For the past several weeks I have struggled to come up with the right means of expression to describe how I feel about circumstances in Nicaragua. In the shadow of killings and abductions and fear, Nicaragua would seem to be quite unlike the country in which Winds of Peace has worked over the past 35 years. Pictures of massive protests in the places I know, photos of masked shooters in the neighborhoods where I’ve been, blood in the streets where I’ve walked: these are surreal images that choke the words I should say. I have not traveled to Nicaragua since February, and I feel as though I’ve been away even longer.
The development continues, nonetheless. Loans are being made: last week, two women’s cooperatives received small, initial funding for local agriculture. Grants are being given: despite the vastly reduced attendance in schools over recent months, elementary-age reading initiatives are being redirected through community sites and churches Repayments are being made: even where full repayment might be delayed, partners are reworking payment plans to honor their obligations as best they can. There may be few causes of great joy within the current turmoil of Nicaragua, but there are hopeful moments.
Of course, what matters in this crisis time is not the impact upon a small U.S. foundation; Winds of Peace is just fine. Of importance is the real-life upheaval being lived out daily by Nicaraguans who struggled for daily survival long before the first protests were launched, and who now find themselves threatened with even greater hardships than before. Most North Americans would have a difficult time fully comprehending Nicaraguan poverty prior to April 18 of this year. We have even less likelihood of understanding their realities given the way things are today. And my words are simply insufficient to the cause.
So I invite readers to shift their attentions to the “Nica Update” entries at this site. They are frequent updates on the status of the confrontation and the contain the observations and experiences of men and women caught up in current struggle. They are words of passion. They are expressions of the most deeply-held beliefs of Nicaraguan people yearning once again for peace and equity. They are the fluent articulations of a people’s soul, in a time of deep distress.
Over the din of bullets and bulldozers, emerge words of eloquence and meaning….
I’ve consumed a lot of pizza in my days. Maybe it’s because pizza came into its own as an entre′ while I was a teen, or the fact that it’s probably my favorite food indulgence. I’ve eaten more than my share of those pies. I’ve had them homemade in my grandmother’s kitchen when I was nine years old, I’ve eaten them across Italy and the rest of western Europe, I’ve consumed them in the Virgin Islands, Mexico, Canada, Hungary and even on board a sailing vessel on the ocean. I’m reasonably certain that I must hold some sort of unofficial pizza consumption record for my days in college. In short, I am an expert.
But one of the most unlikely and satisfying slices occurred just last month, during my most recent visit to Nicaragua. Yes, it was the first pizza I have consumed in that country. But more important than that was the group of young women with whom I shared the pizza. What might be the odds that on any given day in my life I would find myself having a Chefella’s pizza with 15 female cooperative members in Matagalpa, Nicaragua? On March 12th, the answer was 100%
I love pizza anywhere, and under nearly any circumstances. But when we arrived to join this mid-day meeting of entrepreneurs to the announcement that we would share pizza for lunch, I admit to being triply-excited: first, to talk again with these adventuresome women, most of whom were new to the idea of cooperative life; second, at the prospect of my first-ever Nicaraguan pizza; and third, to consider once more the collaborative symbolism of my favorite food.
You see, pizza in my experience has always been a cooperative meal. When our kids were young, pizza night was a time for all of us to be in the kitchen and contributing our own labors to the creation of something worthwhile, in this case, for dinner. Katie made the crust, I formed it in the pan, Megan and Molly spread the sauce, Ian added the meat and Nikki sprinkled the cheese. We collectively watched the baking and timing. And of course, we shared happily in the end result.
The entire process was one of great participation, involving every member of our family. The fear might have been that if you didn’t help out, you wouldn’t get any pizza. But the reality was more that this was something that we loved doing together, and that made the entire outcome- the pizza- even better. Of course, the process mandated complete transparency. Some of us couldn’t eat onions; indeed, a hidden agenda here would have resulted in stomach upset! Others didn’t care for green peppers. One in our family didn’t wish to eat meat. So we had to be very clear in drawing the lines of content in our pizzas. Those ingredient boundaries were our respective stakes in the outcome. And, of course, eventually we experienced the satisfaction and reward of shared effort: taking a piece of the pie. Collaboration made homemade pizzas tastier than frozen ones, and more cost-effective than pizzeria models.
A pizza with the 15 women did not involve our collective making and baking, but it did connect us in a shared result. Sitting around the tables which had been laid end-to-end created a loop of continuity, of solidarity, of oneness for at least that special lunch period. It will be up to the women members of the cooperatives to determine whether they can sustain that linkage to their ongoing mutual benefit.
Meanwhile, it made that unlikely pizza one of the best slices I’ve had, and I’ve had a lot….
The height of injustice is to be deemed just when you are not. Plato
Even an honest man sins in the face of an open treasure. 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, in our case study in Nicaragua and Central America, we show that the institutional structure of power relationships under the market control of elites is like the sirens in the myth, capable of seducing the FT network, turning it against its own principles, and turning solidarity into just a bunch of words, numbers and papers. How can FT tie itself up so as 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 a given that there are exceptional cooperatives, organizations, and people who confirm the importance of organizing and cultivating global solidarity, and that there are 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 involution, and on that basis we suggest its reinvention. To do so we focus on coffee, which constitutes 70% of the volume of what is sold through FT.
You have to look at coffee like the fingers on a hand; the first year we plant, the second year the coffee develops, The third year we harvest, the fourth we harvest more and the fifth year the coffee begins to decline R. Mairena, President
The cooperative works for me: it sells my coffee at a better price, it gives me credit. And it guides me in growing coffee. M.D. Gómez, Member
Plato in his book “The Republic” tells the story of the cave. A group of prisoners remained chained in a cave since their birth. They cannot turn their heads, they can only see the wall in the back. Behind them is a corridor and a bonfire. Men are passing through the corridor with different objects which project shadows on the wall because of the light. The prisoners believe that the shadows of the objects are real. One day one of the prisoners is freed and seeing the light from the fire, the people, trees, lakes and the sun, realizes the origin of the shadows and that they are only shadows. He returns to the cave to free his fellow prisoners, who on hearing that the shadows were only shadows, do not believe him, make fun of him and treat him as if he were crazy. This allegory reveals the strength of mindsets (tacit beliefs that rule the lives of people).
What is this kind of mindset in a cooperative? How can a cooperative free itself and build its own way? We explain this mindset, study it seeking to change it: we do it from the experience of the Solidaridad Cooperative in Nicaragua.
1. Mental frameworks and their origins
“The large estate provides, and the farm is a drain”, “we always need a patron”, “the patron knows and decides, the rest obey”, “only one crop, more inputs, more production”, “the dumber the fieldhand, the more hardworking they are”, “ the cheaper you pay the fieldhand, and the cheaper the land is, the more money can be made”. These beliefs sustain a hierarchical and discriminating framework, internalized by a good part of our society.
This mentality was refined over centuries all over. By 1880 Matagalpa had an indigenous population with more than 200,000 mzas of mountainous land, most of it was expropriated by the State for coffee; the mindset was in line with the myth of mestizo Nicaragua (J. Gould): “coffee, a civilized crop, indigenous an obstacle for civilization.” Thus between 1889 and 1895 there were more than 200 foreigners in Matagalpa. In time, in the zone of Arenal, Thomas, Manning, Crespi, Harrison and Vita formed large estates. Vita founded the Aranjuez estate (hacienda), later bought by Potter, then by De Savigny, later on turned into the first mountain hotel and later Somoza turned it into a Sanatarium for people with tuberculosis. From the start of the XX century up to now, temporarily interrupted by the war in the 1980s, the following haciendas were formed: El Quetzal, Marsellesa, Monimbo, La Aurora, El Paraíso, El Paraisito, Los Helechos, Santa Ana, La Esperanza and La Minita. The Solidaridad cooperative is in Aranjuez and El Arenal, has an indigenous past and is now surrounded by haciendas.
The hacienda system was imposed with State backing. Racism and dispossession mechanisms went hand in hand, which is the origin of that mentality that persists even in our times. In the 1990s a hacienda closed the road on 62 members of the Carlos Rodríguez cooperative, forcing them to sell their lands at the price that the hacienda had set. Currently the El Quetzal hacienda closes the road after 6pm, thus leaving the communities “closed in”, communities where its own workers live, as well as some families who are members of the cooperative. After 2010 several haciendas of the area have been facing a drop in the production of their coffee, the soils are exhausted, the exploited environment no longer produces: more inputs, more dead soil, the more coffee is exposed to full sunlight, the more the soil is washed away with the rainfall.
The very act of explaining the origin of that mentality awakens people. The hacienda has built itself by taking. More inputs and mono-cropping has led to greater soil deterioration. Closing roads no longer leads to cheaper land, nor does it force the hand of producer families. The “stupid” fieldhand, leaving the hacienda, has become a farmer.
2. A check on the hacienda: the cooperative
The 63 members of the cooperative have more than 300 mzs of land and produce about 7,000 qq of export coffee. The cooperative collects and exports 60% of the coffee of its members, 30% of that as quality coffee. 20 years ago most of these 63 members were fieldhands – some of them foremen – of the haciendas, they were families with little or no land, some of them producing some flowers and vegetables. Of the 63, some 25 members produce between 30-100qq export coffee per manzana, producing more than some haciendas. A small producer of Aranjuez, who is not a member of the cooperative, with 5 mzs of coffee, won the 2017 Cup of Excellence Award with 91.16 points. That is quality coffee! Diversified coffee farms with bananas and citrus, and not mono-cropping haciendas, produce quality coffee, not just standard coffee. All of this makes the land increase in value, puts a check on the hacienda, and in addition the hacienda sees its earnings decreasing.
It is easy to find examples to illustrate these results. There is a member who is a single mother who lives off her 2 mzs of coffee and bananas, that produces enough for her to support her mother and married daughters. Another member of the cooperative was able to intensify his coffee with bananas and citrus through the cooperative, and left his job as a fieldhand of the hacienda. There is a foreman who became a member of the cooperative and ended up being president of the cooperative.
What has generated this change? Well, the cooperative! Its strategy? First, it understood the importance of regularity in the application of inputs (urea and leaf sprayed fertilizer) that coffee needs in order to produce more, which is why the cooperative provides in-kind credit so that, under technical supervision, each member family applies it and pays for it with that same coffee, for which the cooperative finds markets. Secondly, they got past the biannual nature of coffee (one good year of production and the next year low production), pruning 25% of the coffee each year, and systematically renovating their old coffee plants. Third, the member families are concentrated in a microterritory and receive credit services, technical assistance and collect the harvest right there, which reduces their transaction costs and facilitates a close relationship between members-leaders and members-administration. Fourth, strong leadership pushing the cooperative in new challenges in a calm, gradual way; “directed credit”, “piloting direct exporting with a small amount”, and “getting into milling with low volume”; they do it as they establish relationships with the social banking sector, coffee buyers and chemical input companies.
Seen from the results, organized small scale production provides more and better farms, good for the people and good for the environment. Nevertheless, seen from the processes, following a different path from that of the hacienda, the response is two pronged: increasing family ownership over their production, but not over their organization. On the one hand, the discipline of applying inputs every 30-35 days on their coffee, and selectively pruning 25% of the plants has become a custom, and thereby a tacit law; as well as turning their coffee in to the cooperative, paying their loans and waiting for a better price. On the other hand, the mindset planted by the hacienda persists: “more inputs, more production”, “without the president we would fall”, “information is not up to date and does not get to the members”, “decisions about credit and who can have a better price for their coffee are not made in the organs of the cooperative”, “a buyer even chooses 10 members to buy their coffee”, “we members rely on the president, we only come in to get our loans and our payments”, “the members who do not increase their production will not increase it no matter what we give them”, “if we apply the rules of the cooperative we would be left without members”, “let the member with the most volume of coffee set the price”. A good part of the cooperative and some of its allies breathe in this mindset.
The benefits of the cooperative for the member families and the environment, for Aranjuez and el Arenal are visible, but their durability depends on changes in their mentality. As Saint-Exupéry said in his novel The Little Prince, what is most important is what is invisible. Taking your own path involves getting off the path of the hacienda.
3. Transformation of mental models
In addition to increasing production, the cooperative proposes increasing coffee quality, diversified farms with environmental sustainability, stronger relationships with the social banks and buyers, members who study their farms, and good relations between members, leaders and workers. And they are on that path. One member who studies and experiments: “I make a selective leaf spray, because I am watching over my plants, I recognize the coffee bore or rust, I observe it daily, if it progresses, I spray it, if it does not progress, I enclose it”; “I spray the entire coffee field, for prevention”; “ before putting a chemical on it I test it a little”, “what I learned when I had organic coffee I continue applying, I spend less and it goes further”, “I have coffee trees for repopulating and to sell”. The member/leader, the one that asks questions, accepts positions of responsibility and exercises them, complies with the rules of the cooperative and the decisions of its respective bodies, is still a subject under construction. Relationships with the workers, encouraged by a coffee buying organization, are making progress: “Coffee with a union aroma” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_SD3QBJ7r_U&feature=share)
For that the cooperative is refining its strategy. First, it is strengthening the observation and study that led them to determine the regularity in the application of inputs, this time to get beyond the belief of “more inputs, more production” to “more observation and management, more quality production”, including mixtures of coffee in micro-lots. Second, it is keeping its decision to have an office and services in the same territory, trying to get their sons and daughters to participate in the life of the cooperative – as members and personnel-staff. Third, it is making the policies and rules of the cooperative be applied, that decisions come from the organs of the cooperative, that members, board and administrative staff be subject to those agreements, and that the international allies respect and strengthen that institutionality. Fourth, the distribution of earnings based on updated information be posted on the wall- information on loans, financial statement, balance statement, volume of coffee collected, services of processing and exporting – so that the member families might come in to be informed, because informing is forming.
The Solidarity cooperative has taken a giant step: it stopped the hacienda. But even though it is at a standstill; it is still intact; the member families, even though are progressing in production and organization, are dividing up their land through inheritances, and their cooperative instrument continues being a challenge. The myth of the cave could change in the cooperative framework if the 4 elements of the strategy – observation, territory, institutionality and transparency – are carried out as the origin of its “light”, that would let them dismantle the mindset of the hacienda (“shadows”) and discern a new path. Their challenge is also the challenge of the entire world.
 René has a PhD in development studies, is an associate researcher of the IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium), collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/) and member of the COSERPROSS RL cooperative. email@example.com Edgar is also a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation.
 We talked with the member families, their leaders and staff and we facilitated workshops in Aranjuez. This article is the result of that collective learning with the member families that observed their farms and reflected on their cooperative. We are grateful to J. Koldegaard for his comments on the draft of this article.
“So often times it happens, that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we hold the key.” -The Eagles
As the new year has begun its reign, WPF has been thinking about and planning for some of the activities that will consume our time and attention over the coming months. Our team in Nica has already designed the next major workshop, a two-day session to analyze the land and its use, through the gathering and understanding of data about that land and its use. The workshops are digging deeper and challenging conventional thought more than ever before. For the participants, it’s scary and thrilling.
The team works hard to discern what the rural producers need. They have become intimate partners with many of the coops, cultivating a deep understanding of the challenges faced there. In turn, the team does its own analysis to identify the tools that they might bring to workshops and on-site sessions so that the farmers might become better equipped to succeed. The farmers, in turn, are eager to hear new ideas, maybe even to discover a “magic pill” that can make their production and commercialization efforts substantially improved over the past. In short, the team is determined to deliver and the “students” are avid learners of methodologies.
But as I consider the ideas and tactics that WPF might provide, or that I personally might be able to share, I’m struck by another factor, one that likely receives too little emphasis in development efforts. (Maybe I’m wrong. I’ve only been involved in this field for 12 years, a mere blink of the eye over the history of poverty.) The notion occurred to me as I read a short meditation the other day, one that rekindled thinking that I have cherished myself for many years. The quote reads as follows:
“The fragrance of flowers spreads only in the direction of the wind. But the goodness of a person speaks in all directions.” -Chanakya
It’s a beautiful thought. But its meaning runs deeper than just a sweet sentiment. For herein is the truth of the power of the individual, the potential that each human being has for impact on the world around him/her. Even in the face of incredibly difficult circumstances, whether climate, political, social or economic in nature, we each have the faculty- an enormous capacity- for impacting everything that surrounds us. For many, it’s a gift that we are reluctant to acknowledge and trust; it seems so much smaller than a new methodology or technology. It’s too inherent within us to feel credible. But like our very core understanding of right and wrong, it’s a reality.
What our partner producers may need is something more than a technique. It’s a message of personal deliverance, the need to remember each and every day the absolute truth that we impact every person around us, either for good or for ill, intended or not, and those impacts shape the success of our endeavors. How our influences work is not preordained or fated. It is by choice. The cooperative’s success, the relationships between members and even success of a single producer are all outcomes over which the individual has tremendous influence, and in ways that most of us do not comprehend well enough.
Like any organization, the cooperative prospers or fades based upon the character of individual leadership, and every member of a cooperative is a co-leader. Successful cooperatives need transparency, which in turn requires the stewardship of individuals to share information- good or bad- with fellow members. Collaborative work thrives on honesty, putting the good of all before the individual good of one’s own circumstances. That’s a tall order when faced with the daily struggle of trying to simply provide for the basic necessities of family life. But therein lies the irony of success: sometimes the surest way to one’s own well-being is to look out for the well-being of others first. Even in our so-called developed nations, we are limited in our own well-being by the level of well-being in others. If you doubt that, see the condition of the world today. Neither the have’s nor the have-not’s are as well-off as they could be.
The impoverished people of Nicaragua and elsewhere in the world assuredly deserve support, be it financial or the wealth of true accompaniment. But that accompaniment is most effective when coupled with the truth of self-direction. When any of us come to understand our impact, our influence and what we are capable to give, we stand at the threshold of making the greatest single contribution to our work that we could ever make.
I know that it’s one thing for someone to speak of these things and another thing to put them into action. When it comes to advice , Nicaraguans know that it’s cheap, whatever the source, and usually carries with it some kind of “catch” for which they will pay a price. As a result, they continue searching with healthy skepticism.
Long ago and far away, I sat in a January classroom and concluded what was then called January Interim. The month of January was dedicated to students choosing a topic of study that was likely outside the realm of their major field. Biologists studied Shakespeare, English majors learned about personal investments, accounting majors looked at the solar system. (One cold January I even studied a UI, the “language of space,” developed by one of the school’s psychology professors. Foosh um bru?) The Interim was an open space in which to explore new ideas while taking a break from the rigors of a major field of study. The J Term, as it is now often called by many of the schools which offer it, is still very alive and well, though it has morphed significantly. Instead of reading about far-off spaces, today’s J Term student is just as likely to travel there.
As expansive as that opportunity may be, there’s another level of engagement that has been created at some schools. More recently, it’s a matter of not just traveling there, but also interacting with local populations and contributing something of significance and lasting value. Winds of Peace Foundation has been in the middle of facilitating that. The Foundation has partnered with Augsburg University for more than 30 years as it has sought to study, analyze and provide resources for development in rural Nicaragua. It’s the Augsburg Center for Global Education and Experience (CGEE) that has led the Foundation there and served as significant conduit for contacts and entres to the country and the countryside.
What has worked so well is a synergy. WPF has a acquired an in- depth understanding of Nicaragua’s persistent poverty through its development work; it has not only funded organizations seeking to strengthen themselves through access to capital and education, but also created a research base of sociological evidence. Meanwhile, Augsburg has had the benefit of a development “laboratory” at its CGEE site in Nicaragua, a real-life classroom application for students and academics from around the entire country. What began as a small symbiotic partnership has expanded to something larger and more potentially significant.
What the synergy has created is a real-life boilerworks, wherein learners have the direct contact and impact on people somewhere else in the world. It’s well past book learning, and even beyond the personal immersion experiences of the old J Terms. The synergy here is bringing together students who seek to learn and to understand the reach of their abilities, coupled with rural peasants who live day-to-day in deep need of modern resources. How else would one describe the application of mathematics to measure arboreal CO2 outputs of the actual forest surrounding a peasant farm? The result is knowledge for the farmers who can now appreciate the precise contribution and importance of their trees, and real-life, vocational application by students who experience the practical effects of a chosen field of study.
It has been a curious mix, this bridging between rural Nicaraguan populations and urban U.S. students. They would seem, at first glance, to be unlikely collaborators. They speak different languages. Their worlds are thousands of miles apart. Many of the peasant farmers are of an older generation; their student counterparts are millennials or Gen Z members. Rural Nica education is experience, with perhaps a bit of history thrown in. Student education is primarily from the books and classrooms of expensive university surroundings. How different can two group be?
But the “synergy” which holds them together is their universal longing and need to work together, to benefit from each other, to give in return what each has received. What they have experienced, what the University and WPF has sought to foster, what real life teaches us to be true, is that we need each other. We’re better together. We may see the world differently and hold differing views of what that world is trying to tell us, but our differences help us to see it better. What a lesson! If you doubt its truth, just observe any group of U.S. young people saying good-bye to their Nica community.
The collaboration between peasant and student is a remarkable coming together of two disparate entities; that’s a lesson in and of itself. It’s also a mirror of the alliance between Augsburg University and Winds of Peace Foundation: another two disparate entities in collaboration. And, if I may be so bold, a blueprint for our organizational and political leaders in an expanding fog of mutual marginalization….
Closing in on nearly 50 years of collaborative work for the common good, Jacinto has served as the coop’s manager on seven different occasions, and still works to teach and advise it younger members. He is gifted with storytelling ability, his voice carrying the gravitas of experience and age, his eyes reflecting the sparkle of youth and exuberance. Among the stories that he shared with the members of our dialogue was one about Father Hector Gallego, and the unlikely beginnings of the Esperanza Cooperative.
“One day in 1968, I was walking along and saw a stranger riding a mule. He reached out his hand to greet me: ‘I’m Santa Fe’s priest,’ he told me. ‘I don’t believe you, priests only greet rich people,’ I answered him. He said: ‘There’s always a first time…. I want to invite you to a meeting this Thursday.’ ‘I don’t have time for meetings,’ I said, lowering my head. ‘No? Those are the very people I’m looking for, people who don’t have time,’ he told me. And he left me bowled over. I went to the meeting. I saw him greeting children and that impressed me. We sat down in a circle.What I saw and heard that day, made me think differently. That day I changed forever.”
“We woke up to the injustice of the wages, the fraud that the stores pulled off with the weighing of the products and their prices. So we decided to form a cooperative. But how could we start a cooperative if we did not think we had any resources? So Fr. Hector threw out a 5 cent coin in the middle of where we were seated, and asked, ‘How many pieces of candy can we buy with that coin?’ ‘Five!’ we responded. Others present looked in their pockets for a 5 cent coin. And others as well. The priest held up 10 coins and said that we had enough for 50 pieces of candy and sent a young boy off to buy them. It was 12 noon, we were all hungry. That same boy passed out the candy to the 50 who were present. The priest asked us again, ‘what does it taste like?’ Someone shouted, ‘it tastes like heaven!’ The priest concluded, ‘that is how cooperativism is done.’ The next week a group from Pantanal bought 1 quintal of salt to sell, and in El Carmen each person began to save 10 cents a week. That is how the hope of the peasants got started, our cooperative.”
Father Hector eventually was “disappeared,” never seen again nor his body ever recovered. I found it interesting that Jacinto, in telling this story, never added the fact that the priest had been a guest at Jacinto’s home at the moment of the abduction. I suspect that omitting that detail keeps the focus on the part of the story that Jacinto wishes to emphasize: the priest was taken in the dark of night, but his lessons about humility, cooperativism and stewardship continue on as lights in each day. In Jacinto’s thinking, the story is all about the man and his message, and not the details of a midnight atrocity.
Jacinto says that his job is to keep telling the tale and teaching the cooperative youth the profound lessons of the humble priest, that cooperatives can be life-saving structures when they are founded upon and operated for the common good. Even as an elder of the cooperative, his appetite to represent the lessons of Father Hector pushed him to board a plane in Panama City, fly through the questionable skies of Hurricane Irma, visit the foreign land of the U.S. for the first time, navigate a language barrier and offer himself as a testimony to successful cooperativism.
I never met Father Hector Gallego. I never even read much about him before the last several weeks. But I feel as though I somehow know exactly what kind of a man he was….
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.