Santa Maria is about 4 hours by bus from Porto Alegre and is located at the center of Rio Grande do Sul, the Brazilian state that borders with Uruguay and Argentina. Every year, for the past 20 years, the “Feira de Santa Maria” has been celebrated, a big fair based on popular economy, family farming and crafts of indigenous peoples, which has become “the biggest event of Alternative Cooperatives and Solidarity Economy in Mercosul and Latin America “. It is self-defined as “the Capital of Solidarity economy and popular cooperative movement.”

This year, many other anniversaries were celebrated: 10 years since the creation of the government’s Secretaria Nacional de Economia Solidária – SENAES; 10 years after the founding of the Fórum Brasileiro de Economia Solidária – FBES. As well as 30 years of Caritas Brazil working in this field, making the presence of Caritas among the organisers very visible in this event.

Last but not least, between July 11 and 14, 2013, Santa Maria also hosted the 2nd Fórum Social Mundial de Economia Solidária – FSMES (the first was held in 2010, parallel to the ten-year the celebration of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre), with the goal of “affirming worldwide solidarity economy as a development strategy to promote and spread this solidarity, sustainable, self-managed, popular and collective practice, including the political democratic, economic, environmental and social dimensions as an integral part, with a focus on gender rights and cultural diversity; it brings together social and solidarity organizations, with the certainty that another economy already exists.”

The fair itself was a dense display of micro artisans, family businesses, and some co-operatives, especially in the agro-food sector. Over 800 exhibitors from various countries of Latin America and thousands of visitors participated, sharing a rich cultural program of assembly meetings, debates and workshops.

Three areas, many convergences:

The Forum was organized in 3 main areas of discussion. The first one was about the normative aspect: for many, it is more urgent than ever to clearly identify the actors of the solidarity economy, for the emergence of a regulatory framework appropriate to the diversity of the movement and to the socio-economic initiatives, particularly those that favour the establishment of the right to collective means of production.

The second area centred on responsible consumption, as a fundamental element for the consolidation and development of a really “solidary” economy, which implies an ‘inclusive consumption”, that is environmentally friendly and healthy. It also includes marketing at a fair price, for both producers and consumers. Therefore, the educational and training processes are fundamental in the construction of a different consumer culture, together with public policies aimed at building a system of solidarity public procurement, that can strengthen and consolidate production, distribution, marketing and consumption of solidarity economy products.

The third focus is the organization of the movement: considering the richness inherent in the diversity of initiatives and the actors of involved in solidarity economy, the need to cooperate in networks, avoiding any form of verticality and concentration is reaffirmed. Communication is therefore a basic element to advance in this perspective, revealing the need to have common strategies, developing inter-sectoral action at the local level, fostering greater exchange between the rural and urban, and coherence between theory and practice. But above all, there’s the need to create an imaginary and a shared vision – a multifaceted narrative with common features that are grounded in the values and to have an immediate, visual, understanding of what is the “other” world that is already under construction.

All these discussions are certainly relevant from a European perspective, as we’ve been similarly discussing them during the recent Ripess Europe congress in Lille, France. The organizers of the Forum want it to be hosted elsewhere next time, and to involve RIPESS more consistently in the process. If the convergences on these issues have been many, visiting the Santa Maria fair the impression is that there is plenty of work to be done, in order to move from an informal and popular economy to the solidarity and the networked one (with complete and consistent production-chains). But it’s happening. Encouraging signs also come from Argentina, with its recent history and the State’s commitment to through the program Argentina Trabaja, which has fostered the creation of many cooperatives and made more robust experiences of recovered and self-managed factories … yet to make all these become part of solidarity economy, there has to be a strong will to work in a real network and to be united. That’s what makes the economy… solidarity economy. Along with continuous and popular education.