Category Archives: Well-Being

How to keep from tripping over the same stone twice?

How to keep from tripping over the same stone twice?

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out (Jesús, Lc 29.40)

“I already saw that movie”, said the drunk, on seeing the animation of the lion that roars at the beginning of many movies. In the beginning of the 1990s, dozens of women from Marcala (Honduras) began to be trained to defend their rights and cultivate an awareness of equality, to “marry to live together and not to be the property of anyone”, “leave the house to participate in workshops on learning”, and “overcome conformism”. Over the years they understood that that awareness and that fight against violence would require generating their own resources, “on earning some money you can decide what to buy for the house”, so they envisioned an organization that would help them to have land, produce on it, and sell their products. So in 1988 they founded the Coordinator of Women Peasants of La Paz (COMUCAP), and learned that “organization is for bettering oneself and not for being envious”, and that “it is beautiful that both the man and the woman work, you have what you need to eat and you can rest.”

As COMUCAP grew in number of members and economically they acquired investments for processing coffee, aloe and juices; they exported coffee and sold soap, shampoo and juice; they bought land and planted it;M and many projects came in. Nevertheless in 2012 they learned that their organization of 283 women members was about to fall off a cliff. What had happened? What had pushed them to the edge? How could they move away from that cliff? In this article we try to respond to these questions, precisely to “not trip over the same stone twice.” Behind the animation of the roaring lion there is a movie that has not yet been seen. Let´s look at it.

  1. Crisis Situation in COMUCAP

An independent audit revealed that the debt of COMUCAP was close to one million dollars, that the assets of the organization had a lien on them due to the debt, that a piece of property bought for $150,000 had not been turned over to the organization, and that it was not clear where resources from international aid had gone. This information raised the eyebrows of the members in the 2012 assembly. Other data followed: 100% of the coffee exported was organic and fair trade, in the last 3 cycles prior to 2012 they had exported close to 10,000 qq of export coffee; a good part of that coffee was bought off of individuals who were not members, close to 1,000 qq of coffee was from the coordinator of COMUCAP herself, whose quality surprisingly scored at 85, while the coffee of the members was equal to or less than 81; the yields (from 1 qq of cherry coffee to export coffee) were dropping; the premiums for organic and fair trade were confused with project financed by international aid, making it impossible for the members to see that they had not received neither premiums. The crisis was even more harsh because it coincided with the arrival of the coffee rust on the plants, that not only lowered their production yields, but in many cases anthracnose came behind the rust leaving the coffee fields with dead trees.

What had happened? From the beginning the board of directors had granted the coordinator a General Power of Attorney, with which she was able to take loans out of the bank, buy and sell the assets of the organization and sign international aid projects. They had technical and administrative staff subordinated to the coordinator, whose daughter was the commercialization manager for all the COMUCAP products, her sister was the manager of the aloe plant, and her son in law was the coffee manager. The board of directors was used only to sign checks. The reports to the annual assembly appeared to be “sharp” bathed in a sea of numbers, reports that were legitimated by the representatives of international aid as “transparent”. The audit and fair trade and organic certification inspections would confirm every year that “everything was in order.”

The coffee rust and the “human rust” had bashed the organization of the 256 members. Obviously all those losses and debts had to be assumed by the members. All this is like the animation of the roaring lion, because this type of movie is repeated in many parts of Latin America. Nevertheless, as the philosopher Heraclitus said, though we bathe in the same river, we never do it in the same water; the next section responds to the question about what things pushed COMUCAP to the edge of the precipice. Let´s sit down to watch this film.

  1. Process that pushed COMUCAP to the edge of the cliff

Problem: COMUCAP in 2012 was on the edge of the cliff. What pushed it therer? To help, let´s use the “5 whys” of the methodology of Lean: find the cause of the problem, then the cause of that cause, until we reach the root cause. This methodology was developed in the 1950s by Taiichi Ohno, Toyota pioneer ( It is the methodology that is behind Aristotle´s idea in seeking the origin of movement: “everything that moves is moved by something” and there is a “motor” that moves everything. That is why we ask ourselves 5 times “why”. See the Table with the 5 “whys” for identifying the “tripping stone.”

Why was COMUCAP on the “brink of a cliff” –debts, poor administrative management and a hold on their assets? The members and aid organizations listened to information in the annual assemblies, but it was information that was not telling them what was really happening. The staff was subordinated to the family that coordinated COMUCAP and the board of directors relegated to being “only for show”, to sign checks; even a leader turned into an employee for two years signed checks as if she were the president. In other words, they would produce information in a disloyal way for the organization and in a way subordinated to the coordinating family.

Why did they not have access to the real information. A good part of the 256 women had been trained for 10, 15 and 20 years in negotiating their rights, managing funds for groups, political advocacy and values like transparency and equality. Why then did they not demand the real information? “Because we fell asleep”, said one of the historic leaders: they stood by. Ther trust in the coordinator was blind and total, because since 1993 she had trained them in women´s rights, and used to tell them that “she worked for the women”, she was from a family with resources and they nearly worshipped her: “having what she needs to live and she works for us” they would say with gratitude, feeling themselves blessed. One member could not be mistrustful when the reports would be presented before the international aid organizations, who would repeat “everything is in order”. One member could not prove that she did not receive the organic nor fair trade premiums for her coffee when the fair trade and organic certification audits would conclude “that everything was in order.” If everything was in order, it was logical to conclude that the information that they were being presented was correct, and it was obvious that if a member dissented, she was running the risk of not being a beneficiary of the next project. It was like feeling like an ant under a transnational elephant that grew and grew.

Why did they stand by? Because they left the decisions in the hands of the coordinator who had an administrative role, and was part of the staff of the organization, not elected by the assembly, as were the women on the board. The decisions that should have been made in the cooperative bodies (board of directors, committees and assembly) and supervised (oversight board or auditing body), were taken on by the coordinator. For the members the coordinator was “the gate” to the market and to international aid projects, and for the fair trade buyers and the aid agencies, the coordinator was the gate to the women leaders and the members. If a aid representative would visit a member, she would say marvelous things about the coordinator, and if a member visited Germany, the buyers would say wonderful things about the coordinator. So COMUCAP functioned as if it were a private enterprise where the 256 members were the poor beneficiaries, defined as such by the coordinator herself: “the women of the board are not capable of administering even 100 lempiras ($5).” This woman who did training on rights saw them as ignorant and those who financed projects and bought coffee saw her as the “Honduran Che Guevara.”

Why did they leave the decisions in the hands of the administration? Because the millennium institution of “we always need a patron” absorbed them. The women had been trained to defend their rights in their homes and to seek equality with their husbands. And this they were doing, supported by an office of COMUCAP itself. Nevertheless, they did not expect that “the patron” would appear in the “new guise”: who would subordinate the staff with loans and salaries, control the members on the basis of projects, and the leaders through travel allowances, and ran COMUCAP as something independent from the members. Like a large estate owner who believes that the land and everything on it is his, or like the holder of an encomienda in the colonial period that would receive land “including the indians that lived on it”, she would repeat to them: “without me COMUCAP would not exist, everything that is here is because of me” – meaning that everything was hers.

Why did the old “patron-client” institution absorb them? Because even though the women woke up about their rights and the importance of generating their income to sustain that awareness, COMUCAP was an external product with members dispersed in several municipalities, started on the basis of external resources and not on the basis of the contributions of the members; and because they did not learn to lead the organization through its organs (assembly, board, oversight board), and in accordance with its rules (statutes), because “we felt it was far away, someone else´s”. That is why they would hold an assembly once a year, as if an organization would have so few decisions that merited meeting only once a year; the board members were content to sign checks and travel every now and then; the groups never met with their boards; a member who needed something from COMUCAP would not propose it in the group meeting, nor to her group board, she thought it was not her right but a favor, which is why she would go directly to the “big honcho.” This lack of ownership and effectiviness in leading the organization left COMUCAP in conditions where the proverb “in an open treasure even the just sin” became a reality. COMUCAP had become a “factory” where a member would become a beneficiary, a leader subordinated, and a coordinator with a social vocation would become the big honcho (patron). Here is the root of the problem – “the motor” as Aristotle would say.

  1. The energy to get out of the crisis

The member assembly in 2012 heard the results of the audit. There was a mixture of everything: silence, murmurs, rage, impotence, feeling of having been betrayed…Some returned to their homes, and recalling the sacrifices that they had made for so many years, cried wanting to hear an echo in the universe. Others moved to defend the offices and the coffee and aloe business of COMUCAP, because the coordinator, her family and allies did not even want to turn over the assets with liens on them. They spent 3 years in hard legal battles, negotiating with the banks, getting the aid agencies and the buyers to see the obvious facts of what was happening, getting the members to trust again, looking for money to buy coffee, looking for markets for their coffee, their aloe, their shampo and juices.

On this path they continued to wear themselves down and had financial losses. The interest and arrears for the debt grew year by year, even though negotiating they were able to get considerable relief. They lost the best coffee areas to the labor lawsuit from the ex-employees, and had expenses on lost trials. They had international coffee buyers who decided NOT to buy their coffee under the logic that “COMUCAP without the “big honcho” did not exist, and because, as one leader said, “a dozen stars will fall from the sky before they ¡recognize that they were mistaken.” And a star did fall! The representative of an aid agency recognized: “I believed in her (the coordinator); forgive me because I did not believe in what you were telling me.”

What really caused the beginning of the change in COMUCAP? Each year an audit would be done, fair trade and the organic certifiers also did audits. There were more than 17 bank accounts because the aid agencies wanted their money to be administered separately. The results indicated that none of that ensured good administration. It is very possible that without the support of two people who worked in 2 aid agencies, who detected the problem, recommended an independent audit, and accompanied the board for some time, and without the awakening of the new board, COMUCAP would now have fallen off the cliff or been completely privatized by the coordinator and her family.

Crisis happens when what should die, does not, and what should be born, does not. After 5 years COMUCAP has been able to grab ahold of some “rock” and not fall off the cliff, in contrast to the prophesy of those who opposed it. Nor has it moved away from that “cliff”, the risk that it might trip over the same “stone”, described in section 2, and fall even harder off the cliff is real. In other words, that which should die still has not died. How can it move away from the cliff, or build a bridge to cross it? For what needs to be born to happen, we suggest three steps (see attached Figure) under the sequential order that follows: awareness and vision of the members as a reference point, looking inward where their roots are, and looking outward to be accompanied.

First step, start from the awareness and vision of the women members. Awareness: “everything that exist is there because we sweated with our fellow members with the sacks of fertilizer planting coffee, aloe, cooking, leaving the family on their own.”; as Jesus would say, if they keep quiet, the stones from the aloe and coffee business and the orange and coffee farms, WOULD CRY OUT. The original vision of dozens of women: COMUCAP started to sell the products of its members and accordingly built equity in their homes and communities. To sell whose products? The products of ITS members!

Second step, finding a solution to the root of the problem, ownership and operating within the democratic mechanisms of COMUCAP. There is their new “motor”. Their “break even point” is not buying coffee from whoever and however, it is not adding new members as best as possible. It is going back and building trust in each family, each group, the board of each group, the asembly, the board of directors, the oversight board and the staff that they have. COMUCAP now has 505 members. Let us recall popular wisdom, the stronger the daughters and sons are, the stronger their parents will be – in other words, the stronger the families are, the stronger the groups will be, the stronger the groups are, the stronger their board and their staff will be, and COMUCAP will be stronger.

Third step, weave alliances with people (and organizations) like those who helped them to begin the change in 2012 and who left them the secret for getting ahead: study the reality itself, wake up to what the study finds, and be accompanied in the process of change.

For these three steps the notion of stewardship helps us: our lives are a breath in the life of the universe, our participation in an organization like COMUCAP is at the most a tenth of a human life: a leader who lives for 90 years will hold posts for less than 9 years, a salaried worker will not be there for much more than that. In other words, while we hold positions of responsibility we must give the most of ourselves serving the 505 women, many of whom are single mothers taking care of their grandchildren, assuming the roles of mother and father. Stewardship, according to Block (2013, Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest), is “the willingness to be responsible for the wellbeing of the organization, working in service of those who surrond us, instead of controlling them. It is responsibility without control nor compliance”.

Can the 505 women and the organizations that consider themselves to be their allies let die what needs to die, and give birth to what need to be born? The lionesses of Marcala are roaring: this movie has barely begun.

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


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;

There is no chocolate without organized family agriculture

There is no chocolate without organized family agriculture

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

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.

For full article:…/Artículo-cacao-oficial-eng.pdf

[1] René ( has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (, 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.ículo-cacao-oficial-eng.pdf

What Lies Beneath

I’ve been reading an absorbing article in the June issue of National Geographic Magazine, entitled, “Why We Lie.”  I’m going to guess that it might be the most widely-read article that the magazine has ever published; as the article posits, we all lie, and  the title draws us to want to understand ourselves a little better, since most of us regard that characteristic as a negative.  (Why do I choose to do that, anyway?)

The article is fascinating and full of the reasons and motivations for our lies.  (Gosh, it even makes me feel bad to write that line.)  Some of our deceptions are protective, some are ego-driven, some are avoidance-based and some are even altruistic: lies intended to help someone or avoid their discomfort.  (Can I claim ownership to this category as my only source of lies?)  It turns out that we all have dishonesty built into our makeup.

“Lying, it turns out, is something that most of us are very adept at.  We lie with ease, in ways big and small, to strangers, co-workers, friends and loved ones.  Our capacity for dishonesty is as fundamental to us as our need to trust others, which ironically makes us terrible at detecting lies. Being deceitful is woven into our very fabric, so much so that it would be truthful to say that to lie is human.”

Wow.  I never realized the extent of the dark deceit that surrounds each of us.  Certainly, I acknowledge the ubiquity of lies in everyday life: (does “fibs” make that sound less awful?).   Advertisements promise results that could never be true, tabloid magazines publish stories with no semblance to reality, political pundits dish out speculation and innuendo without any basis in fact, and social media simply multiplies the problem.  But, within our own circle of family and friends?  (I wonder now whether those kind words about my sweater were sincere or sinister?)

The reality of our lying makes working in Nicaragua even more difficult than it might otherwise be.  Already, I must navigate relationships and circumstances through translation and my North American eyes.  Now, in addition, I read that there are also untruths being spoken, even if for the very best and most reasonable of reasons: hunger, shelter, health, life itself.  I’m not naive; I am well aware of the frequency of exaggeration and overstatement by people in dire need of assistance, financial and otherwise.  But reading an entire article about it underscores what has been mostly an uncomfortable subtext.  (Truth be told, now, it feels more omnipresent and, somehow, more problematic than before.)  Should the possibility of half-truths suddenly feel more offensive insulting or more threatening?

I’ve thought about that and decided that the answer is likely “no.”  If the article in National Geographic is even close to being accurate, we’ve all been subject to speaking and hearing lies during our entire lives.  There is nothing new happening here, only some data to confirm it.  It’s a bit like enduring a destructive overnight storm and awakening in the morning to read details about what you have already personally experienced.   (I swear, the hail stones were the size of melons!)

But there’s another reality which mitigates any sense of wrong that I might feel after being lied to.   When someone utters an untruth, often he/she is the one who is most hurt by it.  Lies can be like items posted on the Internet, in that they never really go away.  (All lies should be marked as spam.)  They continue to exist, hiding in memory until the moment when they can cause the maximum in embarrassment  and loss.  Falsehoods diminish who we are by eroding our credibility, our connection to truth, and to our own self-worth.  And those erosions hurt.  A deliberate lie to someone else is also a lie to ourselves, made even worse because we know the truth.  The conflict is, ultimately, wrenching.  (Is this why on some days I don’t feel as well as on others?)

We each have little in this world that is truly ours.  (What about my guitars?)  Material items come into our lives, and then they go.    The people in our lives enter and exit.  Always.  We take nothing from this world but our own integrity and sense of honor, two matters about which we can attempt to lie to ourselves, but without success.  It’s true in politics, in business, in farming, philanthropy and any other endeavor we can imagine.

I doubt that reflections here will have much impact on people in their day-to-day correspondence with each other; as the article observes, it’s “in us.”  But like any nagging habit, we can work on it.  We can make it better.   Ultimately, our well-being is built upon what is real, and whoever we are, truth will out….





Can the youth fall in love with the countryside again?

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

You cannot direct the wind, but you can change the direction of the sails. Chinese Proverb

Let the wind blow and carry you where it will. Bible saying.

“Our problem, says A. Argueta, from the COMAL network (Honduras), is that our offspring do not want to know about agriculture; many times in a family of 7 only two are working, Mom and Dad.” R. Villegas, also from the COMAL network, says, “when they are little our children help us in the work, but once grown up, returning from their studies they do the numbers on our crops, and they tell us that planting corn and beans no longer works, and they tell us it is better to sell the land.” What Argueta and Villegas tell us we hear in every country in Latin America.

If this situation intensifies, it will affect world food production. Because it depends in good measure on family agriculture, which, according to ECLAC, FAO and IICA (2014, Prospects for Agriculture and Rural Development in the Americas) represent more than 75% of total production units in nearly every country of Latin America. The organization of that peasant economy, according to A. Chayanov (1925, The Organization of the Peasant Economic Unit) is based on family labor to meet their needs. From that situation, to now where youth are increasingly disenchanted with farm work, means that the peasant economy is growing old and the depopulation the rural sector is increasing.

We are facing a world problem that we deal with in this article from a rural perspective. We break down the dynamics that led to this situation, we look into the specific nature of family agriculture and we provide some ideas for the youth to fall in love again with the countryside. For these points and others, taking up again the Chinese Proverb and the bible passage quoted above, we argue that it is important to change the direction of “our sails” (perspectives) as we understand the direction of the “wind.”

The conditions for the disenchantment

There are structural conditions that are conducive to this disenchantment. The first refers to the current generation of parents and children. In Europe they talk about the “neither-nor” youth; they neither study nor work. Bauman (2014, Does the Wealth of the Few Benefit Everyone?), studying the inequality, observes that the generations after the second world war, supported by redistribution policies, looked forward in order to improve; while today the “neither-nors” are the first generation that are not managing the achievements of their parents as the beginning of their career, that instead are asking what their parents did to improve, and that in this way these youth are not looking forward, but back. Some years ago in rural Latin America, parents would receive their inheritance and would go into the forest to expand their area in order to, later on, leave it to their children, and they to theirs. The inheritance was the starting point for each generation. But now the agricultural frontier has reached its limits, and there is almost no more forest to go into. So, on the one hand, the parents are not expanding their areas to leave behind, nor did they have time to inculcate their farming culture on their children, because they passed their childhood, adolescence and part of their youth studying; and on the other hand, this growing group of youth did not find work in their majors, nor did they like their parents farming, and in the case that they did, it is common to hear their laments; “Dad says that as long as he is alive I cannot raise different crops on his land”, “they do not want to leave me my inheritance because they say that ‘the pig sheds its lard only after it dies’”.

Table. Corn profitability (Honduras, 2016/17)
  Units Price (L) Value (L) Dollars
Production (qq) 24 300 7200 309.0
Costs 7040 302.1
Preparation (wd) 16 120 1920 82.4
Planting (wd) 4 120 480 20.6
Seed (lbs) 25 4 100 4.3
Fungicide (wd) 1 120 120 11.2
Fungicide (lt herbicide) 2 130 260 20.6
2 fertilizations (wd) 4 120 480 20.6
2 fertilizations (sacks fertilizer) 4 500 2000 85.8
Bend and harvest (wd) 12 120 1440 61.8
Clean 2 120 240 10.3
wd =work days

Source: based on cases of several producers in Honduras

The second condition refers to the knowledge perspective acquired by the youth. There is a boom of youth studying; in 2015, according to the UNESCO report, 98% of the youth of Latin America were studying. Going back to where their parents are, many of them do economic calculations and conclude that what their parents are growing it not profitable (see Table for corn; calculations for beans are more generous, $400/mz costs and $1200/mz income). This acquired knowledge, nevertheless, underlies a perspective contrary to the peasant economy: they take crops as a comodity isolated from the production system where it grows, and outside the logic of the family that produces it. These assumptions are in line with the perspective of big enterprise: monocropping, betting on volume based on intensive and mechanized technology, and the maximization of financial earnings.

The third condition refers to the growing gap between parents and their children. The children are caught between the love for their parents and their belief that “I did not study to go back to the fields” – by “fields” they assume backwardness. The parents feel impotent in not being able to explain their “agricultural profitability” showing their production systems and their social and economic life, surprised they recall when they encouraged their children to study, telling them that “a shovel weighs more than a pen”, and get frustrated in not being able to direct their children to the future, even worse not knowing the digital technology in which the youth move. These facts make the gap that separates them even greater, the parents grow old and the youth are at risk of falling into that old expression of “the idle mind is the devil´s workshop” in a Central America that finds it difficult to free itself from violence.

The fourth condition refers to rural organizations. It is common to run into peasant associations, stores, banks and cooperatives whose members´average age is 50. If life expectancy in the Central American countries is around 73 years of age, the paradox is that the organizations are aging while they close themselves to the youth. A mother who returned to dedicate herself to her family, after 8 years in an organization, said, “if I would have continued as a leader, I would have lost my son, because he was already on a bad path.” The logical thing would be that the family life of those who are organized would improve, but that mother says that it did not. Others look for people to blame: “the governments hassle the organizations with taxes and repressive measures, businesses hassle them through their harvest collectors or intermediaries, and aid organizations keep them busy with projects.” It could be. But the chasm between the organizations and the youth is deep.

The Specific Nature of Peasant Production

Why do they take such great pains with corn and beans? What is it that we do not understand about them? Full of millennial patience, the peasant families husk the ear of corn for us. “We plant corn, beans, chicory…because we learned it from our parents to feed our families, not to make a lot of money.” Looking at me skeptically, they continue on: ”by planting corn we eat tamales, atol, corn on the cob, baby corn, new corn tortillas, would we be able to eat all this if we quit planting corn?”, “the protein from a recently harvested corn cob is not comparable to that anemic imported corn”, “with beans we eat green beans, bean soup, cooked beans…” We understand that corn is more than tortillas, and beans are more than bean paste. “When we have corn and beans it makes us feel relieved, so we look for plantains, eggs…we go from serving to serving.” And then, “the beans that we are not going to eat we sell, likewise with the other products, in order to buy other needs and pay for the studies of our children.” And the profitability?

With weatherbeaten skin and a cold stare, they explained to us. “If we don´t plant corn, we would have to buy tortillas; we are 6 in the family and we would need 30 tortillas for each meal, that is L15; if I plant we eat 20 tortillas because the tortillas we make are thick.” Time to do the numbers: 1) 20 tortillas come from 1 lb, 3 lbs per day, 90 lbs per month, in other words 10.8qq per year, the remaining 13.2qq are for seed, chickens and pigs, from which we get between 6-10 eggs each day and 2 piglets every 6 months; 2) not planting corn, a family of six people needs L16,425 ($714) to buy tortillas in the year, another amount for atol, eggs and pork. In other words, the Table does not show that the corn is linked to small livestock, does not count the corncobs, little corn, new corn tortillas…If the peasant families subjected themselves to the “profitability calculations” of the large enterprises, they would have to go into debt, sell their land, and become farm workers to buy corn in times of scarcity at double the price or buy 90 tortillas/day at $1.90. “They say that it does not work, but it does”- the roar of the wind is heard.

The peasant cornfield includes basic grains, root plants, bananas, trees, chicory, poultry, pigs, water… Is it time to change the direction of our “sails”?

Thinking about the youth

Observing, listening and dialoguing can happen in the family, particularly if their organizations help. The Colega of Colombia cooperative shows us the way. Their members are milk ranchers and the cooperative collects and sells the milk. “We are second in world productivity, behind New Zealand,” they state. This cooperative organizes the children of the members into two groups; the little Colleagues are those under 14, and the pre-Colleagues are between 14-18 years of age. Each little Colleague is given one calf to take care of, the cooperative gives milk to the child as a provision for the calf, and the family of the child provides the inputs for raising the calf; in school they include courses on cooperation and the cooperative invites the little Colleagues to their events; so, from an early age they are cultivating the “member-rancher of the future.” The pre-Colleagues, who were able to take care of and multiply their calves, are provided scholarships for their studies, and member benefits, because they already participate in the production processes like their parents.

Youth are joining the Fe y Esperanza Rural Bank of Palmichal in the COMAL network, encouraged by their families. “My stepfather insisted that I attend the meetings, I thought that this was about old guys who do not change, then I realized that here you learn to improve.” “My grandfather is trustworthy, he told me to join the Bank because one day it would work for me, I paid attention to him, and it is true, now it is working for me.” In a few years this organization is growing in savings and loans, has efficient administration and its organs (board of directors, oversight board and assembly) meet each second Saturday of each month to discuss their numbers and opportunities. Another organization, the 15th of July (a community in Corozo, Yoro) also from the COMAL network, recognized the capacity of a young woman (D. López) who has finished her Certificate Program, and named her as President, and that organization got itself up to date with its internal and external paperwork, and finished its factory for processing granulated sugar.

These three experiences express three ways of including youth. They also tell us that, in contrast with the large businesses where you learn to do a task, in small organizations youth learn to follow their dreams with deep passion. So if an organization would dedicate 1% of its profits to provide a calf, a piglet or a contribution of 5 dollars to each son or daughter of each member, and if that organization accompanied that initiative, it would be planting its own future and that of humanity. If that is accompanied by the universities teaching the perspective of the large business sector, and also that of that 75% of producers who make up family agriculture, we would be turning the direction of our “sails”, and the youth would once again fall in love with the countryside. In this way, organizations could continuously reinvent themselves under the following expression, that D. Zuniga from the COMAL network saw in a home for the elderly in Copan: “you will be as young as your faith and as old as your doubts.”

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

Step Lightly

I recently took the opportunity to travel to some places I had never been before.  Specifically, my wife and I visited for the first time the jewels of the Southwest United States:  Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.  Such an experience is many things: renewing, educational, inspiring, humbling, a privilege and even existential in nature.  Especially at this time of great upheaval within our country, the opportunity to “pull back,” even for a short time, provided a welcome relief.  And an important lesson.

Most of the sites we visited are well-known to those who have visited the Parks, and the trails leading to these vantage points are well-marked and well-trod by millions of visitors before us.  And at each of those trailheads, the Park Service feels obligated to post a message to its visitors, one which might seem unnecessary in the shadows of majestic peaks and rims of jaw-dropping chasms, but which is offered nonetheless.  It’s a small sign which reads, “Your Steps Matter.”                                                

The sign is simply a reminder of the transience of these landscapes and our impacts upon them.  They are fragile.  People too often have the desire to leave their own imprints on these monuments of creation, as if to satisfy a need to make a statement of existence, to leave their own modern-day petroglyphs about which future visitors might wonder.   Perhaps it was the reflective nature of our trip or my tendency to look for hidden meanings where none may be intended, but the words on the sign prompted other thoughts for me.

Our steps do matter, whether for the health of ground vegetation, rock formations or water quality in the parks.   Trees that have withstood the extremes of nature for more than 100 years are nonetheless dependent upon “breathing space” from the hordes of human visitors who come to these sites constantly to witness the immense majesty of the natural world.  It’s among the places where it’s not OK to take “the road less traveled,” as Frost suggested, and where we’re discouraged to blaze our own trails, in deference to the survival of other life.

In light of the signage, I felt a certain pride at keeping to the paths, as though I was contributing something good to the welfare and sustainability of the parks.  I know that the notion is ridiculous, but staying on the trails was perhaps the one act of preservation that I could make.  But that same sense of self-righteousness led me to consider other steps in my life.

Steps everywhere in our lives matter.  Every stride taken in our journey makes an imprint, leaves a trace, impacts our surroundings. Like the proverbial beating of butterfly wings that affects weather patterns on the other side of the world, we are part of a global tapestry wherein all of us are inextricably dependent upon and impacted by each other.  Choices we make in the U.S. have an impact in Nicaragua.  We might elect to trespass over someone else’s space, and might even be able to “get away with it,” and to do so without detection.  But the space will be changed forever, in ways that we may never know. How and where we walk are matters of choice: we can elect to tread lightly and with respect, or to trample according to our own narrow wills.  Either way, we leave a story for those who follow.  Like our children.  Or our grandchildren.  Or our children’s children’s children.

Our steps are our legacies, like those artifacts we covet from millennia past.  They are the messages we leave behind that attempt to declare our existence and portray the kinds of lives we led.  What a pity if, in our wakes, all that remains are traces of once-resplendent times and places….


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).




The Bashful Plant
The Bashful Plant

While visiting a Nicaraguan farm one Sunday in September, just before the start of the Certificate Program, we hiked some of the property with the owner of the land, Ernesto, along with several of our Nicaraguan colleagues.  His is a small-but-diverse operation, where he has raised beans, corn, coffee, cattle and cacao for his entire life.  Walking the plot of land, even briefly, was a great enjoyment.  I’m always amazed at what grows in sometimes-suspect soil, and how creative farmers have to be with the logistics of five crops growing on very limited acreage.  But the plant that commanded my attention was not one planted in straight rows or intended for harvest.

As we walked to the grove of cacao trees, one of the family members bent over and pointed to a tiny plant growing wild in the pasture.  The stems of the plant were no more than an inch or so in length, with delicate leaves symmetrically extending from each side of the stem.  Though the plant was not in bloom, I was told that it boasts a beautiful pinkish flower.  The stems were all over the area, like some special ground cover that I might see in a backyard where I live.  The plant is called dormilona, sometimes called the “sleeper plant” or the “bashful plant.”  For when its tiny leaves are even gently brushed, they immediately close up like the pages in a book.  It’s a fascinating response to observe, as though the plant is either ticklish to the touch or so shy as to be physically introverted.  The leaves eventually unfold again, once they are sure that the intrusion has passed.  The experience of touching the plants and observing their response is oddly addicting.  And I had it in the back of my mind at the start of the workshop.

On the following day, the Certificate Program began with each of the 40-some participants- class members, presenters, hosts and guests-  introducing themselves to the rest of the crowd.  This is an interesting and instructive process, however routine it may seem.  For within these brief statements of “who I am,” we get perhaps our first opportunity to meet each of the individuals with whom we will be sharing an entire week.  It’s a quick gauge of personality and perspective to guide the interactions to come.

It’s not unusual for members of a group like this, in any country or setting,  to be a little hesitant or even shy about speaking up; many of us are “hard-wired” to be cautious about how much we reveal of ourselves until we’re sure that the surroundings are safe.  It’s better to venture forth slowly, lest we jump into waters way over our heads and we suddenly discover that we don’t know how to swim.  And particularly with rural Nicaraguans, many of whom have not spent much time in the presence of visitors, the tendency is to be reserved and quiet.  (Unless you’re like the ubiquitous “Juan,” one of whom seems to be in every group, wisecracking and joking from the start!)

Nonetheless, we always start with these introductions, not for the completeness of what they can tell us, but for the brief glimpses of who is in the room.  On this occasion, it’s what started me thinking about the dormilona plant once again.  It seemed to me that there were many in our group who, when their turn to introduce arrived, were clearly humbled to even offer their names,  standing in withering modesty, almost turning inward upon themselves, so tangible was their bashfulness.  I thought of fragile green leaves, folding inward for protection until threats had passed.

During the ensuing week, the dangers must have dissipated, because the Program participants opened up in ways as beautiful as those little green, flowering plants which covered that Sunday hillside.  We came to recognize each member for the capacity which he or she brought to the week.   The participants were engaged and energized, and full of the ideas that could make their week successful.  Indeed, by week’s end when the certificates were awarded, each individual was recognized for his or her own particular character and contribution, and there was nothing bashful about it.  Only a sense of accomplishment and some pride.

Working alongside the Nica participants during the Certificate Program was not unlike interacting the dormilona plant.  At first touch, palpable humility showed itself as a “folding inward” for many.  But with time, the folded arms of shyness gradually reached out to embrace what was good in the environment, to soak in the essential components of well-being, whether personal of group.  It’s a universal truth, though one that we seem to forget the next time we find ourselves among strangers.

Maybe I make too much of the dormilona and my fascination with its gentle ways.  But I have found its character enormously attractive, and worth spending my time on….