2ND UPDATE – Building different futures overcoming intellectual apartheid

Building different futures overcoming intellectual apartheid

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

                                                                                                Article dedicated to Fr. Jack Moynihan and Sr. Maria Alicia McCabe[2]


-Why are you coming to visit us? María Jesús asked, the grandmother of the community. Not even the priests visit us now–she took charge of the conversation.

-The world is getting more difficult. Without us, it will be difficult for you to improve; and without you, we don´t even know where we are going- I responded.

-Is that right? Whispered the grandmother, inviting me to coffee.

Thirty years ago in most of Central America corn and beans were planted without using glyphosate nor gramoxone; now gramoxone is used even for harvesting beans, in part to keep the rain from making the beans “sprout”. Not to mention vegetables, coffee and cacao. Much less sugar cane, peanuts or sesame. Probably beef and pork meat is more organic than carrots or beans. Where did this come from? The costs of production of a peasant family have increased drastically, but not the prices they are paid for their products; this makes desperation spread, tension and violence intensify, biodiversity erode, and climate variability proliferate.

There are many explanations for these realities. In this article I focus on intellectuals, who dedicate themselves to meditating and studying the realities, preparing projects and/or policies, teaching or preaching; they are writers, scientists, artists, scholars; they are “people of culture” who move in different circles from most people on our planet, a separation which at times is concealed by words, an abysmal separation. We use the word “apartheid” to denote this invidious separation. By way of hypothesis we say that the separation between intellectuals and the communities where most people live has impaired humanity for at least five centuries, when friars (intellectuals), soldiers, tax collectors and traders burst upon these lands. How can they work together and write a new history? I reflect on this question from the heterogeneity of the rural world.

That wall of intellectual apartheid

We read articles in newspapers and magazines about political issues where generally the rural reality or life in neighborhoods do not appear, and if they do, they are reduced to topics of violence where their structural causes are ignored. There are NGOs with rural agendas whose intellectuals respond to the market expressed in donors or business associations, who sporadically show up in rural communities to do surveys or interviews, they show up once and never return. These people are governed by the market mentality which deforms intellectuals themselves into field technicians, who go out with donations and prescriptions in hand, enlarge their wall to not listen to the people, and allow arrogance and discrimination guide them along their path. In fact, in the last 20-30 years, there are practically no intellectuals who write about the rural realities of Central America in a systematic way.

At the same time there are young rural women and men who have studied different majors. Finishing their studies, their dream does not tend to be to work with rural populations. They work for companies, the government, donors, or they migrate to other countries to work in what they can. If they stay, they go back to agriculture or to being housewives, leaving aside their intellectual role that could give them the possibility of writing peasant and indigenous histories in plural, from their perspectives, and tracing out new futures.

What happened to us? The Fordist and Taylorist colonial mentality that separates experts from workers has nested in our minds, regardless of the political ideology that we might exude. This mental model makes one believe that there is nothing to be learned from rural communities, like some two thousand years ago: “Nazareth! –exclaimed Nathanael. Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46). This mental model makes intellectuals believe that they are superior: “I am an accountant”, “I am an engineer”, “I am a professor”, “I am a pastor, anointed by God”, “I am a doctor” or “I am an economist”. This intellectual arrogance means that we do not mingle with peasant or indigenous people, that that hidden or submerged population lives in the “middle ages” – a Eurocentric reading, as if Latin America had an “ancient age”, “middle age” and “modern age” like Europe.

This mentality adds cement to the millennial wall of intellectual apartheid of a “Latin America” where indigenous and peasant people are absent. Peasant and indigenous people are moving on one rail, and intellectuals on another, going in different directions.

I have learned a lesson working for decades with rural populations. Alone, it will be difficult for peasant and indigenous peoples to innovate with their economies and societies; alone, intellectuals will continue exuding Eurocentrism and allowing the spirit of Nathanael to control them.

Experiences that seem to knock this wall down

Fortunately, there are experiences in which that wall is knocked down, even though just a part of it, and even though just for a time. The most well-known came in the 1960s and 1970s when several lines of thinking coincided. The opening of the Catholic Church with the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Medellin (1968) and Puebla (1979), a church open to the poor; the momentum of the Cuban revolution (1959); popular education under the influence of Pablo Freire; and the dependency theory of Singer and Prebisch. It was a period in which public universities were spaces of debate, where majors in sociology, philosophy and political science prevailed.

Under this framework, university students and professors, priests, sisters and politicians, went into communities and neighborhoods accompanying indigenous, peasant and impoverished people from urban neighborhoods. Churches, classrooms, auditoriums and offices broke down their walls and let their intellectuals leave. In Central America the experience of the community of Solentiname (Nicaragua) stands out with Ernesto Cardenal, where they produced the Gospel of Solentiname; the experience of the community of Aguilares (El Salvador), the experience of hundreds of Base Christian Communities. One outstanding regional experience is that of the Radiophonic Schools, where intellectuals (religious and lay) promoted literacy, health care and agriculture, a framework in which many people organized into cooperatives and peasant stores, which – though very much in a diminished form – still exist today. Those were good seeds!

It is a period in which part of that wall was knocked down. The mentality was that God and freedom were in the impoverished people who seek justice, that people can organize with their own resources, that honesty and solidarity are values that are also found in humble people. To a large extent, with this process all the military dictatorships were brought down, and democracy was installed throughout Latin America.

But this harmful wall was repaired and enlarged after the years of the 1980s. The institutional church closed itself back up in church buildings and persecuted those religious who refused to leave the communities that were building the Reign of God on earth. Banking style education returned to the classrooms. Political revolutions and democracies took over the military bases and offices, feeling at home under hierarchical and authoritarian structures. Studies in business administration, accounting and law led public and private universities with the dream of making money. Teachings and training put learning to one side. The spirit of Nathanael returned to the minds of intellectuals, separating them from people with calloused hands who paid for the studies of a good part of those intellectuals. This is the reality that made María ask Jesús, “Why are you coming to visit us?”

 Breaking the wall and combining ideas and efforts

 Visiting people like María Jesús, we jump over that wall of apartheid – we just “jump”- and only “for a time.” Here we list four ways of knocking the wall down, which, like a constellation of stars could show us one of the paths: getting involved in the real lives of the majorities, experiencing changes, co-investing in initiatives and recognizing several languages.

Intellectuals need to get involved in the real lives of the majorities, combine being in churches, classrooms, auditoriums, offices and conference rooms, with living in rural communities, organizing however they may be, experiencing what it means to generate collective actions beyond one´s own family, and outside of their own “synagogue” (church, office…. ). If it is a matter of improving agriculture and the lives of human and natural communities, food not being poisoned, it is unacceptable that the rural population walk along the rail that the market pulls them on, and that intellectuals walk along another rail, also pulled by the market. Separated but kneeling before the market!

The topic of beans involves technology, soils, climate, property, institutions like sharecropping, sharing labor, and land rental, it is intermediation and crop lien lending, it is weighing and quality, it is official data and real data, it is new bean soup and refried beans; all of this varies from year to year. The same with coffee, cacao, corn, squash or lemongrass, gardens, cornfields and farms. It is ethically and scientifically questionable to make proposals without being involved in that world, without studying them and studying ourselves to free us from the control of the market over our minds. We need to re-understand commercial relationships, not as commodities subjected to the totalitarianism of the market, but as the means for “good living”, as they say in the Andean countries, or the “I am because you are”, as one of the inspiring perspectives from Africa expresses it.

The topic of violence, specifically violence against women, is an issue of millennial social and religious rules, laws, power relationships, production systems that expelled women from agriculture and its processing, it is family and structures embedded in religious, political and economic institutions, it is the law of the jungle and human dispositions. It is not possible to reduce and terminate that violence if we do not identify its causes and do not accompany women in their non-violent paths in their own communities.

On the topic of rural organizations, it is cooperation in the midst of conflict, democracy in authoritarian societies, distribution of profits within a context of “trickle-down economics”, it is transparency in the midst of secretive mafias, it is accounting for peasant stores and cooperatives when universities are teaching accounting for companies and corporations…One can advise organizations only if they teach us how to advise them. What is learned in universities is how to subject rural organizations to the market, not how people can cooperate and overcome problems that individually they cannot resolve.

All this shows us that intellectuals should visit the most marginalized and “discarded” people to understand their virtues, capacities and human spirit, help to build favorable conditions (collective actions, networks) so that people connect to one another and others. All this requires time and dedication, like all good things, and requires that peasants and intellectuals conceptualize their processes in order to take new steps.

Intellectuals need to experience the changes along with rural people. An idea that is tested, adapted, adjusted, redone, finds legitimacy, motivates, is corrected and polished, is an idea that takes on life, that changes even the details or precisely because of the details. Experimenting in the organization of cooperatives, associations, associative enterprises, community stores or rural banks, helps to establish different processes. Experimenting is digging into decolonializing ourselves, and getting ourselves out of the orbit of Eurocentrism, which is presented as the measure of all things. The same thing happens on the side of rural populations, there are peasant and indigenous people who become pastors, delegates of the word, healers and agricultural and community advisors, many of them also dig into and realize that what is happening and what has happened to them is not natural nor determined by some supernatural being, in this way putting a crack in the wall of apartheid.

As we dig further, we run into powerful beliefs that support the wall, but we also find people who find their source of motivation in those depths in unimaginable ways. After administering a community store for one year, Yesenia Hernández expressed in an assembly: “I used to sell and I did not understand the numbers, because they say “women are for the kitchen and men for documents”; I set myself to understand the numbers, now they don´t make my head hurt, I am also a “woman of documents”. It is not just accounting, it is an issue of beliefs and ways of getting into the numbers, it is working together to adjust those audits of cash and inventory each month. When these improvements happen, other colonial “demons” emerge from political, economic and religious intermediation, and from within ourselves, intellectuals and peasant and indigenous people. It is not just focusing on the community store, it is also studying those surroundings and adjusting and polishing the changes.

In many cases it is co-investing in initiatives like community stores. If intellectuals and people from the communities invest in these initiatives, they will be concerned about their resources and will study them, because “where your treasure is, there your heart will be.” In addition to the financial element, co-investing is training in generating initiatives, capacities for empathy and a sense of mission in peasant people intellectualizing, and in intellectuals “peasantizing.” It is combining oral and written traditions that reveal the paths to follow or showing the pedagogy of associativism where three or more people cooperate. In this way, in the midst of tensions and disagreements that collective actions imply, they will produce new ideas, far from just kneeling down before the market of products and knowledge. This interaction or alliance are part of the basic conditions for freedom of thought, in order to decolonialize ourselves.

Finally, breaking down the wall is recognizing several “languages”. The language of accounting talks about “liabilities”, “assets”, “equity”, “expenses”, “cash out” and “inventory”; likewise economics or law have their own language…Peasant language talks about “payment adjustment”, “piglet” (savings), “scraping by” (look for earnings and savings, like a chicken that scrapes the ground looking for food), “snug” (balance without debt), “cornsilk” (small earnings)…These words underly different rationalities, they are communication vehicles for walking together over long distances and times, be it co-investing, experiencing changes or getting ourselves involved in the real lives of peasant and indigenous people.


We began the article alluding to the fact that in Central America there are practically no beans without the application of agrochemicals prohibited in Europe like glyphosate. Out of several responses that there might be, we have focused on the separation between intellectuals and peasant and indigenous people, as an explanation that has led to the imposition of capitalism expressed in monocropping, dependency on agrochemicals, environmental degradation, violence and authoritarianism. From the beginning of the article we asked ourselves, how can these two groups work together and write a new history. What follows are the answers encountered.

Good changes walk on two feet, intellectuals and peasants/indigenous who organize. With two feet one can re-perceive commercial relationships governed by societies, and rethink ideas from a perspective of decolonialization from the south. No foot can believe itself to be superior and take leaps without the other foot. As the Italian writer, Luciano de Crescenzo says, “we are all angels with only one wing, and we can only fly if we embrace someone else”; in our case, peasant individuals can fly through associative organizations, but only in an embrace with intellectuals, and intellectuals can only fly in an embrace with peasants who organize.

In this we need to have a long-term perspective of histories, changes that last and deepen over centuries; it is like planting and not restricting ourselves to just one crop. Seen in this way, the innovative experience of the 1960s and 1970s that I mentioned just lasted 20-30 years, after which neoliberalism and religious and political conservatism absorbed them, or as Franz Hinkelammert would say, the totalitarianism of the market controlled the state and societies; even though some flashes of that brief period of knocking down walls persist. In contrast, European enlightenment broke down that wall and lasted 74 years (1715-1789), and its impact lasted for centuries in Europe. The same with the Protestant Reformation that smashed into pieces the Catholic wall that had abducted the Bible, it lasted 144 years (1454-1598) and its effect continues today. But the wall of the apartheid of “culture” and “ignorance” is a long wall that is rebuilt and has lasted for thousands of years.

Having these two feet and this long-term perspective, we want intellectuals to “peasantize” themselves and indigenous and peasant people to intellectualize themselves. How? Let both organize and rewrite the histories of our peoples, on paper, in our minds and in our futures. In this way they would conceptualize, synthesize ongoing processes, study themselves, analyze in the light of different approaches, create parables like Jesus to communicate and provoke reflection, and do it in an ongoing way. These different futures can be written or designed to the extent that “the other” is rescued; indigenous and peasant people who emerge from way down below where they were condemned for centuries, fighting with so many imposed demons (beliefs and rules of elites); intellectuals who also fight against so many other demons (beliefs and rules of elites) which have led them to stay on the opposite side of the street. It is a matter of mutually rescuing one another, keeping their organizations from falling into neoliberalism reduced to maximizing their earnings, or the colonialism of “we always need a patron”. It is a matter of decolonializing rural organizations, churches, classrooms, auditoriums, offices, conferences and farms. Doing it day after day, year after year.

If we take this step, it could make María de Jesús, the grandmother with the long view, whisper to us, “is that right?” And we will share coffee with rosquillas, even though at that time, like the stardust that we are, we will then be within the energies of the universe.

[1] René has a PhD in development studies and accompanies rural organizations in Central America. He is a member of Coserpross (http://coserpross.org/es/home/), associate researcher of IOB-Antwerp University and a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/).

[2] Jack learned how to accompany grassroots communities from an African American evangelical pastor in a neighborhood in New York– according to what our friend Mark Lester tells us. With this knowledge, Jack accompanied rural communities in Bolivia and Central America, and now accompanies marginalized people in the United States. Maria Alicia accompanied communities in Brazil and communities in Nicaragua, now accompanies migrants from Latin America who struggle to enter the United States. Both are living examples of how to break this wall of apartheid.

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