Cooperatives in Catalonia

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Peter de Jong:

"Different economic models are taking root, with experimental projects across all sectors: production, distribution, consumption and services. In Catalonia alone, you can find initiatives on: food and drink (Cooperativa Integral Catalana’s econetworks, cooperative bars, consumer cooperatives); alternative currencies, finance and banking (the Ecosol, the ECO, Fiare Banca Ética, Coop57); culture and media (La Ciutat Invisible, La Marea, La Directa); housing (Okupa squatted houses, the PAH movement); telecommunications (Som Connexió); and energy (Som Energia).

Projects typically work on the basis of a cooperative model, in which its socios (members) are at the core of the decision-making process. Responding to the shortcomings of the business-state nexus, they evolve around a set of principles: sustainability, solidarity, locality and transparency.

The signs are that it works. Numbers are growing quickly, local branches are being created and second-level, economic infrastructure facilities are popping up to help support new initiatives.

The renewable energy group Som Energia (Catalan for ‘We are Energy') is one of the rising stars, offering green energy direct to the public. But that is only part of the story, according to co-founder Gijsbert Huijink. “Our aim is to transform the Spanish energy model, to become 100 per cent sustainable, renewable, and self-sufficient,” he says.

The cooperative was conceived when Huijink and his wife wanted to connect their Catalan cottage to the electricity grid of a neighbouring farm. They were shocked by the price of the operation. “So I started looking into the possibility of my own installation, and ended up buying our first solar panel,” he says.

“I became fascinated with the subject of renewable energy. It seemed a good idea to connect with other individual energy producers and set up projects together. It’s been possible in countries such as the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark for a long time. Such a cooperative structure did not exist here. I decided to start one myself.”

Huijink put the idea of Spain’s first renewable cooperative to his students at the University of Girona, and things got rolling quickly. An organizing group was formed, the legal cooperative structure established, and members started dropping in.

“First, most of new members were activist, it fitted with anti-nuclear attitudes for instance,” he explains. “Later, as the crisis hit, we got more and more people motivated to join in rejection of the oppressive oligopoly which controlled the energy market. It was swallowing up all kinds of small, traditional enterprises, while energy bills rose to astronomic heights—all with the consent of the Spanish government.”

As Som Energia was getting off the ground, the indignados-movement began to gain momentum. The massive protests and square occupations starting 15 May, 2011, created an atmosphere in which more and more people grew interested in doing things differently.

Huijink remembers: “In the first three months of our existence, we were happy with each new member. After that, we started growing by 10 to 20 members a week. In the summer of 2011, we welcomed around 50 a week.”

The flow of new members rapidly generated investment opportunities for the cooperative. With each new member making a €100 deposit, Som Energia was able to start production and built its first photovoltaic plant in 2012. At the time of writing, there are more than 14,000 members, energia-socios. In addition to five operating photovoltaic arrays, their first biogas installation opened in 2014.

Som Energia got its first start-up loan from finance cooperative Coop57. Xavi Teis, a member of that group, thinks the 15-M movement has already achieved two major things. “First, it has mobilized lots of people who were not politically active before. But, second, it has also generated a public search for alternatives to the conventional economic system.” He is enthusiastically pointing the tip of his pencil to the steep line graph showing the increase of annual member contributions to Coop57 since 2011.

“A lot of people who become socio of our cooperative, tell us they don’t want to put their savings in the hands of corrupt bankers,” Teis says. “They would rather join us, knowing their money will only be used to support projects that are creating social value—which is exactly our criterion for an investment.”

As growing numbers put their savings into alternative and ethical finance initiatives, the demand for loans from credit-seeking startups is skyrocketing. In the first quarter of 2013, Coop57 granted the same amount of credit to projects as during the whole of 2012, five times as much as in 2008.

Xavi Palos, one of two permanent employees of the Xarxa d’Economia Solidaria (XES)—a network organization for alternative economy initiatives in Catalonia—also recognises the boom that followed in the crisis and 15-M protests. “In those three years we’ve witnessed an explosive increase in all kinds of new projects,” he says. “The first activities we organized, such as debates, had a maximum of three hundred visitors. The latest Solidarity Economy Fair got around 12,000.”

It would be wrong to attribute the rise of alternative economy practices solely to the indignado-momentum. Much of the social infrastructure underpinning these projects dates back to long before 2011.

Ferrán Aguiló, an experienced, silver-bearded cooperativista, currently works as a cooperative consultant. But he has been active within the alternative economy sphere since the early 1990s. While confirming the 15-M effect, he places the current developments within the wider historical dynamics of Catalonia.

“The cooperative movement, which constitutes an important part of the whole of the alternative economy, has been present here for years,” says Aguiló, sitting in the meeting room at Can Batlló, a squatted factory site turned into a flourishing community center. “The neighbourhood of Sants, for example, has an long story of working class struggles and cooperativism stretching back to the early 20th century. These new projects are a result of various factors which have been around the city since the end of the Spanish Civil War.”

He draws a link between the clandestine neighbourhood associations which operated during the Franco dictatorship, though to the Okupa-squatters and, most recently, the indignados. “All these experiences have been consolidated at the level of the neighbourhood, and are now building towards the establishment of a more social economy,” he adds.

During and after the indignado-occupations of the Plaça Catalunya, Aguiló and members of groups such as Coop57, the XES, and the Cooperativa Integral Catalana participated actively in assembly meetings, sharing their experiences with the newest generation of change-minded citizens." (