Mario Costa is creating an alternative model of communitarian agricultural production that provides a sustainable source of income and dignified existence for all of its inhabitants, while at the same time allowing for the care and social re-integration of abandoned and orphaned children.
The New Idea
An agronomist by profession, Mario Costa is demonstrating that it is possible to create sustainable farming businesses run jointly by human services professionals, farmers, and abandoned and orphaned children. He is also demonstrating that this setting, organized on a communitarian basis, is ideal for providing the children with a healing and caring environment in which to grow up, and the social and technical skills needed to move on into society as productive young adults. Mario is piloting these ideas on a formerly-defunct cooperative farm in an agricultural region of western Uruguay, where he aims to show that declining rural areas can be revitalized by young people capable of and committed to living on the land.
Through three decades of work in human services, agricultural extension, and communitarian methods of production, Mario has integrated a number of insights that together make his current initiative unique in its approach. First, he has found that children in public and private care institutions fare better when they feel that they are part of a community, when they can identify with something larger and purposeful. Second, he has seen that as the children of farmers migrate to the city in ever greater numbers, there is an older generation of farmers with no one to whom they can pass their skills. Third, the cities and the urban economy simply cannot absorb the swelling populations of rural migrants. Fourth, many of his friends and colleagues caring for children in institutions are very open to re-locating to rural areas should that offer better conditions for the children.
Mario is putting into practice his beliefs and insights in a project intended to cause a major shift in the organization of farming cooperatives and the care of abandoned and orphaned children in Uruguay and beyond. He has taken over a failing farm organized on a cooperative basis and transformed it into a model caring center for children. The children's home-cum-collective farm is showing a profit, thanks in part to the large numbers of neighboring farmers he has involved as friends, advisors and occasional contributors to the project.
Since 1956, more than 40 percent of rural family farms and related enterprises in Uruguay have disappeared. Young people are migrating from the rural farms on which they have grown up. At the same time, the cities, and the economy more generally, are not able to accommodate this new labor pool; and unemployment, urban squatting, and homelessness are growing. Uruguay's social services institutions –both public and private–cannot cope with the growing demands and there is no prospect for increased public expenditures in the current macroeconomic policy climate. In sum, new, low-cost models to care for dispossessed youth and prepare them for productive lives are desperately required.
Over the past five years, Mario has transformed a defunct cooperative farm into a thriving model which demonstrates the viability of cooperative rural production, while at the same time providing an alternative home and livelihood for abandoned and orphaned children. The site of the project, some 310 kilometers northwest of Montevideo, is called Cololó, on 2,200 hectares located among Uruguay's richest farmland. Anticipating the spreading of the model once its success had been proven, Mario developed the pilot in cooperation with two important national organizations. On the public side, his model operates on a failed collective farm owned by the National Settlement Institute, which could make any number of additional sites for "community farms" available. Second, Mario is an influential figure within the Federation of Private Child Care Institutions, which has been watching the experiment closely from the outset.
The model itself has two main programs–production and education, using respectively a farm and a school. It would be a mistake to distinguish them too much, however, as the model emphasizes integrated learning, and all adult professionals and many adult volunteers operate as care givers, farmers and teachers at various moments. The farm, now home to 45 people, is operated on a self-sustaining basis such that once perfected, the model will require no state subsidy. It is able to realize this in part due to the active support and in-kind donations from neighboring farmers. The on-site school provides the youth with the basics of a secondary school education, plus management skills in operating "community farms." It is intended that this specialized training will enable the youth to go forth and run commercially viable farms on a communitarian basis. Mario has set up groups to run the various production activities using modern technologies, to generate orderly discussion of problems, applying objective mechanisms for solving them, with emphasis on transparency in all aspects of administration. In addition to attracting the collaboration of neighboring farmers, Mario is recruiting community members from among those graduating from agricultural schools.
Production on the farm is now thriving, thanks to improved administration and the commitment of its inhabitants and neighbors. In addition to producing wheat, sorghum, corn, and barley, the farm yields 3000 liters of milk per day (as opposed to 700 liters when Mario first took over), half of which is sold directly to a major national dairy company and the other half turned into butter, yogurt, and cheese, which are then sold to a local business in the nearby city of Mercedes, where the farm also sells honey, organic vegetables, and other products.
Now that the model "community farm," has become sufficiently consolidated, Mario is turning his attention to communicating and spreading the model, in part by encouraging others to adopt it and in part by assisting young people graduating from the farm to establish other farm communities nearby. The farm has established four houses, with a capacity of 48 beds, to receive visitors interested in learning from and replicating the model. Agricultural students from fourteen universities in Argentina, Chile, and Brazil have visited the project to date, and interest continues to grow as news of the model spreads via newspaper articles and radio stories. Mario is also engaging university students to document the model as part of their degree-related research. At present, there are 10 students doing research in different aspects of the model. Some of these studies will be published and will constitute valuable material for spreading the idea. Finally, work is also being done to make a video presenting the project.
Mario was born in the interior of Uruguay, and moved with his parents to the capital of Montevideo when he was ten. There he entered a Jesuit-run school, which left him with both a fine formal education and a lifelong commitment to service and social justice. As a teenager he was active in church youth movement. Together with some friends from among Catholic youth, at the age of 22 Mario founded a farming community with the aim of providing a home for abandoned children. This project, called La Huella, has been running for 20 years and today cares for 30 children. Mario lived on the farm for ten years, during which time his three children were born. Since leaving La Huella, he has remained an active supporter of the project and of other initiatives to provide caring homes for abandoned youth, mainly through his active participation in the association of private children's care facilities. For many years he has assisted young adults leaving care facilities to find their way in society and he knows their difficulties intimately.
In addition to his lifelong commitment to improving the lives of abandoned children, Mario found himself returning again and again to the notion of a sustainable farming community and, in the early 1990s, sought advanced education to better prepare him to lead a farming-based venture. Upon returning to Uruguay in 1993 after a period of post-
graduate study in agricultural extension in Brazil, Mario was presented with an opportunity to take over a failed cooperative farm in Cololó. On the basis of a detailed plan that set out his steps for reviving the farm, he convinced the public agency preparing to foreclose on it to give him a chance to run it. Since that time he has put the core elements of his model in place while simultaneously re-negotiating the debts that he inherited when taking over the farm.