Fostering Cooperation: The Experience of Samar Rural Assistance Programs in Cooperative Development

"For us to live decently, which means we can eat thrice a day, send our children to school and buy medicines, we would have to earn Php 12,000 to 15,000 a month."

This was Kapitan Erik's answer when asked how much they need a month to live decently. Kapitan Erik is the village chief of Barangay Vigan, a small village along the Pacific coastline in the province of Samar. Official sources project the actual rural daily cost of living for a family of six in the Philippines at Php 546.80 a day or Php 16,404.00 a month.

Nanay Naty, on the other hand, said her family cannot earn that amount with the income they are getting from the small parcel of coconut farmland they own.

"Life is already difficult for us who have a small piece land, how much more for those without land or just earning their keep as farmhands?" she said.

Most peasant families in Samar are landless and are thriving only on a meager income of Php 500 - 1,000 a month. Being on the typhoon path, Samar is vulnerable to disasters which made progress elusive. The main product of Samar is copra or dried coconut meat which is use as fuel and animal feeds. Other crops being produced in the region include rice, root crops and corn. In some villages, other families derive their income from basket-weaving.

Their income is also affected by the world market, with the buying price of copra falling from Php 20 to Php 7.50. This setback forced some farmers to look for alternative source of income. Some are looking for work in the town proper, while others are mining gold along the river upstream.

This is the context of Samar Rural Assistance Programs' or SRAP's work in the communities in Eastern Visayas. SRAP aims to provide alternative solutions to the seemingly endless problems of poor peasants in Samar and Leyte . As a non-government organization (NGO), SRAP seeks to organize the most disadvantaged sector to collectively take action to improve their lives.

Developing cooperatives

SRAP is encouraging the farmers to engage in a more sustainable source of livelihood. One of its strategy is assisting peasants in organizing them into associations and cooperatives. SRAP advocates for a holistic approach in development. Aside from responding to their economic needs, it develops organizations which can address other concerns of the community such as health, education and the well-being of each community member.

More than providing something to start with, SRAP is helping the villagers to form cooperatives, enhance their skills for livelihood, develop leaders, and build their capacities in managing their cooperatives and organizations through trainings and continuous education.

Part of the trainings in cooperative management are discussions and workshops on drafting policies in managing the cooperative store. In some communities where local officials are supportive of endeavors of non-government organizations, SRAP is tapping existing organizational structures and other stakeholders in the communities like farmer's associations and village councils. Council and association officials who are also part of the cooperative are reoriented according to the principle of people-managed cooperatives.

To ensure that program will benefit those who mostly need the assistance, guidelines on membership were also set. In some communities, they do not accept as members those who operate private stores or are rich farmers. In a particular community, a rich farmer was accepted as a cooperative member. A portion of the land this member owns was lent to the organization for its communal farm.

As counterpart from the community, members are required to give Php 100.00 to 150.00 share for the cooperative store's initial capital. This strategy makes members responsible stakeholders in the cooperative and prevents the dole out tendencies when providing assistance.

"When members give their share for the initial capital, they feel that they are part of the cooperative. That the project is theirs, too," said SRAP cooperative development officer Jimmy Gonzalez.

The income of the cooperative stores depends on the economy and situation of a particular community. In an upland sitio (hamlet or settlement) with 27 households in General McArthur, Eastern Samar, the cooperative was able to double its initial capital of Php 5,000 to Php 11,200 in five months. In Sitio Canbabang, which has 40 households and is 30 minutes away from the town proper of Basey, Western Samar, the cooperative store's initial capital of Php 11,000 quickly rose to Php 23,000 in its five months of operation. On the other hand, an established cooperative in the village proper of Cogon has enjoyed Php 13,000 total monthly income from its cooperative store, communal farm and livestock and poultry raising.

Communal endeavors and strengthening of organizations

Organizations are strengthened by developing leaders who can set directions and rally members to support the organization's activities. SRAP is instilling the value of collective leadership by encouraging regular conduct of meetings, assemblies and consultations. Policies and plans are collectively decided through these venues.

To develop organizational capacities and instill the sense of community, SRAP prefers handing inputs such as farm implements and animals to the beneficiaries through the farmer's organization rather than to individuals. The provision of these materials, however, is not automatic. The organization's must be first organizationally-equipped to manage these investments.

Organizations are being prepared by SRAP to manage such projects through continuous training and education. SRAP learned from their past experiences that any intervention should enhance and strengthen the organizations and should not cause divisiveness among the members. Conflicts and misunderstanding were immediately resolved through assemblies and meetings.

The development of organizations is keenly monitored by SRAP through field visits and evaluation. Organizational capacities are evaluated based on the systems used by the organization and participation of its members and the people in the community. SRAP is also developing and training leaders in the community who will be able to facilitate meetings and planning.

In Barangay Osmena, a system was devised in which each member is required to man the store as the store manager of the day. At the end of each shift, the officer of the day, together with the one replacing him or her, would tally the day's income with the recorded sold items.

Communal farms are maintained and developed through tiklos, their version of mutual exchange of labor. To sustain the tending of communal farms, food-for-work program is implemented by SRAP to ease the burden of the peasant members of the cooperatives during lean months. The farmer's association in Cogon is implementing a point system to determine the dividend of each member for its communal farm's income. The share in income of each member depends on the type of work they performed and the number of hours they alloted for each work.

In Cogon, ducks were provided to the cooperative by SRAP. The cooperative facilitated the distribution of the ducks to its members. As caretakers, the members in Barangay Vigan, General MacArthur, the association provided its members who are the most in need with swine. The piglets produce are then passed on to the other members.

These strategies and efforts of the cooperatives and farmers' organizations do not only ensure the sustainability of development programs in the communities, unity among the beneficiaries in each community was also strengthened.

Benefits of cooperation

Aside from the cooperative members, non-members also benefited from the programs of the cooperatives. Cooperative stores brought down the cost of basic goods such as sugar, cooking oil and dried fish. Unlike privately-owned stores which add 50 -60 % mark up on their goods, cooperative stores offer cheaper goods with 5 - 12% mark up. Some of the store owners closed down their shops and joined the cooperative.

SRAP partner organizations in the communities are also provided with farm implements such as carabaos (water buffalo), threshers and hand tractors. These equipment are being rented out to farmers at a lower cost. In Barangay Roxas, General MacArthur, the cooperative is lending the carabao to haul farm produce for a minimal fee of Php 50, which is way cheaper than Php 120 collected by private owners. The cooperative in Cogon charges farmers Php 180.00 for hand tractor rental, Php 20.00 cheaper than those privately owned. Small and private enterprises were pressured to bring down their prices to be able to compete with the cooperatives.

Through these services, the cooperatives establish their role in uplifting the lives of poor peasants in the communities and encourage other people in community to participate in their activities.

To sustain development and progress, the organizations were developed and participation among community members was increased. Through the organizations and cooperatives, people who were disadvantaged are empowered to overcome challenges like when calamities and disasters strike. The people are now able to find solutions to persistent problems in the community such as hunger and malnutrition. More than the material gains from developing cooperatives, SRAP has imparted to its beneficiaries the value of cooperation and unity, which are the key for the people in Samar to finally free themselves from the throes of poverty.

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