Category Archives: Innovation

Autonomy and the Multiethnic Country in Decisive Moments

Autonomy and the Multiethnic Country in Decisive Moments

René Mendoza Vidaurre, Nora Sánchez, Celia Benjamín, Jairo Zelaya. Klaus Kuhnekath and Alejandro Pikitle*

Mahoney (2001)[i] defines “critical juncture” as the moment of contingency in which a decision is made for one of various options, an institution that is self-reinforcing and that is challenged through the processes of reaction and counter-reaction, reaching new results. In terms of the Atlantic Coast we are watching two “critical junctures”, the first in the context of liberal policies of annexation of the Mosquitia Reserve in 1894; and the second, the autonomy law within the context of a war in 1987, resulting in a multiethnic Nicaragua. This process was reinforced in 2001 with the decision of the Interamerican Human Rights Commission (IHRC) in favor of Awastingni, and in 2003 with Law 445 for the titling and demarcation of communal lands. As a result, by mid 2014, 37,190 km2 of Indigenous and Afro-descendent territory (31% of the national territory) had been demarcated, restoring the rights of 304 communities. Under this framework we argue here that the multiethnic country is facing a new “critical juncture” whose decision will mark the decades that follow.

Multiethnic territory under challenge

The titling and demarcation of territories has been preceded and accompanied by the advance of the agricultural frontier and the systematic extraction of natural resources by large businesses. Two cases illustrate something about this complex situation. The case of the community of Awastingni (AMASAU territory) with around 69,000 hectares, between 2001 and 2015 went from controling 95% of their area to less than 15%, and the mestizo families from controlling 5% to 85% (according to Larry Salomón Pedro, Mayangna leader, 92% “is invaded by settlers”, LP-25-07-2014; and that less than 15% is area divided up among Mayangna families. In practice there is no communal territory, except legally under the territorial title. And the case of the Miskitu communities of Saupuka, Ulwas and Bilwaskarma, with the change in the course of the Rio Coco caused by Hurricane Mitch (1998), with that river defined as the “dividing line between Nicaragua and Honduras” (, they lost 4,400 hectares that have been occupied by Honduran landowners from Olancho.

The causes that led to these results are reduced to blaming the “mestizo invaders” and the natural phenomenon of Hurricane Mitch, and from within this framework “compensation” policies are proposed, that the State expel the mestizos and negotiate with the Honduran government so that the “dividing line” be where the river used to flow. In what follows we seek other explanations and then sketch out a proposal.

The weight of structures and actors

The history, production systems, markets and forms of organization explain the situation presented above. Concerning the former, Mayangna-Miskitu relationships have been tense historically, including expulsions from one territory to another, and even had to do with the change of name from Sumo to Mayangna. In reference to Awastingni in 1991 a group of Miskitus participated in an arrangement with the Solcarsa company to extract wood from Awastingni, the same happened in 2003 with Madensa, situations which led the Mayangnas to sue the State in the IHRC; in 2009, a year after the titling of the AMASAU territory, a group of Miskitus tried to take part of the AMASAU, were prevented from doing so with the support of mestizos that the Mayangnas called “human boundary stones”; and in 2010 the Mpinicsa wood company started an agreement with Miskitu groups to extract wood from Awastingni, which was resisted by the Mayangnas. These relationships, according to a Mayangna leader, created a sense that “the land is not going to be respected”, with this accelerating the Mayangnas taking the land and selling it to mestizos.

In the case of the Miskitu of Saupuka, Ulwas and Bilwaskarma, the “hacienda” institution has made itself felt; a good part of the areas today claimed by them prior to 1980 were a livestock ranch of a Creole family, and since 2006 claimed by ranchers from Olancho. The persistence of the hacienda, which many times caused confrontations with the Miskitu communities of Nicaragua and Honduras, is well known in Latin America for its economic, social and political despotic relationships. In other words, with or without the change in the course of the river, most of these areas have been governed by the haciendas.

In terms of the production system, the Mayangna families have their yamak where they plant beans (and plaintains), a yamak that annually rotates from one place to another, and that has responded to their consumption needs, while they have looked for money in cash to buy their salt or clothing by working in the banana fields and in mining (1950-70s), for the State (1980s), and for wood companies, mestizos, international aid and the State (1990-2015). The Miskitu from the 3 communities (Saupuka, Ulwas and Bilwaskarma) differ somewhat from the Mayangnas, they have their insla on the other side of the river which the ranchers permit, they plant beans and rice for their own consumption and part of that to buy their salt or clothing, they also receive pay for working on the haciendas, and get some resources through the sale of wood. Most of the indigenous historically have had annual crops, which along with the grazing fields of the ranching haciendas contributed to the change in the course of the river, because it is harder for a river to change course when it is bordered by trees and permanent crops. There are also some Mayangna and Miskitu families with permanent crops who produce and sell their products. Our hypothesis is that not producing for both purposes, consumption and to purchase products, has contributed to the fragility of their economic system and to the sale or loss of their lands.

The markets have hardened these practices of production just for consumption, and getting money through other ways. Awastingni in the last 20 years has enjoyed financial resources, having probably received millions of cordobas from wood companies (Madensa 1993-1998, Amerinica 2000-2003, Mpinicsa 2010-2011 and Dusa 2015-2020), the sale of land to mestizo families, that according to indigenous leaders includes a little more than 50% of the total area (with the rest of the area considered to be invaded by mestizos), and international aid or State projects. In Saupuka most of the wood extraction is happening between Waspam and Bilwaskarma illegally, which is why only a part of the small scale timber merchants are paying Saupuka; this situation has increased tensions, for example, between Bilwaskarma and Saupuka, expressed as a “dispute over property boundaries”; and given that the families of Saupuka are in a better economic situation than Awastingni, 6 km from the municipal capital of Waspam, companies like Curacau and Gallo mas Gallo leave them goods and equipment on credit with usurious interest rates.

Because of these 3 factors, the government structure in both cases has become pyramid-shaped and weak. Mayangna leaders and families sold their land, providing “possession documents” as the proof of the sale, and in many cases selling the same area 2,3 and even 4 times to different meztizo families; correspondingly, there is a leadership that operates more around external resources (mestizos, companies and organizations), with weak counterweights in the community that would help them to be transparent and use the resources well. In Saupuka the organizational structure, even though divided and with a certain level of community beligerancia, is surpassed by the hacienda institution. Overtime the organizational structures were shaped more around external resources and “freed” from those who had named them, a process fed by the external actors themselves (organizations, companies, mestizos) that just connected with the leaders, generally bypassing the communities.

In the face of a third “critical juncture”

With these elements, a tense relationship between the Mayangnas and Miskitus, intra-ethnic conflicts, Mayangna-Mestiza relations, the influence of companies and organizations, and a governance structure without internal and external counterweights, 31% of the territory of the country was able to be demarcated in the name of Indigenous and Afro-descendent communities, and that in practice this is in dispute given that the mestizos population in the Coast are more than 76% of the population (Gonzalez, 2014[ii]). Given this, we think that multiethnic Nicaragua is on the verge of its third critical juncture. Three paths are visible: one, complete imposition of the ranching hacienda institution (more than peasants), and of mega extractive companies with their multiple economic, social, political and environmental effects; two, indigenous self-government that includes respect for collective and individual property and respect for nature; and the third, a inclusive, multiethnic society with historical and grassroots alliances, accompanied by a model – as Polanyi would say – of “societies with markets”. We think that the first two paths are in conflict with one another, the former moved by the “domino effect” (Mendoza, 2004 [iii] ) with unfortunate consequences, and the second – even though it is more just and legal – is more and more reduced, which is why working pragmatically on the third path is urgent.

What would this third path consist in? First, that the indigenous families would promote diversified production systems that would combine forest, agriculture (annual and permanent crops), and ranching, ensuring their consumption and staggering their income. Secondly, weaving endogenous alliances between Mayangna families and mestizo families of peasant origin with diversified systems and agreements of possessing less than 100 mzs of land per mestizo or Mayangna family, combining respect for collective and individual properties, and an alliance between the Miskitu of Nicaragua and of Honduras; in both cases with the capacity of making the ranching hacienda institution withdraw beyond the border. Third, that the territorial and communal government structures would develop internal counterweights (e.g. commissions for administering external resources and rethinking their diversification strategies) and external counterweights (e.g. microfinance institutions of the Coast to protect the resources of the communities, and the Moravian Church, because of its historic connections with indigenous populations of the Coast, cultivating bonds with the Honduran side, concretizing its Gospel of spirituality, solidarity and training. Fourth, the BICU and URACCAN universities, in collaboration with institutions like Nitlapan-UCA, would reinvent their conflict mediation institutions based on participatory research to overcome the discourse of “invaders” and “victims” and glimpse the limitations and possibilities of collaboration behind the confrontations.

In conclusion, in light of the third path as a realistic option within the current “juncture”, the problem is not the lack of financial resources, but of administering them; it is not lack of land and of laws, but of working respecting the national and international laws; and it is not a scarcity of leaders, but of an institutionality with counterweights above and below, with the participation of women in those structures, recovering the circular origin of the functioning of indigenous structures, and with the support of organizations that are connected with leaders and the population itself. Nicaragua in 1987 broke ground in Latin America with autonomy law; Nicaragua can once again break ground in the continent based on a strategic indigenous-peasant strategy for a multiethnic society, with an inclusive and sustainable development institutionality.


* René ( has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (, associate researcher of IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium) and of the Nitlapan-UCA Research and Development Institute (Nicaragua). Nora is a professor of BICU and researcher of Nitlapan-UCA. Celia, Jairo and Alejandro are researchers of Nitlapan-UCA. Klaus is an associate researcher of Nitlapan-UCA.


[i] Mahoney, J., 2001, “Regime Change: Central America in Comparative Perspective” en: Studies in Comparative International Development 36.1

[ii] Gonzalez, M., 2014, “Autonomía Costeña, 27 años después” en: Revista Confidencial

[iii] Mendoza, R., 2004, “Un espejo engañoso: imágenes de la frontera agrícola” en: ENVIO. Managua: IHCA-UCA, No. 265. 2004.


Very Cooperative

Winds of Peace Foundation has committed a great deal of time and resources to the study and development of cooperatives in Nicaragua.  Over the past five years alone, WPF has supported more than thirty coops; underwritten the cost of a half-dozen cooperative workshops for rural participants; commissioned studies about their history, makeup, the effects of climate upon them, and the context of coffee; and now partially sponsored an entire cooperative certificate program to continue teaching and to provide a tangible marker of achievement.  We’ve even pitched the idea for the creation of a “Synergy Center,” whereby WPF might partner with  a North American university to share its wealth of experiences and findings and provide a destination for students and delegations wanting to know more about the realities of Central American neighbors.

We’ve had some amazing successes.  We’ve also experienced some unexpected and disappointing defaults.  We’ve come to know a lot about Nicaraguan coops and what makes them work.  Yet, at the same time, we’ve had one organization- not even a cooperative in structure- that models the cooperative methodologies and successes as well or better than almost any other partner.  Yes, I’ve had another visit with ANIDES.

ANIDES has been guiding women of the rural communities of Matagalpa in the creation of small community banks in recent years, creating financial literacy, sustainability, independence and savings accounts for its participants.  The impact upon the lives of its members is palpable, not only in terms of financial strengthening, but also in quality of life and family.  WPF has admired the motivations and results of this group for years.  And now, ANIDES is proud to be reporting that these small community banks are becoming formally-registered cooperatives, with ten of the current thirteen banks in the registration process.  The objective is to eventually form a union of cooperatives once all registrations are complete.

These coops offer strengthened opportunities for their members to establish outlets for their small enterprises: crafts, bread-baking, small services and other commercial ventures.  These entrepreneurial efforts have created the financial wherewithal to “feed” the community banking enterprise.  The resources generated by these small enterprises often are used to fund significant events, such as the addition of indoor plumbing to a home, a water softener for cleaner drinking and washing water, or education opportunities for members’ children,  a dream that might otherwise seem very out-of-reach for these same families.

The legal cooperative status confers some technical advantages for the  women members: they will have access to joint banking accounts, easier accessibility to those accounts, greater security for deposits, cooperative education to further their understanding of collaborative advantages, opportunities to learn from one another.  The plan is to conduct monthly meetings among the cooperative delegates to consistently share experiences, problems, concerns, financial lessons and to celebrate what has been and promises to be a continuing success story in the rural countryside of Matagalpa.

The real value of these fledgling cooperatives, however, may not be in the technical or legal characteristics that registration will confer.  The bigger impact just may be on the lives and attitudes of those who have been willing to risk moving out of their comfort zones and into positions of learning and financial responsibility. For most, it’s an act of faith.  (By comparison, imagine yourself voluntarily signing up for a quantum physics class as a forty-something year-old, when you barely understand arithmetic.)  But such is their determination for improving their families’ circumstances, to work in some form of solidarity.  It also underscores a deepening sense of self-respect: in discussing a request for possible funding,  they have specified for the first time in our work together that the funding be in the form of a loan, to be fully repaid.  (I truly wish I could convey the sense of pride on the faces of the women as they specified a loan.)

They are taught and they understand the basic finances of their banks.  They assume positions of leadership, likely for the first time in their lives.  They make decisions among themselves.  They establish and attend meetings of their banks, sometimes walking for miles to be present.  They create celebrations of their work and themselves.  In short, these women do the things that successful cooperatives-  successful organizations of any sort- must do in order to endure.

As WPF imagines new ways of bringing together organizations to model best practices and to learn from one another, ANIDES might very well need to be part of the mix, even though they aren’t growing coffee, beans, rice or raising cattle.  What they are raising is their quality of life, their knowledge and their self-esteem, and being very cooperative about it….



Iguanas on the Wall

Surprised to see iguanas at school?

With the emphasis on education during my recent visit to Nicaragua, we had the pleasure of re-visiting the Association of Women Builders of Condega (AMCC).  AMCC is a non – profit organization whose main purpose is to promote economic, political and ideological empowerment processes to young and adult women from Northern Nicaragua, to enhance the basic conditions for the exercise of their full citizenship.  It’s quite an undertaking when one considers the context of the education, the circumstances of most of the students, the nature of a very patriarchal Nicaraguan society and cryptic attitudes about women, their roles and their capacities.

“Young women are better off staying at home.”

Ready to Learn and Work
Stay at Home? Why?




And, oh yes, at the same time the school is providing a very hands-on technical education for their students, teaching practical construction and building skills and demonstrating the latest technologies in use of earth materials.  And their results are stunning in both attractiveness and quality.  A visit to their site and walk through the grounds where the students work hands-on provides a clear picture of what these very young students can achieve.

“Women don’t do well in trades work like carpentry or electricity.”

Well Enough?


Carpentry and Electricity Included



In addition to receiving practical vocational training, these students are also immersed in the science of environmentalism. They are taught concepts in the making and use of earth building materials, installation and use of solar energy, efficient land use and building projects that are adapted into the AMCC campus after their completion.  My own preconceptions about the use of adobe as a construction material have changed rather dramatically since my visits here!

“Earth materials like adobe aren’t durable enough or attractive enough for serious construction.”

Attractive Enough?
Durable Enough?




But as is nearly always the case in Nicaragua, the greatest values are to be found in the people engaged in the process.  In some cases, it’s the presence of students in a curriculum that they likely never dreamed about for themselves.  Sometimes it’s the story of a student who excels in a field of study to the extent that she remains at AMCC as an instructor to other young participants who can identify with her easily, and from whom young women are at ease in following her lead.  And there is always the guiding presence of the founding generation, those whose vision and persistence and passion have blended together in a force of determination on behalf of young people’s lives throughout the area of Esteli and city of Condega.

“Young Nicaraguans  today have little ambition or drive to succeed.”

Collaborative Work
Stay Out of Their Way!




AMCC is helping their young students to recognize who they are, what they can become, that they are a part of their environment, and that they are stewards of those surroundings.  Regardless of what may be said by “others.”

Working within the education arena of Nicaragua, we find that there is much to worry about with regard to student development in the country.  Student access, student retention, availability of materials and adequate teacher training are just some of the challenges facing the country, which has slipped during recent years in comparison with the other Central American nations.  But there are also islands of hopefulness in this great sea of needs, and walking the grounds at the AMCC campus offers a rare glimpse of what could be….






The urgent need to re-invent the “fair trade movement”

The urgent need to re-invent the “fair trade movement”

René Mendoza Vidaurre

The Fair Trade movement (FT) started in 1964 within the framework of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Since then a number of European countries promoted the UNCTAD stores, selling products from developing countries. Then the “solidarity store” chain got started. In 1973 FT coffee began with coffee from Guatemalan cooperatives under the brand “Indio Solidarity Coffee.” In the decade of the 1980s the volume of products increased, as well as their quality and design; the solidarity stores sold blended coffee, tea, honey, sugar, cocoa, nuts, bananas, flowers…In 1988 “Fair Trade Labelling” began in Holland, and in 1997 the International Fair Trade Organization was formed – FLO for its acronym in English. Since 2012 decisions in FLO are made with 50% of the votes of organizations from three continents (Latin American Coordinator of Fair Trade from Small Producers, Fair Trade Africa and the Network of Asian Producers) that represent 800 organizations and 1 million small producers from 60 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and the remaining 50% of the votes from 21 national brands.

What has happened with this large FT movement? Here, focused on coffee for didactic reasons, we present its innovative character, its later deterioration, and a path to reinvent itself.

The novelty of fair trade

Figure 1 articulo de comercio justoThe biggest obstacle for getting out of poverty is the intermediation network that combines usury, low prices and deception in the weighing and quality control of the product, and the lack of organization of the producers. FT responds to this challenge with three elements (see Figure 1). First, the member families receive credit through their first and second tier cooperatives, capital that comes from the social banking sector (9% interest rate), and from FT organizations. A good part of them pre-finance 50% of the value of the product at 0% interest, so that the producers can avoid usury and ensure product. Secondly, FT sets a minimum price of US$1.40/lb when the international prices are less than $1.40/lb, provides an additional bonus of US$0.20/lb above the market price, and for organic coffee a premium of US$0.30/lb. Thirdly, compliance with the agreements and policies for organic coffee is assured by the certifiers: FLO does it for the bonus and good operations within the cooperatives, in both cases in situ, erecting long term relationships.

This combination of commerce, financing and multinational organization of counterparts leads to the families improving their production, their lives in the family and in the community, with the FT network being a space for learning and social, economic and environmental transformation.

The deterioration of fair trade

After a half century of FT, what has happened? First, the prices to the producer in terms of the final value of coffee in the decade of the 1930s was 33% (Wickizer, 1943, The world coffee economy), 27%  in the decade of the 1970s (Clairmonte and Cavanagh, 1988, Merchants of Drink), 15-20% in the decade of the 1990s (Pelupessy, 1999, Coffee in Cote d’Dvoire and Costa Rica), 10% in 2001 (Mendoza y Bastiaensen, 2002, Fair trade and the coffee crisis in the Nicaraguan Segovias) and 12% in 2009 (Mendoza, 2012, Gatekeeping and the struggle over development in the Nicaraguan Segovias); in other words, it went from 33 to 12% over 8 decades. When we compare both chains, the prices to the producer in relative terms (%) is smaller in the FT chain than in the traditional chain, even though in absolute terms it is a little bigger; in other words, the FT coffee price to the consumer is higher, while its distribution through the chain is similar to the traditional chain. Secondly, credit gets to the member families in an unequal manner, some get nothing, no one gets it at an interest rate of 0%, others get some amount at interest rates between 12-18%. Third, the FT bonus gets to the families in an unequal manner, some get nothing, others get US$0.5/lb and others get a little more. Fourth, the complaint is that the yield (humidity and quality of the coffee) is worse than in the traditional buyers. Fifth, it is estimated that 30% of the total coffee that the members produce is sold through FT, while the export cooperatives are increasingly buying coffee from “third parties” (not members of the cooperative) who come in through the traditional commercialization network. From here, the challenge of ending usury, accessing markets and doing it through a multinational alliance is being rolled back.

The first two elements of FT were weakened, and the third is controlled by elites in the FT chain, attracted in turn by the logic of the market. FLO audits, and analysis of the social banking sector and verifications of the organic certifiers are reduced to formal elements (review of financial data, minute books and written records); in some cases without understanding that the social structures absorbed the FT chain, in other cases understanding these structures, but blocked from reporting and taking measures out of fear of financial losses, and in general keeping quiet when facts like the pre-financing that comes from the stores of Europe or the loans from the social banking sector do not get to the producers, yet they are the ones who have to pay them.

Figure 2 articulo de comercia justoFigure 2 expresses the concentration of power (capital, positions, information and contacts) from where the entire chain is managed, and the privatization of the FT brand. Seen from the region, the second tier cooperatives concentrated investments based on a good part of the bonuses, premiums and earnings, and are the “door” to the certifications, the banks and the markets. The Delegates of the first tier cooperatives to the second tier cooperatives, as well as their board members, are eternal. The administrative personnel run the second tier cooperatives, and many of them are named by national and international organizations as the representatives of their cooperatives in their organizations. The rotation and renovation of the leaders is vetoed,    because it would affect their financial income, the control of the administrative staff of the cooperatives, and the circuit of transnational power; and if that veto conflicts with the statutes of the cooperatives, the statutes are reformed.

As that power got consolidated, most of the first tier cooperatives hollowed out; they are not doing savings nor credit, some are not even collectors of coffee and their board members do not meet monthly, even though their “minutes” exist. Under these conditions these cooperatives cannot have an impact on the second tier cooperatives; if they try to, they face another wall: “FLO and the bank say that you cannot change me, because my signature is on the contracts”; if there is a change in management of someone who was a favorite of FT: “If you change the manager, we are not going to buy your coffee.” If a cooperative dares to save and manage itself: “you do not have the FT certification nor organic coffee certification and I am not going to give it to you, if you insist it will end up being very expensive financially.” If independent researchers seek information in FLO, “we only give information to the cooperative.” And, if in spite of these walls, there are first tier cooperatives that are able to get out of this power circle, their bonuses and premiums more frequently get to their members, and their credit to their members has lower interest rates.

The FT chain expresses the “law of oligarchy” that Michels in 1911 found in democratic organizations, and the logic of the markets (importers, roasters and distributors increase their control over the value of coffee, and the FT staff act out of financial interests – and over wanting to earn more Fair Trade USA and FLO separated), within a framework of mutual complicity and exclusive transnational legitimation. The paradox, a movement that got started to fight traditional commerce was absorbed by that very logic, even though in the name of the poor.

Toward the second generation of fair trade

Figure 3 articulo de comercia justoClark and Doersam (2000, open space community) say that organizations are born, grow, mature, decay and die or they change. Deterioration is the death of FT. To avoid death, we argue that FT should reinvent itself, responding to the producer and consumer families, expanding and strengthening the relationships and democratizing the FT chain. First, Solidarity Stores and first tier cooperatives should construct a space for direct communication (SS-C), including the possibility that one be a member of the other; SS-C be supported from studies coming from an alliance between a development studies institute in the north and another in the south; SS-C become a space for learning about prices, credit, distribution mechanisms for the bonus and the premium, the democratization of the FT chain…; SS-C, to the extent that it learns, influences FLO so it is transparent and shares with the public its audits and reports, transparent to businesses, certifiers, banks and cooperatives, getting beyond the myth  that “the enemy will take advantage of our information”. Secondly, FLO and the certifiers respond to SS-C, their audits and verifications contribute to good practices within the FT organizations: e.g. veto the permanance of board members and delegates as leaders for more than two periods in the cooperatives and international organizations, regardless of the reformed statutes and tricks of the elites; the FT seal and organic coffee certification is only for the coffee of the members. That the FT and organic certification be for first tier cooperatives, and at prices agreed upon with SS-C to prevent the first tier cooperatives from being excluded. Third, that the first tier cooperatives develop savings and loan services, and decide about the use of 100% of the bonus and the premium, while the second tier cooperatives specialize in coffee processing, facilitate the connection of the first tier cooperatives to markets, and support groups of cooperatives to develop services depending on the opportunities around them and their capacities.

Based on these three elements, the model would be “I support you so that you might commercialize your excellent coffee”, instead of “I buy your coffee to sell it”; the producers would recover their faith and turn in 100% of their coffee to FT, and the consumers would appreciate that they are really drinking organic coffee and that the added price that they pay is working well; systematic corruption would be avoided that is impoverishing producer families; the social banking sector would recover their loans at less cost. This route could be a way of getting beyond  Michels Law and building “societies with markets” instead of “market societies”, and with this the FT mechanism would really help people get out of poverty.

René Mendoza has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Wind of Peace Foundation (, an associate researcher for IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium) and for the Nitlapan-UCA Research and Development Institute (Nicaragua).


Microcredit, the innovation of the century

 Microcredit, the innovation of the century

René Mendoza Vidaurre *


There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.


(Niccolo Machiavelli, 1532, The Prince)


Grameen Bank (“village bank”) emerged nearly four decades ago in Bangladesh. In 2006 its founder, Muhammad Yunus, received the Nobel Peace Prize “for his efforts in creating economic and social development from below”, achieving world recognition for microcredit. Apart from the criticisms that microcredit pacifies poor families so that they do not fight for their rights, and that the US$130 average amount is not enough to buy a cow, and much less a hectar of land, its achievements are impressive: 3,000 branches, 7 million borrowers (95% are women), and 3% arrears rate; nearly 100% of Grameen children that start their studies finish them; education, health, retirement and pension programs, and services of access to new technology – cell phones in more than 2,000 villages (Grameen Telecom), solar panels (Grameen Skakti) and internet in the villages (Grameen Communications). What made posslbe this change of the century in finances in favor of the poorest of the poor?

Distancing themselves from conventional finance

After years of war, Bangladesh achieved its independence in 1971, a year later Yunus returned to his country as a university professor, and in 1974 the country experienced a great famine. Yunus, his colleagues and students wanted to help, and went to live – and study – in the village of Jobra. There they found usury with interest rates of up to 10%/day, and their dependence on those loans made them live as semi-slaves. In Jobra they counted 42 people under these usurious conditions, and the total loan amount was only US$27. He lent them those US$27 at 0% interest, and to his surprise they paid him back; then he discovered that they were paying interest rates higher than 60%/year to the commercial banks. So he observed something contradictory in the banking system, they were there to give loans, and acted under the principle of “the more you have, the more you get”, but they were exclusive: “when you exclude people for no fault of their own, it is apartheid.” Without the first dollar they could not get the second one, this was the situation of the poor. From there emerged his vision: end poverty.

He requested a loan from the bank to provide “small loans for the poorest.” The banks rejected the request: the poor do not receive loans because they cannot repay them, they do not know how to fill out the forms, and they do not have material collateral. After six months, and after Yunus himself offered collateral, one bank lent him US$300. Yunus and his team organized the credit and recovered up to the very last cent. The manager of the bank attributed this to luck, and when that credit experience was replicated in five, ten and fifty villages, that manager did not change, “because people can make mistakes, but the banking system does not.”

The more he lent, the more they saw the need to found an organization: Grameen Bank (1983) (GB), in order to place the first dollar in the hands of the poorest. What was the motivation for the people to pay and improve their lives?

Microcredit in groups and the social movement

GB followed a path opposed to the logic of the banks and what economics teaches. The bank waits for the client in their offices, requires material collateral, and provides individual loans, high loan amounts, and to people with more resources; it is a system built on the basis of prejudices; “Those who have more resources pay.” GB started microcredit (small amounts), without material collateral, with groups of five people as the basis to build a culture of credit, members with different businesses that mutually support one another, if one member does not pay the rest do not get a loan; the groups meet weekly to pay, save and renew their commitments to 16 norms (have a small family, build latrines, send their children to school, stop the practice of dowries, drink water from healthy sources or boil their water, grow vegetables, vote in elections…); they were mostly women because they were the poorest and those most affected by the purdah norms (conceal women from men who are not direct relatives), because they made better use of the loans and they paid on time. The GB officials stay out in the villages, explaining the microloans and accompanying those that have been disbursed, and because of the role of the groups, the credit and the savings in good measure are administered by the people themselves; the transactions are done in front of everyone. The basis is trust; without lawyers, nor taking people to court for lack of payment.

The novelty is in the learning capacity of GB and in its social movement nature. Yunus and his team immersed themselves from the beginning in order to understand the reality; so they understood the bottleneck of usury, discerned their vision and maintained it. Then they experimented, it if did not work out, they would study the banks to do “just the reverse”; trial and error forming groups with women. These circles remind us of the microfinance institution known as Bora founded by Munro and 50 beggars in Kiberia (Kenya) (“small loans, big changes”), Toyota (“if one worker makes a mistake another worker corrects him”), and Wikipedia (“one writes and others anonymously correct, improve and edit the text”). The key: combining decentralization (circles) and centralization (GB), economics (credit) and social-cultural movement (freeing women from the conservatism of Islam), and personal and social change.

Erosion of microcredit and the imperative to recover its novelty

Thousands of NGOs and microfinance institutions got involved in microcredit since 1980, they even adopted the circles called “solidarity group lending” (SGL). Most of them fell by the wayside, or turned into conventional banks, brandishing the prejudices that GB fought against: “the poor do not pay”, “credit only with material collateral”, “arrears are recovered by lawyers”, “credit is done by people who have studied it”, and “SGL only for recovering the loans.” In spite of the path shown by GB, those who followed, took it and added the microcredit discourse and SGL in the old form of making credit exclusive, and have been “scaling up” to social groups with more resources. Albert Einstein said it well that  “it is easier to split an atom than it is to break a prejudice.”

How can this innovation of the century be recovered? Following the path of Yunus and his colleagues, doing immersion and creating conditions for experimenting. Recognizing that in our countries upward of 70% of the population continues to be excluded from credit, and that they constitute an enormous sector to innovate (e.g. with larger amounts for family agriculture). Rethink SGL as “pressure among themselves to pay”, to believe in themselves, improve their businesses, take on norms like erradicating domestic violence and having sustainable practices. Understanding credit (from the Latin credititus, “having trust”) as the “door” for a strategic alliance between SGL with the poorest organized into associative forms, groups with more resources and better organized, and financial institutions, around financing and social change, and scaling up in that alliance, combining technical assistance and commerce.

Even though the government of Bangladesh has been working to take over GB since 2013, and there are growing criticisms that GB is being dragged along by the market, GB has shown that is can change the world with $27 dollars, and do it bringing the people from the base of the pyramid to a financial system open to learning and to alliances with the poorest of the poor. This can be an initiative that begins “a new order of things”.

* I thank F. Huybrechs and J. Bastiaensen for their comments on the draft of this article.

René Mendoza has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Wind of Peace Foundation (, an associate researcher for IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium) and for the Nitlapan-UCA Research and Development Institute (Nicaragua).


How Far Can You See?

IMG_4884Spend any time around an ocean beach or any huge body of water and sooner or later someone gazing out over the water will be asked, “How far can you see?”  It’s an inevitable question and one which the beachcomber invariably cannot answer.  How far is that horizon, anyway?  Can you see what’s there?

We humans can see about 3 miles into the distance, before the horizon disappears with the curvature of the earth.  We can also detect a galaxy 2.6 million light years away, to a time when the first galaxies formed.  With the barest of light, we can see in the dark.  Our eyesight is a remarkable sense, indeed.

There’s another category of sightedness that begs the same sort of question, “how far can you see?”  It’s the view forward, what we can see or anticipate for the future, and what that portends for our current circumstances.  Understandably, we tend to be less accomplished in this effort, because what we endeavor to see is not yet physically visible.  So we do our best to impute, deduce, and imagine.

Many entities try to see, with varying degrees of success.  Within the communities of Nicaragua, leaders often pretend to see bright opportunity for their constituents, when the real view is only one of self-aggrandizement or patriarchal gatekeeping.  For its part, the U.S. government is afflicted with a malady which prevents its elected representatives from seeing much beyond the end of the day; it virtually defines short-sightedness.  Some business leaders work very hard to see into the future, though for many their acuity dims after about one quarter on the calendar.  Fortune-tellers would have us believe that they can see the future with clarity, but I don’t think they do much better than the rest of us.   Unfortunately, too many of us simply hope that the future will be as we might wish it, without working to shape it.

The reality is that in order to “know” the future and create a means to it, we have to be pretty clear about what is happening at present.  That work is more difficult than it sounds, as we tend to fall prey to factors like misinformation, data that makes us look different than we actually are, shorter-term motives and even egos.  If we start from a point of obfuscation, the chances of shaping a realistic future direction are very slim.  But knowing the truth requires self-honesty and discipline, characteristics that are cultivated through courage and practice.

Unfortunately, most of us lack sufficient courage or practice  to express openly those shortcomings and mistakes that have impeded our sight.  Since it isn’t a comfortable or easy thing to do, we don’t practice it much.  And that lack of practice, in turn, renders us less courageous, less open to understanding our truths and being able to use them as the basis for where we’d like to go.  It’s a vicious circle that ever-lessens our ability to see what might be.  And without such vision, we limit where we can choose to go.  We simply can’t see that far.

Later this Spring, a certificate program for cooperatives will be taught in the rural reaches of Nicaragua.  The program will be more than a week in duration, as rural producers will come together to learn holistically about seeing a future of their own making, to create the conditions and circumstances which can better allow those visions to become reality, to open their eyes to their own truths.  Like staring into a bright light after an immersion in darkness, there will be discomfort, disorientation and maybe even even distress.  But like the gradual adjustment our eyes make to that bright light, the emerging views will become clear and free from the drowsy effects of the dark.  And the courage, the practice, the habit, of far-sightedness just may take root in people eager to see further than ever before.  (I’ll be sure to write about the process in April, after the workshop has been completed.)

Meanwhile, I’ll do my best to keep asking the question of myself, “How far can you see?”  It’s one of those introspective probes that just might help me prepare myself for the future….





Innovating in beekeeping makes humanity better in times of climate change

Innovating in beekeeping makes humanity better in times of climate change

René Mendoza V., Edgar Fernández and Yeris Lanzas


“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then humanity would only have four years of life left”

Albert Einstein

 Recently there has been a worldwide alarm about bees. They produce honey and pollinate crops and vegetation; their reduction would affect agriculture and biodiversity. Here we ponder their impact on agriculture, review their evolution, and based on an experience in the municipality of San Juan del Río Coco (Madriz, Nicaragua) we suggest innovating in a beekeeping connected to its economic, ecological, agrarian and social surroundings.

A study of Klein and his colleagues (“Importance of pollinators in changing landscapes for world crops”), with FAOSTAT-2005 data, found that out of 115 crops, 87 increase their production with pollination (39 of 57 crops and 48 of 67 products derived from crops); 20% of total production is by crops that increase the production of seed with animal pollination. They confirm the effect on production in 92 of 108 crops: without pollination in 13 crops (atemoya or custard apple, Brazil nut, cantelope, cacao, kiwi, macadamian nuts, passion fruit, papaya, rowanberry, sapote, pumpkin, vanilla and watermelon) production drops by 90% or more, in 30 crops it drops from 40-90%, and in 27 it drops from 10-40%, and in 21 crops it drops by less than 10%. For Central America, Roubik (2002, “The value of bees to the coffee harvest”) writing on Arabica coffee in Panama, concludes that the pollination of non-native bees increases its production by up to 50%. From this we see that if the pollination services decline, our diet will become nutritionally and culturally impoverished.

Bees are important, but are they being reduced in number? In England the Bumblebee Conservation Fund states that 2 species of bees have become extinct in the last 70 years, and that 6 are in danger of extinction; in the United States the Department of Agriculture (USDA) states that they have been reduced from 6 million in 1940 and 1950 to 2.5 million in 1990. Nevertheless, the United Nations Development Program (2010) states that the data on the worldwide level on their reduction is not conclusive; Aizen (2009, “The Global Stock of Domesticated Honey Bees Is Growing Slower Than Agricultural Demand for Pollination”) states that in the last 50 years the amount of beehives has increased close to 45%, while the growth in crops has been 400% in that same period (Manzano, 2014, “Beeodiversidad”). The alarm finds meaning in the growing deforestation and agricultural intensification – mechanized and dependent on chemical inputs; from there comes the reduction of bees in Europe and the United States so far, the “death” of bees in zones of intensive agriculture in Latin America, and the “migration” of bees in extensive agriculture zones because of drought (no flowers) or rainy season (flowers unsuitable for bees). The more deforestation happens and intensive agriculture is promoted, the less bees there are, the less pollination there is, the more agriculture stagnates.

Beekeeping needs to increase. Its innovations began when the human being perceived that (s)he can harvest honey and wax regularly from the same colony, and built hives with clay vessels and conical baskets (5000AC). In the XVI century Francois Huber innovated the mobile frames, Lorenzo Lorrain Langstroth the standardized use beehive (1851), the carpenter Juan Mehring an apparatus for stamping wax (1857), Franceso de Hruschka the extractor or centrifuge for removing the honey from the honeycomb without breaking it (1865), Abbé Collin perfected the queen excluder (1865), the farmer George Layens the horizontal beehive appropriate for transhumance (seasonal migration, 1874). Correspondingly worldwide production of honey grew from 678,759 tones in 1961 to 1,592,701 in 2012, the year in which all the countries of Central America provided 0.46% of world production. Nicaragua went from 20 tons in 1961 to 100 in 1979, to 200 in 1995, to 300 in 1996, and to 400 since 2000. According to CETREX in the period from 2007-13 Nicaragua exported an average of 211 Metric Tons/year.

In 50 years of beekeeping Nicaragua, according to data from the 2006 National Beekeeping Census, has 733 beekeepers and 24,903 hives. Beekeeping in the municipality of San Juan del Rio Coco illustrates something about what is happening in the country and in the world; between 1963 and 2014 investments have been made of over 3,000 beehives in more than 300 beekeepers, but the Census shows that there are 85 beekeepers with 619 beehives. What is happening? In the decade between 1960-70 beekeeping emerged as an initiative of the large estate owners and with technical assistance from the state, under the logic of pollinating coffee  and extracting honey; the hives lasted more than 10 years, and transhumance was not practiced because there was a forest, in the rainy season they would complement the forest flowers with blocks of sugar and they did not regulate the shade of the trees close to the beehives. In the decade of the 1980s the initiative came from the CORCASAN cooperative with farmers seeking to extract honey and pollinate, the hives lasted up to 5 years, they did not practice transhumance and they would give sugar to the bees during the rainy season. Since 2002 the initiative has been coming from international aid and from the market, they seek to extract honey and in isolated cases pollinate, the rotation of hives is almost annual, they do transhumance in the rainy season because there are no suitable flowers, they provide sugar to the bees and are not investing in the flower supply.

This stagnation in beekeeping is due to a vision where the context in which the innovations emerged is ignored, in a Europe that went through the Renaissance, a humanity that sought to control bees in an environment of flowers, and from there, the innovations focused on the biology of the bees and the physical conditions that made them more productive. Current beekeeping is based on the belief that its greatest challenge is “physical work” of receiving-providing resources, technologies and trainings from outside, and on that “everything has already been invented.” It is an economic vision that is dependent on the bees and separates them from their agrarian, ecological and social surroundings.

beekeeping graphic

In the face of this reality, from one experience in SanJuan del Río Coco, we are suggesting innovating with a holistic visionrecognizing and managing the tension inherent in the connections between bees, beekeeping and biodiversity, and between the improvement of the common good and individual appropriation, disputes that are transforming the territories with flowers, crops, bees and organized families (See Diagram). In this vision, technology, credit and commerce respond to the connections in tension; thus, productivity is not “getting more hives and mechanizing them”, but investing in the connections that result in honey, wax, propolis, coffee, cacao, passion fruit, air, water, land…Part of this process is the crop rotation providing flowers at different times of the year, “sharecropping” between large producers that need to pollinate their plantations and small beekeepers, pollination services, flower inventory as a collective good, and cooperatives facilitating these connections. Seen in this way, beekeeping breaks out of the shell of its “little box” and re-emerges from the connections.

If this innovation in process has the potential of responding to the 50 years of stagnated beekeeping and agricultural productivity, how can we improve it and replicate it in the wet tropics of the country and in Latin America?

* René ( has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (, associate researcher of the IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium) and of the Nitlapan-UCA Research and Development Institute (Nicaragua). Edgar i a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation. Yeris is a beekeeper and innovator in the municipality of San Juan del Rio Coco.

Innovating in light of the “social jukebox”

Innovating in light of the “social jukebox”

René Mendoza Vidaurre and Ronie Zamor


“The policies can be good, but not work; it is like we put a coin in the jukebox, choose a song, and a different one plays” (X. Gorostiaga sj, 1983).

 What is happening with the “social jukebox” that transforms policies and creates even undesirable outcomes? The British aid agency, DFID, the OXFAM family, state institutions, organizations like RUTA and the World Bank have used the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach (SLA), initially proposed by academics R. Chambers and G. Conway (1992, Sustainable rural livelihoods: practical concepts for the 21st century) and I. Scoons (Sustainable rural livelihoods, a framework for analysis), for getting poor families out of poverty. Can this SLA approach overcome the “social jukebox” phenomenon? Supported by concrete experience, we argue in this article that it can, but under certain conditions.

The critics of the SLA say that it only works for assessing, that it is illusory to make families participate in their multiple strategies because the projects and policies are defined outside the communities. Others say that it makes the poor become empowered. In Boaco, Chontales, RAAS and Rio San Juan the FOMEVIDASA program was executed between 2004 and 2011 with the support of the government of Finland, and within the framework of the then Rural Development Institute (today the Ministry of the Family, Community, Cooperative and Associative Economy), a program that used the SLA as its principal approach, and was aimed at the poorest families that were living “where there are no signs announcing projects.” The results from that experience were mixed, successful cases, cases that did not change, and failed cases.

The SLA recognizes the multiple dimensions of poverty and wants empoverished populations to get lasting improvements to deal with the poverty that they themselves identify, so that organizations might help to finance and that other local organizations might co-execute, and that there be affective and effective closeness among the different actors. While other approaches focus on the scarcity and needs of the families, the SLA assumes a vision of development focused on the person, begins with an analysis of their means of living, their strong points, their different forms of capital (financial, social, physical and natural), and how these have been changing; it involves the families, respects their visions, and helps to identify the multiple influences and their strategies.

Boaco, Chontales and a large part of the RAAS is characterized by their ranching culture –“the sprawled cow” -Rothschuh Tablada called it, a writer from Chontales. The assymetrical power relationships between ranchers, the peasantry, fieldhands and the indigenous families has a great impact; it is a social jukebox that regardless of who “inserts the coin”, shelves the families into the alleys between the farms and the highways, or in marginal places – without water and roads. These families become “untouchable” families, excluded by their own communities –“there is no exclusion worse than that of your own community”, said a Finnish aid worker. In light of this, following the SLA approach, listening to the impoverished families awakens in them a sense that they have value: “I am poor but I have dignity, my voice is part of my dignity”. Listening to them (“touching them”) is also dignity.

The assessment and ideas for solutions can be left truncated by these “local – global power bottlenecks”, by the nature of the poverty in the minds of the impoverished families themselves, and by the technicians and consultants who create walls between “those who know”, i.e. the technicians, consultants and those who execute the projects, and “those who do not know”, the beneficiary families; so it is that when they are in the communities they call one another “engineer”, “Licentiate” and “magistrate” (lawyers), as a code of differentiation and authority, while in the offices these same people call one another by their names.

Given this reality, going to the communities and formulating polices in accordance with the demands of the families in order to expand their capacities is a monumental challenge, because the tendency is to formulate what the institution is going to “give away” (if it is the central government, the “bonus”, if it is the Municipal Government it is “paving stones” and if it is the aid agency it is a “harvest collection center”), what is in the logical framework, known by the technicians and what is going to be evaluated. After the assessment, a good step is to give the communities back the conclusions and demands, so that the families can monitor them during the execution. The more they participate, the more they exercise the role of social auditor, the more co-responsible they are; participating is contributing ideas, labor and attending meetings without charging as a service; co-responsibility is a social audit for all institutions.

This process has a transformative potential. It changes the technicians and the families; the technician becomes convinced that there is information that only the families know (e.g. sites for drilling wells outside of the areas where the river runs during the rainy season), and a critical perspective on the participation of the families helps to discern between their voice and what is imposed as if it were their voice. It helps to understand that where the water passes is where life passes; it makes visible that in the dry season all of Nicaragua is a road, while in the rainy season a good part of the country is a quagmire; without a road the sick person dies before getting to the hospital and the vegetables rot along the way. It questions organizations and institutions, that for sustainable changes to happen in the lives of the people multiple investments are needed, that perhaps do not fit within a logical framework, but that are possible with complementary alliances, recognizing that one organization or institution alone does not have the capacity to transform these situations.

The SLA approach is not the panacea, but it can be a good tool if three conditions are met. First, understanding the “social jukebox” as a “machine” that distorts policies and approaches, and is a space of dispute and two way negotiation, about realities that are transformed and getting less inadequate “songs” (policies and approaches like SLA). Secondly, investing and monitoring the process of change of the “jukebox”; inclusion of the “untouchable” families that are discovering their own capacities, and the possibility for change for the staff of the organizations in recognizing that even the most impoverished families have value, have something to give and teach. Thirdly, trust in the people themselves, that the families themselves might negotiate (their) resources to repair roads, have potable water or organize their savings and loan system; this requires the organizations to mature and treat the families as mature people, accepting what birds do, that as soon as their baby birds have feathers, they let them fly and give them distance.

The innovation is not in the SLA, but in connecting it to the “social jukebox” under conditions of understanding its dynamic character, that the change is in the impoverished families and in the organizations that work with them, and in that you have to have courage to trust in the “untouchable” families. Otherwise, it does not matter whether the coin is silver or gold, the song that you choose will not be the one that gets played.

* René ( has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Wind of Peace Foundation (, associate researcher of IOB-University of Antwerp (Bélgica) and the Research and Development Institute, Nitlapan-UCA (Nicaragua). Ronie was an adviser with FOMEVIDAS and currently is the Sustainable Livelihood and Risk Management Program Official for TROCAIRE (Nicaragua).