Green Jobs

Ecology Center Group Photo © 2006 Ecology Center DC Greenworks Student in action Courtesy: DC GreenworksCo-op Kitchen Photo © 2006 Clifton Ross







Green Collar Jobs

Workers on Remediation of a Brownfield

Over the next decade, the potential for green collar jobs, which I define as blue-collar work force opportunities created by firms and organizations whose mission is to improve environmental quality, could be very large.1 This is because, despite what is happening at the federal level, many San Francisco Bay Area cities, and the state of California, are proposing and passing policies and programs designed to improve environmental quality. These include policies related to zero waste, energy and water conservation, residential solar energy, whole home performance, local procurement, open space, and strengthening local food systems. In addition, the number of San Francisco Bay Area residents choosing to use their money to buy goods and services from firms and organizations that are improving environmental quality is increasing rapidly. Over time, this combination of factors should result in a significant expansion of local green collar jobs in the area. In order to find out what are the characteristics of green collar jobs? And What factors contribute to the growth and vibrancy of these sectors? I have been interviewing employers who provide green collar jobs to workers in more than 100 local firms/institutions which are producing jobs in 22 specific sectors:
  • Bicycle repair and bike delivery services
  • Car and truck mechanic jobs, production jobs, and gas-station jobs related to biodiesel
  • Energy retrofits to increase energy efficiency and conservation
  • Green building
  • Green waste composting on a large scale
  • Hauling and reuse of construction materials and debris (C&D)
  • Hazardous materials clean-up
  • Landscaping
  • Manufacturing jobs related to large scale production of appropriate technologies (i.e. solar panels, bike cargo systems, green waste bins, etc.)
  • Materials reuse
  • Non-toxic household cleaning in residential and commercial buildings
  • Parks and open space expansion and maintenance
  • Printing with non-toxic inks and dyes
  • Public transit jobs related to driving, maintenance, and repair
  • Recycling and reuse
  • Small businesses producing products from recycled materials
  • Solar installation
  • Tree cutting and pruning
  • Peri-urban and urban agriculture
  • Water retrofits to increase water efficiency and conservation
  • Whole home performance, including attic insulation, weatherization, etc.

It is very clear that moving away from polluting work and towards environmentally restorative work will bring significant changes and immediate benefits to workers, communities, and society at large. We need to develop a clearer understanding of what kinds of policies and programs can ensure that green collar jobs are made available to workers with limited initial education and skills, and that these jobs are stable, living wage jobs that provide benefits to workers and their families. Do green collar jobs, in and of themselves, offer workers a supportive work experience that contributes to improvements in quality of life?

Recent research on sustainable agriculture in the U.S. has revealed that although crops are being grown with less toxic inputs, on many of these farms ,workers continue to be terribly exploited. Similarly, some manufacturers producing processed food made with organic ingredients, and some supermarkets known for selling healthy organic food, offer workers part-time work employment in order to avoid providing benefits to workers and, have been involved in union busting. A job designed to improve environmental quality is not guaranteed to be a stable living wage job that provides workers with essential benefits. It is unclear if local green collar jobs will benefit low-income people and families in the Bay Area.

If current employment patterns are any indicator, we should all be concerned about this. Currently, unemployment rates for African American adults and teenagers are more than double the rates for Whites and Asians. Among Latinos, unemployment is worsening among second-generation Latinos.

Although the overall employment rate for Latinos is equal to Whites and Asians, the unemployment rate among native born Latinos is almost twice as high as Whites. Although Asians have lower unemployment rates, Asian workers are concentrated in low-paying manufacturing and service jobs and, like African Americans and Latinos, their rates of poverty are significantly higher than Whites.

What is clear is that people of color and high school graduates are the least advantaged groups in the current labor market. In order to reduce the potential for social inequalities and injustices in the emerging green economy, we need to develop strategies and programs to ensure that workers with limited initial education and skills have access to local green collar jobs. The information I am gathering will be helpful as we take on this challenge.

My preliminary research findings reveal the following: There are many local firms/organizations that offer green collar jobs in the Bay Area. The vast majority of local green collar jobs do not require high levels of education. The majority of workers holding green collar jobs in these 22 sectors obtained their skills on the job or through training paid for by their employers. Employers describe basic work skills of being responsible, being on time, having good communication skills, etc. as the most critical skills for the green jobs they offer. Employers are willing to hire workers with limited initial education and skills.

Public policies are the most important factor contributing to the health and vibrancy of firms/organizations with missions to improve environmental quality. While it is too early to draw definitive conclusions from these preliminary findings, it is possible to make the following generalizations: First, to ensure that green collar jobs provide workers with stable living-wage jobs and benefits, we will need to support living-wage ordinances, long-term hiring contracts, and unionization options. Second, to ensure that green collar jobs are offered to workers with limited initial education and skills, we will need local hiring requirements, training for green collar jobs in high schools, work force training programs, certification programs, matching programs, and employer incentives. Third, if we want green collar jobs, we must support policies designed to improve environmental restoration, quality, and justice.

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Clean and Green Co-op

Ana Lila © 2006 WAGES

In the current wave of community action for immigrant rights, a wider public is learning about the realities of life for immigrant workers in the U.S., undocumented and documented. Since the passage in 1994 of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the number of immigrants from Mexico has increased dramatically. Hundreds of thousands of displaced rural Mexicans could no longer support themselves in an agricultural economy distorted by an unrestricted flood of subsidized, bio-engineered U.S. grain.  

While most immigrants work for large corporations (growers, meat processors, construction firms and hotel chains), there are many examples of alternative employment for immigrant workers—even opportunities for “green” business ownership at the grassroots. These alternatives seek economic returns while also pursuing environmentally-sustainable business practices. In California’s Central Valley, Oregon, and Washington State, for example, the fastest growing sector in farming operations is Latino immigrants who purchase or lease land, many of whom use sustainable methods that reflect generations of indigenous knowledge, as well as the newest techniques in organic agriculture.

In the Bay Area, immigrant women have taken control of their work life by creating worker-owned green cooperatives that provide non-toxic house-cleaning services. For the past ten years, WAGES (Women’s Action to Gain Economic Security) has been incubating Latina-owned cooperatives by providing training and start up funds to help the women learn the skills to sustain a viable business over the long-term. WAGES also recently helped the Spanish Speaking Unity Council incubate an environmentally-friendly landscaping cooperative in Oakland, and is training members of  an  immigrant advocacy group from  Los Angeles to open their eco-friendly cleaning cooperative.

So, what does it take to build these green jobs at the grassroots?  WAGES has found that it takes a vision of the power of worker-ownership, a commitment to high-quality products and services, and a lot of slow deliberate work on team building and communication skills.  It also takes an investment of start-up funding, which can be hard to raise in the current climate. WAGES gets support from private foundations and individual donors who are convinced that the WAGES model is worth supporting because of the high quality of the jobs.

This investment compares favorably with many other job creation programs: welfare-to-work programs and micro-enterprise business training programs cost from $5,000-25,000 per person, but usually only lead to part-time, minimum wage employment.  The advantage of the WAGES model is that the jobs are full-time; co-op members earn $11-13 an hour and have health care, disability insurance and other benefits—in fact, family incomes go up by about 40 percent within two years; and they have greater control over co-op management and working conditions. Plus, the eco-friendly cleaning techniques (EFC™) prevent about 4,000 pounds of toxic chemicals from entering the environment each year, and improve worker and client health conditions.

Profile of Cooperative Business Creation

Ana Maria Alvarez © 2006 WAGES

A WAGES cooperative begins with a market study to identify the most promising location for eco-friendly cleaning services. WAGES then starts community outreach through grassroots organizations, churches, adult schools, and the ethnic media, to recruit women who are interested in the long-term commitment of building a cooperative business. For every 100 women that come to an orientation, a third will enter the training program, during which they receive a $150 training stipend and free child care.  Of those that enter the training, about 85 percent  actually decide to put up the $400 equity stake and become cooperative worker-owners.  The founding co-op members choose a name, and collectively sign on to a start-up loan provided by Lenders for Community Development, an economic development agency in the South Bay.  

Over the first three to four years, WAGES accompanies the cooperative as it matures, constantly improving the eco-friendly cleaning techniques to keep the cooperative competitive in the cleaning market; providing ongoing training to the governance board; and funding the General Manager position until the cooperative builds its business to a level that can sustain the personnel costs of a full-time manager, typically when it reaches about 20 cooperative members.  When the co-op “graduates” from WAGES, it joins a network of other cooperatives for mutual support, joint marketing, and ongoing technical assistance.

Hundreds of women have worked for WAGES cooperatives around the San Francisco Bay Area over the last 10 years, and about 50 women are currently owners, with good jobs and business equity that grows over time.  The WAGES model has the potential to be replicated across the country, combining the community ties built from grassroots empowerment with the prospect for economic stability for immigrant families.  ?

For more information on WAGES visit:, or call (510) 532-5465.
Margi Clarke is a community activist and non-profit consultant. Contact her at

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The Berkeley Model: Less Waste - More Jobs

Ecology Center Group Photo © 2006 Ecology Center

On the first day of spring in 2005, Berkeley’s city council unanimously approved a zero waste resolution—one of the first in the nation. The resolution officially adopts a 75 percent waste reduction goal for 2010, and establishes a zero waste goal for 2020.

What Does Zero Waste Mean?
If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled, or com-posted, then it should be restricted, redesigned, or removed from production. The goal is to combine aggressive resource recovery and industrial redesign to eliminate the very concept of waste. Eventually, the community’s resource-use system will emulate natural cyclical processes, where no waste exists. While zero waste may seem like an ambitious aim, Berkeley’s history is full of people taking chances on new ideas. The idealism that thrives here has produced many tangible demonstration projects that have helped spawn programs in cities across the globe. For example, over thirty years ago, the Ecology Center pioneered curbside  residential recycling. Much has changed since those early days, when a single flatbed truck roamed the streets collecting bundled newspapers. Today, Berkeley’s recycling programs (residential, commercial, and drop-off) are a multimillion-dollar enterprise providing over 40 green collar jobs and saving nearly 20,000 tons of resource-rich material from the landfill. Curbside recycling has gone from a “crazy” vision to an environmentally sane, mainstream service offered across the country.

What Makes Berkeley Different?
Unlike many cities across the United States, Berkeley possesses its own recycling and solid waste facility, which is operated by the city and three local nonprofits—the Ecology Center, Community Conservation Centers, and Urban Ore. This unique situation offers many important benefits. Local control allows for higher environmental standards and greater efficiency, as well as familiarity with our own waste stream. Costs for these services are kept low, and good green collar jobs remain in the city rather than being sent elsewhere or automated out of existence. Other East Bay cities contract their solid waste programs out to corporate waste haulers, who transport their garbage and recyclables to large-scale regional facilities, where little is known about what actually happens to it. Because Berkeley’s solid waste program is in-house, we get to decide what happens with our materials.

As an example of local control, Berkeley voters mandated that collected recyclable materials be put to their “highest and best use.” This is why we sort glass into three color camps—green, brown, and clear—while many other recyclers have eliminated this step. The bottles we collect are melted down and turned into bottles again at a regional foundry. Some end up back in Berkeley at Pyramid Brewery, a local ale manufacturing company. The energy and resources that went into making the glass in the first place are conserved. When glass of different colors is mixed and melted, a murky color results that is unfit for new bottles. Mixed glass can be “down-cycled” into asphalt or fiberglass insulation, but it is often used instead of dirt as “alternative daily coverage,” with the sandy covering heaped over trash at the landfill every day, to keep flies and odors down. But when Berkeley’s residents place glass bottles in their recycling bins, they can be sure those bottles actually get recycled and don’t end up in the dump.

For-Profit vs. Non-Profit
In 2001, the Ecology Center transitioned its fleet of recycling trucks to run on biodiesel, an alternative fuel made from recycled restaurant grease. Later, Berkeley’s garbage trucks, school buses, heavy equipment, and fire trucks also made the switch to biodiesel. This significantly lowered asthma and cancer causing emissions released by our fleets as well as the city’s dependence on foreign oil. Had Berkeley’s recycling program been handled by corporate haulers, such a forward-thinking initiative would never have gotten off the ground. Unlike the Ecology Center, corporate waste haulers are rarely proactive on issues unrelated to their bottom line, such as air quality and vehicle emissions. Furthermore, for-profit solid waste companies, such as Waste Management, Inc., own landfills. They charge per ton for every scrap of waste that goes to the landfill; therefore they have a financial interest in communities continuing to generate large quantities of garbage. It is a core part of their business. They also offer recycling services because most cities demand it, but minimizing waste is not their mission.

Jobs and Revenue Stay in Berkeley
Because Berkeley’s solid waste operation is locally based, the jobs generated by the city’s waste stream remain local. The city has its own fleet and unionized crew, as does the Ecology Center and the Community Conservation Centers. A model “green-blue” partnership, recycling is an environmental endeavor that provides local, well-paying, green-collar jobs. Recycling helps support the local nonprofits, businesses, and community agencies that partner with the city to handle discards.  Even with all the extra steps required—sorting, baling, cleaning, and selling of those bottles, cans, and papers—recycling remains a cheaper alternative than paying landfill fees, thanks to the income generated by selling the materials. Recycling contradicts the myth that communities must choose between jobs and the environment. Recycling creates jobs while costing the residents less.
Between the Ecology Center and CCC, Berkeley’s institutional recycling programs constitute a multi-million dollar industry. This money stays here; it doesn’t leave in the form of shareholder profits or CEO bonuses.

Moving forward toward the zero-waste goal, even more jobs, more reusable materials and more revenue will strengthen the local economy.  ?

For more information about Berkley’s pioneering recycling programs, visit
This article is excerpted from Recycled Content, a publication of the Ecology Center. Executive Director Martin Bourque and Development Director Amy Kiser work at the Ecology Center.

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Green Jobs Cleaning Brownfields

Brownfield Remediation2 ; Photo Courtesy: Remediation Services

Well before socially responsible businesses became fashionable, Olin Webb and Allen Edson transformed their environmental contracting business, Remediation Services, Inc. (RSI), into a community-based enterprise, employing workers from the very communities they work in.  Their organization has a triple impact on local communities. They reduce toxic exposure by removing contamination. They strengthen the local economy by hiring and training community members for the work. They help create long term economic health by establishing new sites for economic development within formerly blighted communities.

Since 2002, RSI has been a specialist in environmental field services in the San Francisco Bay Area, with services ranging from soil and groundwater remediation, hazardous waste removal and transportation, and restoration of disposal sites.RSI evolved from the environmental advocacy work of Webb, who hails from Bay View Hunters Point, and Oakland-based Edson. Webb and Edson have been environmental justice advocates since the early 1990s, and have played a pioneering role in the redevelopment of brownfields, which are derelict sites contaminated by  toxic chemicals. These sites disproportionately impact working class, low-income, and people of color communities, who typically live close to such sites.

Webb and Edson realized that although brownfield restoration  projects enabled hazardous sites to be cleaned up and developed, millions of dollars were being paid to external remediation contractors who had no ties or responsibility to the community. They decided  that there was no reason for money to leave their already impoverished communities.  To accomplish this goal, their organization began to train and hire workers from the communities where the clean-up work was occurring.

As members of the National Black Environmental Justice Network and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), Edson and Webb have always been passionate about rebuilding communities holistically. “Conventional redevelopment models reflect the inherent racism in the way projects are set up,” noted Webb. “So we wanted to make a positive, long term impact in the communities we worked in.” And that’s precisely what they have been doing, by training local community members to be skilled workers, including the 40-hour training to be able to work with hazardous material.

RSI has successfully reached out to undereducated, underutilized black youth—especially people who have been through the criminal justice system. RSI has also teamed up with Young Community Developers (YCD), a community-based job-training agency in Bay View Hunters Point, to regularly hire disadvantaged workers for community projects. RSI’s wages are on par with industry pay, averaging $25 per hour, in addition to vacation, and medical benefits.

One of its long term goals is to hire and sustain workers in San Francisco, Oakland, and Richmond—cities that are slated to experience rapid development in the coming years with major brownfields grants lined up.

RSI’s business model is best summed up by co-owner Edson: “We started out on a risky venture but it’s one that has paid off both to the business and to the communities.”   ?

For more information, visit
Preeti Shekar is the program and development associate at Urban Habitat and a producer with KPFA radio’s Women’s Magazine. 


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Green Landscapes in Washington D.C

DC Greenworks Student in action Courtesy: DC Greenworks

In 2004, D.C. Greenworks— a non-profit that seeks to resolve urban environmental and economic problems by fostering local expertise, job training, and community stewardship—joined forces with the Coalition for the Homeless and the 14th and U Main Street Initiative to form the Green Team, a group of men and women charged with maintaining clean, green, and safe streets in the Shaw commercial corridor of Washington D.C. In addition to handling litter and graffiti removal, the Green Team is also responsible for tree box landscaping and maintenance, and provides employment and training opportunities for Shaw’s homeless population. By creating a well-maintained commercial district, it has stimulated investment in vacant properties and supports tourism by disseminating heritage and hospitality information about the neighborhood and its attractions.

 D.C. Greenworks’ Green Collar Job Training programs are a successful marriage of ecology and economy, a living demonstration of how employment and natural resource conservation can support and sustain one another. Its programs address the need for both, clean and green communities, and for education, job training, and employment. Greenworks offers horticultural, arboricultural, and low-impact development training programs to meet the needs of volunteer service corps, parks departments, nurseries, and landscaping businesses.

Washington D.C. is among a growing number of cities that are beginning to explore the viability of urban green infrastructure as an ecological resource. The Trans-Agency Resources for Environmental and Economic Sustainability Project in Los Angeles, for example, estimates that it could create more than 50,000 jobs in environmental infrastructure management. Effective urban ecosystem management can create thousands of jobs and save millions of dollars for communities around the country. In fact, research shows that communities that actively protect their environment have higher rates of job growth, fairer taxes, lower energy costs, better than average public health, a more equitable distribution of wealth, greater democratic participation, and a better quality of life overall. (See Greenworks offers training for jobs in landscaping, tree service, low-impact development, park maintenance, and nurseries. With every training program, we work directly with employers, social services, and youth advocacy agencies to find viable placements for its graduates. Since 2000, we have partnered with the Earth Conservation Corps, the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, Covenant House Washington, and the Coalition for the Homeless, among others, to place over 80 people in good jobs.DC Greenworks Students in Action 1; Photo Courtesy: DC Greenworks

Programs that Adapt to Communities
All of D.C. Greenworks’ programs strive to be mindful of and relevant to the lives of the poor, multi-ethnic, urban communities they serve. Whether hiring urban youth to build a greenroof in a wealthy suburb, or presenting a tree care workshop in a gentrifying neighborhood, or designing a job-training program for the homeless, D.C. Greenworks looks a little different in each community.

In striving to understand the historical economic and cultural contexts for the attitudes and aspirations of each community, D.C. Greenworks has learned that each cultural group has its unique way of relating to the shared environment. People who have lived most of their lives within concrete-and-asphalt inner city neighborhoods are more likely to give low priority to issues of access and care of green spaces. The organization also recognizes that race and class can, and do inhibit job opportunities for inner city residents. Not owning a car, for example, can present a major obstacle to getting landscaping and construction jobs, most of which are based in the suburbs.

Using the Art of Applied Science
 Green education works best when program participants are involved in hands-on projects. Such an approach is well suited for people who have an interest in green skills, but to whom existing horticultural programs may be unavailable, inaccessible, or delivered in inappropriate formats. Inner-city residents tend to not have easy access to transportation or computers and often lack well-developed literacy skills. For such a population, hands-on learning—in effect, applied science—is far more effective and enjoyable.

Teaching skills in an applied context puts a greater burden on the instructor because the classes are harder to organize. Typically, they involve a lot more site-assessment and project planning, in addition to needing resources, such as trees, plants, tools, and mulch, to create a lasting and beautiful product.Fortunately for D.C. Greenworks, the city has a chronic shortage of landscaping and tree-planting services. The Urban Forestry Administration and the Department of Parks and Recreation have a huge backlog of requests for tree planting and pruning, dead tree removal, and stump grinding. In fulfilling these needs, D.C. Greenworks finds an expedient way to provide on-the-job training for its program participants. 

DC Greenworks Students in Action 2; Photo Courtesy: DC Greenworks

Combating Green Stereotypes
The Greenworks educational program is constantly striving to overcome two contradictory stereotypes: (1) Protection of the environment is largely the prerogative of wealthy white communities (granted, they make up a majority of the volunteer-based environmental organizations); and (2) Taking care of the environment is actually an unimportant and menial job requiring no special knowledge.

Urban forests, parks, and private green land are a crucial part of what makes a city livable. In spite of that, jobs in the green industry tend to be underpaid and undervalued, utilizing unskilled (and often undocumented) labor, which leads to a low standard of worker safety and poor work product, further exacerbating the social, environmental, and economic problems in urban areas.

In Washington D.C., one often sees trees that are planted and mulched too deeply, or pruned poorly by untrained workers wearing little or no safety gear. As a result, the average lifespan of a tree in D.C. is seven years, costing the city millions in complaint management, disease treatment, tree removal, and replanting.

Moreover, the city’s air quality may soon fail to meet federally mandated standards. As a result, D.C. may lose over $115 million per year in Federal Highway Administration funds, which currently pay for road repairs and other transportation infrastructure expenses. In 2002, the District reported 31 days of poor air quality, and currently boasts the highest asthma rate in the nation. More than one in 20 D.C. residents suffer from asthma, including over 10,000 children, a rate that far surpasses the national average of one in 50.

That trees greatly reduce flooding by allowing rain to seep naturally into the ground is a well-known fact. 1973 to 1997 saw a 64 percent reduction in tree cover in D.C., resulting in a 34 percent increase in storm water runoff. Since much of the runoff is collected in sewage pipes, the city has seen an increase in the number of sewer backups, sewer overflows into rivers, and basement floodings. The costs, in terms of property damage, worker productivity, healthcare, and clean up, are staggering.

Every day, thousands of working class people of all colors are charged with taking care of their local environment, whether it’s mowing lawns, tending gardens, planting trees, or building greenroofs. While D.C. Greenworks supports and encourages these activities, especially those jobs that can provide a living wage such as certified arborists, greenroof builders, and landscape specialists. We recognize the need for a more comprehensive and long term strategy for restoring and maintaining the urban environment. We hope to foster a paradigm shift, where care of the environment and use of knowledge-dependent best practices—regular and preventive maintenance, arboriculture, organic cultivation practices, integrated pest management, and low-impact development—becomes the norm, and jobs in the field are valued and well compensated.  ?

Dawn Gifford is the executive director of D.C. Greenworks. 


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We Make the Path by Walking

Co-op Kitchen Photo © 2006 Clifton Ross


In the shadow of one of the great environmental and social injustices of Latin America, Cerro Rico, Bolivia, a green coop stands as a hopeful sign that Bolivians can begin to restore their land and their lives after centuries of exploitation. Cerro Rico (Hill of Riches) was once known as Sumaj Orko, the sacred “Majestic Mountain” of the indigenous people of Potosì, Bolivia.

Today, the mountain is on the verge of collapsing because of the warren of mines crisscrossing its center, and every rainfall causes rivulets of toxic effluence to flow down its surface, endangering the health of the local population—over 75 percent of whom are considered poor and 45 percent, “extremely poor,” according to El Potosì, the local newspaper.

The ruining of this landscape also cost the lives of about eight million indigenous Americans and African slave laborers, according to Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano.  Why? 

In brief, the Spanish discovered that the mountain contained over 300,000 tons of silver (valued at $114 trillion U.S., in today’s market), and large amounts of lead, zinc, tin, and other metals, the extraction of which is believed to have financed the growth of the Spanish empire, the building of the British Navy, the conquests of Napoleon, and the first two World Wars.

Green Business Salves the Wound
Such stories abound all over Bolivia and all of Central and South America. So, it may come as a surprise that within this atmosphere of poverty and oppression, many are turning to “green” and “cooperative” business—both considered by some to be the trappings of left-leaning conclaves of more affluent societies—as models for their future economies. Locals, however, see this process as a recuperation of ancient ways.

Consider, for example, Mama Naturaleza, a family-run cafe in the tourist district of Bolivia's capital, La Paz. Manager Gabriela Gemio believes that with this “green” enterprise, she is doing what she can to restrain, if not reverse, the cycle of exploitation and environmental destruction. The furniture in the café is all made of regional pine wood, the interior is lit with low-energy light bulbs, and most of the food is organically grown on the Gemio family farm of Ventilla, in the hills above La Paz. All other foods and products are purchased locally in the market.

On the farm, Gabriela is helped by Hector, who learned agriculture from his elders growing up in Los Yungas, a semi-tropical region east of La Paz and populated by the descendents of escaped African slaves brought over to work the mines of Potosí. In Los Yungas he learned to make insecticides from tobacco and llama manure, both of which are freely available at Ventilla.

Hector grows lettuce and spinach at 12,000 feet above sea level in greenhouses (called “walipinis”) covered with clear plastic, which maintain a relatively warm temperature even during the cold nights. To protect the plants from the intense mid-day sun, Hector has improvised a screen made up of a thin layer of dirt laid over the plastic, which is easily rinsed off when needed. Other crops requiring higher temperatures are grown in underground greenhouses, called “sayari.”

Running a truly green business in a Third World country is not easy, admits Gemio. There are many obstacles, some created by international economics and others relating to the local culture. For instance, cardboard containers for packaging food are not made in Bolivia and have to be imported at a cost that Gemio cannot afford. There is also the local custom of using plastic straws with drinks.
“I hate to use plastic,” admits Gemio. But at the moment, she feels she has no other choice.

Green: The New Color of Socialism
In neighboring Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez wants to revive Bolivar's dream of a united and independent Latin America. The key, he believes, lies in “bioeconomics”, an economic development system that respects the regional (and global) ecosystems. One significant component of Chavez's grand plan for the “socialism of the 21st century” is the formation of green co-ops.

Chavez maintains that cooperatives are a step away from the “capitalism of Judas,” towards the “socialism of Jesus.” And since his election in 1998, the number of co-ops in Venezuela has grown exponentially, from around 1,000 to over 120,000, largely funded by the sale of oil though an approach they call “sembrando el petroleo” (sowing of the oil). Chavez regularly calls on the cooperatives to share their profits with the most needy in their communities, but such calls to altruism have never really worked in any other context to effectively eliminate poverty and are unlikely to produce results even in Venezuela. Still, cooperatives based on sustainable development and an economic orientation that works with, rather than against, nature can only be seen as an improvement over what existed before.

Núcleos de Desarrollo Endógeno (NUDES)
Literally, “endogenous development nuclei,” is an unwieldy but universally known and understood organizational phrase for co-ops in Chavez's Venezuela. “Endogenous development” simply means internal, self-sustaining development, and is defined by the Ministry of Popular Economy as, “an economic model in which the communities develop their own proposals,” and where both the leadership and the decisions come from within the community itself.

This localized approach is predicated on the fact that communities know best what they need and what they can produce, and so are best equipped to determine which projects have the greatest chance for success. For instance, campesinos in the state of Guárico know that corn is the optimal crop for their region. They also know that by sharing equipment and knowledge with others, they can be more productive. Their neighbors, in anticipation of a large crop of corn, can begin to organize a mill and to set up a production facility to make “arepas,” the thick corn cakes that Venezuela is known for. Secondary cooperatives can similarly be formed around the primary agricultural cooperative. What results is the nucleus of endogenous development, in which something is grown, processed, sold, and consumed locally. Any surplus is sold to bring in cash for other necessities.

Such a bioeconomic model of development is a strategic response to the dependent and unsustainable model of resource exploitation that imperialism would otherwise impose on the population—at least, on paper. Treading an unmarked path is always a challenge and critics contend that up to 30 percent of the co-ops may not be legitimate. Still, by any measure, the remaining co-ops have to be considered a stunning success because they most affect those long neglected sectors of Venezuelan society: women, minorities, and the poor.

In Merida, Aguilas Blancas Learns to Fly
My friend Juan and I lunch at the Cooperativa Cinco Aguilas Blancas (Cooperative of the Five White Eagles) in Merida. Fifteen women started this cooperative restaurant/Internet center, named after the five snow-covered mountain peaks that surround Merida. They learned skills in Misión Vuelvan Caras, the Bolivarian government's job-training program, then got a loan from Banmujer, the Venezuelan women's bank. They keep the café open seven days a week with two shifts of workers per day. (Each member gets one day off per week.) Still, profits from the café have been elusive, and Sabrina de Suarez, president of the co-op, admits that most of their income comes from the Internet center. She pulls out the ledger to show us that they currently gross only about $150 U.S. per day and pay about $300 U.S. in rent each month. In the end, each co-op member makes less than $10 U.S. per day.

Trouble in Co-op Paradise?
Chavez's Bolivar-inspired co-op revolution is not without critics. Camila Piñeiro Harnecker, who has done a significant amount of field research on Venezuelan co-ops, puts forth the argument of the traditional cooperatives: “The government's promotion of cooperatives is irresponsible and opportunistic because they have made it too easy to create a cooperative [the requirement of proving feasibility was eliminated] and they are being used for political agendas. Most new cooperatives are doomed to failure… because they are dependent on state resources and lack management and administrative skills. They also… create cooperatives with members who don't share the proper values and corrupt them by providing easy credit and too much paternalistic aid.” [1]

The situation does beg the question: Does generous government funding of cooperatives help or hinder the consolidation of worker-ownership? If financing comes too easily, if the struggle to construct the cooperative is won in a day of paperwork, is there a danger that the members might devalue the organization and not give themselves entirely to the struggle to build a worker-owned and controlled business? Anyone who has ever worked in a cooperative recognizes the crucial importance of “worker buy-in.” Balancing this with external assistance can be a challenging task.

Otto Fernandez, an organizer and facilitator from Chiguará, talks about the need for Venezuelans to break with a paternalistic culture developed over many years. “We're used to a Daddy government stepping in to do things for us, but we need to learn to take the initiative ourselves.”

Another Venezuelan put it more bluntly: “You can't expect to build an enduring cooperative movement by throwing money at it. A moth has to struggle to get out of its cocoon… if you help it, it will die, because it is only through the struggle that it generates the energy and liberates the chemicals necessary for survival. I think the same thing is true for those of us working in the [Venezuelan] cooperatives.”

Ana, from Cooperativa Cinco Aguilas Blancas, disagrees with the moth analogy. They have enough of a struggle to keep their doors open each day, she feels, and “without the loans from the government and Banmujer, we wouldn't be here.”

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine 15 working class Venezuelan women being able to put together the roughly $30,000 U.S. dollars they needed to start the cafe. The “easy credit” provided at low or no interest has meant that each of the women had only to invest an initial (largely symbolic) amount of 10,000 bolivares, or about $5.00 U.S.

A Path Strewn with Contradictions
The race to build a cooperative green future using the petroleum wealth of Venezuela, even as it feeds the North American imperial economy and fuels the climate change that makes the challenges of survival even greater, is a remarkable one. Whether it will provide long-term solutions for the poor and working class people of Venezuela is something only time will tell. Although President Chavez has said that the cooperatives only represent one step toward the “socialism of the 21st century,” he has yet to indicate what that socialism will be.

For now, the words of poet Antonio Machado seem to express perfectly the creative ambiguity within which Latin America is currently constructing its future: “There is no path; we make the path by walking.” ?

1 Camila  Piñeiro Harnecker , “The New Cooperative Movement in Venezuela’s Bolivarian Process” 

 Clifton Ross is a freelance writer living and working in Venezuela. He has been writing about Latin America for over 20 years.


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Getting Ready for Change: Green Economics and Climate Justice      |      Vol. 13 No. 1    |       Summer 2006      |      Credits

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Want Environmental Justice? Fire Your Boss

A promise that corporations always make when they are trying to site a polluting facility is that it will bring jobs to that community. The number of low-income communities that bought into that argument and watched their neighborhoods turn into dumping grounds for power plants, refineries, and waste disposal businesses are too numerous to count. Their experience shows that few of the jobs promised by polluters ever materialize. What’s more, even fewer go to local residents. When community members do get jobs at these facilities, they usually are the most dangerous, or temporary, with no benefits. Unfortunately, as long as our communities remain desperate for work, they will remain prime targets for this bait-and-switch technique. The desperation is a result of the exodus of blue-collar manufacturing jobs from the United States in the past decades. While the mainstream environmental movement has historically been bogged down in the “jobs vs. environment” debate, the environmental justice movement has clearly defined its support for job creation in our communities: Yes, we want jobs; just not jobs that kill us!

Creating Work Where There Was None
In response to growing environmental awareness, the past few decades have also seen the development of greener ways of doing things. Innovations in energy production and building techniques have created new opportunities to phase out practices that wreaked havoc on the planet, especially on the low-income communities of color, which have always borne the brunt of pollution. These innovations could potentially lead to the creation of new jobs on a large enough scale for the people who need them the most. According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, for every one job in waste disposal, the recycling, manufacturing from recyclables, and reuse industries, have the potential to generate 10 to 250 jobs. These jobs cut across traditional blue-collar/white-collar distinctions, and have come to be known as “green-collar” jobs. 

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that these jobs would automatically go to those who most need them, or that communities that have borne the greatest burden of pollution would actually benefit from the latest eco-innovations and green businesses. In truth, new employment sectors are typically developed by those with access to capital, and filled by those with appropriate skills and connections. Thus, communities with insufficient capital, skilled labor, and connections, will end up being the last to benefit, if at all. If history is to be our guide, without early intervention, profits generated by green businesses will primarily enrich the predominantly white, middle- and upper-middle class communities that own them.

Blazing A Green Job Trail of our Own
The South Bronx, with one of the highest unemployment rates in all of New York City—upwards of 27percent in some areas—is just one of many places in the U.S. hit by de-industrialization. So, a little less than three years ago, we decided to create our own green businesses, owned and operated by the workers, and capable of improving environmental conditions in the South Bronx. We believe that getting to the root of environmental racism and economic inequality requires new economic structures that promote environmental protection, demand accountability to local communities, and empower workers.

We did not have to look far for ideas. As with many other dumping grounds, one of the big issues facing the South Bronx is waste. New York City produces approximately 50,000 tons of trash each day. Approximately 37 percent of that moves through waste transfer stations in the South Bronx, before being exported to distant landfills and incinerators—which also happen to be in low-income and communities of color. Much of that waste, about 13,500 tons a day, is made up of building materials, such as kitchen cabinets, doors, sinks, and hardwood floors that are smashed to bits by a demolition crew and run over by a tractor. Waste disposal not being labor intensive, the only “benefit” we receive from these companies is the exhaust from their diesel trucks. As an alternative to this senseless waste, we decided to focus on incubating a retail warehouse for salvaged and surplus building materials that could be reused. While there are hundreds of similar reuse stores across the country, each creating wealth from what most still treat as waste, our store will be the first worker cooperative when it opens in 2007.

Worker Co-ops: Alien, Yet Alluring
For most people in the U.S., the idea of workers owning and managing their workplace is a completely alien concept. Most of us have learned to accept that a worker’s place is to serve at the whim of their employer; that workers can never be owners; and that workers are innately inferior beings incapable of governing themselves. Despite these common assumptions, however, we are attracted to the worker co-op model as a means of taking control of our local economy and environment. Here are some reasons why:

  • Worker co-ops retain more wealth in their communities. Unlike companies with remote shareholders and non-locally owned businesses, co-op owners are more likely to live near where they work. As a result, more of a worker co-op’s profits circulate within the community for longer periods of time.
  • Barring a major catastrophe, people rarely pick up and move en masse. So, worker co-ops are not likely to relocate to another town, state, or country.
  • Worker co-op owners live in their communities, hence are more accountable to their communities and not inclined to pollute them. As the environmental justice movement has long pointed out, if a business is truly green, its owners ought to be comfortable putting it in their own backyard.
  • Worker cooperatives teach democracy. Despite the rhetoric, few people in this country can say that they truly experience democracy in their daily lives. How can we expect accountability from our elected officials, or demand a voice in government, when we don’t even have a voice at our workplace where we spend most of our time?
  • The Solution from Inside Out
    Since its beginnings, the environmental justice movement has been about people taking control of their own communities—ensuring that those most impacted by a problem are also the ones leading the hunt for a solution. We need to think along similar lines when we enter into discussions about job creation and economic development. Instead of assuming the position of supplicants, we ought to develop our own job creation strategies that embody the movement’s principles of community control and self-determination. If we fail to do this, we enable the continuation of the same patterns of exploitation for generations to come.

    Worker co-ops have achieved substantial successes in other parts of the world. Most notable are the Mondragon Cooperatives in the Basque region of northern Spain, and the co-ops of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. In recent years, laid-off workers in Argentina have taken over scores of defunct factories all over the country. In the U.S., there is a small but growing movement of worker cooperatives that is being united by the newly formed U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives. If you are interested in learning more or are interested in attending the Federation’s Second National Worker Co-op Conference this October (13-15) in New York City, visit  ?

    Omar Freilla is the founder of Green Worker Cooperative, an organization dedicated to bringing worker-owned and eco-friendly manufacturing jobs to the South Bronx.


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    Getting Ready for Change: Green Economics and Climate Justice      |      Vol. 13 No. 1    |       Summer 2006      |      Credits

    Related Stories: