Cooperatives rooted in their communities committed to coffee quality
A couple of coop members were travelling in a bus. After getting settled, Juana said to Pedrón “Life is something, right?” Pedrón reacted recalling that song; “and what is life?” “Our lives are like coffee” said Juana seriously. “What? How is that?”, Pedrón continued asking. “In the patio of the Mill, the more the coffee dries the more you see its defects.” Hahaha, Pedrón laughed and a moment later said, “Even if you only look for the defects, there are more good beans, like you my dear.” “Hahaha, such is life.” The couple of coop members are laughing and ruminating in the bus on their way back home: their coffee is similar to people´s lives.
On January 5, 2021 we 6 cooperatives met at the Dry Mill of Solidaridad. All the cooperatives take their coffee to this Mill, coffee from different ecologies, altitudes and varieties (see table 1). All are first tier cooperatives whose members come from the same community. Women make up 22.5%. of the members. These cooperatives receive credit from the Winds of Peace Foundation (WPF). Some have organic coffee, others conventional, and all are committed to improving the quality of their coffee. It is a cluster of peasant coffee.
Table 1. Cooperatives that are selling 2020/21 coffee
Total number of members
Artesanos del Café (COARCA)
Catimor, parai-nema, caturra, lempira, bourbon
Guardianes del Bosque (GARBO)
Catimor, catuaí, pacamara and marsellesa
Catimor, mara-caturra, catuai, caturra and java
Catimor, caturra, catuai, parainema and marsellesa
Catimor, Caturra, parainema and Marsellesa
Catimor, catuai, Caturra, parai-nema, Marse-llesa, lempira, java and bourbon
Source: Based on the 6 cooperatives
Among those participating there were members and board members. Everyone arrived with the desire to see their coffee. They also brought concerns about the street prices for coffee, about the fact that in some places the coffee harvest is now ending, in others it is not. GARBO: “In Peñas Blancas the end of January will be the height of the harvest, in previous years the height of the harvest was the end of December. Is it climate change?”
2. Reception and classification of the coffee
We classify as A coffee, coffee that has from 0 to 5 defects. B is from 6 to 10. C is from 11-14.
On receiving the coffee, after weighing it, it is classified to define its imperfection rate. The bag is stuck with a sampling probe to get a sample of 100 grams. The beans which are hulled, broken, black, not ripe, affected by coffee bore…are identified. If there are 5 that are broken, that is 1%. The same with black ones…In the end these percentages are added up, and that is what is written in the receipt. They also note there if there are beans with pulp and if the coffee has light or severe mold.
In general, the coffee coming in is better than last cycle. Even though there are a lot of unripe (green) beans. The broken and hulled beans are more because of the calibration of the pulper.
Coassan is expressing a concern about the weighing: “With small volumes, less than 10 sacks of coffee, the scales here match the scales that we have, but when we send more than 15 sacks we feel that the scales here show a difference”
In 4 days coffee drops from 30 degrees of humidity to 16 degrees. They leave it one day shaded (piled up and covered with plastic). Then they rake the coffee on the patio, because there is less volume; in mills with greater volume of coffee in each patio, it can even get moldy. By covering it and raking it the drying of the beans is more even. At 13 degrees the coffee is moved to the warehouse. Weeks later in the hulling the coffee loses humidity through the heat of the huller.
If a lot of coffee goes onto the patio, the coffee at 18 degrees of humidity is picked up in sacks and taken to the warehouse, there it will continue drying and its quality will not be affected, while the wet or humid coffee is put on the patio.
Light or heavy mold is not a problem, the sun will remove it. The problem is when the mold is in the groove of the bean.
In this mill coffee is managed according to the request of the cooperative that owns the coffee. COASSAN asked the coffee to be managed by producer, and the 13th of Oct asked that it be managed in 3 lots; so that is how it is managed. In this way, if one lot is damaged, COASSAN informs the producer members that their coffee was damaged; the same with the 13th of October as it is managed by harvest collection site by zone. In the warehouse it is also managed by lots, having their different qualities in small lots is an opportunity for buyers.
Last cycle the coffee from December cupped at scores of between 79-80. Now they are cupping at between 80-83. This is a good sign.
Coffee from Coassan scored 79-80, now 82-83. With rest it could reach 84.
Coffee from 13 de octubre scored 79, now it is 81-82. With rest it could reach 83.
Coffee from Garbo is 82-83, they have large beans. Very good!
There are no beans damaged by the coffee bore in this cycle.
Suggestions from the cupping:
Dry coffee with some honey on it [mucilage], then sun dry it. “Because coffee is like meat, if you wash it too much you dry out all the blood.”
Green [unripe] beans takes points away. If in the picking, they pick green, half ripe and ripe, the coffee quality is affected. Assign someone to pick out the green beans, this will improve the quality. Mature beans improve quality
5. Administration and commercialization
Financing and commercialization go hand in hand, this is moving the coffee to the mill. WPF supports us and the cooperatives respond to that trust.
There is money circulating in the communities, from high prices for coffee above the NY price. This is affecting the loyalty of the members of their cooperatives, because on becoming aware of those prices, they want to sell their coffee to the buyers. If a cooperative provides credit and provides technical support to a member, and that member sells their coffee to a buyer, this is disloyalty to their cooperative, this means that the cooperative is supporting the buyer.
Harvest collectors are also appearing in the communities [not just the municipal capital, as previously], many times they are the former presidents of cooperatives themselves who are taking advantage of their contacts that the cooperative achieved during their period as presidents. These same people receive good prices from buyers through the cooperative itself, without the cooperative being able to apply its rules, because some buyers do not recognize what is happening in the cooperatives and condition even including so and so in order to buy coffee from the cooperative. Are we cooperatives sowing cooperativism properly? Are buyers helping the cooperatives?
“Loyalty falls apart more when we do not have markets”
“In bad times (low street prices) we unite and in good times (high street prices) we disperse”; “some change their buyers like changing their religion”.
“We are financing the competition”
There is loyalty between Solidaridad and the cooperatives
“We came from Bencafé [another mill], we compare yield and costs, and we are doing well here”
“Here we get receipt by lots, with that we can tell the producer, “Your lot is damaged” or “your lot is excellent”
“We are among small producers; if we get to be large one, let us not turn our backs on one another, the larger we are, the more humble we should be.”
“Sustaining the Solidaridad mill is also important to us”
“In my cooperative in assemblies we explain the treatment that they give us here, here it is producer to producer; we came from a Union, here we feel like we are at home.”
We also have triangulated loyalty with WPF
“We will have a bean selector with a loan, all the coffee will be processed here”
“there are buyers who already have a commitment with some cooperatives”
“There is a buyer called Juan de Dios Castillo, he is offering $150/qq export coffee with a cupping score of 81 and above, giving $20,000 in advance, 3% a month, for 3 containers”.
So far cooperatives like COASSAN and GARBO are turning in a lot of coffee, compared to their volumes from last year. Nevertheless, the Solidaridad Mill has only received 20% of the coffee that it had projected to receive this cycle.
Buyers within the FairTrade framework are not buying coffee in Nicaragua in the way that they did in the past. Having the FairTrade seal, but not able to sell at the FairTrade price. Some want a combination: 2 containers at fair trade price and 2 containers at the street price, it does not work.
In this cycle those of us who do not have buyers, at least we want to be left “even”, that we don´t lose money.
The marketing of the cooperatives is weak, we have a low budget for this important action. It is important to invest in a webpage, social networks, sending samples, telling the story of the cooperatives.
Table 2 shows the volume collected, the situation of the imperfection rate and the cupping results.
Table 2. Coffee quality collected up to Jan 4, 2021
Volume collected as quintals of parchment coffee up to Jan 4, 2021
Cond sc, mamacoffee, thanksgiving coffee/etico, adix coffee, J % M family coffee
From a projection of 21,177 qq. to be processed in the mill, by Jan 4, 17.44% had been collected
Source: Cooperativa Solidaridad
6. Outstanding elements of the meeting
The entire process was seen: reception, patio-drying, cupping and markets. The members were proud to see their coffee in the patio or the warehouse. Listening to each element, it was possible to connect the picking phase to the wet milling phase, for example, selecting the coffee beans so that it have higher quality.
Management by lot, if the cooperative requests it, gives it differential treatment, the Mill supports them in this.
Observation made about the weighing.
Recording the results of the cupping can be shared if the cooperative so requests.
The quality of the coffee of the 6 cooperatives in this cycle could be between 82-84. Good scores!
Solidaridad is going to review the weighing and is going to test it with the coffee received. A lot of 20 sacks they are going to weigh together, and then they are going to weigh them by 10 sacks at a time, and thus test to see if there is a difference or not.
It is important to increase the volume of coffee collected on the part of the 6 cooperatives. Listening to the members about why they are diverting their coffee, maybe conversing they can arrive at beneficial agreements; in these cases, let us show a certain amount of flexibility, at times “disloyalty” is due to mutual distrust. In the case of ex board members collecting coffee in the same communities, competing with their cooperatives, applying the rules of the cooperative is healthy. The month of January is key for buying coffee.
Improving the quality, even though we are doing well. Select your coffee better
Cupping is being done weekly; if the cooperative requests that the results of the cupping be sent to them, Solidaridad will send them to you.
Each cooperative will think about how to work on the marketing, and in the month of February when we come back to meet again, we will discuss if there are ways of working on that in a coordinated way.
Support one another as cooperatives. GARBO: “If someone needs coffee for their container, the coffee of GARBO is available.”
Improve hygiene and prevention measures in the Solidaridad Mill: providing disinfectant for shoes and place for hand washing.
Next meeting in February
We want to thank the Cooperativa Solidaridad and WPF for this relationship of trust which is being built between the cooperatives and for holding this meeting.
Each person returns to their homes, ruminating and laughing, like the couple in the bus as the story at the beginning of this text tells us.
 This text is a record of a meeting written by René Mendoza, adviser-accompanier of cooperatives and collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org On the part of the Solidaridad Cooperative, Jacqueline Sánchez explained the imperfection rate; Eloy, the drying patio; Jaime explained cupping; and Aleyda Blandón and Ottoniel Arguello talked about selling the coffee.
Rosita spent days thinking, until one day she said to her Mother: I want to be a doctor, will you let me go study?
Ah, my daughter, your Dad is going to get upset, María responded. That night María told her husband José that Rosita wanted to study medicine. He got upset. What? Women are for the kitchen! Who stuck those ideas in her head?
María cried the entire night.
In the morning José left to talk to his patron. He asked permission for his daughter to study. The patron reacting angrily, What? Women don´t have the head for those things. They are here to give birth to peons. Send her to me to work, the devil got into her for being lazy!
At midnight José told María what his patron has said. If you send her, she is going to be his, for a time, pronounced María between sobs.
Rosita heard that whispering. She remembered her days in school, her grandmother and her “stolen” friends. Am I myself? Am I crazy? she asked herself. There has to be another way to live, she responded and prepared her bag. She left a note and took off. The note said, “I am leaving alone with my thoughts.”
In this story appears the colonial structure where it is thought that a peasant woman cannot think (“does not have the head for that”), the patriarchal structure where is it believed that women cannot make decisions, and the capitalistic structure where women are valued if they reproduce the labor force. People move about in this triad structure, like trains on their rails. Rosita, nevertheless, detects that structure, has aspirations, achieves the support of her mother and her father, leaves, not “stolen”, secretly “alone with her thoughts”. A social enterprise is like Rosita, it thinks, acts, ponders and begins a different path. What characteristics do these types of organizations have who go “off the rails?” How are they able to continue along this different path over time?
Rosita can begin a different path, but with the passage of time abandon her thoughts and end up acting like her parents and the patron, or she can mature her “thoughts” of being different. Something similar happens with social enterprises (cooperatives, community stores and roasters). Here we begin identifying these structures that make them de-volve, and then we delve into the rural social enterprises that are going deeper along a different path.
The domination triad of colonial and patriarchal capitalism rests on the assumption that the values of a society are considered universal, and assume progress as a lineal evolution where race, capital and the rod (authoritarianism) are “the rails.” We base this theoretical introduction on Quijano, Polanyi, Federici, and Lucas dos Santos and Banerjee.
Following Quijano (1992), separate from the defeat of political colonialism, a “colonization of the imagination of the dominated” persists. How did this occur?
This was the product, in the beginning, of systematic repression, not just the repression of specific beliefs, ideas, images, symbols or knowledge that did not serve global colonial domination. The repression fell, above all, on the forms of knowing, producing knowledge, perspectives, images and systems of images, symbols, forms of meaning; on resources, patterns and instruments of formalized and objectified intellectual or visual expression. It was followed by the imposition of the use of patterns of expression appropriate to those who were dominant, as well as their beliefs and images referring to the supernatural, which served not just to block the cultural production of the dominated, but also as a means of social and cultural control, when the immediate repression ceased to be constant and systematic (1992:12)
The “colonialization of the imagination” happens when a culture is repressed and replaced by another through systematic violence. In Figure 1 we lay out the detail of what Quijano proposes.
In time that “universal cultural model” became an aspiration of other cultures, particularly the “illiterate peasant subculture, condemned to oral expression” (13), who were left without a form of intellectual expression.
In this process, European culture appears as rational, belonging to “actors”, while all other cultures it is assumed are not rational, are inferior, “objects” of study. Correspondingly, in harmony with Saint-Simon, the idea emerged of an organic society, where one part of the body is in charge of the others without dispensing with them, the brain in charge of the arms. So, in society the owners are the brains and the workers are the arms. It is an image of society as a closed and hierarchical structure, where each part is subject to the totality. There history is conceived as an ongoing revolution from the primitive to the civilized, from savagery to the rational, from pre-capitalism to capitalism.
This Eurocentrism, according to Quijano (2014), is the specific logic of colonialism. The notion of race assumes that biologically some are inferior, and from capitalism the notion of the division of labor is reinforced reciprocally with race, for example that the workers by their inferiority are not worthy of wages, and the peasants should not aspire to be managers. That is where the Eurocentric myth originates of the “evolutionist perspective, of movement and unilateral and unidirectional change of human history.” (Quijano, 2014: 800).
Polanyi (2001, published for the first time in 1944) described this transformation of pre-industrial to industrial Europe in the XIX and XX centuries, the passage from a system of dispossession which led Europe from a “society with markets” to a “society of markets”, which led Germany, Portugal, Spain, Japan and Italy to fascist authoritarianism, and to the Second World War. Polanyi detected in addition forms of capitalization that were globalizing, which has been called neoliberalism, with the dominion of the force (laws and justice) of the globalizing market. Fifty years later, Stiglitz (2001:vii), rereading Polanyi, said in the prologue: “Due to the fact that the transformation of European civilization is analogous to the transformation that developing countries face throughout the world today, at times it seems as if Polanyi is speaking directly to the current situation.”
Stiglitz is correct in his observation but does not go far enough. This capitalism is colonial in the countries of the South, made worse than in the situation of Europe itself, expressed – without distinction as to political, religious or market leanings – in authoritarian structures mediated by the notion of race.
This colonial capitalism is also patriarchal. Federici (2010), studying capitalism from a feminist perspective, coincides with Marx in that primitive accumulation is salaried work separated from the means of production, she also understands it as separation from production by the market, while the reproduction of life is feminized and women are subjected to men for family sustenance. She found in the XVI and XVII centuries that capitalism caused hunger by the labor force, and that the belief was that the wealth of a nation consisted in having abundant salaried people, which is why the State and the Church, using violence, imposed witch hunting criminalizing birth control and controlling the female body, the uterus, to increase that labor force. “If in the Middle ages women had been able to use different contraceptive methods and had exercised an indisputable control over the birthing process, starting now their uteruses were transformed into political territory, controlled by men and the State: procreation was directly placed at the service of capitalist accumulation” (Federici, 2010: 138-139).
In the story at the beginning of the chapter, the patron repeats this rule of primitive accumulation, “those women are for producing peons”, and the father confirms that “women are for the kitchen.” If only 20% of land owners are women in Latin America, they are easily considered to be “arms” or a “rib”. In this way, race, capital and uterus are the rails of colonial and patriarchal capitalism, which we try to synthesize in Figure 2.
Lucas dos Santos and Banerjee (2019), from a framework of “economic colonialism” in line with Quijano (1992), observe how social enterprises are run and measured under the parameters of that framework. So, some are seen as advanced and others as backward. The authors detect five deficiencies in the functioning of social enterprises, see Table 1.
Table 1. Conception of social enterprises
What these deficiencies ignore
1. Concern about the technical aspect and their performance
Economic democracy goes with different community rationalities, not just performance with predefined results
Collective innovation is replaced by quick technical responses; collective solutions take time.
2. Under-representation of subordinate people in decision making processes
A broad perspective should include subordinated groups, whose voices should not be interpreted nor edited
Subordinate groups have different conditions and meanings to negotiate
3. Vision of pacifist civil society focused on organization
Voices, whispers, and silences express participation; principles of distribution, reciprocity and family maintenance.
Minorities do not have voice in social enterprises; markets shape the economy in the social and political order.
4. No attention to gender issues
Role of women in reciprocity, distribution and family maintenance should appear in debates.
More women participate in social enterprises, but theoretical debates with a feminist perspective are scarce.
5. Non problematization of the political and economic dimension
Economic autonomy, publc voice and visibility, unique solutions and protection networks in alternative arenas.
Alternative economies are defined by economic colonialism. Challenge of decolonializing social enterprises.
Source: based on Lucas dos Santos and Banerjee (2019)
Lucas dos Santos and Banerjee (2019) assume that promoting economic democracy in order to overcome “economic colonialism” requires addressing these five deficiencies. Cutting across these deficiencies is the idea of the market shaping social enterprises, without the perspectives of society having any importance. The authors insist that the voices of subordinate groups with their different rationalities should be made visible, even though these processes take time, and they question whether diverse and alternatives economies can be decolonialized.
2. Cooptation of social enterprises
Cooperatives were born from the womb of colonial countries and during the expansion of industrial capitalism, but in opposition to that system. That strength of “swimming against the current”, nevertheless, devolved through almost two centuries of history; today it is difficult to distinguish a cooperative from a private enterprise, to such an extent that in France they call it “cooperative capitalism” (Georges and Pascal, 2009). The word “enterprise” in its identifying definition entered for the first time in 1995 in the Congress of the International Cooperative Alliance, in the crest of the world rise of neoliberalism.
This colonial and patriarchal capitalism is reproduced by the social enterprises themselves. The deficiencies that Lucas dos Santos and Banerjee (2019) observe are taken on, for example, in the rural social enterprises in Central America, which does not lack any of them. The economic successes are emphasized without distributing surpluses, decisions are centralized without being transparent with information, are controlled by the market and technocracy, their actions and decisions are depoliticized, they exclude youth, women and workers without land. Figure 3 shows this structure that moves like one cogwheel crushing any option that goes off “the rails.”
Social enterprises are considered “the third sector”, alongside the State and the market, which is why it is expected that they might be a real counterweight, being democratic and equitable. This tends not to happen; social enterprises reproduce the hierarchical structures of the State and the market. The organizational chart of organizations has the assembly as their highest decision-making authority, but usually the assembly is only a formality. Technocratic elites in the organizations (social enterprises, business or sports associations, churches) became hierarchical, and the only gateway for the members to markets, states and gods. Markets see the social enterprise as a means to increase volume or to carry out imported projects. These elites see themselves as the “brain” embedded in the “strong man”, moving about in “black masses” (collusion among elites), from where they see the peasantry as “the arm,” “illiterate people who do not think”, that “the more brutish they are the more they produce.” For their part, aid organizations that tend to accompany them, even though bathed in discourses about democracy, are also hierarchical, reluctant to study the social enterprises, and inebriated with the technocratic belief that “they already know” the problems and solutions for the social enterprises, tacitly taking on the colonial logic that sees the social enterprises as the reflection of their past.
Most social enterprises are constituted by the State. It is assumed that forming a cooperative is a “matter of legalizing them”, promising them credit, land or some project; it is like getting married first before falling in love. This was true for the boom of cooperatives in Nicaragua in the 1980s, those of Venezuela in the first decade of the current millennium, or the rural banks in Honduras in the second decade of the current millennium. They are organized around mono-cropping systems or credit services. They are structures that see themselves only as rational businesses and individuals, neglect in practice their associative side and collective actions. They are formed under the idea that “a cooperative is for those who have” (land, coffee, sugar cane or cacao), and exclude those who “do not have anything” (women, youth and workers without land). They are organizations that are desperate to grow economically, which is why they do not distribute profits and intensify the hundred-year rule of “peasants are only for providing raw materials”.
These social enterprises have geographically dispersed membership and offices in the cities. They do not try to build trust among their membership as the basis for any action. The more they depend on markets and international aid agencies, the more they stick to formal aspects: contracts, audits, meeting minutes, and bids, disconnected from the processes of their membership. 20% of their members are women, most of them included as a formality. This low percentage is coherent with organizations dedicated to raw materials, where men are kings, while women are restricted to the kitchen and the reproduction of the labor force. The families themselves of the members are an expression of these hierarchical structures: husband/father centralizes decision making, and the family embraces the mono-cropping system. This social order is maintained even by violence, because social enterprises think that it is their duty to generate profits. The rule that governs them is “those who have, save yourselves”, at the cost of human lives and nature; it is the same rule of capitalism.
These three elements reveal the strength of colonial and patriarchal capitalism, coopting social enterprises, and using them as a means of dispossession. Table 2, reading it in a vertical way, shows what colonialism, capitalism and patriarchy are in the social enterprises, an expression of control and dependency, the superiority/inferiority duality that in the long term justifies violence. Meanwhile, reading it horizontally, it shows how embedded these three systems are: being guided by the patron, the market and men; the elite, the market and intelligent men; letting themselves be carried away by the oligarchy, the market and formality; mono-cropping, physical work and not processing products; predominance of discarding instead of change. They are intellectual sounding boards against the members, but in their name and through their own organizations. In the face of this, the elites of the market, the State and international aid organizations do not want to know whether the social enterprises are democratic, whether they distribute their profits, whether they are transparent, whether they have environmental sustainability, whether the voice of the members counts, whether subordinated groups are included…They are interested in the fact that the market rules in order to have profitable partners. The social enterprises with larger transaction volume and more working capital are praised and considered “advanced”.
Table 2. The triad reproduced by social enterprises
Peasants dream about being a patron: ordering, exploiting people and having money.
Cooperative wants to be a business and an actor in the market
A couple wants a son who “wields a machete” and not a daughter who “tends the hearth”.
Elites who see themselves as “the brain”: priest, sacristan and bell ringer all in one. Member: “waits for directions from above”
The market knows more, dictates justice and gives value to products and organizations
Head of the family (law, judge and jury); women in the kitchen, women for re-producing; cooperative is for men
Formal democracy in the assembly conceals control of the oligarchy
There are no decisions to make, just working and being an enterprise.
Membership of women is a formality, just to meet a requirement.
Cooperative is for mono-cropping, anchor for elites, divorced from the land
Peasants have comparative advantages with a crop that requires physical labor.
If peasants are only for raw materials, then there is no space for women who process and sell processed goods.
Strategy of change: I remove you to take your place.
Take land away from peasant to give them a job.
Exchange your wife for someone younger.
Source: author, based on accompaniment of organizations in Central America
Can social enterprises be decolonialized? We argue that they can, if the structures in which they operate change. This we will see in the following sections.
3. Social enterprises that go “off the rails”
“Put ourselves in the shoes of others” is advised to see the world from the perspective of other people. To do so, before that, we need to “take off the shoes we are wearing.”
3.1 Case studies
In each case we include the specific context, history of the organization and its community, distinctive rules and organization.
3.1.1 Nicaragua and organizations in synergy
From several cases with similar processes, we highlight one community with 2 cooperatives, 2 community stores and 2 community roasters.
The context is a rural community 260 kms from the capital in the municipality of San Juan del Río Coco, which in the last 30 years has become dependent on coffee and on one cooperative and conventional mediation for selling that coffee.The elite of that cooperative, like the intermediaries, used to hide information from the members, took the surplus, and the president has held the post for more than 30 years. This cooperative was worse than the intermediaries in that he manipulated the contributions of the members and collected coffee in the municipal capital (not in the community, like intermediaries do). The peasants reproduced the imposed rules: only producing raw materials, staying within their “piñuela fence”, money moves everything, and being concerned only about themselves –“those who have, save yourselves”.
As a result, the members where unaware of what happened to their coffee once it left their farms, more than 85% of the added value of coffee was captured outside of the community, they left the worst coffee for their own consumption, and lost control over their cooperatives. In a parallel fashion, groups of alcoholics and the abuse of women increased, while children without fathers continued to increase. Desperation spread: the producers more and more wanted to earn quick money, work less and went more into debt. The idea of “thinking big” controlled them, but understood as having greater volume, size (i.e. more members), capital (having a loan portfolio without concern about debt), and physical investment, at the cost of nature and people´s lives.
In the face of this situation, different groups reflected on their realities based on the question what would be opposed to the dominant cooperative model? They responded: depending on our own resources, members coming from just one community, and rotating leadership, more women and youth as members, working on different products and processing them, leaving the best for their own consumption, operating the entire year and not just during the coffee season, being guided by rules collectively agreed upon, distributing profits and being transparent. Correspondingly, one group organized a new cooperative, and another group, two community stores and coffee roasters.
The cooperative collected the coffee harvest in the community, got involved in credit and trade in beans, and in alliance with another enterprise, grew cardamom as a medicinal and agro-forestry plant with demand outside and inside the country. Their financial basis came from the contributions of their membership, and from a loan through a triangulated agreement between a cooperative with a dry mill and export services, an international financial foundation, and the cooperative itself; the first processes and looks for buyers, the second provides credit and the third ensured quality coffee. Visits of board members to the members of the cooperative increased, as did their informational transparency and the distribution of profits, thus recovering the best rules of cooperativism (see Box 1). Slowly they are improving endogenous institutions of aid, like sharecropping with beans; they are recreating rules of commercial mediation, instead of “I finance you and you sell me the harvest”, “we finance you, we sell your harvest, and then we distribute the profits.”
The community stores and roasters provide fair prices and fair weighing for products and services that they offer. The stores, in addition to conventional products, buy and sell products from the community, and promote group initiatives: e.g. they finance ingredients for bread-making for one group, they buy their bread to resell it. The basis of these social enterprises is also a form of triangulation: shareholders from the community, shareholders from outside the community and owners of the building who administer those services. Even though shareholders are mentioned, and the word “share” comes from Corporations (Inc), the stores and roasters seek to be democratic and equitable: see Box 2 with the principal rules.
The weight of women and youth is growing in these social enterprises and in initiatives linked to them, like the processing and trade of products. These social enterprises are becoming a source of credit and jobs for the shareholders themselves (e.g. rotation in the role of supervision and distributing), and spaces where they learn accounting, social business administration, written culture (recording data, taking notes and analyzing them), organization of initiatives and correcting rules that help people in their communities. Concerning the latter point, for example, selling products on credit that does not imply getting the family of the customer into debt, distinguishing between a collective asset (the store or roaster) and an individual asset (resource that belongs to a person), which allows administering another´s asset without squandering it, promoting collective innovations like raising chickens, bread-making, sewing. People want to contribute resources if they know where their resource is going, if they receive profits, and if these enterprises benefit the community.
Seen in its entirety, that authoritarian cooperative, even though at the beginning more so because its members did not desert it, joined together to contribute to the community in road improvement and visiting some of their members. The new cooperative stands out from the old model of cooperative, and feels pressure from the community stores and roasters who are scaling up based on their own resources. This indirect interaction (see Figure 4) is pressuring them to improve their democracy, transparency and equity. Said figuratively, instead of directly correcting the twisted tree, planting other trees, which combining sun and wind, slowly correct the twisted tree (authoritarian cooperative). “Thinking big”, in this sense, is multiplying organizations in the community around actions that break the curse of “only raw materials” and “we always need a patron”. The objective is not money but energizing the community.
When a social enterprise opens up a new path to be collective action, people take that path, learn it, and have the opportunity to catalyze their own changes.
3.1.2 Honduras and community organizations
Table 3. Events in the community
Los Encinos Peasant Store
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
Juan Bautista Community Store
Introduction of vegetables (FIA: Honduran Foundation for Agricultural Research)
APRHOFI: Intibucá Association of Vegetable and Fruit Producers
Inclusion of Los Encinos Store in the COMAL Network
Introduction of irrigation systems (USAID)
EMATE: Los Encinos Weaving Craft Enterprise
Recovery of APRHOFI
Introduction of ecological agriculture
ESMACOL: Lenca Community Alternative Multiple Service Enterprise. (7 Stores are the owners of Esmacol)
Introduction of greenhouses
In contrast to Nicaragua, the experience of Honduras is a community that organizes, expands outward based on a community store that emerged in the 1970s, and aims for the local and provincial market. It is the indigenous community of Encimos in the province of Intibucá, 115 kms from the capital.
The 1960s and 1970s were marked by changes in the social doctrine of the Catholic Church with the Second Vatican Council (1962), through which radio schools came into the rural area that taught people how to read and write and encouraged people to organize, and by the Alliance for Progress from the United States, to prevent infection from the Cuban revolution, pushing governments to carry out certain reforms to maintain control over the peasantry; in this way the National Association of Peasants of Honduras (ANACH) emerged, and the National Union of Peasants (UNC).
It was in those years that the people, harassed by large landowners and the Police, grabbed on to religion and liquor, one group visioned “bringing the store from the city to their community,” they formed the first store in 1975 and the second in 1999. Afterwards, international aid introduced technology into vegetables, created APROHOFI (business that marketed vegetables), and included the two stores in the COMAL Network, with rules and control from outside the community. It is in the decade of 2010 that the community groups scale up: they established their stores, formed EMATE in weaving, assimilated ecological agriculture and irrigation systems, took control over and corrected the rules of APROHOFI, and along with stores from other communities, co-governed ESMACOL. See Table 3.
Figure 5 shows the network in its entirety. The 3 organizations become a reference point in the community. They rescue APROHOFI from poor management; they consolidate it with governance from the community. ESMACOL, after 7 years, continues to be weak, like 5 of the 7 stores; co-governance with weak stores makes it difficult for ESMACOL to improve. A lesson that is emerging is that social enterprises tend to improve if the governance and rules come from the community itself.
What is described is the expression of a virtuous circle between technological change, markets, organization and finances: see Figure 6, supported by the image of a 4 layered onion. The organizations (stores, distributor, seller, weavings), the introduction of potatoes and vegetables, and investments in irrigation systems and greenhouses, reveals that there is an interaction between the technological, social, economic, cultural and spiritual. In other words, new crops and greater technological productivity implies more social cooperation between families, which generates economic costs and income, requires changes in the cultural sphere to the extent that agriculture intensifies and grapples with markets, which has repercussions on the spiritual-religious life of families, and this in turn on the technology…
What explains this circular process that began 45 years ago? First, the idea of “getting closer to the market” was a powerful vision within a context of political tensions and religious opening in the rural areas, a vision that assumed that the peasantry was valuable and could organize a store. A vision that later is made a reality on the basis of their own resources, learning each month to add and subtract what is bought and sold in the store, in spite of the fact that most of them did not know how to read. That vision and passion for the store to continue has accompanied them since that time.
Second, there was success with the rules for starting the store. Each member contributes 1500 Lempiras to their peasant store in January of each year, and with that they receive the equivalent of 100% of that contribution as earnings in December of each year. If a member contributes more than 1500 Lempiras, they receive 20% of that amount as earnings; that 20% continues being a greater benefit than saving it in a bank. The members get in credit the equivalent of up to twice their minimum contribution, in other words, up to 3,000 Lempiras; if the person is not able to pay in the annual term, the store is paid with the 3,000 of the distribution of profits-contribution. The stores offer products at prices slightly below market prices, while the salary of the administrator of the store is 30% of gross profits, which is why the administrator is incentivized to sell more, as the population is incentivized to make their purchases in the store. Box 3 lists the principal rules of the store and the other social enterprises.
Third, like many communities, in Encinos a good number of youth fell into alcoholism, putting the store itself at risk. The school teacher, Jenny Maraslago, saw this fact and helped to create the conditions for change. This is how Bernardo Gonzales remembers it: “In 1996 the teacher said, `such intelligent youth, it makes me sad to find them in the gutters.’ So she brought in the rules of AA; and introduced to us a friend from AA. Encouraged by my older brother, we immediately began to meet, and look, we quit getting drunk, everything changed that day.” 25 years later we found those youth, no longer in the gutters, but leading organizations. In 1975 they woke up to the possibility of bringing a store to the community, and in 1996 the rules of AA of not drinking liquor for 24 renewable hours showed them the path to take care of their community.
These three changes – vision, rules and awakening – contributed to creating the conditions so that in the years following Encinos would multiply their organizations and change their own way of farm production. After several decades of traditional agriculture, that hundred-year-old institution of “this is how I have always planted and how I always will”, gave way to “planting in furrows”, and later to ecological agriculture, and then to including greenhouse systems. They are mechanisms of identifying and applying the rules of each organization and nature itself, along with their organs taking up their respective roles, which led them to keeping just one person from playing the roles of “priest, sacristan and bell ringer”, and creating communities beyond the geographic space of Encinos. And in the opposite direction, every time that external actors consider and have an agenda foreign to that of the communities, initiatives like ESMACOL take more time to be sustainable and useful for the communities.
3.1.3 Guatemala and ecological agriculture which transcends
In Guatemala, a mostly indigenous country, a cooperative cultivates a transnational relationship and social cohesion with its members and organic agriculture. It is the cooperative of La Voz in the municipality of San Juan La Laguna, in the Province of Sololá, founded in 1979.
For decades they have experienced a context of discrimination from the people of San Pedro (non-indigenous from the neighboring town), of dispossession of their best land. Also, on the part of the Chalet owners, foreigners and non indigenous who took over the shores of Atitlan, one of the 7 wonders of the world, and built their chalets. In this context, and when organizing themselves under military dictatorships sounded like communism, a group of people understood that if they did not organize, they would die along with their relatives. They formed a cooperative and after suffering several attacks, one of them by the Police themselves, they turned themselves into an organic coffee cooperative, with a collective wet mill, even though with productive yields in weight equivalent to 60% of the conventional coffee of the San Pedro coffee growers. The first key to their persistence was their social cohesion as a group with a high rotation of members in leadership posts; the second key was their relationship with a market in the United States that were paying them well for their organic coffee. Up until 2004 that was the story of this cooperative, something unusual.
Between 2005 and 2010 the cooperative experienced a social, economic and environmental crisis. Hurricane Stan in 2005 and Agatha in 2010 made the waters of Atitlan rise, and with that a lot of land in dispute disappeared. In a parallel fashion, the cooperative fell into acts of corruption that put them at risk of going broke. In 2005 the cooperative got nearly half a million dollars in credit from a social bank and two loan sharks. In that same period the cooperative exported double the volume of their organic coffee, buying the other 50% from third parties, and passing it off as if it were fair trade, organic coffee from the cooperative. The members did not receive that loan, much less the profits for the resale of the other 50%. That was possible thanks to the complicity of the board and administrative staff of the cooperative, and the complacency of the certifiers (organic and fair trade), social banks and coffee buyers.
The members in that period of the board (2005-2006) were not aware of what was happening in the cooperative. In the next period (2007-2008) with a new board the situation was noticed because debt collectors came in, so they unraveled the origins of the debt. In the assembly they studied the causes, they met with the social banks, certifiers, buyers and aid agencies. What had led them to this crisis?
“If a member spoke well, we would say that that member was good, that he should be president. We trusted what the manager or the president would tell us, “This project is coming…sign here.” That is fine and we would sign. We did not verify the document to see what it ended up saying. They only would come in to tell us. There was no control over the travel allowance of the manager nor about the salaries they earned. We let them sign checks for the employees. Even in one season the manager was the legal representative of the cooperative. We would change everyone in each period, there were meetings, but we did not know how the administration was doing. The Credit Committee let the board authorize the loans, and we would say that it was good. As the legal representative, the manager would negotiate and talk with the buyers and the banks; we were afraid of talking to a business person and were happy with the manager doing it. Going to the capital was something we did not like to do…” (Board members of the cooperative).
The rotation of members in the posts out of formality led them to this crisis. Board members who did not take notes of the meetings that they held, did not read the minutes nor contracts, did not study the numbers of their organization, and did not ensure that the agreements from the assembly were applied, turned into decorative board members, it did not matter how good the practice of leadership rotation might be. Custom turned into law: signing oficial minutes and checks without verifying, putting in posts people that spoke well, letting the administration represent the cooperative and sign their checks, leaving the president or the manager to authorize loans instead of the credit committee, and avoiding talking with buyers and the banks. It was a “law” legitimized by the fair trade and organic certifiers´ audits.
That situation became a crisis when the bills came in and they had a new board. Realizing that the instigators of taking over the collective resources had been backed also by the organic certifier struck a blow to hundred year old beliefs that had nested in their minds: “foreign auditors have the final word”; “a person with a degree is trained to lead organizations”; “indigenous are not capable of talking nor traveling.” They were absorbed by the formality of the cooperative: the rotation of leaders was insufficient, and the audits of the international organizations were just papers. They awoke even from their cultural self enclosure: “a ladino cannot teach an indigenous person about coffee”; this idea had blocked them from benefitting from technical consultancies in order to improve their coffee. They also understood that the force of the market (maximizing individual earnings) was guiding the fair-trade organizations connected to the administration of the cooperative and the formality of its bodies.
It was a collective awakening in ongoing assemblies. There they decided to defend themselves against judicial claims of usurers; they understood that leadership rotation was insufficient if the administration was on the other side of the street, which is why the board studied the finances that the administrative area worked on. At the same time, they rebuilt their relationships with external actors: aid organizations and the State, administering resources efficiently; social banks honoring the debt, in spite of the fact that only part of those resources had gotten to the cooperatives and that the social bank had failed in their vetting mechanisms; they changed their organic certifier for another one that “visits the countryside”; and they worked with their coffee buyers so that quality requirements be connected to differentiated prices. They recognized that they could improve in their production areas, and that technical assistance from the state was useful, they hired a permanent technical promoter who accompanied the members and decided to produce organic inputs (compost worm fertilizer) that the members would buy. They got involved in roasting coffee aimed at the local market. They established a clinic for women based on their social fund, as an expression of commitment to their municipality.
Since 2010 they began to feel the changes and their results: see Figure 7. Organic agriculture bore fruit: if previously the organic coffee had a smaller yield than conventional coffee, within years the soil became so fertile that their coffee yield was better than the yield for conventional coffee. Without affecting those high yields, the families also grew corn, beans, bananas and other trees in between the rows of coffee – the rule of the certifiers that prohibited other crops is overcome if the soil is completely fertilized with organic fertilizers, feeding the soil and not the crop is “the rail.”
In addition to processing and exporting good quality organic coffee (cup score of 84), roasting coffee gave them several advantages. 5% of their total coffee was roasted, ground and sold through their coffee shops. This allowed them to know more about the yield from cherry to export coffee, to ground, roasted coffee and to the number of cups of coffee. They use this information to make their negotiations with coffee buyers transparent, because the cooperative and the buyers understand how unfair the New York stock price is, when they say that 1 lb of coffee is worth $1.50, that same pound in the United States or Europe, now roasted, ground and packaged, is worth ten times more, and even much more if it is sold as cups of coffee. The coffee shop in the cooperative is also a door to agro-ecological tourism for people connected to the coffee trade, and for the public in general. This creates environmental awareness and allows understanding what the coffee economy and part of the culture of the communities of San Juan are like. Also, coffee shops in the United States that buy coffee from the cooperative transmit live on their monitors farms in Guatemala.
In terms of results, some people from San Juan are repurchasing land from the people of San Pedro. The cooperative is creating jobs for the member families themselves on the farms, in the wet and dry mills, in the roasting and grinding of coffee, in the coffee shop and in the clinic.
Awakening to this crisis opened their minds. They learned that the relationship between the associative part and the business part, elucidated in assemblies, is what moves the cooperative, that the rotation of leaders implies getting involved in the administration of the actions of the cooperative; and that a transparent transnational alliance where each one does their part, supports social, economic and environmental equity processes for the communities. See box 4.
In spite of this progress, the cooperative and its network are not out of danger. In fact, it is said that human beings are the only animal that trips over the same stone twice. How can we make the risk less likely? From the history of social movements we learn that, after being mobilized “from below”, even the best leaders tend to believe that the people can only be mobilized “from above” – by a political vanguard, manager or the market. The more a cooperative creates mechanisms to mobilize itself “from below”, and does so within a framework of alliances with global actors, the more it distances itself from the risks of going broke. This is what this experience shows us.
3.2 Commonalities in these cases
What common waters run beneath these innovative experiences? See Table 4.
Table 4. Common elements
Community is smothered by commercial mediation and traditional cooperatives, mono-cropping and the search for money at the cost of human and natural life.
-They reflect on their situation, awaken and swim against the hierarchical “rails”
-They crawl forward with their own resources, diversify, process and sell their products.
-Alliance in international triangulation around coffee
-Alliance in local triangulation that catalyzes economic initiatives and densifies social connections.
-Contributing and distributing equitably
-Decisions in assemblies; rotation of leadership and tasks; information transparency; visiting one another.
Under the Alliance for Progress and the opening of the Catholic Church, a community far from markets, moves in a context of harassment of large land owners, alcoholism and learning to read and write.
-Vision: Bringing stores to the community
-Religious opening: they value themselves
-Keeping honesty with monthly cash out, assemblies and through oversight board.
-diversify crops, weaving and commerce.
-Community store – distributor– seller of vegetables in the city
-Community store and weaving group in the community
-Self governance: Member families in posts of organizations
Contributing/distribution /credit which does not surpass amount to be distributed.
-Rotation of leaders that also looks at the administration
-managers that implement decisions of the organs.
Discrimination and dispossession of their lands in 1970-80s; now when organized they suffer theft from common crime and the Police, and later the complicity of external actors with local elites threaten to make the cooperative go broke.
-Vision: organizing is resisting as indigenous
-They find a niche: organic soil for several crops, processing and coffee shop
-They awaken to the corruption and leadership rotation without getting involved in administration.
-transnational alliance between coffee buyer, certifier who “visits the countryside” and cooperative around organic coffee
-Cooperative produces fertilizer, works wet/dry mills, roasts and coffee shop for the local market.
-Rotation of leaders directing actions of the cooperative
-Transnational alliance whose members have roles that they carry out
-Assembly is the decisive entity and follows up on actions.
Regardless of the historical period and country, markets and States intensify hierarchical structures of inequality and discrimination that belittle people. They do it with commercial mediation, mono-cropping and tacit rules like “save yourselves those who have” (land, money), separated from human and natural life, which is why people tend to isolate themselves, drown themselves in alcohol and religious fundamentalism. When these people, organized in cooperatives, are dragged along by these waters along with their external allies, then they end up forming alliances over raw materials and the peasantry stay within their “piñuela fences” and women stay secluded “in their kitchens”.
Those who reflect on their realities, awaken, see and crawl forward with their own resources, form organizations that on a small scale become what humanity would aspire to be- that is their story. On reflecting they discover those adversities that they are presented with as something natural and/or determined by some supernatural being. Reflection leads them to awaken to the extent that they encounter their own roots, with which they can free themselves from those adversities which are reproduced in their minds and hearts. Then they envision something different, connected to their roots, the opposite of those structures. And they hold on to that vision using their own resources. These organizations are like a family that rotates their crops to maintain soil fertility, while they protect a patch of forest where their water source is; the fact of having food and water gives them a strength for negotiating with the large land owner or rancher who wants to buy their labor force and/or their land. These exceptional organizations stick to their vision. Let us illustrate what this “stick to” means with the peasants in the store in Encinos in the 1970s, they, without knowing how to read and write, sat down every month to do the cash-inventory audit of their store, they knew that they were charting a new path and that they had to persist even if fire rained down; month after month, year after year, they turned their store into one of the exceptional organizations of Central America – but not seen nor recognized as such by NGOs, aid agencies nor the State.
Innovative forms of organization stand out in these stories. The triangulation or agreement between three actors, one transnational, and another more local. The first is between the buyer, the financier, and the seller (cooperative) around coffee, a triangulation “conditioned” on the equitable distribution of surpluses, informational transparency and on being democratic organizations. The second is between local actors with a strong interest in the processing and commercialization of a diversity of products, a triangulation “conditioned” on including women and youth as protagonists in the social enterprises. In any of these expressions, the social enterprises are self governing and rotate leadership and jobs. These social enterprises, in addition, catalyze new organizations in the same community around other initiatives, this includes more marginalized people and keeps one person from becoming a “big chief” when there is only one organization.
It highlights the fact that in order to be democratic, transparent and equitable organizations, one does not need so much money, training, nor many pages of laws and norms. Few rules are needed, implementing them, and recreating them following their spirit in accordance with the changes that the communities experience as global spaces. When their members contribute and the social enterprise distributes the surplus with equity, and it is directed by its organs, the services (credit, processing, commercialization, health care or education) are sustainable. To do so, three interdependent rules are key. The “contribute-distribute” rule generates – and is generated by – trust; if under this rule a person requests a loan for an amount equal to or less than the amount of their contribution and their possible share of the distribution of surplus, and if once the term is past that person does not pay, the social enterprise deducts that amount from that person´s resources; any person who is the object of distribution asks for information and identifies with their organization – let us recall the biblical saying “where your treasure is, there your heart will be”. The rules “only the assembly is the decisive body” and “rotation of leadership and posts” are favored because the social enterprise belongs to the community, they make the voice of all the groups be heard, allows women to participate with or without babies; information flows through the community.
Under what conditions do these rules make a difference? When they are connected to endogenous institutions of the communities, which emerge through study and self-study: the rule “contribute-distribute” is connected to relationships of indigenous-peasant exchanges, e.g. sharecropping; the rule “assembly is decisive” is connected to collective actions-decisions of indigenous peoples. These are signs of “societies with markets”.
These interconnected rules, under alliances or triangulations, around modes of production that go beyond the curse of “raw materials” and cultivate relationships of life with nature, make us walk outside the rails of capitalist and patriarchal colonialism.
4. Conceptualization of alternative processes
Let us go back to Quijano (1992), who proposes elements of decolonialization: freeing the production of knowledge, reflection and communication from the potholes of European rationality; recognizing the heterogeneity of all reality, the contradictory nature and legitimacy of what is diverse in all societies; requiring the idea of the other, what is diverse, different. For their part, Lucas dos Santos and Banerjee (2019), in order to decolonialize social enterprises, think about seeing oneself as a specific and contextualized reality within a broad framework, recognizing western discourse on development, wealth and poverty, measuring and explaining the diversity of production logics that exist in the world, revising the meaning of what “the economic” is, recognizing community knowledge in order to find solutions, promoting symbolic autonomy…
From the described cases, we are rethinking the idea of community as a heterogeneous space, conflictual, and different from capitalist and patriarchal colonialism, where social enterprises rediscover their institutional roots, they are the means for people to recreate their identities and generate spaces for building, in the midst of conflicts, trust in ones own culture – that which they are rediscovering and not that capitalist and patriarchal colonialism reproduced by those same people. These social enterprises and the processes that they generate, correct, expand and catalyze become mechanisms which, like social laboratories, produce ideas, images, symbols and knowledge that guide people to improve their lives and their communities in a holistic way – not being dragged along by the commercialization of race, capital and the uterus. See Table 5.
Table 5. Community that organizes, revives rules that are connected to social enterprises
Principles of decolonialized societies
Reinvented social enterprises
Peasant rules and values
Peasant rules and values that benefit women
Rootedness (place, origins for recreating identities, relationship with the land)
-Members come from the same community; meetings, transaction and exchanges happen in the community itself
-Not divide land into pieces nor sell it; the land is the mother, has life
-Women on water committee, school boards …;
-They feed sons and daughters
-garden: my Mom´s green thumb
Growth with equity
-Distribution of profits
-Diversified and agro-industrial farms; systems for saving
-Improve roads, clínic-health
-Share voluntary labor support, seed for grains
-processing and commercializing
-sharing oregano, lard, lemon … (food)
Ownership of your organization
-Monthly cash-inventory audit;
-Oversight from within and without- with or without posts
Honesty for choosing treasurers, without regard to whether one is “learned” or not
If the social enterprise belongs to the community, women will assume leadership posts
-Decisions made in assemblies
-Connected to one another, creating more organizations, membership from different ages and genders
Let the feet (footprints) guide and ruminate (reflect) at night
-Visiting one another; visiting the sick
-Equity in inheritances
-Diversification of services
-Space for reading, taking notes, analyzing and making decisions based on analysis.
-Farm-cornfield and forest: the landscape reveals the life of the family
-sharecropping and sharing voluntary labor
-Weaving, processing, commerce, garden
Abstracting from specific cases, we find ideas, images and symbols in the peasantry and indigenous peoples. The connection of the social enterprises with the endogenous institutions of communities show other realities under construction. The farm or the cornfield is a symbol of crop diversity to ensure food for the family and cooperation with neighbors, the garden (“my Mom´s green thumb”) expresses indigenous plants (pumpkin, chayote, chile, annatto, chicory, mint…), weavings, religiosities and phrases reveal beliefs, images and knowledge, many of them from prior to colonialization. Figure 8 shows this confluence of institutions and shows the collective results in terms of trust, living relationships with nature, other paths, recreation of identities …
Under this framework of community which organizes and recreates itself, several elements stand out. Discerning the specific context implies “digging” into the context in which cooperatives emerged in Europe, from workers getting off the rails of industrial capitalism (England) or from peasants freeing themselves from usury (Germany), building principles of self help, self governance and self responsibility, and of “digging” into the context of peasant and indigenous communities, to then connect both contexts out of which might emerge the spirit of social enterprises, word and change. This is “digging out” endogenous rules buried by so many layers of colonial, capitalist and patriarchal dust, in Europe as well as in our communities of Central America.
With this spirit of innovation, few rules and values emerging, social enterprises implement it through decisions made in assemblies and rotation of members in organs involved in the associative and business sides. In this way social enterprises practice self governance. When this happens, the transnational and local triangulations (alliances) generate mutually beneficial synergies, social enterprises deepen their processes, and external actors adjust their changes – because studying good changes infects one to do self-study, that it is possible to change the “rails” you are on. Behind Table 5 there are a world of cross-overs experienced: triangled contributions, distribution and credit is connected to diversified farm/cornfield, savings and collaboration (e.g. sharing pork-lard); rotation of leaders and decisions made in assemblies connected to visiting one another (“getting out of the kitchen and the home”), commerce, equitable inheritances, not dividing up the farm and the forest.
In this type of social enterprises, that rule of “get rid of you to put me in”, done so that nothing changes in the mechanisms of dispossession, is left far behind.That technocratic and elite pretension of conceiving themselves as the brain and guides to community social enterprises is left aside. Those dualities of condemning the peasantry to only raw materials, women to just reproduction, or the forest as a simple symbol of waste are diluted. These social enterprises are mixtures and combinations of forces, wills, knowledge and emotions, of organizing other forms of life, communities that function in a spiral fashion, like the conch seashell, opening doors and multiplying organizations.
These social enterprises turn communities into universities. About re-understanding how to organize cooperatives, associations and stores. About re-ordering the farm/cornfield. About recovering the garden in the yard of the home, behind the phrase “My Mom´s green thumb.” About rediscovering women in multiple roles. About discerning the footprints (feet) alongside the reflection (reasoning, head). About rediscovering images, like the mountain with lush trees that produce water, wood, food and oxygen, without needing to be fertilized nor have chemical inputs applied.
We started this chapter with the question about what characterizes the type of organizations that get “off the rails” of capitalist and patriarchal colonialism, and how they are able to remain different over time. We read Quijano, Polanyi, Federici, and Lucas dos Santos and Banerjee. Afterwards we characterized the type of social enterprises dominant in Central America. Then we went into describing the cases of innovative social enterprises in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. From there we pulled out what is common to them. And on this basis we reconceptualized the community that organizes on their own “rails”. It is like we have followed the young woman of the story, who went away alone with her thoughts, starting another path, with the difference that we studied “Rosita” in 3 countries, finding her 45 years (Honduras), 40 years (Guatemala) and 5 years (Nicaragua) later.
These social enterprises or community forces have a history of “swimming against the current”. Instead of partnering people and providing profitable services, with managers who are eternal, hierarchical structures, subjecting women and nature, and believing that change comes from above, the social enterprises described have few rules which are decided in their assemblies and get implemented. Their members reflect, awaken and envision every day. They self govern. They break out of their “piñuela fences” and free themselves from the curse of “raw materials”, and consume the best of what they produce. They multiply organizations in the same community and at the same time build alliances in forms of triangulation where all benefit. Symbols like the farm/cornfield, the garden or the forest acquire new meaning; images like water, phrases like “eating the best of what we produce”, “my Mother´s green thumb”, and “alone with my thoughts” permeate deeply into their self esteem.
New challenges are appearing. Including more powerfully written culture. If Europe is rational, how can we be rational, emotional and intuitive looking at our footprints? Making the most marginalized people in the communities themselves become protagonists. Distinguishing more the Mesoamerican culture to find our roots and making communities even more innovative.
In the end we learn that when we lose all that technocratic emphasis and formality, that logic of volume, having more land, more money and more children, and that desire of wanting to be “the brain”, we encounter ourselves with our roots and the roots of our friends from any country.
Federici, S., 2010, Caliban y la Bruja. Mujeres, cuerpo y acumulación primitiva. Madrid: Traficiantes de Sueños.
Ferrer Valero, S., 2015, Mujeres Silenciadas en la Edad Media. España: Punto de Vista Editores
Georges, L. y Pascal, P., 2009, Les défis du capitalisme coopératif: ce que les paysans nous apprennent de l’économie. Francia: Pearson Education France.
Lucas dos Santos, L. y Banerjee, S., 2019, “Social enterprise: is it possible to decolonise this concept?” In: Eynaud P., Laville J.L., Dos Santos L.L.., Banerjee S., Hulgard H., Avelino F. (2019), Theory of social enterprise and pluralism: Social Movements, Solidarity Economy, and Global South, Routledge Publisher, Oxfordshire, pag 3-17.
Polanyi, K., 2001, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Second Edition. Google Books.
Quijano, A., 1992, Colonialidad y modernidad/racionalidad, Perú Indígena. 13(29).
Quijano, A., 2014, “Colonialidad del poder, eurocentrismo y América Latina”, en: Cuestiones y horizontes: de la dependencia histórico-estructural a la colonialidad/descolonialidad del poder. Buenos Aires : CLACSO
Stiglitz, J., 2001, “Prologue” in: Polany, 2001. K. Polanyi, 2001, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Second Edition. Google Books.
Wheelock (1998), J.R., 1998, La Comida Nicaraguense, Managua: Editorial Hispamer.
 In April 2018 they invited me to a meeting with the Municipal government of Intibucá. The Mayor spoke about the effort that his government made in favor of the poor. I said to him that one of the most interesting organizations of Latin America existed in his municipality. He was surprised, “What organization?” he asked. “The Store of Los Encinos; more than 40 years of existence; economically sustainable without ever having received foreign donations-projects; they distribute their profits each year; their members rotate in leadership and are leaders of other municipal organizations”. “In Encinos?” he asked. He could not get over his surprise. “Yes,” I responded.
 We say “conditioned” in the sense that this triangulation does not make sense if the social enterprise is not democratic, transparent and distributes its profits. That triangulation makes sense only if equity, democracy and transparency are a constituent part of the actors that make up that triangulation.
 In order to get inside Nicaraguan food based mostly on the garden and cornfield, see Wheelock (1998).
 Women who can leave their kitchens and homes, to which they were reduced by the mono-cropping system. “Leaving” signifies an institutional change, which is facilitated by the meetings of the social enterprises and/or their initiatives for commercializing products. For a broad historical perspective of influential women, see Ferrer Valero, 2015.
 The phrase “my Mother´s green thumb” we found among elderly people recalling the garden that their Mother had some 80-100 years ago. Gardens that have practically disappeared nowadays, replaced by the logic of mono-cropping. That phrase is like a living hieroglyph, it expresses the culture of the peasantry itself.
by Fabiola Zeledón, Freddy Pérez, Claudio Hernández, Hulda Miranda, Rebeca Espinoza and René Mendoza
Juan, president of the cooperative, got off the bus, and walked like a rooster, with his chest held high.
-Greetings, young lady. I am the president of the cooperative
-Good day, Juan.
-Call me “Mr Juan”. I was born a leader. I am the way, the truth and the money, hahaha.
-Ahh… Who said that…?
Didn´t you hear me…? Tell your Dad to send his contributions. I will give him a loan.
A sparrow that was flying around the area, seeing that was happening, crashed against a tree. The bird couldn´t believe what it was hearing!
When at last there was a restructuring of the organs and administration of a cooperative, winds of change were felt. Among other reasons, the cooperative was founded to be a democratic space and a place for learning for the members. Nevertheless, a short time after the changes, the cooperative tends to return to its old course: hierarchical structure, absence of information, disillusioned members, lack of ownership… How things change so as to not change. Why do we trip over the same stone time and time again? Here, in contrast to the sparrow, we reflect on what is happening. Then we add a second question: How can we avoid this stone and walk along the cooperative path without “crashing” into the first tree? In this article we reflect on these questions based on our own experience of recovering a cooperative.
1. That tripping stone
In Chapter 12 to 16 of the Book of Revelation in the Bible, John, from the island of Patmos, warns about the first beast that shows itself to be powerful. But he warns us that its power comes from another beast, that we should not get confused. That second beast also is powerful, but its power is not its own either, but comes from a third beast. Something similar happens in a good number of cooperatives. See Figure 1.
The manager or president personified in a person tends to appear as the patron. He says: “Aid organizations only write to me”; “I am going to give the members directions because you are like children”; “I give you loans”; “You owe me”. The members resign themselves: “to whatever he says”; “we are small producers”; “I go to him for loans”. The leader or patron who centralizes decisions and concentrates resources, ends up believing that there is no need for assemblies, that he was born a leader and that is sacred. If some institution sees that that cooperative is like a hacienda, the patron shouts to the four winds about “autonomy” and against “third party [outside] actors”. He believes himself to be the general assembly, oversight board, administrative council and manager all rolled into one. The members dream of one day becoming that patron; Fanon said that then in Algeria: “The oppressed dream about being the oppressor”.
But his power is not his own. He or she is the face, generally, of a group that is as global as it is local, who live off the control of the resources that revolve around the cooperative. These include buyers, certifiers, agro-industry, State institutions, financial organizations…Behind these acronyms are individuals who manipulate their own organizations. They say: “information confuses the members”; “Buy coffee or cacao in the street and pass it off organic”. The patron senses that he lacks power, that his power comes from that group, so he goes to church and there whispers to himself: “I am not a bad person, I was tempted by money”.
The power of this group is not its own either. It comes from the patron-fieldhand structure, wedded to capitalism. This structure says: “everything is possible with money”; “more volume, more earnings”; “everything has already been studied”; “even God does not like stupid people”. Any natural force or wealth, economic wealth and friends of the member families remain diluted in the face of this structure.
Now we are able to understand how it is that we trip over the same stone. The saying goes: “human beings are the only animal that trips twice over the same stone”. We started a cooperative, and it is trapped by this harmful group, and this group responds to that hacienda and capitalist structure. If our patron is removed from his post, the new president or administrator takes his place, they make him repeat [his term] and keep him as an errand boy, while they make him believe that he is the top honcho! What happened? That structure awaits the new president or administrator as the “spare tire”, once he arrives, they exchange him for the “flat tire”, while the “vehicle” keeps rolling on. So it is that time and time again we trip over the same stone.
2. Walking on the cooperative path
There were elections in the Reynerio Tijerino cooperative. The members were happy.
-Luis Javier Vargas, a member, quoting the Bible, exclaimed: “When the just rule, the people are happy”
-the recently named president, Justo Rufino Espinoza, responded: “Let´s not be overconfident”.
It was a moment of joy, heart, reason and consciousness.
A hummingbird that was flying by, began to sing of joy.
When we began to get tired of tripping, discovering those three “beasts” woke us up. We refused to be that patron, that “spare tire”. The brief conversation between Luis Javier and Justo Rufino reveals that individual and collective combination, between emotion and reason, between hope and reality. A person makes themselves just, they are not born just. “In an open treasure, even the most just sins”, says an old saying, that is why the new president warned: “Let´s not be overconfident”. In other words, the cooperative has to create mechanisms to build trust and produce justice. How can it do so? Here we list some mechanisms.
The first is preparing for each activity. This means studying each situation and reflecting on the notes that we have taken of past conversations and meetings. Claudio Hernández says: “I have been taking notes for years, I can lose anything in my house, but not my notes”. Freddy Pérez adds: “If I would have known that my notes were important for learning, I would have taken notes sooner”. On the basis of notes and other information, we prepare ourselves for each meeting, negotiation and activity – imagining each detail before doing things. In this way we overcome the old practice of the patron, of doing things impulsively, because you feel safe under the shadow of the second beast, we overcome relying on the patron who says “leave it to me, I will solve it”. The more we prepare ourselves and coordinate as a group, the more our confidence increases and the more we help the cooperative.
The second mechanism is realizing that in the cooperative people have the power that comes from interpreting and applying the rules of the cooperative. These rules are the result of the decisions of the Assembly, wedded to the values of our communities. Our patron are the legitimate rules and processes. We guide ourselves by these rules, and we apply them through the corresponding organs. Our loyalty is not to money, but to the general assembly composed of the members, who produce these rules and who every three years elect other members for the different posts. Money is a means; the end are the members.
So if a member is looking for a loan, he goes to the credit committee, and follows the rules that the assembly of the cooperative approved. No one should take the place of the credit committee in a cooperative; it is not like in the haciendas, where the patron is at the same time the credit committee, general assembly, oversight board and manager. Our statutes tell us that profits are redistributed in the cooperative, therefore we must redistribute the profits of the cooperative. In a cooperative each member has rights, voice and vote, without regard to whether they produce a little or a lot, each member has the right to become president, to their part of the profits, and to have a copy of the statutes of their cooperative. In a cooperative the directions do not come down from above, they are made in the Assembly, and in the other organs of the cooperative. “Oh”, said Freddy Pérez, “I thought that being a board member was solving the problems of the members, rather it is the members who solve their problems through the cooperative”. “It pains me what I experienced, I know that I should not lend the money of the cooperative to the members, but I did it again”, expressed Claudio Hernández, recognizing that those “3 beasts” have formed a nest in our minds, but that our consciousness wrestles with them, and that being a cooperative is gaining more and more terrain. “We do not need credit, we need our profits”, insists Josué Moisés Ruíz.
The third mechanism is connecting the inside forces with the outside ones. Figure 2 shows the harmful leadership style, the patron who believes himself to be the door to the cooperative and to outside the cooperative; while Figure 3 shows the style of leadership that a real cooperative practices. If the cooperative is guided by its statutes, the State will legalize its path. If this process happens making its organs function, external institutions and aid agencies will respect the cooperative; they will treat it as a cooperative, and not as a hacienda arranging everything only with the patron. For example, the credit committee will meet with the institutions or organizations that might provide credit to the cooperative. The commercialization committee will meet with commercial enterprises and organizations that provide processing services for their products.
Internally, the members of the organs visit the members, and encourage them to visit one another as members. Members of the commercialization committee visit a member family, see their product and their wet mill, and at the same time come to understand the family in their multiple interests – most deeply felt needs and dreams; it is on this basis that the committee advances in their work strategies. The members of the oversight board, credit committee, education committee and the Administrative Council all do the same. A visit is a blessing that makes friendship and trust, loyalty and truth blossom. The more informed a member family is, the more it contributes with their ideas and oversight to the cooperative; the more connections are cemented in visits that generate friendship, the more the cooperatives become instruments for the majority of their members.
The fourth mechanism is that organizational improvement must improve our farms and homes. The cooperative is not there to apply agrochemical inputs and then lie, saying that we have organic production. Nor is producing an organic crop leaving it “without applying anything”. If we visit the member families, each family should visit their plants every day as well. The cooperative is not there so that our members might consume the coffee dregs, but to consume the best of their coffee, honey, grains, vegetables, bread and the best of their enchiladas…
3. In conclusion
This article is the product of 5 months of tension, and the pursuit of a cooperative to defend its rights, speak the truth and have the strength to change. This process taught us that a small group, in alliance, is capable of making cooperativism contagious. The biggest changes start in our own minds. The rule that “we will always need a patron” or that “leaders are born” comes from the hacienda institution and capitalism, and has built a nest in our minds. How can we get that idea out of our heads? To the extent that we reflect, demonstrating it, trying mechanisms out and being persistent, we can free ourselves from that idea.
At the beginning of the article we asked ourselves why we were tripping over the same stone. Throughout the article we have discovered the “three beasts”, who have trapped most of the cooperatives in our countries. These “beasts” make us trip time and time again.
The second question was how to avoid tripping again. We listed 4 mechanism that we have experimented with: preparing oneself for each meeting and not moving impulsively, following the rules of the cooperative, being a leader who connects with the members and the external actors, and making organizational improvement go hand in hand with the improvement of our production. Our aspiration is that these four mechanisms might help us to get those harmful norms out of our minds that come from the “3 beasts”. Being a cooperative is path that we peasant families need to hone. If we do it, the hummingbirds will be joyful as well, and the sparrows will not longer crash against any trees!
Let us end this article recalling another rule of the patron: “you should not help members, because they are ungrateful”, the patrons repeat. When Sandino decided to not surrender, General José María Moncada said to him, “The people are ungrateful; what is important is living well”. Sandino did not crack. There is no better gratitude than the members recovering their cooperative and closing the door on the thief, the patron, and the three beasts, and follow their own path.
These translations of two articles in La Prensa are examples of the situation that opponents of the regime continue to face: harassment by the police of a mass for the release of political prisoners, and prisoners held for more than a year without trial. They provide confirmation for the position of Yaser Morazón, when he says “if you demonstrate you are going to suffer, but if you do nothing you are going to live comfortably”.
Mass for the freedom of political prisoners in Masaya offered under the siege of the Orteguista Police
By Cinthya Tórrez García, Aug 28, 2019 in La Prensa
In addition to the Police, mobs aligned with the Ortega regime also showed up and shouted expletives from the park located in front of the church against the families of political prisoners and those released prisoners who attended the mass.
Contrary to what the dictator, Daniel Ortega, proclaims, that in Nicaragua there is religious freedom, Fr. Edwin Román, the pastor of the San Miguel Church in Masaya, this Wednesday had to celebrate mass for the freedom of political prisoners under the harassment of seven squads of the Orteguista Police, each one composed of some 10 policemen who stationed themselves around the church.
The general commissioner and also Assistant Director of the Orteguista Police, Ramón Avellán, was among the officers who monitored the Catholic Church while mass was held, attended by mothers of victims of political violence, prisoners released from jail, and family members of current political prisoners.
Mobs aligned with the Ortega regime joined the harassment of the police force, who shouted expletives from the park located in front of the church against the opponents of the regime.
One of the most tense moments happened almost at the end of the Eucharist. The police got down from the police trucks and formed a blockade with their shields in hand, covering two of the three exits of the church, in clear harassment of the opponents. Once the Eucharist ended, the faithful sang the National Anthem, left and formed a picket line in front of the uniformed officers, and shouted “murderers” at them, “the people united will never be defeated”.
The demonstrators threw out white and blue pieces of paper and balloons, symbols of the civic protest, while in front in the park the zealots of the dictatorship waved a red and black flag, and another white and blue one, without the shield in the middle. Both groups shouted their own slogans related to their convictions. Nevertheless, one of the Ortega sympathizers threw what appeared to be a bag of water at the principal entrance to the church. The Orteguista Police did not react.
For his part, Fr. Edwin Román, stated that the gospel shared this Wednesday addressed the issue of hypocrisy, which reflects what is being experienced in the country: “A government based on lies, hypocrisy, projecting a false image, talks about peace, love, and what it prescribes for us is death, violence, injustice”, he said.
Civic Alliance up to August 8 Counts 126 Political Prisoners of the Dictatorship
The dictatorship of Daniel Ortega is holding 126 political prisoners, one of whom is a woman, for participating in marches and protesting against the regime, reported Álvaro Vargas of the Civic Alliance (AC).
The AC reported that of the 126 political prisoners, 53 have been sentenced, 37 processed and 36 are jailed. Of the total 75 are jailed in some installation of the penitentiary system, 38 are in police stations, and 13 in Judicial assistance installations.
According to Vargas, the list is based on cases of political prisoners collected up to August 8th, but it will be updated next week.
Among the cases of political prisoners there are many who now have spent more than a year detained in the Jorge Navarro Penitentiary System who have not even been tried. An example of this is the student Francisco Javier Jiménez Rayo, who this past July 23 had spent a year being a political prisoner of the regime. This 22 year old university student was abducted by the Orteguista Police in the area of the Bello Horizonte traffic circle, when he was returning to his home in the Cristhian Pérez neighborhood, after participating in a march of the self convened against the dictator Daniel Ortega.
Steadfast in their struggle
Pedro Gutiérrez González, another political prisoner, has been jailed for 14 months without being tried. Verónica Ordoñez, the wife of González, said that the trial has been “suspended indefinitely”, because since October 2018 no hearing has been held again. In addition she added that the Orteguista judge Edgard Altamirano, in charge of the case, had scheduled a hearing for this past July 4, but it did not happen and neither was it rescheduled for another date.
This past Tuesday afternoon, Ordoñez, along with family members of other political prisoners and those released and the AC, denounced in a press conference that her spouse needed a new prosthesis on his leg to be able to get around, but the judge who is responsible for the case has not responded to the request from the defense attorney, who is asking for a specialist to enter the Penitentiary System.
“He has had problems getting around. It just so happens on Friday (August 23) he fell and opened a wound on his left foot, it was bleeding and there was a hematoma. He is having a lot of health problems because of it, because his spinal column hurts, his sternum…and skin diseases have shown up”, said Ordoñez.
In spite of the limited conditions in which Gutiérrez finds himself, he says that he continues steadfast in the struggle – according to Ordoñez –t they will not shut him up even in jail. “They can kill my body but not my heart nor my soul”, the political prisoner said to his wife.
For her part, María Ruiz Briceño, the only woman reported as a political prisoner, was abducted on July 13th, after participating in a protest picket line in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Managua. The young woman, ex-barricade supporter in the UNAN Managua, is 22 years of age and is a student of Banking and Finance and Electronic Engineering.
The mother of the young woman, Dulce Briceño, pointed out that her daughter is sick and is being harassed by prisoners aligned with the Ortega regime. “I demand freedom for my daughter, she is innocent. Freedom for my daughter and the rest of the political prisoners”, said Briceño through a video published by the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
People dispossessed for so many years collected their savings and gave them to one of their sons, Solin, for him to pay for the coffee that was collected from their own group. Solin had never had so much money; he was like a deer in the headlights. He paid for the coffee. Some of the same people who had saved, behind the back of the rest, went to him to get him to lend them money. Solin first said no, but these people insisted, and he gave in. More people showed up, also from other parts of the country, and he ceded. Solin felt like a little patrón, “The people trust me”, his chest puffed out like a balloon. This path of giving out other people´s money, saying that it was his, led him to lie and believe his own lie. When other people showed him his mistake, Solin offered them money to shut them up, and if they did not accept it, he would slander them. One day he looked himself in the mirror and was frightened to find that he did not recognize himself.
When the owners of the money asked him to give it back, he had lent it all out. “And where is the money?”, they raised their voices. “You have already eaten it,” the theft reverberated like 10, 100 and 1000 years ago. Solin and several of the savers had betrayed their own path. Both took the path trodden for centuries by the old hacienda owners and fieldhands, by the comandante and those who died, by the manager and those who believed themselves to be cooperative members.
This story illustrates what happens frequently in cooperatives. A group of people save, define their purposes, agreed on their rules and then betray that path. The old path trodden by the patrón where the fieldhands follow for their pay, become indebted and to look for a favor, a path also taken by governments and churches (“Holy Patron Saint”), clouds and blocks any other path. In the story this group of people and Solin look at themselves in the mirror, or ask about their resources, and are surprised to be on the old path of dispossession, moving from being “servers” to “being served”. Their biggest tragedy is not so much the use of the money, but the fact that they have betrayed their path, this is the reason for the bad use of the money and the fact that their lives have taken a 360 degree turn, arriving at the same place. How can people who organize be able to follow their own path?
1. Individual-collective duality and the dilemma of betrayal
In organizations that face corrupt acts, there is finger pointing, accusations and complaints. “He is incorrigible”, “he is guilty of bad administration”, “she is not accountable”, “she uses our money for her benefit and that of her managers”, lash out the members. These
phrases in a cooperative belie an individual perspective, accentuated by the religious conservatism of “personal salvation”, and by the neoliberal doctrine where what is important is the individual and not society–there is no such thing as society, said the first female British Prime Minister M. Thatcher in 1987, during the full eruption of neoliberalism. Reproducing this perspective, nevertheless, is a way of “washing our hands”, of showing oneself to be innocent while pointing out others as the guilty parties.
These same expressions, nevertheless, can be read as “spitting against the wind” from the collective perspective. Because the member who is doing the accusing, with or without a title in some organ of their organization, on seeking a loan directly from the administrator, behind the back of his own cooperative, is not exercising his/her role, and/or violates the rules of their own organization; on the other hand, the corrupt administrator establishes himself reproducing the idea of the patrón;: “With 100 cordobas I keep them happy.” Many times even the State or aid organization officials who support the cooperatives borrow money from the managers, knowing that it is money that belongs to the cooperatives. “The spit” also falls on this member and this official who preaches cooperativism. A systematic act of corruption happens, above all, because of the lack of functioning of the respective organs, because of the lack of compliance with the rules of the organizations, and the accounting norms on the administrative side, as well as because of the acceptance of aid organizations*.
The members know the rules and procedures, but they see them as tedious, “paperwork”, “bureaucracy” – high transaction costs, they would say in economics. The members of the organs also see it in this way: “meeting is a waste of time.” While the patrón “from one big roll” decides to lend to them or not. In this process the members believe the administrator about any version about the source of the money, there is no culture of verifying their versions, because, they think, it would be distrusting and ungrateful; for that very reason, they do not ask for receipts either, the patrón does not do receipts – his word is enough! In addition to believing him, they fear him, “a person with other people´s money is capable of anything”, they whisper, so they keep quiet – do not speak in front of the patrón! This is a rule that is resurrected. From here the “vice” of playing with “other people´s money”, more than individual and exclusive of the manager or some president, is a collective “vice”; a collective act causes individual behavior – of corruption or honesty. See the upper part in Figure 1.
“The law is not being applied to him”, state the members and advisers of the organizations. With this they mean to say that organizations have laws, the State oversees compliance with the law; and that aid organizations have rules, and they do not apply them. This, however, continues to assume an individual perspective, believing that by “applying the law” “the patron is going to self correct”. It ignores what the history of any country tells us, “the patrón makes the laws”, be that with his right hand or his left. So we detect that this individual perspective, clothed in a collective and legal perspective, is moved by structures of dispossession; the “accusing”, the “abusing other people´s money” and “preaching laws” make the path of cooperativism disappear, and accentuate the path of dispossession – it is the dilemma of the betrayal. So we perceive that this structure is like rails for a train, it does not matter who the conductor is that is driving the train, nor how many years of schooling he might have, how many advisers and protectors of the law he has, that train will move along the rails; not matter who the administrators or presidents may be, these structures (“rails”) trap the conductors. In this way cooperatives can go broke, while these structures remain unmoved –“in an open treasure even the just will sin”, goes the saying.
At the same time this structure is being challenged. On the one hand, there are some members who cultivate a contingent awareness, that it is possible to make your own path and walk it; and on the other hand there are administrators who understand their role, respecting accounting rules and the collective perspective of organizations, shunning “inflating themselves” like balloons that run the risk of “bursting.” They do not “spit into the wind”, but recreate that collective perspective which finds itself supported by mechanisms that are coherent with more communitarian structures, and consultancies that study these rural underworlds – this is overcoming the dilemma of betrayal. See the lower part of Figure 1.
2. Innovative mechanisms for cooperatives as the vehicle for repossession
“They do not let us be peasants”, shot off a Costa Rican leader in 1991, recognizing the onslaught of neoliberalism in turning the peasantry into workers and “wetbacks”. The “be peasants” has been more coherent with community structures, in conflict with structures of dispossession. It goes with mechanisms that make an alternative path possible, mechanisms that we have been learning from the exceptional organizations in Central America: see figure 2.
They are mechanisms that “de-commodify” peasant life, they involve awakening and organizing, deepening their roots, improving the organization of the commons, and sharing the path in a glocal alliance- because every space is glocal (global and local).
Mechanism 1: Voluntary genesis of cooperativism congruent with community principles
Nearly two centuries ago a group of textile workers in England saved part of their salaries to start a store, and with that stabilize their income and defend their basic needs. In Germany peasants organized to free themselves from usury. In both cases, the people understood that individually they were not able to overcome structural problems, like the low buying power of their salary and the usury that indebted them for life; organized, they could do so. Thus they defined their path and walked it. Over time cooperativism has expanded throughout the entire world and has become a double edged sword, a means for repossession for its members and communities from whence they come, and a means for dispossession when small elites appropriate it for profit. Read the brief dialogue in the box.
From the angle of the genesis of cooperativism, this dialogue shows the incomprehension of the administrator about what a cooperative is, as well as the wisdom of the younger brother about the social rule of “respecting someone else´s assets”. “The need of the other affects me”, says the administrator; precisely the crude “need” of people led to the fact that cooperativism emerged standing under the principle of respecting collective assets. The error of the administrator in this dialogue is providing a loan from money that is not his, and doing it outside of the rules and organs of the cooperative that named him “administrator”; with that he dispossessed the members of their resources, and full of a short term vision condemned needy people to suffering. Being “proud” is abusing “another´s assets”. This deformation results from the individual perspective derived from structures of dispossession.
The cooperative that originated in the will of its members to overcome structural adversities, and does it with rules based on community principles, like those expressed by the “younger brother” in the dialogue of respect for collective goods, is a long term structural mechanism.
Mechanism 2: Rooted in diversified bases
The market demands a product and does not matter whether the one who produces it comes from one place or another; the State and aid agencies behave in a similar way, they legalize organizations or demand changes like “including women as members” without regard to where they come from. From working with cooperatives we learned that a cooperative that is rooted in its micro-territory has more possibilities of walking their walk, of being inclusive…
How to be rooted? Even though the members of a cooperative come from the same micro-territory, deciding that the administration –and therefore the financial transactions – are done in the territory itself, requires making explicit in a reflective way several beliefs written in stone for centuries: “Here they are going to steal from us, in the town there are Policemen and that is why it is safer there”, “no buyer or certifier is going to come out here to our place, we have to go out to civilization”, “here we are living in the brush, the patrón lives in the town”, “that little girl doesn´t know anything about administration, only men who ride on motorcycles know it.”
When the members of a cooperative come from the same micro-territory, and decide that their building and its administration are going to be in the same space, then we create favorable conditions for a good cooperative. The possibility that corruption might emerge and intensify is reduced. The mobility of the members to the cooperative´s building, as well as the attendance of women and men in the meetings is greater. We say that more women and men go to the meetings, because of the geographic proximity and because they do not have to travel to the municipal capital to attend meetings; the women can go to the meeting with their babies and/or children, something that is difficult if the meeting is in the municipal capital. This contributes to the cementing of trust among the members. Also the coordination between the administration and the organs of the cooperative can improve. The care of the members and board members over their administration increases, which is why the security of the resources of the cooperative in that place increases. Accessing information and asking their questions is also more possible.
The payments that are made in the territory itself to the members, be it for coffee, cacao, sugar cane or another crops, has an impact on the economy of the territory. The storefronts and small businesses sell more, new businesses tend to emerge. The interest of the partner of the member, and their children, in the receipts that their Father or Mother bring from the cooperative is greater. The possibility of having lovers under the argument that “I am going to town for a meeting” is reduced. It is like the butterfly effect in a world as interconnected as today´s world is, even more so is life interconnected in a micro-territory and in families.
Mechanism 3: the functioning of the cooperative organs and administration
The fact that a member might understand that organized they can overcome their structural problems is one step, the fact that they can facilitate that because their cooperative is rooted in their territory is a second big step. Nevertheless, there are cooperatives that in spite of having taken both steps, go broke or turn into a means for dispossession manipulated by small elites. The third mechanism is that each member, with or without a title, function in accordance with the rules and organs of their organization, without going “in secret” to the “real person in charge”, because the “real person in charge” in the cooperatives are its rules and organs.
It is easy to say that the organs of a cooperative function according to its rules. But it is difficult for it to happen. The phrase that is read in laws and management, that they are “management organs” illustrates that they are not “decision making organs”, that the power of making decisions was expropriated by the elites. How can the organs be “decision making” and the administration “management”, the former with a strategic role and the latter with an operational role? Apart from the fact that they know their statutes (rules), meet systematically and cultivate connections with their members and with external actors, the key is in the fact that they become learning organizations. How? First, each member is seen as a leader in their community, understanding that the biggest treasure is in their own social territory; consequently, their first task being multiplying their visits to other people, members or not of the cooperative, so that through conversations, they might understand the problems and opportunities that exist in their territory. Knowing them and sharing them is their fuel for pushing the cooperative to improve, and it is their source of ideas for enlightening cooperativism.
Second, the relationship between the administration and the organs is developed to the extent that they organize information, analyze it and on that basis define their policies and strategies to be followed. This provides work content for each organ. For example, information on loans and arrears is analyzed by each organ, particularly the credit committee; the Oversight Board finds one of its principle follow up tasks in this; the education committee, as a result of this analysis, proposes to work on financial education with the members about how to save, invest better and working with more autonomy, breaking with that old institution of “going into debt” and putting up with any exploitation for being “indebted”.
Third, making decisions based on the visits and the data analysis makes it possible for them to make better decisions. A particular area is diversification. A cooperative, even one with organs functioning acceptably, if it continues embracing mono-cropping, sooner rather than later will go broke; if it continues, it will work to dispossess. Promoting diversification, nevertheless, is difficult because of the atrocious structure of international power. Today to speak about agricultural cooperatives is nearly to talk about mono-cropping. So there are “successful” cooperatives that have credit, marketing and technology services just for one crop; the effect of mono-cropping on the peasant economy and the environment have been horrible for decades and centuries. The attached box illustrates the expansion of mono-cropping even through organic agriculture reduced to its dimension as a commodity, and the fact that people of good will from international organizations work against the peasantry while believing that they are “benefitting” them. Visiting and analyzing data leads us to question the origins of our policies and respond to the millennial strategy of peasant resistance: diversification and environmental sustainability. If the organs and the administration of a cooperative focus their tasks on diversification of the farm and agro-industry, their cooperative will democratize a little more, and will include more youth and women in general.
The geographical proximity facilitates organizational functioning, and this, focused on diversification, makes the cooperative be even more rooted, produces new innovative rules and starts the path of being an organization of repossession – of peasant viability with economic and social diversification, and environmental stability.
Mechanism 4: Glocal alliance for the cooperative path
These three mechanisms facilitate changes in the cooperative and in the economy of the member families and their territories, but they will achieve sustainability to the extent that they take on the attitude of a cooperative member. It is not just organizing voluntarily, looking at their territory, making decisions through their organs, it is feeling themselves to be, and being cooperative members. What does this mean?
For centuries indigenous and peasant families have cultivated a mentality of producing to eat. Then in the 1920s in Central America cash crops came in like coffee, sugar cane, cacao, and cattle. In that process they molded a mentality of being a “seller of coffee”, “seller of sugar cane”, or “seller of milk”. Consequently, they reasserted their territory (“country”) in their plot or farm: “My country ends with my agave fence”, they declared, which means that within this area there is a structure and a person in charge, that outside of that is not his world, that his world ends at the fence where the buyers come to buy his products. They do not even sell, they buy off of him. This mentality was intensified by the markets, “I will buy your coffee sun-dried or wet, the rest does not matter”, “I will buy your sugar cane”; likewise national and international aid organizations, allies of associative organizations, with people trained in universities that taught them that only “Inc.” companies produce profits, say to them: “work on the raw materials and the rest will we take care of”, “you are good for harvesting, industry and trade is our thing”.
What is the problem with this mentality? The peasant receives payment for their coffee or milk, that is their world; the other world is that of the patrón, where the profits are; the peasant never is interested in this other world, knowing what their patrón did with his profits; the very fact of asking him was showing ingratitude, insubordination and social suicide – their own people would treat them as someone trying to be his equal. This institutionality has been reproduced in associative organizations and their allies; a member looks for payment for their coffee, sugar cane or milk, they are not interested in knowing whether their organization generated profits or not; in Fair Trade the use of the premium of US$20/qq of coffee is previously defined in social investment, infrastructure… and $5 for the member family to invest in their farm; the premium for organic coffee of US$30 is perceived like this, “premium”, equal to a “roasted cow” that the patrón would provide for them at the end of the harvest, “premium” of a day of fiesta. In other words, the agave fence of the peasant member is “price of NY + premium” (see box); the member family understands that their profits and premiums are not an expression of their rights, but “a favor” (something “extra”, “charity”) of the local or global patrón, that is why they do not ask about it, do not ask for information, nor keep their receipts nor complain over the distribution of profits. Knowing this reality, the patrón (administrator or fair trade coffee buyer) repeats, “with 100 córdobas I keep them happy”, “with pig rinds and booze they leave happy”, “I buy from them at a good price and I give them a premium, whether that gets to the member´s family or not is their issue.”
Complaining over your profits is like being a “beggar with a club”. It is like a woman subjected by her husband, she feels “kept” and without the right to ask him about the “rest of his money”, and it is the mentality of the citizen who pays taxes and instead of complaining that his government reinvest in public works and provide him “good service”, see these works as the result of the goodness of the government (patrón).
The three mechanisms listed need to be complemented by this fourth one, with which we will move beyond this glocal mentality. How? First, building a mentality where the peasant family has awareness about the fact that their actions create value and have unexpected consequences, which is why they can refine their policies and carry out actions of even greater value and impact. This is possible if they observe and reflect on some details; for example, making sure that through the payment for the harvested coffee in that territory positive aggregate effects are generated in the economy of that territory, beyond their “agave fence”; observing the impact of their diversified organic agriculture on their farms as well as on the territory; reflecting on the effect of violating the agreements of their own cooperative, that leads them to lose resources as a cooperative and as a territory. On observing these positive and negative effects, the members can awaken their awareness of being coop members and of moving from their “agave fence” to understand that regardless of their purposes, their actions have a repercussion on the territory. In a parallel fashion, let also global actors awaken and understand that their actions have repercussions on the lives of the peasant people; if they look at a cooperative just as “coffee” or “cacao”, commodities, and believe that by providing a good price and premium they have already contributed to the families, they should ask themselves if they are sure that they have “contributed”; if one person turns into an elite capturing those premiums, are the buyers contributing to the well being of the peasant families?
Second, making relationships between different glocal actors (global and local) be living alliances that are committed to the formation of associativism, complementing the mechanisms mentioned here. This does not mean improving the prices of raw materials. It means that organizations add up all the income (value of sold product +premiums+incentives for quality and other bonuses), subtract their expenses and costs, and from the gross profits they agree to redistribute according to a certain percentage, let us say 50 or 60%. We repeat, it is not a matter of improving the price of the sugar cane or the coffee, it is not distributing the premiums; it is redistributing the gross profits of your organization.* The remaining 50 or 40%, or other percentage, goes to internal funds, social fund, legal reserves, investment fund in the organization…
Third, all the actors, cooperative, associative enterprises, aid agencies, Universities and State Institutions, we all should commit in an ongoing and systematic way to cooperative formation, based on the lessons and challenges of the organizations themselves. On emphasizing profits we are not reducing ourselves to the economic, we understand with Aristotle that quantity is an element of quality; consequently, the members will move from a mentality of “I am a seller of sugar cane” to “I am a seller of granulated sugar”, from “I am a seller of coffee” to “I am a cooperative member exporter of export quality coffee”. This will mean that each member pushes that their organization generates more profits and redistributes them, they will make an effort to be informed, to be trained, to diversify more. With these elements, the formation will help their cooperative and territory, the board and their members, the cooperatives in the north and the south, to maintain strong ties of collaboration and mutual learning.
3. “Muddy” accompaniment from the underworld of the member families
Most cooperatives have been accompanied, be it by the State, Churches, aid agencies or Universities. Standardized accompaniment has meant providing them trainings, legalizing them, buying products from them and /or providing them with donations; it is an accompaniment that does not cross over toward the communities and the underworld of the cooperatives, which is why it ends up legitimizing corruption, or that cooperatives get turned into a means for dispossession. A new type of accompaniment is required so that these four mechanisms emerge, are adapted and make a difference.
Owen and other associative people inspired the emergence of cooperativism in England, Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen accompanied the first cooperative in Germany. A distinctive accompaniment in Central America has been that of the Catholic Church in the years 1960-1970; that accompaniment helped them to reflect on a God living among them, and a Reign of God that began in those very communities – the “treasure” (God) was in the communities themselves. This accompaniment gave rise to dozens of cooperatives and peasant stores based on their own resources; a good part of them still persist after 40 and 50 years. Consistent with this type of accompaniment, even though not from a religious perspective, we describe here an accompaniment that enters into the cooperative underworld in interaction with the 4 described mechanisms.
What are the distinctive characteristics of this accompaniment? The first is that the accompanying people understand that only by entering the underworld of the cooperatives and their territory will they be able to understand the process in which the cooperative finds itself, awaken reflection and help create mechanisms like those worked on here. The fact that we intellectuals might have the “best” assessment is useless if the members are not reflecting on and walking their own cooperative path. For that reason the accompaniers need to pass beyond the control of the “patroncito”, be that the administrator, manager or president, and through the conversation be exposing the struggle between the path of the patrón and that of the cooperative, as well as the complexity of walking their own path.
Second, accompanying is discerning mindsets from the inside. Along with studying the cooperative underworld, where the old path is imposed based on betrayal and subordination, and where people wander between doubt and intuition, the accompaniers discern the mindsets in the cooperatives, and their own mindset as accompaniers. When the cooperative is trapped in acts of corruption, it is moving under the rules of “the clever one takes advantage of what he administers”, and “we always need a patrón”; these rules conceal actions against their own organization; then the members see the accompaniers as “intruders”, unfurl the banner of “autonomy” to keep the accompaniers from “crossing over the threshold” of the territory, and make up lies in the territory that these accompaniers “are taking advantage of the cooperative.” Discerning their mindsets implies “muddying ourselves” in their beliefs and lies, at the risk that this might erode the legitimacy of the accompanier and drive him/her out of the territory. What distinguishes good accompaniment is the persistent act of overcoming our own mentality that it is “enough to train, legalize and help them to export in order to live better”, “taking their pulse” and innovating with member families to the extent that destructive mentalities that prevent learning are dispelled.
Third, accompanying well is allowing member families to take their own steps, provided that we understand that our actions also have repercussions in the lives of the member families. The accompanier risks the fact that the members might perceive him or her also as a “little patrón”, impairing them from walking their own cooperative path. Let us illustrate this with one experience; in a cooperative, after the second mechanism took place, of rootedness, the results in terms of informational transparency, reduction of corruption and a motivating environment because of its economic and social impact in the territory were admirable. So the board members complained to the accompaniers: see attached box.
In the box the leader sees the accompanier as a “little patrón” with the capacity to stop the corruption and impose decentralized administration on the territory of the cooperative. The response of the accompanier to the first complaint is that having intervened as a “firefighter” to “put out the fire” of corruption, even though this act would have saved them financially, it would have constrained them from building their own cooperative path, which is structural and long term. The response to the second complaint reveals an accompaniment that helps to innovate mechanisms to the extent that it studies and learns from the cooperative itself and its underworld. Even now that we have innovated these four mechanisms they would not be recipes for any organization, they are mechanisms that need to be adapted to each situation, and that each cooperative should experience their processes. These two responses illustrate that accompanying is letting member families walk their path, provided that it studies them and provokes reflection.
Finally, in this process we are getting to know ourselves, re-knowing ourselves in our actions, and we are developing a sense of reasoned compassion. Not the “rational being” of homo economicus. On understanding the mentality of a group of members who “always need a patrón that steals from us”, we understand that for more than 100 years this institution has been deeply etched in their grandparents and parents, reproduced now by this group. At the same time we understand that this institution is not characterized by “being peasants”, but that it is the centuries old path of the patrón-fieldhand. This reflective reasoning envisions this reality for us, and awakens “being peasants” in the lives of cooperative member families and our lives, through respecting the collective good, the rules of the collective and mother earth, the horizon for which we produced the four mechanisms.
Accompaniment makes us remember that the change is in alliance between the peasant families and those of us who accompany them, while we walk together. It is not a stationary accompaniment, but along the road. It is a tense alliance, with stumbles and doubts, but embracing each other for the purpose of creating a vehicle for repossession to the benefit of peasant families.
By way of conclusion
We began this text with the following question: How can people who are organizing follow their own path? First we identified how the colonial patrón-fieldhand path intensified by capitalism that only values merchandise (commodities) erodes the cooperative path, and leads people to betray their own path. This teaches us that individual actions respond to certain perspectives (individual or collective), and they in turn come from structures in conflict, communitarian structures and structures of dispossession; and that this cooperative path is connected with community life, also in resistance for centuries. These two paths clash, for example, in “the good of others”: the colonial and capitalist path is nourished by dispossessing “the good of others” (land, financial resources, labor) from the peasantry, while the cooperative path is connected to community structures which precisely originate in repossessing “the good of others”, which in this case is the “collective good”, material assets (financial resources), as well as alliances and collectively decided arrangements. This “good of others” in the cooperative path is then a “social relationship”, as Federici would say.
Lining ourselves up with this cooperative path, we list four innovative mechanisms that, contrary to the saying that “in an open treasure even the most just sins”, make the cooperative into “a treasure with rules and associative governance where even the biggest sinner becomes just.” These four mechanisms are: voluntarily organizing, rooted in specific micro-territories, making the cooperative organs and administration function, and within a glocal alliance framework help the member families to cultivate an awareness of “being a cooperative member”, that their actions generate changes in their lives and the life of their territory, and making the cooperatives expand their profits and redistribute them with informational transparency and as an expression of respecting “the good of others” (common good, collective good, their own good), in contrast to capitalism that is nourished from dispossessing material assets from peasant families. Then we argued that cooperatives need an accompaniment that makes a difference, that crosses over formal and despotic structures and gets into the underworld of the territories, from which they innovate with the member families, like the mechanisms listed here, and accompany them through thick and thin.
Is this text important only for cooperatives and their allies in their social territories? What happens in the cooperatives and their social territories at the micro level is happening in countries at the macro level. Following the cooperative vision is overcoming the “commodity” vision, the colonial patrón-fieldhand path and the belief that “with money you can even make monkeys dance”, and it is creating a society that cooperates, makes rules and follows them, expands their profits and redistributes them, learns and democratizes. Will it happen?
 A case to illustrate this type of accompaniment is that of the Cooperativa La Esperanza de los Campesinas in Panama. See: R. Mendoza, 2017, “A priest, a cooperative and a peasantry that regulates the elites”, in: ENVIO 425. Managua: IHCA-UCA. http://www.envio.org.ni/articulo/5304
 Lucia Linsalata, 2015, “Three general ideas for thinking about the commons. Notes around the visit of Silvia Federici” in Bajo el Volcán, year 15, number 22. Federici talks about the commons in the community, she says “there is no commons if there is no community”. In this article we present the cooperative as an expression of people from a community who decide to organize, and for them “the commons” is within the cooperative, even though in relation to their communities or social territories.
I visited a family that is a member of a cooperative, and in the conversation they brought up the big battle that happened in their community of Los Cocos [Quilalí] in 1983. It was “the big war”. Doña Moncha related “that day 14 people died from our side, I am sure another several from the other side. A girl crawled into a hole, but the hole was so small that one foot did not fit, and that is where she was shot. It was a hail of bullets from 8am on. Doña Julia was washing clothes in the creek, on hearing the shooting she fled, but left her her 5 year old girl. I believe that girl survived.”
Hours later I visited a younger family, we talked about their new crop, plantains. In the midst of the conversation, Santos said, “My wife Bernarda is quiet, she lost 6 relatives in just one day; she lost 3 brothers, her father, her uncle and her grandfather”.
“When?”, I asked.
“In the war, in the big battle.”
I looked the woman in the eyes, “What is your Mom´s name?”
“Julia”, she said.
“What? Are you the girl that was saved in the big battle?”
“Yes”, she replied humbly.
“How were you saved?”
“I do not remember, I was just 4 years old. My Mom says that my grandmother dragged me out with her wounded hand.”
I was left speechless. “And your Mom?”
“She is here, now elderly”.
My hand quit writing. Not knowing what to do, I gave her a hug.
You cannot direct the wind but you can change the direction of your sails.
Tell me something and I will forget it, teach me something and I will remember it, make me participate in something and I will learn it.
The paradox of the last thirty years is that the peasantry, in spite of having offspring with higher levels of formal education, is experiencing an economic and social crisis that threatens their very existence. Cooperativism could be its “ship” to resist and reach a safe port. To do so this cooperativism, coopted by economic and political elites, needs to “change the direction of its sails” and reorganize. This is possible if they youth are participants in this process. So, under what conditions can rural youth participate in this process of the reinvention of cooperatives to make family agriculture viable? This article wrestles with this question and arrives at a conclusion: when the peasantry in cooperative spaces studies the harsh rules, studies their own attitudes and mobilizes to innovate for the peasant families who are organizing, that crisis can become an opportunity to improve our societies.
Key words: rural youth, family agriculture, cooperative reorganization, innovation
In the last thirty years the peasantry have faced greater crises over climate change, systematic dispossession from elites, and because there is no more virgin land to “colonize.” A form of resistance has been organizing into cooperatives, but these tend to be coopted by the State, markets and international aid. Likewise, as never before in rural history, there are more rural youth with higher education, but they are distancing themselves from agriculture and are migrating to the cities and outside the country. If this situation continues, in addition to deepening the inequality and the democracy deficit in our societies, it will affect world food that depends in good measure on family agriculture, which according to ECLAC, FAO and IICA, represent more than 75% of the production units in nearly every country of Latin America. If the youth who graduated are participants in the change of “direction” of the “sails” of cooperativism, as never before in rural history they can make family agriculture – also called peasantry and small producers – viable. Under what conditions can rural youth participate in this process of the reinvention of cooperatives to make family agriculture viable? We respond to this question throughout five sections. In the first section I review historical experiences in Europe, the United States and Latin America to show that in spite of the heterogeneity of the rural situation in Latin America and the variety of historical contexts, certain common patterns have worked against family agriculture. After understanding these patterns, in the second section I discuss how this peasant (family agriculture) crisis has been faced. To do so I summarize the idea of “heroic voluntarism” which has generally prevailed with adverse results. I go back to look at the experience of productive youth in the United States during 1870 and 1910, and I summarize the path of how to innovate, based on Albert Einstein, a method that if used by the youth, could contribute to resolving the crisis of family agriculture. After recuperating historical responses to the crisis and a referential framework for innovating, in the third section I discuss the conditions under which the youth and their parents could build bridges in pursuit of this innovation. In the fourth section, I show concrete cases of the type of innovations that lead to the reinvention of cooperativism. And in the fifth section I list guidelines about how to generate a cooperative movement hand in hand with the youth.
Crisis in family agriculture
The waves of the sea and the current of water under the waves tend to go in opposing directions. So goes economic growth and representative democracy in Latin America, where the military dictatorships were left in the past, while family producers are pulled by the “current” of dispossession. Time and time again the peasantry (currently called family agriculture) in the world has been at the point of triumphing in the face of this dispossession. What has made the laws of the elites unassailable? What has kept the peasantry from charting their own farm and industrial path? In this section we briefly review the situation of the peasantry (or family agriculture) in Europe, the United States and Latin America. We do it to surprise ourselves about what concurs in the conditions that oppose the peasantry through the crop lien system, usury and trade mediation, which have been dispossessing them of their resources, turning them into proletarians and expelling them from their places.
1.1. In Europe and the United States
In Europe industrial capitalism was imposed, and dispossessed peasant families of their lands, which turned them into proletarians so that they might work in industry, which they opposed with thousands of forms of resistance. Part of this resistance was the emergence of cooperatives in England with textile workers, as well as cooperatives in Germany in the decade of 1840 with Hermann Schulze-Delitzch, in the decade of 1850 with Friedrich Raiffeisen, and in the decade of 1860 with Wilhelm Haas, cooperatives which in part were a reaction to the failed revolution of 1848-1849 in that country, and mostly to the suffocating economic laws. Raiffeisen, for example, found a relationship between poverty and dependency on usury and on commercial mediation, and argued that to overcome poverty that dependency had to be overcome, which is why he promoted cooperatives under triple S: self-help, self government and self responsibility.
A closer picture we have in the United States. After the Civil War there (1861-1865), the industrial and commercial elite – between 1870 and 1930 – destroyed the hopes of the peasantry organized into cooperatives. What happened there? Lawrence Goodwyn describes that the Civil War, accompanied by economic “prosperity”, was followed by a period of stress under the “new rules” of trade. In the face of these “hard times”, the peasantry had to “work even harder”. Since this did not turn out well, millions of families migrated to the western part of the country believing that with “hard work” on virgin lands they would generate more income than debt. That did not work out either. They realized that the rules of trade in Kansas and Texas were the same as those in Ohio, Virginia and Alabama. Rosa described what was happening in the United States:
Such are the characteristics of the domination of capital in the world. It expelled the peasantry from England (after having left them without land) to the Eastern part of the United States; from the East to the West on the ruins of the economy of the Indians, to turn them into small producers of merchandize; from the West it expelled them again, once again ruined, to the North; ahead of the peasantry went the railroads, and after it, ruin; capital always went before it, as guide, and capital followed behind it to finish them off. The general scarcity of farm products has followed the great drop in prices in the last decade of 1800, but the small North American farmer has obtained as few fruit from it as the European peasant.
Figure 1. Framework of the crop lien system in the United States. (1860-1930)
What rules? The crop lien system backed by laws and the economic power of the country. That is, a merchant manages two prices, one for cash and another on credit; a producer family is not able to buy with cash, which is why the merchant provides them with food, inputs and tools on credit, to be paid with the harvest of cotton at implicit interest rates between 100-200%. The harvest arrives, the merchant is paid with cotton, and the family generally is left in the red. In the case that the producer family lacks land and/or mules, the landowner rents them out to them and, in coordination with the merchant, are paid with the harvest. For the next harvest the merchant provides credit again, this time the family leaves their property mortgaged. In the second, third or fifth year, the merchant is paid with the property.
This system was part of the mediation and national industry structure. Industry provided the inputs and tools to the intermediaries, and they in turn to the producers on credit. Those red balances got worse, because the cotton buyers in England turned their purchases to Egypt and India, in other words, the producer family was suffocated by the nefarious “embrace”: cotton prices fell and prices of inputs and tools for growing cotton rose. If the family did not raise cotton, they were not given credit; if they planted cotton, they had to depend on agro-chemicals. This system, in addition, was backed by laws of the State and by the economic power of the elites behind industry and commerce.
With these mechanisms the concentration of land and industry increased, as well as corporate centralization and the policy of the United States under a cover of being “democratic.” Something similar had happened in Europe, on the one hand, they extracted wealth from the peasants and turned them from farmers into their workers, because they withstood better the harsh and long hours of work in the industries than the urban people did; and on the other hand, they created resigned behavior in the population, by making them believe that these situations were natural, that their luck was due to the fact that they were “lazy”, “insecure” and “backward” and that things could not be changed.
1.2. In Latin America
Even though the mechanisms of dispossession varied from region to region, and within each country, there are certain common patterns. “Peasants are like stones, we are bouncing downhill”, said Félix Meza, a peasant from the agricultural frontier in 1991 (Wiwilí, Nicaragua). Based on the harsh rules of trade, from the metropolis that demanded meat or sugar, to the mountains, the pressure of the “domino effect” was felt on the purchase of land, from the wealthiest to the least wealthy in cascade. This means that a peasant family would stay in a place for an average of twenty years; then they would leave the land to their children, who would sell it and go farther into the mountains to expand their land area. This history repeated from generation to generation has intensified in the last thirty years, because the amount of “virgin lands” has been dramatically reduced, which has expelled the rural youth toward the cities and outside the country.
Figure 2. Crop lien system framework in Latin America, XX and XXI Centuries
Source: Author´s elaboration based on field observations in countries in Central America
It seems like this anti-peasant system of Europe and the United States is pretty similar in Latin America, with the respective variations that each context brings to it. We will explain this in terms of products, labor and land. With products, the trader buys coffee futures during “times of silence” (months of scarcity) at half of the market price, to be paid with coffee when the harvest arrives. With labor, large estate owners and companies tend to get their permanent workers indebted and ensure themselves of temporary workers for the next harvest. For example, a family receives a loan during the “time of silence” for which the woman (single mother or wife of the peasant) will cook on the large estate serving the workers 16 hours a day for an average of $6 dollars a day during the coffee harvest; in contrast, without that debt she could make $6 working 8 hours a day in the harvest itself. With land, even though land purchasing continues, for some crops like peanuts, tobacco and sugar cane companies tend to have the peasant families rent them the land, which after a period of time is left useless because of the excessive use of intensive technology (mechanization and agro-chemicals). It is a system that provides resources for the short term and erosion in the long term, makes the payments evaporate quickly, and the families get indebted and are systematically dispossessed.
These rules are made more harsh by the nefarious “embrace” of peasant product prices that are going down, and the prices of agro-chemicals that are going up; and by the “pliers” effect, on the one side, the system of commerce and on the other side, the extractive system of natural resources that in many cases goes hand in hand with criminal organizations. This situation is taken advantage of by intermediaries to get them indebted around one crop, with increasingly mechanized technology and dependent on chemical inputs. It is a system that leads to mono-cropping. In fact, for centuries big businesses have moved on these rails, first with sugar cane, then with cotton, cattle, coffee, peanuts, sunflowers, soy beans, African palm… This system of mono-cropping has been permeating into peasant families because the financial and agro-chemical industries also condition them to that. What is noteworthy is that a good part of the cooperatives and the so-called “fair trade”has moved along these same rails.
Consequently, the concentration of land, natural resources, industry and commerce, like extractive concessions, are on the increase. They are doing it backed by the State, legitimized by the Church, and with universities that educate the children of peasants with their backs to peasant agriculture. In this way, hierarchical structures combined now with neoliberalism impress a resigned, providential attitude, and with an awareness of believing themselves to be free. This is the order from which orientations are issued for peasant families.
Heroic, deliberate and innovative voluntarism
How can these “harsh rules”, erected by the elites and internalized by families, be confronted and overcome? For the last thirty years Raul Zibechi has described several social and political movements that have emerged in Latin America with certain differentiating characteristics: assemblies, youth, communities and greater flow of people in their leadership, and in terms of the rural situation, they deal with movements against extractive and mono-cropping – colonial inheritances. Years later, nevertheless, Zibechi himself criticizes some of those who went on to assume Governments and turned against their origins, and argues for movements to be alternatives to the State. In retrospect, the history of humanity is full of rebellions and demonstrations, for example, the student movement of the 1960s where the students believed they were influencing the inherited structures of power and privilege, rural uprisings in past centuries in Europe, rebellions that were put down by institutionalized violence or coopted by elites.
Why did these rebellions fail? In the previous section, we delved into the system that opposed rural families. Now we will understand, from the side of the rural families, the structures that sustain their resignation and we will describe an outstanding cooperative peasant movement.
2.1. Heroic voluntarism
Andrés Pérez-Baltodano describes how the youth of the new millennium in Nicaragua are repeating the elders of the 1980s, and detected that, after two hundred years of wars and revolutions, Nicaragua continues being one of the most backward societies of the continent. This history of failures, according to the author, is explained by a trinity of ideas: Providential God the father, the resigned pragmatism offshoot, and the heroic voluntarist spirit (see figure 3).
Figure 3. Pillars of societal behavior
Source: Author´s based on ideas proposed by Pérez-Baltodano (2013).
The notion of providentialism offers a vision of history as a process controlled by a God who decides everything, where people deny the need for politics: i.e. human decisions that generate change. Pérez-Baltodano (2013) makes a distinction between general providentialism and meticulous providentialism. The former explains the history of Europe where what prevailed was the idea of a God as a force that did not block the exercise of freedom, and that “free will” existed. It is a process through which the absolutism of God in history was ended, and where the Enlightenment of the XVIII Century expressed the idea that people make their history and their destiny. Meticulous providentialism, in contrast, was a vision that prevailed in the Middle Ages, when it was believed that God decided everything and nothing escaped his control. The author concludes that this latter notion dominates Latin American society today.
The notion of resigned pragmatism comes from the providential culture and has history seen as a game of chance where the only thing left is to respond intuitively. It is a vision of politics as the ability to accommodate oneself to the circumstances defined by power, accept that reality, not be scandalized by the injustices, and abandon any willingness to transform that reality.
Finally, the notion of heroic voluntarism provides a vision of activism (action over reason) to transform reality. It is thought that events result from fortuitous causes and that will prevails over understanding. It is an impulsive, emotional voluntarism that depends on physical force to determine history, like mechanically copying European political ideologies without knowing the philosophies that they came from. This is what Edelberto Torres Rivas calls “activism without theory” in his review of the revolutions and democracies in Central America.
This trinity of notions explains the failed uprisings and movements. With a providentialist mentality, where we deny human decisions as motors of change, we adapt ourselves to the reality imposed by power, and we react spontaneously to events. The absence of reflection and study has taken our societies to not transforming their realities, and to the fact that the different expressions of resistance ended up failing. The consequence of this would be that the providential and resigned mentality is even more accentuated.
2.2. Challenge to the century old structure
Probably this trinity of notions also influenced what was described about the United States, particularly the resigned pragmatism and heroic voluntarism. In fact, Goodwyn notes that the first reaction of the producers was political insurgency: it did not work for them. They learned that lesson and organized a movement based on cooperativism. How did it go?
We said that after the Civil War (1861-1865), peasant migration to the west of the country was a victim of the harsh rules of trade prevailing throughout the country. In the face of this, in the decade of the 1870s some producers shared their problems, and several youth, with and without formal education, began to read books on the economy to explain for themselves why the “times were hard” when the entire country believed it was living a time of “economic progress”. So some youth began to speak strongly about their “right” to say that the things that were happening were “not right”. So they formed the Producers Alliance, and from there they formed self help economic organizations, cooperatives, and over the years even a political party.
This movement was noteworthy by the decade of 1880, even though their effects were not felt in the change of the crop lien system described above, rather the crisis continued to get worse. Nevertheless, producer families did not give up, their organizations multiplied and they grew into a massive and coordinated movement that spread throughout the country. Millions of people believed that the “new day” would come, that cooperativism would lead to the democratization of the economy. This is the movement that in the decade of 1890 was known as the “populist uprising.”
Knowing that the agrarian uprising had been aborted by industrialized societies, how were they able to achieve this massive and sustained character for nearly two decades? According to Goodwyn, it was a sequential process. First, the formation of the movement: they studied their situation and had interpretations contrary to the dominant narrative. Second, entry into the movement: ways were created so that people in a massive way could join the different forms of cooperative organization that they created. Third, the education of the movement: they did a social analysis of the process, which created collective self confidence and internal communication. The principal basis of education was the cooperative experiment in itself and its opposition to the commercial stores, distributors, banks, railroads, land companies, etc. The idea was to cooperate, not compete. Fourth, the politicization of the movement: the process of education led them to generate new ideas, share them massively, and organize independent political actions as a possible reality, that led them to propose the democratization of the national monetary system.
Training, gathering, educating and politicizing is how they formed that massive agrarian uprising. The gradual evolution of the cooperative was the basis of that uprising. Thus the Producers Alliance was able to buy and sell cotton, increase the number of itinerant speakers, form different cooperative expressions, acquire machinery and infrastructure to economically scale up, have newspapers and a political party. It was a factory of indignant leaders with the capacity of articulating their ideas and communicating with producers in their own language.
That massive movement, in spite of harvesting success and lasting more than twenty years, collapsed in the end. They failed above all for falling into the same liberal logic of their time, economies of scale, mono-cropping and for the tendency toward the hierarchicalization of the movement. They left us some lessons: a movement generated by youth and producer families themselves, and the political awakening of the youth to the extent that they studied their realities, experimenting with cooperative forms and reflecting on their processes, elements that allowed them to build a shared vision of democratizing the economy through cooperativism – without using violence.
2.3. Innovation possible from the youth
If we return to current Latin America, which is a witness to the boom of youth with more formal education, along with more intensification of the rules of the commercial-financial system opposed to family agriculture, how can the youth reinvent cooperativism which could transform agrarian realities?
We begin with the crisis of family agriculture in Latin America, and we include the migration of youth from rural areas. Then we identify the “hard commercial and extractive rules” in the history of Europe and the United States, as well as in current Latin America. We verify that these processes were resisted, but that in the end capitalism was imposed. To the question as to why the agrarian uprisings failed, in addition to the harshness of the opposing system, with the focus on Latin America, we argue that it is due to a providential and resigned mentality, and wanting to change the system through the force of pure will. Nevertheless, we find the agrarian revolt of the United States based on cooperatives, where they studied and self-studied (not just voluntarism), they envisioned democratizing the economy (overcame resignation) and built their own history (not providential). On this basis we now work on the innovative role of youth.
Figure 4. Innovative capacity
Source: Thorpe (2000).
We take this step supported by Scott Thorpe. He analyzes how the genius of the XX century, Albert Einstein, discovered the theory of relativity. Einstein was 23 years old when, while working as a washing machine electrician, observed that the speed of light and time seemed to be the same velocity relative to the observer. This problem had not be resolved because Isaac Newton, three centuries earlier, had decreed the rule of absolute time: time did not pass quickly or slowly, it was a constant of the universe – because God is behind the universe. Scientists never challenged that rule. Einstein, in contrast, broke it. Thorpe finds something more, after that innovation: Einstein spent his life establishing it and did not achieve another innovation, he fell into the rule of certainty. So the elderly Einstein said: “God does not roll dice with the universe”. The experience of Einstein is not an exception: the younger a person is, the less they know, and more capacity they have to solve problems (see Figure 4).
Far from voluntarism, Table 1 summarizes a methodology for innovating, which interests us for the youth. A “problem” is structural, whose presentation seeks to satisfy real, felt needs. From Einstein we learn that each detail can be a space for great ideas (for example, when a washing machine is repaired). If that problem was not resolved, it is because there are rules that keep it from being resolved, that is why, as Einstein said, that a problem cannot be solved with the same thinking that created it. While identifying those rules, we detect them in our own minds. We break them. Then the conditions are ripe for solutions to emerge.
Table 1. Methodology for innovating
-Constructing a problem to find solutions.
-It is a “Gordian knot”, diffícult to untie
-It is something cognitive: it causes problems, it creates crises.
-If there is a problem, there is a rule.
-The rule is like the rails on a train: if you go where they do, fine; some solutions are not found on those rails
-They seem right, but they are old rules that block the solutions that are outside of those rules
-They seem to be unbreakable rules, which they are if we believe then to be so.
-Behind the rules are ideas.
-On discovering the rule, you have to find those protected beliefs as “sacred” in the mind itself.
-“Common sense is the series of prejudices acquired by the age of 18” (Einstein).
-The secret of the genius is discovering those rules of common sense, see them as absurd and break them.
-On breaking the rule, solutions emerge.
-an idea appears different to the idea that started the problem.
Source: based on Thorpe (2000).
The challenge in Latin America is that the youth push for breaking the rules, and generate new thinking to find solutions to the viability of family agriculture. Let us go there (see table 2).
Table 2. The innovation that youth can work on
Cooperatives coopted by elites subject their members to mono-cropping and are submissive.
-“Change comes from above”: resources, laws, market salvation and directions.
-Thought: democracy functions if a minority directs it; belief that “we are nothing without a patron”.
-Providential, resigned thinking and actions based on voluntarism. A member awakens.
-New thought: the cooperative is a means of resistance to the dispossession when it responds to its members.
-Studying and self study
-Organizing the cooperatives as schools for learning and innovating.
Family agriculture is in crisis, more and more corralled by the economic system, fiscal policies, large estates and companies that rent and buy land to expand the mono-cropping system, and by extraction. Families can revert this corralling if they organize into cooperatives, but they have become functional for the system that opposes the peasantry; they are like private enterprise that responds to markets, while they neglect their associative side; they are committed to mono-cropping; they take on the logic of maximizing profits and neglect the redistribution of their earnings; they tend to concentrate physical investments and centralize decision making; they are guided by hierarchical structures of elites who manipulate markets and States. This type of cooperatives are given legitimacy by aid agencies, States, fair trade and the International Cooperative Alliance that emphasizes mega cooperatives. The rule that moves them: “Changes come from above”. Nevertheless, if these cooperatives reinvent themselves and recover the original meaning of opposing industrial capitalism (England) and usury (Germany), commit to democratizing the economy (United States between 1870 and 1910), to the extent that their members govern them through their organs, they could be the best means to make diversified family agriculture viable, and consequently a new society with less inequality. This is possible if the youth contribute to their reinvention. How? That is what the following sections are about.
If an increasing majority of youth have higher educational studies and the capacity to innovate, why are the youth still not participants in this process of reinventing cooperatives? There are three structural conditions in dispute that explain it.
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. Zygmunt Bauman, in his studies on inequality observes that the generations of Europe after the Second World War, supported by redistribution policies, looked forward to improve, while today the “neither nor” are the first generation that do not manage the successes of their parents as the start of their career, but rather ask themselves what their parents did to get ahead. These youth are not looking forward, but backward.
Up until some years ago in rural Latin America, parents received their inheritance and would go farther into the mountains to expand their area (buy cheaper land or clear virgin land) so that, later on, they could leave that land to their children, and these in turn to theirs. The inheritance was the starting point for each new generation. But now the agricultural frontier has reached its limit. So, on the one hand, parents are not expanding their areas to leave them, nor are they inculcating their children with farm culture. Because in contrast to the years prior to 1980 when the children grew up working on their farms and homes, their children now spend their childhood, adolescence and a good part of their youth studying, and on the other hand, this group of youth are not finding jobs in their majors, nor do they like the agriculture of their parents. And in those case where they do, they run up against a wall: “They are not leaving me an inheritance because they say that the “pig sheds its lard only after it has died”.
Table 3. Profitability of corn in dollars (Honduras, 2017)
Preparation (pd=person days)
Fungicide (lt herbicide)
2 fertilizing (pd)
2 fertilizing (sack fertilizer)
Bend and harvest (pd)
Source: Author based on cases of producers in Honduras de Honduras.
The second condition refers to the perspective of the knowledge acquired by the youth in higher education. In 2015 according to a report from UNESCO, 98% of the youth of Latin America study. When they return to their parents, many do economic calculations and conclude that what their parents are growing is not profitable (see table 3 for corn). Underlying this acquired knowledge is a perspective contrary to the peasant economy: they consider the crop as merchandise isolated from the production system where it grows, and outside the rationale of the family that produces it. The same thing happens with other crops, for example, they study coffee or cacao and ignore the citrus trees, plantains and forest trees that are in the same area as the coffee or the cacao. These assumptions are in line with the perspective of companies who embrace the mono-cropping system, they bet on volume based on intensive technology and maximizing their profits. In other words, in spite of the fact that 75% of the production units are family agriculture, universities are teaching the logic and technologies of this remaining 25% of modern agriculture, which is why the youth come out deaf and blind to that 75%. The paradox is that the peasantry pays for the studies of their children, and yet their children learn how to belittle the culture of their parents –“you raise crows and they take your eyes out”, as a popular expression goes.
These facts are contested in families. Children love their parents who are getting older, but no longer for their decisions and actions. Parents and children are trapped by an old belief that they themselves repeated. “Son, go to study so that you might not be like me, a peasant” and “a pen weighs less than a shovel” say the parents; “I did not study to go back into the weeds” say the children. By “weeds” they understand family agriculture as equivalent to backwardness, a seed that the university planted in their minds. By “shovel” they assume that agriculture is a thing of physical force, of muscles. When the children do not find jobs in the majors that they studied, the parents get frustrated on not being able to set them on their future, as their parents did for them when they inculcated them in how to think and work on the farm. Now the world of digital technology in which the youth swim is foreign to their parents: “The more they study the more complicated they talk to me.” The youth and their parents do not understand that in family agriculture today the most important muscle is the brain. Distrust builds a nest in their minds; “If I leave him an inheritance, he does not know how to work the land, so he will sell the land and leave, he is like the oxen, if we do not know how to manage them they get tangled up”, and “unoccupied mind is the devil´s workshop”, say the parents; “if I stay with my parents, I studied for nothing” and “old people don´t change” – say their children. The paradox is that the youth reject the vertical decisions (heroic voluntarism) of their parents, but in time reproduce them (resigned pragmatism) for their own children, as happened to their parents.
If the youth along with their parents loaded themselves up with patience, a dialogue could be helpful, like what we reproduce in what follows with a Honduran family. I asked them, “Why are you devoted to corn and beans?” With a millennial patience, the family stripped back the husk, “we plant corn, beans, chicory…because we learned it from our parents to feed our families, not to accumulate money”. Yes, the times have changed, and you have to plant what is profitable (I react). They respond: “planting corn we eat tamales, montucas, atol, corn on the cob, baby corn, tortillas, new corn tortillas. Could we eat all that if we quit planting corn?”, “the protein from recently harvested corn does not compare with that anemic imported corn”, “the tortillas that we eat, have nothing to do with those corn meal tortillas that look like ears”, “with the beans we make green beans, bean soup, cooked beans..” I hear, I like what they are telling me, I understand that corn is more than the tortilla, and the beans are more than ground beans. They continue: “When we now have corn and beans we feel relieved, then we look for plantains, eggs…we go from mouthful to mouthful”. And then “the beans that we are not going to eat we sell, like the other products, to buy other needs and to pay for the studies of our children.”
And profitability? I insist. With a cold stare and face tanned by the sun and the cold, he explained to me: “If we do not plant corn, we would have to buy tortillas. We are six in the house and I need thirty tortillas for each meal, that is 15 lempiras (L); if I plant we eat twenty tortillas because the tortillas we make are thick.” Time to do the numbers so that we convince our parents: 1) from 1 lb comes twenty tortillas, 3 lbs per day for the three meals, 90 lbs per month, in other words 10.8 qq per year, the remaining 13.2 qq from Table 3 are for seed, the chickens and the pigs, from the chickens come between 6-10 eggs every day and 2 piglets every 6 months; 2) if a family does not plant corn, then a family of six needs L16,425 ($714 dollars) to buy tortillas in the year, another amount for atol, eggs and pork. I begin to wake up. On looking at my notes, table 3 and the numbers they give me, I understand that table 3 does not explain that the corn is linked to smaller livestock and also leaves out the corn on the cob, baby corn, new corn tortillas…
To save what the universities have taught us, I ask: And if you only plant corn like the wealthy? “To buy tortillas and what I told you, more in months when money is scarce, I would have to go into debt. The wealthy want that in order to hire me as a peon and pay me the salary that they want. I would end up selling this land, and all the trees would disappear, as you see where there are sunflowers, soy beans, sugar cane…” They say that it does not produce, but it does” – the roar of the wind is heard because my “sails” have changed direction. Where did they learn that? “Listening and working on the farm with my parents.”
The third condition refers to the rural organizations that tend to express the excluding rules and mentality of the elites. It is common to find cooperatives whose members average 50 years of age. If the life expectancy of the countries of Latin America is around 75, the paradox is that the organizations are getting old while they are closing themselves from the young – particularly young women. They make a condition that you have to have land, they support them only in one crop and only in farming activities. A tacit rule is: “organize so that when you are old you can forestall the youth”. In addition, international aid agencies promote the idea of “generational replacement”, an approach that assumes “replacing the old people”, which clashes with the machista culture of organizations, where men “replace” their wives (discard culture), but as elites they do not accept being “replaced”. Explaining these rules can lead to the fact that the cooperative and the member families rethink themselves.
The three conditions are related and are being contested. Studying them is rethinking them in order to innovate in any area of the family, farm, home, cooperative, universities, organizations, etc (see table 4). The challenge is explaining those rules that underlie the problems, and realize that they respond to hierarchical and neoliberal thinking, identify them in our minds, and open a window toward new, more democratic ideas in families and organizations, and in this way glimpse solutions for a family agriculture that would not depend on land, be internally autonomous and consider the cooperatives as spaces for dialogue.
Table 4. The path for the youth
Breaking rules (underlying ideas in our minds)
Without land there is no farm nor are you a cooperative member.
“Pig sheds its lard after it dies”.
-Agriculture is done when one has land.
-If I give him land he will abandon me (discard).
-More than land, he inherits the hierarchical form of decision making.
Doing agriculture without depending on the land.
Modern agriculture is the future.
Private enterprise is development.
-being a peasant is being backward; family agriculture ia a matter of physical strength.
-Modern agriculture is capital, big companies, mono-cropping.
-Research, basis for autonomy in university and family.
-Dialogue with capacity to listen to one another.
Aging cooperative with a wall for the youth.
Cooperative is for people with land; cooperative, without having members, defends its assets.
-Cooperative reproduces who we are, rather than protects assets, we inherit the rule of discard: change her for someone younger, but without letting go of decisions (posts).
-Cooperative: space for dialogue between generations and people of different sexes
-Member family creates their future.
The strength of the youth and their importance for reinventing cooperativism
Our vision is democratizing the economy, which would expand family agriculture, and to do so, the strategy is the reinvention of cooperatives. This means building cooperatives that grapple with the economy to the extent that they are schools of learning for making rules and following them, for innovating and training themselves as a team. It is the path of autonomy and citizenship, possible if the youth are participants. Here we pinpoint ways for creating those spaces from the cooperatives to the youth, and viceversa.
4.1. From the cooperatives, spaces for the youth
Box 1. Conversation with the administrator
-How much is your salary?
-Administrator: I do not have a salary, nor do the board members. We rotate.
-I do not believe you. Why don´t you have a salary?
-Producing milk generates good income for us, more than charging for administrating the cooperative.
We start from a concrete experience. The Colega cooperative in Colombia, with members who are ranchers, collect and sell milk. “We are in second place in productivity, behind New Zealand”, they say. These words have backing: they are efficient members who innovate in the management of the livestock, they zealously care for the forest that surrounds them, and their board members administer the cooperative as a service.
Box 2. Conversation with a young member
-You were a little Colega, pre-Colega and now a member.
-Why did you stay here?
-My friends left for Bogotá to study and I took the risk of staying. There, they did not study and they tell me that they do not feel safe going out at night. In contrast, I, studied here and I feel completely safe visiting my friends at night.
This cooperative organizes two groups with the children of their members: the little Colegas who are under 14 years of age, and the pre-Colegas who are between 15 and 18 years of age. Each little Colega is given a calf to care for, the cooperative gives milk to the child as provision for the calf, and the family of the boy or girl provides the inputs for the calf. When the little Colegas become pre-Colegas, because they cared for and increased the number of their calves, the cooperative gives them scholarships to study and benefits as if they were members, because they already participated in production like their parents. When they reach 18 year of age they become members (see Box 2 on the experience of becoming a member, and the externality of security that it generates in the community).
The cooperative, in addition, seeks to create a sense of pride in being a member of the cooperative. In the school they teach a course on cooperation. Each year the cooperative organizes events to which they invite the little Colegas. So from an early age they are cultivating being a future “rancher-member”.
What do we learn from this experience? In contrast to the “generational replacement” a cooperative can form new members with the children of their members and conceive this process as an economic and social investment that energizes the cooperative and the community where it is located. In contrast to large companies where one learns to do a job, in small organizations, like cooperatives, youth learn to pursue their dreams with deep passion. From here, if a cooperative, without waiting on the members leaving land to their children, dedicates 1% of its earnings to provide them an asset (a calf, $1 a month of savings, a pig or a pair of chickens) as an incentive to a child so that, accompanied by the cooperative and the member families, they are trained as people committed to family agriculture and being cooperative members, that cooperative will be planting its own future. And if that policy is supported by universities that teach the perspective of the 75% of the producers of family agriculture and 25% of companies, we would be turning the direction of our “sails”.
4.2. Spaces are opened from the youth
Also the youth should open up spaces. They are the ones who, in spite of having less knowledge, possess more capacity for solving problems. Through what we learned, these steps should be taken to the extent that we discover our providential mentality of “it is not the lightening that kills us but the stingray”, adapting ourselves resignedly to the power of structures where “for money even the monkey dances” and the voluntarist impulse that pushes us to solve hard problems spontaneously “just pure man style” or “pure talk” (based on hearsay or threats of force). The peasant experience of the United States in the 19th Century gives us a guide. Their uprising for many years implied organizing into different forms of cooperatives. Youth started it who were looking for books to read and study their realities, on that basis they did not mobilize frontally against the State, but reflected strategically and organized cooperatives. According to Goodwyn, they almost achieved it. Probably the economy of scale logic, concentrating physical investments, competing with private enterprise on an equal basis, the hierarchical structure that permeated them and had roots in the families, ended up undermining their path. But it constituted a good starting point for the youth of today: studying their realities, reading, organizing and continue reflecting on their strategic prospects.
In what follows, we provide some more steps: recover the written culture for the cooperative movement, that the youth organize into different cooperative forms, innovate in the area where they find themselves, and disseminate their learnings to produce a real movement.
4.2.1. Bridges between oral and written cultures
Peasant families are based on oral traditions, transmitted from generation to generation, while the youth of today pass through the academic classrooms based on written culture. Combining both traditions, instead of one replacing the other, is a promising path.
Let us challenge this apparent duality: the oral tradition is not so oral, nor is the written tradition so written. The oral tradition is not just the transmission of cultural expressions from parents to children, but about why and how to produce the food and keep a family. This tradition is also expressed as living hierglyphs through a farm (diversified crops, agriculture-forests), garden (“the green thumb of my Mom”, referring to horticulture and medicinal plants), cornfield, diet, design of the home and idiomatic expressions that reveal perspectives. The written tradition does not seem to find a home in universities, because most of the universities in Latin America do not do research for the formation that they offer, and because, according to Torres Rivas, the “faith in reason” of the Enlightenment is replaced by the “postmodern and neoliberal logic” where “one walks from the academic to the role of the consultant”. Consequently, the youth who graduate have little written tradition and investigative spirit.
Table 3. Strategic Conversation between parents and children
-My parents taught me to plant corn and beans, and that will kill me!
-Dad, times have changed, why don´t you plant other crops?
-For you who have studied talk is easy. I am a peasant
-And how is it that my grandparents decided to plant corn and beans?
– Daughter, for food, if I have food I am not going to be a worker for a bad salary, I can decide to or not, that is how your grandparents were
-This is a very good reason. How did my grandparents plant corn? Why didn´t they plant cassava which also is food?
-We should never be without corn. My parents took a piece of land here and there, they looked where it was better for corn, plantains…they went around testing it
-They taught you to study the land and thus decide what to plant…
-I used to observe them. I would listen to them talk in their bed. They talked with the neighbors. At times they would tell me “I brought this seed, test it to see if it sprouts”. “You have to plant several things so that the soil gets fed”
To combine them requires unlearning. Table 3 is a dialogue from the peasant side. There are three moments to which we provide color to help understand it. In the first moment is the belief that being a peasant is to be a planter of corn and beans, believing that that is the inherited knowledge. When the daughter questions him, her father shuts her down, “I am a peasant”. That belief, reduced to “what” (crops), blocks the possible learning of both of them. In the second moment, the daughter does not give up, she asks again. There is when the family wakes up, is unblocked: they had learned how to cultivate autonomy, study the soil and experiment. In the third moment, the oral tradition is undressed: observation, conversation, curiosity, experimentation, relationship to the land. This type of strategic conversation is behind a variety of diversified farms or a stew of food. The best of the grandparents is capturing the “how” they taught and how their children learned. And that is reviving them.
Table 4. Strategic conversation between parents and children II
-Mom, I feel bad, I did not get a job as an engineer.
-Work here, son, we need arms on the farm.
-I am not a peasant, I am an agronomist!
-Don´t you think it would help you to practice being an “agronomist”?
-I studied modern agriculture to think big
-What is “big”
-Plant just one crop, mechanized, agrochemicals…
-And who works on that?
-Companies, large estates, businesses, corporations…
-Aren´t they the ones who divert rivers for their rice, they leave areas without trees and unusable land where ever they go?
–Noooo, yes, but …
-They won you over without having to pay for your studies, we being backward and paying for your studies, lost you…
-Ah Mom, I don´t know what to tell you
From the other side, the youth move about self secure for having studied in universities. The attached table expresses another three moments. In the first, Mom and son coincide in that the “agronomist” looks for work, while they need “arms” on the farm. This idea of agronomist blocks the possibility of seeing opposing realities like the peasantry versus large estate owners, production systems on farms versus mono-cropping. In the second moment, the Mother asks and makes the son strip down what he learned in the university. In the third moment, what modern agriculture consists in is explained, and the curtain falls dramatically: the “backward” ones paid for the studies so that the companies might have another engineer. The security of being an engineer at the beginning of the conversation is replaced by the doubt: “I don´t know what to tell you”. Mother and son are awakening.
This unlearning gives way to re-learning. Retrospectively, we started from the duality of the oral-written tradition, then we set out to hold strategic conversations between children and parents where both sides are awakening. Notice, the two tables are like the notes that we take in our notebooks, while the analysis is what we are writing alongside. This re-learning is the bridge between the written culture and the oral culture, which we argue is what the peasant way in Europe and the United States lacked, and what we can undertake in Latin America. This bridge implies: observing, questioning, conversing and analyzing attitudes in the other person and in oneself (for urban youth these steps are possible through immersion). To that we add what was learned from the agrarian uprising in the United States: reading, studying the realities of the harsh rules, reflecting massively with the peasantry, and organizing cooperatives as a result of those studies.
Writing is thinking, accumulating knowledge and sharing it. “Papers talk”. In this process the belief tends to appear that “studies are not done without money”, which assumes surveys, laboratories, and people with doctorates. If there is a will, there is a way. Youth and people of any age can buy a notebook and pen for 1 dollar to take notes, find the veins and follow them. Writing is combining pen and shovel with the greatest stubbornness in the world. From there, what is written are living hieroglyphs: published articles, farms, gardens, financial statements, communities, plates of food, webpages… Taking notes begins the circle of innovation.
4.2.2. Innovative role of the youth in the details
The fact that the youth can build bridges between oral and written traditions opens them to the field of innovating in any area – farm, garden, store, community, family, cooperative. Here we describe two groups of examples where it is important to innovate.
The first group is the farm. If organic agriculture saves us in chemical inputs and feeds the soil in a lasting manner for good production; if bee-keeping, in addition to producing honey, contributes to reordering the farm and increasing its productivity; if the combination of agriculture and ranching is one of the successful veins; if agro-industry in communities adds value to products, knowledge to families and expands social relations in the community; if poultry and pigs are a food source and generator of income; if the garden with horticulture and other plants are food and medicine for families; if stores generate daily income and provide a service to communities bringing them products and selling their products…What innovations can be worked on in these cases and under what conditions can they be expanded? If in the last 30 years Governments and international organizations have failed in their support for gardens, bee-keeping, poultry raising, organic agriculture, agro-industry and commerce, then innovating in these areas is a real challenge.
The second group is the family. The peasantry are made up of decentralized and extended families, while hierarchical at the same time. Elizabeth Dore talks about “patriarchy from below” and refers to the fact that the man in the house is the patriarch, who keeps their financial accounts and centralizes decision making. This patriarchal relationship from “below” is transferred to cooperatives where the president or the manager keep the financial accounts and centralizes decision making. This is true also in community and other organizations. If the family frees itself from the hierarchical institution that forms it, the entire family will review their receipts, and recognize that in that they have an instrument to demand their rights as members. This will have a positive repercussion on the family, cooperatives and other spaces where the members of the family participate: Church, sports, municipal government…It will contribute to social, economic and political equity. Thousands of trainings and sermons have not made a difference in families and organizations. How can this patriarchy from below be transformed which Jesus already challenged 2,000 years ago? What can be done so that in the family the financial accounts are managed by the entire family? I mention this issue of the receipts because it is a detail, so that, like Einstein, the youth might focus on the details and innovate.
4.3. Youth as counterbalance in the cooperatives
These innovations can be facilitated in cooperative spaces. There are some like the Colega Cooperative that systematically include the youth (4.1), while in most the youth lack the instruments to insert themselves in the cooperatives. By proposing to reinvent or create cooperatives with a new design, we are suggesting a role of counterbalance for the youth. This role is a concrete instrument to facilitate innovation.
Cooperatives can reinvent themselves if the youth take on the role of counterbalance from within. In Nicaragua, we work along this line. Between an accompanying organization, like that to which the author of this article belongs, and cooperatives, we agreed to collaborate. The cooperative recognizes that its business side absorbed the associative side, and that this has caused breakdowns, and accepts that its associative side be responsible for the strategic decisions, and its business side for making them operational, as the statutes and cooperative law indicate (see Figure 5).
Figure 5. Youth as counterbalance
Source: Author´s own.
First, there is a tripartite relationship of coordination between the cooperative, financial organizations and buyers, and the accompanying organization, to ensure that the cooperative be treated as a cooperative and not as a private entity by the organizations. Second, within the previous framework, the accompanying organization prepares instruments (guides) so that each organ might function effectively; it does so to the extent that it studies it and is part of the process of change. Third, one young person per cooperative has the role of studying the cooperative, accompanying each organ while using the instruments, and ensures that the information and its analysis flow from the business side of the cooperative to the associative side, and viceversa. Studying the operation of the cooperative allows the youth to detect attitudes in play, make them visible, and propose new innovative rules. Fourth, the accompanying organization creates spaces for workshops with the youth that work on these arrangements, where each one talks about their concerns and innovations, ideas are shared and methodologies worked on about how to hold conversations with member families, innovate, write and share their findings.
Some lessons from this experience. To the extent that the youth study the reason why an organ is not functioning and how it can function, instead of only sticking to the what (statutes and cooperative law), the members see that the cooperative is a different path from private enterprise. When the youth perceive that technical language is a wall in their communication, they understand that they are behaving as technocrats, believing that they have the solution without studying the realities, then, humility gains space, they study the details of the hierarchical structure and how they give way in the face of cooperativism. For example, they understand the tacit rule of the members that “loans are decided by the person at the top”, not the rules agreed upon in the assembly, which is why they study what makes this informal rule persist – there are always reasons! This path of making the organs function according to the rules agreed upon by the member assembly avoids the common result of the work of NGOs, who tend to train leaders and “replacement” youth, who, on assuming their posts, turn into the “person at the top” under the rule of “get rid of you to put me in”. To the extent that the youth devote themselves to this role of counterbalance, the belief that they are “useless slackers” gives way to greater trust.
Box 5. Learning cycle in cooperative reinvention
Harsh (adverse) rules and bases for resignation, strategic conversations.
Redesign existing cooperatives (role of internal counterbalance) and creation of new cooperatives with new design.
Dissemination of results and lessons.
Source: Author´s own.
There are also youth who prefer to create new cooperatives. The advantage is that they are not going to be “organized” by the State or some external organization, they are born with autonomy. The disadvantage is that they do not have external resources for their first steps. They can perdure over time if they start based on innovations that can only be carried out with the collaboration of several people. How can they be accompanied? Table 5 provides the steps, worked on here. Each one of them requires taking notes and analyzing them. It is circular: after the first cycle of study, self study, innovate, (re) organize and share, the next cycle returns to the study of the changing realities, this time self-study is about the operation of the cooperative, reflecting and looking at the world without letting it pass by, and so on successively. Rene Mendoza is developing instruments about how to observe, converse, analyze notes, analyze secondary data and how to innovate along with the youth, texts which, although they are drafts, can be downloaded by young people.
Sharing in the digital era
More than reinventing a cooperative, it is a matter of generating a movement for the reinvention of cooperativism. In this text we focused on the agrarian reality, but it is equally necessary to do it in other areas. How can a movement be generated? The steps of Table 5 are basic ones. Planning each innovation as Pep Guardiola teaches us, and sharing it through different media as Chef Acurio teaches us. In this effort the use of webpages and social media, in addition to other written media and videos, can be paths to explore.
Inti Mendoza finds that the use of webpages is still limited in organizations. The cooperatives who have a webpage are few, and of those that have them, few use them. Innovating in this area to use it as a means for learning is an pending task. In Nicaragua we are experimenting combining webpages with murals in the cooperatives: the same information (minutes of meetings, financial statements, loan portfolio, innovations) disseminated on the webpage month by month, are also presented on the mural of the cooperative. On that same webpage articles are published, databases, guides for the operation of the cooperative, learning guides for the youth, accounting software, stories about how cooperatives are organized, strategic conversations, and basic information is offered on the cooperatives with which they collaborate. We look for students from different universities in the world to study the cooperatives through the webpage, because of the information that is found there and because they can be in direct contact with the cooperatives.
Social networks are another means to discuss difficult topics of the cooperatives. If a cooperative is the captive of hierarchical structures, it can be discussed in social networks. Likewise, how a cooperative constructs its autonomy, or the conditions under which women organize or are excluded from the cooperative; why a cooperative embraces mono-cropping; whether the cooperatives has policies that are excluding youth (for example, having land) or policies against machismo (for example, expulsion of a member who physically mistreats his spouse); whether the international organizations treat cooperatives as cooperatives or only as businesses; whether cooperatives distribute their profits; whether second tier cooperatives concentrate investments and centralize decision making, or whether they facilitate first tier cooperatives scaling up. These topics can be debated on social networks under the question about what is it to be a cooperative and how does the cooperative support the well being of its members?
In the digital era the youth can innovate on ways of sharing their reflections and successes. The webpage is a means for analysis, and social networks a means for informing themselves and debating.
By way of conclusion
There are three ways in which the youth mobilize for social change. One is confronting the State in the streets in a violent way, generally in circumstantial reaction to policies, acts of corruption or acts of repression. Another way is where the peasantry studies the harsh rules (commercial and/or extractive), but forgets to study their own mentality, this is the case of the populist cooperative movement of the United States between 1870 and 1910. The third way is when the peasantry studies the harsh rules (commercial and/or extractive), self-studies their mentality, and mobilizes not to confront the State, but to innovate for the peasant families who are organizing.
Throughout this text we worked on the third modality of mobilization of youth who are moved to reinvent cooperativism as a means to make family agriculture viable. According to L. David Covey, “we are in the midst of one of the most profound changes in the history of humanity, where the principal work of humanity is moving from the industrial era of ‘control’ to that of the worker of knowledge”. The viability of family agriculture is possible today, based not on strength and virgin lands as in the past, but on knowledge and innovation, for which the youth can be the principal motor. The most important muscle in current family agriculture is the brain.
Barker, C. “Some reflections on student movements of the 1960s and Early 1970s”, in: Revista Crítica de Ciências Sociais. Nº 81. Coimbra, 2008, pp. 43-91.
Bauman, Z. ¿La riqueza de unos pocos nos beneficia a todos? Barcelona: Paidós, 2014.
CEPAL, FAO e IICA. Perspectivas de la agricultura y del desarrollo rural en las Américas. Una mirada hacia América Latina y el Caribe. San José: CEPAL-FAO-IICA, 2014.
Covey, S. “Foreword”, en: L.D. Marquet. Turn the ship around! How to create leadership at every level. Texas: Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2012.
Dore, E. Myths of Modernity. Peonage and Patriarchy in Nicaragua. Duke University Press, 2006.
Goodwyn, L. The populist moment. A short history of the agrarian revolt in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Luxemburg, R. The accumulation of capital. A contribution to an economic explanation of imperialism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1913.
Mendoza, I. 2018, “Porqué una página web en pymes/organizaciones asociativas?”, unpublished.
Mendoza, R., Fernández, E. y Kuhnekath, K. “¿Institución patrón-dependiente o indeterminación social? Genealogía crítica del sistema de habilitación en el café”, en: Revista de la Federación de Cafeteros de Colombia. Nº 29. Bogotá, 2013.[English version]
Mendoza, R. “Inmersión, inserción, escritura y diálogo: mecanismos de aprendizaje para el desarrollo territorial”, en: J. Bastiaensen, P. Merlet y S. Flores, S. (eds.). Rutas de desarrollo en territorios humanos. Las dinámicas de la vía láctea en Nicaragua. Managua: UCA, 2015. [English version]
— “Hacia la re-invención del comercio justo”, en: Tricontinental. Nº XX., Louvain-La-Neuve, 2017. [English translation]
— “Construcción de una paz justa en Colombia”, en: Tricontinental. Nº XX. Louvain-La-Neuve, 2018. [English version]
Munck, T. La Europa del siglo XVII. 1598-1700. Madrid: Akal, 1990.
Oppenheimer, A. ¡Crear o morir! Nueva York: Vintage Español, 2014.
Pérez-Baltodano, A. Postsandinismo: crónica de un diálogo intergeneracional e interpretación del pensamiento político de la generación XXI. Managua: IHNCA-UCA, 2013.
— Entre el Estado conquistador y el Estado nación: providencialismo, pensamiento político y estructuras de poder en el desarrollo histórico de Nicaragua. Managua: IHNCA-UCA, 2003.
Pineda, C.J., Castillo, M.E., Pardo, E.E. y Palacios, N.V. Cooperativismo mundial 150 años. Bogotá: Consultamericana, 1994.
Thorpe, S. How to think like Einstein. Simple ways to break the rules and discover your hidden genius. Naperville: Sourcebooks, 2000.
Torres Rivas, E. “Acerca del pesimismo en las ciencias sociales”, en: Ciencias Sociales. Nº 94. San José, 2001, pp. 151-167.
— Centroamérica: entre revoluciones y democracia. Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 2015.
Wolf, E., People without History. California: University of California Press, 1982
Zibechi, R. La revuelta juvenil de los 90. Las redes sociales en la gestación de una cultura alternativa. Montevideo: Nordan, 1997.
— La mirada horizontal. Movimientos sociales y emancipación. Montevideo: Nordan, 1999.
— Dispersar el poder. Los movimientos como poderes antiestatales. Buenos Aires: Tinta Limón y Textos Rebeldes, 2006.
— Descolonizar. El pensamiento crítico y las prácticas emancipatorias. Bogotá: Desdeabajo, 2015.
— Latiendo resistencia. Mundos nuevos y guerras de despojo. Granada: Baladre-Zambra, 2016.
 Doctor in Development Studies, associate researcher of IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium), collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research) and member of the COSERPROSS RL. Cooperative. Email: email@example.com.
 The lard is taken from the pig once it has died (been slaughtered). In rural areas of Central America this expression is used to indicate that the parents in the countryside wait until they die to leave their land to their sons and daughters.
 This saying relies on a play of words that does not exist in English: rayo=lightening, raya=stingray
 Edgar Fernández, a consultant to cooperatives, tells that he visited a member of a cooperative in crisis. Fernández asked if he had receipts. The member showed his receipts and began to tremble: “Please don´t tell the manager that I showed you the receipts”. The extreme in some cooperatives is that they have their members so subjected that they begin to believe that ceasing to cover up acts of corruption is “betraying” their cooperative, that “making demands is a thing of cowards”. A receipt is a detail. How important are the details!
My time in direct service to the peasants in Nicaragua, that is. On March 1 of this new year, I will step away from my role as Chief Executive for Winds of Peace after thirteen years.
In 2005, WPF Founder Harold Nielsen had been stricken with pneumonia (at age 90) and was hospitalized. I had just retired from leading the company he founded in 1948 and he asked whether I might help out by overseeing the Foundation for a few days, until he had sufficiently recovered. I did so. And within the first days of substituting for him, I knew that this was the work that I wanted to do. I drove to Rochester, Minnesota, where Harold was hospitalized, wondering to myself how I might gracefully interject my services into his small foundation. But when I entered his room, he was sitting up in bed and spoke almost before I could say hello.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said (true to form). “This illness has really hit me hard. It’s getting harder for Louise (his wife and Foundation co-founder) and me to travel to Nicaragua all the time. Maybe it’s time to pull back. Would you have any interest in taking over the work?” And that quickly, I received one of the great blessings of my life.
I entered the role knowing almost nothing about Nicaragua, beyond a visit I had made there at the close of the Contra War. in 1990. I knew of its poverty and something of its victimization by the U.S. over its history. But I did not know the people, I did not comprehend the rural sector where we would work, I did not appreciate the obstacles that an entire element of a nation’s populace must face for survival. I had moved from for-profit to non-profit over the course of a few days. The only thing I knew about development was how to spell it. I neither spoke nor understood Spanish and its nuances. Yet the work was compelling. And so was the learning.
I learned that a meal of rice and beans is fulfilling. Not just for my hunger, but for its plainness and, in a small way, how it makes me feel tied to the life of the peasant producers with whom we work. It is simple food that nourishes in ways that fancier food never will.
I learned that, given my many inadequacies, I am utterly lost without the skill to talk directly with those I so deeply admire. Translation is wonderful, gestures are limited but fun, but the sidebar conversations and off-the-cuff comments are elements in relationships that I crave. The limits of who I am both required it and prevented it.
I learned that regardless of how much one reads and studies, if one’s objective is to understand others, there is no substitute for personal immersion in the lives of those to be understood. Being in Nicaragua is not enough; an understanding of the realities of peasant farmers simply is not possible without being among them. I have been blessed to have had work which allowed me that opportunity. (I have wondered whether this might not be a valuable lesson for most of mankind.)
I have learned what it feels like to be utterly dependent on someone else. Having work histories which promoted ideas of self-control and leadership of others, I struggled to learn personal lessons of followership. I relied upon others for my language, transportation, processing of experiences, meals, accommodations, and virtually any other needs that occurred during my visits. It provided me some insights about the feelings of peasant producers who have had to rely so heavily upon outside funders, an unresponsive government and the vagaries of natural disasters. It is discomforting.
I learned that, notwithstanding my long-held view of my own personal privilege, that insight has been significantly understated. There is no rationale, no reason and certainly no deservedness to explain the contrast between what I have and what others so desperately need. To be in the presence of true poverty is to be humbled to one’s knees. I am likely to spend the balance of my life trying to understand this and to discern what I am called to do about it.
I learned the lesson that Harold Nielsen so fervently hoped that I would learn all those years ago when he provided me the opportunity to represent Winds of Peace. Harold would offer the wish that I “would become infected” with the outrage and despair of fellow human beings living in sub-human conditions. Harold got his wish, and I became sick over the truth of the poor.
So, thirteen years later I still cannot speak the language. But I learned a lot….