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Reinventing Cooperativism The art of organizing and re-organizing with those at the bottom

This is the English translation to the introduction to a book on cooperatives which reflects some of the learning accumulated from the work of accompanying cooperatives in Central America.

Reinventing Cooperativism

The art of organizing and re-organizing with those at the bottom

The biggest challenges that we have had in at least the last 50 years,  and even for the next 50 years, are: saving the planet and humanity, mitigating climate change, reducing social and gender inequality, and building a culture of peace with justice. Who will face these challenges in a decisive way? Will big business do it, when we have seen that in each world crisis, they have captured public resources to feed their greed? Will States do it, when today´s world is governed by the market and not by politics? Will cooperatives and associations do it, when we have seen them dance to the music of the market?

 

We argue that an articulation between the peasantry and indigenous peoples with States, companies and churches can confront those challenges. This articulation requires shared leadership of organized peasant and indigenous peoples. In this process of organizing themselves it is important to reinvent cooperativism. That is what this book addresses.

1.    Situation

According to the World Bank (2020a[1]) rural population around the world has dropped. Between 1960 and 2020 rural population went from representing 66% of total world population to 44%. In this same period, in Latin America and the Caribbean it dropped from 52% to 19%; while in Central America the rural population continues to have considerable weight: 48% in Guatemala, 42% in Honduras and 41% in Nicaragua.

Poverty is concentrated in rural areas. According to the ECLAC (2020[2]) poverty in the rural area is 45.7%, and extreme poverty is 21.7%, while in the urban area it is 26.9% ad 9%, respectively. According to the World Bank (2020a) the rural population is concentrated in “low income” and “less developed” countries (classification of the United Nations), 67% and 65% of total population, respectively.

The peasant-indigenous or family agriculture population continues to be important in the rural area. According to the FAO (2014[3]) in Latin America 81.3% of all agricultural exploitations are family farms; in Central America and Mexico they are 78.6%. Behind these data looms inequality: family farming has access to just 23.4% of all farming land; the average area in the continent is 57.6 hectares per exploitation, while it is 13.6 for family farming, and in Central America and Mexico it is 3.13 hectares per exploitation of family farms.

The prospects for the peasantry and indigenous populations are perceived to be limited. According to the World Bank (2020b[4]) forest area by country (land with planted or natural trees concentrated in at least 5 meters in one place, excluding fruit trees and agroforestry systems) dropped between 1990 and 2020. In Guatemala it went from 44.3% to 32.9%, in Honduras from 72.7% to 56.8%, and in Nicaragua from 37.5% to 28.3%. Empirical observation tells us that the situation is worse, that there is almost no forest area left. In other words, there no longer are any “national lands” left to move into, as happened prior to the XXI Century, while mono-cropping and ranching continue to expand at the cost of family and community farming, and at the cost of forest areas.

What will humanity do if this diversity of cultures connected with the production of food and nature disappears? These peasant-indigenous cultures were lost in Europe and the United States, and agribusiness was imposed. The risk that the peasantry might disappear in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and that the vision of nature as a “dead resource” might be imposed, with its corresponding privatization of common assets and generation of plagues, is real. That is why, following Vandana Shiva (2016[5]), it is urgent to revitalize the peasantry and these indigenous peoples who feed the world while connected to nature.

Revitalizing them, nevertheless, is a difficult challenge. Because they reproduce millennial rules of hierarchical, colonial, patriarchal and capitalist structures, just like we, the so-called advisers of cooperatives, even though at the same time this peasantry and these indigenous peoples cling to a form of diversified agriculture with active female participation and “excavate” endogenous institutions of collective actions.

These populations can persist and overcome their adversities if they organize in associative forms, particularly in cooperatives. If the wealthy, in order to accumulate financial wealth, found the formula of Corporations (Inc), the peasant indigenous sector can overcome their challenges with the cooperative formula of Limited Liability (LLC).

2.    The cooperative model and the imperative to reinvent itself

In Latin America and the Caribbean the number of cooperatives and their membership has increased: in 1963 there were 17,581 cooperatives with 6 million members (Martí, 2014[6]),and in 2010 there were 110,503 cooperatives with 33 million members. The largest number of cooperatives is in the “Southern Cone” (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Paraguay), they are countries with larger agricultural land area, and within that, larger land for family agriculture, but with a smaller rural population (Chile with 12%, Brazil with 13%, Argentina 8% and Paraguay with 28%). The smallest number of cooperatives is in Central America, countries with smaller agricultural land area. In general, there are less cooperatives in “low income” and “less developed” countries. In other words, the more rural poverty there is, the fewer cooperatives there are.

The cooperative model is in crisis. It is estimated that 20% of the membership of agricultural cooperatives are women. Most cooperatives are co-opted by colonial and patriarchal capitalism: in the rural area cooperatives embrace mono-cropping agriculture, which partly explains the low inclusion of women; they function as private enterprises, leaving out their associative side, inhale the spirit of “the law of the jungle” capitalism, have the logic of growing without distributing profits, and reproduce hierarchical structures in their practice and decision making.

Despite these deficiencies, the peasantry and indigenous people can face the challenges proposed organizing themselves into cooperatives. To do so cooperatives need to reinvent themselves.

3.    The book

This book focuses on how cooperatives can reinvent themselves. It is the result of accompanying cooperatives in Central America for 20 years. One form of this accompaniment has been allowing the reality to challenge our beliefs; for example, I used to believe in cooperatives with collective land ownership, but the peasant realitiy showed me that one thing is having collective property, and another is working on collective actions.

A second form has been the fact that we have studied ourselves while accompanying the cooperatives. Going to the countryside, we realized that on the highway we ran into people from universities, governments and donors and we communicated more with one another than with the communities: we saw the communities from the speed of the highways we moved on. We observed that we all would go to the manager, and we moved about on “approved territory”; they had us hear what they wanted us to hear. When we finally were able to walk on footpaths, then we were able to enter communities and their cooperatives and see ourselves in their “mirror”, “they got out of a 4-wheel drive vehicles for the meeting and then left” and “they recommend clearing land that has already been cleared.” There I learned that we advisers were the first obstacle to cooperatives reinventing themselves, and that with cooperatives you have to walk on the footpaths and not on the highways.

A third way was discovering and knocking down walls. We, the beliefs that we accompaniers bring, was the first and hardest wall. Management was the second, then the board, community leaders, men with the status of “heads of household”…Cooperative members and we were able to recognize the walls and experience the changes. Cooperatives could reinvent themselves to the extent that, together, we were able to get beyond those walls.

The fourth way is moving in circles. We realized that innovative forces move in a circle: Sandino and his army in the 1930s in Nicaragua moved in circles; Jesus 2,000 years ago moved among the towns in the hills, the towns of fishermen and in the end in Jerusalem; the Maya culture functions in  a circle for production (mandala) and conceives that life turns in cycles, not in a linear fashion. We learned that to advise cooperatives we had to open ourselves so that the peasantry might teach us how to advise them, to move in community circles.

These ways of learning showed us a different cooperative. One that moves under the logic of knocking down walls, on rules challenging the rules of the market. A cooperative that moves in a circular perspective between the exclusionary and inclusionary rules of communities and where the cooperative is a means for this circular transformation. Combining these ways showed us a cooperative that is a school of learning and democracy, and a cooperative that reinvents itself in this circle deals with the walls, repoliticizes processes and considers the perspective from the “highway” as one perspective, not as THE perspective.

In this book a living cooperative emerges that reconquests spaces and becomes a school of peasant-indigenous thought and is a mechanism for building citizenry – based on agreed-upon rules and not on the authoritarianism of the economic, political and religious patrón. A cooperative emerges capable of catalyzing changes in the state and in companies, while learning from this articulation.

4.    A cooperative model that rereads its origins

The urban cooperatives emerged in England (1844) in conflict with industrial capitalism, and a peasant cooperative in Germany (1864) emerged in conflict with usury, and a cooperative emerged in Canada (1861) in defense of agriculture, their cultures and to stop migration. In time cooperatives were co-opted, controlled by the State and subsumed by the Market. A way of reinventing cooperatives is understanding their origins and analyzing capitalism currently, so that cooperatives might find their path, which is like cleaning a window, which is cleaned on both sides: understanding the origins of cooperatives in their context, and then understanding the current context iin which cooperatives move and must be reinvented.

The laws that govern cooperatives are similar in each country, they are like McDonalds in the United States, Nicaragua, or Tanzania. This capitalist, colonial and patriarchal “clothing” is imposed on the peasantry. A way of reinventing cooperatives is doing the reverse: that the human capacities for collective actions be expanded through cooperatives, which is why they should be “tailor made.”

In the Cooperative Congress in Manchester in 1995, the word “enterprise” entered into the identity and principles of cooperatives for the first time. It says “a cooperative is an autonomous association of people who have voluntarily come together to deal with their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise.” We accept that cooperative identity, walking on two feet, a business foot and an associative foot. But under current realities most cooperatives are walking on just one foot, the business foot; there the process of democracy goes in a direction contrary to the Greek philosophy that provided the origins of democracy, which is consistent with what President Madison, gathered in the Constitution of the United States, established that democracy was only possible if directed by a minority. Cooperatives that reinvent themselves are those that overcome that perspective by combining representative and participatory democracy, which is based on assemblies and is decentralized, for that reason: interconnected. Reinventing the cooperative is that it walk on both of its feet: the business foot, which is concerned about its capital growing, and the associative foot, which is concerned about equity, transparency and democratic practice.

This reinvention is possible with “self-tying” mechanisms, unique for fulfilling their rules under their cooperative spirit, and internal and external counter-balancing power relations. Internal counter-balancing power: youth push for innovation; women take on leadership in diversification, processing and commercialization (and trade) of their products, and challenge exclusionary policies of cooperatives (e.g. that “you have to have land” to be a member); and communities provide a horizon for cooperatives and root them in their communities. External counter-balancing power: financial organizations, businesses and donors relate to the cooperative, NOT JUST with the business side, as if it were a private enterprise, but also with their associative side. The fact is that cooperativism from its origins is an alternative to capitalism.

The combination of advising cooperatives in Central America, so that they change in accordance with the spirit and letter of their rules, facilitating another cooperative emerging from communities, and the act of self-studying ourselves in this process of the reinvention of cooperatives are the bases of this art of organizing and reorganizing with those at the bottom.

This book is being written in Central America and is for cooperative members and scholars of cooperativism and rural development.

5.    Content of the book

Introduction

Part I. The dynamics of transformation

Chapter 1. New emerging structures

Chapter 2. Mechanisms for changing structures

Chapter 3. Conditions that facilitate the persistance of innovative structures

Chapter 4. Differentiating processes

Part II. Endogenous alliances

Chapter 5. Youth: conditions and processes for cooperative innovation

Chapter 6. Women in cooperatives: diversifying their economy and addiung value to their products

Chapter 7. The Community: horizon and roots for cooperatives

Part III. National and global articulations

Chapter 8. Cooperatives as an articulating axis with the State, business sector and the church, embedded in national and international arenas.

Conclusions

 

René Mendoza Vidaurre, PhD

rmvidaurre@gmail.com

+505 85100007

[1] See: Wrold Bank 2020a, Data. hhttps://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.RUR.TOTL.ZS

[2] Cepal, 2020, Panorama social de América Latina. Santiago: Naciones Unidas.

[3] FAO, 2014, Agricultura Familiar en América Latina y el Caribe. Santiago: FAO.

[4] See: World Bank, 2020b, Data. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/AG.LND.FRST.ZS

[5] Shiva, Vandana, 2016, Who Really Feeds the World? USA: North Atlantic Books

[6] Martí, 2014, “Notas para la construcción de una historia del cooperativismo en América Latina” en: Albuquerque, P., Economía social y solidaria. Praxis, vivencias e intenciones

Corn, a reflection for the community of Ubú

“Development” organizations have tended to emphasize export crops as key for the development of small producer communities. Our research shows that focussing on export crops to the detriment of traditional diversity of indigenous-peasant production results in loss of family land and food insecurity. People also need to analyze and improve the local market for essential goods. This article is an example of just such a reflection around the staple crop of corn in Nicaragua.

Corn, a reflection for the community of Ubú

In group

If you kill a bee, the rest of the bees react, they bury their stinger in you and die while fleeing; individual life does not matter to them, they defend the life of the hive. If you kill a wild boar, the pack pursues you risking their lives. Wolves, buffalo, geese…They survive and live in a group. And human beings?

“When I look at history I get depressed…but when I look at prehistory I am optimistic”, said Jan Christian Smuts (1870-1950), a South African politician and soldier. The historian Yuval Noah Harari, in his book, Sapiens, tells us that humanity developed thanks to its collective actions. This makes us discover that all living beings in our planet survive and live coordinating with one another in a group. We are collective products.

In Central America women and men say they are “children of corn”. After going around and around with this crop, with the leader Feliciano Cantarero from the community of Ocote Dudú, we bought future corn. After this small step, we took further steps. These pages deal with this and are open to anyone who dares to think and question.

1.    Corn in Nicaragua

This graph shows that importing corn starting in 2005 has grown exponentially. The importation of GMO corn and corn meal (maceca and harimasa) in order to make tortillas has grown so much that we no longer find pino corn for making homemade bread, pinol, pinolillo, rosquetas or gofio. From being children of our own corn we are becoming “children of GMO corn”. And since corn is more than corn, peasant autonomy and the peasant cultural foundation is being eroded.

2.    Reflecting is our first step

If you have 2 children between the ages of 8-10, in 5 years that pair of adolescents are going to be 15 or 16 years old. They will eat more tortillas and you will need more corn in the house. When your son or daughter finds their own partner, they will need at least 1 manzana of land to plant their corn. So, you are going to have to divide up the land to give some to them, there will be more mouths to feed and less corn per person; this is a crisis. You probably will go into debt, pay the debt year by year, and later you will have difficulties to pay those debts which will be increasing over time. You will end up selling the land. Some will go further into the forest, others will cross the river to enter the US. In any event it seems that in 10 years the family is going to become workers – to become fieldhands and embrace the rule of “survival of the fittest”. How can more income be generated throughout the year, ensuring your family food and even expanding your social “beehive”.

One way is that we might be able to organize ourselves in a way in which through the years we might ensure that income, food and social “beehive”. This is the effort in which we find ourselves, which will be possible if you join us and among all of us we think about how to do it.

3.    Selling and exchanging corn

We have started by buying 49 quintals of corn from the community of Ubú. With this start, we describe here the possible steps to be taken.

Brokers buy it in sacks and that is where the world of the producer ends. We will never be able to get a better price for corn if we continue selling it in a sack as a raw material. That is why producers prefer to plants less corn, planting only enough for their food, and up quite planting corn – because the soil is no longer fertile, because cattle pays better…Remember, maceca and harimasa will continue increasing in price and so we will call ourselves “children of imported maceca” and no longer “children of pinolero corn.”

Our goal should be to sell and trade corn turned into tortillas, bread, rosqueta, gofio, pinol, pinolillo, tibio, nacatamal, tamal, wirila… This we cannot do individually nor will we be able to do it in just one year. It is with several people in the community and from outside the community, year by year, that we can achieve it. It is breaking down several walls that we can do it, for example, we have to break down the wall of just selling by the sack, of just selling the raw material (corn is corn), and the wall that “money solves everything.” Alongside of overcoming these walls, we must get into processing and selling these products; and in parallel fashion recover the rule of our ancestors like the practice of the exchange of products (e.g. organizing an annual fiesta in the community of Ubú to share roasted pork with tortilla and pinolillo).

How are we going to do this? We list 4 steps in what follows.

With the corn, a first step would be working on an alliance with the Community Social Enterprises (CSE) of San Juan del Río Coco (SJRC). The CSEs are going to set the price based on calculating their profits in 10% (even though they have another way of calculating: 30% of the difference between the sale price and money invested). The rest of the money (C$199) they will send to Waslala. In the table we make the assumption that the CSEs in SJRC are going to sell at C$800, but it could be that they are able to sell it at a higher price or a little less, in which case the numbers would vary.

Table. Calculation of corn by quintal
Córdobas Explanation
Sale to consumer 800 If in SJRC they sell it at a better price, they will correct the rest of the calculations
Profits of CSE  (10%) 80 The CSES calculate it differently, but the amount is similar: 800-530= 170 x 30% /100% =81.
Future corn 350 5 months; if it was a loan at 5 – 10% interest rate, it would be between C$87.5 and C$175.
Transportation to 4 Esquinas – SJRC 170 From 4 Esquinas to Matagalpa C$90, from there to San Juan 50,  and from there to the communities an average of C$30. Total 170
Balance 199
50% for funds (community, innovation) 99.5 In 2022 with this fund we are going to organize a health fiesta in the community.
50% for individual profit sharing 99.5 Distributed in accordance with corn delivered

This step surpasses the model of traditional trade: 1) it is sold to a grassroots organization that is going to use the corn for the benefit of the peasantry; 2) the CSEs will have 10% of the profits and are going to send us the balance, which implies transparency; 3) the CSEs pay C$350/qq as an advance, and are not charging interest like usurers who charge between 5-10% monthly interest for the C$350 which from November to March in 5 months is between C$87.5 and C$175 per qq. See table.

The profit sharing is 50% for the producers and 50% for the “grain by grain” organization  (see box). Each year the volume that they turn into the organization is going to be added up. For example, if total profits are C$18,000 and the total corn accumulated in 3 years is 200qq, the profits would be C$90/qq (C$18,000/200qq). If producer Juancho in the first year turned in 3 qq, in the second year 10qq and the third year 1 qq, adds up to 14 qq, so in that third year Juancho will receive C$630 (C$45x14qq) which is 50%, while the remaining 50% (C$630) will stay with the organization.

A second step is that in Waslala we organize the initiative of making and selling tortillas. In this case we are going to save part of the cost of transportation and the total profits will be for the “grain by grain” organization, we will be able to share a larger amount. Also the CSEs in SJRC will organize other initiatives with corn, their profits will be distributed among the peasantry. This is great right?

A third step is that we buy pinol corn and we provide it in a 1 x2 basis under the conditions that the producer sells the harvest to our organization at the street price. We are interested in human health and pinol corn is important for that.

A fourth step is that we buy green fertilizer (velvet beans) to provide at 1×2 under the condition that the producer sell the harvest to our “grain by grain” organization, at the street price. We are interested in recovering the soil to be able to continue growing corn.

In the third and fourth step, after 2 or 3 years, probably we will have enough volume for pinol corn and green fertilizer, so there will be profits also to be shared. We are progressing little by little: the hen fills her craw grain by grain.

4.    How can we organize ourselves?

We have been understanding that we need to organize 3 groups: group of corn producers (cornfield) and green fertilizer group, group of women who make tortillas, and group of women who make pinolillo and pinol.

The producer group is already on its way, at least in its version of native corn. To them are added the producers with pinol corn seed and green fertilizer. The initial idea is that the stores would buy the pinol corn and provide it to the producers at 1 x 2 under the condition that we buy the harvest at the street price. 50% of the fund that the organization gets is going to be used for these purchases, even if insufficient. Something to keep thinking about.

The women´s group around pinol and pinollillo is something to think about. It is processing the pinol corn with cacao. It is pinolillo, pinol, bread…We need to think more about how we can carry it out.

Then there is the women´s group around tortillas. We are still thinking about this. It could be that is be linked to the sale of fried pork and cooked beans. We already have a team for making tortillas.

All these points are open to what you think. If we all think from our homes, communities and farms, we will be able to build strong communities. If we are successful, there will be no need for our people to migrate crossing the Rio Grande nor to sell their land. Like the bees, wild boars, wolves or geese, we humans should move as a group.

5.    Who has the right to share in the profits

When you sell your corn to traders, they will never share their profits with you. Our “grain by grain” organizations is being formed so that, among other things, it might share profits from the very beginning. There are two ways of having the rights to profits.

First way: producers who follow the corn agreement, providing the volume that they promised, have the right to profit sharing. Likewise people who promise to provide 1 x2 for pinol corn and 1 x 2 with green fertilizer. Likewise the women who participate in the tortilla group, and in the pinol and pinolillo group. All of them have the right to share in the profits.

Second way: free contribution. Those who did not participate in the corn agreement but who want to be part of the organization and have the right to profit sharing, can contribute in corn or in cash (equivalent to the street price for corn); they can do it once of they can do it year after year; what they contribute will be cumulative. Also producers who want to have more profits can contribute corn or an amount equivalent to the street price for corn.

6.    And if this initiative fails?

If this initiative fails, that 50% or what is left of that 50% of the funds in the organization is going to be distributed among all the people who have the right to profit sharing.

All of us can act so that it does not fail. So that in a few years we might be able to say to the spirit of Jan Christian Smuts, making history among several people we are cultivating optimism

Descentralization of the CSEs: deepening their connections

Community Social Enterprises have been a key focus of the WPF work these past two years. This brief document was written for  people participating in these innovative entities to set up key meetings for the coming year. We make it available here because it also provides a good summary of what has been accomplished and what lies ahead this coming year, 

Descentralization of the CSE deepening their connections

Windshield wipers are bigger than rearview mirrors, because the road ahead is larger than the road you leave behind.

This is the draft of a text in light of the assembly to be held on January 7th. It is a text written with a lot of anticipation. Improving the CSEs in the service of communities is what motivates us. For that purpose we are reading the context, the progress made, we are looking “through the rearview mirror” at other organizations. On that basis we are looking at where to go and how to build new futures.

1.    The seeds of death and life

Dawn tells you what the day will be like, goes the saying in Spanish.  An organization tends to be what it was in its beginnings. That genesis lasts between 3-5 years during which period a group organizes and approves their rules.

There are organizations that begin with enthusiasm, but do not set their rules, do not analyze their processes, and do not innovate their actions in the face of harsh realities. These organizations turn hierarchical, where the people who hold titles tend to take advantage of other people´s resources and the network itself for personal benefit. They are organizations that after reaching a certain level, do not grow any more and begin to fall apart. This happens for several reasons, some of which are:

  • The vertical and authoritarian structures on which our societies move, from the family, State, Church and any other organization, which are all absorbing.
  • The prevalence of the law of the jungle which penetrates  any new organization
  • The spirit of capitalism where everything is money and money in the short term, at the cost of human life and nature, which blurs our vision
  • The weakness of indigenous and peasant institutions which are not able to find their own wellsprings, which is why they are susceptible to being coopted.

Community Social Enterprises (CSEs) in San Juan del Río Coco (SJRC) are our concern. They are in the genesis phase. We started with a store, we added other stores, the distributor and the peasant market, we moved into coffee and beans. We did it with resources of people from the communities themselves and from outside the communities. Even though the store and roaster are in one community, at least in three of them, both are supervised separately. Looking at Figure 1, what do we see?

  • Certain degree of centralization in functions, decisions and resources in the distributor/supervision in the town.
  • Because of the strength of the communities with their stores and the fact that the administrators participate in the bean and coffee trade, there is a certain degree of counterweight from the communities
  • Through the resources of their shareholders there is distribution of earnings and this is a decentralizing force, which is why an accounting is done to the shareholders
  • There is dependency on a few people, even though this has gradually improved, step by step, with a strong role on the part of Freddy, Elix, the store administrators, the superviser and the person in charge of the distributor. The CSEs have a base of 10 people[1].

What is most distinctive of the CSEs is the fact that we have tried to constantly do self study  in order to innovate in terms of actions and rules. Also the CSEs have made progress in having a group of administrators who combine technical, administrative skills, honesty and effort.

Excessive centralization or excessive decentralization leads to the death of an organization. A balance is needed depending on the circumstances in which it moves, which is like getting “the perfect soup”: neither too salty nor too bland, neither too much fat nor not enough bone stock…

2.    Reasons to look for “the perfect soup”

Why the turn to a more decentralized form of organization? We need to read the context that we are living in Central America and the world. The brutal inequality in which we live is essentially the result of centralizing decisions and concentrating wealth. The destruction of the planet is the effect of the domination of the market where “money attracts more money”. The CSEs need to show a different path.

First, what most concerns us is the sustainability of the CSEs. In the history of organizations, we see that the great majority of them are sustainable based on centralizing themselves, but they are like spiders, once their heads are crushed (“ the leader”), they fall apart like a deck of cards. We are looking for sustainability inspired in the starfish, which has no known head and when it is cut in half turns into two starfish.

Secondly, we want each part of the CSEs to be autonomous, understanding autonomy to be having more connections. Autonomy is not separating oneself and isolating oneself. Organizations that centralize instead separate from and isolate their member organizations, we see this in some second tier cooperatives where the first tier cooperatives function in an isolated way and dependent on one or two people. The CSEs should deepen their connections with communities, their members, and organizations that go beyond country borders, and that connection should be mediated by accepted rules arrived at through consensus.

Third, it is important that communities have more ownership over their organizations, make them their own and use them as theirs. Centralist organizations have their own expressions: “The company of Fabiola”, “organizations of WPF” and “company with a lot of money” – it is like when they say “the cooperative of Mundito”, or the “cooperative of Luisa”, this shows the strength of the elites reproduced by all these people, and at the same time reveals the fact that people detect it and describe it as such, as elitist organizations. These expressions make the CSEs appear as if they were spiders, and this can carry risks for the CSEs. If the communities take ownership over their organizations, “the money will be attracted” by the communities and not the reverse.

3.    Path of decentralization as more connections

The idea of decentralization in the CSEs is not isolating nor separating themselves. It is deepening the connections among the different parts and building a better future. It is awakening and cultivating an awareness that small stones and big stones are equally important to build a pyramid, a house or a bridge.

In these two years we have a dozen people who understand and move the CSEs. We also have stores, roasters and services like harvest collection and drying the harvest in the communities themselves. How is it possible to decentralize in the sense of deepening connections?

  • That people get more interested in their initiatives. That there be more connection in a community between shareholders and clients (store and roaster), and from there communities connect more through the distributor, coffee-bean processing mill. Horizontal connection.
  • That each community administer their store, roaster and other services that they organize. That in each community their surplus be distributed in accordance with the actions of their shareholders. That each community analyze their possibility of growth based on their own efforts and make the decisions that are theirs to make, including the investments to be made. And that each community work on their strategy about how to attract more shareholders.
  • That the communities be the owners of services like the coffee harvest collection-processing-commercialization, and  the distributor for the stores.

Sounds good. How do we organize it?

3.1  Organization

Figure 2 shows the initiatives which we are working on.

  • Communities with their initatives (store, roaster) have shareholders, shareholder assemblies and their respective supervisors.
  • The two services, coffee commerce (CC) and the Distributor, Store and Peasant Market (DSPM) are also governed by their assemblies, whose members are representatives of the communities that are the owners of those services: see purple arrows going in one direction in Figure 2. In the case of CC it is in alliance with WPF and through that we reach the US – an alliance which is working on a new model for commerce in coffee.
  • The percentage of the distribution for the social fund, maintenance-investment and individual profit sharing will be similar for all the communities and services. It is the basis of the connection.
  • Every 3 months, prior to the quarterly distribution of profits, the advising team will supervise each community and each service, basically to review the good work of the supervisors.

Let us get a little more specific. Let´s begin with the communities.

  • Community is a geographic place represented by its shareholders who invest in stores and roasters who are in their geographic space, and who invest in the DSPM and the CC.
  • Each community with their store and roaster is supported by its shareholders and their respective assemblies. In their first assembly (March 2022) in each community with their shareholders they must choose outside shareholders who have requested buying shares in that community and set the amount of their shares, as well as name their supervisor (see Box 1). For that purpose, the supervisor of the CSEs on March 10, 2022 will provide the data on the value of the store and the roaster, the amount that they must reach with the shares. The supervisor will also provide a table with the social fund and the maintenance fund in proportion to their shares.
  • A community can have shares in other communities; also people from other communities can have shares in another community, their acceptance is decided by each community. This avoids social inbreeding.
  • The shareholders of the community where the store and the roaster are will have a minimum of 51% of the shares. If they do not reach this amount in the beginning, they must define in their assembly a strategy to achieve it in year 1.
  • Monthly supervision will be carried out by people that are named by the assembly for each store. Each administrator records data on paper and on the laptop, does their respective cash count. This monthly supervision will be published on the CSE whatsapp.
  • Communities will be the shareholders of the DSPM and the CC
  • Each community will name their representative of the DSPM and CC for a two year term. Once that period has ended they cannot be re-elected so that they might scale up to other forms of organization.

Distributor, Store and Peasant Market

  • Communities hold 100% of the shares of the DSPM.
  • One or two supervisors from the communities supervise the DSPM
  • There will be 2 people responsible for the DSPM: one person in the distributor and bringing in products, and another person dealing with the store and the peasant market. Payment will be a fixed amount until DSPM is able to achieve profits where 30% of those profits is equal to or greater than the fixed amount.
  • All products from the communities will come through the community stores, except for those people who take their product directly to SJRC. The profits between the store and the DSPM for products that go through the stores will be shared 50-50.
  • The beans that are the object of the alliance between SJRC and Waslala will be under the responsibility of the supervisor of the distributor, at least in its first phase.
  • The amount of the salary for both people will be defined by the new assembly of the DSPM (March 2022).

Coffee Commerce

  • Communities hold 100% of the shares.
  • One or two of the supervisors of the communities will supervise the service of the CC.
  • There will be one person in charge with a fixed salary or will earn 30% of the profits, something yet to be studied. It would seem that we need a person who would organize the distribution of roasted, ground coffee in the country, starting in the communities and who would organize a network of coffee shops including other investors. Maybe the best market is in the country itself.

3.2  Rules

The rules already approved in the CSEs are essentially the same rules that are going to govern each community.

We will only have to add some referring to:

  • The fact that the communities are the owners of the DSPM and CC
  • The payment of the people who coordinate the DSPM and CC
  •  50% of earnings for the store and 50% for DSPM with peasant products that the stores send to the peasant market
  • Things that involve the CC…,

4.    Prospects

Shaping this decentralization process understood as a deepening of connections, we will have:

  • Every 3 months 7 assemblies will be held (5 in communities and 2 around the DSPM and CC) – assemblies are learning spaces, in their time we will work on guides about how we can grow in these spaces. Let us note that the CSEs will be very assembly focused, something that it is important to encourage and make happen.
  • Each community will be interested in knowing how they are doing with the distribution of profits, the progress in each community.
  • Every 6 months we will organize an Encounter of Board members from the 7 assemblies, an important space for building a common vision, to learn from  experiences and to work on common challenges – the idea of exchange as the other face of trade, we should be thinking about it, in some communities in Honduras they hold a “corn festival” or “corn cob festival” where the entire community comes together once a year.
  • Certificate programs which will be very important, we might organize them jointly with Waslala. Throughout this year we have held a series of Encounters.

5.    Calendar-plan

Calendar of activities in the process of the reorganization of the CSEs
Date Activities People responsible
Nov 23 to Dec 7 Explain to people the rules around coffee Freddy, Fabiola, Elix, and administrators of Samarkanda, SJ Ojoche & San Antonio
Dec 8 Report on volume of coffee collected and notes on visits made Fabiola, Elix & Freddy
Dec 9 Decision with WPF René
Dec 10 Reaction of CSE Fabiola, Freddy & Elix
Dec 11 First draft of decentralization proposal of the CSEs René
Dec 11 – Jan 7 First draft on calculation of shares by communities * Fabiola
Jan 7 Assembly Board
Jan 7 – Feb 7 Supervisors are chosen Each community
March 1-4 2 days Encounter of administrators, candidates to be supervisors participate; 2 day formation of supervisors Fabiola & René
March 7-11 Internship of supervisors in stores and roasters Store administrators
March 10 Send refined version of report on shares, in addition to the financial report to CSEs Fabiola
March 14 – 28 Each community holds their assembly and defines their shares and amount that fits with the amount of assigned shares Coordination of communities
April 8 CSE Assembly: results of assemblies in each community and the DSPM are reviewed Board
* For each community: 1) value of the roaster (what it cost plus investments) and the store; 2) value of DSPM shares; 3) social fund and maintenance fund that depend on number of shares

Final note:

Please write with any comments. Remember that your ideas have enormous value.

René Mendoza

San Juan Rio Coco, November 30, 2021

 

[1] Really there are more people, like  Claudio, Ernesto-Cristina, Toño, Carmensa-Flavio, Uriel, Aura…They are leaders with enormous capacities in different areas:  Toño-Ernesto-Chango in coffee, Carmensa-Cristina in providing follow up on processes, Claudio in organization. We need to take better advantage of them. Now with the decentralization all these people will be able to participate a lot more effectively.

“The snail” strategy in the face of climate change and the coffee price bubble

“The snail” strategy in the face of climate changeand the bubble of coffee prices

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

Snail´s path

-Everything that goes up, must come down, said a woman

-But roasted, ground coffee goes up in price but does not come down, responded her daughter.

-That is because those who earn more are few and are higher up, reacted the mother.

-Maybe the path of the snail needs to replace the ladder, where we do not go up at the cost of…stuttered the daughter and she bit her tongue, while her mother listened.

Between the months of October and November of 2021 was a peculiar moment. While the price for coffee “went up” and the COVID-19 pandemic “came down”, adding the “Omicron” variant, affecting human health, in Glasgow (Scotland) the 26th edition of the annual United Nations Conference on Climate Change , COP 26[2] was being held, looking to reach an agreement between those “from above” to save the planet from a catastrophic climate. This coincidence of events calls us to reflect: the price of roasted and ground coffee goes up and does not tend to go down, climate change also “goes up” (gets worse) and the elite of humanity, the “cherry on the pumpkin” as Bauman (2014)[3]  describes them, continue believing – and make all of us believe – that “anything can be done with money.”

Discerning a larger horizon during a volatile and uncertain moment seems to be an important light for our times.

In this article we argue that coffee expresses that reality of climate change, the “trickle down” world economy of social inequality, and that urgently needs a glocal strategy to take advantage of prices, mitigate climate change and deepen relationships of cooperation, crossing oceans. More “along a snail´s path”, as the daughter says in the story, which does get the attention of her mother.

1.    Coffee prices

Coffee prices have been on the rise since the month of October: US$ 2.30/lb (November 2021). It is estimated that they can break US3.00/lb and even US$4.00/lb. The two graphs which follow reveal its evolution with contradictory messages.

The first graph shows constant change in prices where in 2001-02 was the worst year and 2011 the best in a space of 100 years. The graph shows us that these price changes are normal, that they go up and go down, good years and bad years, it even reminds us that “whatever goes up must come down.” All this appears to be something natural.

The second graph shows prices adjusted for inflation: it starts from 1977, a year of high prices. That 1977 price is 1,000% higher than prices for 2020-21. The adjustment for inflation has as a principal determining factor cost increases which include inputs, labor force and expenses, which generally are outside the control of coffee producers. From there, prices can go up, but if costs go up more, that “rise” in prices really is not a rise, but rather the prices for export coffee (raw material) are systematically falling. In other words, the “rise” in coffee prices which are happening in the last three months of 2021 are like a “fleeting joy.”

2.    Causes or coincidence of elements that create waves

Without losing sight of graph 2, let us focus on the causes of the rise in prices in this second semester of the current year, 2021. More than causes, we see that there are several elements that are happening simultaneously, and that tacitly are interconnected causing this “rise” in prices.

There is price speculation, because there is a lot of money “in the streets”, while there is coffee in warehouses and on coffee plants. Even though in the month of November importers (roasters) began to see the coffee in their warehouses reduced.

That price speculation is due to the fact that the coffee harvest in Brazil, generally plantations under the open sun and monocropping systems, plummeted in the current cycle by at least 20% (some estimate that the loss of the coffee harvest will be as high as 60%), first because of a drought, and later because of a freeze, including snow, in the month of July caused by a cold wave from the Antarctic; both, drought and freeze, are clear effects of climate change, in turn caused by human actions, forewarned by scientists (see Kurmelovs)[4]. The situation of Brazil, which under President E. Bolsonaro in the last three years razed the Amazon to impose monocropping agriculture and ranching, means a lot because it produces 35% of the total volume of world coffee. If Brazil drops its production by half, no importer, roaster or distributor of roasted and ground coffee wants to take the risk of being left without coffee for tomorrow morning – or for 2022 – which is why they are running to buy coffee at whatever the price.

In parallel fashion, the cost of logistics has shot up for all products. In contrast to merchandise like grains which are transported in cargo ships, with coffee marine transportation is in containers. The price of marine transport of 1 container of coffee rose from $2,000 (US$4.80/quintal) to $4,000, then to $7,000 and now there is talk of it reaching $15,000 (US$36/quintal)[5]. The cost of trucking from customs to the warehouses has also gone up, and it is reported that in the United States there are not enough trucks, which is why customs is charging fines for those who do not pick up their coffee in the stipulated time frame.  It is also reported that there is a certain amount of chaos in exporting from countries, particularly Brazil, because they do not have enough containers for maritime transport in a timely fashion, which is why the importers in England or the United States are waiting for more than 2 months for their coffee.

This has to do with the recovery of the world demand for goods and services promoted by the policies of fiscal stimulus on the part of governments of the developed countries – e.g. $1.9 trillion dollars equal to 10% of US GDP which the government of the United States injected into its economy at the beginning of 2021, as well as the $1 trillion for infrastructure in November 2021. This demand surpassed the supply of goods and services in the market. Companies expected that because of the pandemic there was going to be a period of prolonged stagnation and reduced their production and inventory, and the flow of world transport of merchandise dropped.  Warehouses were full of coffee. But things turned out just the reverse because of the strong demand, which is why there is not enough capacity to supply the market. 

This imbalance between world supply and demand for merchandise is what is causing the inflation in developed and emerging countries. Last October the IMF estimated that inflation will reach its peak at the end of 2021 of 3.6%, much higher than what was expected this past July of 2.4%, which means that all prices for products are rising and will continue to rise.

3.    Tendencies

What situation awaits us in the immediate future and in the medium term? Given that the only thing certain is uncertainty, here we note some tendencies about coffee, relationships between importers and exporters, fair trade organizations, coffee producer families and their organizations, and the value of roasted ground coffee in the United States and Europe.

If coffee plants in Brazil were severely damaged, their renovation will take 3 years, at least assuming that in those 3 years there is not another drought or freeze. If it takes 3 years, coffee prices are doing to remain high for the next 3 years. Consequently, some scholars believe that the price of coffee may go beyond US$3 and even reach US$4/lb[6]. This would appear to be good income for producer families. Even though climate change might even make the situation worse: a producer in Central America could receive $250 for 1 quintal of export coffee. And if his coffee field, despite being associated with fruit and forest trees in contrast to the plantations in Brazil, is damaged by climate change? They could be left holding the bag.

We foresee a possible deterioration in the relationships between importers and exporters of export quality coffee. Compliance of agreements between importers (buyers) and exporters of coffee will be seen in accordance with the rise and fall in prices. Both can agree to set a defined price in advance, let us say they agree on 220 + a differential of 20 and requiring a cupping score of 81; but if prices begin to drop after February or March 2022 before the agreed upon coffee is sent, that importer or roaster will want to economize and therefore free themselves from the previously signed contract. If market prices have already dropped to 180, the importer-roaster could decide that the cupping of the coffee resulted in a score of 79 and send the coffee back, or offer to buy it at 190 as “a favor.” Consequently, in that transaction the exporters lose US$50/quintal, unless they look for another neutral cupping, but that requires more time, and with that more expenses and tensions will emerge. The reverse can also happen, if the price “on the street” is above the agreed upon price, coffee exporters will seek to break the contract. Let us say that they signed a contract at 190 at the beginning of the 2021-22 harvest, given the rise in price to $230, the exporters will seek to sell it at that “street price”, which is why at the moment to fulfill their prior contract they will no longer have coffee in their warehouse. These are shenanigans from both sides that affect the long-term relationships; because of this, importers (buyers) currently are resisting setting prices in these months of November and December, and if they do so, they want to be sure that there is coffee in the warehouse of those who are offering the coffee. With more price variation, there is more prevalence of shenanigans on both sides, more opportunism.

Fair trade organizations can lose a lot in this context of high prices. Some have contracts set at $160, $190, $225 and others at $230 per quintal. Most of the cooperatives do not distribute their profits, nor do they deduct just $25 or $35 for costs of harvest collection, dry milling and export services; they are accustomed to deducting larger amounts for whatever reason. Consequently, when the members see that their cooperative is paying them $140 or $160 per quintal, when “on the street” they are offered $180 or $190, they tend to go for the higher price. This happens because the members are the owners of their coffee and want to sell it wherever they can when the price is high, and they are going to turn their coffee in to their cooperative when the price “in the street” is lower than what their cooperative tends to pay them. In turn, many cooperatives, on not receiving coffee from its members, buy coffee “from the street” from traditional intermediaries, coffee for which they will not pay the organic nor social premium to anyone. In other cases, the members deliver on the volume of coffee committed to their cooperative, but they turn in their lesser quality coffee, the best coffee they sell to traditional intermediaries. So, if most of the members divert their coffee to “the street”, fair trade organizations will be left with a volume of coffee less than their goals, will be compensated by coffee from “the street” and probably will take lesser quality coffee; this shows a structural weakness in the fair trade chain, from the producers to the fair trade stores, there is no mutual loyalty for the reasons that exist, they continue being governed by opportunism where “making a quick buck” is the focus.

Within this environment of prices and opportunism, organic coffee producers will tend to turn toward conventional coffee, producers with traditional coffee who do not apply neither chemical nor organic inputs will look for agrochemical inputs, and those who already use agrochemical inputs will tend to increase them. The spirit of increasing volume for more money will gain ground. The motor which pushes this is the culture of “making a quick buck”, and its effects can be disastrous for the peasantry, their organizations and the salvation of the planet. Commercial intermediaries will insist on buying future coffee with money in hand, providing credit under terms of usury and offering agrochemical inputs to be paid with coffee, which will lead the peasantry to go into debt, depend more on the market for coffee production and commit their coffee to those commercial intermediaries. Organizations of producers, for having responded with “street prices” will be left without funds to provide credit to their members, which will limit their harvest collection in the next coffee cycle, and therefore become a disadvantage for continuing their alliances with importing organizations in the United States and Europe, unless they embrace commercial intermediation. With the turn towards agrochemical inputs and monocropping agriculture, as well as the cooptation of producer organizations by market forces, the damage to soil and water will intensify; something of this has happened in Brazil on a larger scale: coffee producers in the state of Paraná suffered freezes 40 years ago, which is why they moved to Minas Gerais in search of a more stable climate, but they did not learn their lesson, they planted coffee in the open sun, highly technified and based on agrochemicals, which are propitious conditions for a freeze to hit them even harder.

At the same time, the price of roasted ground coffee and the price of a cup of coffee in coffee shops for consumers in Europe and the United States tends to rise, in fact it was already rising in October 2021. Many studies show that the price of roasted ground coffee, as well as a cup of coffee in Starbucks or different coffee shops, centuries ago broke with the saying that “what goes up, must come down”, the price of roasted ground coffee sold in retail goes up and does not come down, like agrochemicals, they go up without limit; only peasant products like export coffee, beans in sacks or pigs on the hoof go up and down, while their price adjusted for inflation go down and down, systematically. This means that social inequality within a glocal framework will intensify, including environmental deterioration.

4.    Long term strategies

In general, not speculating and increasing one’s own efficiency is what is most recommended. Immediately selling coffee that one has at the New York market price; not speculating, thinking that prices are going to rise even more. At the same time, increasing efficiency in harvest collection and dry milling which means reducing costs and taking advantage of the “waste”, protecting coffee from possible theft and being concerned that the coffee be good quality; also increasing efficiency on the other side of the ocean.

In the case of cooperative organizations that are working in alliance with importers, be they fair trade ones or importers with a sense of social justice, that alliance has to go beyond the price for export coffee – which goes up and down – where the parties live together “in separate beds”, one in raw materials and the other in processed products; it should go toward the price of roasted ground coffee that goes up and up, contributing in this way to social equity; working on forms of mitigating climate change; and that each chain of actors improve their capacities for economic and social investment in rural communities. This is how to begin to “exchange the ladder for the snail´s path.” In what follows we break down these points.

Even though market prices are above $220, a price of $190 defined (and agreed upon) for this and the next five years is a good price. This agreement should move under the principal of sharing risks and profits in terms of the price of roasted ground coffee within a framework of informational transparency between the participating actors: producer organizations in countries of the south and importers from the United States and Europe. In this alliance they set as a base price $190, and share profits or losses from the sale of roasted ground coffee; in other words, producer organizations and their membership would also have the possibility of assuming losses, a scenario for which they should increase their levels of efficiency which would allow them to continue lowering their costs, even though we doubt that they might be losses in the sale of roasted ground coffee, because that would mean that the importers would accept that prices to consumers would drop. This base agreement is possible under the principal of mutual loyalty, where the importer would not break their contract when the NY price of coffee is low and where the producer organization, like their membership, would honor their commitments regardless of the up and down movement of the price; where no actor of the alliance would go out running to “the street” after money. This agreement would demonstrate that, despite so much uncertainty and speculation, the best continues to be establishing long term relationships based on a reasonable price, sharing profits and losses in terms of the price of roasted ground coffee, and being committed to human and natural communities. 

By setting the price at $190 the producer organization should adhere to that: adopting the readjustment. Those producers, who sold coffee to their organization at a lower street price to the average of the season paid by the organization, would be paid the difference. This is part of equity with consequences for two-way loyalty, from the producer to their organization and from that organization to its members, and from both to the importer.

Producer organizations should innovate in an ongoing way. Collecting the harvest in the community itself and paying the couple for the coffee received – paying the husband and the wife for the coffee reduces the poor use that possibly the husband might do if only he is paid. Buying coffee also in cherry form in case the producer family does not have a wet mill. Not sticking to just parchment coffee, where “coffee belongs to men”, but adding value to the coffee in the community itself, drying it to the point of hulling, selecting the beans and hulling it, taking advantage of the coffee hull as fertilizer or as an energy source, activities where women take center stage; not centralizing coffee milling, nor turn it into something technologically intensive in environments with high unemployment. Finding meaning to each activity: drying coffee on the farm itself instead of throwing water on it 2 Km prior to delivering the coffee to their cooperative, believing that they will “earn more”; selecting the coffee beans instead of pressuring that they deduct whatever they want so long as they pay you immediately. Organizing coffee shops in country as well, as a window on the rural world. Helping producers to also see into the distance under “high beams”, that they harvest what they sow: in the next cycle, let us say 2022-23, the member would turn in the same – or proportional to – the volume of coffee that was turned in the previous cycle, let us say 2021-22, so that if the price of coffee drops in that cycle, that producer will not be able to turn in more than the volume that was delivered in the previous cycle; that the organization might be a space so that the owners of coffee might analyze why they turn in a certain volume to their cooperative and to traditional intermediaries, about what limits or empowers them to embrace their organization.[7] Likewise importers in the United States and Europe, improving their social networks through universities, churches and cooperatives; improving their coordination for importing, transporting, storing and distributing roasted ground coffee for consumers; selling coffee on line; organizing coffee shops where they have murals with information about the entire coffee chain; enable the willinglness of people who seek to support a just glocal chain; analyze the coffee chain from the context of the United States or Europe. North-South organizations, intertwined with one another, are like the piece of tortilla that accompanies a fried egg, like honey on pancakes, the ideal complement to people who organize and move the coffee world while contributing to social and environmental equity.

Organizations and their membership must avoid wasting resources, a practice that harms the family and worsens climate change. Instead of poorly spending the good income from coffee, they should take on a commitment about how to mitigate climate change and how to use their income well to the benefit of their families. What happened in Brazil with the freeze caused by the cold wave from the Antarctic can also happen in Colombia, in Central American countries and in other parts of the world; in fact, they are already happening in several regions of the world. Consequently, members and their organizations should invest more in the soil and water, reducing the amount of coffee trees per hectare, diversifying more, combining agriculture and smaller livestock (poultry), producing ecological fertilizer and depending less on agrochemicals, and adding value to different products from the farm. More than drought resistant crops, like casava, pitahaya or pineapple, investing in agroforestry systems that capture carbon dioxide, contribute to biodiversity, soil and water. More than merchandise and money, that organizations build dense social relationships of cooperation, also with working people, to strengthen communities.[8]

It is a time in which we need more common sense. Avoid that reality where “the higher you go the harder the fall.” Instead, the more you cooperate with people and nature, the more “cushion”

you build that will soften any “fall”, and that instead that “cushion” pushes you in a collective way to scale up with equity along the snail´s path.

Long term alliances that embrace these strategies can be like a red t-shirt in a washer full of white clothes, its mission is to bleed so that producers, cooperatives and associations, importers and coffee retail sites might learn to be linked together and then connect with one another to earn with equity, caring for the common home and cultivating a decent living. 

Concluding, “the snail´s path” is building an alliance based on the entire chain of actors that add value to coffee, their organizations, and communities. It is an alliance where profits and losses are shared from the sale of roasted ground coffee. It is building processes where roasted ground coffee is sold in the United States and Europe, and in countries in the South as well. It is an alliance where the emphasis on money “drops” and spaces for learning in organizations is emphasized, where we do not just look at coffee but at the ecosystem where that coffee is produced, and where there is a commitment for dense intracommunity social networks, networks between communities and in alliance with international organizations. This path, in the end, expresses the profound sense of egalitarianism, an idea associated with democratic traditions, which is not to give to each what each deserves, but give to each what is needed to develop as people, going beyond opportunism. This is the idea that the alliance of glocal organizations seeks to cultivate.


[1] René has a PhD in Development Studies, is an associate researcher for the IOB at Antwerp University, a member of OSERPROSS and a collaborator of the Wind of Peace Foundation. rmvidaurre@gmail.com This article has benefitted from information and ideas from Warren Armstrong, Anne Loewisch, Kleber Cruz, Arturo Grigsby, Gisele Henriques, Paz Redondo, Mark Lester, Daniel Ehrlich, Freddy Pérez, Fabiola Zeledón and Elix Meneses.

[2] COP is the acronym for the Conference of the Parties in English, the signers of the Framework Convention of the United Nations on Climate Change, a treaty of 197 agents ( 196 countries and the European Union) reached in 1994.

[3] See: ZygmuntBauman, 2014, ¿La riqueza de unos pocos nos beneficia a todos? Barcelona: Paidós.

[4] Royce Kurmelovs, 2021 (September 30), “Coffee bean price spike just a taste of what’s to come with climate change” in: The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/food/2021/sep/30/coffee-bean-price-spike-just-a-taste-of-whats-to-come-with-climate-change

[5] Now in September a disruption was experienced in the supply chain due to COVID-19. Some importers from England warned that the costs of a simple shipment rose from $3,300 to $10,000 (Kurmelovs, 2021). See also: Nigel Hunt, Jonathan Saul and Marcelo Teixeira, 2021 (August), “Analysis: Retail coffee prices to climb as frost and freight costs bite”, in: Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/business/environment/retail-coffee-prices-climb-frost-freight-costs-bite-2021-08-06/

[6] Jonathan Morris, 2021 (September 30) “Coffee bean prices have doubled in the past year and may double again – what’s going on?”, in: The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/coffee-bean-prices-have-doubled-in-the-past-year-and-may-double-again-whats-going-on-169000

[7] Just applying the rules, as fair as it may appear, can “kill” the spirit of growing organizationally. In the space of the organization the people who are owners of the coffee can express their perspectives and reasons, listen to other perspectives and reasons, support one another, and in this way make better decisions. The risk of only emphasizing the rules is that one might fall into meritocracy, that those who have privileges have them because they deserve them or that God blessed them for fasting, which are some ideas that come from the elites and are reproduced also by the peasantry; about this, César Rendueles (2020, Contra la igualdad de oportunidades. Un panfleto igualitarista. Barcelona: Editorial Seix Barral) argues that “equal opportunity” is a reformulation of meritocracy, which is a “way of justifying the privileges of the elites “. Organizations should help to understand the context that leads people to make one or another decision; in this way the organization is a medium for learning, more than a medium for making money. 

[8] In WFTO (World Fair Trade Organization) and in FLO (Fairtrade Labelling Organization) they are discussing a price of coffee that would ensure a basic and decent living income. As producer organizations based in communities, we can contribute to that reflection analyzing production costs, cooperation and community service.

Accompaniment on terrain-where-things-get- complicated

Accompaniment on terrain-where-things-get-complicated

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

Joining hands

The midwife arrived just in time. The mother writhed in pain. Her husband grabbed her hand and the future grandmother massaged her forehead. “Is my baby alive?” asked the mother. The midwife kneaded her slowly and seemed to move her baby and…”there are two”- revealed the midwife. Corina and Manolo were astonished. “Breathe deeply, push,” repeated the midwife. Shortly after a girl and a boy were born. The moment was sublime. On leaving the midwife said to them, “A great day, life is born when several hands work together.”

Socrates, 2400 years ago, said that philosophers were like midwives. We say that people who accompany organizations are like midwives: we help life flourish. In the story we see that in the midst of the pain the mother loses consciousness and no one knows what to do; it is when the midwife arrives and connects with the grandmother, father, mother and the pair of babies still in the mother´s womb; makes them feel that connection and know what to do and recover the dream that something very important is about to begin to happen, and is going to make them rethink their relationship with this world. This life has surprises, one is expected, and “there are two.” Accompaniment is like this, it reconnects, moves in a team, leaves and sees the day; it helps babies be born who do not belong to the people doing the accompaniment, but to their Mother and Father and that in time that life will walk on its own where “several hands will come together.” It is the connection that generates life.  Nevertheless, there are also situations where the baby is stillborn, the mother loses her life, and the midwife washes her hands of it, the disconnection generates death. 

What makes an accompaniment help open a path to life instead of passing through death? In this article we reflect on that question, and to do so we get into those terrains-where-things-get-complicated. On getting involved in them, in different places in Central America, the first wall tends to be the accompanying organization itself, its members or more precisely its attitudes. From there, from these walls and crossing over these walls we argue that accompaniment generally is the first obstacle to processes of change, but they can become the midwife of those changes, so that these changes can become lasting.

1.    Introduction

There have been NGOS, churches, States and producer organizations who have taken on a role of consultants, technical assistance, pastoral support, training or tutoring. Women and men “change agents”, “technicians”, “trainers”, “project supervisors”, “delegates of ministers”, academics” or “facilitators” do it. What has this role consisted in? How can processes of real change be accompanied? In this article we deal with these questions. We argue that a consultancy or accompaniment can intensify the status quo, or it can promote changes, which is why it is essential to make the distinction in order to have an intentional accompaniment.

Figure 1 shows there are two ways of advising or accompanying which take two paths, one of formality embedded in authoritarian structures and one of cooperation embedded in collective actions. In the first modality, the “take, add and repeat” means that the policies or ideas of change come “from above” and do not improve the lives and paths of the people, rather intensifies them in their worst expressions. The advisers are absorbed by this path or adapt to it. It is a way of moving under an individual logic of “leave it to me” and “why should I care”, blaming people for the processes that fail and working for the formality of complying with predefined tasks. In the lingo of this modality one hears “organization”, “solidarity”, “change”, “democracy”, “participation”, “equity” and “inclusion,” but they are like “flashes in the pan”, changing in order to not change. 

In the second modality, the “take, process and connect talents wherever you go”, we talk properly about accompaniment. Here, those who accompany realize that they are muddied by path 1 (see purple arrows in figure 1) and that on their own they cannot generate change, because it is like a midwife giving birth when she is not pregnant. This starting point makes them un-learn (realize that as accompaniers we also carry a mentality of path1), a virtue that pushes them to the second modality and to contribute to the fact that that formality and hierarchical structures of path 1 are transformed, like water into wine – the social relations of people, their farms and their behavior in the cooperative and in their alliances. In the second modality, liturgy is ordering and analyzing deeds, their practice is innovating under a collective logic, the logic of the team, complementing one another in actions and in being disciplined to follow agreements, and being aware that path 1 will return again and again into our lives and our work modality.

In the second and third section we describe both paths. Then, in the fourth and fifth section we reconceive reflective accompaniment with a collective sense of contributing to the transformation of path 1. In the conclusion we summarize the principal findings. 

2.    The path of formality which conceals hierarchical structures

Through the centuries hierarchical structures which have imprisoned the majorities have intensified. They have done so backed by those who present themselves as their pastors, libertarian leaders, intellectuals or their advisers.

2.1  Structures which imprison the peasantry

Formality happens in any area. In the religious sphere it is the liturgy in church: songs, prayers, tithing, offerings, supplication, penitence, at times even self-flagellation; a formality that only requires believing and where prayer is reduced to a discursive appeal. In cooperatives, their liturgy is the routine of meetings, official minutes, doing financial reports, in some cases inspection of organic products and praying to the holy buyer of their products. In NGOs their liturgy is managing projects, channeling donations, technical assistance, trainings and praying to the donor. In the State it is training, certifying organizations, providing titles, channeling donations, telling people how to vote and wearing the bandanna of the official party. In these spheres it is common to find that the advisors or technicians reach an agreement with the managers or presidents of rural organizations to coordinate their actions in harmony with those rituals or liturgies. Of all of them, the fact that they prioritize trainings is highlighted – training assumes that the other person is not capable- overlooking the liturgy the peasants themselves have. 

This described formality seems to be legalistic, harmonious or operational, but conceals authoritarian and hierarchical structures, legitimizes them, moves along those rails and is derived from those structures. They are seen as the only path to “progress” or “heaven.” In the church the pastor or the priest are the highest authority to whom the faithful or believers owe devotion, because they are presented as if they were “the anointed one” of a supernatural being, and of being the intermediary capable of sending people to heaven or hell. In the community the politician and the merchant are seen as powerful wizards without whose favor one cannot survive. In organizations the people who are the beneficiaries of projects (donations) look on the technicians as the “Virgin Mary”, whose intercession they seek so that they might receive more aid, donations through which the elites coopt the producer organizations to induce them to subject themselves to the market. In families women are subjected to their husbands, who are considered the heads of their household and “with rights” (to violence and to having lovers). They are structures that sow and sustain “save yourselves those who have” and “get ahead by stealing from the poor”, rules that at the same time are defended by impoverished people as if they were from their ancestors – peasant and indigenous values and mentality. It is this hierarchical and authoritarian structure which makes one read the Bible as if Jesus and Yahweh were universal chiefs and miracle workers drunken by the liturgy of each structure, and legitimizing not just the elites, but these unfair structures as something natural and the fruit of divine will, and from that structure read the context as a predetermined destiny where individualism and subordination are combined. It is that structure that leaves “hobbled” the very relatives of the woman whose husband mistreats her, relatives who allege -following these structures – that “they cannot get involved” because that woman is “a different kettle of fish.” 

Figure 2 draws the existing structures. Horizontally, you see the levels of elites, foremen and people, passing through families which are mediation institutions of each structure. Vertically, each structure appears to be sections unconnected to one another, characterized by zealously protecting certain information that they consider “sacred.” The head of State, officials and party activists, each protects their information, except for slogans or orders for actions; the large estate owner protects information about his earnings and contacts, without sharing them with his administrators, they protect the information about the land without sharing it with the workers nor their bosses, the workers protect information about the work or the inputs to be applied to the plantation; the religious protects information, in fact confession is sacred. An informal rule here is: protecting information confers power and not revealing it to the “enemy” is honoring the family.[2]

When certain information is revealed, let us say by some state official to opposition parties, the government accuses that functionary of being a snitch. If a worker goes to tell the business owner what his administrator is doing on the estate, the administrator accuses the worker of being a “snitch.”  In a couple, the person who lets the wife know that her husband is with another woman is accused of being a “snitch.” In an organic coffee cooperative that certifies conventional coffee as if it were organic, the person who denounces this fact will be considered a “snitch”. Being a “snitch” is synonymous with traitor and is punished by jail time (Government-State), unemployment, expulsion from the church, exclusion for the list of project beneficiaries. An informal rule here is: whoever reveals information to the adversary is a traitor and should be punished.

The above shows us that each structure is separated vertically and horizontally – a community in a certain human geography is crisscrossed by these structures and at the same time moves under local despotism. At the same time, all these structures, in addition to being hierarchical and authoritarian and that reward local despotism, breathe the culture of secrecy which keeps peasant people isolated and disconnected from one another.

2.2  Consultancy which intensifies that unjust social order

Consultancy, tutoring, technical assistance, pastoral work or those who coordinate projects, restrict themselves to this sphere of formality of path 1. Each structure has its own consultancy in light of its interests and goals, from there they are located along the row of elites: “The State knows more about the needs of the people”,” “the market knows what people need”, “God knows the needs of man” and “we donors come from the future, we know what you need.” Consultancy along the row of people comes generally from the structures of international aid: see the green circle. That consultancy, nevertheless, “is muddied” with each religious, business or State structure to provide its technical recommendations. On passing through a structure and moving along its rails, the content of the consultancy is molded by that structure, which is why it is a form and content that responds to that structure and is disconnected from the aspirations of the people and their communities or specific territories. It is a content that could “come down” from heaven, from the heights, “from above”, is derived from hierarchical structures. 

Consequently, people who advise and are advised, follow the liturgies to the letter, listen to and give sermons, trainings or technical assistance. The content of that preaching or training is not based on studies of the people who are the object of that preaching, because each structure believes it knows what their subordinates need, for example, the church believes that their faithful or believers need to follow the liturgy in church to go to heaven, the business person believes that the market knows better, that the workers understand that if they work the day as indicated to them they will earn their day´s pay. The content of the trainings comes from standard material for any place and audience – like the religious whose preaching is standard, decontextualized – and generally squash the processes that people who are organizing follow.[3] It is a consultancy that is measured by the number of training sessions (or sermons) or by physical investments (harvest collection centers, roasters, classrooms, reservoirs, bio-digestors) carried out, and not by the degree of coordination among people around specific collective actions. The same happens with consultancy or technical assistance for a crop; they recommend what to do and that is the end. Most representative are the people who exercise the role of management, supervision or accounting tasks, they stick to the administrative sphere, ignore their environment and the mission of the people who are organizing; consequently, they supplant the organs of the organization with their own decisions and submit the organization to their administrative approach, it is the bureaucratic expression of capitalism where they argue that “informing people who are organizing is to confuse them and even make them fight among themselves.”

In fact, consultants submit themselves to the previously mentioned code of silence and avoid being accused of being “snitches”. They do not study the people and their realities; they do not access information that can help them understand those worlds. Not getting that information to analyze, they do not produce ideas that they might be able to reflect on in the organization´s collective spaces. The projects of aid organizations, in general, contribute to this code of silence and the accusations of “”snitch” derived from the hierarchical structures: in that sense the voices that are heard are: “they reported to their donors that the project was done well and had a great impact, when we families remained the same”, “we malnourished a child so that they would give us aid”, “we wrote projects so that they would give us roasters, harvesters, selectors, tractors…and all are in the barn, when the project ended we all lied saying that we were using all that machinery”, and obviously, if anyone tried to say that it had not been implemented well, he was accosted as a “snitch.” 

This consultancy or technical assistance can be interpreted in two ways. First, a consultancy like buying a suit without measuring the body of the person who is going to use it; there it is assumed that there is no need to “measure” (study) people at all; within this framework it is believed that people do not have agency (make decisions) and that they do what they are told to do. The second, in each structure they believe that they already have the measure of the people – beneficiaries, workers, clients, party activists-; that training is provided so that they might produce the products that the market demands; or that “you don´t look a gift horse in the mouth.” People who organize tend to correspond to that perception of the elites, repeating that they are waiting for “directions from above” and seeing technicians as part of those structures.

Conversation with the coordinator of an NGO –

Technical coordinator: “We have advised cooperatives for three years, before that we worked in those communities as advisors”-Author: How did your work change now that you are advising cooperatives?-Technical coordinator: “It has not changed at all; the technician continues doing the same as before, collects loans, harvests and gives them technical recommendations for their crops; there is the State for training on cooperatives”

There are two indicators of this type of consultancy: when that consultancy does not cause changes in the habitual work of people and organizations doing the consultancy, nor causes changes in the people being advised. For the first indicator see the conversation in the adjoining box. The responses there from the coordinator of an NGO may be similar to those of a religious or state official.  This lack of change happens because it is assumed that the market is the great organizer, that it is a matter of lowering costs to increase income; consequently, they do not study the realities where they are working, except superficially, the so-called “viability or feasibility studies of x entrepreneurial crop or activity[4],” they do not understand that the cooperative space implies cooperating on collective actions and that implies the active involvement of the people and that this process makes any way of working change.

The second indicator is when advisers ignore the agreements and decisions of cooperatives and their boards, believe that they do not analyze and do not know how to make decisions, and that they are poor because of their ignorance. This practice and belief induce people who organize and their leaders to feel discriminated against, and  feel they are inferior to their technical advisers. Consequently, people who organize have low self-esteem, feel guilty for not improving their lives and see nothing good in their lives and communities.

3.    The path of cooperation in democratic spaces

The second path is cooperation around collective actions, be they economic, social or cultural, actions where consultancy turns into accompaniment. 

3.1.        An alternative path emerges from the old path

We realize that the adversities generated by those power structures live in our minds, put us to sleep and make us legitimize violence, inequality, environmental degradation and discrimination, and make us believe that we have nothing good in our lives. On bringing these adversities to light, we awaken and create an environment which encourages us to innovate collective actions, which include using our own resources, reaching agreements, following them and later deepening them.

In other words, path 2 begins on path 1, enters through the formality of path 1 and muddied by the hierarchical structures of this path emerges as path 2. From there eventually this path 2 produces its own formality. How does it emerge from the very bowels of what is harmful? People detect these asymmetric power structures dressed in formality and harmonious liturgy and move beyond them to the extent that they produce their own rules and formality in the process of the alternative path. Let us give some examples. In a country with a military dictatorship the people recover their democracy, in which context the citizens discover that the rules of the dictatorship live in their own minds and rule in their own family, church or sports club, this awakening makes them reject those rules and pushes them to look to the rule of law (just laws) to guide them. In a family, husband and wife discover that they are the prisoners of authoritarian despotism, this awakening unites them and they work as a team of oxen, supporting one another and creating different rules. In a community people discover that they can improve their lives if they free themselves from commercial mediation and usury which is why they diversify their production. This leads them to exchange products in their own community, this effort makes them discover new actions along a different path. In practice, it is not that path 1 disappears, no, it persists, but a new path appears; the principle of “live within your possibilities” cedes, because those possibilities expand with path 2.

On becoming aware of this alternative path, adversities grow and those “demons” (beliefs) expelled from the minds of people, return again and attack even harder. Some friends and relatives add to the adversities: “Your husband has the right to hit you, why are you going out to meetings?” Religion lashes out, “only faith will save you”, they understand faith to be reduced to liturgy without actions for justice. Elites through their hierarchical structures smother us: “Peasants are ingrates and are not going to change” (“the people are not grateful, what is important is living well, “ Moncada said to Sandino in 1927). The answer to detecting this counterattack is to deepen the alternative path, uniting ourselves even more on the basis of revising our vision and rules. The rules of redistribution, transparency and democracy, for example, are not enduring under an authoritarian system, they need the new path to expand with its institutional structure on the family, cooperative and community levels, it is essential that it expand its democratic spaces and deepen its logic of growth with equity.

Let us illustrate this process from the context of the bible. In the alternative path we read the Bible from its context, which shows us that people build the reign of God following its rule of loving (serving) others (Mt 22:39), without being reduced to just one liturgy (path 1) embedded in authoritarianism. Let us recall that the Hebrew people left slavery in Egypt with a vision of a promised land; in other words, they are on path 2. Being on that path those people are counterattacked, adversities revive in their minds and hit them hard; the danger of division appears and they prefer to return to slavery and even to follow other gods. “There we sat by pots of food and ate all the food that we wanted, but you have brought us into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death” (Ex 16:3). To overcome this counterattack and not step backwards, the people unite refining their vision and producing their 10 commandments. Those who accompanied the Hebrew people, Moises, Aaron and later Isaiah and other prophets, help to detect these adversities, even when the people fall down before other gods and are dragged by the monster of slavery which was burrowed into their minds, their accompaniers do not blame them, do not give up, rather they reinforce and facilitate the deepening of the alternative path. They do it from the logic of groups, networks and specific territories – not following an individualistic logic. Within this context, prayer is discerning, making an effort and serving, it is liturgy which expresses joy as a reward for just collective actions – it is not singing or praying while they go back into slavery.

3.2  From consultancy to accompaniment

Consultancy begins to emerge as accompaniment in this process. Figure 3 shows the same structures as Figure 2, but with an intense role of accompaniment and mutual influence between the people accompanied and those doing the accompaniment (see green arrows in the figure) within the context of the adversities of each structure (see orange arrows). Within this framework accompaniment responds more and more to the communities, listens to their voice buried under dozens of layers of beliefs imposed by the elites of each structure, taking ever more into account the decisions of the boards of directors, particularly if they are made within the framework of the organs of those organizations (board of directors, oversight board, assembly), does not judge them as being correct or incorrect, and analyzes them based on their circumstances.

The first voices of the people with titles in cooperatives and community leadership tend not to be their own voices, generally they are the voices of elites expressed through these structures which have burrowed into their minds. For example, accompaniers, while moving about without a technological recipe, and being guided by their strategic conversations, are challenged to face old demons: “If you do not bring answers you are not a technician;” “Did you study in the university  in order to come and learn from illiterate people?” “The people who did not study earn more”… The mutual interaction and reflection between those accompanying and those being accompanied leads them to unravel those ideas and uncover the voices of their ancestors. 

Correspondingly, to the extent that those actors awaken and organize in their communities, they also begin to have an impact on the faithful and believing people, on workers and producers, on the activists of political parties (see purple arrows in the Figure). When this happens, the borders of those structures tend to cede to the pressure of the communities, those barriers (blue arrows) persist, but are thinner. This is when the force of the communities makes itself felt, their voice is heard and it is when the accompaniers understand that the reference point for their work comes from the communities and not from hierarchical and authoritarian structures. 

In the long term this accompaniment will no longer come from the sphere of international aid, but from rural organizations themselves controlled by the communities.

4.   Reflective accompaniment

Having looked at the two paths, let us conceptualize section 1 with the notion of reflective accompaniment which daily intensifies the alternative path. To do so we are going to make problematic what it means to accompany, and distinguish it, in addition from the typical type of accompaniment of path 1, from the type of accompaniment  capable of combining collective and individual elements: see Figure 4.

In activism it is customary to also denominate a facilitator. Nevertheless, that word “facilitator” tends to refer more to “facilitating workshops” or sometimes “facilitating processes.” In contrast, the word accompanier seems to be broader: the person accompanies in good and bad times, is involved in the procsses, exercises the role of facilitation be that in workshops or processes, and also is accompanied by the people who organize as they achieve their sustainability. 

4.1  Problematizing in order to awaken and change

“I do not find meaning in the work that I am doing,” said an adviser of rural organizations, as if she wanted to quit. This act of feeling oneself “lost” and even a “failure” can be a sign that one is realizing that they are on path 1.

We need to question ourselves when “we are good”, when we believe that “others are the problem” and when we persist in earning a windfall (the consultancy) in the short term. What is surprising is that these three elements we also find in the mentality of people who organize, they believe “they are good”, that “the problem is the technician” and that monocropping is “earning a windfall” in the short term without concern about its effects on water, soil and long- term income. Both mentalities fit together, they are made for one another and intensify the status quo of path 1.

This situation is made worse when as advisers we are – literally – possessed by 4 damaging beliefs. “Having a title” of adviser or technician swells our chests, makes us feel that we know some recipe or some secret that others do not, that we are experts, that therefore we are superior.[5] If in addition to being advisors or technicians we have the responsibility of “administering resources”, we begin to walk like peacocks, the temptation of acting outside the margins of the rules of the cooperative increases our power and from that height we look down on the backs of others as “chickens.” These two beliefs give birth to a third belief,  that those who are advisers “do not change”, this demon whispers to us that those who generate changes should not even be asked about experiencing changes in their attitudes, because if learning is changing our mentality, we refuse to study peasant realities, we prefer to import information and breathe the spirit of Nathanael, who said “nothing good can come” from rural communities like Nazareth. Finally, there is the belief that on forming a cooperative or any organizational expression the rest is a matter of administering services and that there is nothing more to innovate, which is why the leadership of the organization ends up being centralized by one or two people who tend to include their consultant[6]

These 4 beliefs strengthen us moving within imposed rules, but which we believe are our own, rules which are discriminatory and undermine the efforts of organizations taking collective actions, and conceal with more layers of soil the good ideas (“good soil”) that communities have. These harmful rules can be understood in the following phrases expressed by people doing accompaniment or advising : “I work in my own way”, “I am going to respond to this peasant  woman until she respects me”, “I have studied, they have not”, “they make decisions without analyzing”, “I am doing them a favor with my work”, “without me, nothing is going to happen,” “ we are equal and that is why they get upset with me and I also get upset with them.” Let us study this last phrase. A person who is advising or accompanying is right to say that they are equal to a producer, they are in terms of rights, but they have distinct attitudes produced in different contexts. In other words, a producer argues and verbally fights with their neighbor, but arguing and fighting with an adviser who has accompanied them for years hurts them more, and for longer than having argued with their neighbor: while for the adviser that argument and verbal fight is a mistake in their role of accompanier, because that role tells him/her that instead of falling into an aggressive back and forth exchange, the adviser should discern the causes and underlying elements to the anger of the producer, so that the organization might grow more.  In other words, the producer could be demanding their individual rights while the adviser should keep their attention on the importance of consolidating the organization, improving its rules, whose fragility maybe causing this type of complaint, which is why this complaint is rather an opportunity for deepening the organizational process. We people are equal but different.

In this context, the fact that a person feels “lost” can be a sign that they are awakening, that their way of seeing things is counterproductive to the objectives that they are seeking. This means that the person is questioning, in other words digging into their own mentality, and realizing that they are in “center stage” where the status quo is intensifying and functions to the benefit of authoritarian and hierarchical structures- we see ourselves as people “doing errands,” as “operators”. Nevertheless, the deeper the person digs, the more they find their own talents, as the saying goes “the harsher the crisis, the closer the solution”, so in this process the person realizes that they are on A path when they thought they were on the ONLY path. This leads them to discover that another path can be opened in the midst of the dense jungle, full of surprises and in darkness, even though this means placing oneself “on the edge of the stage” where there is the risk of falling. On seeing the beginnings of this other path, nothing will be the same again. The attached box shows the accompanying person as a “facilitator” who in their formative role questions, because the most difficult part in the new person to be contracted is not their technical ability but that they un-learn and detect for themselves that they are in a democratic organization and identify their role in it. Without this awakening they will end up reproducing the part of being a “foreman”, “auditor”, locating themselves in a professor-student relationship, acquiring an arrogant character discriminatory to the peasantry. 

Awakening –       Metanoia in Greek is learning and changing. It means mental change or shift. Meta = beyond. Noia = the mind.-       Learning is more than being informed. By learning we recreate ourselves and we do things that we have never done.-       An organization that learns is one that expands its capacities to create their future.

From here we realize that to problematize is something cognitive, a means to awaken again and again, to shift or change our own attitudes: see the attached box[7]. It is feeling that “something does not fit” in what we are seeing and doing, and it is seeing something greater than ourselves, scrutinizing and producing knowledge, which interests us more than static knowledge as identified in footnote number 4. It is to doubt and question (dig into) the things that seem to be natural in reality, or are presented as something given. It is discovering that the idea that we were following about not learning from peasant realities, that everything was already “canned” (processed and reprocessed) is not our idea, that it was imposed by the structures depicted in figure 2, to not see the reflection of our ancestors, and so experience that sensation of being lost or feeling ourselves “orphaned”. It is following this path of doubt and realizing that we are on the “edge of the stage” and that we could fall off. It is providing them instruments (taking notes and analyzing them, experimenting and analyzing it, creating rules, following them and analyzing them) which are used by them. It is accepting that the people who organize also accompany us. Bringing in the image of the midwife, accompanying is detecting the situation (“2 babies”), connecting, visioning and awakening to the fact that people who organize take their steps.

4.2  Digging into our attitudes in mutual accompaniment

If we problematize, we can awaken – turn around or change our mental frameworks. Nevertheless, even so we must locate ourselves in one type of accompaniment, to then move to another. Generally we start as traditional advisers, as people doing ”tasks”; later as traditional accompaniers, as activists moved by oral culture; there we develop ideas of change and we express empathy with people who organize. Over time we can overcome that traditional accompaniment and move into uncomfortable accompaniment, cultivating mental openness, having empathy with people who organize, delving into mutual attitudes, combining oral and written culture to systematically dig into and wrap ourselves in the processes, weaving a network of relationships where accompaniers and those accompanied mutually accompany one another and grow. 

An accompanier trapped in her family

Mariaa rural intellectual, is seen in her family as synonymous with money, because she has a better salary that than of her brothers who are teachers. If she does not provide them resources, they say she is bad, if she does give them resources, they want more and they rely on her. María is trapped in a circle she cannot get out of; the rules are “he who has, gives” and “he who does not have, has the right to receive.” In the end, the entire family is trapped.How can she get out of it? Recognizing their habits, hers and those of her family, as habits imposed by hierarchical structures; on recognizing this, the entire family can awaken to the fact that one day when she does not have resources everyone will be left in a worse situation. Then they can organize around collective actions: having a savings fund for the university studies of her nieces or nephews, the production of basic grains under strict rules of sharecropping, ect.What difference does a change in their habits make? An intellectual who contributes to change in her family will also generate changes in communities.

 

Apart from the traditional consultant, two types of accompaniment can be found on path 2. The first type connects to the actors, helps them in their activities, seeks to convince them (“create awareness”), “is a doer”, but is susceptible  – because of sticking to the oral tradition – of accommodating itself to processes that get bogged down and even adapt to processes that go backwards, dressing them up as “grassroots or change processes,” and in general this type of accompanier reproduces hierarchical structures in their own family, which they are fighting in the people who are organizing: see attached box. The accompanier changes and influences change within their family; without this change, their work as facilitator fails, because you cannot facilitate changes in communities if you do not experience systematically that change in your home. 

The risk is that this type of accompaniment forgets about preventing the counterattacks of the “demons” who are awaiting their opportunity, and that within the family as well as in the people who are organizing, latch on to those being accompanied, lowering their watchfulness and defenses. These “demons” once back, tend to be even more devastating, like in the case of the Hebrew people making them return to slavery, when they make us continue as a cooperative while the cooperative becomes functional for capitalism, reduced to just the financial aspect and monocropping agriculture; when people resign from cooperatives promising to not organize again into cooperatives; or when even these “demons” lead us to act under the law of an “eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth” [8], responding to violence with violence, as happened between the 1960s and 1980s when young people from the urban middle class and religious people who entered into rural communities and neighborhoods to accompany them ended up joining the guerrillas of the time.

The second type of accompaniment works in tandem with the actors, helps them to analyze events, pushes them to refine their vision and rules as the actors innovate, clarifying their path 2 even more. It is a person who accompanies the collective to follow their rules: if the administrative staff does not wait for the decisions of the board of an organization to make an investment, for example, the person doing the accompaniment sees this situation and tracks it, they do not join the request nor take the position of the board, but warns them and explains that both parties should follow organizational procedures – this is strategic formation. A threat to the sustainability of the organization is the accompanying person making decisions that violate the rules of the organization. In that sense, the role of the person doing the accompanying is rather to be a counterweight to the organization at the very moment when decisions are being made[9], they are a counterweight in so far as they connect the administrative staff and the board, and connect the decisions with the rules of the organization, like Moses connecting the Hebrew people to the 10 commandments, in as much as he is aware that if the rules are violated it divides the people: this is connecting and distinguishing themselves in their role in relation to the administrative staff and board members of an organization (see Figure 5).  This requires an ongoing strategic perspective on the part of the person accompanying, to understand that appropriate decisions in accordance with the rules of the collective are what make an organization sustainable and lasting, not the urgency of investments, no matter how profitable they may be, made at the cost of organizational processes; the investments of buying a refrigerator or constructing a building are passing, while decisions following the rules of a collective shed light on a path or a direction, and that light remains and tends to illuminate even more. It is the method or the how that matters more in the long term, not so much the short-term results.

This type of accompaniment includes written culture and is mentally open to question any new innovation, as it analyzes its own conversations and observations, makes a difference and makes it possible to not be happy with any situation no matter how good it might appear to be, and continually helping to innovate. The key for this is in conversation as the means for digging into our attitudes – that of the people doing the accompanying and that of peasants– to find “the good soil” in which the seed of a new life might germinate.

This strategic conversation of un-learning and seeing new paths (innovations, changes, improvements) leads us to differentiate the two types of accompaniment in Table 1. The traditional, static one, which hears but does not listen, declares itself to be in favor of change, but isolates itself and tends to do every activity which appears at the risk of falling into path 1 and behaving as the “new boss.” Organic accompaniment listens and helps to discern the path, sounds out how to deepen the changes in an ongoing way, while at the same time changing their own perspectives. 

With this distinction we start to experiment, and that leads us to the interaction between the collective and the individual under a logic of cooperation. Table 2 shows the two sides of that accompaniment. The column of “individual actions” and that of “collective actions” interact and are in harmony. In the end, the improvements that we achieve are expressed in the lives of people, their freedom, their autonomy and their life in community. It is the dimension of being a candle in the street and in the home. 

5.    Accompanying with a collective sense

This accompaniment makes a difference by connecting and responding to forms of organization with collective and communitarian meaning.

5.1  Accompanying within a circular synergy framework

When we now believe we are doing accompaniment well along path 2, the harsh realities of path 1 which we experience in our countries can absorb path 2. The more stones we pick up along our path, the more scorpions are uncovered along with fertile soil. Sometimes those scorpions bite us while good soil also gives life.

These realities make us argue that the biggest challenge is moving from pure activism to a reflective activism – the “uncomfortable” or “organic activism”. Pure activism can go back to path 1, even under protest and rejecting that path. It is a level in which the person doing the accompanying moves like on “the waves of the ocean”, moving in that framework of discourse one can experience loving harmony, and at times be confronted and get caught up in an aggressive back and forth discussion, even to the point of mutually offending one another. This shows that we have returned to path 1 where the discourse of love, the ritual of the liturgy and rules without spirit dominate, behind which there is subordination. Probably this activism is seen reflected more in religious people and university students, sons and daughters of the middle and upper classes, who in the 1960s and 1980s, under the impulse of liberation theology, Freire´s popular education, and the dependency theory, went into rural communities and urban neighborhoods moved by a social commitment to change the political and economic system. They did commendable work, discovered extreme poverty and solidarity, changed and generated changes, but over the years that process devolved, in many cases they even added to the violence against institutionalized violence. The church itself insisted on sticking to its old path 1, closed in on itself and guarding its orthodoxy incarcerated God behind the walls of the churches, which is why those offspring of the middle and upper classes who went into the communities began to express in the 1990s a “commitment to (economic) prosperity.” Political revolutions became entrenched in the hierarchical and authoritarian structures from which they emerged, and the base Christian communities themselves who discovered their capacities went back to incarnate that ghost of the old patron-client relationship. 

Now most of the people doing the accompanying are sons and daughters of the peasantry themselves. To the naked eye this can seem that it would generate more collaboration and synergy for sharing a similar origin. Realities and its processes are more complicated. Peasant sons and daughters with university studies, mostly, tend to distance themselves from their origins for three reasons: because of the education that they received focused on monocropping agriculture, large enterprises and financial profitability, where the peasantry appears as a backward population, because between 1990 and 2010 projects proliferated where these daughters and sons of peasants returned  as international aid project technicians, reiterating that idea that “nothing good can come from Nazareth”, and because they were pushed to study by their Fathers and Mothers under the idea that “you study in order to not be peasants” (mix of self loathing of your own culture and avoiding the hard work of the countryside). At the same time, the peasantry thinks – armed with beliefs and their own experiences[10]– that they are experts in agriculture, an experience with which they show indifference to technical people of peasant origins; Jesus said that “no one is a prophet in their own town.”

Passing over into reflective activism is like moving about in the current of water under the waves of the ocean where the actions of solidarity and conflict are, and where rules prevail with their spirit. It is studying the adversities that mill about in the minds of people and in our minds, and do it along with leaders, board members, technicians, teachers and people who organize.[11] It is reading other studies about those adversities in other contexts. Following Figure 6, necessary accompaniment is being like the midwife, whose action is connecting in a circular effect, is not reduced only to the relationship between the midwife and the pregnant woman; in our case the person doing the accompanying is connected to the actors of the figure and beyond (including allied organizations, not just accompanier/president or accompanier/manager), and in addition connects humanity, nature and life between them, generating new perspectives.[12] In organizations it is typical to find a disconnection between board members, members, administrative staff, between the technicians themselves or between the board members themselves; in this, the person doing the accompanying looks for ways to connect them, be it through meetings or activating new collective actions mediated by reflection processes where the causes of the disconnection are made evident.

It is not a matter of convincing people but awakening with them within processes of collective actions; the people accompanied are also doing the accompanying, for example, women leaders accompanying their advisers in their contradictions and doubts. In this circular process, each action is like an orchestra where the people with different instruments connect with one another, have a common score, and with discipline do what they have collectively agreed upon. It is forming an interconnected network and team, with a shared vision, which produces social innovation in an ongoing way. 

It is a circular accompaniment, one of rotation among the different functions, there is no one static exclusive role of a technician or a board member. It is respecting one another as people, but challenging our ideas and questioning the rules in which we move. Respecting ourselves means that the people doing the accompanying should have more patience than the people who are organizing, because the people doing the accompanying have more comparative information, quantitative as well as qualitative, about organizations and their processes, and because it is with people from the communities where we can generate changes, which is why we seek to build a sense of human equality in recognition that “no one knows more” and that jointly we are taking on the challenge of producing new knowledge which reconnects us to one another. We say challenging ideas because generally the ideas of the people who organize and the ideas of the people doing the accompanying tend to be the ideas of elites, ideas imposed to dispossess us of all humanity; at the same time, in this process of discerning ideas, finding common causes that impoverish people and limit the people doing the accompanying to working with them with a sense of honesty and integrity: in this way, in the end we discover that their problem is also our problem, the causes of the problem are also the causes of our problems, from here a monumental reason why we need to connect with one another to work in a coordinated way of accompanying and being accompanied. The first mistake would be to respect ideas and rules believing that they are our own and not respecting one another, discriminating against people mutually. And the second mistake would be believing that accompanying is just a unilateral action, when precisely the fact that people who organize also accompany those who are accompanying them, which would show the soundness of that accompaniment and the organization which the members as well as their accompaniers seek to consolidate. 

5.2  Discovering organizational bases for facilitating collective actions

From this circular synergy we discern the path for making organizations of collective learning. Correspondingly, people who organize do so to the extent that they are following the 7 elements which we developed in another article (see: Mendoza, 2021[13]). These elements are: awaken in the face of specific realities that corner us, connect to one another and with actors around collective actions, discipline ourselves to follow the agreements of the group, cultivate a sense of service, reflect in collective spaces, make a distinction between our role as a person and our role as part of a social group, and be transparent with information in order to innovate.

Within this framework, accompaniment consists in emphasizing two forms of organizational work. The first is understanding that a person while belonging to an organization does not feel a difference in their lives, this happens when the existing rules and the organs of an organization are not followed by that person and its accompaniers. The people who organize follow those rules if they participate in their preparation and in their approval, understanding and recalling their significance (letter with spirit); they participate in this process if they awaken to collective actions and if, on the basis of analyzing their notes and data to create new ideas and test them out, they break that curse of secrecy. The people who accompany will contribute to that collective dimension and that transparency of breaking the secrecy that divides communities to the extent that they help people to analyze their experiences and observations, and to the extent that they help develop the rules and agreements that organizations are defining. People cooperate and build their path 2 if they jointly are formed in collective spaces. This is connecting with one another in the space of the organization. 

 The second is taking one other step. It is connecting a diversity of actors around specific actions and identifying their respective roles – or discerning talents which are deployed with their use. If in one community we are working on the product of slaughtering pigs, as accompanying facilitators we can help to prepare its costs and income, as well as its rules and how to do it operationally so that it might scale up in its actions – so far there is not much novelty there. The novelty begins when, using the image of the orchestra, we catalyze a connection capable of brightening the universe. In an orchestra there is a group of people with a diversity of instruments who by coordinating their notes offer a great musical orchestra. With this image, the pig slaughtering is like the “guitar player”, the owner of the pig is like the “saxophonist”, the sharecropper is like the “piano player”, the customers who are going to buy the meat are like the “violin players”, the person who is going to be responsible for the sale of the meat is like the person who plays the harp, the person who is going to supervise is like the flute player, the board members are like the director of the orchestra…Each one has different skills and interests, but when they play in harmony produce a “great orchestra” that alone, individually, they would never be able to achieve. 

It is not a matter of deepening just a relationship between the person doing the facilitating and the guitar player, or between the facilitator and the pianist. It is a question of the facilitator connecting the guitarist to the flutist, and these two people to the pianist, and those three people to the saxophone player…To do so it is important to visit them thinking about the “orchestra”, identifying their roles (preparing the “score”) and connecting them and synchronizing their actions, thinking about the “orchestra”. In each product there is an “orchestra”, likewise in a community or in an alliance with a chain of actors. In that sense, the relationship of the facilitator is with the group of the orchestra around a specific score, where each one looks around themselves in the orchestra, the members of the group no longer look at the person doing the facilitating, because the relationship facilitator-provider of products is no longer so important, what is more important is that the people are in harmony with one another, like in a musical orchestra. This connection is what is going to make the slaughtering of pigs, like any other product, a collective fruit, a musical orchestra where the facilitating person no longer appears – like the “midwife”.

This connecting or reconnecting generally implies working with a small group.

Figure 7 shows 2 rings with people to be connected: the first ring includes the last names of five people from a micro-territory (3-4 communities) with whom to push the process; the second ring includes other extra-community actors but who have something to do with the micro-territory in question: buyers, ranchers, pastors or priests, school teachers, healers. Using the language of boxing, establishing a group of the first ring is like like “landing a blow” on unjust mechanisms, while the second ring is like “a tie-up”, keeping the State or buyers from affecting organizational processes, but rather that they support the efforts with which the communities are organizing.

6.    Conclusions

We started this article comparing the person doing the accompanying with a midwife, We asked ourselves what it is that makes an accompaniment help life prevail instead of intersecting with death. In the article we determined that consultancy can conceal unjust mechanisms of hierarchical and authoritarian structures, and disclosed the paradox that the alternative path emerges from that very unjust reality – the new emerges from the entrails of the monster. In this process we have discovered three ways of working with rural organizations, the first is a consultancy that accommodates itself to the old path “of death”, it is the exercise of being “foremen” of vertical structures and that talk about “sharing knowledge”, assuming that they “have knowledge” or the prescriptions and that the peasantry “does not know”; the second is an activist accompaniment like in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s under the influence of liberation theology, dependency theory and liberating education of Freire, they seek to “convince” and get involved as one more member of the organizations; and the third is reflective accompaniment, mutual and ongoing accompaniment, digging into what is “ancestral” of both mentalities and helping life to emerge and pave the way as “several hands come together”. This third accompaniment responds to the question laid out. Those of us who work with peasant and indigenous people are awakening from the first way, to the second, to the third and we perceive that the three ways continue prevailing in an unending fight in our minds and our daily actions.

Consistent with this first question, we also ask ourselves what this role of reflective accompaniment consists in and how is it that processes of change are accompanied. We have four responses, as accompaniers we should 1) learn-change in an ongoing way; 2) converse and experiment with forms of accompaniment; 3) add ourselves to the circular synergy of connections; and 4) discover the organizational bases for innovating collective actions. 

Concerning the first, ongoing learning, we who work with rural organizations start as technicians or as advisers, as “foremen” of hierarchical structures, and even though we have progressive political, economic or religious ideas, the tacit idea that guides us, without our realizing it, is that “the market knows more” – be that the market which is expressed through religion, the State, institutions of formal education or through commercial and financial mediation. Added to that tacit belief that “the market knows more” is believing that “the advisers know more than the people who are organizing” and that therefore “they do not need to change”, this belief was injected over time by the educational system. When our love for seeing that people are improving warns us that people are not improving, and that their relationship of being imprisoned in hierarchical structures is intensifying, we begin to question ourselves whether we really know more, and question the source of that knowledge that we believe we have. In this way we discover that the first obstacle to awakening for peasant and indigenous peoples is the mentality of the people advising, facilitating or accompanying them. Correspondingly, what characterizes reflective accompaniment is that the person doing the accompanying seeks to change as peasant people discover and create new realities through their organizations.

Concerning the second, strategic conversation and experimentation are our method in this process. We cultivate this art of conversing in mutual accompaniment, examining ourselves, digging into our mentalities to find “good soil” and on that basis make life germinate. We realize that neither the people who organize nor we “know it all”, and that even what we know is an obstacle to knowing and innovating. Listening leads us to take the community into account, to follow it. It is when we begin to experiment (innovate), and like goats, we quit walking on the principal path, we barge in wherever it may be, and we end up contributing to making a new path. This experimentation of new ideas makes new “demons” emerge which is why we go back to digging into our attitudes, our practice is contextualizing the genesis of those “demons” and the “new soil” in us and in the people who organize, and in the light of that meaning contextualize the current experiment in which we are involved, and from there generating new ideas that can be experimented with again…[14] Without discerning the context again and again the risk is to end up obeying the hierarchical structures and then with those lenses, read our practices and consequently de-evolve to the type of adviser of path 1[15]. One criteria of good accompaniment is that the people doing the accompanying do not repeat the same thing every year, sounding like a broken record, but talk about their findings (learnings) year by year as if we were peeling an onion, layer by layer, because as the philosopher Heraclitus said (540 BC), nothing is permanent except for change, no one bathes twice in the same river, because it is no longer the same river, “its elements, riverbed, the water that runs through it, have changed.” Accompanying is a pedagogical action that does not try to fill the mind of the people but help them to free themselves from impediments for thinking and creating.

Concerning the third, joining and energizing the circular synergy of actors, actions and purposes. Accompaniment reconnects doing and feeling. As part of that reconnection, the people who organize see in the people accompanying them a mirror of their future, they are inspired by their way of acting, behaving and generating thinking, and even try to replicate it. In this circular framework, the image of the person doing the accompanying as a midwife returns to help us. Through her questions and strategic view of the organizations she makes new realities emerge, joyful as well as contradictory ones, which make them take steps and at the same time warns about backtracking that like “the pig that mourns its neck collar” people who organize experience. It is also a reconnection with nature and which leads us to re-encounter ourselves in our common home, the earth.

Concerning the fourth, this circular synergy makes us understand that accompaniment is part of the organizational network, its bases, part of the elements that give meaning to the fact that people discover that being connected with people gives them back their individual freedom, and that the more connections they have the more they generate autonomy and transparency. Organizing is finding new meaning to life and seeing a vision that makes us rewrite our purpose every day outside of hierarchical and authoritarian structures. And accompanying in this process of organization is helping people to study their own experiences and surroundings, take notes and analyze them, generate their knowledge, look around themselves to reconnect and be in sync as in a musical orchestra, recreating their ancestral institutions like sharecropping[16] and recreating new institutions of cooperation, and above all the fact that they follow rules, ensuring that the spirit of the rules prevails. This is cultivating awareness about forming organizations that lengthen human life for hundreds of years.

Finally, we are discovering that processes of collective action require reflective accompaniment. Every person has talents, but they have to rediscover them, learn to use them and expand them within a framework of circular synergy. A talent which is not used nor expanded is a lost talent. Rumi, the Persian poet 8 centuries ago said “those who do not want to change, allow them to continue asleep,” or Jesus, “let the dead bury their dead”. We say, those who do not want to change it is because they are trapped in even harsher structures, and because even though they are surrounded by people, they are alone; we have to dig with them and change together while connecting to one another, because if we leave them “sleeping” we also will “fall asleep” and we will be part of the “dead who bury their dead”. As accompaniers it is up to us to study the attitudes of the people along with them and at the same time study our own attitudes expressed in decisions, ideas, and actions, doing it through immersion and for long periods of time. These are the sources for change to the extent that we are learning.


[1] René has a PhD in Development Studies, an Associate Researcher of IOB-Antwerp University, member of COSERPROSS and collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation. rmvidaurre@gmail.com This article is based on the accompaniment that we are doing with rural organizations in Central America.

[2] Remember the code of silence known as Omerta, used by the Sicilian mafia: The Cosa Nostra. A code which for centuries guided those societies in Italy.

[3] It is common to find new cooperatives where the State or donor organizations fill them with trainings and donations, cooperatives that when those projects end, they also cease to operate. It is like wanting a baby to run before learning how to crawl and walk, this damages their bones and affects their sense of balance and reflexes. Amartya Sen defined development as “the expansion of human capacities”; this implies; identifying what the capacities of the cooperatives or their members are, and then looking at how to expand those capacities. It seems simple. If it were, why is it not done in this way? Ask donors, governments, religious and business leaders.

[4] The culture of donor organizations and business culture think that they must do a technical and economic analysis of the viability of any initiative. Given that they have the resources, they are going to direct the organization of those initiatives under their predetermined rules, this type of study is what is useful to them. The mistake is in wanting to do the same for initiatives that are going to be managed by communities and their organizations, under imported rules and resources. 

[5] It is heard and written that “an educator is someone who shares knowledge”. This assumes that the educator or adviser has knowledge, this tends to refer to information about some experience or technical skill. From there it is believed that the adviser has “the stone” (knowledge, key information, or the key to success) which that person can “share.” Note that the tacit idea in this perspective is that knowledge is static, a recipe or a secret which someone has.

[6] When people from the communities as well as the advisers themselves coincide in the belief that advisers “were born changed and do not need to change”, they create conditions which erode the sustainability of the organization. 

[7] One important source for change in mentality, applied to people who work in companies and corporations, is Peter M. Senge, 1990, The Fifth Discipline, the art and practice of learning Organizations. New York: Doubleday

[8] This law has its origins in the Code of Hammurabi (1760 BC); if a son hit his father, his hands would be cut off (Law 195) and if a man took out the eye of another person, his eye would be removed in return (Law 196). In Rome the Law of an Eye for an Eye was consecrated in the Table VIII of the Law of the XII Tables (year 450BC) but in Roman Law, whose origins had the principle of the re-establishment of justice, that law disappeared. In the Old Testament that Law of an eye for an eye appears in Ex 21:23-25 and in Lev 24:18-20; but Jesus in his sermon on the mount (Mt 5:38-39) left it obsolete. The paradox is that this Law of an Eye for an Eye continues to be relevant in our societies. 

[9] This role of being a counterweight is different from the role of the oversight board or the overseer of an organization. Those bodies are a-posteriori, ensure that actions and decisions are carried out in accordance with the rules. While the role of the accompanier is at the very moment of making decisions and taking actions, they warn both parties and challenge them.

[10] A good part of the peasantry have explanations about agriculture based on beliefs (raising chickens or planting depends on the hand or on the good luck of children – they refer to the temperature of the person or supernatural forces), but also they have knowledge because of their practices of testing seed before planting it, of rotating or associating crops, and of studying their concrete situations (see Rene Mendoza, 2017,”Can the youth fall in love with the countryside again?” at https://peacewinds.org/can-the-youth-fall-in-love-with-the-countryside-again

[11] To some extent the work of reflective accompaniment has a certain similarity to intellectuals who committed in theory and practice to historical processes of change:  advocates of associations like Owen, promoters of cooperatives like Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen, promoters of social and political changes like Rosa Luxemburg or Antonio Gramsci. 

[12] Connecting is relational. From the religious perspective, the theologian Leonardo Boff (2014, The Holy Spirit: interior fire, giver of life and father of the poor, Managua: Pavsa), argues that under a different paradigm of the Spirit “everything is dynamism, innovation…God is dynamism of three divine people in eternal communication with one another and with creation, involving everything, God, human beings, life, the universe.” See http://teologiadelpueblo.blogspot.com/2020/01/leonardo-boff-la-nueva-teologia-del.html

[13] René Mendoza, 2021, “The meaning of organizing in areas of the agricultural frontier”. Soon to be published. 

[14] On reading the prophets of the Bible we picked up their method. God does not speak his message in their ears nor does he send them written papayrus. A prophet reads the letter in their historical context to understand its meaning for that time, with that sense he reads the laws of the moment in which the prophets is living and reads it in its proper context, thus understands a meaning. This is the interpretation that he is going to share with his people as if “God spoke to him”; it is that effort of analysis which is divine. When one reads without context, the hierarchical and authoritarian structure returns in the framework and imposes a message, generally puritan and with its back to justice, this is how many religious people intensify the inequality and injustice in our communities – and they do it “in the name of God”. In our case, the path is: listening, observing, analyzing, conceptualizing and consequently innovating collective actions. 

[15] In the academy reading the rules without their context is called functionalism. But if in addition to reading rules without their context, when we do not recognize that we are reading it from the approach of hierarchical and authoritarian structures, then our abilities to think are seriously distorted.

[16] In the chapter on sharecropping in the book “Frontiers of Hope” we study processes where sharecropping with pigs and basic grains can become a network of sharecropping, with which this old institution can be reconnected and create organizational synergies.

Cooperatives rooted in their communities committed to coffee quality

Cooperatives rooted in their communities committed to coffee quality[1]

Life

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.

1.    Introduction

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
Cooperatives Year Founded Male members Female members Total number of members Coffee varieties Altitude
Artesanos del Café (COARCA) 2016 11 2 13 Catimor, caturra 850-1200
13 Octubre 2019 32 21 53 Catimor, parai-nema, caturra, lempira, bourbon 800-1250
Guardianes del Bosque (GARBO) 2004 53 23 76 Catimor, catuaí, pacamara and marsellesa 900-1300
Solidaridad 1999 46 10 56 Catimor, mara-caturra, catuai, caturra and java 1100-1460
COASSAN 2006 45 11 56 Catimor, caturra, catuai, parainema and marsellesa 900-1350
Coosempoda 2005 77 10 87 Catimor, Caturra, parainema and Marsellesa 900-1350
Total 264 77 341 Catimor, catuai, Caturra, parai-nema,  Marse-llesa, lempira, java and bourbon 800-1460
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”

3.    Patio-drying

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.

4.    Cupping

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
Cooperatives Volume collected as quintals of parchment coffee up to Jan 4, 2021 Imperfection rate Cup score Markets
Solidaridad 890.09 4-12% SCAA 77-83-50 Cond sc, mamacoffee, thanksgiving coffee/etico, adix coffee, J % M family coffee
Garbo 301.33 5-13% SCAA 60-82.50  
Coarca 186.42 5-7% SCAA 81-82-50  
13 Octubre 591.06 4-12% SCAA 60-82.50  
Coassan 1 1163.06 4-14% SCAA 60-82.50 GEPA
Coassan 3 77.6 5-12% SCAA 81  
Coosempoda 483.38 4-13% SCAA 77-82.50  
Total 3692.94      
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!

7.    Agreements

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Improving the quality, even though we are doing well. Select your coffee better
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Support one another as cooperatives. GARBO: “If someone needs coffee for their container, the coffee of GARBO is available.”
  7. Improve hygiene and prevention measures in the Solidaridad Mill: providing disinfectant for shoes and place for hand washing.
  8. Next meeting in February

 Acknowledgements

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.

[1] 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: rmvidaurre@gmail.com 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.

Not tripping over the same stone

Not tripping over the same stone

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.