Category Archives: Peace-building

The construction of a just peace in Colombia

The construction of a just peace in Colombia

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

Colombians, weapons have given you independence, but only the law will give you freedom.

Francisco de Paula Santander (1792-1840), Colombian leader

The law of the jungle should not be the law that our children follow

Seanna Wolf, ex Irish prisioner.

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong

M. Gandhi

Colombia is the country with the highest level of inequality, the oldest democracy and the longest armed conflict in Latin America. It is a country that now has the opportunity for peace, strengthen its democracy and reduce its inequality, particularly the agrarian inequality. Will it be able to take advantage of this opportunity? Far from showing majority support, and improving laws so that they be given freedom, as Santander would suggest, the peace process appears to polarize society even more, making the “law of the jungle” bleed their social leaders, and contrary to the words of Gandhi, making forgiveness a sign of weakness. How can changes be generated that would lead toward peace with justice and shared prosperity? That question concerns us in this article.[2]

1.     Introduction

The signing of the Peace Accords in November 2016 marked a before and after in Colombia. Society is involved in a broad debate. The most repeated words are: peace accords, reincorporation, reinsertion, demobilization, ex-combatants, reconciliation, normalization, forgiveness, illicit crop, territory, guerrilla, comrade, partner…They are disputed words: “worthy reincorporation into the legal system” versus “reincorporation of the communities against the system of injustice”; “normalization” versus “Who is normal?”; “peace accords of the government and the FARC” versus “rural communities do not know these accords and the governors of the regions are opposed to these accords” and “we already disarmed them, now let´s do what is in our interests, let´s ensure that they do not return to dissidence”; “Colombian democracy is the oldest democracy in Latin America” versus “it is a mafia-like, oligarchial and corrupt democracy”. They explain the meanings: “partner, in the war we would hunt some animal and the family would give us rice, or we protected them and they gave us food, that is why we would call them partner”; “demobilized from weapons, but mobilized by the ideals of justice and democracy”. And solutions for attracting excombatants abound: solidarity economics, inclusive business, cooperativism, corporations, Jesus Christ Savior, production projects…

After 52 years of war between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government, and even in the process of negotiation with the National Liberation Army (ELN), society seems more polarized about the peace process. The October 2016 plebiscite revealed this reality: half of the country said it should be ratified, the other half said no. What explains this polarization that is capable of undermining the peace process? There are at least two attitudes (see Figure 1), one that is cultivated by a society at war, manipulated by elites and resting on a brutal, even though resisted, inequality[3]; and the other that sees the peace process as the opportunity to economically, socially, and politically democratize the country.

Inequality is the key element for explaining the realities of Colombia, be those the armed conflicts or the successes that the peace accords might have. Consequently, following the words of Stiglitz in Bogotá in February 2017[4], “there can be no sustainable economic prosperity unless that prosperity is shared”. How can changes be generated that in the long term might lead toward a peace with justice and shared prosperity?

In this article we reflect on this question taking inspiration from some experiences in Central America, having shared with different actors in the framework of international events in Bogotá, and listened to friends in Colombian academia who are working so that this peace opportunity might help democratize the country. Our motivation is the conviction that if the most unequal country in Latin America deepens its democracy, all of Latin America will feel those winds of inclusion and democratic aspiration.

2.     Perspectives on peace and democracy

Here I identify two models of interpretation of the conflicts and democracy. The first model is “top down”, from war to peace and from authoritarianism to democracy; or polyarchy, a system for containing the pressure of the masses for social change, where decisions and mass participation are reduced to choosing leaders in elections controlled by elites (Robinson, 1996, 2002, 2014[5]). In this perspective the conception is that the armed struggle is an obstacle for democracy, that democracy generates a society without conflicts, that society resolves its contradictions competing for votes, and is modernized based on free trade competing efficiently. Correspondingly, judicial and electoral reforms are done so that laws guide the masses, and the (neoliberal) economic model is fine-tuned, understanding that peace is established on the basis of development; and development means economic growth and the extraction of natural resources to the benefit of an elite (traditional extractivism), or neoextractivism that, as Escobar observed (2012)[6], is also to improve social infrastructure (education and health) and reduce poverty – in other words, the extractivist model is invariable- what varies is whether it is only for an elite or for more,[7] and whether the State plays an active role (iun the neo-extractivism).

The second model is the “bottom up” one, where the idea is that armed conflicts were, and now the social movements are, the basic conditions for resolving historical contradictions and promoting a sustainable democracy (Robinson, 1996, 2002, 2014). Correspondingly, the participation of the population is promoted with their respective life paths, that peace is established with alternatives to development where economic growth and markets, as Gudymas and Acosta argue (2011[8]), are subordinated to the model of wellbeing understood holistically, with social, economic and environmental sustainability. In this framework, peace is achieved to the extent that inequality cedes and the (neoliberal) economic model changes to one of collective well being.

Figure 1 and the words within which the entire country moves can be reread in the light of these two models. From the first model the peace accords express the victory of democracy over the armed struggle, which is why those who are demobilized should submit to the law, ask forgiveness for their fighting and integrate themselves into the neoliberal economy and formal democracy, while the government provides material and legal benefits to the disarmed groups and ensures order. From the second model the idea is that the armed struggle opened an opportunity for democracy to deepen, disrupting State institutions and markets within a perspective not of intensifying development, but of providing space for development alternatives, because it is precisely the reigning development model that produces the inequality and armed conflicts.[9]

Making these perspectives explicit can be reflected in the role of the State, the FARC, social movements, academia, the churches, cooperatives and international aid agencies. Let us give two examples. The first example, academia, following the example of model 1, it is seen armed with categories and methodologies that have sustained the model of development that has generated the inequality and that is opposed to peace; or, following model 2, it can be seen proposing new categories and methodologies coherent with the development alternatives model. The second example, international aid, following model 1, believes it knows the realities of the rural communities and it knows the solutions, which is why it aligned up project writers to hunt for profitable “production projects”, or that at least in the short term would keep ex-combatants from taking up arms again; or, following model 2, democratizes their decisions and opens itself up to understanding the multiple realities of the peasant, indigenous, and afro-descendent communities, and takes the risk of listening to and responding to solutions that maybe do not fit in the neoliberal economic model in which it tended to locate itself. Being part of the solutions and contributing to peace begins disrupting our own attitudes and comforts, that maybe are as authoritarian and centralizing as those of any institution or organization that we are happy to criticize.

3.     What is concealed and what is sought to change

Having this broad perspective, we notice that the armed conflict with the FARC began with two key concepts, the agrarian reality and democracy. The Historical Commission on the Conflict and its Victims (2014) published 12 essays of authors who studied the causes and effects of the conflict in Colombia[10]. Even with different perspectives, all of them agree on the fact that the agrarian issue and the fragile liberal democracy were determining causes, which is why in their recommendations they highlight the fact that changes should happen in land use and access, and that work be done on an economic model where equity would prevail. If Colombia is the most unequal country in its income (CEPAL, 2017), the inequality is worse in the agrarian reality: the gini coefficient for income, where 1 is equal to complete inequality and 0 is equal to complete equality, was 0.530 and the gini coefficient in rural property was 0.897 in 2015; while that coefficient for income improved, because it dropped from 0.564 in 2009, the coefficient for property went up from 0.885 in 2009.

The agrarian question refers to landownership, its use, technology and markets. The key in that is access to ownership of the land. The graph and table 1 show that in the same period of the armed conflict inequality for access to property in Colombia has gotten worse: the Gini Coefficient from 1960 to 2014 went from 0.868 to 0.897.[11] In the same period 0.5% of total owners with more than 500 Hectares of land went from having 29.2% of total land to having 68.2%; while around 88% of total owmers with less than 20 hectares went from having 17.3% to only having 8% of total land[12].

Table 1. Comparison of number of APUs and land used by range of size
1960 2014
<5 66.7 5.4 70.5 2.7
5 to 20 20.4 11.9 18 5.3
20 to 50 6.7 12.4 6.2 5.8
50 to 200 4.7 24.2 4 11
200 to 500 1 16.9 0.8 6.9
>500 0.4 29.2 0.5 68.2
100 100 100 100
Source: IGAC (2012) Atlas of rural property distribution in Colombia; 2014 Agricultural Census

The cause that generated the armed conflict intensified. This is even worse if we take note of the increasing use of mono-cropping and extraction of natural resources, as well as the financial barriers (e.g. credit in accordance with “capacity to pay”) and commercial barriers (free trade treaties) that affected around 80% of the property owners of the country. The impact of that reality on the country is alarming; socially, Colombia is the country with the largest number of internally displaced people in the world, and “violation of human rights has become a habitual practice” (Oxfam Internacional, 2017)[13]; politically, it is fragile democracy because of its liberal institutions where the connection between arms and politics prevails (Gutiérrez, 2014)[14]. Peasant, indigenous and Afro-descendent communities have suffered the dispossession of their means of life and culture, creating uprootedness and extreme poverty, which has contributed to the armed conflict. Behind that inequality and its impact are hundreds of years of distrust between peasant, indigenous and Afro-descendent families and the families of that group of less than 1% backed by the State and the ideas of “development”; this reminds us of the historian Wolf, who says that the French peasantry at the end of the XVII century had included a phrase at the end of the Our Father that they would pray every night before going to bed: “ and from justice, free us Lord” – that “justice” (State) that dispossessed them from their land and territories,[15] and which the agrarian scholar Machado (2009:54[16], confirms: “the facts show that State action continues breaking up medium size rural property, while large traditional property is not transformed, and small ownership gets even poorer; in other words, the State and society are supporting a bimodal rural structure in ownership as well as in their forms of controversial and not very efficient exploitation, that does not help promote economic growth; in addition, it is a structure that destroys natural resources, undervalues the rural reality and creates conflict between rural society and national society.”

At the same time, that agrarian reality should be qualified. In 1940 the urban population was 30% and in 2012 it was 74%, which is why obviously the weight of the agrarian reality and the notion of what is rural has changed drastically. We do not know the reliability of the Censuses for making distinctions about those changes; but given the large extensions of land that the war included, and the typical problems of legality and forms of land acquisition that our countries of Latin America have tended to suffer, it could be that the table on land ownership would vary, that that bimodal structure might be less and that therefore that structure might express more potential than it now expresses.

The peace accords happened within that context of the incease in inequality and the awakening in society that another economics subordinated to life and democracy is possible. In spite of the fact that after a year there may have been no land distribution yet, while the political opposition defending that 0.5% of large property owners is growing, the peace accords do provide an opportunity for the country to democratize. The question is: will it? Following the mentality of model 1, the problem and its solutions are understood as something technical-administrative, like a “lack of”, precisely to conceal that inequality produced by the fragile formal democracy and the conventional economic model – and to that we would add a perspective closed to the bimodal structure that only sees land and crops. Following the mentality of model 2, the problem and the solutions are understood within the framework of power relationships, change in the power structure (questioning land ownership) and in the people through a different model of improvement – and with that we would add an agrarian perspective that includes land, crops, crafts and recreation of identity). Consistent with the historical perspective and the data presented, we understand that the inequality is above all a problem of the assymmetry in the power relationships, not a technical or administrative problem.

4.     Danger of using peace to heighten the inequality

The bigger risk is that in the name of peace that oligarchic belief is imposed that peace needs more development: economic growth with (neo)extractivism of the natural resources and mono-cropping. It is like saying, the regions of the country are impoverished because of lack of “development”, when it could be the opposite, they are impoverished because of too much “development”.

It is probable that this 0.5% of owners, maybe connected to the finance industry, agroindustry, commerce and the communications media, might see the peace accords as the opportunity to increase their wealth, in addition to legalizing the land that perhaps they obtained through illegal means. That is, far from ceding an inch of land and understanding its importance for peace, they see it as an opportunity for the expansion of the agricultural frontier (in addition to being able to use 70% of the arable land which is unused), new areas free for extraction and mono-cropping, repurchase of land that eventually the State might give out, cheap labor and members of private security bodies among the disarmed, zones free from the FARC in order to control them with armed criminal groups[17] and drug trafficking networks that respond to the demand of the US market, expansion of the financial and agro-chemical industries, “controlable” cooperatives that collect their harvested products and intermediate inputs to them…To take advantage of these opportunities they make use of trade rules, commercial treaties, usury, credit rules[18] and the rules of making policy; and they see the opening of roads, schools and health centers as support.

In a parallel fashion, the avalanche of more-of-the-same solutions makes the disarmed and the rural communities – peasants, indigenous and Afrodescendents –confused. “Inclusive businesses” where the anchor are private enterprises under the principles of “more volume, more profits” and “economies of scale”; cooperatives that discipline their members in mono-cropping, aid organizations responding with projects to “the lack of” technology, knowledge, capital and markets; bilateral aid agencies that with one hand support their own extractive companies and with the other finance actions that would mitigate the effects of climate change; religions (Catholic and Protestant) that win over individuals who would recognize their sins and find forgiveness and glory in the beyond. It is institutionalized technocratic conceit: elites believe they know the realities of the communities, they believe they have the solutions (money, knowledge and decisions) and they believe that change comes from above, while they are moved by a mentality of seeing the agrarian reality as in the past, only land, crops, technology and markets; the worst that can happen is to see the disarmed as agricultural producers and that agriculture is a matter of having land, equipment, inputs and buyers for what is produced.

These solutions also express centenarian and even millennial hierarchical structures. The mono-cropping structure is sustained by a transnational hierarchical structure – be they enterprises, aid industry, Churches, States or academia. The guerrillas also come from a hierarchical Leninist structure of “democratic centralism”. What is common among them is the centralization of decisions in an elite based on informal rules located in the mentality of model 1, not on rules like the Constitution of a country, that statutes of an organization, the agreements of assemblies or the rules of Afro-descendent communities. What is also common in them is the belief that there is nothing good in those “from far below”, and that is why the technician, priest and politician work on persuading. This institutionality, in good measure, tends to be reciprocated by those who are “from far below”, who have internalized that without the boss, commandante or patron, life has no direction; in addition, it becomes a social code: an ex-combatant that shows up to work on a mono-cropping hacienda is familiar with their “order-obey” structure; it seems normal to an activist of a social movement, turned into the director of an aid agency, to have the power to approve projects.

How can this danger be confronted where some good local institutions and communities with strong social and economic networks are being battered? “Everyone for themselves” is a common reaction, ex-combatants and ex chiefs who will seek their own paths in different areas and spaces; others will insist on the promised tangibles goods; many will organize to depend on external resources; in this dynamic, those who persist in their struggle for equality and justice, beyond individual benefits, will be described as terrorists, considered rebels[19] and candidates to be excluded from external benefits and to be part of those leaders physically assassinated[20] and then “assassinated by neoliberalism”. “Everyone help one another” would be more strategic; that is committed to the viability of family agriculture (small scale production or peasant economy) and crafts that would generate autonomy and energize the communal level; a peasant family that diversifies in agricultural and non agricultural activities, uses markets to scale up their income and ensure their food. Within this framework, if that family organizes in a cooperative to resolve collective problems and negotiate resources that inject energy into their production systems and endogenous institutions, they will be contributing to mobilizing their communities and with that, the resurgence of a more just and peaceful society. This does not deny the existence of monocropping and large transnational enterprise, but restrains it, makes visible what is at play in society and shows that it is not a matter of “persuading” and of responding to “the lack of”, but of creating the appropriate conditions in which changes happen in the mentality of society and its institutions

5.     Imperative to focus the direction and the prospects for building an arduous peace

This step requires that the different actors (State, academia, aid organizations, Churches, popular organizations, unions, FARC) rethink their actions. Not only should they support mono-cropping and “the lack of”, but above all families in their agricultural and non agricultural activities, forms of organization and logic in territories of indigenous and Afro-descendent communities, and communities that as Arjona (2016) shows have diverse social institutions, which would have to be understood before prescribing “development” for them. Here we deal with the how.

Figure 2 illustrates the form of relationship between the aid organizations and the communities –populations, disarmed groups, small scale producers or family economy (agriculture, home made products, non agricultural activities). There we see that there is a certain amount of dispersion between the organizations and institutions and they have different discourses with the different rural communities – peasant, indigenous and Afro-descendent. But they coincide in relating to the communities through the “intermediate stratum of development”, who are the technicians, promoters, religious and aid workers. This “stratum” connects two worlds, that of the aid agencies and institutions, and that of the communities[21]; even though in practice the “intermediate stratum” might be more a prolongation of world 1, it tends to turn into world 3, interpreting world 1 and 2 from its perspective. For example, the State through the Reincorporation and Normalization Agency (RNA), has hundreds of technicians going to the communities, as do the aid agencies, churches or the FARC through their structures and technicians responsible for writing projects, encouraging and facilitating organizational processes. We predict that the peace process will be consolidated in its version of responding to “the lack of” with goods and services coherent with the perspectives of model 1, or its version of responding to the democratization of the country coherent with the perspective of model 2, or combining both versions, to a large extent depending on the work of this “intermediate stratum.”

What is common in this “intermediate stratum” molded by world 1? It tends to avoid the fact that the root of the problem is the inequality, underlying a mentality of the rural reality as equivalent to agricultural area and families in need of equipment and infrastructure, and assumes as a mandate the clamor of the aid agencies (“we want production projects”) and that of the government (“we are going to finance viable projects in market economies”). They assume that the work is persuading – be that about tangible goods like replacing illicit crops, the gospel, rules of associativity, productivity, commerce, democracy or gender equity. Each one has their reference in something external to the community: the religious, in the Bible; lawyers, in the laws of the country; agronomists, in the manuals for monocrops, the promoters of cooperativism, in the Statutes…All of them march to evangelize the communities in order to hear what they want to hear, and then returning to their offices they can also make the aid organizations hear what they want them to hear: number of technicians trained, people empowered, projects approved, people benefitted, cooperatives…

John P. Lederach, a Peace Accord advisor, said: “peace is achieved when each Colombian has respect for differences and establishes constructive relationships with the other, with that other that it has not wanted to, or not been able to listen to, for more than a half century[22].” Specifically the challenge is that this group from the “intermediate stratum of development” would overcome their logic of persuading and be capable of listening and observing, processing what is heard and observed, and learning from their conversations under the principle that “light comes from striking stones” – that light can be an idea about a project, awakening to alienating processes and their profound traumas, or paths for collective action. And that then, that “intermediate stratum of alternative development models” can talk with the organizations of world 1 and contribute to their change.

Let´s illustrate this perspective with the formation of a cooperative. According to the logic of persuading, a cooperative is organized with 40 hours of training in cooperativism, they name their manager, and it is provided resources and markets for their products; as a result, the criteria of success is forming hundreds of cooperatives without considering that this type of cooperatives fail quickly or end up being run as private enterprises in “cooperative” clothing[23]. With a logic of learning, the cooperative is organized when its members wake up in the face of an adversity,[24] and because they realize that there are obstacles that they cannot solve on their own, discover the value of their own resources, and that there is another way of organizing outside of the hierarchical structures of mono-cropping and the boss-followers – or as José M. Navarro would say, a member of the La Fábrica cooperative in Barcelona, “a cooperative enterprise opposed to capitalism”. Along this path the member families, studying their realities and experimenting with changes, discover their capacity to innovate, their citizenship (rotating leaders, complying with their rules and agreements, supervising that compliance), administering and investing their collective resources and strengthening their connections with the rest of the community, and recreating new identities within the framework of new realities that look beyond the agrarian reality seen as equivalent to crops. Table 2 shows some elements of this type of cooperative that responds to its members, and that it is possible to produce within a framework of mutual learning and in alliance with the three worlds in accordance with each specific context, and thanks to the creative and catalyzing role of the “intermediate stratum”.


Table 2. Keys for successful cooperatives
·       Interaction between the associative side (organs) and the business side (administrative-technical)
·       Effective functioning of the holy cooperative trinity: oversight board, administrative council and assembly
·       Organization around differentiated products (e.g. specialty coffees, organic products) because it requires coordination among several families, geographic concentration
·       Distribution of earnings and definition of goals in the assembly
·       Based above all on their own resources and on endogenous institutions (of aid)
·       Accounting system that generates updated information to be used by the administration and the cooperative´s organs
·       Organizing 1st tier cooperativen on the basis of their members, and organizing 2nd and 3rd tier on the basis of the 1st tier cooperatives, and not the reverse.

This way of working, illustrated with the formation of a cooperative, requires accompaniment with a mentality of going to learn from the communities, from the disarmed groups. Said figuratively, the families in the communities know 50% of their problems, risks and opportunities, and their accompaniers (the restructured “intermediate stratum”) know the other 50%. The innovations emerge from among both sides (“from the striking of the stones”). Correspondingly, this group of accompaniers needs to unlearn in order to learn, increase their capacity to observe and dialogue so that together with the families they detect innovative practices and rules. In this way technicians and promoters will get ideas that they can turn into projects, experiments or initiatives; religious discern that God is in the people who seek justice and organize; administrators learn that the accounting information is not a tool for domination but formation (“informing is forming”)…The best guide that this type of work is on the right path is that both, the families and the accompaniers, awaken to the extent that they are learning.

For this purpose it is fundamental that all the actors from the different worlds rethink their role[25], in particular academia and international aid agencies. Academia, in order to contribute to the formation of that “intermediate stratum”, should produce appropriate categories coherent with model 1 as well as model 2. For that purpose it should organize basic research (e.g. sector analysis of agro and non agro) along with specific research combined with experimentation in specific territories, whose results would be the basis for organizing training. This, nevertheless, requires that academia understand that the source of knowledge is not just imported theories, but different communities with their multiple realities, all of them in need of being conceptualized within a framework of alliance and not just applying theories; and that requires that they include in their gamut of methodologies the organization of thoughtful immersion processes on the part of professors and students in those very territories[26]. The best critiques and policies of conventional theories, and rereadings of the land ownership table, will come from seeing the realities from the multiple perspectives of the countryside.

This strategic change from the “intermediate stratum” and the work of decolonialized academia, requires an active and renewed role of international aid. For this role, international aid should review their own practices in the last 3 decades, practices questioned in the entire world (see for example, Anderson et al, 2012)[27] because their aid has generally helped the type of “development” that has contributed to the inequality and have “ngo-ized” organizations (unions, cooperative and associative organizations) and social movements, dispossessing the families of their own organizations. This revision implies that the aid organizations in Colombia quit waiting for “production projects” from the “intermediate stratum of development”, and influencing the type of projects and centralizing decisions about those projects. This implies that they contribute to creating institutional environments in the territories where the different actors of each territory and the “restructured intermediate stratum” study those realities and produce ideas that really matter to them, and that the decisions about the projects that emerge be decentralized. It implies that the international aid agencies be conceived as allies of the peasant, indigenous and Afro-descendent communities, in favor of democracy and the reduction of inequality in those very territories – allying is like falling in love, and this requires that the “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” (aid agency) moves to the territories where their partner is.

If the communities feel that they have allies in academia and in aid agencies, who join their voices to those of the communities so that their leaders do not continue to be murdered and that they value the fact that they organize on the basis of their own good – and correcting the bad – institutions, then the peasant, indigenous and Afro-descendent communities with different degrees of connections with the FARC and other actors, will take their steps for improvement, will mobilize, will make their decisions more democratically and will understand that the reduction of inequality from the territory itself – with geographic variations – is possible, necessary and just.

6.     Conclusions

The agrarian and (neo) extractivism realities continue to weigh economically, socially and politically on the country, which is why peace should be built on the basis of reducing inequality. The greatest obstacle to the peace process is the institutionality that sustains that inequality. This institutionality has to do with elite economic groups that want to consolidate the peace process with the same mechanisms that caused the armed conflict, and with an agrarian mentality from when the rural population were the majority in Colombia. These mechanisms are expressed in the extractivist and mono-cropping neoliberal economic model moved by the law of the jungle, even though clothed in democracy, a model that has been called “development” or “motors of the economy”. The paradox is that an attempt is made to consolidate peace with the same measures that led to the armed conflict.

This “development” model is clear, seen as the economic model of the elites; but it is not so clear to us that the actors who declared themselves in favor of peace had a functional modus operandi for this model. Because it would seem that there is not much difference between centralizing the decisions of approving “profitable productive projects” and the decisions of the political and economic elites concentrating land, between academia that believes it has solutions in imported theories and the aid organizations that believe they know the future of the peasantry without studying it, or businesses that think that the market knows more than any human being, between the hierarchically organized FARC and the Church and families also organized hierarchically…This shakes up our minds and wakes us up!

If waking up matters a lot, we identify the most important point of change is the “intermediate stratum of development” (administrators, technicians, aid workers, religious) who have served to convince the world of indigenous, peasant and Afro-descendent communities about the world of “development”. We suggest investing in retraining this “intermediate stratum”: that they move from a logic of “persuading” and writing projects for “the lack of”, toward a logic of “learning” and identifying along with the communities ideas in accordance with the different routes and rural institutions in which they move; from prescribing to knowing how to negotiate in the midst of uncertainty. To do so, we argue, the work of the university research centers and international aid agencies is needed; the former with alternative categories to the “development” model, and the latter constituting itself as serious allies of the different communities, recognizing that they are sources of knowledge and seeds for a more democratic and just society.

The peace process in Colombia is a global challenge that generates optimism. In Japanese culture we find two meanings for the word “optimism”: rakutenteki, the feeling of the future that a young person has about their adult life, and rakkanteki, when people accept their problems as challenges to be faced[28]. This optimism (rakkanteki) encourages us to review our own mentality and to recognize that peasant, indigenous and Afro-descendent resistance is also our resistance to inequality and the mechanisms that sustain it. Peace is possible, in spite of “development”, under the spirit of Santander, and as the “effect of justice” (Isaiah, 32:17).

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

[2] I am grateful to the comments of A. Bendaña, E. Baumeister and J. Bastiaensen for their commentaries on a previous version. The text is a draft to be improved and commented on by each person who reads it.

[3] CEPAL, 2017, Social Panorama of America Latina 2016, Table I.A1.2, shows the gini coeficiente for income for 14 countries in Latin America. In 2008 or 2009 Colombia is the country with the greatest inequality (0.564) and for 2015, even though it improved, continues being the most unequal country in Latin America (0.530). See:

[4] Stiglitz, J., 2017, “Challenges    and       Opportunities      for         Colombia’s        Social    Justice   and Economy”, power point presentation, see: I am grateful to A. Grigsby for suggesting this text.

[5] Robinson, W., 1996, “Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, U.S.,” in: Intervention and Hegemony. Robinson, W., 2002. Remapping development in light of globalization: From a territorial to a social cartography, in: Third World Quaterly, No. 23.6. Robinson, W., 2014, “Democracy or polyarchy?” in: NACLA.

[6] Escobar, A., 2012, “Alternatives to development”, in: Transition Culture. Dave Chapman´s interview of Escobar, See:

[7] It is thought that neoextractivism is generally the case of Bolivia and Ecuador, but more and more used in several Latin American countries.

[8] Gudynas, E. y Acosta, A., 2011, “El buen vivir o la disolución de la idea del progreso” in Rojas, M. (Coord.), La Medición del Progreso y del Bienestar. México: Foro Consultivo Científico y Técnico, in:

[9] This duality of “development” / alternatives can also be seen in the duality between contemplation (leisure) and work (business) from the ancient times of Greece up to our times. It has moved from favoring contemplation to giving the highest moral value to work (business), passing though the religious thought of Calvin where leisure (contemplation) became sin and business like the glory of God (see: Rul·lán Buades, G., 1997, Del ocio al neg-ocio… y otra vez al ocio. Papers 53, 171-193. It is a duality that model 2 would seek to connect to one another.

[10] The 12 essays of the Historical Commission of the Conflict are in:

[11] Using indexes like THEIL, instead of Gini, the inequality is even worse. A more detailed study probably can demonstrate the weight of the medium strata, more than a bimodal structure, which would be important in light of more appropriate rural policies.

[12] For a more detailed study of the Agricultural Census in Colombia, see: Oxfam International, 2017, Radiografía de la Desigualdad.

[13] See Oxfam International in Colombia:

[14] Gutiérrez, F., 2014, “¿una historia simple?” en los 12 ensayos de la Comisión Histórica del Conflicto y sus Víctimas.

[15] Wolf, E., 1982, Europe and the People Without History. University of California Press.

[16] Machado, A., 2009, La reforma rural, una deuda social y política. See also UNDP, 2011, Colombia Rural, razones para la esperanza. Informe Nacional de Desarrollo Humano 2011,

[17] Arjona (2016), contrary to the idea that war zones are chaotic, lawless zone, finds communities with social institutions where the armed structures becomes de facto governments and communities with strong justice institutions capable of negotiating with the armed groups. See: Arjona, A., 2016, Rebelocracy: Social Order in the Colombian Civil War. Cambridge University Press.

[18] The norms for providing credit include “lending money to people with the capacity to pay.” This supposes that those who are not in monocroipping and do not have large areas, are outside of the credit system. This type of mentality was turned upside down in Bangladesh by Yunus and his team, in the 1970s they proved that everyone is capable of paying and that the bank needs to adapt to their realities. If more than 50% of the food comes from peasant families, why doesn´t the financial system respond to that reality?

[19] Hale (2002) observed in Guatemala how international organizations make distinctions of the indigenous organizations between the “permitted” ones, those who drop their agendas to take on the agenda and rules of international aidm and the “rebels”, those that resist and respond to the agenda of their members-communities. The former are given financial support and the latter are not. See: Hale, Ch., 2002, “Does Multiculturalism Menace? Governance, Cultural Rights and the Politics of Identity in Guatemala” in: Journal of Latin American Studies 34.3 Cambridge University Press.

[20] See the newspaper el Tiempo (17-Octubre-2017), “Líderes asesinados, la mayoría en zonas claves para la paz”:

[21] Academia (Universities and research centers) also are part of the block of aid organizations, but their relationship with the communities tends to be sporadic, which is why we have not included them in the figure, while their relationship with the “intermediate stratum” is strong because that “stratum” was trained in the universities and they also organize training courses in solidarity economics and other topics directly for that “stratum”.

[22] Interview of John Paul Lederach, “La paz lo construye cada Colombiano”, El Espectador, June 8 2016. See:

[23] Honesty is not lacking in the organizations of world 1 (figure 2): “it does not matter that these cooperatives or projects are not sustainable years later, the important thing is gaining time so that the ex-combatants do not go back to war”.

[24] The adversity is the inequality in land access, the commercial mediation that steals from them in the weighing of their produce, quality control and in prices, or in usury. A savings and loan cooperative that organizes in the face of usury, for example, begins on a good step, because having awareness of the adversity means having recognized (studied) and having realized that bringing their own resources together they can avoid the usury.

[25] For example, for the business actor, the persepective of Kaiser is interesting (2012, La fatal ignorancia La anorexia cultural de la derecha frente al avance ideológico progresista, He observed that the business class and the right in Chile “do not understand nor believe in the power of ideas and culture as decisive factors of the political, economic and social evolution”, and that they only focus on productivity, technology and financial incentives, forgetting that human beings are moved by beliefs, values and ideas transmitted by the family, schools, books…Kaiser thinks that that bourgeoise and that right fell into a mental anorexia that opened the door to the left. From our perspective, that mental anorexia also is shared by the left and most of the organizations and international aid organizations today.

[26] Mendoza (2015) describes this methodology, precisely based on an experience of a Research and Development Institute in Nicaragua, that for some years was capable of based a good part of their proactive innovation on that methodology of immersion. See: Mendoza, R., 2015, “Inmersión, inserción, escritura y diálogo: Mecanismos de aprendizaje para el desarrollo territorial”, en: Bastiaensen, J., Merlet, P. y Flores, S. (eds), Rutas de desarrollo en territorios humanos. Las dinámicas de la vía láctea en Nicaragua. Managua: UCA Publicaciones.

[27] Anderson et al, 2012, Time to Listen: hearing people on the receiving end of international aid.

[28] This notion of optimism was expressed by Kishida Junnosuke, chief editor of the Asahi Shinbun newspaper, to the question of Peter Schwartz in 1984. See: Schwartz, P., 1991, The Art of the Long View. New York: Doubleday.

Jacinto’s Tale

For the Nobel Peace Prize Forum last week, Winds of Peace had invited several cooperative members from Central  America to join in a panel discussion about cooperativism and its impact as a peace-building movement.  One of those invitees was Jacinto Peña Abrego from Panama, a member of Cooperativa Esperanza de los Campesinos (Hope of the Peasants Cooperative ).  Like many of the fascinating people I have met from Central America, Jacinto had a pretty interesting story to tell.

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….




I can’t help but be startled by the contrast.

I spent the better part of last week with colleagues and guests at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Minneapolis.  The annual gathering features recent Nobel Peace Prize laureates and many others whose passions are about peace-making.  In this year’s edition, Winds of Peace was invited to host a dialogue about the potential impact of cooperatives on post-conflict societies.  In the session, our colleague Rene Mendoza offered his research conclusions about what constitutes strong cooperatives, how all of the “actors” in the cooperative chain sometimes unknowingly contribute to a lack of fairness to the small producer, and how Fair Trade isn’t always fair.

Our session featured representatives from all quarters of the coffee cooperative chain: producers, buyers, roasters, funders, cooperative associations, consultants and even academics.   They came from Europe, Central America, South America, Canada and the U.S.  We sought as many perspectives as we could find to consider the research and join in the discussion about where and how improvements might be made on behalf of the small producer, and in the process contribute to better chances at creating more peaceful societies.  The gathering was an impressive one, made even more so because of the intensity that they brought to the Forum: these were people who were serious about the topic and, especially, to the notion of contributing to peace.

We heard stories from peasant farmers and the nature of perseverance.  We listened to the findings about premium payments in the Fair Trade and Organic markets and how that money often never reaches the farmers who grow the crops.  We heard stories of progress, for women, for peasant farmers, for struggling organizations attempting to fight the currents of political and monied interests.  We learned about the importance of transparency, of walking in another’s shoes, collaborative work, the importance of “the common good.”  And we felt the passionate undercurrent of an eclectic group of people seeking, in their own way, a means of peacemaking.

And then there was the news coverage this week at the U.N.

The President of the United States openly taunted the leader of North Korea, in front of the rest of the world, by referring to him as “rocket man.”  In the same breath, he stated flatly that, “we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”  Later in the week, the leader of the free world, in addressing African leaders, twice referred to the African nation “Nambia.”  Unfortunately, there is no such country.  The chief peacemaker in the world did not know the name of the country to which he referred.

In quoting the President I imply no judgment as to his intelligence or the soundness of his political strategies; all persons on the planet can judge for themselves the appropriateness of the President’s position. I only note the stark contrast between last week’s energies toward building peace, and this week’s headlines threatening an annihilation.

I can’t help but be startled by the contrast….


Sugar cane in peasant-indigenous resistance

Sugar cane in peasant-indigenous resistance

René Mendoza Vidaurre and Héctor Peña Martínez[1]

Son to his Father: old man, you are not making money on the blocks of sugar; you are just doing it to work.

Father: Yes, I was raised in this and I miss it.

Mom: And where do you think our clothes come from, this roof … and part of the food? From sweating over these blocks of sugar!

(Conversation with peasant family, Yoro, Honduras, 2017).


Sugar cane was domesticated 10,000 years ago on the island of New Guinea. It came to the New World based on slave labor and environmental degradation between 1425 and 1493. Slavery began to be stopped in 1807 when England prohibited the slave trade which happened through the purchase of slaves in Africa with sugar itself; at that time more than 11 million slaves had been brought in, more than half to sugar plantations (R. Cohen, “Passion for Sugar” in: National Geographic). These plantations were established at the cost of dispossessing the indigenous populations of their land. With sugar cane we see that “a lot of water has passed under the bridge” – more than water, human blood.

In Central America part of the elite continues in the sugar industry with enormous human and environmental costs (see case of Guatemala: Labrador, Villagrán, Sánchez y Alvarado, “El cartel del azúcar de Guatemala” in: El Faro 25-4-2017, In the face of this reality, peasant and indigenous families have included sugar cane in their family strategy for self sufficiency and income generation. Does sugar cane allow them to resist? Is this sugar cane, that has planted so much death, also an instrument for life? We argue that if families organize to add value to their sugar cane, they can resist dispossession, remain in their communities without being driven to migrate, and at the same time contribute to environmental sustainability. Consequently, in this article we describe the peasant perspective on sugar cane, the dispossession that they have suffered, their viability, and the challenges that accompanying these processes of repossession imply.

  1. Peasant strategy

When peasant families see themselves forced to migrate, they tend to take with them some sugar cane plants, and other families even take the sugar mill. The families get to the mountains or places where they can buy less expensive land. There they start to produce corn and beans, they establish their banana plants and sugar cane, they preserve patches of forest for wood and firewood, and they raise small livestock (poultry and pigs) and 2 or 3 cows. Their strategy is to diversify and reduce risk: the forest for wood (home construction, fence posts) and firewood for the kitchen and the oven of the sugar mill; they plant corn, beans and bananas to ensure their food; they grow sugar cane that they turn into blocks of sugar for their own use (to sweeten coffee and natural juices, make honey, pastry, coconut squash, mangos with honey, fritters, corn bread, and liquor – and as young D. Mejía tells us “the recipes of my grandmother are the best with brown sugars”- and for selling it. The sale of the blocks of sugar during a good part of the year, and the sale of 2 to 3 cows a year, is cash to cover other needs (salt, soap, matches, etc) and to buy “new clothes.”

Due to their distance from the market, the idea of the peasant families is to depend as least as possible on outside products. That is why it is easier to take blocks of sugar out to sell in the towns to generate income, than bunches of bananas or corn. Taking 100 lbs of brown sugar blocks generates a little more than double the income of 100 lbs of corn. In addition, sugar is one of the crops that are least affected by diseases or insects, and once established, requires little work and can resprout year after year for more than 50 years. So it is that wooden mills and then iron mills emerged, along with the sugar cane, powered by a team of oxen, and in some communities by a motor. In some communities the blocks of sugar are the only way to connect to the market and get some cash.


Table 1. Transformation of brown sugar block (20 tons / mz)*
Price (L) Value (L) L / block $ / block $/lb
Sale (load of blocks) 750** 25000.0 15.6 0.67 0.22
Weeding (1 mz) 1400 1400 0.9 0.04 0.01
Guide for oxen (load) 100 3333.3 2.1 0.09 0.03
Baker (load) 100 3333.3 2.1 0.09 0.03
Team of oxen (load) 100 3333.3 2.1 0.09 0.03
Cutting cane (mz) 100 2000 1.3 0.05 0.02
Transporting cane (ton) 100 2000 1.3 0.05 0.02
Total cost 15400.0 9.6 0.41 0.14
Balance 9600 6.0 0.26 0.09
* 20 tons of sugar cane in 1 mz (0.6988 has) = 33.33 loads of blocks, 1 load = 48 blocks, 1 block= 3 lbs. ** L750/load of blocks; price varies between 700 and 1000/load. L = lempiras, currency of Honduras

Source: based on family producers of cane and with/without mill (Yoro, Honduras)

Table 1 shows its profitability. A family with sugar cane, a mill and a team of oxen could generate income of 13,533 lempiras (balance of 9,600 + 2000 transportation + 3,333 team of oxen – 1,400 for weeding). A family with sugar cane, but without a mill and oxen, that turns in their cane so that it gets processed and they get half the value in return, gets L10,500 (half of L25,000, minus 2,000 for the transportation of the cane). If that same family with a mill takes on the cost of the weeding, leading the oxen around the mill and the cooking, their income increases. Both families get more income as they produce more than 20 tons per manzana.

  1. Pressure combined with dispossession

Living in these communities for 25 to 30 years, families now feel pressure on their economic strategy (income diversification and generation), social strategy (sharecropping relations and sharing labor – mutual support) and political strategy (decisions and autonomy). The “domino effect” of the so-called agricultural frontier is being felt (see: Maldidier, Ch., 2004, “agricultural pioneer fronts, the crest of a far-reaching wave”). The land is tired and its productivity is declining, it needs to be fed, which in turn creates pressure for financial resources to buy fertilizers. Because of world sugar demand and how lucrative it is for the oligopolies, large sugar cane, african palm, rice, and extensive ranching plantations require more land and more water, and that pressure is being felt in the communities whose families at times of greater economic fragility (e.g. sickness of a relative, indebtedness, lack of water), or when the pressure suffocates them (e.g. plantations that close off the road to a community), are left with no choice but to get rid of their land. The sons and daughters who form their own homes press for their inheritance, with the consequence being that the areas per family are getting ever smaller. And the milling of the sugar cane begins to suffer from a scarcity of labor: the work of the ox guides and the cook is hard, from midnight to 9am, because the workers, with the passage of time, take advantage of other opportunities like working in sawmills, coffee fields or migrate in search of other opportunities.

Slowly the sharecropping relationships get eroded and the capacity to decide gives way to the force of the market that comes in with different consumer products, with different labor relations, with credit that finances mono-cropping, with the “deadly embrace” of expensive farm inputs and low prices for peasant products; this is when the population murmurs, “our money doesn´t go very far”. Also state law imposes taxes and restricts the use of their forest areas, while the laws do protect the sugar industry. So human groups, like an ear of corn that shells itself when it loses one kernel, cede their places and go off to other land or become workers. That is why we do not find mills close to the cities; they get farther away tas the “domino effect” intensifies. That is when the profitability of Table 1 gets complicated, because it begins to operate less frequently.

In the last 15 years this practice of establishing oneself, and being forced to migrate to the mountains, appears to be facing drastic changes. Practically speaking there are no more mountains to go to, which is why that escape valve is now being shut down. So increasingly the population migrates to the cities and leaves the country. But at the same time countries like the United States are closing their doors to migrants. The paradox is that that “domino effect” that starts from the demand for sugar mediated by oligopolies, on the one hand expels the peasant families from their land, and on the other hand, they are rejected by the metropolis. This is the second “deadly embrace.”

  1. Adding value to the product in an associative way

How can you resist for more than 25-30 years and stop the “deadly embraces?” The COMAL Network is trying one way, where the peasant families organize into associative enterprises to add value to the sugar cane, producing granulated brown sugar (See: “Eco comal, una marca campesina que cobra auge” in: Diario Tiempo, 4-8-2015).


Table 2. Transformation of granulated brown sugar (20 tons / mz)
Lbs Price (L) Value (L) L/lb $/lb
Granulated brown sugar 2900 8.0 23200 8.0 0.34
Crumbs (lbs) 1900 4.50 8550 4.50 0.19
Total sales 4800 31750 6.61 0.28
Purchase sugar cane (ton) 20 440 8800 1.83 0.08
Labor (hrs work) 300 20 6000 1.25 0.05
Packaging 3001 3001 0.63 0.03
Administrative costs 6683 6683 1.39 0.06
Production material 1513 1513 0.32 0.01
Total Cost 25997 5.42 0.23
Balance 5753 1.20 0.05
* 1 ton sugar cane = 240 lbs (60% granulated brown sugar 40% crumbs). Exchange rate $1 = L23.3

Source: Records of the granulated brown sugar processing plant of APROCATY (Yoro, Honduras)

In the municipalities of Taulabé, Jocón and Yoro in the last 5 years 100 peasant families that have sugar cane on their diversified farms have organized into 3 associative enterprises. With the support of international aid, they have established 3 processing plants on their farms. Even though their yields vary between 60 to 72% of granulated brown sugar, the calculations in Table 2 are encouraging, even based on the lowest yield. Let´s take a look, a member family sells 20 tons of of sugar cane at L8,800; and then, depending on the policies of the organization, that member family has the possibility of accessing part of the remainder of L5,753 that their sugar cane generated in the organization. In only 3 years, on average in these experiences, the difference of the “value added” is noticeable.

The outlook that they offer us is even more interesting. According to the table the costs are 81.8% of total sales, and to the extent that they grow in volume and yield (let´s say from 60% to 70% of granulated brown sugar), those costs drop from 81.8% to 70%, then the remainder will go beyond L10,000 and also $0.10/lb. This is the commitment of the three organizations.

Going back to the communities, specifically Laguna de la Capa (Yoro) which was already on the outer limit of the 25-30 years, the impact of the processing plant made itself felt. When the APROCATY organization began, the prices for the blocks of sugar were falling below L500/load (48 blocks), the cane fields were being lost and all the symptoms described in section 2 began to appear. “The ear of corn was beginning to lose its kernels” . The entry of the production of granulated brown sugar helped raise the price of cane and blocks of sugar to L700, 800 and even L1,000/load of blocks, because a good part of the sugar cane was turned into granulated brown sugar, which put sugar blocks into short supply. This slowly began to re-energize the production of sugar cane as part of the diversification systems of the families, promoting the consumption of an alternative product to refined sugar, and a production alternative to the human and environmentally degrading practices of the sugar industry.

In spite of the short time line of these experiences, they teach us that it is not just a matter of adding value to the sugar cane and generating profits, but learning to cooperate under associative and business rules. For example, knowing the principle of accounting identity, where the expenses of a business are accounted for separately, understanding that the more effective the organs are (board of directors, committees, assembly) the more efficient the business is that transforms and sells the products, and regulating the use of the profits so that they contribute to the sense of ownership of the members of their organization, and that at the same time allows the equity of the organization to increase. They also teach us that there are risks in the future: that the aforementioned initiative might end up promoting monocropping of sugar cane and erode the peasant-indigenous resistance strategy; that a group might take over the business; that the administration might run the organization behind the backs of the members…

  1. The challenge of accompanying these processes

To manage the risks and create conditions to make the expressed goal viable, it is important to start from the experience of the peasant-indigenous families themselves. They have learned that they are going to make the changes IF they have long term allies – in the good times and in the bad times. The COMAL Network is an expression of that commitment. That committed role, nevertheless, faces enormous challenges, three of which we will introduce here.

For centuries peasant families have counted on the organization and self sufficiency of their extended families. Getting this commitment to scale up organizationally for an effective resistance that would take them beyond the threshold of the 25-30 years implies overcoming centuries-old, deeply rooted institutions. “Yes, I was raised in this and I miss it”, the phrase from the Father quoted at the beginning of the article, means that the practices that he learned and the institutions (e.g. extended family, exclusion of women from the inheritance and from organizations) in which he was raised are going to persist, and even “will be missed.” In this dialogue, the son as well as the father ignored the fact that making blocks of sugar is profitable, as part of a diversification strategy, for 25-30 years. How to understand those perspectives in their contexts in order to accompany them is a monumental challenge for any external ally, because you have to study those realities and ask about alternatives, something difficult when we are accustomed to provide standardized solutions for any situation.

Peasant distrust toward outside actors, particularly merchants, is another institution deeply rooted because of centuries of plundering. Now that distrust is expressed as: “we will go to the meetings if they call us.” This assumes that the one calling the meeting is the external actor or a local person with the aura of being the representative of the external actor, and that they are not going to take the initiatives to call their own meeting and meet on their own. Getting the rules (statutes) and democratic mechanisms of an organization to be followed and used, as a way of “calling your own meeting”, is another challenge for any organization accustomed to going out to the communities and being “the big man” with resources in hand.

Member families in organizations with important physical investments tend to hunker down and prevent the entrance of new members. They do not allow even their sons to join the organization, much less their daughters. It will be difficult for organizations to respect their democratic mechanisms in their statutes if there are no changes in the heart of their families, changes in equity in terms of inheritances and in decision making where the mother and the offspring participate like the father. Without members that are experiencing changes in their families, it will be difficult for the organization to make progress. This is the third challenge for any ally organization.

In conclusion, sugar cane came into Latin America spurting human blood and subduing nature, a practice continued today under “modern clothing.” In the face of this, as the Mother at the beginning of this article would say, granulated brown sugar is more than the block of sugar, and the block of sugar is more than sugar cane, it is “sweat”: work and life. Behind it are peasant-indigenous families that are organized around blocks and the granulated brown sugar, while at the same time they are going deeper into their logic of “not putting all their eggs in the same basket.” Will it be possible that they might begin to express a path for transforming peasant-indigenous products as they transform their families and their organizations toward greater equity?

[1] René has a PhD in development studies, is an associate researcher of IOB-Universiity of Antwerp (Belgium), a collaborator with the Winds of Peace Foundation ( and member of the COSERPROSS cooperative; Hector is an agronomist, coordinator of the Technical Unit for Business Consultancy of the COMAL Network, and technician-expert in the transformation of granulated brown sugar;

Not Invented Here

Can I vent here?  I think management protocol says that leaders shouldn’t use venues such as blog sites or other organizational media outlets to vent their personal irritations.  I understand that.  But in this case, my personal irritation has to do with a Winds of Peace initiative, so maybe it’s OK.  I guess I’ve already begun to rant, so bear with my frustration.

As in past years, the Foundation is supporting the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, to be held in Minneapolis on September 13-16.  This year will be a little different for us, as WPF is contributing not only financially to the Forum, but is also leading one of the “high-level dialogues” being offered on the first day.  The Foundation is bringing six cooperative members to the Forum from their homes in Nicaragua, Honduras, Colombia, Panama and Guatemala.  They will join an important discussion about the role of cooperatives in helping to establish and maintain peace in post-conflict societies.  We’re excited about the topic!

In addition to the panelists, the Forum is interested in inviting other key players in the cooperative chain of commerce- buyers, fair trade certifiers, organic certifiers, retailers and funders- to join in the discussion.  The purpose is to identify where we might collectively contribute to the success of the small, rural producers and the coops to which they belong.  In too many instances, initiatives aimed at helping the small family farmers have become coopted by other objectives and a host of “middlemen” out to game the system.

To that end, we have identified key organizations which have  significant impacts, and which seek to strengthen these small farmers as a major objective.  Indeed, many are important friends of the farmers.  To make an invitation for their attendance at the Forum, WPF agreed to send out a “pre-invitation” letter to  the key players identified, as a way of introducing the idea of this collaborative effort and offering a “heads-up” for the forthcoming, more formal invitation from the Forum itself.  In most cases, we already had identified a name or two from the organization, but in some instances we had to research a bit and make an educated guess as to an appropriate individual.  (My hands are starting to quiver; I think this is where I begin to feel frustration.)

All that I seek is a name and an e-mail address.  I have nothing to sell, no political agenda to push, nothing subversive to drop in anyone’s lap.  I simply have an invitation to offer, for something that is essentially at the heart of what these organizations are professing to do: help the little guys.  But the road to contact in some of these well-known and widely-praised organizations is as impassable and impossible as some of the roads in the Nicaragua outback.

First, there is the receptionist.  The receptionist wants to know why I wish to speak with Ms. X.  I explain the somewhat lengthy story about the Forum and the invitation.  This is met with the explanation that Ms. X AND her assistant are out for the day, and that I should try again tomorrow.  (I wonder if she might have told me that in the first place.)  When I call the next day, I reach a different receptionist, and she, too, wants to know in great detail why I wish to speak with Ms. X.  After reciting the details all over again, she passes me through to the administrative assistant.

Unfortunately, the assistant is not at her desk, and I am invited to leave a voice message.  As much as I don’t wish to do this, I am reluctant to waste this opportunity to connect, for which I have now worked so long.   So I share the story once more to voicemail, and respectfully ask for a return call so that I might elaborate or answer any questions.  I leave my phone number twice, just to be sure that I can be reached.  But, as you might have guessed, there has been no call.  Eleven days later, I have had no response.

I’m frustrated.  So I turn my sights to another large, well-known entity within the development world, one that is known globally as a generous and active funder for the impoverished.  Recognizing the absolute rightness of their cause, I have cause to hope for success.  My first stop is the ubiquitous receptionist, who wishes to know if Mr. Y is expecting my call.  I can’t imagine how he could be, since we have never spoken before, so the receptionist determines that I really need to speak first with Y’s administrative assistant.  (I prayed that it not be the same one as the previous day.  Is it possible that  large development organizations share administrative assistants?  Or do they just all come from the same schools?)  When I reach this guardian of Mr. Y’s time, she, too, wants to know if full detail the nature of my desire to talk with Y.  And after my lengthy-but-alluring description of the Forum and my case for eagerly desiring her firm’s possible participation, she informs me that Y is not available.  She will be pleased to pass along my name and number.  I could hear the deflation from the balloon I had so carefully blown up.  In ten days’ time, I have received no return call, from either Y or his assistant.

I am not organizationally naive. I filled a CEO role in a manufacturing company for 16 years, so I know the demands on an executive’s time and energy.  I know the competing forces that pull on busy people each and every day.  I also know two other truths: first, courtesy is not passe´ and a return call from someone is always appropriate.  (Isn’t that one of the roles of the administrative assistant?  Or has that become too plebian these days?)  Second, important opportunities and initiatives are not always going to be the province of big organizations with large fundraising budgets and lots of administrative staff.  Sometimes, opportunity comes calling in unsuspecting ways and when we shut ourselves off from other voices, we shortchange the very populations we seek to serve.  Indeed, the behavior contributes to the relative lack of impact we have on global poverty elimination.  There is lots of money, plenty of ideas, and too little collaboration.

There.  I’m done now and my hands aren’t trembling anymore.  My experience is probably no different than ones you might have encountered.  It’s just that in the name of peace-building and helping the poorest among us, I expect something more.  Despite having been in this field for a dozen years now, I guess I’m still learning something new every day: for some groups, if it wasn’t invented here, it’s not worth knowing….



Distant Drums

It’s June.  The trees are leafed out, I need to cut my lawn at least once a week and summer seems as though it wants to stay around for a while.  It’s what we in the north have pined for during the past six months.  And all I can think about is Nicaragua.

I haven’t been in Nicaragua since February and likely won’t make another return trip until August.  No farms, no cooperative counsel, no ownership enthusiasm, no face-to-face conversations with people who do not speak English, but who nonetheless speak “my language.”  Memory of earlier trips fade over time and I begin to feel more and more distant from people who are the focus of our work and the hopes of sustainable Nicaragua.  That exemplifies a problem, a big one for all of us.

Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it also creates distance.  Physically, I am no further away from my Nicaraguan colleagues and acquaintances than I was upon my return from there in February.  But the ensuing four months have distanced me, nonetheless.  Obviously, I do not see their faces.  I do not hear their voices or the anxieties  within their words.  They do not shake my hand in the morning or wish me a pleasant night in the evening.  We cannot share meals together.  I am not there to encourage and they may quickly forget lessons shared.  We are… apart.  Despite my heartfelt desire to be a resource and a friend, the time and distance erode the intensity of our relationship.  I’ve experienced the phenomenon before.

In 2000, my wife and I traveled with our four children (our two sets of twins) to the land of their birth, South Korea.  One of the many blessings of that travel was the opportunity to meet with both sets of birth parents.  The reunions were priceless, the time spent with these extended families were filled with emotion and love beyond our possible expectations.  We became family with these South Korean kin; by the time of our departure from their country, we promised each other ongoing love and communication.

For a time, we kept our pledge to one another.  From the U.S., we regularly telephoned long distance with the aid of an interpreter. (E-mail was not yet the readily available tool that it was to become.) From Korea, we received gifts and photos.  Christmas featured gifts in both directions.  The bonds remained vibrant.  But in time, they grew less frequent.  Our kids grew into busy young people already pressed for time and energy.  Birth families likely grew increasingly frustrated with time lags and difficulties in translating letters.  And eventually, not even the bonds of shared parenting and extended family could sustain a continued embrace.

It’s perhaps an obvious reality that time and distance intrude on the most sincere of desires and necessities.  And if they can erode our intentions even with respect to those whom we know and love, we can only speculate about the difficulties in nurturing connections with those we do not know.  I experienced it happening with South Korean family.  I feel it developing with Nicaraguan friends.  We become victims of our isolations.

At a time when our government and some of its population look to isolate our nation- to create greater distance and fewer collaborations to Make America Great Again- we would do well to recognize the realities of distance and time.  They are already formidable enemies of peace and humanity.  They siphon away touch and contact and emotion.  They feed doubt and gossip.  They sew seeds of suspicion.  Our needs are not to withdraw even further from the presence of “the other,” but to draw closer.

At the very least, I’m determined to reach out to two families in South Korea.  And to get back to people whom I know and care about in Nicaragua….




Working from the Outside

As a U.S. private foundation, Winds of Peace has been providing development assistance in Nicaragua for more than 30 years.  Most of that time and effort has been rendered on the “inside,” hand-in-hand with the members of the cooperatives and associations and networks with who we have partnered.

It has been very personal work.  We can describe the organizations.  We can remember where they are and the circumstances in which their people live.  We can name names.    That accompaniment is a condition of our work, being “on the ground” where there is little access, few outsider visits and sparse resources.  It’s being with partners on the inside, helping to find a small opening where opportunity might be waiting on the other side.  It’s still our model, still the way that we will continue to work in Nicaragua.  But we also have added a component to such work, this time from the “outside.”

The Nobel Peace Prize Forum is an event which Winds of Peace has sponsored for many years.  The Forum exists as the only sanctioned event under the Nobel Peace Prize name outside of the award selection itself.  Annually, it has brought together past peace laureates, activists, scholars and those working in their own ways and in their own niches for peace and justice, “on the inside,” where life is actually lived.  This year’s Forum will be held in Minneapolis, Minnesota during September 13-16.  It will feature many stories of peace-building and human development.  And it will include work underwritten by Winds of Peace.

In what is billed as a “high-level dialogue” session, major research and “inside” work on cooperatives will be presented by Foundation colleague Rene Mendoza.  Rene is recognized as a development innovator and engages in “participatory action research” to facilitate actions by cooperative members themselves.  Specifically, Rene will highlight the  efforts and conclusions from cooperatives in various countries.  And he’ll emphasize the importance and stabilizing impact of cooperatives in societies emerging from periods of conflict, and how their financial impacts serve as an essential ingredient for both economic and social well-being. He has also assembled a panel of six cooperative members from Central and South America to join in the conversation and share their experiences of cooperative life and meaning.  Yet, that’s not the full extent of the session.

The rest of the invited audience will be comprised of individuals from cooperative-supporting organizations, entities which have in some way positioned themselves as partners with the small cooperatives, whether in the roles of funders, marketers, associations, Fair Trade and Organic certifiers, buyers, roasters or retailers.  They are (hopefully) big names.  The presentations are designed to invite dialogue with this invited audience about where the entire process chain is working well, where it isn’t, and how collectively all actors might make it more valuable to the essential focus:  the producer and his/her family.

As a result of the discourse, the participants will be encouraged to arrive at an objective or change that might be affected during the ensuing 12 months, a plan of action which will be shared with the at-large Forum attendees.  In 2018, some of those discourse participants will then return to the Forum for a report-out on success, and whether the conclusions and actions identified in 2017 really made an impact.  It’s a very action and accountability effort, unlike many conference end results, and one that Forum organizers (and sponsors, like WPF) hope can bring real impact to cooperatives as major peace components.  It’s “outside work,” changing the focus temporarily to the ambient world surrounding places like rural Nicaragua.  Consider this blog entry as an invitation to experience at least this part of the Forum in the Fall.

Why?  Because sometimes circumstances don’t allow us to achieve our needs fully by ourselves.  There is not one among us who has reached full potential and well-being on our own.  Sometimes, we require the intervention of “outside work….”

Cooperativism, a means for an arduous peace in a space of ‘conflict’

Cooperativism, a means for an arduous peace in a space of ‘conflict

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

War is the continuation of politics by other means.  Clausewitz (1780-1831)

My husband and son were killed in the war. I was left with a little bit of land. The cooperative was like my husband. I supported myself in it to raise my children. E. Terceros, producer, cooperative member, Nicaragua.

The stronger the sons and daughters are, the stronger the parents will be. Proverb in Rural Central America

War and peace are the continuation of politics by other means, we would say, hoping that Clausewitz would agree with the addition “and peace”. Countries with wars that sign peace agreements experience a period that De Sousa (2015) called “post peace accords.” It is a period of the continuation of conflict where different development paths clash with one another, and where associative organizations are an expression of that, and have the potential to make a difference. Under what conditions do associative organizations contribute to peace? What alliances are needed to make a difference? This text responds to both questions from the reality of war and peace that Central America experienced over the last 50 years.

[pull down full article here]

[1] The author has a PhD in development studies, is an associate researcher of IOB-University of Amtwerp (Belgium) and a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation ( and member of the COSERPROSS Cooperative R.L. This article, for now a draft, will be the basis for our presentation in the Peace Prize Forum to be held in Minnesota (September 2017).