hector is also working with Julio Gutierrez, a business entrepreneur who helped create financing mechanisms for Ecosolar projects, to establish a fund for working capital needs as well as for training to ensure compliance with the quality standards required for products to receive the Bioplaneta seal. He has already negotiated a contract with Citibank, which is providing software and computer systems to facilitate electronic trading of Bioplaneta goods, in return for the opportunity to provide banking services to the network as its commercial volume expands. Hector is also finishing up the legalization process, and defining the various options for membership in the network, to ensure appropriate relationships among the producers, technical advisors, investors and distributors who join. In the longer term, having demonstrated the viability of the trading network and constituted the for-profit partner organization that will manage transactions, Hector is anxious to extend Bioplaneta throughout Latin America.
Hector feels that his love for nature comes from his childhood, since his parents encouraged extensive outdoor activity, in keeping with their Eastern spiritual philosophy. When Hector was an adolescent, his father became a Guru, committing himself and his family to a life of teaching and meditation, and Hector was taught the concept of 'impersonal service,' the importance of working for others out of love of giving, haring and learning. His father's influential belief was that each person should contribute a 'grain of sand' towards the ideal of a fairer and more harmonious society and a world without frontiers.
When Hector was 14, his older brother was arrested and tortured for participating in the radical student movement of 1968. This rude reminder of the absence of social harmony challenged Hector to consider how best to achieve an appropriate balance between principles and efficacy in social change movements, and through his adolescence into early adulthood, he experimented with communal living and environmental activism. By 1983 his experiences with rural and indigenous communities had convinced him of the need for balance between economic development imperatives and ecological conservation, and he founded Ecosolar with a group of friends to explore opportunities for community improvement. Ecosolar expanded rapidly through Central and South America, establishing 4 offices outside Mexico and creating space for dialogue with politicians, business entrepreneurs and academics. These experiences convinced him that effective project collaboration must be predicated on ensuring winning outcomes for all concerned, and maintaining openness to any potential stakeholder who is committed to basic principles of environmental preservation and fair trade. They also expanded his horizons to the point where Hector could envision the opportunity for the type of global trade and service network which Bioplaneta aspires to become.