Awaking to normality, an antidote for market control

Awaking to normality, an antidote for market control

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

“I am fine”, he says, while in the jaws of an alligator. Popular saying.

Every cloud has its silver lining. Old saying.

The parable of the “boiling frog” says that if we put a frog in a pot of boiling water, the frog will immediately jump out of the pot; on the other hand, if we put the frog in temperature that is low, and do not scare it, the frog will remain there; if we then increase the temperature, the frog will not do anything; the more the temperature increases, the more dazed the frog remains, and even though there is nothing keeping him from getting out of the pot, it will not leave; and ends up being boiled. Organizations (members and organizations) tend to be like the frog, in the face of sudden events (coups, electoral results, unpopular decrees) they react and take to the streets; while in the face of a gradual dispossession of their resources and even their own organizations, they tend to adapt, some even enjoy appearing to be victims, and when they realize it, they are already “boiled” like the frog.

In this article we present one of those organizations, the La Voz Cooperative, located in the municipality of San Juan La Laguna (in the Lake Atitlán basin), Sololá Province, Guatemala. We studied their process of awakening, and then, so that they might continuously keep themselves awake, and at the same time contribute to a formation with justice, we suggest an important collaboration between the cooperatives and the universities.

In 12 years they had completely “flipped the tortilla”

I visited them in 2004 and again now in 2016. In 2004 the historical tensions that existed in the municipality of San Juan and San Pedro over land and other resources were still felt, in fact some people from San Pedro continued buying land in San Juan and had the best coffee fields in the municipality; the chalet owners (mostly foreigners and people from the city of Guatemala) took over the shores of the lake, one of the 7 marvels of the world. The La Voz cooperative had their wet mill, they stood out for their frequent rotation of leadership, while the organic coffee yields of their members were equivalent to 60% of conventional coffee yields.

In 2016 the picture I found was very different. Some people from San Juan had purchased land and coffee fields from people from San Pedro and almost none of that previous tension between San Juan and San Pedro was felt. Hurricane Stan in 2005 and Tropical Storm Agatha in 2010 made the water level increase in Lake Atitlán, and with that a lot of land in dispute disappeared. The cooperative is changing; in addition to a wet mill, now they have a cafeteria where they roast 5% of their total coffee and they sell it packaged and in cups of coffee; 95% of the rest of the coffee they export; they have a clinic for women; they produce organic fertilizer to sell to their members; the coffee quality has improved (cup scores of 94 and 95) and their yield is the reverse of 2004, now their conventional coffee is equal to 60% of the per manzana yield of their organic coffee. Some of their members are buying land again.

“If you do not flip the tortilaa, it burns.” The cooperative had flipped the tortilla, taken a big leap, and along with the cooperative San Juan had also improved. What were the keys that openned the door of improvement for the cooperative in a matter of 12 years?

‘Hit rock bottom’ with the crisis, trust in themselves and move forward again in alliances

Paradoxically, the principal key was undergoing a harsh crisis and waking up right before “getting boiled.” Between 1993 and 1995 the cooperative received a loan for nearly a half million dollars from a social bank and two userers; and in that same period doubled the amount of their organic coffee exports, buying another 50% from third parties and passing it off as fair trade and organic coffee from the cooperative. The cooperative did not receive most of that loan, and did not receive anything for the shady deal for the other 50% of the coffee (earnings for the purchase and sale of coffee to a friendly market that was paying a good price + US$20/qq fair trade premium + US$30/qq organic premium). This obviously was possible thanks to the complicity of part of the board and the administrative staff, who acted behind the backs of the cooperative, even though they did do it in their name, with the complacency of the certifiers, banks and coffee buyers, who obviously saw the numbers double on paper and kept quiet.

“In just one period we disgraced ourselves”, said a member of the cooperative, while refering to the fact that the elections of the board members are every two years, and that one period was enough to “disgrace” the cooperative. In this period during which the temperature of the “pot” was increasing, “the frog” (the members) were calm, they did not perceive the change in temperature. The following period (next two years) the collectors arrived because they had fallen into arrears, the board members and the members were concerned, but the situation appeared to be under control. They needed one more period to realize that “they had exported double the amount”, it is then that they met in the assembly to ask the ex-board members what had happened, and analyzed the causes along with the members; and met with the banks, the certifiers, the buyers and the aid agencies. They worked to reach agreements, changed the organic certifier, and the members of the cooperative bodies began to look at the administrative management. Thus they freed themselves from being “boiled” like the “frog.”

Now outside the “pot”, the leaders look at their awakening in retrospect:

“If a member spoke well, we would say that that member was good, we would say let him be president, and we would nominate him for president. We would trust what the manager or president would tell us: “such and such a project is coming…sign here.” That is fine, we would say, and we would sign. We would not verify the minutes to see how it had been left. They only would come to tell us. We signed and we signed. There was no control over the travel allowance of the manager, nor over the salaries that they got. We let them sign the checks for the employees. The manager in one period was even the legal representative of the cooperative. We would change everyone in each period, there were meetings, but we did not know how to exercise those roles. The credit committee would allow the board to authorize the loans, and we would say that that was good. As the legal represenative the manager would negotiate and talk with the buyers and the banks; we were afraid to talk with a business person and we were happy that the manager did so. Going to the capital was something we really did not want to do…” (board member of the cooperative).

The members saw themselves as adapting to something that was making things worse for them. First, the “normal” (signing minutes and checks without verifying, naming board members and meeting without playing their roles, putting people who spoke up more into positions of responsibility, allowing the manager to be the legal representative, the administration to sign their own checks, the board or manager to authorize loans instead of the credit committee, avoiding conversations with buyers and the banks) emerged as “abnormal” for being from a cooperative. This is waking up. Secondly, realizing that the instigators for taking over the resources of the cooperative were from inside and outside the cooperative, this made centuries of beliefs evaporate about “the foreign auditor has the last word,” “the person with the college degree is trained to lead organizations”, that “we always need a patron” (someone who directs us “from above”), and that “we indigenous are not capable of speaking or traveling”. Third, the formality of the cooperative had absorbed them: that leadership rotation was the solution to corruption, and that the audit of international aid organizations ensured that everything was normal. “That is fine, it is fine”- they would tell them while reviewing the paperwork that the small mafia had organized. Fourth, they laughed when they realized that culturally as families they had closed themselves off to learning new ideas, they had said that “a ladino could not teach an indigenous about coffee”; and that idea had blocked them, they could hear them but not listen to them. Fifth, the force of the market (individual interest to maximize profits) was like the fire that increased the temperature of the pot, it was a logic that had penetrated the minds of the members and the fair trade organizations, and had connected them to the normal practices of the first point, the unfavorable beliefs of the second point, the demanding formality of the third point, and with that cultural prison of the fourth point. This is the environment that made them repeat to any visitor: “we are fine.”

With all these points and the decisions that they made, they had taken a giant step: waking up in time and getting out of the “pot.” Nevertheless, this did not guarantee them that they would not fall into another “pot”; in addition they were “half boiled” by the time they got out; the members did not trust their cooperative, while many aid agencies withdrew, and other suggested closing down the cooperative and founding another one. How did they rebuild trust and move forward again as a cooperative? They put their house in order, they defended themselves against legal suits, they negotiated their debts, and at the same time they invested and found good markets for their principal crop, coffee.

First, the cooperative learned the lesson that the associative side of the cooperative (board, oversight board and committees) had to understand AND manage the administrative side of the cooperative (cafeteria, exports, fertilizer production, administration, credit, clinic), and had to be zealously careful with the decisions that each side (associative and business) had to make. This lesson they began to put into practice.

Secondly, the cooperative, with its bodies and management, built beneficial relationships with different actors. With aid organizations and the State, administering resources efficiently. With social banks, honoring their debt, in spite of the fact that only part of those resources had gotten to the cooperative, and the fact that the social banks had failed in their scrutiny mechanisms to ensure that the loans went to the cooperative and not a small mafia. Building relationships with a new organic certifier, looking for one that “visited the countryside.” And with the coffee buyers so that the demand for more quality might be combined with price differentials.

Third, the “associative-business” awakening also implied a “awakening in production technology”. This implied recognizing that there was a lot to improve in their production areas, and that the training sessions from the state institutions on the coffee market were useful and necessary; then they began to listen to the trainings and observe their fields. It also implied deciding to have a full time technical promoter (who would accompany the members in their fields, as well as produce organic inputs, earthworm and compost fertilizer) that the members can buy. In this way, slowly, they perceived that a responsible management of organic coffee would yield sustainable fruit in the long run, something beneficial even for including different associated crops with the coffee, and for understanding that an open mind with a long term perspective is important.

Fourth, adding value to their coffee, getting into the roasting and grounding of coffee, and opening a cafeteria for the public, has multiple benefits. On the one hand, it has allowed you to know more about the yield of coffee, for example, that 1.20 pounds of export coffee is equal to 1 lb of roasted-ground coffee, or that 1 pound of roasted, ground coffee comes from 7.4 pounds of cherry coffee, and that you can get 25 cups of coffee from that one pound. This information is important to them when negotiating differential prices with coffee buyers, because both organizations, the cooperative and the buyers, understand how unjust the New York price is, when it says that 1 pound of coffee is worth US$1.50, and that same pound in the United States or Europe, now roasted, ground and packaged, is worth 10 to 20 times more, and let´s not even talk about once it is turned into 25 cups of coffee. On the other hand, the cafeteria is also a door to agro-ecological tourism for people connected to the coffee trade and for the public in general; this creates an environmental awareness and allows people to understand how coffee economics works and how it is part of the culture of the communities of San Juan; and also deepens the relationship between the cooperative and the organizations with which they are connected.

The ongoing awakening

“Every cloud has it silver lining.” The crisis was serious, but at the same time, awakening to it allowed them to make a difference in 12 years. They learned that the relationship between the associative and business parts is the engine of cooperativism; that the formality of leadership rotation is basic, but insufficient; and that a relationship of alliance is a double edged sword, it can be a relationship of complicity for dispossessing the members of their own organization, or it can be an alliance so that they “jump” out of the “boiling pot”, improve the lives of their members, and contribute to non members. If the relationship of the organizations is only with the president or the manager, based only on “papers”, they are on the brink of being dispossessed. If the relationship with the organizations is with that associative/business interaction mediated by immersion processes and transparency on both sides, they are on the brink of repossession. This is the biggest contribution of the La Voz cooperative to the associative world.

After these two large steps forward, are they out of danger of being “boiled” like the “frog”? The response is no. In fact, it is said that human beings are the only animal that trips over the same stone. What can be done to keep danger away? In the history of social movements we learn that, after being mobilized “from below”, even the best leaders tend to believe that the people can only be mobilized “from above” – from a political vanguard, manager or market. The cooperative needs mechanisms that would allow it to mobilize itself “from below” (members) to detect in time any increase in “temperature”; that the associative side supervise the administrative side – like the rotation of leaders – it is good, but not enough. How can it be done? Based on research, we should work on an alliance between the cooperative and the University around the formation of students and new associative leaders. Concretely, the cooperative and the Rafael Landivar University (RLU), I mention the RLU because of their historic interest in contributing to a society moved by social justice and not by market justice, should invest in a cafeteria on the central university campus and then in each branch; that cafeteria would be the gateway toward an ecology of knowledge (the science that is taught is ONE knowledge, there are other knowledges produced for example by the indigenous and peasant families of San Juan, and other knowledges); and that relationship would allow the RLU to have a privileged source for formation, and the cooperative would have an opportunity to study itself in a contextualized way.

“What good can come from San Juan de La Laguna?” ask those who are mobilized “from above”, like the prejudiced elite asked some 2 thousand years ago: “What good can come from Nazareth?”. In this article the La Voz Cooperative teaches us that working within a plural framework of alliances, keeping the focus on organized families, may be the best antidote for any organization that fights for justice and peace to avoid being “boiled” by market fundamentalism that says that you have to study a major or organize yourself exclusively to make money.

[1] René ( has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation ( and an asociate researcher for IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium).

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