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.
Bias. It’s what we as human being use to see the world around us, whether we like to admit it or not. We see the world through the lens of our own experiences. Sometimes that comes from things that have happened to us. Sometimes it comes from things we’ve been told. Often our vision comes from the way we would like to see reality, for our own benefit. But we are born with the predilection toward bias. Is it also true about the way we view the poor?
I received the following article from the organization, “Progress Through Business,” a non-profit located at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was founded by an acquaintance of mine, John Hoffmire, whom I came to know through his advocacy in the ESOP world. I found the subject and the data of the article provocative, and decided to include it here:
How The Rich View The Poor
The discussion over rising inequality in the U.S. has captured headlines, been featured in the November election campaign, and incited heated debates analyzing and criticizing the relationships between the rich and the poor. “Out-of-touch” and “unsympathetic” have become buzzwords used to describe the attitude of the haves toward the have-nots.
Despite this narrative unfolding in the media, the question remains whether the headlines reflect reality.
The Associated Press recently cited research saying that 1 in 5 Americans reaches affluence at one point in their lives. This 20 percent block is a far cry from the critique offered by many who want change but still provides evidence of a large disparity between the wealthy and the poor.
Some might ask how this division affects the social aspects of our society. What is the best descriptor of the relationship between those on opposite ends of the economic spectrum? The prevailing story conveyed through the media would suggest that “out-of-touch” and “unsympathetic” do accurately portray the well-off portion of the U.S. society.
However, those who question this viewpoint might pose the following queries: What about the billions of dollars donated every year to poverty-focused charities? What about the wealthy investors who have recently turned their focus to social innovation and impact investing in order to address social ills through business? Doesn’t this demonstrate a stronger interest than we might otherwise think? Or does the philanthropist merely seek notoriety through his or her contributions, and is the socially minded investor motivated by the opportunity to gain new market share or attract new customers?
So the question remains, are the wealthy truly invested in the poor and do they care?
A New York Times blog by Daniel Goleman detailed research on social interactions between two groups of people on significantly different rungs of the social ladder. I’ll call this research “study one.”
Members of one group had a much higher income than the members of the other. Subjects of both social classes were instructed to share and communicate, with another individual, about hardships that they had experienced in their personal lives. Researchers then observed the interaction between the two individuals. The findings of the research show that the rich consistently demonstrate disinterest in the personal difficulties of the poor.
The wealthy showed less sympathy and concern as they listened to the poor recall personal trials, such as divorces and deaths in the family. Conversely, the poor tended to be as attentive to the difficulties of the rich as they were to the difficulties of their socio-economic equals.
The researchers concluded that we tend to be interested in those whom we value. Partly due to a void in material wealth, the poor tend to value social relationships. They develop “keenly attuned interpersonal attention, in all directions”. This is a trait that anyone — and everyone — could develop, regardless of financial wealth.
If the researchers are correct in their conclusions, and members of our society are only interested in those whom they value, then inattention would demonstrate that the rich undervalue the poor. Why is this? It may be that the rich judge the poor. The rich may assume the poor live a “substandard” life brought upon themselves through their own ignorant or incompetent decisions.
Wealthier members of society may assume that everyone has the same opportunities and that those whose cognitive abilities are less efficient should not receive certain advantages in society because they have not earned them. This attitude, if it exists, is undermined by research that says that many cognitive difficulties are environmentally induced. In other words, those who live in economic stress may be impaired cognitively as a result of the stress caused by consistently living in situations where their economic lives provide bitter choices.
The research, which I will label “study two,” includes an experiment performed at a New Jersey mall and is detailed in a 2013 article written by Anandi Mani, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir and Jiaying Zhao, all prominent university researchers. The subjects of the study were confronted with a scenario. They were told that they faced a common financial problem, such as paying for a car repair.
This problem was meant to activate real financial concerns that existed in the participants’ own lives. After thinking about how to come up with the money to make the payment, the subjects were asked to answer common IQ test questions. This research included a component that tested the respondents’ ability to answer questions correctly and quickly while under pressure. After providing a solution to paying for the auto repair, the subjects were asked to disclose their income.
The subjects were assigned either “hard” or “easy” financial situations, with an auto repair cost of $1,500 or $150 respectively.
When contemplating “easy” situations of $150 auto repairs, the poor and the rich answered the IQ test questions correctly at a very similar rate. When the auto repair cost was raised to a “hard” situation of $1,500, the rich performed about the same on the IQ test as they had during the “easy” situation. However, when faced with “hard” situations, the poor experienced a significant drop in the number of questions they answered correctly. This was in line with the researchers’ original hypothesis.
The experiment was then adjusted to include a financial reward of 25 cents for every correct response. Although the poor have a presumably greater need for the money, they still performed worse during “hard” situations than the rich, and earned roughly 18 percent less.
This seems relatively reflective of reality. The researchers go on to explain that the poor earn less not out of incompetency, but because they must allocate mental capacity to problems that are more pressing to them than to the rich.
Remember that the poor performed just as well as the rich when the stakes were low. The difficulty for the poor arose when the payment increased to $1,500, even when they had the ability to make money by answering correctly. Many expenses, which the rich consider minor, become major obstacles for the poor, requiring a significant amount of attention to address. This allocation of attention to pressing concerns may in turn prevent the poor from taking advantage of opportunities (such as earning extra cash in the above study).
Additionally, solving these problems comes at the expense of other basic needs. The researchers cite prior studies showing that the poor “use less preventative health care, fail to adhere to drug regimens, are tardier and less likely to keep appointments, are less productive workers, less attentive parents and worse managers of their finances.” According to the study, these troubling behaviors are caused neither by laziness nor incompetence but by decreased capacity brought on by the situations the poor face. This is due to the overwhelming nature of stressful situations, many of which are not nearly as difficult for the rich.
The study’s results provide key insights into the relationship between the rich and the poor. The occurrence of the types of problems discovered in study two should not elicit negative judgments from the rich but rather understanding. The wealthy could be much more interested in the poor, knowing that the personal difficulties in the lives of the poor may have more serious repercussions than situations in their own lives. The resources of the poor, financial and mental, are often already stretched to their limits.
If studies one and two are reflective of the reality of how the rich view poverty-stricken people, and I believe they are, it is a major misperception on the part of the rich to believe that the poor should always be able to recover from setbacks in the same ways as others. And if both of the above studies are true, then less-advantaged individuals’ traits of “keenly attuned interpersonal attention in all directions” are all the more impressive. Low-income individuals are able to allocate their attention to focus on other people, while the rich do not seem to have this same ability, often depriving the poor of sympathy and understanding.
The studies give us observations and a neurobehaviorialistic view of the relationships between rich and poor. But what else might motivate the lack of demonstrated concern of the wealthy for those less fortunate? Perhaps it is that the rich are so focused on gaining more wealth, status, and contact with other wealthy people that there is little incentive for them to get to know and care for the poor.
So the question arises, how can the rich turn their attention outward and toward those on the opposite end of the social ladder? One way would be for everyone to better understand the role of good fortune and the assistance they have received from others. Many have benefited from those who stand a few rungs up and a few rungs down.
We, of all social classes, could consistently be looking out for those who find upward mobility difficult and we could understand that trials and burdens are taxing, painful and often devastating for those at many points along the socio-economic spectrum, but are especially paralyzing for those at the bottom of the wealth pyramid. While those who are well off enjoy the comfort of ample financial resources, they could also strive to develop and use their own sense of a “keenly attuned interpersonal attention, in all directions.”
I say this not only on account of the poor. It seems that many in other social classes are missing out on a special opportunity. I notice at times in our society that many people lack a sense of purpose. Dedication to the poor and a willingness to act on their behalf can bring great value to the life of someone who is willing to serve.
One who certainly showed attention to those less fortunate was the late Nelson Mandela. Leading a nation out of apartheid also meant fighting a war against poverty. Partly due to his work, South Africa began a process leading toward greater development in Africa. Mandela understood that our social interactions are key tools in combating poverty. He described our duty to do our part to help those around us and across the globe when he said:
“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”
We could all benefit from allocating our own financial and mental resources in an outward way, paying special attention to those around us who are less fortunate than ourselves.
It’s an interesting study and a sobering one. I wonder what misconceptions others have about me….?
Utopia is on the horizon. I walk two steps, and it moves away two steps, and the horizon runs ten steps further. So what good does utopia serve? For that, for walking. Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015)
Once they discover the strength of the community, they will be able to do anything. Priest Héctor Gallego (disappeared in Panama in 1971).
The myth of the “harmonious” community was held by anthropology (see: Redfield R., 1930, Tepoztlan, a Mexican village: A study in folk life) until the 1950s, when Lewis (1951, life in a Mexican village: Tepoztlan restudied), restudying the same village that Redfield did, found that communities are disputed spaces mediated by power relations. In spite of the fact that this myth was debunked, it continues to attract followers: “living community”, “autochthonous community”, “peasant community”, “indigenous community”…; and they idealize it again as “harmonious”, at times as “exotic” to be directly visited, and other times as opposing globalization (Pérez J.P. Andrade-Eekhoff K.E., 2003, Communities in Globalization, the Invisible Mayan Nahual). In this article we describe a peasant-indigenous community in Honduras and argue that, following Gallegos, their disputed processes indicate steps with their diverse forces, this time in glocal (global and local) spaces, and that this path shows the utopia and horizon of Galeano, which the allied organizations of the communities –also conflicted – pursue.
Glocal economic transformation
Events in the community
Los Encinos Peasant Store
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
Juan Bautista Community Store
Introduction of vegetables and marketing (IAF: Honduras Foundation for Agricultural Research)
APRHOFI: Intibucá Association Of Vegetable and Fruit Producers
Los Encinos Store joins the COMAL Network
Introduction of irrigation systems (USAID, State agreement, EDA)
EMATE: Los Encinos Thread Craft Enterprise
Recovery of APRHOFI
Introduction of Ecological Agriculture
ESMACOL:Lenca Alternative Community Multiple Service Enterprise. (7 stores are the owners of Esmacol)
Introduction of greenhouses
The community of Encinos, with a population of 500 and Lenca roots, emerged at the beginning of the XX century. In the last 42 years this community has experienced big changes in their agriculture, forms of organization and access to markets, one part with national and international aid organizations, and another part based on their own funds. It is the product of a millennial indigenous culture and globalization, as ideas and resources came to this place. How did this transformation happen? See the above Table .
The 1960s and 1970s were marked by changes in the social doctrine of the Catholic Church with the II Vatican Council (1962), through which radio broadcast schools came to the rural areas that taught reading and writing and encouraged people to organize. And the Alliance for Progress of the United States came in to prevent the contagion from the Cuban revolution, pushing governments to permit the emergence of the National Association of Peasants of Honduras (ANACH) and the National Union of Peasants (UNC). In that context, a group in Encinos envisioned a store in and for the community, while in other places they envisioned a piece of land to leave to their sons. It was a time when they introduced potatoes and began to plant by “ploughing” their cornfield. It was when they built leadership coordinating families using their own resources.
The decades of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s were times of international conservatism in religion and economics, and a boom time for international aid. The struggle for the land was blocked by the law for farm modernization (1992), and the protection of the agro-food basis for the country was removed with the free trade agreement (CAFTA, 2004). The arrival of Popes John Paul and Benedict made the priests return to their parishes. Projects from organizations with physical investment and training crossed the rock and barbed wire fences. In this context organizations multiplied, and a group of leaders from various organizations envisioned “if we already have land and are producing on it, we need markets to sell our products”. Thus the COMAL network emerged in Honduras, and another additional store opened in Encinos. It was a time when vegetables and irrigation were introduced to Encinos, and the tug of war with the markets began. It was when they built leadership based on negotiating external resources.
The decade of 2010 found Honduras under the coup, additional reforms to the law of agricultural modernization, the approval of the anti-terrorist law that criminalized social protests, international aid withdrawing from Central America, a Catholic Church that seemed to be reanimated with the arrival of Pope Francis to the Roman Curia, and a world concerned about climate change. It was a period in which the COMAL Network saw itself forced to end mediation as a wholesaler of products, while the leaders of Encinos envisioned organizing enterprises to improve their stores and sell their products. Accordingly, along with 5 other stores from other municipalities of Intibucá, they bought ESMACOL as a distributor of products, recovered APRHOFI to sell their potatoes and vegetables to supermarkets, introduced greenhouses and sustainable agriculture practices to increase their productivity and lower costs, and organized another associative weaving enterprise in a decentralized fashion. It was a time when they built a leadership connecting the resources that they had (stores, distributor, renovated agriculture and commercialization enterprise) and cultivating relationships with the few aid agencies.
Circular dynamic in process
This description appears to be an expression of a virtuous circle between technological change, markets, organization and financing. It is more than that: see the figure inspired by a 4 layer onion. The organizations (stores, distributor, commercialization enterprise, weavings), the introduction of potatoes and vegetables and investments in irrigation systems and greenhouses, reveal that there is an interaction between the technological, social, economic, cultural and spiritual aspects. In other words, new crops and greater productivity (technology) implies more cooperation between families (social), which generates costs and income (economic), which requires changes in habits (cultural) as agriculture intensifies and deals with the market, this has repercussions in the spiritual-religious life of families, and this in turn on technology…
This network of organizations and changes creates prospects for improvement. There is a technological change (farm), business change (administration and entrepreneurial initiatives) and change in social relations with external actors. Multiple perceptions can be appreciated in this dynamic: in the business administration staff, in the members of the producer families, in the consumers in – and outside of – the community, in the aid agencies determined to “manage and execute”, and the leaders moving about in various “waters”. What explains this 42 year old circular process? In addition to what is described in section 1, we point to two facts. First, after several decades of cultivating the same areas, in the 1970s the weariness of the land began to be felt (decrease in fertility), due to that institution of “I will sow as I have always sown”, handed down for generations. It gave way to “ploughing”, at the same time that they organized the peasant store as a way of getting closer to a market that they could control. Second fact, like in many communities, in Encinos alcoholism reduced them to “measuring the streets”, and put the very existence of the store at risk. So Professor Jenny Maraslago saw this, suggested a solution and created the conditions for the change. This is how Bernardo González remembers it: “The professor in 1966 said,”it makes me sad to find these intelligent young men in the gutter”. Then the professor brought us the rules of AA and introduced us to a professor friend from AA. Encouraged by my older brother, we would meet continuously, and look, we quit getting drunk, from that day on everything changed.” 20 years later we find those young people no longer in the gutter, but leading the organizations.
These two changes contributed to creating the conditions so that Encinos in the following years would multiply their organizations. Nevertheless, seen from our times, the changes that occurred emphasize the technological-social-economic-cultural-religious elements that are the first layer of the onion (See Figure), while the changes in the other layers of the onion – on the level of the individual, family and community – are slight. On the community level, it is estimated that half of the population is outside of the described organizations, which means that there is exclusion and internal dispute: “they are conformists” vs “they do not let us in, only they eat”; in fact, 4 or 5 last names in the community underlie all the organizations, they are families whose commitment has generated organizations and benefits, and at the same time are the “bottlenecks” of local power, the door to external organizations. On the family level, the stores in the last 10 years have not included even one new member, not even their own sons and daughters, which is not strange given that the institution of land inheritance favors the sons, and does not discharge the inheritance “until the pig sheds it lard”; in addition a quick survey shows that the existence of children outside of marriage is similar in both organized and unorganized families. On the individual level, centuries-old beliefs have nested in their minds: “there are children outside of marriage because the women allow it”, in other words, following the mentality that “the man has the rights”, and “the woman is to blame”, something tremendously discriminatory. At the same time, all these points are in silent dispute: daughters who work in agriculture demand their rights, and wives who raise their voices against unfaithfulness (“if he does it to me, I will do it to him”).
The changes in the first layer are unsustainable without changes in the communal, family and individual areas. It is like “learning to fish” assuming that there will always be water in the river, and if the water is diverted for mono-cropping, held back by dams, or dries up from deforestation? In 1975 they woke up to the possibility of bringing in a store for the community, and in 1996 the rules of AA and the discipline of not drinking liquor for 24 hours renewed indefinitely, showed them a path for waking up to harsh realities. How can that capacity for change be expanded on the individual, family and community levels in synergy with the different initiatives achieved so far? Once again the image of the onion helps us to respond to that question: all the layers appear to be separate, but they are united by the root of the onion. In the next section we identify that root.
Mobilization of forces under democratic mechanisms
The elites of the world predict that “economic growth generates democracy”. Encinos shows that is not true. It is important to “manage” the economy with democratic mechanisms where the entire community moves and cultivates a capacity to awaken their consciences in the face of each new reality.
These mechanisms include that the rules (statutes) of each organization be respected, their organs (board of directors, oversight board, assembly) make decisions, there be interaction between the associative side (organs) and the business side (administrative and technical staff) without any side replacing the other, the rotation of leaders be done and the fact that one person would take on various posts be avoided. As they study their realities, the corresponding bodies include policies so that sons and daughters of the members might join the organizations, and exclude those who fall into gender violence, and/or after forming their family, have children outside of marriage. That part of the mission of the organizations be to help the other half of the community, that has been left invisible for the aid agencies, to organize their own initiatives. That the external organizations contribute to the communities being vigilant about compliance with these mechanisms, and coherent in their democratic processes, overcoming the neoliberal institution of “managing and executing” that goes along the lines of the idea that “the economy generates democracy”, and that instead listens to the forces in the communities and translates them into ideas that are backed by other organizations.
This reminds me of the dilemma of the pons asinorum (bridge of asses) of St Thomas: the asses cannot cross the river because they cannot find the bridge. In our case the “bridge” are these democratic mechanisms interlinked in different spheres – individual, family, community and global – interacting with the economic, social and religious organizations. This is the mobilizing circular dynamic. Nevertheless, many times what happened to the asses happens to us, in spite of the fact that we see the bridge, we do not cross the river on it; and other times we say we did cross it, without really moving from the side of the river where we are. In contrast, the professor alluded to above saw the challenge of crossing, saw the bridge (AA) and brought them to the community of Encinos, and they crossed over!
The priest Gallego said that when people discover “the strength” of the community, people can “do anything.” The writer Galeano said that utopia “serves for walking.” The community of Encinos teaches us that utopia is on the other side of the river, and reveals its strength in the “bridge.” Can we see that bridge and cross the river on it? Here is the dilemma.
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, https://elfaro.net/es/201704/centroamerica/20091/El-cartel-del-az%C3%BAcar-de-Guatemala.htm). 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.
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)*
L / block
$ / block
Sale (load of blocks)
Weeding (1 mz)
Guide for oxen (load)
Team of oxen (load)
Cutting cane (mz)
Transporting cane (ton)
* 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.
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.”
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)
Granulated brown sugar
Purchase sugar cane (ton)
Labor (hrs work)
* 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…
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?
 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 (http://peacewinds.org/research/) and member of the COSERPROSS cooperative; firstname.lastname@example.org. 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; email@example.com
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….
Eve left the Garden of Eden over chocolate! Anonymous.
Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get. Forrest Gump
The exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land, the Bible says, had a decisive moment when, pursued by Pharaoh and his Army, they arrived desperately to the sea, and then Moises raised his staff and the sea opened up; so they turned a page and wrote their history. The chocolate industry predicted that by 2020 they will need 30% more chocolate; nevertheless, the cacao supply does not seem to be responding to the demand. Said figuratively, the state institutions, the market and society, like Moises, are raising the staff of productivity, quality, inclusive businesses and fair trade so that there might be more cacao and Eve might have a reason to not go back to Eden, but the sea is not opening up! Why? What “staff” is needed for the sea to open? This article deals with that question.
 René (firstname.lastname@example.org) has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/), an associate researcher of IOB-Antwerp University (Belgium) and a member of the COSERPROSS Cooperative RL. We note that the name of the municipality “Sasha”, the Dalila cooperative, the ABC and RDA NGO, Flesh company, and the last names Konrad, Peñaranda and Peña, mentioned in this article, are ficticious. We did this to protect those identities from any inconvenience that this article might cause them.
I’ve been thinking about a blog post written by my colleague, Rene Mendoza, and posted here last month. The title of Rene’s article was, “Can the Youth Fall in Love with the Countryside Again?” It’s a provocative idea, in that the data suggests the Nicaraguan youth see little hope in remaining on the family farm, their conclusions relying on analyses of family farm economics as well as, ironically, their own education. (My apologies, Rene, if I have over-simplified or simply missed their outlooks!) Rene goes on to offer an alternative and hopeful conclusion, one that I’ll affirm here, though for different reasons.
I’ll first need to acknowledge the “elephant in the room.” The independent producers in rural Nicaragua are, for the most part, extremely poor. They have little margin for error in their production cycles, whether the difficulties are the result of natural calamity, market gyrations or corruption. At best, farmers face incredibly difficult logistics: availability of crop inputs do not always coincide with available finances, most producers rely on mill services at other locations, the roads are often little more than unimproved paths, and transport of the harvest to a reliable marketplace can be a game of chance. So, yes, let’s acknowledge the very real and complex issues facing the grassroots producers.
Next, I guess I should recognize the “rhino in the room,” the seductive “siren call” of modern society. Though rural Nicaraguans lead lives far-removed from the technologies and industries of large urban populations, they do not live in solitary confinement. Televisions, smart phones and Internet access provide an all-too-clear depiction of conveniences and gadgets that are sleek and enticing enough to beckon even the most resistant young person, even those who are prone to remain in the countryside. It’s a call that reaches nearly all youth these days, with amazements that have names like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Google. The names even sound like a playground.
Then, there’s also the “hippo in the room,” that vast and universal gulf between one generation and the next, where the elders are seen as archaic and the youth as inexperienced children. Although Nicaraguans do not have an exclusive monopoly on this circumstance, they do endure the contextual reality of being called the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. That’s more than just a bad name, it’s a brand, and one that any new generation would not appreciate receiving from an older one.
So, locked in a small room with the beasts of the wild, is it realistic to really believe that the youth can fall in love with the countryside again? I think the answer is yes, and for reasons that transcend the presence of the beasts which prowl there. The beasts are capable of being tamed. It’s part of the reason Winds of Peace and others are there, in the effort to at least tame the wild game.
The beasts are not immortal. While their visits can be life-threatening and sometimes long, they can and do move on. What’s required is the chance to eliminate their feeding grounds: despair, lack of education and a forgetfulness.
Our partners in Nicaragua have never lost hope. Despite battles with natural disasters and man-made troubles and sometimes fickle and deceiving markets, some Nicaraguans are seemingly impervious to despair. It’s a critical matter, because where despair is denied roots, hope grows, confidence takes hold and what was once old becomes new.
New. It’s what seems to attract youth no matter what the context. The next generation is always focused on charting a new way, their own way, and even if the way is remarkably similar to the way of their elders. The education of the youth permits them to experience the countryside and its character in ways very different from their parents. Education of the youth is the fundamental building block for the progress of the country; ability to read and write and conduct basic math are the keys to doors long-closed for many in rural Nicaragua. But sometimes what the youth learn in class contradicts what they have experienced in the fields: the taskmaster of economics and the glamor of a technological revolution can quickly mask the solitude of the morning, the presence of neighbors, and the strength of community. Economics might suggest that money is made by selling off components of life, by trading what is inside them for things that will never be truly part of them. The Internet allows access to virtually everything that is fantasy and fact, but sometimes overlooking that which is really of value. The education of the youth is the essential ingredient for their development, but only when they are taught within the context of all of life’s values.
The real hope for the youth falling in love with the countryside is perhaps not so much found in the technical and operational teachings derived from their education, nor in their search to separate themselves from the known; children eventually come to recognize the wisdom of their parents. Maybe it’s as much dependent upon the youth remembering what it is that they have loved before, in the days when they climbed trees and fetched water and helped in the fields with family things. Maybe it’s in the recollection of a history wherein basic dignities of life were worth a family’s struggle, and where human compassion and decency outweighed the heavy obligations of a competitive modern life. Maybe it’s the discovery of liberation that comes from truth.
Can Nicaraguan youth fall in love with the countryside again? Yep. And maybe a good place to start would be for them to talk with those of us who actually search for a love of countryside ourselves, seeking capital in its non-financial forms, hoping to satisfy a longing for honest self-sufficiency, and to remember life in its most basic components….
I wonder what the Earth will be like for my grandchildren when they reach my age. Will they still be able to breathe the air and drink the water? What will they use instead?
I wonder if there will ever be an end to poverty. Is there a statute of limitations on servitude? Who will free the marginalized?
I wonder why we think that teachers and social workers and the like are content to work for the love of the job and do not care about financial security. Is teaching and caring for others really that unimportant to our economy?
I wonder what would happen if doctors and other caregivers decided to treat only those people who were part of a “special club” and had paid their dues to join. Would that even be legal? What if you couldn’t pay the dues?
I wonder why I do so many things that I ought not to do, and leave untended so many things that I ought to do. Isn’t my intellect capable of informing me of what is essential?
I wonder who first posited that the poor seem to lead very happy lives despite their poverty. Was it a wealthy person seeking to assuage his/her discomfort? Is acceptance the same as happiness?
I wonder what would happen if men and women suddenly recognized what would happen in the world, if women were simply treated equally. Is there a genetic trait for equity blindness?
I wonder if there will ever be a female U.S. president. Are there too many men with money to allow that? Why would any woman want to join in that game?
I wonder whether any member of the U.S. Cabinet has ever missed a meal or been denied health care or been homeless. Would it make any difference in their policies?
Despite my lack of entries here over the past three weeks, it really has been a busy time, indeed….