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The market mafia

Paul Van Mele

Smallholder, organic farmers in Bolivia struggle to sell their healthy, natural produce to an urban and peri-urban audience that is only slowly awakening to the health risks of food produced with agrochemicals.

While the weekly home delivery service is a new way to sell fresh produce directly to consumers, the age-proven, open-air markets offer a more obvious way to sell ecological food. As in much of the developing world, weekly neighbourhood markets are widespread in Bolivia, but they come with their own challenges when newcomers want to enter the scene.

The NGO Agrecol Andes has been working for years to help agroecological farmers sell their produce directly on local markets, rather than through middlemen. To help farmers in the department of Cochabamba obtain a space to sell in existing markets, Agrecol obtained agreements with various local authorities to help their farmers sell at markets. But that seemed to be the easiest part.

From experience Agrecol Andes learned that if one of the ecological farmers did not have vegetables or fruits to sell for one week, their place would be snapped up by a conventional vendor, who would keep the spot forever. So Agrecol increased its efforts to strengthen farmer groups, which let members to supply each other with ecological produce and ensure weekly presence on the markets.

But competition among market vendors is fierce. While local authorities may set market rules, the real power is held by a few influential vendors. If the old vendors object, the farmer-sellers may permanently be blocked from the market.

“In some cases, my colleagues have been negotiating with specific market vendors for several years, but until they obtain permission, they are never sure whether their efforts will bear any fruits,” explains Augusto Lizárraga, a young staff from Agrecol Andes who accompanied us during most of our filming days.

Clearly, for individual farmers to start selling ecological produce directly on markets, the challenges are huge. Working in groups helps, and so does the support of local authorities. But institutional support like the one offered by Agrecol Andes is essential to support agroecological farmers and trigger changes towards healthier and fairer food systems.

The market mafia may be invisible, but it does exist.

Watch Access Agriculture related video 

How to sell ecological food

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