The fifth month of the year is called “May” in honor of Maya, one of the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione from Greek mythology; “Maia”, goddess of abundance. People who dig into history also tell us that it was a month for the elderly, the word “elderly” in Latin is “maiorum”. In Central America May means the first rains of the year, with which agriculture begins, and all the pallid landscape of April turns green and pulses with life; the popular expression is “the rain showers of May”, the month most anticipated. This article is about the force of community, that when we discover it, is like the month of May: abundant, alive, ever changing and very much anticipated. RSEs respond to their community, and have building that community as their reference point or horizon, it is their umbilical cord, their brand and love.
1. What people in the communities see and think
Those who live in a village or hamlet watch the movement of people. They see buyers come in to buy coffee, beans, or agoutis; for the buyers the community is a place to buy things. They see people who have diplomas arrive, and board members of organizations, who greet them from the road, estimate the harvest, fill out paperwork, and leave promises behind; for them the community is a stone paved road. They see people arrive in cassocks, lab coats, or wearing glasses, who enter the church, school or health center; for them, the community is a bunch of cement blocks with tin roof sheeting, and “poor people.”
Among those people who are watching, Elder Lagos, from the community of San Antonio, observes, “The cooperatives collect the coffee harvest in the towns, while the buyers collect it here in the community”. The “town” is the municipal capital, and “the community” is a rural locality. The logical thing would be the reverse: that the cooperatives would collect the harvest in the community itself, but no, no. The upside down world.
From another community, Ocote Tuma, in the municipality of Waslala, Rodrigo López observes: “There are two cooperatives from town with members here, those cooperatives are in the town; they never meet here.” What? And what does it mean to be a cooperative member? “The two cooperatives only want cacao, no matter where it comes from, people are not of value to them.” As we said before, it seems like the world is upside down.
People also look at their own community. There were good times when by growing just coffee, cacao or cattle people bought their vehicles, took on positions of responsibility and went to live in town. Those who have stayed, see and feel that for having clung to just one crop their water sources have dried up, and the soil has become weary, while the prices of those products have dropped, and the prices of agro-chemicals have risen. But even though betting on only one crop is affecting them more and more, people are hanging onto that crop, like the Koala bear hugs the eucalyptus tree! But there are people who open their eyes: Daniel Meneces remembers the words of his uncle Toño, “A lot of people are like the dog who barks at the squirrel believing that it is in the tree, when the squirrel has already left.” Betting on only one crop is like barking at the tree, when “the squirrel has already left.”
Other people open their eyes to see more: they discover the inequality in the community itself, reproduced by the cooperative itself. “We are at different places on the staircase,” said Claudio Hernández from the community of Samarkanda. That expression assumes that everyone rises using that staircase, there is no other, some are higher up and others are lower, there is no way of changing where you are. But the mere fact of recognizing it makes you think differently.
2. What people do when they discover their strengths
These observations awaken three, five, ten and thirty people. So, in this way, awakening, a group of people in the community of San Antonio formed a cooperative. They met to look for ways different from how traditional cooperatives operate; they decided to collect coffee and paid for it in the community itself. They did it. The result: families saved the cost of transporting the coffee to town. It is like they made a different “half staircase”.
Another cooperative was formed in Ocote Tuma, composed mostly of youth. In that cooperative, with their fingernails and the friendship of their neighbors, they bought cacao to dry it in the community itself, and pooled their earnings to invest in a chicken farm. They are beginning to crawl.
There are other people who turn their focus to the land, water, the farm and to processing foodstuffs. They got into making bread, honey…”The cents that it costs us make them more delicious”, concludes Doña Justina Meneces.
When the cooperatives are from the community itself, they help to repair the country road, they are members of the water committee, and look to protect water sources, and organize other committees so that each family might have access to water in their homes. Land and water are valuable and are worth more than money!
And they take more steps. In the face of the custom that has become law of “exporting the best and leaving the worst”, they roast coffee in the communities. In the face of the rule that “organization and projects come from outside”, they talk with one another so that there is water in the community. In the face of the wealthy who say that “only money moves people”, they visit one another, and the affection that they cultivate moves them even more. In the face of the storefronts which make people go into debt and then end up going broke themselves, new community stores emerge that when they let people make purchases on credit, they only allow it for “products that you share with your family” – products like beans or oil, but not cigarettes. This community spirit is like your first love, it has unimaginable flavors.
3. Good changes are done in alliances
Marx, a century and a half ago, said that peasants were like “a sack of potatoes”, meaning that they were similar, and that they lived closed off from society. Some 20 years ago in the Nitlapan Institute, on finding communities that resisted mono-cropping, that generally expelled people and disappeared communities, we used to call them “peasant pockets”. Now we realize that they are neither a “sack of potatoes” nor “peasant pockets” they are people so united and face to face with one another, and with so many connections that their friendships and relatives cross over communities and countries.
So it is difficult for one community to organize itself on its own. It is difficult for outside aid agencies to be able to organize a community, whether they arrive with a sword, the Bible or dollars – they can build their church, company or military post as enclaves. With the RSEs we have learned a different path: a community can organize if people from inside and out connect with one another, not just link, but connect! When people connect, they do magical things. This is how community stores and roasters are emerging.
When this happens, when they connect, the force of communities is like “the rains of May”, which makes good changes sprout. This is the process in which we find ourselves.
Each organization and institution has “rules of the game”. In a family, church, soccer, baseball, school, in a cooperative…there are rules. For example, in soccer 3 rules mean that it ca be played anywhere, in a field, on the street or a soccer stadium; these three rules are: only the goalie can touch the ball with his hands, out of bounds and foul (pushing or kicking another player). Generally, organizations that follow their rules run better.
RSEs also have a few rules: 21. Pretty well tested. Subject to being changed partially by the assembly of shareholders. They are applicable to any RSE. We list these rules in what follows:
The investors can be from inside or outside the community. The family that operates the initiative can also be a shareholder (be it a store, roaster or other initiative)
1 share = C$ 1000 (1,000 Córdobas)
A person becomes a “shareholder” with 1 share or more, and with that share or shares becomes an investor in all the initiatives.
In the case that the family that runs it invests, they will have a dual role, investor and at the same time the family that operates the initiative.
If the shareholder dies, automatically that person´s spouse and children are left as the owners of those shares. In case the shareholder does not have a spouse or children, then the closest relative is left as owner of the shares.
No shareholder will have more than 35% of total shares.
On the work of the family that runs an RSE
Each family that operates it is creative and responsible for making the initiative more successful, so that they can include any other way of buying new products or adding new services, always in function of the “company.”
If the family that operates an initiative decides to no longer continue with the initiative, they will completely withdraw all the products or assets, without those products or assets being provided on credit.
The shareholder group can close an initiative and recover the products and assets if that initiative ceases to be profitable.
On earnings, reinvestment and expenses
From gross profits (sale or service price minus costs and expenses), 30% is for the family that runs it (store, roaster or other initiative).
From net profits (gross profits minus 30%), 20% is for reinvestment, 20% is for a social fund, 10% for equipment repair and 50% is to be distributed among the shareholders in accordance with their number of shares.
In the distribution of shares, for the person who has more than100 shares, each share over that 100 will have the right to 50% of the amount of each share held by those who have 100 or less shares.
The reinvestment done (that 20%) will be added as part of the shares of all the shareholders. In other words, if that 20% comes in as additional products for sale or as a piece of equipment for the roaster, the value of that 20% is added as part of the shares of all the shareholders. Operation: the amount of the reinvestment divided by the total number of shares; that amount is added in accordance with the number of shares held by each shareholder.
If a shareholder decides to withdraw or recover part of their shares, those shares will be bought by any person or shareholder.
On losses or damaged products or assets
If products or assets are lost through theft, it is the responsibility of the family that runs it. The value lost is deducted from their 30%.
If some product is damaged in the store, it must be reported in the monthly audit. The corresponding measure will be taken from a mutual agreement. In any case, the value of the loss will be assumed equally, 50% by the family operating the initiative and 50% by the investors.
On Follow up/ audit/ transparency
The family that operates the initiative will register each operation and have all information up to date.
The supervisor and the operating family will provide followup/audit every 30 days. In doing so, they will audit the numbers, together analyze the month by its results and, taking into account the results from the previous month, will make decisions guided by the rules.
The 30% of gross profit that goes to the family operating the initiative will be paid at the end of each month.
The distribution of surplus based on net profits will be done every 3 months.
On the 10th of each month each shareholder will receive information on the financial results of the previous month from all the initiatives.
René Mendoza with Fabiola Zeledón, Hulda Miranda and Elix Meneses
Violeta Parra (1917-1967)
“Who are you looking for?”, they asked Violeta when she was traveling from one rural community to another in Chile.
-“Someone I do not know, but who has something very important to give me,” she responded. Violeta was a songwriter and artist, she was looking for songs that people in the countryside composed and tended to be left isolated and forgotten. She looked for them for the folklore of her beloved Chile.
Who are we looking for? Someone we do not know but who has “something very important” for their community. It is on the basis of “something very important” that we build the means that can be written in stone, that give identity to their communities. In this booklet we recount how we started to get off the traditional path of cooperatives, as we found “something very important” in the people in the communities themselves.
1. Genesis and brief evolution
In 2018 we concluded that the cooperative path needed other forms of organization. Like Violeta, we decided to go into the communities; since there is no better wedge than a stick, we went into the very communities where some cooperatives came from. We were looking to understand what was the “musical score” that made cooperatives, intermediaries, farmers, churches, storefronts, projects dance. To try to change the dance, we had to understand what the music was, because the dance depends on the music.
To the extent that we got inside and interpreted the “musical score”, we awoke to new realities and possibilities. So, in November 2018 with our own resources we decided to test it out with a new store, then with a roaster…From that combination, study and experimentation, in 2019 we were learning what worked, preparing the rules that would guide us. What most made us wake up? Understanding that, in contrast to what is repeated in traditional cooperatives, that members do not want to make contributions nor do they have money, we found that people want to contribute resources if they know where their resources are going and how they are put to work, if they receive earnings for their resources, and if they feel part of that process-that they can roll along with planet earth, like the character Mafalda, created by that great Argentinian cartoonist Quino (Joaquín Salvador Lavado, 1932).
Table 1. Basic data
Total amount (C$)
3 stores, 3 roasters, 1 wholesaler, coffee purchasers and sale of roasted coffee
In May 2020 we took another leap, we improved the rules, we added new shareholders, the amount in córdobas increased, more initiatives took off and were strengthened, we improved the organization of the initiatives, more investments were made…See Table 1.
If a community organizes, nothing can take it off the good path; if it organizes, it does a “musical score”, it does it in alliance with people from outside the community. So the eggshell seems to break as a new life, the baby chick, pushes out.
One way of organizing is that we might have several initiatives in a group that are functioning, profitable and benefit the community. For that purpose, people can buy as a minimum 1 share which is worth 1,000 córdobas. With these shares stores, roasters and bakeries emerge and provide ever more better services. People from other places can also buy shares, with this we increase our resources and are building another community. In this way the shareholders are the first people to go and make purchases in the stores and to seek roasting services, provide oversight over the initiatives, provide ideas…
Here we learned another lesson: if in order to organize Rural Social Enterprises (RSE), the shareholders are from the communities and from outside the communities, more than just contribute resources, both contribute ideas and legitimacy to the RSEs. Note: prior to 2020 we used to call them “initiatives”, we started to call them RSEs in 2020, in harmony with the Social and Solidarity Economy approach, but adding the word “rural” to it, to give it a distinctive touch.
3. Organization of the RSEs
Figure 1 shows this network of initiatives. Money, products and services move in them like ocean waves; they are visible, we see them. Under the waves there is another current that we do not see, but we feel, they are the shareholders, interest in caring for one another, friendships that cross over walls, affection, community roots and a different path so that anyone can improve.
Store 2 appears in the figure, because we already have Store 1 and Store 3 in another two communities. The bakery, roaster, buying and selling of coffee, wholesaler and other initiatives are around this Store 2, in addition to other initiatives (e.g. buying and selling basic grains). These initiatives are connected with one another, they are in the same place and in the same community- this is the key to our success. For example, if a person comes with their coffee to have it roasted, on their return they buy bread and other products in the store, the baker buys eggs in the community itself to make bread. In this way, nearly all of the community is part of the initiatives –“nearly”. The wholesaler is a reseller, because it buys products for the initiatives at wholesale prices, buys products in the communities themselves to sell them in town, transfers products from one store to another, buys products in one community for the other communities, and the profits benefit all of the shareholders.
How specifically are the RSEs organized?
Each person who runs a roaster, makes bread, administers a store, sells coffee or is responsible for a wholesaler, registers information about each economic transaction in an honest way.
The supervisor each month reviews that record of information in each initiative. Then visits a sampling of clients, studies the local market, and captures the needs of the population, as well as new opportunities.
The results of the supervision are sent to each shareholder on the 10th of every month; there is a mural in each initiative (roaster, bakery, store…) that has the prices of the services, the report of the supervision and data for the community. Honest information benefits all the communities.
Every 3 months there is an assembly of shareholders where, in addition to being informed about the finances of each initiative, they evaluate the quarter, review the goals for the next quarter, and the profits are redistributed. In the annual assemblies all the initiatives are studied, the investments for the year are planned, the most outstanding initiatives win awards for their order, registration of information, generation of profits and largest number of customers.
Each shareholder is committed to the success of each initiative, which is why they report to the community, oversee the initiatives, provide suggestions to improve it, and make their families have a better life.
The effects of these initiatives are seen in 4 distinctive elements of the RSEs: equitable distribution of earnings or surpluses, informational transparency, community democracy and gender and age equity (50% or more youth). In terms of the distribution (see Table 2): from net earnings, 10% is for equipment maintenance and assets that deteriorate; 20% goes to a social fund, a fund that we will save throughout 2020 and that in the annual assembly on May 8, 2021 we will define its use; 20% reinvestment is added to each share in favor of the shareholders, in other words their shares will increase with the reinvestments; and 50% will be provided as cash to each shareholder in accordance with the amount of their shares.
Table 2.Equitable distribution
From gross earnings
From net earnings
30% is to pay the person who runs the RSE
10% equipment maintenance of the RSEs (refrigerators, roasters, grinders)
20% social fund
20% reinvestment fund
50% individual distribution
Informational transparency is the fact that each shareholder, customer and community in general has access to information about the initiatives. The shareholders have the right to know about the finances of the RSEs. The customers have a right to know the price composition, proper weighing and the elements to be good customers, The community has the right to know the rules under which the initiatives are functioning, as well as their financial results.
Democracy is the fact that most of the shareholders are from the community itself. Each administration of each RSE provides honest information. Good supervision. Quarterly assemblies. Each shareholder watches over the progress of each RSE.
Gender equity is that fact that 50% of the shareholders are women, that that is expressed in the amount of their shares. Then, going beyond that formality, we want the RSEs to contribute to freeing up women´s work time, in such a way that they can take on new responsibilities in other RSEs or other activities in their own homes. In age equity, even though we want people of all ages to participate, including children and the elderly, in particular we want the youth to feel themselves to be the motor of these RSEs, as Yader Meneces said, “The older ones do not detach themselves from the old cooperatives that do not value them, they do not believe in us; but we the youth we are asserting ourselves, this store and roaster belongs to us the youth.”
We are building a new culture based on the good that each person has within them. To the question about who she is looking for, Violeta Parra responded, “Someone that I do not know, but has something very important to give me.” In the communities where the RSEs are developing, the RSEs are like the songwriter Violeta, and each person has “something very important”. Each RSE wants to receive it, and at the same time wants each person to find inside themselves that “something very important.” For this purpose The RSEs are emerging for this reason, and need to “be cooked on a low fire.”
This booklet, and the next ones, are texts that accompany what the RSEs are experiencing in San Juan del Río Coco, Waslala and Matagalpa. We call them RSEs, which includes community stores, community roasters, collective bakeries, cooperatives and associations.
René Mendoza Vidaurre, Fabiola Zeledón and Esmelda Suazo
Along the trails
-Cousin, you have traveled so much that I am sure that you earn and know a lot, help us to travel in that way as a cooperative.
-I have traveled along the highway, it is fast, and you only see money rolling on wheels.
-That´s right…. We want to make money.
-When I get out of the car and walk on foot or on horseback, I see people, groups together, I hear that song of the cicadas.
-What do you mean to say?
-If the cooperative takes to the trails, it will touch hearts, dig into our roots, make people think and walk together.
-In other words, feel, walk and begin to cooperate, instead of taking the highway.
-That´s right, Ana, it is the first step…along the trails!
The hurry to make money makes us run and keeps us from seeing what is at our sides. When we reach the goal, we are like the dog in the countryside, who at the first sound of some car, takes off barking at full speed, and then when it reaches the car, nothing happens, it returns in silence. Organizations, aid agencies and institutions are desperately providing their resources and trainings under the discourse of stamping out hunger or poverty, and when they achieve these investment goals, they return in silence. The impoverished population are like the car that the dog reaches, increases its speed of adding more people. With COVID-19 that velocity is increasing dramatically. How can one get out of extreme poverty? The parable tells us that in order to begin to cooperate, let us take to the trails and delve into our origins. What does this mean? It is the time for communities!
1. The reality is in full view
The march of COVID-19 lifts the covers, and realities appear that are difficult for us to recognize. The rural population migrates to the forests or outside the country under the pressure of mono-cropping agriculture or ranching, pushed in turn by the financial and commercial industries. This is not new, with or without cover, we have known it for decades and centuries.
With COVID-19 we were hoping that the internal assets of communities, which have been supported by hundreds of international aid projects, might be guiding preventive actions. That the churches, with so many centuries of preaching the Good Samaritan, might mobilize. That first- tier cooperatives, members of second tier organizations, might move in the face of the virus. Strangely they are still. “We are waiting for directions from above”, “without projects, there is no organization”, “donors are not sending aid to those who organized in cooperatives”, “everything is in the town (municipal capital), the meetings, the harvest collection”. What is left of the “anchor”, “articulations”, “networks”, “public-private alliances” and “empowerment”? The gaze of elderly women seem to tell us: “nothing”. Maybe that is what is new, in the sense that we are surprised.
It would seem that the projects, sermons, credit and commercial policies instead eroded communities. They pushed ideas about being individual, taking on mono-cropping agriculture and relying on aid; some argue that by supporting an individual they are supporting rural families, but a family as an institution is hierarchical and patriarchal, in addition to the fact that the notion of “nuclear family” is nearly non-existent in the rural world, where it is common to see a son or daughter grow up with their grandparents, aunt or uncle, and/or mother. With COVID-19 that erosion is intensified, the quarantine and confinement accentuate the neoliberal idea of “save yourselves those who have”. Because a daily wage earner in farming or construction and most of the population who work in the so-called “informal economy” cannot stay home for more than a week, they begin to go into debt, buy on credit, make storefronts go broke, and affect their daily food intake, and this in the long term will mean loss of human life.
2. Knowing how to get to communities
The idea of harmonic communities of Robert Redfield (1931, A Mexican Village: Tepoztlan), has been left far behind. Since the studies of Oscar Lewis (1951, Life in a Mexican Village: Tepoztlan Restudied) we understand communities as heterogeneous spaces with diversity, and even opposing interests. They are communities with which people identify, it is their utopia and mission – as Thomas More would say (1516, Utopia: The Happy Republic): They are not a “sack of potatoes”, as Marx suggested, nor “pockets of peasants” as certain agrarian literature categorized them for years from 1980 to 1990. They are disputed spaces where external policies and resources should know how to get there, facilitating the first lesson of humanity: cooperation. People who organize can bring their produce together and get better prices, free themselves from usury at the point of group savings, protect water sources in the high areas, and along the length of the creek, and coordinate to prevent natural and social viruses. Individually, they cannot change prices, free themselves from usury, protect water nor prevent viruses.
Let us illustrate how these community assets move from the few interesting experiences that exist in Central America. Rodrigo Pérez, a delegate of the Word from the community of San Antonio, said, “this community store saves me a day, and the bus fare of going to the town to buy what I now buy here.” If the crowding in town favors COVID-19, people like Rodrigo find what they are looking for in the community store. “It is the first cooperative that came to coordinate work with us,” they said in the school in Samarkanda, appreciating the support of the Reynerio Tijerino cooperative so that students and teachers might protect themselves from the virus. “Only our cooperative collects the harvest in the community, and right here does the payments and assemblies,” said Selenia Cornejo. “Buyers and financiers come to visit us in the community,” said Daniel Meneses, from the October 13th Cooperative. We find similar words about community coffee roasters, bread makers, groups of beekeepers…”The coffee that we produce and roast, we sell ourselves along with our relatives outside, isn´t that a network?” Each organization has a mural with information to prevent COVID-19, while at the same time together are weaving a support network for people who end up affected by the virus.
What is common for all of them? They are in the community itself. Their focus is on their origins. They function with their own resources and rules polished in their assemblies. They improve their oral tradition with writing. They represent a diversity of ages, where youth under the age of 40 are leading them. They distribute their profits. They organize and are transparent with their information. They compete for and rotate their leadership. They organize their solidarity. They fight against their old “demons”, the rules of elites that have nested in their minds: “in group, but for me”, opportunistic actions when internal and external control is weak, prejudice against women legitimized by the churches, prejudices against workers without land (“the cooperative is for those who have land”), and providentialism (“God has a plan to protect us”, “the big chief has a plan to take care of his people”). This type of grassroots organization no longer waits for direction from outside, they visit one another, discuss and, in the midst of their internal tensions and mutual distrust, resort to their social fund, while they look for external contacts that can reinforce their collective actions.
How are these community assets formed? Following a universal lesson: studying realities to innovate as a group and train ourselves. Combining efforts of people from the communities and from outside to organize social enterprises in the communities. Recording data, analyzing it and making decisions. Delving into histories to find values and rules with which to cooperate and recreate identities, because “the origins are in front of us, not behind”, as the Mapuche taught us, the indigenous people in Chile and Argentina. Bringing to light their old “demons” and ours as well as accompaniers (“providing information confuses people”, “donating food is the solution to hunger”, “we know your future because that future was our past”). Walking along the trails discerning what the processes themselves show us about how to accompany them.
3. New veins that the effect of COVID-19 forces us to think about
COVID-19 raises the covers, and what appears are not just those realities that it is difficult for us to recognize, but also new veins to be worked on related to the social fund, the connection between organizations, the coherency between words and actions, and the decentralization of decisions.
Grassroots organizations, like those that we have described previously, have the practice of equitable distribution of what they have saved in a social fund. In the current context of COVID-19, that social fund gains importance, like the use of offerings and tithings on the part of churches. If the State provides curative health care, preventive health is an area where grassroots organizations and churches can invest resources and energies. This includes how to improve nutrition, prevent obesity and diabetes, invest in natural medicine and clean water, improve hand washing and introduce the use of masks in crowded spaces. How can this social fund be organized into areas of prevention?
If a person discovers the importance of combining efforts of several people, in the same way also organizations (collective groups) discover that coordinating among organizations to face COVID-19 is fundamental. Making connections among churches, schools, rural community Banks, community councils, businesses and the municipal government expresses the spirit of superimposed communities that exist in every territory. It is like the baby chick that breaks the eggshell, moves out of its comfort zone and connects with other organizations, it is something that we are not accustomed to do, but we need to do. For example, connecting with the church is not to sit down to discuss one or another form of religious faith, it is to rethink together the solidarity of the Good Samaritan, who did not rely on God sending his angels to save the wounded man, but simply acted, while other were in a hurry (“passed by on the other side”). Being connected is having the freedom to express these community cultures of each organization of which one is a member or participant. On their part, each organization should understand itself as a community, where their members or their staff identify with that organization, not so much for “what one gets”, but for “what one gives” the organization, where titles are opportunities to serve. How can churches, farms, community stores, schools, cooperatives and health centers be connected?
Governments, aid organizations, international enterprises should be coherent. Importing the best coffee, and leaving the worst for the producer families, feels bitter. Demanding meat that deforests, and at the same time being ecological, is disgusting. Supporting small scale production with credit for agrochemicals like glyphosate, that is damaging to natural and human health and increases rural unemployment, is repugnant. Donating certified seed to get rid of native seed and making them dependent on companies that sell that certified seed is shameful. Extracting minerals through strip mining and defending nature, seems like that Nazi who during the day sent children to the gas chambers and at night played with his children at home. How can coherency be obtained and also benefit rural communities? How can each organization and institution conceive itself and organize itself as a community?
Decentralizing decisions seem urgent, it is like letting the baby take its first step, this is in all spheres. That each delegate of the word celebrate the Eucharist (sharing bread and wine) in the rural communities would be a real institutional change in the Catholic church. If a grassroots organization understands their community better than an organization with an office in a city, why do aid organizations and international enterprises persist in believing that organization means having an office and manager in the city? Do grassroots organizations need accompaniment? They need it, like aid organizations need grassroots organizations to accompany them. If people organize in a cooperative or a community store to administer their loans, technology and commercialization, why doesn´t a second-tier organization support them in these purposes, instead of abducting those services and decisions? How much we need to reflect on that old and still good principle that “the stronger the children are, the stronger their parents will be”.
The effects of COVID-19 tend to produce more extremely impoverished people, like the title of the novel of Victor Hugo published in 1862 (Les misérables). Along with extreme human impoverishment, the extreme impoverishment of nature, compiled in Laudato Si: “the cry of the poor and the land.”
Between 2000 and 2014, according to ECLAC, 33 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean reduced people in a situation of hunger (extreme poverty) from 73 to 38 million. Julio Berdegué of the FAO stated that between 2015-2018, without the virus, those 38 million increased to 43 million people. ECLAC projects that if economic growth in 2020 falls by 6% we will have 73 million people hungry, the same amount that there were in 2000. And with hunger, probably, will come social and political rebellion. Playing with hunger is playing with fire.
The solution to hunger that aid organizations have practiced and continue suggesting is that States provide food, and that they rely on social and economic organizations; in fine print this means that governments, with the taxes paid by the entire society, buy from large corporations GMO food, coopting grassroots organizations and providing that food to hungry populations. This movie we have seen before, including the magic they tend to perform with the indicators of extreme poverty, its resulting erosion of community assets, and what is called family agriculture, the nullification of native seed, the fact that rural populations become docile masses dependent on aid and electoral patronage, and that aid organizations resist conceiving themselves and organizing themselves as communities, and of something bigger that would cover all of us.
In this article we showed that community efforts can be effective in the face of COVID-19 and the virus of hunger, and that these aid agencies, organizations and institutions of the world that talk about “providing food” as the panacea to evils, might rethink their modus operandi and that culture of believing that they already know the solution without previously knowing the people “in extreme poverty”. We should recognize that if communities organize and have accompaniers who also feel and function as communities, they can – and we can – face this and other viruses, eradicate hunger, producing and distributing food, mitigating climate change and contributing to social cohesion, which prevents violence and instead puts our societies on the path to their democratization.
It is the time for rural communities. It is time for organizations, aid agencies and institutions to feel and act as communities. It is time to feel and think that we are part of something much greater than ourselves.
 René accompanies rural organizations in Central America, is an associate researcher of IOB-Antwerp University, member of Coserpross (http://coserpross.org/es/home/) and a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/). Fabiola and Esmelda are advisors to rural organizations in Nicaragua.
-Who isn´t afraid? Fear is the biggest enemy of reason. Think, Pipita, your love for others is stronger than anything…Besides, the rain is coming now!
The entire world is experiencing difficult days. People feel fear, impotence, the desire to cry. The only thing certain is uncertainty. Every person would like to support themselves with something, protect themselves under the shade of a tree. But there are almost no natural, supernatural nor social “trees” anymore. It is when that Nicaraguan phrase becomes even truer, “if you have your health, the rest doesn´t matter.” And health is like the rain, it does not fall from the sky with some prayers, it is something that is provided and strengthened with human actions. And who provides it? And how is it provided? Maybe “the love” that one feels for others provides it, maybe the love with which we were made in a passionate morning helps provide it. Maybe it is time to look farther ahead, because “the rain is coming now.”
In this article we reflect on this rural world, that thin strand between hygiene and the economy, between home, church, health center, and between individual and collective actions. To do this we list the facts or risks, we start to explain this “strand”, we look at how scientific recommendations help these different cultures revive – like plants which dry up become green again when the clouds release the first drops of water, and we point out the role of accompanying organizations. The importance of grassroots organizations in protecting their communities runs throughout the article, while the notion of community matures with the turning of each page.
1. Conditions that work for and against COVID-19
The situation with COVID-19 seems to be getting worse. The gap between the official information in any country and what is in the social networks is large, with which anxiety buzzes like a mosquito at night. In rural communities this concern is connected to the continuity of classes in school, religious celebrations in churches, and festive crowds, with or without quarantine. People think that through that “door” of the school, church or public transportation, the virus can get into their homes and pass through the community. What are the rural conditions that work for or against COVID-19?
Rural families have some advantages and some disadvantages in the face of the virus. The advantages are: the physical distance between people to avoid COVID-19 is facilitated by the low population density, and because a good number of families live on their own farms; the average age of the population is relatively young, which limits the effect of COVID-19, even though this advantage is evaporating because of poverty; living in areas with little air pollution; communities that have grassroots organizations with members and offices in the community itself, through which they access some information and some collective actions. The disadvantages are: if people are infected, it will be difficult for them to go to the health centers with the first symptoms and it will be difficult for them to stay at home, or prevent visits when rumors buzz along the footpaths of neighboring houses, all of which have the potential to infect more people; the quality of the health centers, in any country in Latin America, is less in the rural municipal capitals and is inexistent in rural communities.
Gatherings of people in schools and churches is the greatest risk; let us remember that in a church in Washington one member infected from between 52 to 60 members of the choir, 65 were infected in a Zumba class in South Korea, 80 people in a concert. Rural gatherings tend to happen in groups separated by the lack of connection between organizations. Cooperatives, schools, churches and party or governmental organizations (e.g. councils, mayor representatives) move in a “walled off” manner; each person in their own world, and under their own leadership. Churches move in their religious world and with their own leadership structure. Schools with their educational programs and with their own institutional leadership. Cooperatives focus on the economy with their own leadership structure. And so on. This separation means that the gatherings move separately, isolated, which is why people tend to behave in an opportunistic way: “let others spend on hygiene to prevent COVID-19”, “I don´t care, I don´t have children in school”, “I am going to church because God is protecting me, what better doctor than God?”
This separation is worse with external institutions. Markets are reduced to offering hygiene products, raising their prices because of increasing demand, and move by means of intermediation; States limit themselves to making an effort in health centers; aid organizations provide resources within the circles in which they move; and second tier organizations and NGOs expect to mediate resources. None of them tend to cross over “to the other side of the river”, in the sense of understanding how rural societies move, lack experience working at the community level with grassroots organizations. This limits our ability to understand rural population from their own perspectives, and limits the communities from understanding external organizations. We live in a world of one-eyed people that is attractive for any virus.
This separation or “fortress-effect” feeds the prevalence of beliefs. It is a universal truth that when there is less information and less articulate comprehension about certain habits, beliefs prevail. What beliefs? In peasant families: “If I believe in God, nothing is going to happen to me”, “lightening is not what kills you, it is just your time has come”; “long suffering people will resist any virus”; “I am not washing my hands because my hands are hot because of work”, “chloroquine and azithromycin get rid of the virus” (self-prescribing without evidence that it cures and without investigating its damaging effect on the heart; and according to the WHO seem to increase the risks and consequences of the disease). Beliefs in external institutions: “information confuses people”; “money makes the monkey dance”; “if the economy improves, all improves”; “give them alcohol and with that COVID-19 will not affect them”; “boil eucalyptus and cypress leaves”; “read the bible where it announces the end of the world”, “everyman for himself”. Doña Coronavirus laughs and is attracted by these beliefs!
We resist learning. We read about the 15 countries of the Asia-Pacific region, China, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the 10 member countries of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations), Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, as the region that has best dealt with COVID-19, a region that has 2 billion people of the 7.7 billion that exist in the world. How did they do it? With good public health: they closely observe the symptoms people have, if there are symptoms, they test them, if they are positive, they isolate them in their homes or in hospitals, and they do contact tracing. In other words, the more they diagnose, they more they know what to do, and thus save more lives. In contrast, national and international organizations tend not to do diagnoses to formulate and implement policies, except to appear to formally comply; our mentality of providentialism and resignation resists learning from rural populations, we do not seek to understand them, we believe that we already know them, that “the market knows more”. We are societies that seem to live like in the middle ages under the church with the inquisition, in those times “there was no reason to think, it was enough to believe”, when thinking was a sin and punished by death.
2. Hygiene in rural societies
What is it that we need to understand? We begin with some history, to then paint something about the rural reality and show the vein that we have to continue exploring.
There are several studies on diseases and the architecture of cities and homes, not much on rural spaces. Public health has contributed to the fact that the population lives longer, architecture has also done that. So closets were imposed instead of armoires, because they were anti-hygienic because they accumulated dust. In the last 150 years we know of great changes in the cities of London, Barcelona or Paris; in 1866 they cleaned up most of the river Thames in London, and that clean up saved most of the people of the city from the threat of cholera; in 1844 they redesigned the city of Barcelona, knocking down walls that contributed to the overcrowding, which made lack of hygiene worse and supported epidemics; also Paris was redesigned for health purposes. Other smaller changes also had large impacts: clean water and management of sewage to prevent malaria or yellow fever; in the face of the bubonic plague, that killed 12 million people between 1855 and 1959, they rebuilt homes with more concrete and metal to keep out the rats who carried that pestilence. In other words, the design of homes and cities for health purposes lengthened the lives of people.
Now with COVID-19 architecture is challenged to redesign homes. Even though architecture has not been able to respond to respiratory illnesses, COVID-19 can cause the redesign of the home, where the idea of what is private is reconceptualized, giving way to the home as a space for school, work, reflection and gymnasium.
Unfortunately, there are no studies about that same relationship between architecture and health for rural areas, at least none that I am aware of. In rural areas, hygiene has been in deficit for centuries, a situation that has been made even worse by the discrimination toward the rural world. This situation of hygiene is due in part to the fact that rural families every day are grappling with land, farming, agro-chemicals, small livestock, slaughtering or the fire in the kitchen, and they do it without having protective measures like gloves, boots or masks, partly because they are living with limited water or means of catching water, on large haciendas the patrons customarily do not provide protective equipment to their workers, and partly because they do not have access to information while beliefs lead them to not protect themselves.
This daily work of women with fire, or men with the land leads them to bathe less frequently. This is not necessarily, however, a lack of hygiene; in fact, many people during the winter in Europe and the Andean altiplano do not bathe very frequently. The difference is that peasant families think that after work a person should not touch water, it is an understanding about the combination of temperatures; so it is that after making tortillas they do not wash their hands, after weeding they do not bathe “because the body is hot”. Also the lack of water and minimal infrastructure has conditioned them to carry out certain practices; women gather dirty clothes to go to the river to wash them, they spend little water to wash dishes. Likewise, little access to information has an impact on daily life, for example, dishes are not washed with Clorox that could contain the salmonella bacteria, which tends to be found in food contaminated with animal feces. We mention these points to illustrate how difficult it could be the fact that, now with COVID-19, they have to wash their hands frequently and with soap, when customs and their natural (water) and economic conditions weigh in.
Most rural homes, particularly those of low-income people, have dirt floors and are closed structures with little ventilation. For example, it is known that Chagas disease, that “forgotten illness” because the pharmaceutical industries do not see it as profitable, mostly happens in homes with grass roofs and cracks in the clay walls where the insects that cause this disease tend to live. Peasant homes are a prolongation of the farm, or the reverse, for example corn is stored inside the home or above the hearth, while the cats deal with stalking the rats who are after the corn…
These rural practices became customs, and those customs, laws, which tend not to be seen by the eyes of State institutions, markets and international aid agencies. External actors, instead, tend to see agriculture or ecology as separate from hygiene in the home and family, and the economy as separate from health, education and religion. External actors, when they touch on the issue of hygiene, do so viewing the rural reality from the urban experience, and so any weed seems dirty to them, any home for them should be in towns or villages, any farm should be mono-cropped, and any insect should be fought with agro-chemicals. From the urban perspective it is hard to understand that a home on a farm probably is healthier than a city with an over-populated cattle industry, or chicken or turkey industry, which are true virus factories.
We need to scrutinize the relationship between hygiene and agriculture, home and farm and school and church to understand the culture of hygiene in rural populations, to then look at improvements and changes to be made. Without understanding, one cannot see, Rodrigo López told us, a peasant from Waslala. How true that is! Otherwise, how can we imagine that just using chlorox and alcohol is going to prevent COVID-19? Without understanding, how they can reflect on and change their habits coming from their own cultures and farming systems, any chlorox or alcohol that they are given runs the risk of ending up in the municipal markets, as has happened with the donation of tin roofing sheets, pure bred hogs, coffee roasters or grain silos. The community, that heterogeneous amalgam of disputed realities, is like a book, inside of which dance letters, pages and imagination, opened up only by the reading of those who love it, a reading which is like a person who shells a corncob sensing a hot tortilla with “”cuajada.
Our challenge is to rethink community spaces from a perspective in which health and economics are embedded in each other. Homes on farms with materials that protect them from rats and the insects that carry Chagas disease, and at the same time are ventilated spaces, and agro-forestry farms, in communities with spaces for food, reflection, social interaction, entertainment, open field school and collective actions. Communities with fresh air, revived, which end up being the “tree” to protect oneself from the virus. This is the vein to dig into.
3. It is the moment for organized rural societies
While we study, let us not lose the pulse on COVID-19. What should we do? If classes and/or religious celebrations continue, and if markets and States do not show they are effective, grassroots organizations (cooperatives, associations, parent-teacher committees, water committees…), located in the communities, must act to protect their communities. The effectiveness of these organized rural societies can be better if supported by organized global societies (international aid organizations).
How? These grassroots organizations must turn themselves into entities that inform, connect with schools and churches to accompany them to understand the problem and their prevention practices in the face of COVID-19, and look up while they deepen their roots.
3.1 Informing yourself and analyzing the information
Dry cough + sneezing + body aches + weakness + high fever + difficulty breathing = coronavirus
Source: Pathology Department, UCH London
In the first box are the elements to tell whether a person has coronavirus, flu, a cold or just air pollution. The scientific community reveals that a person with COVID-19 can show mild symptoms, and days later have other more serious symptoms. In other words, a person could have a cough and sneezing, and not have a high fever, which does not mean that they do not have COVID-19, in the days following the other symptoms may appear. Box 1 is a simple aid to differentiate, it does not assure you that you do not have COVID-19 with the first symptoms, but at the same time helps you to not get alarmed with the first symptoms, helps you to stay calm and discern; this is a big help in rural areas where it is difficult to go to a hospital.
COVID-19 is not just a new virus, but the scientific community still does not know much about it. Current evidence reveals that a little more than 40% of people with the virus were infected by people who did not have symptoms of COVID-19. This obviously makes prevention difficult, at the same time, knowing this helps us to get a grip on the problem and respond in the best way possible.
Box 2. Recommendations
1. Do not touch your face–because the virus enters through the mouth, nose and eyes
2. Wash your hands with soap – the virus is dissolved with 20 seconds of hand washing.
3. Maintain physical distancing (1.5 mts) from another person; avoid groups of people
4. If you do not feel well, stay home. The family can help you determine whether it is coronavirus (see box 1)
5. Avoid meetings in closed spaces without ventilation
6. Above all, think, think, and think–it is the most vital thing that we should practice.
Box 2 has information also based on studies. Grassroots organizations can disseminate it in their communities, but first they should read and analyze it: why shouldn´t you touch your face? Why should you wash your hands with soap? Why maintain a distance of 1.5 meters with other people? Why should you stay home when you have a cough, mucus and sneezing? The more we think about it, the more we understand it, the more we are going to put it into practice and tell other people. Talking through information allows us to think about reorganizing activities, for example, the measure of maintaining a physical distance of 1.5 meters can help so that in a religious celebration, a meeting in the cooperative, or a class in the school people take their seats maintaining that distancing, so that the meetings be for shorter periods of time or with frequent recesses, or so that the meetings might be better prepared in advance so that, like chickens, you go straight to the “grain.” Information that is thought through can save lives.
Grassroots organizations also should reflect on other contributions from scientists. Let us look at 3 contributions. The first, studies show that children under the age of 12 do not get infected much, compared to adults; in the cases when they are infected, they almost never get seriously sick, nor are they great transmitters of the virus, like they were in the case of the flu, because the amount of receptors that COVID-19 needs are less in children under the age of 12, and consequently the viral charge (in other words, the amount of the virus that they can gather) is much smaller. Statistics confirm this statement, minors under 12 are less than 0.2% of COVID-19 deaths.
Second, statistics how that men become more infected by COVID-19 than women, and they tend to suffer more from the virus than women who are affected. This is due to the fact that “the blood of men has higher concentrations of the converter enzyme of angiotensin II (ACE2) than the blood of women (…). This receptor is found on the surface of healthy cells, and helps coronavirus infect them” (see: https://www.iprofesional.com/actualidad/315900-coronavirus-por-que-hombres-se-contagian-mas-que-mujeres ). Active genes linked to the X chromosome provide women (XX) greater protection against coronavirus than men”. In addition, be it for the type work in which rural women are more involved, in general they have more hygienic habits than men, for example, they wash their hands more frequently, be it because they are washing dishes, clothing or for personal care. This indicate the importance of hand washing.
Third, studies also tell us that the use of masks is preventive, but they also warn us of the risk of reusing them, because they can become a means of infection, because the virus can remain for hours and even days in the masks. The masks are more for infected people, with or without symptoms, so they do not infect other people. Why the masks? Because they reduce the particles that come out of the mouth when a person breathes or talks. When should masks be used? They can use them in school during classes in closed classrooms with little ventilation, in relatively closed churches during celebrations, when it is not possible to maintain physical distancing, when the interaction lasts a certain length of time, in places with human crowding (banks, markets…). They should also be used when you travel to town, on returning home you should wash it, in this way the mask will be ready for a new outing or meeting. Countries that have overcome COVID-19 have used the masks as part of their strategies, which is why rural communities probably will have to introduce the use of masks as part of their culture of care, particularly for the moments we just pointed out.
3.2 Linking to and contacting schools and churches
It seems easy to connect to and assume that any organization or institution will be happy to be contacted. Nevertheless, churches, schools and party structures are not accustomed to coordinate with community organizations, except to “orient them” about what to do, and treat them as their dependents. Their worlds and leadership which we mentioned previously really carry weight, they are true walls to community coordination. How is a grassroots cooperative going to react if the pastor of a church tells them, “God is our doctor, we trust in God?” What is it going to say and do if the principal of a school tells them, “we can only receive support if it comes through the ministry of education”? What are they doing to do if a committee of a political party, the councils or mayor deputies say that “directions and projects only come from above?”. What can you say to the parent of a family who only believes in the patron of their hacienda? How difficult it is to be community and work for the community! There, where things get complicated, money will not even make monkeys dance.
In the midst of these worlds we have learned the following steps. First, discussing the information in figures 1 and 2 really empowers people, it is in-forming, and informing is forming. Information can be an antidote to despotic religious, political and economic leaders. Second, the cooperative or association should start from what it is and has; what do they have and who are they? Each member has, at least, a family member who is a student, believer of some religion and/or is member of a political party; they should talk with them, discuss the COVID-19 situation, and the information provided here. Third, members of the organs of the cooperatives, having now conversed at the grassroots level, visit the parent/teachers committee of the school, people with positions in the churches, (e.g. deacons, delegates of the word) and party members or government authorities, reflect with them and discuss the information. Finally, the board members of cooperatives communicate with the parent/teacher committee of the school and with deacons and delegates of the word. In other words, connect with the grassroots of different organizations and institutions, their intermediate leaders, to then connect with the leadership of the organizations and institutions. In these steps, it is not a matter of convincing anyone, but of listening, bringing together elements that help to understand, and once each person understands, they will be able to see and then act – it is like preparing the soil and planting a seed, then you have to let the seed germinate and struggle to grow.
Table. Cost of kit for 90 people (1 month; in US dollars)
Chlorox (cleaning equipment) (liters)
Hand towel (units)
Bar of soap (units)
Re-usable masks (units)
With these steps, each organization can supply itself with a kit of hygiene products to prevent COVID-19 (see table). Cooperatives have a social fund that they can use to acquire the kit, unless they have used it for other social agendas that they tend to have. Schools can, through the parent/teachers committees, gather resources to acquire the kit. If the cooperatives, with or without international support, can gather resources to support the schools and churches, it could make a difference, strengthening the bonds in the community, and the entire community would benefit. The more bonds there are, the more autonomous the community will be.
3.3 Looking forward
The sixth recommendation in Figure 2 is the most important reason for a grassroots organization rooted in the community to exist: think, think and think. Thinking is the most important element to resisting COVID-19. Thinking is looking forward and seeing beyond our noses. A cooperative is not a church nor a political party, its members are there voluntarily, they are not subordinated to anyone, they discuss and reach agreements in their assemblies, which is why they must examine their beliefs and fight with and against them. Individually they can believe or not in God, but they should not expect God to send them angels or saints to wash their hands for them, or put their masks on, just as they would not expect that he plant beans for them or remove botflies from their cattle; they can believe in their political leaders, but it is shameful to subordinate themselves to anyone. As cooperative members they have free will, their source of power is the assembly composed of the members themselves, and their reason for being is thinking, thinking and thinking in favor of their communities.
Part of this thinking is reflecting about COVID-19: How to protect their own community? If the State does not show up in a community, the cooperative must also take on that role. If the health system capacity is overcome, grassroots organizations should discuss how to help prevent the outbreak in their communities, and how to help people who might be affected by the virus. If in any country COVID-19 is being controlled, in all countries there are waves of outbreaks of the disease, so the cooperative should keep looking for those possible outbreaks. In Central America the urban waves of COVID-19 are still ongoing, which is why the rural waves that come later, can be lethal, not just for the reasons mentioned in this article, but because we are in the midst of the rainy season, which will make it more difficult for infected people to get to a health center or any support. If a community receives external support, the cooperative must be careful that that support not be counterproductive, because there can be support that displaces grassroots organizations, and when that donation ends the community´s own autonomy and their own efforts can be left eroded.
Cooperatives need to organize how a network of women can sew masks, how to make soap with lard, how to recover old ways of making alcohol in order to use on hands, how to recover natural medicine… Cooperatives need to think about connecting hygiene, economics, social and environmental elements, thinking about the food in the community beyond COVID-19, thinking about environmental sustainability with pure air and water, thinking, thinking, thinking.
4. Role of international organizations in living communities
Even though for multiple reasons most of the international aid organizations have withdrawn from Central America, there are still international organization that are supporting the region. There also is the fair-trade network, as well as local-global networks among national and international organizations, unions, churches, social banks and universities in the world. When there is the will, there is the way, as the saying goes. If each person feels a mission of service, we can deepen those relationships of collaboration and reactivate “dead” relationships, because “where there are ashes, there was fire.” Each person and organization can play an important role if in this COVID-19 context they realize the importance of working on the community level that is organizing: what good does it do to provide individualized credit or training, as neoliberalism does, promoting mono-cropping, environmental degradation and the erosion of communities? The current situation wakes us up: people who organize and follow rules agreed upon in their assemblies, instead of gurus or chiefs who see themselves as the law, are those who really energize their communities, sustainable farming systems and contribute to social and environmental equity. Communities save communities.
Within this framework, what role do aid organizations have? Traditional donations, involving donating and awaiting reports invented by organizations “confined” to the cities, can be counterproductive, particularly if they displace the efforts of the communities themselves, which in the long term would undermine communities. Aid organizations need to connect with counterparts who really are working with grassroots organizations that meet the following criteria: they are democratic, redistribute their surplus, are transparent with their information and are rooted in their communities or specific micro-territories. This type of organization will persist in the communities, while other external organizations, or those with disperse membership, will continue treating the communities like their lovers, showing up from time to time and leaving. Forming alliances with grassroots organizations so that a donation might provide an initial push, for example, with what is indicated in the table, supporting wash basins in schools with access to water, or working on agro-forestry systems that would protect water sources, where grassroots organizations might accompany their communities, and that their national partners might accompany them in the communities themselves, being careful, but overcoming fear, is the network which need to be built now and always. The dilemma is not whether to leave your urban home or a rural farm; it is how we strengthen internal community assets, how we can take advantage of this “momentum” that exists in global awareness as an effect of COVID-19 to see the importance of communities. In this way, external financing to build a community response would decisively help the community deal with the virus and its new outbreaks, and help in the long term to democratize the community itself.
5. By way of conclusion
In this article we showed the risks of COVID-19, we have begun a reflection on the relationship between hygiene, the economy and social factors, we described the strength of communities if they build lasting connections, we have emphasized the role of grassroots organizations to reflect on their values and principles in light of what is happening in their communities, and generate ways to cooperate in the prevention of COVID-19, and to innovate in ways of accompanying their communities in the midst of the uncertainty. We showed that, through these short term measures, and starting from an analysis of the processes which we are experiencing, it is possible to look forward to the medium and long term: to improve, correct, and generate habits of hygiene connecting home, farm and nature, and home, school, health center and community building.
The impact of what we are proposing, nevertheless, will be seen above all on more structural issues. For example, an exponential increase is coming of people in extreme poverty, the goal of eliminating extreme global poverty for 2030 is going to be only left on paper. The crisis for rich families of the world is how to have less desert options in their dinner, while for our communities the crisis means that they might miss a meal or face empty plates, becoming vulnerable again to any disease. This article and the previous one on basic grains aim at preventing those impacts.
The current situation also provides us with opportunities, because “behind every adversity there is an opportunity”. What opportunity? Mitigation of climate change which, in the case of rural communities, means water, land with life, biodiversity; it is the moment to rethink farming systems and intensify more sustainable forms and farming systems that stop the loss of nutrients in food because of the decreasing quality of the soil. It is the time for communities, never before has the importance been so clear of investing in communities who organize and embrace a culture of care; now is the hour for life, amen.
To look at these structural issues we must understand that it is not the economy that solves health care, it is not a matter of knowing whether the chicken or the egg is first, now the economy is public health and community health; and health, the economy, social and environmental reality are like a mountain slope, if you are on the higher part it looks different than seeing it from below, if you are on the very top, it looks different from one side than from the other, but it is the same slope, the same mountain slope.
“Think, Pipita, your love for others is stronger than anything else…Besides, the rain is coming!”
 It is likely that air pollution facilitates the virus and makes its impact worse, which in part would explain why countries in Europe have had high mortality, measured by the indicator of “over-deaths” or “over-mortality” (number of deaths above the average deaths from previous years) as an effect of COVID-19.
 Many people even with clear signs of having been infected, decide not to go to the health centers or hospitals. Why? “They say the hospitals have no room”, “I don´t want to die intubated”, “I want my family to wake me” and “we want to now where he is going to be buried to be able to go to pray for him”. The express burials frighten the population.
 L. Engelmann, J. Henderson and Ch. Lynteris (eds), 2018, Plague and the City. Londron: Routledge. They study the relationship between plagues and measures to fight plagues and cities from the middle ages up to the modern era; they also include cities like Buenos Aires.
 Inspired in these realities and by actions of Dr. Mazza and his team, in 1995 they filmed the movie Casas de Fuego. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6yWNBytu3U The movie illustrates the relationship between disease-insects, homes (shacks) and social inequality, the wealthy class is against homes being rebuilt, because “they are not concerned” about the millions of poor people.
The movie Casas de Fuego (footnote No. 5) illustrates the duality science/faith and committed science/academic science. The priest is opposed to science benefitting the most impoverished and affected communities; for him “faith and science are fighting over the same people”; a Manichean dilemma that smacks of the middle ages and that did a lot of damage to humanity. Also in this movie, that captures a good part of that experience, the University blocks the mission of Dr. Mazza and his team; fortunately Dr. Mazza and his team persist, their commitment is worth more than restrictive science, a commitment that nevertheless, they paid for with their lives, caused by the Chagas disease itself.
 If there are other organizations in the community, like alcoholics anonymous, water or road committees, the same is done as with the schools and churches.
 Note that traditional organizations tend to do just the opposite: the meet first and only with the leadership of the organizations, and then send technicians to “train” (in other words, convince).
 If some national or international organization wants to provide support under this spirit, they can contact the Coserpross cooperative (http://coserpross.org/es/home/) in Nicaragua, the Comal Network in Honduras (http://www.redcomal.org.hn/). Coserpross and the Comal Network accompany dozens of grassroots organizations in the region, synthesize verified information to provide to the grassroots organizations, and move about in those same territories. There are also organizations like Aldea Global and ADDAC that we mentioned in footnote 5; their uniqueness is that their network is present in dozens of communities.
 What would happen if a bee stayed in its hive? It could live as long as the food that it stored lasted, the honey that it produced, and then? We must understand that we, flowers, bees and humans, are all one network. The bee leaves its hive and goes from flower to flower, pollinizes, does it at the risk of losing themselves and of losing their lives. So is the network. So are we accompaniers, taking on the corresponding measures (use of mask and frequent hand washing), we should not “pass by on the other side” like the priest and Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, we should be inspired by people like Chagas and Mazza did and their teams in Brazil and Argentine that the movie Casas de Fuego portrays.
Day after day, I have hesitated to write here because the onslaught of news has kept me off-balance. There have been few times in my life when the matters of politics, social upheaval, public health and dysfunctional economics have all come together with such overwhelming force. Every one of the issues is daunting. Facing them all together is nearly beyond our imaginations. But here we are, and the national nightmare will not be gone when we awaken tomorrow.
We are living within a perfect storm of challenges. It’s as if the crises before us conspired to come together at the same moment to test our individual and national resolve. In the past we have demonstrated strength and resilience and prided ourselves in the effort. But what about our capacities to triumph over all of this? Surely it seems that we are being tested. It’s a little bit like recovering from a physical injury: we nurse ourselves and rest and rehabilitate, and then we’re whole again. But facing an injury, an illness, an emotional strain and loss of eyesight is an entirely different proposition; recovery is not so simple, nor so assured. That’s when looking at our circumstances requires a more holistic diagnosis, because often the presence of one infirmity causes others.
Over the past year, I have faced a multitude of physical challenges, a sequence of oddities that have offended (and physically hurt) my beloved sense of fitness and well-being. First it was my hip. Then my lower back and joints. This rheumatological malaise was followed by a spinal matter. The adjustments I had to make for that gave rise to tendonitis in the left ankle. And, of course, favoring the left ankle caused bruising of my right heel. Add in a first-ever bout with kidney stones and the picture becomes rather self-explanatory: where one part of the whole is ill, the rest of the parts are not far behind.
Nationally, we are ill. We have a political system that is failing us, exacerbated by a president whose sole objective is narcissistic self-service. That dysfunction has amplified a malaise of polarization which prevents even a pretext of collaborative problem-solving. Those fixed contrapositions have laid a fertile groundwork for a Covid-19 pandemic in which to gestate, taking more than 100,000 lives in our country so far. The resultant unemployment, loss of stability and economic collapse have fostered a hopelessness not experienced since the Great Depression. And that despair is the powder keg which the murder of George Floyd ignited, now into our seventh day of dystopian unraveling. We are loathe to wonder what the next pain might be, what disablement is yet to come.
While I have no single diagnosis for all of the symptoms of our current disease, I do know how some of our best organizations go about the process of problem-solving. The process is intended to “drill down” to the root cause of the ailment, to identify the most underlying base of pain. In the present instance, I submit that we know what that root cause is.
Underlying our national malady is a persistent and growing inequality- racial, social and economic- that has been the bedrock for growth and power in our country since its founding. There is no disputing the foundation upon which the U.S. grew to unparalleled prominence in the world: the lands we control today were territories inhabited by Native Americans long before the presence of the first Caucasian. The labor upon which the “new” landowners relied for expansion and wealth creation was provided substantially by black slaves imported from other lands. Inequality is a cornerstone of this nation’s history, whether we feel justification for it or not. And it persists.
From obscene pay equity issues within our economy (Really? A CEO is really worth 500 times the compensation of his her workers?) to the knee of a white police officer on the neck of his black suspect (for maybe passing a counterfeit $20 bill?), hostile inequality remains at the forefront of national policy, practice and preference. It’s there because we allow it. We prefer it. In the aftermath of daily upheavals, we hear elected officials or neighborhood residents making the claim, “This is not who we are.” But it is. Otherwise, neither the inequality which spawns it nor the rioting in response to it would be happening.
That is not to say that it must be this way, only that it is this way. The central mantra of our economic system says that if one works hard and applies creativity and motivation to opportunity, financial and social success can be had. What is not made clear in that proposition is that in today’s culture of winner-take-all, that achievement will be at an often dangerous expense of others. This isn’t an argument against free enterprise or the promises of risk-reward. Rather, it’s simply the underlying truth, the underlying cause, of the inequalities that are driving many of the awful symptoms witnessed this summer so far.
Holistic well-being exists when the body is in synch with itself, when the systems and appendages are well and complementing one another. A nation’s health is exactly the same: no individual can achieve maximum well-being as long as others are not well. As a result, we’ll have some decisions to be made in the months ahead, once the smoke clears and political actions have been promised. We’ll either have interventions that we’re willing to embrace, or we won’t. We’ll actually deliver the systemic change promised over decades of disparity, or we won’t. At the end of the day, it will be up to us to determine whether the level of inequality has finally become intolerable, or whether a knee to the neck is just something we prefer to live with….
René Mendoza, Fabiola Zeledón, Elix Meneces, Hulda and Eliseo Miranda
Up until 2010 we buyers who were looking for quality coffee, we first would come to Nicaragua. After 2010 we no longer did, first we go to Costa Rica, then Honduras … (Coffee buyer).
In the 60s and 70s tons of people came to Nicaragua from El Salvador and Honduras looking for work, now we are the ones who go to those countries, looking for work. (Flavio Cardoza, producer).
In the dry coffee mills imperfect coffee reached double digits in this 2019/20 cycle: 10%…15%; black beans, faded, chipped, full black beans, insect damaged beans…The fungus moved from “slight” to “severe” and smelled like fish. On the farms of producer families instead of doing “three passes” (three passes of picking red and almost ripe coffee during the coffee season within 2 months), they saw themselves forced to do only two, and even only one pass, because of lack of pickers (labor), while they neglected to regulate their coffee pulper which resulted in those broken and chipped beans. What makes the coffee quality and its production drop? In this brief article we list 4 basic elements on coffee farms in Madriz, Nueva Segovia and Matagalpa, and at the end we offer some suggestions.
What affects coffee production and quality
The literature is full of technical reasons. We list what we observed in this 2019/20 cycle, and what producer families commonly say, based on their own observations, as well as the staff in the dry mill.
Figure 1 shows two scarce resources and two limiting structures, which have a high impact on coffee volume and quality.
A first element is the reduction in nutrients for the coffee plants. In the 2018/19 cycle, the prices for coffee were low. In September 2018 it dropped to $98, and in December 2018 it was at $100, while the prices for agrochemicals rose, as a result of the new tax policy in the country. Not only that, but the financial institutions implemented a policy of loan restructuring without providing new loans. In other words, producer families saw their resources dry up, which is why they applied little or no agrochemical or organic inputs. This had a repercussion on coffee quality, which was seen in the current 2019/20 cycle, precisely when prices went up, reaching $123 on December 16, 2019. Consequently, producer families thinking was “I am going to receive now the same thousand córdobas as last year; this season money is tight, in spite of the fact that prices are better than in the last cycle.”
A second element refers to the scarcity of labor. Pickers are going to coffee fields in Costa Rica and Honduras. Their argument: “They pay us better there, in addition we pick more than we do here.” Isn´t it the same coffee? Yes and no. Most of the coffee of Costa Rica is sold as specialty coffee at better prices; while Honduras has passed Nicaragua in production volume. Both countries have greater productivity, even though in Honduras it is due more to increase in area. This means that the person who picks coffee on small farms in Nicaragua, picks less in a day because the farms have less production; in addition, the price paid “per lata” is low, and varies between 30 to 50 córdobas, plus food, per lata. “It doesn´t work for us,” the pickers complain. Producer families argue that they would prefer to pay all in cash (without food), but the pickers want food, and many of them pick very little, and by midday are already out of the fields and asking for their 3 meals. This situation means pickers are scarce, the consequence of this is that the coffee is not picked on time, with a corresponding loss in volume and quality.
A third element is the mentality of believing themselves to be coffee growers in mono-cropping systems. The producer families who established their farms with coffee and other crops, starting in 1990, after the “big war”, are now getting beyond 60 years of age, which is why their offspring have been taking over farms already “cut up into pieces” through inheritance. Given that in the last 15 years families have become dependent on coffee as a mono-crop, a good number of these offspring, as new family units, inherited also this culture of feeling themselves to be “coffee producers” with 2 to 4 mzs of coffee, which at the most produces 10qq export coffee per manzana, which is why they lost the culture of working “from sunup to sundown” in taking care of the farm, and no longer go out to pick coffee on other farms. Their problem is that they inherited coffee fields affected by coffee rust and anthracnose, which they have to replant now on land which is more worn out (low fertility). Consequently, that combination of feeling themselves to be “coffee producers” and at the same time not having income in the months between March and October has them “underwater” in financial and marriage crises, which is why the children are growing up without Fathers, while they neglect their farms, the regulation of their coffee pulpers, drying, diversification…
The last element is the variation in the climate. Rains were expected for December, which help the grain thicken and ripen; but it did not rain, rather the temperature increased, which is why a good part of the flowering period was lost and the coffee with little liquid did not thicken. The beans that were able to thicken did not reach their optimum level. Many beans, on being picked, pulped and washed, looked as if they had been dried for 6 days. The rains that started on January 10th were not expected, were unnecessary, their prolongation for more than 10 days damaged the roads, reduced the time for picking the coffee, and made it difficult to transport the coffee, and hindered the sun drying process.
The combination of these elements has the power of undermining plans and commitments, and above all, making the families depressed before the harvest ends.
Recovering coffee, the farm, the community
Figure 2 lists the ideas that lead us to confront the 4 elements that affect coffee volume and quality.
Some people from that generation that is now passing 60 years of age are still a good reference point. “My Dad gets up at 4am, drinks his coffee and goes out to work the farm; if in the morning he goes to town to do some task, and returns at 4pm, he still goes to the farm.” (Rebeca Espinoza, Samarkanda). If we add to that culture of dedication to work, youth dedicated to studying their realities and innovating, the families could save resources and invest them, doing their numbers, producing fertile land that would provide them product volume and quality.
If that combination responds to a long term perspective, one that avoids “cutting property into pieces” and children growing up without Fathers, and is committed to the diversification of the farm and processing what they produce, these families could mobilize their members for activities like coffee picking on their own and their neighbor´s farm, and would attract workers from other places.
If we cultivated that work and study culture under a long term perspective, in a space of renovated cooperatives, the members of both sexes and different ages from the same community could cooperate better, and improve their collective actions, like transporting, drying and milling their coffee in their own community, selling any of their products, producing their own farm inputs, protecting and saving water, or preventing domestic violence.
Recovering the coffee quality that we achieved between 1996 and 2005, which the buyer refers to at the beginning of this text, is a challenge. Getting our people to stay in the country picking coffee, which Flavio observed in hindsight, is another challenge.
Both challenges are not achieved with the hundred year old ideas of the elites: “More inputs, more production”, “better price, more quality”, “investing only in coffee to buy the food for the year”, “the more members there are, the better the cooperative”, “farming is something men do”. The consequences of this cookbook, sadly reproduced by most of the farm cooperatives today, are destroyed families and farms, degraded environment, and the advance of elites expelling the peasantry from their communities.
Addressing those two challenges is possible with families that change as people, as they build a new type of cooperative, one in which families cooperate with one another to generate new technologies, organize and analyze new information, and add value to the coffee and a dozen agricultural products.
 The authors are part of a network that facilitates the training of cooperatives governed by their members.
 Lata refers to old cooking oil cans that were used to measure picked coffee beans for paying workers. The term is still used, although the measuring is now mostly done with 5-gallon plastic buckets.
The revolution and the agrarian reform came, people knew the word and their eyes were opened, many organized into cooperatives and received land, seed and technology, and they said “we are in power.” Within years they sold the land and forgot even the word. They received it, and lost it.
A woman received a cow and in months paid for it with a calf, which was given to another family. She understood that the cow pays for itself, she felt that she paid back, and made an effort along with other families. Paying back is improving.
(Based on a conversation with Gregorio Solórzano, Municipality of Cinco Pinos, Chinandega, Nicaragua)
This parable recalls the historic rules of indigenous and peasant communities. If the action of “giving” is connected with “paying back”, like the woman with the cow and the calf, their lives improve. While “receiving” unilaterally, without “paying back” to the community, creates a false world (“we are in power”) where people are left worse off (“without land and power”). The paradox is that “paying back” is not losing, it is gaining: it makes the person “make an effort” within a collective framework and community space.
That collective framework constitutes the paradoxical difference. In the case of the woman who received a cow and paid back with a calf, an arrangement (agreement, rule) underlies which she fulfills, an arrangement that is connected to a virtuous millennial indigenous institution, “giving-receiving-paying back”. In the case of the beneficiaries of land on the part of the government, a damaging arrangement underlies it, subordinating oneself and depending on the government, something that leads them to be connected to another historical institution, this time a counterproductive institution, “easy come, easy go”; people lose and the government loses. The gaze of the woman is toward the community, while the gaze of the people in the cooperative is directed outside the community.
Giving-receiving-paying back is growing in collective spaces mediated by rules that are connected with virtuous endogenous institutions of the people themselves. Within this framework, how can distributing (“paying back”) in the cooperatives be the key for growing with equity? Perhaps diminishing is growing?
In this article we study these questions in light of the cooperatives, even though it can be generalized to associations, associative enterprises or NGOS with initiatives under the framework of the social and solidarity economy. We start conceptualizing distribution as a different idea from the neoliberal economy, where the market is the great distributer. Then we look at five ways for the distribution of surpluses: legal reserve, cooperative reinvestment, social-educational fund, direct resources to members, and retribution by way of a member´s rights. Then we work on how to carry them out. We conclude reconceptualizing equitable distribution as a cooperative concept and one from the social and solidarity economy, that goes along with the democratization of cooperatives, and connected to endogenous institutions of the peasantry.
1. Distribution rules and policies
In capitalism “the invisible hand” attracts resources and distributes them with inequality, in dependence on the financial power of the actors, their connections, the support of the State for elites (e.g the policy of low taxes for mono-cropping enterprises), and guided by the rule “even the monkey dances for money”. The mediation network captures the resources and returns them as money that buys new products (and labor), mediated by institutions that worsen that inequality: usury, future purchases (crop lien system) and indebtedness. The capitalist, be it merchant, banker or industrialist, is the absolute owner of the surplus.
Polanyi (1976), in an anthropological study, worked on the idea of reciprocity, distribution and interchange. For the topic that concerns us he says: “distribution designates the movements of ownership toward a center and then toward the exterior”, and added, “distribution depends on the presence to some extent of centrality in the grouping”” (1976:7). Santana (2014: 91), rereading Polanyi, indicates that “what is unique here is that there must be trust and loyalty to be able to group the assets in that centrality, knowing that later it is going to be returned in an equitable way.” Let us reread both authors: resources come toward a center, let us say toward a cooperative (like taxes to the State), from there is “goes outside” of the cooperative, to the members in an equitable way. For those “movements of ownership” to happen, there has to be “centrality in the grouping”, which is possible if there is “trust and loyalty”. Without trust and loyalty, there is no “movement.” When is there trust and loyalty that takes resources to the cooperatives and makes them be “paid back”? Our argument: there is trust and loyalty when the rules of the cooperative, connected to endogenous virtuous institutions, guide the cooperative from its beginnings with a societal and communitarian perspective. In other words, the cooperative, from and for the communities, is responsible for the distribution with equity.
Cooperatives currently, nevertheless, are formed and achieve a partial “movement”: they attract resources from dozens of their members, but it is difficult for them to “pay back” the surplus and pay them back in an equitable way. There is the challenge. For that reason, there are written rules. What are they?
Cooperatives include in their statutes, following the laws of each country, the distribution of profits. Cooperatives include a percentage (%) for legal reserve, % for the social or educational fund, % for distribution among the members according to their contributions or economic transactions in the cooperative – note that improvement in the price of the raw materials is not mentioned as “distribution of surplus”, because it is not, the surplus is calculated after the annual financial year. This is consistent with the principles of historic cooperativism: among the Rochdale principles of 1844 is the “payback of surplus”, then in 1966 the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) reformed those principles and replaced it with “the surplus belong to the members”, and finally in another reform in 1995 the ICA said “the economic participation of the members”; in all of them the spirit of the distribution of surplus is maintained. These rules can be connected to the virtuous institutions of agrarian societies, giving-receiving-paying back, the gift that Mauss (1979) described.
Consistent with this cooperative and communitarian principle, the International Fair Trade Movement (FLO), begun in the 1980s and 1990s, in their policy of offering better prices to products coming from families that are organized, included a “fair trade premium”, which in the case of coffee, for example, is US$0.20/lb., a fund so that the members of a cooperative might decide to use it in educational, health projects, and farm improvements or investment in processing installations. Other buyers tend to include also a “cooperative premium”, a fund that the members might decide to use for collective investments that would benefit everyone.
In addition to rules, cooperatives have mechanisms for complying with them. They have their oversight board, the assembly, the education committee, there is also the administration with accounting that issues financial reports. In some countries the State has a role of comptroller of the cooperatives. The international fair trade organizations include their FLO certifier that audits the use of the Fair Trade premium and the democratic processes of the cooperative; social banks require financial statements and balance statements; aid agencies ask for audited reports and evaluate the projects that they finance, and in some exceptional cases withdraw their support when the cooperative fails to fulfill their rules for equitable distribution; likewise some companies that buy coffee or cacao.
Having gotten to this point, what do we observe? In spite of having rules and mechanisms for distribution, it is rare the cooperative whose members participate in the decisions on the use of the social fund, reinvestment fund, or on the cooperative premium; it is rare the cooperative that is transparent with its members on the use of these funds; and it is rate the international aid agency or buyer who ensures this transparency, and that the surplus be distributed. In other words, the rules of the cooperative and the organizations are systematically not met; consequently, there is no confidence nor loyalty, which is why the “movement” is in only one direction: the resources from the members go to the cooperative and then to the companies (fair trade, direct trade, or independents), who do not “pay back” the surplus to the members. The rules of the cooperative and the organizations do not end up connecting to the virtuous endogenous rules.
2. What opposes the distribution of the surplus
Even having rules and mechanisms, why do cooperatives not distribute their surplus? It seems a matter of adding and subtracting, of knowing rules, signing and complying with agreements; it is not a technocratic matter, that a “scholarly” person might resolve; it implies adding and subtracting, showing the strength of the old anti-cooperative model, and of perceiving their own attitudes. Here we start with three interconnected responses, of the several that exist. See Figure 1.
First, the “business foot” of the cooperative, and organizations-international enterprises coincide in the fact that the business (sale-purchase of the product, disbursement-payment of the loan and execution of the project) works, not so much that the cooperative works.
They are content with the protocol, written and legal proof about the functioning of the cooperatives, proof that the elites of the cooperative learn to quickly fabricate: minutes that prove that the organs meet, audits with authorized signatures, financial and narrative reports including registry of data, and even members “trained” to repeat what the organizations want to hear, when some organizations visit. This practice, in turn, is read by the members as something that confirms their ideas that the cooperative does not change at all their way of working and selling their products: “If the organizations says that it is fine, surely it is fine, as we have always worked.” This is the formal structure that covers over the fact that the cooperative does not distribute its surpluses in accordance with its own rules, and the millennial aspiration of indigenous and peasant families.
“The peasant is interested in selling his product, he is not interested in whether there are surpluses”. This phrase presidents and managers of cooperatives repeat, along with buyers and international aid agencies, as well as technicians and boards of NGOs. This phrase underlies century old institutional practices. What are they? It is the institutionalized idea in the hacienda owner or the capitalist, that they have the exclusive rights to surpluses, that the peasantry were born to sell their labor and/or their raw materials. It is the same idea that the peasantry reproduces: “My country ends with my fence of piñuelas”, says the peasant family; “they pay my wage, that is all I ask”, says the working person (field-hand or peon); they never ask themselves about the surplus that their work or their product generates, they take it as given that it is not theirs. That institutionality absorbed the cooperatives and made them forget about the reason for their origins and their rules for distribution, and with that buried even more that indigenous-peasant right to the value that their work creates. So it is that the members demand that they increase the price of their sun-dried coffee, cacao pulp or their sugar cane; in some cases they demand an “adjustment”; “if we got credit as a cooperative so that you pay us a certain price for coffee, and if you paid us as the market price a little less than that set price, then pay us the adjustment”; no one demands their surplus; the presidents and managers behave like the hacienda owner or capitalist. Figure 2 illustrates this institutionality: the worker reaches the wall of their days wage, the peasant their fence of piñuelas, the “business foot” of the cooperative goes as far as the “wall” of the port, and the buyers-roasters-distributors to the sale or even the cafeteria. Each one, and in each wall, seem to follow the rule of “I don´t touch you, and you don´t touch me.”
Second, the organs of the cooperatives are left bound up, because their rules are replaced by others that respond to what Polanyi (2001) called the “market society”, and respond to colonial and patriarchal structures. One of those rules is: “To distribute, first you have to grow.” This rule comes from neoliberalism, that “economic growth is development”, from trickle-down economics: capturing the wealth of the members so that the cooperative might invest and accumulate in the short term, and benefit the members in the long term. This “development” and that “long term” with “benefits”, nevertheless, tends not to arrive; in other words, “they do not pay back”. Consistent with neoliberalism, the cooperatives assume that “distributing decapitalizes the organization” and they embark on the path of the “big headed dwarf”, whose head is large and is made of steel (concentration of physical investments and resources), and whose feet are clay (impoverished members who do not participate in the decisions of their organizations nor rotate offices). In this logic the managerial staff or the president tend to end up feeling themselves to be the true owners of the resources of the cooperative, that it is “their effort”, while the board members tend to abandon the volunteer nature that their offices imply, and seek any gap to take advantage individually, be it through travel allowances, loans on top of loans, or benefitting themselves from the donations that the cooperatives eventually might receive. Also consistent with neoliberalism, the fair trade and direct trade bodies reduce their relations with the cooperatives to just the financial aspect, and treat the cooperatives as just “businesses”.
Distribution, expressed in colonial rules, says to the members: “We always need a patron.” The field-hand depends on the patron, who “provides” for him (future purchase of his labor), like the peasant depends on the trader who “provides” for him (future purchase of his product). For them, this “providing for” is the best “distribution”; they know no other. This is what penetrates into the cooperative where the members confirm naturally that they never had rights to the surplus.
Distribution is also expressed in the heart of the family. There, the patriarchal rule says, “The father decides to leave the inheritance to the eldest son, and that will be carried out when he dies.” That will is conceived as something sacred. The family is an institution that attracts resources because of the family labor of its members, and in the end “pays back” (inherits) in an unequal way, leaving tacit that that older son is going to distribute the inheritance among his brothers and sisters, and what happens? Not always, but generally, that older son takes over the inheritance, or sells it and squanders it. That family institution also penetrates into the cooperative, where many times the person who occupies the presidency or management is seen like that “eldest son”, while the rest of the members are submitted to his will, in spite of the fact that they are the “parents” (owners of the cooperative) of that “eldest son.”
The cooperative, guided under this capitalist, colonial and patriarchal spell, tends to start with enthusiasm and when it capitalizes, the board members or the administrative staff turn into elites, exclude those who question them, and privatize the cooperatives. Thus, W. Berrios, from the CAFOD aid agency, observes, “In my years of work in Central America I have seen that it is in the maturation curve that the cooperatives go broke.” Infrequently they restructure the cooperative into a private enterprise, but many times they make it function as a private enterprise sheltered under the legal status of a cooperative, or under the discursive mantle of the social and solidarity economy. In both cases the members are treated as simple sellers of raw materials.
Finally, there is dovetailing between the mentality of international organizations (buyers, banking institutions, certifiers and aid agencies) and that of the members. The international organizations turn a blind eye to the lack of compliance with the rule of distribution, because, following Streeck (2019), “the policy of distribution only function in nations; in world society there are donations,” global governance “is not democratic”, because “above the nation-state there is only the “international free market”, which consists in large enterprises that are free to do whatever they want.” That mentality leads them to have a mentality of turning a blind eye to distribution, which coincides with the mentality of the members, who have never had access to surpluses, they always saw them as something that belonged to the patron or intermediary, from there it is that the members also turn a blind eye to their right that they be “paid back” (distribute) the surplus. This is what Figure 2 expresses with the walls, “I don´t touch you and you don´t touch me.”
3. Distribution of the surplus (“paying back”)
How can cooperatives unbind this adverse triangle and distribute the surplus? By distribution people tend to fall into two beliefs: that it is “distributing financial surpluses” and that it is “distributing all the surplus to the members.” From here comes the idea that “distributing is decapitalizing.” In this section we break down what equitable distribution of surplus is, expanding the content of the distribution already described in the rules of cooperatives.
Let us start with the attached graph. This illustrates the components of this “paying back” that include collective forms (legal reserve, reinvestment fund and social fund), and the individual forms that the members receive directly (distribution to members and payments when they leave the cooperative). The percentages in the graph are arbitrary estimates, they vary depending on the laws in each country, and the decisions of the cooperatives agreed upon in their statutes.
Note that this graph breaks with the belief that “distributing decapitalizes”: the reinvestment fund refers to the fact that their own fund or their own “capital” grows in accordance with the percentage approved in the cooperative. The assumption in the graph is that exercising distribution in the five ways, combination of collective-community and individual distribution, builds trust and loyalty, which makes the members turn in their products to their organizations in larger amounts and with better quality; from here distribution instead allows the economic transactions of the cooperative to increase, and therefore the entirety of their funds grow; in other words, ”decreasing” (paying back or distributing) is “growing” in resources. The graph also shows the underlying reason for cooperativism, that it is not to accumulate just to accumulate capital, the cooperative is a means, and the members and their communities are the end (final objective). We break down these funds in what follows, including some important remarks.
3.1 Components of collective distribution
Let us describe those funds that are in the statutes, let us clarify and add what they can have which is unique. “Legal reserves” is to cover losses that eventually the cooperative might have during the year in the economic fiscal year; it is a financial cushion that prevents the cooperatives from going broke. In the case that there are no losses, that reserve could swell the investment fund, or, for example, cover legal paperwork expenses, the opening or updating of bank accounts, the legal defense of the cooperative in the face of lawsuits from third parties, the legal defense of the members in cases that affect the cooperative, or to have legal counsel in the face of certain situations or issues.
“Cooperative fund” or “reinvestment fund”, belongs to the cooperative. In addition, some buyers tend to increase the price of the product that they buy with a “cooperative premium” or with an “infrastructure fund”, resources that are added to the funds of the cooperative. These funds are to buy equipment that the cooperative might need, repair or enlarge the infrastructure (building, harvest collection center) of the cooperative, and/or to increase the funds of the cooperative itself, which would increase the loan portfolio, or would pre-finance the payment that the members make on receiving products, while they process and sell them – avoiding the need to seek outside credit.
“Social or educational fund”. It is a fund from the rules of the cooperative itself, and is a fund that increases if the cooperative sells its product through fair trade organizations or buyers that condition a certain amount for a social fund. In general, cooperatives use it to finance some demand of the community school, provide backpacks to the children, provide support to the local sports team, or for trainings that their education committee might organize. Even though these initiatives are praiseworthy, physical investment in the school is the obligation of the State for which society pays taxes. The sports teams are going to function with or without the support of the cooperative, the children will go to school with an old or new backpack. Some innovative cooperatives use that fund under the following criteria: invest in something that generates value for the community, that is not the role of another institution, and doing so as a long-term investment. An example of this is the fact that two or three cooperatives from the same community might invest in libraries for children under 7 years of age, story books that their families might borrow to read to them before going to sleep, promoting reading in the family itself, and that the cooperative might organize reading circles with the support of people who promote reading; the long-term impact of this initiative in the creativity and cooperative spirit of the community can be significant.
3.2 Components of individual distributions
Following graph 1, 50% of the surplus of the cooperative is distributed to its members directly. The criteria for that varies from cooperative to cooperative, and depends on the services that they offer. In some cases, it is in accordance with the contributions of each member. In other cases, it is in accordance with the volume of product transacted with the cooperatives that collect the harvest and sell the product of its members. In other cases, it is in accordance with the quantity of products bought in their cooperative. And in other cases, it depends on the amount saved in their cooperative. There are cooperatives with similar services, and that “pay back” under different criteria; for example, the peasant store Los Encinos in Honduras “pays back” 100% of the amount of the agreed upon contribution, while the Esperanza of the Campesinos Cooperative with several supermarkets, “pays back” based on the amount that each member buys from those supermarkets.
These criteria promote the capacity of each member, and increase their trust in the collectivity that the cooperative is. There are members with more financial capacity and do not necessarily have larger contributions in the cooperative; it depends on the trust that the members have in their cooperative, and on the opportunity cost that each member thinks their resources have. In this sense, the biblical parable of the talents (Mt 25: 14-30) illustrates part of what the cooperative looks to incentivize with direct distribution; in that parable three people receive talents, one 5, another 2 and another 1, “in accordance with their capacity”. After a time, the person who received 5 and the one who received 2 double theirs, and the one who received 1 maintained it. In light of this, the person who gave them the talents rewarded the first two, and took away the only talent from the third, “because he who has, will be given more, and they will have an abundance, but he who does not have, even what they have will be taken away from them.”
From the religious context, this indicates that God gives people talents in order to develop them, which reveals an individual vision, where each person is responsible for duplicating their talents. From the cooperative context, one is “paid back” in proportion to the trust and loyalty of that member, demonstrated by contributions, savings, delivery of product or amount purchased; that “payback” is not taken away from them in the cooperative, in contrast with what happens in the parable of the talents, where each individual responds individually with the talents received; instead, there is cooperation among the members mediated by commonly agreed upon rules, compliance mechanisms and there is accompaniment so that each member might increase their capacities; there is individual responsibility within the framework of collective responsibility.
3.3 Compensating by rights those who resign from the cooperative
Following cooperative statutes, the member who resigns from the cooperative has the right to the return of their extraordinary contributions, and the “reimbursement of social assets” (shareable surplus) within a term generally of 90 days. This “departure” arrangement should be thought of and agreed upon from the beginning when the cooperative is founded, even though it is clear that in the beginning, being immersed in making the cooperative survive, no one thinks about this; it should be done, because it is thinking about the future, and because each member should be clear about their rights from the very beginning.
In our societies the member who resigns from the cooperative tends to leave without recovering, many times, not even their contributions; likewise, those who die, their relatives do not tend to receive any benefit that by rights the family members are due. For some members, having joined a cooperative is even a financial loss. In the case that there are voices that are raised about this, some board members pull out the ghost that “distributing is decapitalizing”.
If the cooperative does not pay the member who resigns, or the relatives of those who die, in accordance with their rules and the rights of each member, the cooperative signals distrust in its own future, and sends an erroneous message that they are not members, that the “cooperative does not belong to its members”, which undermines any sense of ownership of those who stay in the cooperative, and those in the community who observe it. If in contrast, the members fulfill the rights that each members has on leaving the cooperative, that they be paid the part that corresponds to them that the cooperative has at that moment, probably that person will leave with a good amount of resources, and happy for having been a member of a coop. In the short term, this is a hard moment for the cooperative, because it is going to disburse in cash resources what it surely needs; at the same time, each member will see themselves in the person who resigns: in the same way that they treat the person who leaves, they will treat me. If the member joined the cooperative with little, and leaves with a good amount of resources, those who remain will ask themselves: if after the cooperative fails, will we be the most unlucky ones? The doubts will keep them up at night. But in the long term, those who are left are less, which means that they will receive more from the future resources that the cooperative accumulates; more than that, each member, seeing that the one who left took what corresponded to him, will confirm that in truth he is a member of the cooperative, that the cooperative really does belong to him.
Let us talk about numbers to estimate the amount that could be due to a person who resigns. What is the arrangement with the member who leaves? A member who leaves or dies, that person or their relatives have the right to part of the assets or resources that the cooperative has generated. Let us help ourselves with an example. If through the use of the “cooperative fund” or the “reinvestment fund”, extraordinary contributions of $100 per member, and donations that the cooperative received, a cooperative has assets valued at $200,000; if that cooperative had 20 members at its founding 10 years ago; then if one of them resigns from the cooperative, they are due $10,000 (200,000/20 = 10,000). This amount could be paid over a term that the statutes indicate, or, if the cooperative does not have the $10,000 available, they can arrive at friendly arrangements for the time frame for the payment.
The biggest impact of this fact, nevertheless, is not in the financial “payback”, but in the fact that the 19 remaining members, and the rest of the community, confirm that effectively the cooperative does belong to its members. This is the seed of incomparable ownership. This implies greater trust, loyalty and the deployment of individual and collective capacities.
Concluding this section, distribution in the cooperative generates equity, and incentivizes the development of each member. An estimate of 40% of the surplus protect the cooperative from losses, increases their investments or their own capital fund, and contributes to the community with unique investment in education. With an estimated 50% of the surplus, the cooperative incentivizes the development of the capacities of each member, their trust and mutual loyalty. And with an estimated 10% of the surplus, the cooperative ensures the recognition of members who leave the cooperative, far from seeing it as a “financial loss”, they recognize the rights of the cooperative member and with that plant the seed of ownership. This collective and individual outcome is the way in which the cooperative distributes its surplus with equity, which is connected to the virtuous peasant institutions of giving-receiving-paying back, expressed in shared labor, sharecropping, and shared harvesting, among other institutions.
Now that distribution with equity appears obvious, along with its importance. How can it be carried out?
4. How to implement equitable distribution
Inequitable pay back… breaks down the organization
The Spanish, Mexicans and US tried to dominate the Apaches; they failed. The Apaches had the nant’an as their leaders, they were decentralized, operated in circles. Their adversaries, as they did with the Aztecs and the Incas, did away with the
nant’an, but the Apaches did not fall apart, immediately another nant’an would emerge. But one day the North Americans donated cattle to the nant’an; since cattle were scarce, the nant’an had the power to distribute them, so everyone wanted to be nant’an, the egalitarian power structure became hierarchical. The Apaches were defeated.
(Based in Brafman, O. and Beckstrom, R.A., 2007, The spider and the starfish. Barcelona: Empresa Activa).
This historical passage shows us that distribution is more than distribution of surplus. It is important to have holistic egalitarian structures that include equitable rules and mechanisms for carrying them out. Before continuing, we cannot avoid comparing this event of the Apaches with the action of the government in the parable at the beginning of this article; the government in the parable, and the North Americans in this other one, seek to subordinate the cooperative or the Apaches, the first donates land to them, and the second donates cattle, in both cases without “payback”, thus they undermine them before their members, leave them not looking toward their community, which causes the cooperative and the Apaches to fall apart. Militarily the Apaches were indomitable, but a simple donation eroded their entire organization, like termites on wood. How did this happen?
The Apaches lacked equitable rules for the distribution of assets donated to their leaders. The North Americans took advantage of that gap, and donated the asset that was the scarcest, cattle, directly to the nant’an and not to the Apache tribe that surely had their own organization. This practice internally stirred up the Apaches, who fought over being nant’an, for having that connection to the North Americans and accessing the cattle; surely, like the managers or presidents in conventional cooperatives, the nant’an said to their tribe that the “cattle had cost them”, that they should be content with what “trickled down”, that they were their “connections”, and that without them they would all die of hunger -or in other words, the evil of the “big headed dwarf” began to corrode the minds of the nant’an and sow distrust in the rest of the tribe. This process led them to become hierarchical structures, and consequently to collective failure; it is what has also happened to most of the conventional cooperatives.
Cooperatives, in contrast to the Apaches, have rules and mechanisms for equitably distributing the surplus (including donations), but they lack democratic processes in their functioning, which is why they do not comply with their rules for equitable distribution. In many cases the cooperatives were started by the State with donations in land or other assets, undermining them from their own beginnings. International organizations (buyers, financiers and donors) have continued on this same path. Like the North Americans with the Apaches, they only connect with the nant’an of the cooperatives (managers or presidents), and they are not interested in knowing the consequences that their actions provoke. How can cooperatives fulfill their rules and make distribution their most valuable attribute for growing equitably?
This point about the Apaches leads us to understand that a cooperative that distributes its surplus with equity is that which, in addition to having rules for it, is democratic and transparent: See Figure 3.
If the organs, in democratic exercise, ensure the fulfillment of the agreements about equitable distribution, that cooperative will embark at a good port. In the case of the Apaches, their organs operated around resisting militarily, including their food, but they lacked the rules for donations and relationships with external actors. We can imagine that the Apaches, in decentralized groups, hunted animals for food; for which they had their rules and they applied them, but not so that some nant’an individually might receive 10 head of cattle as a gift behind the backs of the tribe, even precisely for their tribe.
This combination (rules-democracy) requires, nevertheless, a third foot: transparency. It is depressing to find members who after contributing for 5, 10 or 15 years do not know how to add up their contributions, and that do not recognize their rights over the surplus. It is not just having democratic economic management coherent with the rules themselves and the rotation of members in the different offices and decision making in the corresponding organs, but informational transparency with the members and with the allies. The idea of transparency or accountability in the cooperative is not being subject to trial, measured and humiliated by “the magic of the numbers”. It is sharing information that in turn forms and commits the members. A member can understand that their surplus might be $30 per qq of coffee that they have delivered to the cooperative, if he is informed about how that surplus was produced; otherwise that person will see that surplus as “an award” or a “favor” of the patron, as his historical rules make him see it. Distributing surplus implies distributing responsibilities (democracy) and information; the way “the legal reserve”, “investment fund” and “social fund”; the expenses and income… were produced and used. This information forms people and commits them: the member, based on transparent information, will want to participate in the definition of the goals for the year for their cooperative, and will want to be part of the implementation of those goals, because he recognize that his individual surplus will increase, that the benefits to his community will improve, that if the cooperative increases its reinvestment, any member who leaves will be able to go with more resources. In addition, if the first tier cooperative is a member of a second tier cooperative, the member also needs to be informed about the second tier cooperative, know how surplus is generated in that organization, and how much is due his cooperative, and how much of that amount is due each member. That explanation can happen in an assembly, in visits to each member family, on whiteboards or through brochures, and on the day of the distribution of surplus, combine festivities and information.
Correspondingly, transparency implies being accountable; for example, it is commendable that the credit record include columns for the amount of credit, amount past due and contributions; it is also commendable that the record include the amount that the member is leaving for “legal reserves”, “social fund” and for the “reinvestment fund”; the first format for the record contains control information for the member, and the second format has the accounting of the cooperative to its members. Being accountable in the assembly about their resources expresses the rights of each member, and it is an obligation of the cooperative that each member know that. From here, if the members are informed about each step of their cooperative, they will be committed to their cooperative, if their cooperative faces difficulties, they will sweat the fear of failing and will row the canoe together even in the midst of the biggest waves.
Equitable distribution is possible within a framework of democracy and transparency. There, being a cooperative member is thinking beyond salary, beyond raw materials and beyond exported product; it is thinking about the entirety of the cooperative, and the entirety of the chain of actors where value is created. In other words, it is breaking down the walls of Figure 2 and understanding that what creates value is the human work of the working person, producer, processer, importer, roaster and seller of the coffee in the stores and coffee shops. It is “I touch you and you touch me”, entering into different worlds. This implies including the international organizations and companies, which goes in the direction of global triangulation that we worked on in several other articles, about an alliance of actors that work for equitable distribution.
You read a book from beginning to end. You lead a business just the opposite way. You start with the end, then you do what you have to in order to achieve it.
Harold Geneen, 1984, Managing. New York: Double-day
At the beginning of the article we asked ourselves how cooperatives can distribute (“pay back”) in order to grow with equity. Equitable distribution in a renovated cooperative is very different from the distribution of the market in the neoliberal economy, which is one unilateral way, from society to businesses and institutions, from which there is no “pay back” beyond what “trickles down”.
In the renovated cooperative, and in alliance with global actors, equitable distribution is illustrated in Figure 4.
It is the distribution of surplus combining the collective (social fund, reinvestment fund, and legal reserves) and the individual (direct distribution to the member for their differentiating actions and payment of what by right is due the member who leaves); it is financial and social distribution. Then, equitable distribution implies that the organization be democratic (rotation of officers, collegial decisions and compliance with the rules). Then equitable distribution implies distributing information under the maxim that the more informed the members are, the better their decisions will be.
This notion of equitable financial, social and political distribution (democratic and transparent), mobilize energies and hearts when it is connected to the endogenous institutions of the members, in our case, the peasantry. Consequently, each member feels part of the cooperative, seeks to know its goals, have an impact on them and commit themselves to fulfilling them.
Finally, when the members and their global allies follow equitable distribution connected to endogenous institutions, that is when they see the entirety of the cooperative and the entirety of the value-added chain with equity. Far away are left the “walls” that separated the worlds. Paraphrasing Harold Geneen, we organize a cooperative from its end, from its equitable distribution to the benefit of the members and their local and global communities. The more that is distributed, the more that it grows.
 René has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation, member of the COSERPROSS cooperative, and associate researcher of the IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium). firstname.lastname@example.org
 Mauss (1979: 204-211), based on a type of distribution known as potlach, practiced in Eskimo societies in the Northwest of the US, finds the triple obligation of the gift culture: giving, receiving and paying back. “You do not have the rights to reject a gift, a potlack, because acting in this way makes clear that you are afraid to have to pay back and be left diminished, it is losing the “importance” of your name, it is declaring oneself beaten in advance, or in some cases proclaiming oneself victor or invincible” (p. 208). Marcel Mauss, 1979, Ensayo sobre los Dones. Motivo y forma de cambio en las sociedades primitivas, en: Sociología y Antropología, Madrid. Note that this identified institution is pretty similar to institutions of indigenous communities in Latin America.
 Polanyi, K., 1976, El sistema económico como proceso institucionalizado, en: Antropología y Economía (ed. Godelier, M.), Barcelona pp. 155-178
 Santana, M.E., 2014, “Reciprocidad y Redistribución en una Economía Solidaria” in: Ars & Humanitas 8/1. Slovenia.
 Surpluses result from deducting costs and expenses of the cooperative, amortization (value for deterioration of fixed assets). In associative organizations the term “profits” is used more, which is pretty similar to “surpluses”. The term “earnings” is different, there could be earnings through a discount if a product is sold above its acquisition price.
 W. Berrios, from the CAFOD aid agency, refers to the fact that some aid agencies linked to churches in Europe tend to withdraw their support for organizations that in theory assume the social and solidarity economy approach, but in practice do not follow it, and that instead become part of conventional mediation.
 Several buyer companies left Fair Trade on realizing that their premium payments were not getting to the member families, so they formed another movement called direct trade, to get around “cooperative mediation”. There are also European enterprises and cooperatives that buy coffee or cacao in Central America and want the cooperative that they work with to distribute their surpluses; correspondingly, some of them avoid the second-tier cooperatives and prefer buying directly from the first-tier cooperatives.
 Polanyi, K., 2001, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Second Edition. Google Books. (First publication in English in 1957).
 See: Jack Stack, 2002, A Stake in the Outcome, New York: Doubleday. Stack, along with other workers, founded an innovative enterprise in the United States. In this book he recounts how they struggled with this issue from the beginning of their company. If they did it as a company, how much more should a cooperative!