May: The Power of Communities
René Mendoza Vidaurre
We were waiting for you like the “rains of May”,
said the girls as they hugged their grandparents.
The fifth month of the year is called “May” in honor of Maya, one of the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione from Greek mythology; “Maia”, goddess of abundance. People who dig into history also tell us that it was a month for the elderly, the word “elderly” in Latin is “maiorum”. In Central America May means the first rains of the year, with which agriculture begins, and all the pallid landscape of April turns green and pulses with life; the popular expression is “the rain showers of May”, the month most anticipated. This article is about the force of community, that when we discover it, is like the month of May: abundant, alive, ever changing and very much anticipated. RSEs respond to their community, and have building that community as their reference point or horizon, it is their umbilical cord, their brand and love.
1. What people in the communities see and think
Those who live in a village or hamlet watch the movement of people. They see buyers come in to buy coffee, beans, or agoutis; for the buyers the community is a place to buy things. They see people who have diplomas arrive, and board members of organizations, who greet them from the road, estimate the harvest, fill out paperwork, and leave promises behind; for them the community is a stone paved road. They see people arrive in cassocks, lab coats, or wearing glasses, who enter the church, school or health center; for them, the community is a bunch of cement blocks with tin roof sheeting, and “poor people.”
Among those people who are watching, Elder Lagos, from the community of San Antonio, observes, “The cooperatives collect the coffee harvest in the towns, while the buyers collect it here in the community”. The “town” is the municipal capital, and “the community” is a rural locality. The logical thing would be the reverse: that the cooperatives would collect the harvest in the community itself, but no, no. The upside down world.
From another community, Ocote Tuma, in the municipality of Waslala, Rodrigo López observes: “There are two cooperatives from town with members here, those cooperatives are in the town; they never meet here.” What? And what does it mean to be a cooperative member? “The two cooperatives only want cacao, no matter where it comes from, people are not of value to them.” As we said before, it seems like the world is upside down.
People also look at their own community. There were good times when by growing just coffee, cacao or cattle people bought their vehicles, took on positions of responsibility and went to live in town. Those who have stayed, see and feel that for having clung to just one crop their water sources have dried up, and the soil has become weary, while the prices of those products have dropped, and the prices of agro-chemicals have risen. But even though betting on only one crop is affecting them more and more, people are hanging onto that crop, like the Koala bear hugs the eucalyptus tree! But there are people who open their eyes: Daniel Meneces remembers the words of his uncle Toño, “A lot of people are like the dog who barks at the squirrel believing that it is in the tree, when the squirrel has already left.” Betting on only one crop is like barking at the tree, when “the squirrel has already left.”
Other people open their eyes to see more: they discover the inequality in the community itself, reproduced by the cooperative itself. “We are at different places on the staircase,” said Claudio Hernández from the community of Samarkanda. That expression assumes that everyone rises using that staircase, there is no other, some are higher up and others are lower, there is no way of changing where you are. But the mere fact of recognizing it makes you think differently.
2. What people do when they discover their strengths
These observations awaken three, five, ten and thirty people. So, in this way, awakening, a group of people in the community of San Antonio formed a cooperative. They met to look for ways different from how traditional cooperatives operate; they decided to collect coffee and paid for it in the community itself. They did it. The result: families saved the cost of transporting the coffee to town. It is like they made a different “half staircase”.
Another cooperative was formed in Ocote Tuma, composed mostly of youth. In that cooperative, with their fingernails and the friendship of their neighbors, they bought cacao to dry it in the community itself, and pooled their earnings to invest in a chicken farm. They are beginning to crawl.
There are other people who turn their focus to the land, water, the farm and to processing foodstuffs. They got into making bread, honey…”The cents that it costs us make them more delicious”, concludes Doña Justina Meneces.
When the cooperatives are from the community itself, they help to repair the country road, they are members of the water committee, and look to protect water sources, and organize other committees so that each family might have access to water in their homes. Land and water are valuable and are worth more than money!
And they take more steps. In the face of the custom that has become law of “exporting the best and leaving the worst”, they roast coffee in the communities. In the face of the rule that “organization and projects come from outside”, they talk with one another so that there is water in the community. In the face of the wealthy who say that “only money moves people”, they visit one another, and the affection that they cultivate moves them even more. In the face of the storefronts which make people go into debt and then end up going broke themselves, new community stores emerge that when they let people make purchases on credit, they only allow it for “products that you share with your family” – products like beans or oil, but not cigarettes. This community spirit is like your first love, it has unimaginable flavors.
3. Good changes are done in alliances
Marx, a century and a half ago, said that peasants were like “a sack of potatoes”, meaning that they were similar, and that they lived closed off from society. Some 20 years ago in the Nitlapan Institute, on finding communities that resisted mono-cropping, that generally expelled people and disappeared communities, we used to call them “peasant pockets”. Now we realize that they are neither a “sack of potatoes” nor “peasant pockets” they are people so united and face to face with one another, and with so many connections that their friendships and relatives cross over communities and countries.
So it is difficult for one community to organize itself on its own. It is difficult for outside aid agencies to be able to organize a community, whether they arrive with a sword, the Bible or dollars – they can build their church, company or military post as enclaves. With the RSEs we have learned a different path: a community can organize if people from inside and out connect with one another, not just link, but connect! When people connect, they do magical things. This is how community stores and roasters are emerging.
When this happens, when they connect, the force of communities is like “the rains of May”, which makes good changes sprout. This is the process in which we find ourselves.