An awakening, a dare and what is distinctive about reinventing a cooperative

An awakening, a dare and what is distinctive about reinventing a cooperative

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

The how

Claudio migrated to El Salvador in search of work. The farmer in El Salvador, while chatting, realized that Claudio has 50 acres of land in his own country, Nicaragua. At times he would tease him about this, “hey Nica, how is it that I with 5 acres am giving work to you with 50 acres?” Claudio felt it rang true, he did not know how to respond.

– On hearing his story, I asked him, “why do you think that the Salvadoran is more successful?”

– “He and his wife work together all the time, they work alongside their workers and do not waste anything,” he answered.

-“Have you tried to work like the Salvadoran on your 50 acres?”

– “Yes, I tried and I wasn´t able to make it work.”

– “Why?”

-“The neighbors and even family members made fun of me, they would tell me that I was working for nothing, that God gives food to even ants, that when I died I was not going to take anything with me.”

-“What would the Salvadoran say hearing your neighbors and relatives?”

-“He would not pay attention to them.”


Leaving the country woke him up and allowed him to discover the how: working in a disciplined way together with his wife (overcoming the division of roles, even though only partially), working alongside the workers (not feeling you are the patrón, ordering them around without mixing with the workers) and not wasting anything (recycling residue and waste no matter what it is, and taking advantage of even the smallest piece of land). But Claudio, because he carries around an individualistic mentality as neoliberalism teaches, missed what is unspoken: the Salvadoran has cultivated that spirit of work on his farm, his family, as well as in his neighborhood within a social network in which he moves like a fish in water, coordinating and mutually supporting one another; this is a fundamental part of the how. For that reason, when Claudio works on his 50 acres of land and is not working in his family and social surroundings, his efforts are like putting salt in water; the pre-existing network accustomed to continue, subsist, without much effort and governed by sharp-toothed beliefs, end up killing that “Salvadoran” spirit that Claudio brought with him. In this way, his individual efforts do not have a good launching pad.

To make this awakening viable, to venture out and generate different actions on returning to his 50 acres, Claudio needs to be accompanied by an invigorating network, like a cooperative that reinvents itself, and needs to reflect with his wife, family and friends, where he can quit subsisting and live better if they mutually support one another. What cooperative can, like fertile soil, facilitate an approach of cooperation which would catalyze the energy of dozens of people like Claudio? In this section we show how members in a cooperative discover their worlds, the fact that their cooperatives were co-opted by global capitalism, and how these cooperatives, connecting these worlds, can reinvent themselves.

1.    A cooperative emerges that turns its back on its members

Part of the collective awakening is revealing the internal world of cooperatives and their communities. There, the view of production is diversified agriculture which resists mono-crop farming, it is agriculture that is combined with small and/or large livestock and with patches of forest with springs of water. Families deal with different systems including different degrees of processing their food (corn in tortillas and pinol, roasted coffee or pork in nacatamales), they exchange products and labor among neighbors and communities, and move about within a sea of beliefs like those that the neighbors and relatives of Claudio convey in the story. In these spaces the roles of men and women are in tension, their rights are contested (e.g. right to inheritance and education), and silently endogenous institutions and their values, like solidarity and loyalty, appear to step back in the face of the avalanche of colonial and patriarchal capitalism under the values of “market justice” and the maxim from Spanish colonialism of “heed but do not comply.”[2] It is the community space of family and neighbor networks which, densely or weakly connected with the network of economic, religious and political mediation, struggle with one another, encourage and discourage one another, and it is the space of natural life that complains to the mirror that it is only seen as a resource (commodity). It is the internal side of cooperatives, its associative foot, that fights over policies of equity, democracy (counterweights) and transparency, amid despotic and alienating structures. It is the sphere for value creation. It is the side of social structures of majorities in any part of the world.

Awakening to this internal world, in turn, makes one discover that most cooperatives are organized for the outside world, and that their perspective is to see their internal reality with the eyes of a trader or a private bank, with market eyes. Figure 1 shows the sphere of the community (internal) and the sphere of the market (capital) which finds itself unrooted from the community and instead erodes it. What does this mean? Most cooperatives provide credit and sell products for the market, outside the community; with credit they finance the purchase of agro-chemicals and assume that “the chemicals are what make them produce.” They are loans exclusively for mono-cropping activities.

From that angle, the internal part of the cooperative is seen as merchandise: products, land, nature, money, labor and organization are valued for being merchandise; the members are seen as functional to that merchandise. For example, they see nature as a carbon sink, wood or oil. To commodify is to separate (uproot) products from their sources or bases (roots) and make these commodity products appear as if they were “free”, separate from the people and nature that produced them; it is seeing the cooperative itself as “free” and “independent” from the members that compose it, “free” from their rules to subject it to the rules of the market.

This commodification only includes products of mono-cropping or “natural resources” directed outside the community. On the one hand, it is taking out the best of the product and leaving behind “the worst”: for example, exporting first quality coffee and leaving the worst for local consumption.  On the other hand, it is imposing products from outside to empty them of their diversified production: vegetables instead of gardens, GMO seed instead of native seed, agrochemicals on the crop instead of feeding the soil, soft drinks instead of their citrus drinks… Box 1 shows the avalanche of products from outside that come into communities, along with devaluing the products that they have in their own communities, and lowering their personal and social self-esteem. It is a pair of pliers capable of severing human and natural lives: they extract value through mono-crop farming and impose products from outside nullifying the products from the communities themselves.

They are types of cooperatives that, on dedicating themselves only to the domain of the market and commodifying what is internal, extract value and generate wealth which is not distributed to the members – this is the beginning of the uprootedness. They justify this fact from the domain of the market: “The profits of the cooperative are thanks to our effort”, repeat the technocrats of the cooperative. On the side of the members, they tend to not question that technocratic belief, they tend to not understand that their efforts produce and organize the cooperatives, naturally they tend to repeat the belief that “God makes it produce, we do not, God does everything; without God there is nothing”; at the same time, the idea of rights is foreign to the peasantry, they assume that they were born and grow without rights or obligations, the institution prevails that only the patrón has the right to profits and information, the rest just have to work – “God made my destiny.” Given this confluence of attitudes where peasant effort is effaced, they feed the belief that “money can make even a monkey dance”, they assume that the loan provided by the cooperative makes it produce coffee, cacao or sugar cane: “It is the chemical inputs that we have financed  that make it produce, the producer only applies them and harvests,” they repeat without batting an eye, playing to the pocket of the large corporations like Bayer, Corteva and Syngenta.

These co-opted cooperatives ignore the fact that the products which are traded belong to the members, that they are the ones who organized the cooperative and manage it through their organs – at least according to the law. By ignoring these processes, that technocratic layer convinces themselves that the profits generated in the cooperative are the effect of their efforts, more clearly the efforts of the market. Correspondingly, they see as normal the disconnection between the inside world and the outside world, the sphere of the community and that of the market; more than disconnection and more than that outside/inside duality, from the domain of the market they see that the inside world depends on the outside, they conceive that the motor of development is capital, it is the global market. Therefore, the mentality that prevails is that there is no relationship between the effort of the members and their right to profits and information on the part of the cooperative, rather – they think – that this peasantry should be “grateful” to those from outside for extracting from them (dispossessing them) of the values that they are creating.

These cooperatives are characterized by functioning only with their business foot, because they tend to centralize decisions in the management (if they do not have a manager, in the presidency), ensconced in their posts. It is like the populism of the XXI century, there is a deified leader and there are masses, without institutions that might mediate or without their being counterweights. “It is organized from above” (“direct democracy”) and “everything comes from above:” God, capital, command, explanation, justification, rewards, and punishment. The head of the government is the head of State, likewise the presidency and/or that technocratic layer in the cooperative takes the place of its organs (administrative council, oversight board and assembly), while they follow the previously mentioned Spanish colonial maxim “heed but do not comply”. The assembly of the cooperative can issue agreements, the manager or the president heeds them but do not apply them; the members themselves who agree on some credit policy, for example, heed it but do not follow it – they go directly to the manager or the president to request a loan, they do not follow the procedure approved in the assembly to go to the credit committee and meet certain requirements. Likewise, international aid agencies, buyers and social banks, they know the rules of the cooperative, they heed them but they do not follow them; they reach agreements only with the manager or, if the cooperative does not have a manager, they meet only with the president, as if the cooperative were a hacienda, and continue swimming exclusively in the financial world (“ we pay a good price,  with that the cooperative is better off”, “we give credit to cooperatives that have buyers that pay us, that benefits them”) where human and natural communities only have value if they turn into a ton of resources valued by capital.

2.    The magic of connecting the inside world with the outside world

Members discover these two worlds where global capitalism extracts value from them, they realize that their cooperative got away from them and got on that truck from where they extract value from them, they perceive that as members their own mentality adopted from the elites made them see that the effort attributed to God in reality was their own effort, and that one of the keys to improving their lives is connecting their efforts with their right to the distribution of profits…So, suddenly they see the wall in Figure 1, that wall which had remained invisible; they wake up with a start. It is like they sharpened a machete, and that machete is getting close to their heart: a peasantry organizes their cooperative, a cooperative which is co-opted by the market and then is “freed” from the members and is dispossessing them[3]. In this process the members discover that they themselves are trapped in beliefs, they understand that they create value and that there is a relationship between their effort and their right to receive profits and to be informed, to analyze that information…Rights begin to become familiar to them, cease feeling like something foreign. They relook at the soil, they begin to see it as a product of humans and nature, of centuries of effort, that it has life and it has rights – like rivers, the forest…They realize that recognizing their efforts and the effort of the soil makes them re-perceive also their relationship with God, it deepens their faith in a God who loves those who exert themselves in a group.

This collective awakening and its dare to explain what is happening leads them to outline a change about their organization, the fact that their cooperative organizes itself internally and externally, that it connects both worlds to root itself in the communities: see Figure 2. There in that figure the duality is diluted, particularly subjecting itself to the global market, an interaction appears between different elements. To the extent that they connect, something magical happens: the wall disappears, they innovate, and they reinvent their cooperative under a horizon that refers to their community, no longer to the market. And in this process, the people themselves “are born again.”[4].

How is it that the cooperative connects both worlds? In this cooperative the members reinvent themselves, following the triad of awakening, daring and taking differentiating actions, they glimpse a community horizon for which they use capital and markets. To do so, the members, their leadership and their membership synchronize their actions, coordinate, function as a team, deepen their profit-sharing policies, transparency and democracy and generate aggregate results of well-being. Each member is like a piece of a puzzle that, on being connected, generates an image of new futures, and an image of organization where members, by being part of it, feel like they are something more than themselves.

Acting as a team, the magic is in connecting both worlds, communicating between one and the other, and facilitating innovation, using markets in the service of people. Communicating means that each world interacts through the mediation of the cooperative, which, like Mascarita in the novel of Vargas Llosa “El Hablador” serves the role of mediator because of understanding and speaking the languages of the different worlds, and making them communicate between one another, that they recognize the existence of the other; in this sense, the cooperative seeks that both worlds be transformed in the service of people and their surroundings[5]. Then, the cooperative facilitates their reorganization; the cooperative, in the end, realizes that what is “outside” the cooperative does not organize it, it is the market that organized them, while reorganizing what is inside is what is truly difficult, and doing it pulling what is outside to be enrooted in what is inside is really something magical.

The cooperative, in this dynamic of reorganizing, becomes a space for learning which facilitates innovation, which is why, understanding the why and having a horizon of community which is transformed for the common good, it is concerned with the how.

  • The story of Claudio about what he learned in El Salvador and the unspoken part that we showed, illustrates how the social element matters. Claudio, to carry out what he learned and what awoke him, needs to function as a group, a cooperative, where they coordinate and complement their actions.
  • The cooperative redirects credit to diversified systems and several crops (farming, livestock and non-farming activities); it pushes members to combine agriculture and ranching, and innovate with credit rules: for example, not by area of production, but by loyalty to the agreements of the cooperative (e.g. amount of credit in accordance with the volume of cacao that they have turned in during the last year); it finances women who are raising pigs and who, due to their financial needs from a sickness or some emergency, want to sell them between 1-3 months before they finish fattening, the rule would be: “Amount of loan is equivalent to 70% of what the pig weighs at that moment, that pig, when it finishes fattening up, would be sold to the cooperative at the street price”; in this way, the person will be able to finish fattening their pig and sell it at a better price, and the cooperative would be ensured the purchase of a pig.
  • The cooperative provides services for processing products and selling them in the community market, and selling raw materials in the international market; for example, exporting coffee and roasting first and second quality coffee to sell it in the communities; the same with cacao, sesame seed and any other product.
  • The cooperative provides services for producing organic inputs, with the goal being not the productive yield of one crop per se, but improving the soil from a perspective of community and sustainability in the long term; this service is carried out by the members, because producing organic fertilizer requires coordinating with one another to collect small and large livestock manure, using the waste from farm products, buying ingredients like zinc, boron, sulphur; it also implies doing soil analyses and resulting fertilizer analyses to apply what the soil needs and in an appropriate volume; it is also recording data, observing the effects on the soil and on plants, analyzing this data in a group and consequently innovating new ways of making organic inputs and applying them on their farms.
  • The cooperative organizes a store when increasingly the products to be sold come from the communities themselves, which implies innovating in initiatives that catalyze the entrepreneurship of people in their communities.
  • The cooperative captures profits, innovates in the rules for their use, and redistributes them with equity to the members and the agreed upon activities; part of the profits goes to a social fund which requires innovative rules to respond to deeply felt needs, and so that this fund be sustainable as well; part of the profits are redistributed individually according to criteria of member contributions to the cooperative, loyalty or other criteria worked on and agreed upon in the assemblies.

These elements illustrate how a cooperative which reinvents itself, first is grounded in the interior world, the members run their cooperative, and then facilitate the grounding of markets in the community social structure with potential for good transformation. This is how the effort of the members connects to their rights, likewise to the rights of nature.

This type of cooperative ceases to be a branch of colonial and patriarchal capitalism and does not subject itself to pre-existing rules. This cooperative turns into a mediator between the outside world and the inside world, in an organizer of services for the common good and in an innovator of social rules (e.g. the rule with women in raising pigs), which in turn leads them to negotiate initiatives and their knowledge with different social sectors of the communities.

3.    By way of final reflection

What is seen up to now could be understood as something micro. Nevertheless, these micro elements reflect what is global and are reflected in what is global and reveal to us concrete ways of how to deal with the challenges of today´s world. In the last three decades, globalization expressed as markets in service of big corporative capital, rooted in less than 1% of the world´s elite, are wiping out all social, cultural and environmental structures of humanity. It dispossesses them of the value they create, being part of the consequences of the ecological holocaust that is coming and the social inequality which we are experiencing as never before in the history of humanity, along with the military conflagrations.

This global capitalism, nevertheless, is resisted in different ways in every part of the world, including the United States, with the paradoxical movement of Trump. This tectonic clash is expressed in the Russia/Uranian war, the fight between Muslim countries and the west, and in the tensions that exist in Latin America between societies and their governments and markets, for example, in the Amazon under the government of Bolsonaro, or communities of the agricultural frontier in Central America confronting corporation extractors of natural sources converted into resources and value that the peasantry and indigenous populations produce.  Unrooted global capitalism, as happened in Europe before the Second World War, described by Polanyi, that produced authoritarian fascism and the world war, today is also producing that authoritarianism and rampant violence.

Here we show not just a way of fighting rampant capitalism uprooted from societies, but a way of connecting them with community social structures, a connection in pursuit of the common good, of their grounding, that they be “societies with markets.” Cooperatives, like States, churches and organizations like the United Nations, connecting different rules, can contribute to a greater grounding of processes that prevent the emergence of future wars and authoritarian systems.

[1] Rene has PhD in development studies, is a collaborator with the Winds of Peace Foundation ( and an associate researcher at the IOB-Antwerp University (Belgium). This article is possible because of our accompaniment of a dozen cooperatives in Central America, a collective accompaniment which includes the participation of many people. This article is part of a book that we are writing about cooperatives.

[2] This maxim goes back to the emission of the laws of the crown of the king of Spain in the time of colonialization and conquest. These laws were heeded, but because they were not viable to the interested parties, the conquistadores did not follow them. They did not challenge these laws of the king, but they questioned the validity of applying them. That maxim persisted through the centuries, enhanced in their societies and institutions. It became an unspoken law, many times reformulated as “you can make me sign, but I will never comply.”


[3] It is like a couple that forms a family, and which, through the husband who seeks out lovers “outside” their marriage, turns against its members, “consumes” them and impoverishes them financially and emotionally. It is like a person who migrates to another country looking for money and does not see the value there is “within”, like the Salvadoran who “teases” him over his 50 acres. And it is like a group of people who organize a church, which is reduced to the liturgical act and whose pastor extracts value from them in tithes and first fruits for his own benefit, a church that keeps them from seeing God in their own efforts for the common good.

[4] In John 3:1-10, in response to the question from the rich man Nicodemus, Jesus said: “Amen I say to you that he who is not born again cannot enter the kingdom of God”. How? “To be born again” is to be like children (Mt 18:3) who, within the context of Mediterranean culture, was to be “no one”, abandoned and dependent. An adult would not want to be compared to a child, they would understand it as an insult in that society of honor and shame. But Jesus sees the innocence and humility of the child. From the context of cooperatives we interpret this biblical passage in the following way: in this social context of honor and shame where being compared with a child is an “insult”, precisely being a child is valued, someone who is a “nobody”, who at the same time is free from beliefs that in their youth and adulthood will permeate and govern them, tell them what to do and what not to do, far from social justice and equity. Correspondingly, to be born again is to free oneself from those beliefs, free themselves from being “someone”, unlearn, it is to become a child, to make your own way.

[5] To a certain extent, the experience of awakening that Mons. Romero in El Salvador had, described by María López Vigil in her book, Monseñor: Pieces of a Mosaic”, expressed the connection between two worlds, just in religious terms. Romero describes the world of his origins born into social surroundings of poverty, and describes the global religion that uprooted him from the communities where God lives and immersed him in contradiction with his own origins. In the face of the murders of his fellow priests who accompanied people born into poverty in their faith and struggles, Romero reconnected with his origins and awoke and changed forever. In this sense, the cooperative is like the murdered priests and like Romero himself, who recognize both worlds and are startled by their disconnection and the power asymmetry that mediates between them, and work at the cost of their lives for the transformation of both worlds.


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