The height of injustice is to be deemed just when you are not. Plato
Even an honest man sins in the face of an open treasure. Saying.
The VII song of the Odyessy tells how the goddess Circe warned Ulysses that the sailors of those waters were so enchanted by the song of the sirens that they went mad, and lost control of their ships. To not succumb to that enchantment, Ulysses asked that he be tied to the mast of the ship, and that the oarsmen have wax put in their ears, and ordered that if he, because of the spell of their song, would ask that they free him, instead they should tighten the knots. So it was that Ulysses and his oarsmen were saved, and the sirens, failing in their objective, threw themselves off the cliff.
Facing unfair commercial relations, Fair Trade (FT) emerged as an alternative so that people who organized might improve their lives and be a space of solidarity among different actors beyond their countries´ borders. Nevertheless, in our case study in Nicaragua and Central America, we show that the institutional structure of power relationships under the market control of elites is like the sirens in the myth, capable of seducing the FT network, turning it against its own principles, and turning solidarity into just a bunch of words, numbers and papers. How can FT tie itself up so as to not succumb to the song of the sirens, and in this way, grow, enhancing its FT alternative principles? To respond to this question we take as a given that there are exceptional cooperatives, organizations, and people who confirm the importance of organizing and cultivating global solidarity, and that there are successful cooperatives, in countries in the south as well as in the north, in FT as well as outside of it. Nevertheless, in this article we study certain practices of the FT framework that seem to indicate its involution, and on that basis we suggest its reinvention. To do so we focus on coffee, which constitutes 70% of the volume of what is sold through FT.
You have to look at coffee like the fingers on a hand; the first year we plant, the second year the coffee develops, The third year we harvest, the fourth we harvest more and the fifth year the coffee begins to decline R. Mairena, President
The cooperative works for me: it sells my coffee at a better price, it gives me credit. And it guides me in growing coffee. M.D. Gómez, Member
Plato in his book “The Republic” tells the story of the cave. A group of prisoners remained chained in a cave since their birth. They cannot turn their heads, they can only see the wall in the back. Behind them is a corridor and a bonfire. Men are passing through the corridor with different objects which project shadows on the wall because of the light. The prisoners believe that the shadows of the objects are real. One day one of the prisoners is freed and seeing the light from the fire, the people, trees, lakes and the sun, realizes the origin of the shadows and that they are only shadows. He returns to the cave to free his fellow prisoners, who on hearing that the shadows were only shadows, do not believe him, make fun of him and treat him as if he were crazy. This allegory reveals the strength of mindsets (tacit beliefs that rule the lives of people).
What is this kind of mindset in a cooperative? How can a cooperative free itself and build its own way? We explain this mindset, study it seeking to change it: we do it from the experience of the Solidaridad Cooperative in Nicaragua.
1. Mental frameworks and their origins
“The large estate provides, and the farm is a drain”, “we always need a patron”, “the patron knows and decides, the rest obey”, “only one crop, more inputs, more production”, “the dumber the fieldhand, the more hardworking they are”, “ the cheaper you pay the fieldhand, and the cheaper the land is, the more money can be made”. These beliefs sustain a hierarchical and discriminating framework, internalized by a good part of our society.
This mentality was refined over centuries all over. By 1880 Matagalpa had an indigenous population with more than 200,000 mzas of mountainous land, most of it was expropriated by the State for coffee; the mindset was in line with the myth of mestizo Nicaragua (J. Gould): “coffee, a civilized crop, indigenous an obstacle for civilization.” Thus between 1889 and 1895 there were more than 200 foreigners in Matagalpa. In time, in the zone of Arenal, Thomas, Manning, Crespi, Harrison and Vita formed large estates. Vita founded the Aranjuez estate (hacienda), later bought by Potter, then by De Savigny, later on turned into the first mountain hotel and later Somoza turned it into a Sanatarium for people with tuberculosis. From the start of the XX century up to now, temporarily interrupted by the war in the 1980s, the following haciendas were formed: El Quetzal, Marsellesa, Monimbo, La Aurora, El Paraíso, El Paraisito, Los Helechos, Santa Ana, La Esperanza and La Minita. The Solidaridad cooperative is in Aranjuez and El Arenal, has an indigenous past and is now surrounded by haciendas.
The hacienda system was imposed with State backing. Racism and dispossession mechanisms went hand in hand, which is the origin of that mentality that persists even in our times. In the 1990s a hacienda closed the road on 62 members of the Carlos Rodríguez cooperative, forcing them to sell their lands at the price that the hacienda had set. Currently the El Quetzal hacienda closes the road after 6pm, thus leaving the communities “closed in”, communities where its own workers live, as well as some families who are members of the cooperative. After 2010 several haciendas of the area have been facing a drop in the production of their coffee, the soils are exhausted, the exploited environment no longer produces: more inputs, more dead soil, the more coffee is exposed to full sunlight, the more the soil is washed away with the rainfall.
The very act of explaining the origin of that mentality awakens people. The hacienda has built itself by taking. More inputs and mono-cropping has led to greater soil deterioration. Closing roads no longer leads to cheaper land, nor does it force the hand of producer families. The “stupid” fieldhand, leaving the hacienda, has become a farmer.
2. A check on the hacienda: the cooperative
The 63 members of the cooperative have more than 300 mzs of land and produce about 7,000 qq of export coffee. The cooperative collects and exports 60% of the coffee of its members, 30% of that as quality coffee. 20 years ago most of these 63 members were fieldhands – some of them foremen – of the haciendas, they were families with little or no land, some of them producing some flowers and vegetables. Of the 63, some 25 members produce between 30-100qq export coffee per manzana, producing more than some haciendas. A small producer of Aranjuez, who is not a member of the cooperative, with 5 mzs of coffee, won the 2017 Cup of Excellence Award with 91.16 points. That is quality coffee! Diversified coffee farms with bananas and citrus, and not mono-cropping haciendas, produce quality coffee, not just standard coffee. All of this makes the land increase in value, puts a check on the hacienda, and in addition the hacienda sees its earnings decreasing.
It is easy to find examples to illustrate these results. There is a member who is a single mother who lives off her 2 mzs of coffee and bananas, that produces enough for her to support her mother and married daughters. Another member of the cooperative was able to intensify his coffee with bananas and citrus through the cooperative, and left his job as a fieldhand of the hacienda. There is a foreman who became a member of the cooperative and ended up being president of the cooperative.
What has generated this change? Well, the cooperative! Its strategy? First, it understood the importance of regularity in the application of inputs (urea and leaf sprayed fertilizer) that coffee needs in order to produce more, which is why the cooperative provides in-kind credit so that, under technical supervision, each member family applies it and pays for it with that same coffee, for which the cooperative finds markets. Secondly, they got past the biannual nature of coffee (one good year of production and the next year low production), pruning 25% of the coffee each year, and systematically renovating their old coffee plants. Third, the member families are concentrated in a microterritory and receive credit services, technical assistance and collect the harvest right there, which reduces their transaction costs and facilitates a close relationship between members-leaders and members-administration. Fourth, strong leadership pushing the cooperative in new challenges in a calm, gradual way; “directed credit”, “piloting direct exporting with a small amount”, and “getting into milling with low volume”; they do it as they establish relationships with the social banking sector, coffee buyers and chemical input companies.
Seen from the results, organized small scale production provides more and better farms, good for the people and good for the environment. Nevertheless, seen from the processes, following a different path from that of the hacienda, the response is two pronged: increasing family ownership over their production, but not over their organization. On the one hand, the discipline of applying inputs every 30-35 days on their coffee, and selectively pruning 25% of the plants has become a custom, and thereby a tacit law; as well as turning their coffee in to the cooperative, paying their loans and waiting for a better price. On the other hand, the mindset planted by the hacienda persists: “more inputs, more production”, “without the president we would fall”, “information is not up to date and does not get to the members”, “decisions about credit and who can have a better price for their coffee are not made in the organs of the cooperative”, “a buyer even chooses 10 members to buy their coffee”, “we members rely on the president, we only come in to get our loans and our payments”, “the members who do not increase their production will not increase it no matter what we give them”, “if we apply the rules of the cooperative we would be left without members”, “let the member with the most volume of coffee set the price”. A good part of the cooperative and some of its allies breathe in this mindset.
The benefits of the cooperative for the member families and the environment, for Aranjuez and el Arenal are visible, but their durability depends on changes in their mentality. As Saint-Exupéry said in his novel The Little Prince, what is most important is what is invisible. Taking your own path involves getting off the path of the hacienda.
3. Transformation of mental models
In addition to increasing production, the cooperative proposes increasing coffee quality, diversified farms with environmental sustainability, stronger relationships with the social banks and buyers, members who study their farms, and good relations between members, leaders and workers. And they are on that path. One member who studies and experiments: “I make a selective leaf spray, because I am watching over my plants, I recognize the coffee bore or rust, I observe it daily, if it progresses, I spray it, if it does not progress, I enclose it”; “I spray the entire coffee field, for prevention”; “ before putting a chemical on it I test it a little”, “what I learned when I had organic coffee I continue applying, I spend less and it goes further”, “I have coffee trees for repopulating and to sell”. The member/leader, the one that asks questions, accepts positions of responsibility and exercises them, complies with the rules of the cooperative and the decisions of its respective bodies, is still a subject under construction. Relationships with the workers, encouraged by a coffee buying organization, are making progress: “Coffee with a union aroma” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_SD3QBJ7r_U&feature=share)
For that the cooperative is refining its strategy. First, it is strengthening the observation and study that led them to determine the regularity in the application of inputs, this time to get beyond the belief of “more inputs, more production” to “more observation and management, more quality production”, including mixtures of coffee in micro-lots. Second, it is keeping its decision to have an office and services in the same territory, trying to get their sons and daughters to participate in the life of the cooperative – as members and personnel-staff. Third, it is making the policies and rules of the cooperative be applied, that decisions come from the organs of the cooperative, that members, board and administrative staff be subject to those agreements, and that the international allies respect and strengthen that institutionality. Fourth, the distribution of earnings based on updated information be posted on the wall- information on loans, financial statement, balance statement, volume of coffee collected, services of processing and exporting – so that the member families might come in to be informed, because informing is forming.
The Solidarity cooperative has taken a giant step: it stopped the hacienda. But even though it is at a standstill; it is still intact; the member families, even though are progressing in production and organization, are dividing up their land through inheritances, and their cooperative instrument continues being a challenge. The myth of the cave could change in the cooperative framework if the 4 elements of the strategy – observation, territory, institutionality and transparency – are carried out as the origin of its “light”, that would let them dismantle the mindset of the hacienda (“shadows”) and discern a new path. Their challenge is also the challenge of the entire world.
 René has a PhD in development studies, is an associate researcher of the IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium), collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/) and member of the COSERPROSS RL cooperative. firstname.lastname@example.org Edgar is also a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation.
 We talked with the member families, their leaders and staff and we facilitated workshops in Aranjuez. This article is the result of that collective learning with the member families that observed their farms and reflected on their cooperative. We are grateful to J. Koldegaard for his comments on the draft of this article.
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….
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)
Fungicide (lt herbicide)
2 fertilizations (wd)
2 fertilizations (sacks fertilizer)
Bend and harvest (wd)
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.”
I spent the week in Nicaragua last week, visiting partners and participating in a cooperative workshop. It’s a process that has become familiar to me over the past dozen years, but it is never the same. Every cooperative, every member, has a story to tell, and each is very different from the other. Some stories are sad. Some are uplifting. Some are absolutely energizing in the sheer power of their message. Such is the case of COMUSAN, the women’s communal bank cooperative in the remote village of Santa Ana.
The route to Santa Ana and our meeting is slow and difficult, even for a 4-wheel drive vehicle; the trail is little more than a wide path. The surroundings are breathtaking, with the mountains and valleys contrasting each other. At one plateau sits a tiny pre-school house, wherein the women of COMUSAN await our arrival.
They have come from all over the territory to attend this meeting of exposition, pride and gratitude. The cooperative has been guided into existence through the patience and determination of the women and ANIDES, the Nicaraguan Association for Sustainable Development. Two members of ANIDES are present, but the show belongs to the women.
What is remarkable about this gathering is not just that the women have come together for a common purpose (the communal bank), but that they have done so against such enormous odds and with such striking success. Many of the members have migrated to this region from other parts of the country, whether uprooted from past conflicts, ravages of nature or lack of economic opportunity. Their ages cover generations. None possess previous experience with banking, even as borrowers. Most have little education, many with none beyond primary grades. The men in their lives must understand that the stake in the cooperative bank belongs to the members, a sometimes difficult lesson. And yet the financials of this fledgling communal bank are positive
and growing, as the members take small and certain steps to ensure the strengthening of their bank- and the cooperative which now envelops it- for the future.
The women are understandably shy about speaking up; they don’t have many visitors here and perhaps they are overly-modest about what they have accomplished and how they feel about it. Asking for support is a humbling experience all by itself. But the presence of the 27 women, many of whom have walked a great distance to attend the meeting, is a testament to both their pride and determination to make this entity succeed, for themselves and their families.
There is a determination here, a sense that the women of COMUSAN will make this initiative work, regardless of the obstacles they may face. They are deliberate. They seek to understand the processes of their cooperative. Members of both the coop and ANIDES plan to attend the cooperative workshop to be held later in the week. A visitor can feel both the inexperience and the intensity of a collaborative effort to succeed. Indeed, one “dream” expressed during the visit is that this cooperative not only succeed unto itself, but that it might become known internationally.
Ambitious visions for a rural women’s cooperative? Perhaps. But then, all great success stories start with an unlikely dream….
ANIDES is an organization with whom Winds of Peace has partnered for the past several years. It’s a group devoted to lifting up women, helping them to understand and embrace their rights and to explore their capacities as the critical players in strengthening their families and Nicaraguan society. ANIDES has not only helped with basic living amenities for its women and their families across 34 communities, but has also assisted in the formation of communal banks in outlying villages. The banks have created access to economic resources, but more importantly have helped to teach finance, cooperative responsibility and the dignity to be discovered in effectively managing such a collaborative endeavor.
Recently, one of the Foundation colleagues visited with the rural cooperative members to talk about their visions, their needs, and the aspirations. After the meeting and some contemplation about the visit, Gloria Ordoñez- director of ANIDES and the hands-on godmother of the women members- drafted a thoughtful reflection about both the progress of the women and the challenging road ahead. It’s worth reading, as excerpted with her knowledge and blessing, below:
For some five years we proposed to deal with this challenge in a joint way with the women, using tools for knowledge management, so that they might learn some of their good and bad practices, improving their self esteem, and the importance that the roles that each one performs have for making their organization stronger, working on the recognition of different leaderships that each one exercises within their organization.
For us the application of methodological tools seem important (Results Oriented Management), for their recognition as human beings and through them that they might recognize their skills, abilities and capacities. Likewise that they might recognize the medium in which they can “exploit” or apply those skills. These tools help to recognize what I am now, what I want, a balance in life, the personal values and how through learning to build their path toward the personal and organizational vision.
These tools not only help the growth and personal development, but also the organization, all the members working together to recognize themselves not only as individuals but as organization, the construction of this path toward the vision from the systemic approach helps them to take more ownership over the organization and to work, putting into practice solidarity as a fundamental principle of cooperativism. We know that putting this into practice, or the implementation of a good attitude toward the members, is a long and steep path that we need to walk. In these years the members have shown an openness to change and are involved in the processes, more and more in a conscious manner.
… So we have grown together little by little, we started with 15 very fearful women that would arrive at the workshops in the company of their husbands or sons; now we have grown in number and active participation; maybe we needed to not move too quickly through stages, so that everyone might participate at the same level….
The communal banks have been the space for learning to set the foundation for the development of trust among the members, strengthening their self esteem, formation and skill development. Making a sieve in order to create cooperatives with the members that show better strengths, identifying and strengthening the common elements of institutionality (system of values held in common for governance).
We see that the role of ANIDES is still very important for STRENGTHENING THE INTERNAL SELF MANAGEMENT CAPACITY of the incipient cooperative organizations. Through accompaniment processes so that they themselves might facilitate them with knowledge acquired in previous processes, GUIDING the comprehension of INSTRUMENTS FOR COLLECTIVE ENTREPRENEURIAL GOOD GOVERNANCE (these documents already exist for each cooperative) in this new stage we will teach their leaders to use and apply them.
Precisely through this we think that strengthening a promoter group of leaders, we will expedite (in a cascading manner) the training process of the different cooperative organizations from within, being accompanied by ANIDES, so that the grassroots cooperatives might be able to continue strengthening themselves FROM THE IDENTIFICATION OF THEIR OWN STRENGTHS AND COMMON IDENTITIES, (like what you call the institution, that has to do with their roots, values and common commitments as women who are living in similar circumstances, learning to get ahead with their families in the midst of adversities).
Thanks for your multiple perspectives and contributions to continue going more in depth to make a different in the cooperative organizations, which is the strong commitment of ANIDES.
This memorandum is a complete and focused organization development roadmap, as holistic, sophisticated and ambitious as any strategic document I’ve encountered. Its focus includes the health and strength of the organization, its current and future leadership, the well-being of the individual members, a sensitivity to collaborative realities, courage to take on enormous difficulties and a vision which exceeds the boundaries of sight. It’s a document of hope and expectation, and one that any U.S. business organization would be challenged to achieve and proud to own.
When people occasionally ask me whether there is good news in Nicaragua, whether there is cause for optimism for the future, I will use the words above to state the unequivocal answer, yes….
I wrote in a post here last week about the need for both “planters” and “harvesters” in the development community to reasonably blunt the oppression of poverty in Nicaragua. My choice of words and analogy prompted a couple of responses which requested some clarification of those terms and funding postures. (That’s not at all unusual, as my brain and my words don’t always operate in perfect synchronization.)
In considering how to provide that clarification, I recalled an e-mail that was written by my colleague and Nicaraguan Director for Winds of Peace, Mark Lester. He had written a response to an inquiry from another funder asking about our process and assessment of project proposals. I revisited the e-mail and, as I had suspected, Mark’s words painted a clear portrait of a development process geared to clients themselves, and how WPF has come to work with its potential partners in a fashion that plants seeds for and is very focused on the future. That e-mail is excerpted here:
I think the goal of having your grassroots group partners dictate to you what their specific needs and priorities are is a very good institutional goal, and one that we very much share, but our experience is that it gets very complicated when you try to put it into practice.
Suppose you [identify] a grassroots coop, and they send you a request. That request will reflect the needs and priorities of the coop to the extent that the leadership really represents the rest of the members, and that is precisely the problem that I explained on our Skype call. These leaders [always] tend to be the same people (patron-fieldhand relationship). In this case the only way to know whether something being proposed reflects the membership is if you spend time in the coop; interviewing board members, but also interviewing a diverse selection of members in different regions of the coop, visiting them in their homes. This is the only way to find out what the members really think when there is great power disparity among the members of the coop. Because those with less power in the community will not say things publicly that would reflect negatively on those with more power in a local community. Their situation is too fragile, and their ability to be able to go to those powerful people to help them in times of need is too important to risk by being honest in a meeting.
But when you have collected that information from private conversations with members, and then in a plenary session with the members of the coop present the findings, the collective is forced to deal with the true reality, because everyone recognizes it is true. But there was never a way for that truth to surface publicly and thus have everyone deal with it. Without this truth on the table, however, there is no possibility for the coop to move forward for there to be change, and thus there is no change in the territory, because the [individual]organizations within the territory are not changing.
This is the work that our colleagues have done and are doing with all the cooperatives that we are working with, and this is what the followup workshops have dealt with. We too put a high value on the people deciding what their priorities are, but as we delved into it more, we realized to do so effectively often meant getting beyond the leaders, because they really were not representing their membership.
As a result of the ongoing dialogue, and exchange among the coops, a number of coops have told us that they want to be able to export directly, i.e. not have to sell to either an export company or a 2nd tier cooperative. Especially two coops had determined in their own internal planning – that for the first time was truly participatory, because the interests of sectors that previously were not reflected in the plan (because of the situation I described above) now were – they decided they wanted to learn how to export. In the last workshop we had, we were able to have a number of small coffee roasters present, precisely because the coops told us they wanted to export. In the course of the workshop the roaster said they wanted to buy coffee [specifically] off these two groups, and in the discussion with the roasters about what they needed, these two coops realized that exporting was more complicated than they thought, so the issue is a very hot topic for them.
To be clear WPF does not want any money, we are however interested in that your money (and other international aid) really does help the grassroots people, and not a local elite that looks like a grassroots group from the outside. Because every dime that ends up going to the local elite ends up financing the very people blocking what the grassroots really want and are able to express when they are offered a channel that does not put them at risk.
Our experience and research shows that unless there is a methodology that gets around the unequal power distribution at the local level, the resources are always going to be controlled by the local elites (who to outsiders may look poor, but internally they clearly are an elite). But there are very few organizations that deal with this central issue. That being said, there is another organization in Nicaragua that does this well, but using a slightly different methodology. I can send you more about them as well if you are interested.
The context Mark described above is happening every day in Nicaragua and in many if not most other impoverished nations where the poor work with assistance groups for their advancement, if not their very survival. In many cases, they have become dependent upon the intervention of funders, and in the process have abandoned both their right and their hope to ever operate in a self-sustaining fashion. The projects they propose may, in fact, be capable of generating repayment of loans received or accomplishing grant objectives. But the essential question to be asked is whether the results are transformative or simply stop-gap until the next infusion of support. That’s the recipe for dependency.
Within the WPF methodology, we prefer to think of ourselves as planters, “in the soil” with the campesinos, tilling the ground until the first shoots of growth emerge, transforming seeds into ways of life, and working toward an eventual harvest….
My U.S. acquaintances almost always have questions about the work that Winds of Peace undertakes in Nicaragua, and especially they are curious about the people with whom we work. They are curious to know how they are like us in the U.S. They desire to know whether they are happy, what rural Nicaraguans like to do in their spare time, and what they may know about those of us who live in the North. (My answers to those specific questions tend to be along the lines of: yes, they experience happiness in some very different ways from us, they have little spare time and they know a great deal more about us than we do of them.)
During my visit in Nicaragua two weeks ago, I became re-acquainted with a woman I had met several years ago, a grassroots coffee producer and member of a very small cooperative. She attended an organizational strengthening workshop which the Foundation had underwritten and, in fact, turned out to be one of the presenters. I want to introduce you to Corina, because she is a composite story of who many Nicaraguans are.
When we first met, Corina and her cooperative had found themselves in deep economic trouble. But the cause of the difficulty stemmed from the fraudulent actions of “middlemen” who recognized an opportunity to take advantage of small producers who were too trusting, unschooled and undereducated in the responsibilities and obligations of organizational success. In that first meeting, Corina and her fellow coop members faced a likely collapse of their group; she thus faced a similar fate for her own farm. Without the middlemen to provide market savvy and price negotiation (as well as deceptive representation), Corina felt lost.
But I recall her tenacity in addition to the shyness. She had not spoken much in front of her North American visitor those years ago, but she spoke passionately and with defiance when she chose to speak at all. But I remember thinking that the odds were definitely against this small-producer coop which now faced significant debt not of their own making. Winds of Peace has made annual loans to the coop since that first meeting, and the coop has survived thus far. But providing funds each year for fertilizers and new coffee plants is neither the road away from dependence nor the key to sustainability.
Corina and her fellow coop members have worked hard. They have attended other workshops. The coop has been attentive to understanding exactly what project proposal information is required of them and what donor expectations are. They’ve been scrupulously diligent in meeting their loan obligations. While a preference for having others intervene on their behalf still surfaces at moments, a movement toward self-sufficiency is happening.
So I was both surprised and not surprised in seeing Corina before the audience two weeks ago. She towered over the audience, in a way that very few people less than five feet in height can; sometimes captivation comes from unsuspected sources. She clutched a handkerchief like a good luck token, but her voice was firm and her resolution fixed on two large papers taped to the front wall. On the pages, Corina had charted her family’s 5-Year Farm Plan.
Set aside for the moment the fact that many businesses never attempt something as progressive as a 5-year plan. Corina, with the assistance of her husband and children and workshop facilitators, had undertaken a detailed description of her business, including its dimensions, crops, limitations, opportunities, improvements, environmental impacts, successes and its future outlook. There on two sheets of butcher paper was a complete strategic plan, one which in its simplicity and breadth presented her story, both current and future.
As Corina related her story, her voice grew in size and confidence. The handkerchief became twisted with emotion and conviction. The audience, notorious for its restlessness, now sat rapt in attention, utterly astonished at both the woman and the content of her work. At one moment, suddenly self-conscious of her standing, she looked to the workshop facilitator and observed that, maybe she wasn’t making sense and that he could explain the process better. To his everlasting credit, the facilitator turned to the participants and asked, “Is she doing OK?” The audience erupted into thunderous applause, matched in emotion only by the modesty in Corina’s face. She continued, with even greater fervor than before.
By the close of her presentation, Corina had communicated details of her life which, under any other circumstance, would never have been shared. She talked of her children and their work on the farm, after school. She described the long hours of labor contributed by her husband, who hired out as a field hand elsewhere by day before returning home to tend to their own land. She talked of her own unending work among the coffee plants, and how she nonetheless was able to achieve the equivalent of her high school diploma, the first member of her family ever to do so. By the conclusion of her talk, I had a distinct feeling of under-accomplishment in my own life.
I suspect that many in the group felt the same. At the conclusion of her presentation, Corina was surrounded by many, people seeking more information, offering their appreciation for her tenacity and strength, thanking her. Several members of a coffee-buying group from North America sought to establish direct links for purchasing her coffee. She may never have experienced so many photographs taken of her. Clearly a sense of accomplishment welled up within her, and yet the demeanor of humility and reserve never wavered.
Corina’s example to her fellow small farmers resulted in many such family plans being drawn up that day and in the weeks to follow; indeed, they are still being created. She had extended herself, far from her comfort zone, in order to provide a basis for others to act. Her courage on behalf of other producers enabled a development threshold to be crossed, one that may cultivate harvests and benefits for a long time. But I recall the day in a different light. I will recall her performance and leadership as a challenge to my own way of life, to look at its content, its yields and plantings and harvests, its potential and its character with a greater sense of needing to do better….