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The experience of the Participatory Guarantee System at BioEspuña (Spain - France)

This is the story of a participatory certification project between Spain and France... Creating and strengthening links between farmers and consumers,  to promote the practices of the former, and to help the latter understand what is at stake in a given region. Here's the story of a project that keeps you dreaming.... and this is just the beginning!

BioEspuña was born of a family dream - José, Cristóbal and Alberto Marín - to market the organic fruit grown by this farming family for several generations. The simple, essential question was how to make a living from organic, small-scale farming in a region - Murcia - that is suffering the full force of the ravages of agribusiness (conventional arboriculture and market gardening for export to Europe's supermarkets). By getting as close as possible to the end consumer...

José and his wife Amparo have always been farmers. Now elderly, they are no longer active, but they remain a valuable reference for preserving the family's farming roots while understanding of contemporary changes. 30 years ago, Cristóbal, their eldest son, began converting his farm to organic farming (orange, lemon, carob, almond and apricot trees), the first farm in the region to do so. As for Alberto, from his farming origins to his studies as a forestry engineer, he wasn't destined to return to farming. But he soon became preoccupied with the question: "How can we pay producers better? And what does a farmer need to resist?

A series of meetings in France led him to set up a network of consumers keen to support organic farming on the other side of the Pyrenees by buying fruit not produced in France. For the past 10 years, the fruit has been sold through a number of consumer groups, including AMAPs, buying groups, farmers' markets, works councils, etc.

At BioEspuña, the idea is as follows: to bring the consumers of the products to the farms in Spain, to see how the farmers work and to carry out surveys to evaluate practices with other producers. Several representatives per group once a year to visit the farms and maintain links with the farmers.

"Because we want to involve all the players concerned in the organic certification process (producers, processors, consumers, traders, etc.) so that their views and approaches complement each other.

- Because we have observed a number of drifts within the organic farming sphere: the social and environmental aspects have been sidelined from this movement, even though they are fundamental to us.

- Because we are keen to promote the practices of farmers who go beyond official organic regulations.

- Because we want to strengthen mutual understanding and cohesion between farmers, and between farmers and consumers, despite the geographical distance:

For the consumers, the challenge is to discover the practices, constraints and realities of the farmers, as well as the specific features of the region and the local context (economic, social, cultural, political).
On the farmers' side, the aim is to be able to explain their production choices, to share their problems and successes, and to have witnesses.

This will create a dynamic of mutual understanding and improvement.

For BioEspuña, an additional challenge is the selection of producers to join the marketing network (a selection currently made by Alberto and Cristóbal). What criteria should be used in addition to official organic certification?

The latter will be retained, particularly for exports (from Spain to France), supplemented by a Participatory Guarantee System that could provide a more global view of the approach. The aim is to reclaim the guarantee, and beyond that, food, agriculture and distribution".

Since the spring of 2022, following the loss of momentum caused by the Covid crisis, discussions have been more widely shared with a view to setting up this Participatory Guarantee System.

The French team set the ball rolling, bearing in mind the particular configuration between France and Spain (1,000 km between baskets and orchards)... Meeting after meeting, it became clear that we needed to go and see for ourselves, to compare the ideals of a handful of consumers (some of whom were seasoned on the subject) with the reality of the farms concerned, and simply to discover these farms and meet the farmers.

The result was a week-long trip in February, involving 11 people and 6 farms, with part of the time spent working together (creating questionnaires, taking notes, pictures, summaries, hot and cold reports, etc.) and, of course, a large part of the time spent visiting the farms and meeting the farmers.

The group was made up mainly of customers for BioEspuña products, some of whom are still working or retired farmers, and two BioEspuña employees, Nadia and Julie, who have been working for the cooperative since 2020 and 2015 respectively. Cristóbal and Alberto Marín, two of the people behind BioEspuña, were also present.

Meeting was undoubtedly the first thing this trip made possible: between citizen-eaters and farmers on either side of the Pyrenees, initially linked by the fruit eaten on one side and produced on the other. Behind the crates of oranges, lemons and grapefruit, the cans of oil and the sacks of almonds, there are men and women committed to maintaining a form of organic farming that is economically viable and ecologically resilient.

"We met organic pioneers with a strong attachment to the land", as well as newly settled farmers who are trying to rebuild family farms, converting them to organic farming and replanting trees to combat desertification.

Through this journey, the eaters were able to discover another territory and better understand the issues involved. Behind the showcase of products marketed by BioEspuña, there are very different territories: non-irrigated (secano) almond, pistachio, walnut and olive orchards on semi-arid plateaux; citrus-growing areas near rivers where irrigation is possible (and necessary) but where the battle for water and land grabbing by multinationals is rampant. This small SPG group is gradually becoming a collective of witnesses to the struggles and issues of this region (land grabbing for the benefit of very large photovoltaic projects, plundering of water resources, casualisation of farming jobs, desertification of certain areas, etc.).

inally, SPG means building together in a participatory way. Once again, a successful challenge! The small group was able to concoct tools and documents (questionnaires, note-taking, images, summaries, hot and cold reports, etc.) and collectively identify criteria and draft benchmarks. Discovering others, collective adventure... isn't the GSP above all about creating and maintaining human relationships? In any case, that's the spirit in which our travellers will return home: enriched by these wonderful encounters and invigorated by doing things together.

In order to repeat the journey on the farms each year, with a new group of 10-12 people each time, it seems necessary to build and validate guidelines (evaluation criteria), tools (questionnaire, feedback support), operating rules and governance, and to address the questions that have emerged and that remain unresolved.

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