I spent the better part of last week with colleagues and guests at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Minneapolis. The annual gathering features recent Nobel Peace Prize laureates and many others whose passions are about peace-making. In this year’s edition, Winds of Peace was invited to host a dialogue about the potential impact of cooperatives on post-conflict societies. In the session, our colleague Rene Mendoza offered his research conclusions about what constitutes strong cooperatives, how all of the “actors” in the cooperative chain sometimes unknowingly contribute to a lack of fairness to the small producer, and how Fair Trade isn’t always fair.
Our session featured representatives from all quarters of the coffee cooperative chain: producers, buyers, roasters, funders, cooperative associations, consultants and even academics. They came from Europe, Central America, South America, Canada and the U.S. We sought as many perspectives as we could find to consider the research and join in the discussion about where and how improvements might be made on behalf of the small producer, and in the process contribute to better chances at creating more peaceful societies. The gathering was an impressive one, made even more so because of the intensity that they brought to the Forum: these were people who were serious about the topic and, especially, to the notion of contributing to peace.
We heard stories from peasant farmers and the nature of perseverance. We listened to the findings about premium payments in the Fair Trade and Organic markets and how that money often never reaches the farmers who grow the crops. We heard stories of progress, for women, for peasant farmers, for struggling organizations attempting to fight the currents of political and monied interests. We learned about the importance of transparency, of walking in another’s shoes, collaborative work, the importance of “the common good.” And we felt the passionate undercurrent of an eclectic group of people seeking, in their own way, a means of peacemaking.
And then there was the news coverage this week at the U.N.
The President of the United States openly taunted the leader of North Korea, in front of the rest of the world, by referring to him as “rocket man.” In the same breath, he stated flatly that, “we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” Later in the week, the leader of the free world, in addressing African leaders, twice referred to the African nation “Nambia.” Unfortunately, there is no such country. The chief peacemaker in the world did not know the name of the country to which he referred.
In quoting the President I imply no judgment as to his intelligence or the soundness of his political strategies; all persons on the planet can judge for themselves the appropriateness of the President’s position. I only note the stark contrast between last week’s energies toward building peace, and this week’s headlines threatening an annihilation.
If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out (Jesús, Lc 29.40)
“I already saw that movie”, said the drunk, on seeing the animation of the lion that roars at the beginning of many movies. In the beginning of the 1990s, dozens of women from Marcala (Honduras) began to be trained to defend their rights and cultivate an awareness of equality, to “marry to live together and not to be the property of anyone”, “leave the house to participate in workshops on learning”, and “overcome conformism”. Over the years they understood that that awareness and that fight against violence would require generating their own resources, “on earning some money you can decide what to buy for the house”, so they envisioned an organization that would help them to have land, produce on it, and sell their products. So in 1988 they founded the Coordinator of Women Peasants of La Paz (COMUCAP), and learned that “organization is for bettering oneself and not for being envious”, and that “it is beautiful that both the man and the woman work, you have what you need to eat and you can rest.”
As COMUCAP grew in number of members and economically they acquired investments for processing coffee, aloe and juices; they exported coffee and sold soap, shampoo and juice; they bought land and planted it;M and many projects came in. Nevertheless in 2012 they learned that their organization of 283 women members was about to fall off a cliff. What had happened? What had pushed them to the edge? How could they move away from that cliff? In this article we try to respond to these questions, precisely to “not trip over the same stone twice.” Behind the animation of the roaring lion there is a movie that has not yet been seen. Let´s look at it.
Crisis Situation in COMUCAP
An independent audit revealed that the debt of COMUCAP was close to one million dollars, that the assets of the organization had a lien on them due to the debt, that a piece of property bought for $150,000 had not been turned over to the organization, and that it was not clear where resources from international aid had gone. This information raised the eyebrows of the members in the 2012 assembly. Other data followed: 100% of the coffee exported was organic and fair trade, in the last 3 cycles prior to 2012 they had exported close to 10,000 qq of export coffee; a good part of that coffee was bought off of individuals who were not members, close to 1,000 qq of coffee was from the coordinator of COMUCAP herself, whose quality surprisingly scored at 85, while the coffee of the members was equal to or less than 81; the yields (from 1 qq of cherry coffee to export coffee) were dropping; the premiums for organic and fair trade were confused with project financed by international aid, making it impossible for the members to see that they had not received neither premiums. The crisis was even more harsh because it coincided with the arrival of the coffee rust on the plants, that not only lowered their production yields, but in many cases anthracnose came behind the rust leaving the coffee fields with dead trees.
What had happened? From the beginning the board of directors had granted the coordinator a General Power of Attorney, with which she was able to take loans out of the bank, buy and sell the assets of the organization and sign international aid projects. They had technical and administrative staff subordinated to the coordinator, whose daughter was the commercialization manager for all the COMUCAP products, her sister was the manager of the aloe plant, and her son in law was the coffee manager. The board of directors was used only to sign checks. The reports to the annual assembly appeared to be “sharp” bathed in a sea of numbers, reports that were legitimated by the representatives of international aid as “transparent”. The audit and fair trade and organic certification inspections would confirm every year that “everything was in order.”
The coffee rust and the “human rust” had bashed the organization of the 256 members. Obviously all those losses and debts had to be assumed by the members. All this is like the animation of the roaring lion, because this type of movie is repeated in many parts of Latin America. Nevertheless, as the philosopher Heraclitus said, though we bathe in the same river, we never do it in the same water; the next section responds to the question about what things pushed COMUCAP to the edge of the precipice. Let´s sit down to watch this film.
Process that pushed COMUCAP to the edge of the cliff
Problem: COMUCAP in 2012 was on the edge of the cliff. What pushed it therer? To help, let´s use the “5 whys” of the methodology of Lean: find the cause of the problem, then the cause of that cause, until we reach the root cause. This methodology was developed in the 1950s by Taiichi Ohno, Toyota pioneer (http://www.toyota-global.com/company/toyota_traditions/quality/mar_apr_2006.html). It is the methodology that is behind Aristotle´s idea in seeking the origin of movement: “everything that moves is moved by something” and there is a “motor” that moves everything. That is why we ask ourselves 5 times “why”. See the Table with the 5 “whys” for identifying the “tripping stone.”
Why was COMUCAP on the “brink of a cliff” –debts, poor administrative management and a hold on their assets? The members and aid organizations listened to information in the annual assemblies, but it was information that was not telling them what was really happening. The staff was subordinated to the family that coordinated COMUCAP and the board of directors relegated to being “only for show”, to sign checks; even a leader turned into an employee for two years signed checks as if she were the president. In other words, they would produce information in a disloyal way for the organization and in a way subordinated to the coordinating family.
Why did they not have access to the real information. A good part of the 256 women had been trained for 10, 15 and 20 years in negotiating their rights, managing funds for groups, political advocacy and values like transparency and equality. Why then did they not demand the real information? “Because we fell asleep”, said one of the historic leaders: they stood by. Ther trust in the coordinator was blind and total, because since 1993 she had trained them in women´s rights, and used to tell them that “she worked for the women”, she was from a family with resources and they nearly worshipped her: “having what she needs to live and she works for us” they would say with gratitude, feeling themselves blessed. One member could not be mistrustful when the reports would be presented before the international aid organizations, who would repeat “everything is in order”. One member could not prove that she did not receive the organic nor fair trade premiums for her coffee when the fair trade and organic certification audits would conclude “that everything was in order.” If everything was in order, it was logical to conclude that the information that they were being presented was correct, and it was obvious that if a member dissented, she was running the risk of not being a beneficiary of the next project. It was like feeling like an ant under a transnational elephant that grew and grew.
Why did they stand by? Because they left the decisions in the hands of the coordinator who had an administrative role, and was part of the staff of the organization, not elected by the assembly, as were the women on the board. The decisions that should have been made in the cooperative bodies (board of directors, committees and assembly) and supervised (oversight board or auditing body), were taken on by the coordinator. For the members the coordinator was “the gate” to the market and to international aid projects, and for the fair trade buyers and the aid agencies, the coordinator was the gate to the women leaders and the members. If a aid representative would visit a member, she would say marvelous things about the coordinator, and if a member visited Germany, the buyers would say wonderful things about the coordinator. So COMUCAP functioned as if it were a private enterprise where the 256 members were the poor beneficiaries, defined as such by the coordinator herself: “the women of the board are not capable of administering even 100 lempiras ($5).” This woman who did training on rights saw them as ignorant and those who financed projects and bought coffee saw her as the “Honduran Che Guevara.”
Why did they leave the decisions in the hands of the administration? Because the millennium institution of “we always need a patron” absorbed them. The women had been trained to defend their rights in their homes and to seek equality with their husbands. And this they were doing, supported by an office of COMUCAP itself. Nevertheless, they did not expect that “the patron” would appear in the “new guise”: who would subordinate the staff with loans and salaries, control the members on the basis of projects, and the leaders through travel allowances, and ran COMUCAP as something independent from the members. Like a large estate owner who believes that the land and everything on it is his, or like the holder of an encomienda in the colonial period that would receive land “including the indians that lived on it”, she would repeat to them: “without me COMUCAP would not exist, everything that is here is because of me” – meaning that everything was hers.
Why did the old “patron-client” institution absorb them? Because even though the women woke up about their rights and the importance of generating their income to sustain that awareness, COMUCAP was an external product with members dispersed in several municipalities, started on the basis of external resources and not on the basis of the contributions of the members; and because they did not learn to lead the organization through its organs (assembly, board, oversight board), and in accordance with its rules (statutes), because “we felt it was far away, someone else´s”. That is why they would hold an assembly once a year, as if an organization would have so few decisions that merited meeting only once a year; the board members were content to sign checks and travel every now and then; the groups never met with their boards; a member who needed something from COMUCAP would not propose it in the group meeting, nor to her group board, she thought it was not her right but a favor, which is why she would go directly to the “big honcho.” This lack of ownership and effectiviness in leading the organization left COMUCAP in conditions where the proverb “in an open treasure even the just sin” became a reality. COMUCAP had become a “factory” where a member would become a beneficiary, a leader subordinated, and a coordinator with a social vocation would become the big honcho (patron). Here is the root of the problem – “the motor” as Aristotle would say.
The energy to get out of the crisis
The member assembly in 2012 heard the results of the audit. There was a mixture of everything: silence, murmurs, rage, impotence, feeling of having been betrayed…Some returned to their homes, and recalling the sacrifices that they had made for so many years, cried wanting to hear an echo in the universe. Others moved to defend the offices and the coffee and aloe business of COMUCAP, because the coordinator, her family and allies did not even want to turn over the assets with liens on them. They spent 3 years in hard legal battles, negotiating with the banks, getting the aid agencies and the buyers to see the obvious facts of what was happening, getting the members to trust again, looking for money to buy coffee, looking for markets for their coffee, their aloe, their shampo and juices.
On this path they continued to wear themselves down and had financial losses. The interest and arrears for the debt grew year by year, even though negotiating they were able to get considerable relief. They lost the best coffee areas to the labor lawsuit from the ex-employees, and had expenses on lost trials. They had international coffee buyers who decided NOT to buy their coffee under the logic that “COMUCAP without the “big honcho” did not exist, and because, as one leader said, “a dozen stars will fall from the sky before they ¡recognize that they were mistaken.” And a star did fall! The representative of an aid agency recognized: “I believed in her (the coordinator); forgive me because I did not believe in what you were telling me.”
What really caused the beginning of the change in COMUCAP? Each year an audit would be done, fair trade and the organic certifiers also did audits. There were more than 17 bank accounts because the aid agencies wanted their money to be administered separately. The results indicated that none of that ensured good administration. It is very possible that without the support of two people who worked in 2 aid agencies, who detected the problem, recommended an independent audit, and accompanied the board for some time, and without the awakening of the new board, COMUCAP would now have fallen off the cliff or been completely privatized by the coordinator and her family.
Crisis happens when what should die, does not, and what should be born, does not. After 5 years COMUCAP has been able to grab ahold of some “rock” and not fall off the cliff, in contrast to the prophesy of those who opposed it. Nor has it moved away from that “cliff”, the risk that it might trip over the same “stone”, described in section 2, and fall even harder off the cliff is real. In other words, that which should die still has not died. How can it move away from the cliff, or build a bridge to cross it? For what needs to be born to happen, we suggest three steps (see attached Figure) under the sequential order that follows: awareness and vision of the members as a reference point, looking inward where their roots are, and looking outward to be accompanied.
First step, start from the awareness and vision of the women members. Awareness: “everything that exist is there because we sweated with our fellow members with the sacks of fertilizer planting coffee, aloe, cooking, leaving the family on their own.”; as Jesus would say, if they keep quiet, the stones from the aloe and coffee business and the orange and coffee farms, WOULD CRY OUT. The original vision of dozens of women: COMUCAP started to sell the products of its members and accordingly built equity in their homes and communities. To sell whose products? The products of ITS members!
Second step, finding a solution to the root of the problem, ownership and operating within the democratic mechanisms of COMUCAP. There is their new “motor”. Their “break even point” is not buying coffee from whoever and however, it is not adding new members as best as possible. It is going back and building trust in each family, each group, the board of each group, the asembly, the board of directors, the oversight board and the staff that they have. COMUCAP now has 505 members. Let us recall popular wisdom, the stronger the daughters and sons are, the stronger their parents will be – in other words, the stronger the families are, the stronger the groups will be, the stronger the groups are, the stronger their board and their staff will be, and COMUCAP will be stronger.
Third step, weave alliances with people (and organizations) like those who helped them to begin the change in 2012 and who left them the secret for getting ahead: study the reality itself, wake up to what the study finds, and be accompanied in the process of change.
For these three steps the notion of stewardship helps us: our lives are a breath in the life of the universe, our participation in an organization like COMUCAP is at the most a tenth of a human life: a leader who lives for 90 years will hold posts for less than 9 years, a salaried worker will not be there for much more than that. In other words, while we hold positions of responsibility we must give the most of ourselves serving the 505 women, many of whom are single mothers taking care of their grandchildren, assuming the roles of mother and father. Stewardship, according to Block (2013, Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest), is “the willingness to be responsible for the wellbeing of the organization, working in service of those who surrond us, instead of controlling them. It is responsibility without control nor compliance”.
Can the 505 women and the organizations that consider themselves to be their allies let die what needs to die, and give birth to what need to be born? The lionesses of Marcala are roaring: this movie has barely begun.
Utopia is on the horizon. I walk two steps, and it moves away two steps, and the horizon runs ten steps further. So what good does utopia serve? For that, for walking. Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015)
Once they discover the strength of the community, they will be able to do anything. Priest Héctor Gallego (disappeared in Panama in 1971).
The myth of the “harmonious” community was held by anthropology (see: Redfield R., 1930, Tepoztlan, a Mexican village: A study in folk life) until the 1950s, when Lewis (1951, life in a Mexican village: Tepoztlan restudied), restudying the same village that Redfield did, found that communities are disputed spaces mediated by power relations. In spite of the fact that this myth was debunked, it continues to attract followers: “living community”, “autochthonous community”, “peasant community”, “indigenous community”…; and they idealize it again as “harmonious”, at times as “exotic” to be directly visited, and other times as opposing globalization (Pérez J.P. Andrade-Eekhoff K.E., 2003, Communities in Globalization, the Invisible Mayan Nahual). In this article we describe a peasant-indigenous community in Honduras and argue that, following Gallegos, their disputed processes indicate steps with their diverse forces, this time in glocal (global and local) spaces, and that this path shows the utopia and horizon of Galeano, which the allied organizations of the communities –also conflicted – pursue.
Glocal economic transformation
Events in the community
Los Encinos Peasant Store
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
Juan Bautista Community Store
Introduction of vegetables and marketing (IAF: Honduras Foundation for Agricultural Research)
APRHOFI: Intibucá Association Of Vegetable and Fruit Producers
Los Encinos Store joins the COMAL Network
Introduction of irrigation systems (USAID, State agreement, EDA)
EMATE: Los Encinos Thread Craft Enterprise
Recovery of APRHOFI
Introduction of Ecological Agriculture
ESMACOL:Lenca Alternative Community Multiple Service Enterprise. (7 stores are the owners of Esmacol)
Introduction of greenhouses
The community of Encinos, with a population of 500 and Lenca roots, emerged at the beginning of the XX century. In the last 42 years this community has experienced big changes in their agriculture, forms of organization and access to markets, one part with national and international aid organizations, and another part based on their own funds. It is the product of a millennial indigenous culture and globalization, as ideas and resources came to this place. How did this transformation happen? See the above Table .
The 1960s and 1970s were marked by changes in the social doctrine of the Catholic Church with the II Vatican Council (1962), through which radio broadcast schools came to the rural areas that taught reading and writing and encouraged people to organize. And the Alliance for Progress of the United States came in to prevent the contagion from the Cuban revolution, pushing governments to permit the emergence of the National Association of Peasants of Honduras (ANACH) and the National Union of Peasants (UNC). In that context, a group in Encinos envisioned a store in and for the community, while in other places they envisioned a piece of land to leave to their sons. It was a time when they introduced potatoes and began to plant by “ploughing” their cornfield. It was when they built leadership coordinating families using their own resources.
The decades of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s were times of international conservatism in religion and economics, and a boom time for international aid. The struggle for the land was blocked by the law for farm modernization (1992), and the protection of the agro-food basis for the country was removed with the free trade agreement (CAFTA, 2004). The arrival of Popes John Paul and Benedict made the priests return to their parishes. Projects from organizations with physical investment and training crossed the rock and barbed wire fences. In this context organizations multiplied, and a group of leaders from various organizations envisioned “if we already have land and are producing on it, we need markets to sell our products”. Thus the COMAL network emerged in Honduras, and another additional store opened in Encinos. It was a time when vegetables and irrigation were introduced to Encinos, and the tug of war with the markets began. It was when they built leadership based on negotiating external resources.
The decade of 2010 found Honduras under the coup, additional reforms to the law of agricultural modernization, the approval of the anti-terrorist law that criminalized social protests, international aid withdrawing from Central America, a Catholic Church that seemed to be reanimated with the arrival of Pope Francis to the Roman Curia, and a world concerned about climate change. It was a period in which the COMAL Network saw itself forced to end mediation as a wholesaler of products, while the leaders of Encinos envisioned organizing enterprises to improve their stores and sell their products. Accordingly, along with 5 other stores from other municipalities of Intibucá, they bought ESMACOL as a distributor of products, recovered APRHOFI to sell their potatoes and vegetables to supermarkets, introduced greenhouses and sustainable agriculture practices to increase their productivity and lower costs, and organized another associative weaving enterprise in a decentralized fashion. It was a time when they built a leadership connecting the resources that they had (stores, distributor, renovated agriculture and commercialization enterprise) and cultivating relationships with the few aid agencies.
Circular dynamic in process
This description appears to be an expression of a virtuous circle between technological change, markets, organization and financing. It is more than that: see the figure inspired by a 4 layer onion. The organizations (stores, distributor, commercialization enterprise, weavings), the introduction of potatoes and vegetables and investments in irrigation systems and greenhouses, reveal that there is an interaction between the technological, social, economic, cultural and spiritual aspects. In other words, new crops and greater productivity (technology) implies more cooperation between families (social), which generates costs and income (economic), which requires changes in habits (cultural) as agriculture intensifies and deals with the market, this has repercussions in the spiritual-religious life of families, and this in turn on technology…
This network of organizations and changes creates prospects for improvement. There is a technological change (farm), business change (administration and entrepreneurial initiatives) and change in social relations with external actors. Multiple perceptions can be appreciated in this dynamic: in the business administration staff, in the members of the producer families, in the consumers in – and outside of – the community, in the aid agencies determined to “manage and execute”, and the leaders moving about in various “waters”. What explains this 42 year old circular process? In addition to what is described in section 1, we point to two facts. First, after several decades of cultivating the same areas, in the 1970s the weariness of the land began to be felt (decrease in fertility), due to that institution of “I will sow as I have always sown”, handed down for generations. It gave way to “ploughing”, at the same time that they organized the peasant store as a way of getting closer to a market that they could control. Second fact, like in many communities, in Encinos alcoholism reduced them to “measuring the streets”, and put the very existence of the store at risk. So Professor Jenny Maraslago saw this, suggested a solution and created the conditions for the change. This is how Bernardo González remembers it: “The professor in 1966 said,”it makes me sad to find these intelligent young men in the gutter”. Then the professor brought us the rules of AA and introduced us to a professor friend from AA. Encouraged by my older brother, we would meet continuously, and look, we quit getting drunk, from that day on everything changed.” 20 years later we find those young people no longer in the gutter, but leading the organizations.
These two changes contributed to creating the conditions so that Encinos in the following years would multiply their organizations. Nevertheless, seen from our times, the changes that occurred emphasize the technological-social-economic-cultural-religious elements that are the first layer of the onion (See Figure), while the changes in the other layers of the onion – on the level of the individual, family and community – are slight. On the community level, it is estimated that half of the population is outside of the described organizations, which means that there is exclusion and internal dispute: “they are conformists” vs “they do not let us in, only they eat”; in fact, 4 or 5 last names in the community underlie all the organizations, they are families whose commitment has generated organizations and benefits, and at the same time are the “bottlenecks” of local power, the door to external organizations. On the family level, the stores in the last 10 years have not included even one new member, not even their own sons and daughters, which is not strange given that the institution of land inheritance favors the sons, and does not discharge the inheritance “until the pig sheds it lard”; in addition a quick survey shows that the existence of children outside of marriage is similar in both organized and unorganized families. On the individual level, centuries-old beliefs have nested in their minds: “there are children outside of marriage because the women allow it”, in other words, following the mentality that “the man has the rights”, and “the woman is to blame”, something tremendously discriminatory. At the same time, all these points are in silent dispute: daughters who work in agriculture demand their rights, and wives who raise their voices against unfaithfulness (“if he does it to me, I will do it to him”).
The changes in the first layer are unsustainable without changes in the communal, family and individual areas. It is like “learning to fish” assuming that there will always be water in the river, and if the water is diverted for mono-cropping, held back by dams, or dries up from deforestation? In 1975 they woke up to the possibility of bringing in a store for the community, and in 1996 the rules of AA and the discipline of not drinking liquor for 24 hours renewed indefinitely, showed them a path for waking up to harsh realities. How can that capacity for change be expanded on the individual, family and community levels in synergy with the different initiatives achieved so far? Once again the image of the onion helps us to respond to that question: all the layers appear to be separate, but they are united by the root of the onion. In the next section we identify that root.
Mobilization of forces under democratic mechanisms
The elites of the world predict that “economic growth generates democracy”. Encinos shows that is not true. It is important to “manage” the economy with democratic mechanisms where the entire community moves and cultivates a capacity to awaken their consciences in the face of each new reality.
These mechanisms include that the rules (statutes) of each organization be respected, their organs (board of directors, oversight board, assembly) make decisions, there be interaction between the associative side (organs) and the business side (administrative and technical staff) without any side replacing the other, the rotation of leaders be done and the fact that one person would take on various posts be avoided. As they study their realities, the corresponding bodies include policies so that sons and daughters of the members might join the organizations, and exclude those who fall into gender violence, and/or after forming their family, have children outside of marriage. That part of the mission of the organizations be to help the other half of the community, that has been left invisible for the aid agencies, to organize their own initiatives. That the external organizations contribute to the communities being vigilant about compliance with these mechanisms, and coherent in their democratic processes, overcoming the neoliberal institution of “managing and executing” that goes along the lines of the idea that “the economy generates democracy”, and that instead listens to the forces in the communities and translates them into ideas that are backed by other organizations.
This reminds me of the dilemma of the pons asinorum (bridge of asses) of St Thomas: the asses cannot cross the river because they cannot find the bridge. In our case the “bridge” are these democratic mechanisms interlinked in different spheres – individual, family, community and global – interacting with the economic, social and religious organizations. This is the mobilizing circular dynamic. Nevertheless, many times what happened to the asses happens to us, in spite of the fact that we see the bridge, we do not cross the river on it; and other times we say we did cross it, without really moving from the side of the river where we are. In contrast, the professor alluded to above saw the challenge of crossing, saw the bridge (AA) and brought them to the community of Encinos, and they crossed over!
The priest Gallego said that when people discover “the strength” of the community, people can “do anything.” The writer Galeano said that utopia “serves for walking.” The community of Encinos teaches us that utopia is on the other side of the river, and reveals its strength in the “bridge.” Can we see that bridge and cross the river on it? Here is the dilemma.
Can I vent here? I think management protocol says that leaders shouldn’t use venues such as blog sites or other organizational media outlets to vent their personal irritations. I understand that. But in this case, my personal irritation has to do with a Winds of Peace initiative, so maybe it’s OK. I guess I’ve already begun to rant, so bear with my frustration.
As in past years, the Foundation is supporting the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, to be held in Minneapolis on September 13-16. This year will be a little different for us, as WPF is contributing not only financially to the Forum, but is also leading one of the “high-level dialogues” being offered on the first day. The Foundation is bringing six cooperative members to the Forum from their homes in Nicaragua, Honduras, Colombia, Panama and Guatemala. They will join an important discussion about the role of cooperatives in helping to establish and maintain peace in post-conflict societies. We’re excited about the topic!
In addition to the panelists, the Forum is interested in inviting other key players in the cooperative chain of commerce- buyers, fair trade certifiers, organic certifiers, retailers and funders- to join in the discussion. The purpose is to identify where we might collectively contribute to the success of the small, rural producers and the coops to which they belong. In too many instances, initiatives aimed at helping the small family farmers have become coopted by other objectives and a host of “middlemen” out to game the system.
To that end, we have identified key organizations which have significant impacts, and which seek to strengthen these small farmers as a major objective. Indeed, many are important friends of the farmers. To make an invitation for their attendance at the Forum, WPF agreed to send out a “pre-invitation” letter to the key players identified, as a way of introducing the idea of this collaborative effort and offering a “heads-up” for the forthcoming, more formal invitation from the Forum itself. In most cases, we already had identified a name or two from the organization, but in some instances we had to research a bit and make an educated guess as to an appropriate individual. (My hands are starting to quiver; I think this is where I begin to feel frustration.)
All that I seek is a name and an e-mail address. I have nothing to sell, no political agenda to push, nothing subversive to drop in anyone’s lap. I simply have an invitation to offer, for something that is essentially at the heart of what these organizations are professing to do: help the little guys. But the road to contact in some of these well-known and widely-praised organizations is as impassable and impossible as some of the roads in the Nicaragua outback.
First, there is the receptionist. The receptionist wants to know why I wish to speak with Ms. X. I explain the somewhat lengthy story about the Forum and the invitation. This is met with the explanation that Ms. X AND her assistant are out for the day, and that I should try again tomorrow. (I wonder if she might have told me that in the first place.) When I call the next day, I reach a different receptionist, and she, too, wants to know in great detail why I wish to speak with Ms. X. After reciting the details all over again, she passes me through to the administrative assistant.
Unfortunately, the assistant is not at her desk, and I am invited to leave a voice message. As much as I don’t wish to do this, I am reluctant to waste this opportunity to connect, for which I have now worked so long. So I share the story once more to voicemail, and respectfully ask for a return call so that I might elaborate or answer any questions. I leave my phone number twice, just to be sure that I can be reached. But, as you might have guessed, there has been no call. Eleven days later, I have had no response.
I’m frustrated. So I turn my sights to another large, well-known entity within the development world, one that is known globally as a generous and active funder for the impoverished. Recognizing the absolute rightness of their cause, I have cause to hope for success. My first stop is the ubiquitous receptionist, who wishes to know if Mr. Y is expecting my call. I can’t imagine how he could be, since we have never spoken before, so the receptionist determines that I really need to speak first with Y’s administrative assistant. (I prayed that it not be the same one as the previous day. Is it possible that large development organizations share administrative assistants? Or do they just all come from the same schools?) When I reach this guardian of Mr. Y’s time, she, too, wants to know if full detail the nature of my desire to talk with Y. And after my lengthy-but-alluring description of the Forum and my case for eagerly desiring her firm’s possible participation, she informs me that Y is not available. She will be pleased to pass along my name and number. I could hear the deflation from the balloon I had so carefully blown up. In ten days’ time, I have received no return call, from either Y or his assistant.
I am not organizationally naive. I filled a CEO role in a manufacturing company for 16 years, so I know the demands on an executive’s time and energy. I know the competing forces that pull on busy people each and every day. I also know two other truths: first, courtesy is not passe´ and a return call from someone is always appropriate. (Isn’t that one of the roles of the administrative assistant? Or has that become too plebian these days?) Second, important opportunities and initiatives are not always going to be the province of big organizations with large fundraising budgets and lots of administrative staff. Sometimes, opportunity comes calling in unsuspecting ways and when we shut ourselves off from other voices, we shortchange the very populations we seek to serve. Indeed, the behavior contributes to the relative lack of impact we have on global poverty elimination. There is lots of money, plenty of ideas, and too little collaboration.
There. I’m done now and my hands aren’t trembling anymore. My experience is probably no different than ones you might have encountered. It’s just that in the name of peace-building and helping the poorest among us, I expect something more. Despite having been in this field for a dozen years now, I guess I’m still learning something new every day: for some groups, if it wasn’t invented here, it’s not worth knowing….
Eve left the Garden of Eden over chocolate! Anonymous.
Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get. Forrest Gump
The exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land, the Bible says, had a decisive moment when, pursued by Pharaoh and his Army, they arrived desperately to the sea, and then Moises raised his staff and the sea opened up; so they turned a page and wrote their history. The chocolate industry predicted that by 2020 they will need 30% more chocolate; nevertheless, the cacao supply does not seem to be responding to the demand. Said figuratively, the state institutions, the market and society, like Moises, are raising the staff of productivity, quality, inclusive businesses and fair trade so that there might be more cacao and Eve might have a reason to not go back to Eden, but the sea is not opening up! Why? What “staff” is needed for the sea to open? This article deals with that question.
 René (firstname.lastname@example.org) has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/), an associate researcher of IOB-Antwerp University (Belgium) and a member of the COSERPROSS Cooperative RL. We note that the name of the municipality “Sasha”, the Dalila cooperative, the ABC and RDA NGO, Flesh company, and the last names Konrad, Peñaranda and Peña, mentioned in this article, are ficticious. We did this to protect those identities from any inconvenience that this article might cause them.
As a U.S. private foundation, Winds of Peace has been providing development assistance in Nicaragua for more than 30 years. Most of that time and effort has been rendered on the “inside,” hand-in-hand with the members of the cooperatives and associations and networks with who we have partnered.
It has been very personal work. We can describe the organizations. We can remember where they are and the circumstances in which their people live. We can name names. That accompaniment is a condition of our work, being “on the ground” where there is little access, few outsider visits and sparse resources. It’s being with partners on the inside, helping to find a small opening where opportunity might be waiting on the other side. It’s still our model, still the way that we will continue to work in Nicaragua. But we also have added a component to such work, this time from the “outside.”
The Nobel Peace Prize Forum is an event which Winds of Peace has sponsored for many years. The Forum exists as the only sanctioned event under the Nobel Peace Prize name outside of the award selection itself. Annually, it has brought together past peace laureates, activists, scholars and those working in their own ways and in their own niches for peace and justice, “on the inside,” where life is actually lived. This year’s Forum will be held in Minneapolis, Minnesota during September 13-16. It will feature many stories of peace-building and human development. And it will include work underwritten by Winds of Peace.
In what is billed as a “high-level dialogue” session, major research and “inside” work on cooperatives will be presented by Foundation colleague Rene Mendoza. Rene is recognized as a development innovator and engages in “participatory action research” to facilitate actions by cooperative members themselves. Specifically, Rene will highlight the efforts and conclusions from cooperatives in various countries. And he’ll emphasize the importance and stabilizing impact of cooperatives in societies emerging from periods of conflict, and how their financial impacts serve as an essential ingredient for both economic and social well-being. He has also assembled a panel of six cooperative members from Central and South America to join in the conversation and share their experiences of cooperative life and meaning. Yet, that’s not the full extent of the session.
The rest of the invited audience will be comprised of individuals from cooperative-supporting organizations, entities which have in some way positioned themselves as partners with the small cooperatives, whether in the roles of funders, marketers, associations, Fair Trade and Organic certifiers, buyers, roasters or retailers. They are (hopefully) big names. The presentations are designed to invite dialogue with this invited audience about where the entire process chain is working well, where it isn’t, and how collectively all actors might make it more valuable to the essential focus: the producer and his/her family.
As a result of the discourse, the participants will be encouraged to arrive at an objective or change that might be affected during the ensuing 12 months, a plan of action which will be shared with the at-large Forum attendees. In 2018, some of those discourse participants will then return to the Forum for a report-out on success, and whether the conclusions and actions identified in 2017 really made an impact. It’s a very action and accountability effort, unlike many conference end results, and one that Forum organizers (and sponsors, like WPF) hope can bring real impact to cooperatives as major peace components. It’s “outside work,” changing the focus temporarily to the ambient world surrounding places like rural Nicaragua. Consider this blog entry as an invitation to experience at least this part of the Forum in the Fall.
Why? Because sometimes circumstances don’t allow us to achieve our needs fully by ourselves. There is not one among us who has reached full potential and well-being on our own. Sometimes, we require the intervention of “outside work….”
As one who has tended to be drawn to the Fair Trade (FT) label on a wide range of products, I have always been pleased that some of our cooperative partners in Nicaragua are part of that movement. Their participation has simply felt right, and just, as they have sought to connect with a consumer base around the world which has been eager to support the small producer effort. It has seemed a “win-win” circumstance about which both the end user and the producer could feel good. But there is a growing cause for doubt about both the fairness and the trade in FT, and reasons for all of us to take a closer look at the evolution this once- (and future?) empowering concept.
In a very well-researched and analytical article authored by researcher(and consultant to WPF) Dr. Rene Mendoza, he has undertaken a close look at cooperatives in Nicaragua and other Latin American countries , to assess the effectiveness of the FT movement. After studying the symptoms and complaints of the cooperative “patients,” he has also offered a detailed diagnosis of the ailments, including contextual analysis of the pathology which is draining the energies from cooperatives and their members. His conclusions should provide all parties interested in the FT ideals with both understanding of the disease and hope for its cures.
Dr. Mendoza attributes no blame for the spread of the unhealthiness, but does identify the complicity shared by all of the actors within the FT chain, from producer to consumer. He identifies both the malady and its contagion points and has created a clinical treatise on where it leads if the disorder isn’t treated.
The best news is that Dr. Mendoza’s article includes several prescriptions for healing and recovery. He does not offer a magic pill for immediate wellness. And restoration of confidence in a system that initially hoped to marry producers with well-intentioned consumers, in a win-win undertaking, will require serious treatment. Like any well-considered rehabilitation, the restoration to full health is likely to be slow and demanding. It will require patience, discipline, a collaborative mindset and re-focus on values. But full remission is possible.
For anyone who has ever purchased a product under the FT label, or sought to be supportive of small farmers in a small way by purchasing their goods, I encourage the reading of Dr. Mendoza’s work. WPF has provided a link to this groundbreaking research on our website homepage, under the column with Dr. Mendoza’s photograph, and entitled, “Toward the Reinvention of Fair Trade.”
Read it. It may change your thinking about that next cup of coffee, or that recent chocolate bar and the truth about how it may have reached your home….
The height of injustice is to be deemed just when you are not. Plato
With an open treasure, even the most righteous sins. Saying.
The VII song of the Odyessy tells how the goddess Circe warned Ulysses that the sailors of those waters were so enchanted by the song of the sirens that they went mad and lost control of their ships. To not succumb to that enchantment, Ulysses asked that he be tied to the mast of the ship, and that the oarsmen have wax put in their ears, and ordered that if he, because of the spell of their song, would ask that they free him, instead they should tighten the knots. So it was that Ulysses and his oarsmen were saved, and the sirens, failing in their objective, threw themselves off the cliff.
Facing unfair commercial relations, Fair Trade (FT) emerged as an alternative so that people who organized might improve their lives and be a space of solidarity among different actors beyond their countries´ borders. Nevertheless, the institutional structure of the power relationships under the market rule of elites is like the sirens of the myth, capable of seducing the FT network, of turning it against its own principles, and turning solidarity into just a bunch of words, numbers and papers. How can FT tie itself up to not succumb to the song of the sirens, and in this way, grow, enhancing its FT alternative principles? To respond to this question, we take as given that there are exceptional cooperatives, organizations, and people who confirm the importance of organizing and cultivating global solidarity, and that there are still more successful cooperatives, in countries in the south as well as in the north, in FT as well as outside of it. Nevertheless, in this article we study certain practices of the FT framework that seem to indicate its regression, and on that basis we suggest that FT re-invent itself. To do so we focus on coffee, which constitutes 70% of the volume of what is sold through FT.
It should be noted here that this analysis does not presume that all parties in the FT framework will view its conclusions with favor or agreement; indeed, some of the actors within the FT arena are very well-served by the current status of the FT mechanisms. Nor does the author attempt to provide a blueprint for all of the actions necessary to cultivate change. The intention herein is to describe the realities of the FT network as it most often operates, and to draw attention to the ways it could be returned to its original objectives and principles.
 Even though strictly speaking currently FT is the organization known as FLO International (Fairtrade Labelling Organization International) and FT-USA (FT-United States), we call “the FT network” the series of cooperatives, certifiers, social banks and buyers who operate under the FT seal.
 We have followed the topic of fair trade in coffee since 1996 (See: Mendoza 1996, 2003, 2012a and 2012b; Mendoza & Bastiaensen, 2002).