Organized communities are valuable, very valuable!
René Mendoza Vidaurre
We dedicate this article to Eduvijes Sánchez
Where your treasure is, there will your heart be. Bible (Mt 6.21)
Whenever your drink water, remember its source. Chinese Proverb
“The cooperatives and associations are dividing the communities”, “organizations are a big doorway through which two or three wolves take advantage of the rest of the sheep”, “ organizations are like the old cathedrals, empty shells”, “the communities are like ´unleavened dough´ that will never become the ´bread´ that could be multiplied”, “ it is an illusion to believe in the people”, “only the patron, the market or God can change people”. Frequently we run into these beliefs that are half-truths, a mixture of discrimination and providentialism. Far from denying that there are regressive organizations, we highlight that there are unique and innovative organizations that outstrip these just portrayed beliefs. In this article we describe one of them, the COMAL network of Honduras, whose “source” and “treasure” are precisely the communities that are organized; we present three of those communities, and in the end we underscore the small, great changes that that network of organizations has created in the lives of the people.
The novelty of the COMAL network
This organization includes 122 first and second tier organizations from the provinces of Comayagua, Intibucá, Gracias a Dios, La Paz, Yoro, Santa Bárbara, and Choluteca. In the face of the increasing dominance of the market in the beginning of the 1990s, their leaders envisioned a market alternative for small scale peasant and indigenous production. Another market is possible for the communities! In its 20 years, buffeted by different internal and external “storms”, the COMAL network has constructed a path that we show in the attached Figure (stairs that begin when a community organizes, and step by step advances toward their sustainability and technological changes) and that, proposed as a theory, would read like this: when organizations resolve their internal centralized leadership issues, and combine commerce and credit in a sustainable way on different levels (community and municipal), they can generate technological changes (e.g. sustainable agriculture and processing of raw materials) and continue scaling up to deal with other challenges in a cumulative fashion, like the Mayan teaching: one day builds on the previous day; today builds on yesterday, and tomorrow builds on today.
This innovative organization within the current context of increased market fundamentalism, the state as a “mercantile and privatizing agent”, and the scarcity of support from international aid, is also re-inventing itself, returning to and taking even more energy from its “sources”: the communities. Why? In order to not fall into what we call “the 20-25 syndrome”, organizations that start with a great spirit (vision and mission) and that after 20-25 years regress, become bureaucratic, and wrap themselves up in technocratic arrogance, absorbed by the market. How is it that the COMAL network is so innovative and at the same time is re-inventing itself? Because behind the COMAL network there are communities that, to the extent that they are organized, are capable of counteracting the dominant force of the markets.
What follows are three communities with different attributes. The community of Encinos in the Intibuca province with 500 inhabitants, in zones declared to be in extreme poverty, is a community with tight social cohesion, intensive agriculture with agro-ecological areas, and a leadership whose influence goes beyond the community. This quality of the community is traced to the fact that for 35 years they have had a Peasant Store (PS) and a Rural Bank, for 13 years they have had an enterprise that sells vegetables, and for the last 4 years along with other PSs are owners of a Multiple Service Enterprise (distributor). How are these organizations sustainable and at the same time, able to benefit their members and the entire community? First, each member contributes 1500 lempiras to the PS, and with that, receives the equivalent of 100% of that contribution as earnings (in other words, another 1500 lempiras); if the member contributes more than 1500 lempiras, he or she receives the equivalent of 20% of that additional amount of contributions as earnings of the PS; both benefits are received at the end of the year. Secondly, the members get an loan equal to twice their minimum contribution, in other words up to 3,000 lempiras. Third, the PS offers products at slightly lower prices than the market, while the salary of the store staff (administrator of the PS) is 30% of gross earnings; in other words, the staff is motivated to sell more, as the population is motivated to do their shopping in the PS. These three facts mean that there are no arrears and the entire community benefits: if a member owes 3000 lempiras and does not pay on time, the PS and the Bank retain their contributions (1500 lempiras) and their earnings (1500 lempiras), and since all the members have additional contributions, they still have resources left after the retention.
The second community is El Corozo in the Yoro Province. There the majority of the population produces sugar cane, and in 2009 twenty families decided to organize a Multiple Service Enterprise (MSE). How is this innovative? Slowly, beliefs held for centuries began to be dispelled: “men greet only men,” “peasants are not capable of leading their organizations,” “only men can be leaders, the women not at all” and “state resources should not go to a peasant organization”. These beliefs are true “demons” that build a nest deep in the human psyche and direct human actions. How are they able to move beyond them? First, the twenty families woke up to their reality: without transforming their cane into blocks of brown sugar, and then into granulated brown sugar, their income would not increase, and if they planted more sugar cane, they would need more land, and they would do more damage to the environment – because sugar cane cannot have even one tree in its area; so they organized a MSE. Secondly, since the beginning they decided that not only would their board meet once a month, but the entire assembly would, to deal with every detail of the life of the organization, and to make decisions in a collective way. Third, they named their board members based on their capacities, so their current board is led by a woman, and so women and men now greet each other. Fourth, they make contributions for their investments and to cover the costs of the actions of the board, and they were able to get the State to finance the construction of a processing center for producing granulated sugar. They are building a strong community with a sense of ownership and learning through their monthly meetings, and supported by the proximity of living in the same place.
And the thrid community is Huertas in the La Paz Province. As part of the trainings done by an aid agency, they received GMO corn seed “so they might harvest more and ensure their own food.” The community, after a long internal deliberation under the leadership of their cooperative, decided to bury that seed: “if we lose our yellow corn seed, each year we will have to buy that seed that costs 4,600 lempiras to plant 1.5 manzanas (1.11 hectares) and become dependent on chemical inputs; hunger will come knocking on our doors.” Within weeks the representative of the aid agency returned: “Those people do not want progress! Why didn’t they plant the corn that we gave them?” The community, in the voice of one of their leaders, replied, “the expiration date for that seed had already passed, nothing sprouted, we worked in vain.” The representative of the aid agency nodded, “Oh, that is fine”. Far from defending one seed or another, or the individualist approach that most of the aid agencies have with their projects versus the organizational approach that the communities have, or discussing who is fooling who, let us stress the deliberative character of the community under the leadership of their cooperative, their long term vision and their ability to convince the aid agency itself.
Small great changes
The PSs, Rural Banks, Multiple Service Enterprises and the cooperatives mentioned in these three communities form part of the COMAL network; and above all, form part of its vision, deliberations, experiments and way of regulating what works for them, their awareness to change harmful rules and subtly defend their organizational forms that go beyond individualism. Their corridor, through the network, is from the communities to the national level and the world, and vice versa. They are glocal spaces (as local as they are global), spaces of ongoing ´co-onflicts´- that cooperate in the midst of conflicts that cross their administrative borders. That is, for example, the dispute over seed in the Huerta community, a dispute that is as local as it is global, that includes the intangible (vision and form of community organization); striving to produce granulated sugar in a Central America with millions invested in sugar and sugar cane plantations as a colonial inheritance; or ecological agriculture that is “swimming against the current” of agribusiness.
To the naked eye the communities seem like closed and dispersed worlds, like stars in the sky; but in joint reflection they appear to be densely connected among themselves, like “constellations of stars” revealing images that are changing: one sees that the native seed and other crops are what make their cornfield that ensures their lives, another sees that their assumptions fall apart to the extend that they learn, and another introduces rules as they test circular processes involving contributions, credit and earnings from trade. At the same time, we understand that they are more than money in a store, a bank, an MSE or a cooperative; they are families that organize and cause small great changes: peasants that lead their enterprises, women that become leaders, children that are making a difference in family agriculture, women and men who greet one another, think through their decisions, families that are processing coffee, granulated sugar, butter, oil, soap…They are de-centered (not dispersed) communities, densely connected, that have vision and “look a gift horse in the teeth”, and that organize to resist the daily dispossession of the market that condemns them to become laborers, to migrate and to endure social and gender violence.
Philosophers and mystics from the Medieval century invented the word fulguratio in Latín, to indicate the creation of something new: fulguration, lightening. The natural sciences teach us that lightening is an electrical spark; when two independent systems clash they generate a short circuit, which is something new – this is where the expression “the whole is greater than its parts” comes from. The COMAL network is more than each one of the 122 member organizations; and the communities are more than the COMAL network. The communities and their organizations are not like an independent, static system, but rather they learn and change; and when these communitiies link up (“clash”) in ´co-onflicts´, they make new realities emerge, a fulguratio that accumulates and expands. This, to the eyes of the elite of the right and the left, is an illusion because they say “the people move only if they are moved from above” (patron, vanguard, manager, market and/or God). The COMAL network and the communities, constantly torn between that ´from above´ and ´from below, seem to tell us that the communities are more than illusions. Certainly, the ´source´and ´treasure´ of the COMAL network are the communities, who to the extent that they organize, cultivate an awareness of managing markets from their territories (their “water”). This is the basis for the COMAL network to continue re-inventing itself.
Tell me how immersed you are in the organized communities, and I will tell you how much difference your organization is making in the lives of the people. Truly organized communities are valuable, very valuable!
René (firstname.lastname@example.org) has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/) and an associate researcher at the IOB-Antwerp University (Belgium).
 This article was made possible by the accompaniment of Donaldo Zúñiga, director COMAL network, and Karolo Aparicio from EcoVivas, in the reflections we had in different communities and in the office of COMAL itself. We are grateful to Hal Baron from Communitas for his generosity and vision about these experiences in Mesoamerica.
 Eduvijes, from the Llanito Verde community in the Gracias a Dios Province, was an organizer of her community and defender of the water sources in her area. Eduvijes died within days of having been brutally beaten when she was protesting over the lack of the rule of law in her country in 2009.