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Conflict management and the role of democracy in the cooperative

Date interview: May 24 2016
Name interviewer: Manuela Rosing Agostini
Name interviewee: Ernesto C. Kasper
Position interviewee: Ecocitrus Vice-president

Social-technical relations NGOs Interpersonal relations Internal decision-making Internal crisis Finance Expertise Experimenting Dilemma Civil Society organizations

This is a CTP of initiative: RIPESS/ Ecocitrus (Brazil)

Ecocitrus, in 2007, went through a period of internal crisis, with power struggles and games for exercising democracy. This CTP was established as a major event in the history of the cooperative, since two groups of internal actors clashed over wage and labor issues. On one side were the producers-partners of Ecocitrus and the on the other side were the agricultural technicians hired to provide services to the cooperative. The cooperative’s management was mediating the groups at the time. Between 2003 and 2004, Ecocitrus, worried about future lawsuits related to labor rights, founded an NGO so technicians would be connected to it and not directly to Ecocitrus. This movement, for three years, worked perfectly. However, cooperative producers began to question the wages paid to these technicians, which were higher than those paid to other employees. Inside the cooperative, one of the above principles is equality, and many of the members were not satisfied with the pay gap that was occurring. In order to solve the conflict, democracy in the cooperative was instrumental, and a board of directors was formed. Moreover, the conflict was important to empower the group, generate knowledge about democratic practices and seek more equal conditions for everyone involved.   

The conflict occurred in 2007 but started in 2003-2004, when Ecocitrus sought a legal alternative to avoid labor problems, as can be seen in the interviewee’s statement:  

"This was in 2007. To get to that context, we got trapped in a critical situation. It was a process that we had created ourselves about 3 years earlier, where the technicians in the business, they were employees, and they were hired to perform tasks regarding future labor problems. We decided to create a different entity, an NGO, an institute, so these technicians would be part of that entity and that entity would provide services for Ecocitrus. But that entity was created using one of the organic farmers’ association’s CNPJ number (Brazilian Registry of Legal Entities), we just changed the statutory formatting of it. It was no longer an association of organic farmers, but we took advantage of the federal tax history that CNPJ number had since 1994" (Ecocitrus VP).

 However, the agreed remuneration for the technicians was not measured correctly to meet the financial expectations of Ecocitrus, generating a conflict between two groups of actors:  

"We created this NGO called the Instituto Morro da Cotia de Agroecologia (Morro da Cotia Institute of Agroecology). These people would get paid according to the entry of composting plant resources. This amount was paid out to five technicians. It was 30% of the gross value that entered the plant at the time. That created this conflict for us because 5 people made, for example, R$10,000 (around US$3057) a month and other people working in the cooperative or in the composting plant, which were around 15 to 20 people, made half of that per month. A few of them were making a lot of money and a lot of them weren’t making enough. That generated a conflict, there was an imbalance there. It’s not because they were technicians that they deserved all of that. We called for a reassessment of the relationship with these technicians" (Ecocitrus VP). 

 The solution of the conflict was a decision of the assembly of producers, who voted for the termination of the contracts. The NGO still exists, but is meant for other projects now and Ecocitrus hired new technicians for the task.  

"That was the conflict: the technicians thought the amount was well deserved and the other group of managers and farmers said it wasn’t, because they were doing more work out of the cooperative, putting money from the cooperative’s resources into their pockets and the people who were actually working to generate those resources were making much less. It wasn’t fair" (Ecocitrus VP).    


Actors involved: the cooperative producers; Ecocitrus managers; agricultural technicians; NGOs.  

Still within the importance of democracy for the cooperative is the fact that the management is made out of the producers themselves. Every two years the cooperative management changes, it is important to change decision makers. Moreover, in order for producers to have greater participation in cooperative activities, a constant investment in education, communication and empowerment of partners in needed. This concept can be seen in the statement below:

"Think as a business manager is one thing. Thinking as a farmer, in a cooperative, where you own the business is something else. I think today, the complex thing is to make everyone part of management. How do we make everyone participate? Because sometimes there’s that perception and we suffer from it a little today, even as a cooperative. There seems to be two sides to it. The side of the farmer, the producer, who’s there to provide to the cooperative, and the other side, which is the board of directors. You know, it seems that there are two sides. In fact, there aren’t. In fact, sometimes we should change positions. I’m also a farmer. I'm the manager now, because my work experience as a farmer within this whole process made me become a manager, but sometimes, I can also show a farmer, because he’s also manager. He should also be part of the management. We suffer a bit from this today. We have to make the people of the cooperative understand that they have to take part, but they also have to respect differences" (Ecocitrus VP).  

The relationships that are established in this CTP are related to socio-technical and interpersonal, since hiring technical experts was needed for the tasks that they carried out. Interpersonal relationships were important for conflict management. Moreover, the tools and resources were related to finance and expertise.    

Related events

1994 - Formation of the organic farmers’ association   2003 - creation of an NGO (called Morro da Cotia Institute of Agroecology) for technicians to provide services to Ecocitrus  

2008/2009 - feasibility study to define the location of Agribusiness (event related to CTP 4 as well)  

2011 - COOFRUTAF - Cooperativa dos Fruticultores da Agricultura Familiar (Family Farming Fruit Cooperative) - Ecocitrus encouraged conventional local producers (non-organic), which are not members of the cooperative, to form another organization. The goal of Ecocitrus is to offer the plant’s services, providing the industrialization of essential oils. Local producers would not be able to produce this range of products themselves and Ecocitrus could not, with the production of its partners alone, occupy the entire production capacity of the plant.  

2013 - beginning of organic juice production    


The contradictions were the epicenter of this CTP, which were overcome after a decision process by the assembly members, who have chosen to terminate the existing contracts to seek more justice and equal pay for all actors.  

"How do you overcome this? The farmers voted for a return to formal contract, where the technicians would do their task and we’d pay for their work. This relationship had to change. We had to adjust it again into a format that allowed us to manage all this. When you have an institutional relationship, they were all responsible for the NGO. After all, what was the agronomist's task? That was the problem and we decided to change. If their task was to serve Ecocitrus’s farmers, I want reports, I want to follow the work" (Ecocitrus VP).

 Despite having resolved the situation, some members have not fully overcome the conflict. However, it is observed that the great learning to take from this was the joint construction of an alternative and trying to keep in mind the principles of cooperativism. When asked if the situation has been overcome, the current vice-president, who at the time was only a member, answered, "Yes. I would say that for some not so much, you always have those, but for those that work on a daily basis, who are more involved in the operational procedures, we reinforce and emphasize the idea of ‘bygones be bygones’. When you go to work in the cooperative, the first thing you have to do when you enter the cooperative is ‘forget that there is a me’, there’s only an ‘us’. If you are in a cooperative thinking of ‘me’, you're in the wrong place. ‘Me’ is the result of ‘us’. If the ‘us’ isn’t doing well, the ‘me’ will never win. That has to be clear to everyone" (Ecocitrus VP).


On anticipating events, the CTP was identified at the time it occurred and as one of its immediate consequences was the creation of a board, further increasing the participation of members in decision making.  

"We identified it at the time. We identified it and managed it. We saw that it was a time of change. For the management, the operation. That’s why we created of a board of directors" (Ecocitrus VP).  

Another interesting analysis that appeared again in the interview is the maintenance of the principles of cooperativism and the need to search for education and technical improvement, more knowledge to anticipate future problems.   

"There are the pillars of cooperativism that support it. I think some of the key pillars are education, transparency and knowledge. You have to have knowledge, you have to know what you do" (Ecocitrus VP ).    


On learning, the interviewee was very emphatic to mention that the conflict was well managed and that it impacted positively on the cooperative’s activities. When asked about the impact of this CTP in the ambitions of Ecocitrus and whether it affected the initiative positively or negatively, he argues that:  

"Positively. I think we managed to make the management of the conflict and this generated improvements in the organization, empowerment, and knowledge of what we do. The conflict itself was well managed and led to cooperative improvement, mainly in the composting plant" (Ecocitrus VP ).

 "I think it adds to it. Do you know the analogy of the crumpled paper? Once it’s crumpled, you try to make it smooth again, but you can’t. There are always feelings in this, and we try to work them. How do you work people’s feelings? You reveal them. I think forgetting is hard. When you’re in an organization, you have to work at it. It’s no use keeping grudges, resentments aren’t good for you. It's also a personal learning experience" (Ecocitrus VP ).    

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