Category Archives: Diversification

Open Letter to International Aid Organizations re COVID-19

Managua, April 12, 2020

Good morning, friends from international aid agencies,

Out of the friendship that I have with a good number of you, I write you this letter from a Central America immersed in an unfavorable context imposed by COVID-19, like most of the countries in the world.

Surely you are rethinking your 2020 agenda and your post CIVID-19 agenda, due to the fact that your budgets will tend to drop, because the economy is deteriorating and governments are adjusting their budgets to the issue of health, and because COVID-19 is leaving us a new institutional context, strengthened States, markets-elites weakened and a new perspective on climate change, while our societies are slowly awakening.

COVID-19 is revealing the “emperor has no clothes” (story written by Hans Christian Andersen, in 1837): “disaster capitalism” for decades privatized public goods like the health care system, has dispossessed indigenous peoples and peasant families of their lands, and has appropriated natural common goods (wood, minerals, water, oil…); a plunder possible thanks to the hierarchical, authoritarian and patriarchal structures of our own societies. This is the fertile soil for COVID-19 to multiply like sunflowers or soy beans on long plantations. COVID-10 is affecting the entire world, but affects more vulnerable people, the elderly, the Afro-american and Hispanic populations in the United States, because they are an impoverished and low paid population. It is a virus that is transmitted not just by coughing, but through normal breathing. Even without touching them, the virus is squeezing the working class, and diminishing the three meals of families in the informal economy. Even though the mortality affects more men, women who deal daily with family meals and human health suffer the daily stress more than any other social group, and are those most affected by gender violence. Impoverished people from the rural area who distrust the State from centuries ago, will prefer to die in their homes than go to the health centers. The cry of the earth and the cry of impoverished people is heard more severely in the universe.

It is important to connect the short-term urgencies with the long term needs. In the short term, it is important that they be based on facts like the effects of the virus that I just mentioned, and prevent big capital from imposing their economic logic on human life – that people go back to work sacrificing human lives. In the long term we must recognize that COVID-19 has to do with the impact of capitalism that has eroded our society and our common home, planet earth – which commonly is repeated as climate change. This is the fertile soil for COVID-19 and other diseases that scientists predict will come. It is our duty to keep big capital from wanting to ignore the current reality and return us to the “normality” prior to COVID-19. We need to change not for a while, but forever.

There is a saying that “behind every adversity is an opportunity”. The world is awakening, there is the opportunity. Humanity is realizing that the first floor that sustains the edifice of humanity are the indigenous and peasant families who produce food and protect nature, above all when these families are organized into different associative forms in their own communities, led by principles of social and environmental justice. It is not nefarious agro-business, the mono-cropping system, industrial animal raising or extractivism led by market justice the path for preventing diseases and dealing with climate change. This is the opportune moment to work with these families who are organizing, particularly because of their ecological knowledge and traditional practices.

International aid organizations should think about quick ways to capture alternative resources, and/or adjust their resources to the opportunities that would lead us to build societies with social and environmental justice. Thinking about more effective ways to work with grassroots organizations (associations, cooperatives, social enterprises, community organizations, social movements) that move about in the communities themselves, not so much with NGOs (or second tier organizations), that are confined – for safety – to their homes and cities. We should think about mechanisms that would ensure work at the grassroots level in order to expand sustainable production. Because the worst is not COVID-19, what is worse are the conditions that incubated COVID-19, and what is coming after it. And it is this alliance among community organizations and some international aid organizations more committed to social and environmental justice that can change for the good these post COVID-19 tendencies.



René Mendoza Vidaurre, PhD

Associate Researcher of IOB-University of Antwerp

Collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (publications at:

President Coserpross Cooperative RL



Riding astride coffee yield and quality in Nicaragua

Riding astride coffee yield and quality in Nicaragua

René Mendoza, Javier López, Ivania Rivera and Warren Armstrong[1]

Good coffee

“Do you know why I invited you to this coffee shop?, a European buyer, who is also a grade Q coffee-cupper, asked me. “Because they told me that they serve quality coffee here”, he responded to his own question. With that the waiter came up, and he asked for an expresso – coffee with more flavor and texture. When we were served, he took the first sip and made a face, “this is garbage.” Why? I asked. “There is no coffee shop in this country with good coffee, and we are in a coffee growing country!” His words shook the floor under me, and I came back at him, “you buy coffee throughout Latin America, where have you tasted good coffee?” Taking another sip of coffee, he said, “In Colombia, in Bogotá, even in the poorest coffee shop you find good coffee.” “Well… we are a coffee growing country, but the culture of coffee shops is new,” I said to him, “like looking for a needle in a haystack.” Looking at me with a certain amount of compassion, he said, “That explains it, but it does not justify it.”

(Based on a conversation between René Mendoza and a coffee buyer in 2019)

Coffee quality is expressed through its aroma, fragrance and flavor, the fact that its beans are healthy and clean, that they are dried well, grew on good soil, and in the company of other crops…Behind these attributes and actions are dozens of human hands in several phases and moments. That quality is relatively stable over time, as the French proverb says, “Price is forgotten, quality remains.” Prices can be like milk when it is boiling, they go up and down, while quality is more stable. What is happening with coffee quality in Nicaragua? The cupper-buyer in the story gives us a troubling indication: it could be that we do not have a good taste for coffee, and even so produce good export beans. Maybe.

Responding to the question, in this article we describe the situation of coffee yield and quality, we explain reasons why, we propose a path for improvement, and in the end provide conclusions that summarize the findings and leave the reader with the approach that should guide us. Even though the story about “good coffee” refers to national markets, and specifically to that of coffee shops, in this article we work more on coffee exports, whose quality is also connected to the quality of the coffee offered in the coffee shops of the country. We do this in good measure from the experience of Aldea Global, an association that sells more than 150,000 qq of coffee a year, and from the space of the dry mill where we want to look at the coffee chain, including its production and commercialization.

1.    Coffee Yield and Quality

The prices of goods and products in markets frequently vary, as do interest rates on money; in contrast, the productivity and quality of an agricultural or non-agricultural product are less unstable, change more slowly. In the last 40 years the productivity of several crops has been maintained with minimal variation: for example, coffee, the crop that this article addresses, varied from 9.23 to 12 qq export coffee per manzana[2] over a 50-year period!

Prices for coffee vary every day in New York (international point of reference) and in local markets; while the demand for quality coffee is increasing in international markets. In the 1990s there were few brands, among which fair-trade brand stood out. In contrast, in the current millennium there are dozens of brands  (rainforest, bird friendly, utz, 4C, Nespresso AAA, café practices, etc) and denominations of origin or geographic indication (Juan Valdez, Colombia; Marcala, Honduras; Blue Mountain, Jamaica; Volcán de Oro, Guatemala; Tarrazú, Costa Ríca) which illustrates the growing world demand for a quality product. Nevertheless, precisely when the demand for quality coffee is increasing, the yield and score that measures the quality of coffee in Nicaragua is dropping: see Graphs 1 and 2[3]. The yield we refer to is the quantity of pounds of parchment coffee (with 50 % of humidity) that are needed to get 100 lbs of export quality coffee (with between 10-12 % of humidity) – subtracting  a number of pounds of imperfect coffee (broken, black, severe insect damaged, withered beans). The quality score, for its part, measures fragrancy, aroma, taste, acidity, body, uniformity and sweetness of the coffee. This is expressed by cupping points: from 70-80 is “common or commercial coffee”, 80-83 are “specialty coffees”, 84-89 “regional exemplary plus +”, 90-95 is “Exemplary coffees” and 95 and above are “unique coffees”[4].

Graph 1 shows us that to get 100 lbs of export coffee in the middle of the 1990s 215 lbs of parchment coffee was needed, then 3 more pounds, and since 2010 it shot up requiring 232 lbs by 2020. In that same period the rate of imperfect coffee has increased from less than 5lbs/qq in the 1990s (and export quality coffee of 96-98%) to more than 10 lbs/qq in 2020 (and export quality coffee of 85-90%). The same thing is happening with coffee producer families, in the 1990s with 18 to 19 buckets of raw cherry coffee they were able to get a load of coffee (200 lbs of parchment coffee), and in 2020 that load required more than 22 buckets of raw cherry coffee, “My coffee weighs less and less” observe the small producers.

Graph 2 shows us that coffee quality, after jumping between 1990-2000 from 80 to 84 (range of “regional exemplary plus+”), thanks to the differentiating actions of cooperatives within the fair trade framework (Mendoza et al, 2012; Mendoza, 2012[5]), has been systematically dropping, finding ourselves now in “specialty coffees” with scores of 82, 81 and 80. Organizations that are looking for quality coffee are going find it with difficulty: a score of 84 you will find in no more than 15% of total coffee, the rest is “commercial coffee” with scores below 82.


Table 1. Evolution of coffee production, Central American countries (in 1,000 sacks of 60 kg)
1990/91 1999/00 2009/10 2018/19
Honduras 1568 2985 3603 7328
Nicaragua 461 1554 1871 2510
Guatemala 3271 5120 3835 4007
Costa Rica 2562 2485 1477 1427
El Salvador 2465 2598 1075 761
Panama 215 166 138 130

So while markets are increasing their demand for quality coffee, because the societies´ tastes are improving and differentiating, and countries like Colombia; and Costa Rica are out ahead responding to these international and national demands, and Honduras is taking huge steps in production volume, quality, organization and branding[6], Nicaragua is being overlooking and is losing terrain (See Table 1 that compares the production volume among Central American countries from 1990/1 to 2018/9: Costa Rica, El Salvador and Panama are going down; Guatemala is maintaining their levels; Nicaragua is growing and Honduras is unstoppable). Even though we are paying attention to volume, let us focus on our question: What is causing this systematic drop in coffee yield and quality in Nicaragua?

2.    Elements that are affecting this quality and yield

These healthy or broken beans, with good favor or undrinkable, are determined by human actions in the space of farms, wet mills (pulper, washing and drying) and dry mills (drying, hulling reprocessing and selection). After looking at Graphs 1 and 2, what are their causes? The three responses commonly heard are: there is a scarcity of labor, and therefore the coffee ferments on the plant itself; that producer organizations increasingly are buying poor quality coffee from intermediaries and non-members, which is why their own members become disillusioned with their organizations, and have quit producing quality coffee; and that the State, in contrast to Colombia, Costa Rica and Honduras, is not investing in coffee growing, nor in positioning the country internationally.

These three responses have some basis. In this section we will focus on two elements of the context, climate change and lack of liquidity/resources, and within this framework, coffee growing culture and the dry milling process.

2.1  Climate variability

Climate variation, combined with farm neglect, affect coffee quality and yields. We provide three elements that illustrate this fact. The first, in 2012 this combination of factors contributed to the fact that coffee rust and anthracnose wiped out a good part of the coffee (Mendoza, 2013[7]; Brenes et al, 2016), particularly the varieties of caturra, maragogipe and bourbon –varieties of the arabica species. Caturra constituted more than 60% of the coffee in the country, considered to be a high- quality variety[8]. As a consequence, caturra coffee plants were replaced by catimor plants; catimor is more resistant to rust, has the potential for producing larger volumes, but has a modest contribution to coffee quality. Catimor today represents more than 60% of the total coffee in the country.

The second element, mold and coffee with phenol. One hears more frequently that coffee has “severe mold” and even “phenol”. The mold is from over fermentation, be that on the plant itself, or because the pulped and washed coffee was not immediately dried, which in turn is due to rain, heat, or lack of coffee pickers. The phenol is the change in the chemical composition within the bean as an effect of drought and heat in the coffee plants, as well as the storage of wet coffee; coffee in humid environments gets dampened, generating fungi that produce the taste of mold and phenol. Generally, when cupped these coffees are classified as “undrinkable”.

Finally, withered beans, beans that even though red, have a ripe side and another speckled side; small beans also are an effect of climate change. In the last 3 cycles coffee has been observed that had a good appearance, but had small hair or fuzz that was left on the bean, which is due to lack of water. These types of affected beans are on the increase, made worse in the 2019/20 cycle due to the fact that during 2019 there were droughts of up to 30º C, and very hot early mornings, which caused uneven and misshapen maturation. If between September and October it either rained a lot, or it did not rain at all, that affected the ripening of the coffee, which, no matter how good a job is done in the wet mill, will result in insect damaged and spoiled beans. All this has affected the coffee yield and quality. Table 2 summarizes the physical defects of the beans and their possible causes


Table 2. Coffee defects and their causes
Physical defects of coffee Causes
Climate change Beans with brown or black coloring Lack of water during the development of the fruit
Misshapen and wrinkled beans Poor development of the plant due to drought or lack of nutrients
Beans with small and dark perforations Attack by insects (coffee berry borer or weevil)
Scarcity of resources Yellow colored bean Problem of soil nutrients
Management of farm and wet mill Shell bean Over ripened raw cherries picked up from ground
Broken/chipped/cut bean Poorly calibrated pulper
Withered bean Prolonged fermentation


Beans with changes in its normal coloration Prolonged storage and poor storage conditions
Beans with intense yellow caramel or reddish coloring Delay between picking and pulping
Silverskin, can tend toward reddish brown coloring Dirty fermentation tank, use of contaminated water, overheating, storage of wet coffee.
Management of dry milling Flat bean with partial fractures Coffee walked on during drying process; hulling of wet coffee
Bean with white veins Dampened after being dried
Source: based on Federacafe – Comunidad Madrid,

2.2  The “suffocating embrace” of prices

Added to this adverse environment is the so called “suffocating embrace”, which is a harmful embrace that is asphyxiating the peasantry. With the “left arm”, coffee prices go up and down, like milk when boiled, but seen over a 100 year period producer prices are decreasing in terms of the final value of coffee (Mendoza y Bastiaensen, 2003; Mendoza 2013[9]); and with the “right arm”, the prices of farm inputs are systematically rising. So, this “big embrace”, the price of coffee dropping and the prices of inputs and capital rising, is suffocating producer families. If costs of production surpass $100/quintal, and the price of coffee drop to close or equal to $100, it is difficult for coffee to receive its 3 fertilizations, 2 moments for shade management, weeding and 4 leaf sprays a year. If the application of inputs drops, that not only affects the volume of coffee, but also increases the rate of imperfect beans, and lowers the cupping score – for example, it is difficult for a bean with little fertilization to ripen properly. In addition, the catimor variety, that has more potential in terms of production volume, also is more demanding in terms of fertilizers – what has a greater yield, eats and drinks more.

This “embrace” was more suffocating in the last two years (2018 and 2019). In the 2018/19 cycle coffee prices dropped to $98 in September 2018, and to $100 in December 2018, while prices for agro-chemicals rose by 30%, as a result of the new tax policy in the country starting February 28, 2019[10]. In addition, due to the political crisis of the country, financial institutions (formal banks and micro-finance organizations) decided not to provide credit, except for Aldea Global, that instead expanded their rural credit portfolio and geographic coverage; due to that same crisis, international coffee buyers signed fewer purchase contracts, contracts that tend to allow cooperatives to get loans from the social banking sector. In other words, producer families did not have resources, which is why they applied little or no chemical or organic inputs. The effects of this are expressed now in the 2019/20 cycle in higher rates of imperfections and lower coffee quality.

Organizations are also experiencing another type of “embrace”. With the “left arm” they feel international pressure for better coffee quality, and with the “right arm” the parchment coffee (APO) that they receive from the producers is of lower quality. Between 1996 and 2010 it was just the reverse, the demand for quality coffee was less, and the producer families were providing better quality coffee, which is why it was relatively simple to sell large volumes of coffee. They were the times when the international perception of the quality of coffee in Nicaragua was good; that perception changed over the last 8 years, the coffee quality of the country is in question, correspondingly buyers are diverting their paths to other countries.

2.3  Coffee management on the farm

Even though climate change and the scarcity of resources through the “suffocating embrace” are having an impact on coffee yield and quality, coffee growing families also are experiencing structural changes within themselves. Producer families who established their coffee farms and other crops starting in 1990, after the “big war”, are getting beyond 60 years of age, which is why part of their offspring are taking on farms now divided up through inheritance.

This transition from one generation to another is facing challenges. First, farming is less diversified, it is more specialized in coffee or cattle or vegetables. This means that, in the case of coffee, families receive income practically only once a year. Secondly, a good number of the generation that are taking over farms now, inherited that culture of “coffee growers”, with the difference that now they only have 2 or 4 manzanas of coffee, and many times those manzanas are affected by rust and anthracnose. Third, with the end to the agricultural frontier, crop rotation with uncultivated areas is reduced, and with that, land has lost fertility (“it is tired”); the low application of inputs is only able to maintain production volumes, which is why the farm is less profitable for them. Fourth, the work culture “from sunup to sundown” of the older generations has ended, the new generation that grew up under the belief that “a pencil weighs less than a machete” mostly works only in the morning; and many times, erroneously interpreting what it means to be “coffee growers”, only want to “be in charge”. With only 2 mzs of coffee!

Consequently, that generation in transition that feels itself to be “coffee growers”, lack income in the months from March to October, in a context of climate changes and under the “big embrace”, have not been careful with their farms: i.e. take care to regulate their pulpers, not pulp too early nor wash too late, but respect the fact that coffee needs 12 hours of fermentation, calibrate the pulper depending on the coffee variety, being watchful over the drying…In a parallel fashion, the communities where they live seem to have lost that social warmth that encouraged them to cooperate, now they have less or nothing in their gardens (“my Mom´s green thumb”), and nearly work only on coffee, so have less reasons to exchange…The absence of that social cushion seems to put a damper on their economic life.

2.4  Coffee management in the dry mill

The dry mills receive the coffee that is the fruit of the effort of those producer families who find themselves economically, socially and environmentally asphyxiated. That is why this coffee comes in the form of shell beans, broken beans, with strident flavors, insect damaged, moldy, or healthy, clean beans with acidity and great flavor and aroma…In the dry mill they can take some actions to improve that coffee, even though their possibilities for maneuvering are reduced.

They cannot reduce the imperfection rate, they measure it, and can reprocess the coffee to achieve a certain level of quality, and with a certain number of defects that the markets demand. Likewise with the mold, even severe mold can be removed in drying with the sun; in the case that they are not able to get rid of that mold, they separate that coffee so that it does not affect the rest of the coffee, and sell it separately.  They can manage it in micro-lots and have more control over its defects, mix varieties and improve something of its quality; but nothing more. They can also keep the yield from dropping too much, if they avoid trails of coffee on broken plastic or loss of beans from moving coffee from one place to another.

They can do that, if the dry mill is managed honestly, transparently and with access to the right technology. It is common to hear workers of the dry mills say that “they switched out the coffee” of such and such cooperative, or such and such members, that “the coffee got mold in the truck because there was no patio space to unload it”; or hear managers say that “they reprocessed it twice” without the owners of the coffee being present to know if they really did “reprocess it”, and whether they did it because it was necessary, or only to earn $2 or 3 per quintal, or that the “yield was 235 lbs for 100lbs” without there being proof of the weight, and control over the movement of the coffee in the reception area to the patio, to the warehouse, to the huller, to the sack…In many cases, those rumors are unfounded, but as the saying goes, “where there is smoke there is fire.”

Also from an external perspective, it is heard that buyers are looking for scores of 84, and in the dry mill, on not finding coffee from anywhere with that score, and on not being able to improve coffee quality based on re-processing the coffee with less than 5 defects, “they send coffee with a score of 82 saying that it is 84”. This might work once, in the short term, but in the medium and long term these practices of deceit undermine good relationships with buyers.

Even when the dry mill is managed honestly and transparently, they can incur in deficient management and neglect the importance of being committed to coffee quality. They could order containers of coffee with 11 defects, and that in the end they are prepared with 10 defects. It could be that a lot of coffee is classified as second quality, because it has fermented beans or some other damage, but that it is recoverable as first quality coffee with timely cupping, preparing the coffee with a smaller number of defects and working on it with different preparations. These errors can be due to the fact that there was a change in personnel, and this new staff did not have enough training and coordination to be watchful over the coffee drying; or it could be due to inefficient organization, top-down with office managers, which limits the responsibility of each person and makes them dependent on doing work that only is directed from above. A form of vertical organization that takes agency away from the people doing the work digs its own grave. If dry mills only bet on volume, not quality, they mix coffee indiscriminately, not guided by the cupping scores, even worse if the container to be sold is commercial grade 79, 80 and 81. They even store coffee with different weights, without controlling the coffee yield [resulting from the milling process]

The management in the dry mills also has to do with technology. The drying is done by the sun and hundreds of people, mostly women, under an unforgiving sun. Given that workers´ pay is low, we assume that they are not thinking about coffee quality, but about that sun and the time when the day will end. The consequence of that type of drying is that the beans end up uneven and over-dried. Also, most of the dry mills work with old processing equipment (huller, densimeters, vibrating bean separators, elevators, mechanical driers and electronic bean selectors), or new equipment from cheap brands, instead of the latest generation in quality and technology.

Concluding this section, the causes of coffee yield and quality are found throughout the chain, from the farm to its roasting. A family can pick just the red beans, and even so lose  quality for not drying it quickly enough, or because of lack of space in the dry mill, it is left wet for two days. Several actors can make the effort to achieve good coffee, but the increase in temperature and drought can affect the coffee plants. You can have quality coffee, and even so damage it when the appropriate technology is missing – the latest generation. The quality is changed, not from one month to another, but in terms of years and decades. Coffee, and farming itself, is a long- term art, and involves several hands and minds.

3.    Governing coffee

In the years between 1990 to 2000, it was the cooperatives who took on the leadership in improving coffee quality in the country; they did it in a context of relative peace, slight impact of climate change, and more than anything inspired by the fair trade movement. Today the context is different, climate change has worsened, the generational transition has not found its way and the fair trade movement lost strength and became bureaucratized[11], even so, cooperatives and associations can promote the improvement of coffee quality again. How? Figure 1 shows the importance of combining a coffee farming culture with an alliance for a quality cup and principles of well-being, and processing that adds value. These three mechanisms, mediated through coordination in learning, can make a difference. These are not proposals that are pulled from the sleeve of some magician, nor just the result of data analysis and literature, they come from observing and experiencing in the field this combination that the figure expresses as the pathway.

The first pillar, differentiating action on the part of producer families. That they renovate and repopulate their coffee fields, and scale up in their treatment of coffee processing. They can recover varieties of arabica coffee with high quality potential, and grow them under agro-forestry systems, adapting their management in accordance with their variety[12]. A problem with catimor, for example, is when the producer gives it the same treatment that he gives a native variety; catimor should be picked when it is red (not speckled nor green), providing it more fermentation time than the caturra variety. To feed the soil (fertilize it), the chemical or organic input should be based on the formula resulting from the soil analysis. For the producer family to get those inputs, it must have in-kind credit under arrangements with input companies that lower their prices by volume purchasing, which is what Aldea Global does, and it works. They can experiment with coffee  processing (wet milling); for example, so as to not mix qualities in the pulping stage, they can have a water tank that serves as a separator of floater of green, empty or poorly formed beans; or manage the fermentation by coffee varieties.[13]. This requires a new culture of being coffee producers, who are motivated by a spirit of studying their realities (farms, families and communities), observing them, investigating new information, recording data, analyzing it, being guided by soil analyses and climate forecasts to manage their farms[14]; all this is more possible with the current generation, which has higher levels of formal education, and makes more use of the internet.

The second pillar, the construction of direct connections between buyers and groups of producer families, based on quality cupping scores and principles. In terms of quality, each producer turns in coffee individually, and the dry mill can manage it by group and lots, register the information and have the coffee cupped by farm, so that buyers are guided by the cupping score; a family receives payment/price based on the quality of their coffee. It is assumed that they will invest more to improve the quality of their coffee even more.

In terms of principles, Aldea Global has developed a procedure and mechanisms for providing incentives for good agricultural practices, which can inspire other organizations in the country. What does Aldea Global do? It provides awards for compliance with principles, like having an orderly farm, not using prohibited chemicals, paying laborers in compliance with the labor regulations in the country, management of honey waters, protection and conservation of nature, environmentally friendly practices, recycling containers. These awards depend on the score that each member achieves; producers with a score of 70% have access to “x” amount of award per quintal;  those that achieve 80% a bigger award, those with 90% an even bigger award, and those who achieve 100% get the “big” prize.

There can be producers who might receive a good price because of their cupping score, and not receive an award, if they get less than 70% in terms of their compliance with the principles. Even though it is more probable that a producer family with more than 70% compliance with principles would have coffee with a cupping score higher than 82. The logic is that complying with the principles is taking care of the farm and the well-being of the family, which is also going to be expressed in coffee quality and in good yields. Consequently, if buyers (national and international) and certifiers visit these producer families, and help them to establish themselves, they will be betting on the quality of family life, which leads to quality coffees in a sustainable and lasting manner.

The third pillar, the organization of the dry mill guided by values of honesty and transparency. To add value to coffee quality, the administration of the dry mill must have a counterweight in an autonomous board of directors with the capacity for supervision, and the owners of the coffee (members, cooperatives or organized groups) must have access to see the patios where their coffee is found, review their labels, be there at the moment of hulling, and review the data registry on the weight of the coffee at reception, on the patio, in the warehouse, before hulling and after hulling. With this three-way relationship of counterweights (administration, board members and owners of the coffee), the dry mill can manage micro-lots of coffee that come from different geographies of the country, and using different types of drying (natural, with honey and washed). This implies coordinating along the entire chain; for example, natural coffee implies picking only the red beans (none green or speckled), raw cherry coffee is transported that same day to the patio for drying, thus keeping the coffee from fermenting. The micro-lots of more than 50qq export coffee can be treated with differentiated qualities and respond to the demand of small roasters in the world. It also implies making use of appropriate technology (latest generation), like an industrial plant that treats coffee from its raw cherry state, thus preventing coffee from losing weight (2-3% in the fermentation and another 2-3% for the 12-13 days of drying) and conserving its quality.

These three elements of improvement are possible if a culture of learning is developed among the different actors around coffee. This is cultivating a spirit of investigating, observing, asking questions, recording information, taking notes, analyzing information and making use of the technology that todays world offers, including technology for massifying soil analyses, so that information flows to producers.  The producer family can manage catimor or maragogipe varieties if they learn how to do it in a differentiated way; coffee drying will add value if people know how their actions make a difference…Without awakening the worm of doubt that each one of us has inside us, any work will be boring, and any information will pass under our noses without us noticing; guided by questions and a procedure for organizing and analyzing information, every human person will be mobilized, taking on their task as a mission that is worthwhile carrying out.

4.    Conclusions

Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time, more intelligently. Henry Ford

We began the article with the question about what is happening with coffee quality. That word quality is an aperture to agriculture and our society, it tells us on a small scale what is happening to us. And what is happening? Coffee yields and quality in the country are getting worse. What is the reason? Climate change, prices (of coffee and inputs), neglect of the farms and the not very transparent management of the dry mills, which are concentrated in few hands. The latter can be seen in light of the type of drying-hulling in countries like Guatemala and Colombia, where drying is done on the farms themselves and in grassroots organizations, without the drying and hulling being concentrated in few hands; or in countries like Costa Rica, where an industrial plant processes coffee from its raw cherry state to its hulling, with a positive effect on coffee quality.

In contrast to Colombia, Costa Rica and Honduras itself, Nicaragua has not had a State that invests in coffee growing with a long-term perspective. There has not existed an institute that studies each coffee variety, or that has laboratories for innovating varieties. The State does not regulate the weighing of coffee in commercial trading, and within the dry mills. There are no financial incentives nor human recognition for producing quality coffee. There is a need for a State that would work to position the brand of coffee of the country in the outside world, and that at the same time might work for the population to replace sugar with a good taste for coffee.

But at the same time Nicaragua has more than 30% of coffee producers organized into cooperatives and associations. Among those organizations is Aldea Global, which is committed to the use of technology and information, which it takes to the producers to manage their farms based on soil analysis and climate forecasts[15]. Also, Aldea Global is committed in the long term to improving coffee quality and yields based on technology that would help o control the temperature and humidity of the beans, and based on automated systems with sensors. These elements will guide the technical assistance provided to producer families and in the dry mills.

The fact that yields and quality are dropping is an opportunity, to paraphrase Henry Ford. Of course, Ford himself was surpassed by the Toyota industry, in spite of that, his phrase continues to have value[16], particularly seen as a society. How can coffee quality be improved “more intelligently”? Organizations (cooperatives, associations and businesses) must join efforts to organize a space for learning around coffee farms in association with other crops. Without investigation-learning, the different actors will be walking in the dark, and the producers, like oxen, will prefer their old yoke and sell coffee to traditional intermediaries, without concern about yields and quality, which means that in the long run the entire country will lose, including the producers themselves. A producer family can fill itself with passion, learn and seek their own vision, if organizations become democratic, transparent, efficient, and if together they organize information supported by technological and informational innovations, like big data and artificial intelligence (machine learning). This type of organization, like Aldea Global, having this learning infrastructure, would be able to accompany the entire coffee chain and other crops.

The old Fordist model continues guiding a good part of the coffee in Latin America, also expressed in its political structure of exclusion and inequality; so it is that we hear that “more volume, more earnings”, which lead us to coffee shops that the story at the beginning of the article talks about. Nicaragua can recover ground and position its quality coffee based on adopting a culture of learning, supported by information management and the latest generation technology. It could be that money might be a limiting factor in this, but like the history of so many innovations teach us, more important is the vision of transforming the countryside, pursuing product quality, pushed by families who are improving their lives. In this way we could hear that “the better the quality, the better our lives” which could include improving our own taste for quality coffee. It is not a matter of “adding money” and having coffee quality, it is a matter of “thinking more and running around less”, as they say in “tiki-taka soccer”.[17]

[1] Javier, Ivania and Warren are from Aldea Global (, president, vice manger and manager, respectively; René is a consultant to rural organizations and a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation ( Even though most of the authors are from Aldea Global, we maintained objectivity in the analysis, and we added data and experiences of Aldea Global when they were needed.

[2] According to the 2017 Annual Statistics from the Central Bank of Nicaragua, the average coffee yield in 10 years between 2007 and 2017 was 11.97qq/mz; in the  2018 Annual report, a certain amount of improvement was noted between 2014/5 with 14.7qq/mz, and in the following two cycles 2015/16 and 2016/17 with 16.5qq/mz. We still do not have data for the last two cycles (2017/18 and 2018/19). For a study on the decade of the 1980s, see José L. Rocha, 2003, “Revolution in Nicaraguan Coffee Growing” in: Anuario de Estudios Centroamericanos. San José: Universidad de Costa Rica 29 (1-2).

[3] Both graphs are based on information from several coffee buyer organizations, and on data that we have followed since the 1990s, seer: R. Mendoza, 2003, La paradoja del café: el gran negocio mundial y la gran crisis campesina. Managua: Nitlapan-UCA; R. Mendoza, 2013, Gatekeeping and the struggle over development in the Nicaraguan Segovias, PhD thesis, University of Antwerp..

[4] The classification by scores is based on: Susana Gomez, “¿Cómo se determina la calidad del café?” en: QuéCafé,

[5] R. Mendoza, M.E. Gutiérrez, M. Preza and E. Fernández, 2012, “Las cooperativas de café de Nicaragua: ¿Disputando el capital del café a las grandes empresas?” en: Observatorio Social, Cuadernillo No. 13 El Salvador,; For English version see: ;  R. Mendoza, 2012, “Coffee with the Aroma of Coop” in: Revista Envío No. 372. Managua: UCA

[6] According to the International Coffee Organization (ICO), in 2018 Honduras was the seventh largest coffee producer and exporter in the world. In the last 10 years it has become the largest producer in Central America; in Latin America it is behind Brazil and Colombia. While the weight of coffee in farm production value dropped in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Panama, in the case of Honduras it increased between 1980 and 2011 (G.C. Brenes, C. Soto, P. Ocampo, J. Rivera, A. Navarro, G.M. Guatemala y S. Villanueva, 2016, La situación y tendencias de la producción de café en América Latina y el Caribe. San José: IICA y CIATEJ).

[7] R. Mendoza, 2013, “Who is responsible for the Coffee Rust Plague and What can be done”, in: Envio 379, Managua: UCA,

[8] In terms of the effect of coffee rust and anthracnose in the region, Nicaragua was the country most affected; the neighboring country, Honduras was not much affected at all (See: Brenes et al, 2016).

[9] R. Mendoza y J. Bastiaensen, 2003, “Fair trade and the coffee crisis in the Nicaraguan Segovias. In: Small Enterprise Development, Vol. 14.2.

[10] If we add other costs to this, like labor, the situation is even more “asphyxiating.” Note that even though the price for a bucket of picked coffee is the lowest in Central America, the fact that a load of coffee (200 lbs of parchment coffee) that required 19 buckets prior to 2016, currently requires more than 22 buckets; this means that the producer families are paying for an additional 3 buckets, which increases the cost of production, which does not necessarily benefit the workers.

[11] Samanth Subramanian (2019, Is fair trade finished? The Guardian, analizes how Fair Trade (FLO), based on prices, is losing ground with the abandonment of the FLO seal on the part of large corporations, questioning whether fair trade is achieving what it promises, and preferring instead to organize their own seals and mechanisms to measure their social, economic and environmental impact. We have also warned from Central America about the involution of fair trade, see R. Mendoza, 2017, “Toward the Reinvention of Fair Trade, or “Hacia la re-invención del comercio justo”, en: Tricontinental, Bélgica,

[12] Aldea Global supports agro-forestry systems: 1,320 of its members are implementing it in 1500 mzs. There are also other organizations in the country that support these system; what is unique about Aldea Global is that they do it with the purposeof producer families improving their coffee quality.

[13] These experiments include testing the form of management common in Costa Rica, of receiving raw cherry coffee, and in a mechanized way, separating ripe beans from speckled and green ones, and then passing the uniform ripe beans directly from the pulper to the mechanical drier, eliminating fermentation. Ivan Petrich (2018, “Fermentación: Qué es & Cómo Mejora la Calidad del Café”, explains the advantages of aerobic and anaerobic fermentation for coffee quality.

[14] For people of any age, but particularly young women and men, we have a guide to help them become students of their realities. See: René Mendoza, 2019, Jovenes y la oportunidad de construir puentes hacia el futuro. Una Guía para investigar e innovar. Managua: Nitlapan-UCA. It is also available at: . Aldea Global has information on more than 12 members with whom it works, information that anyone can access.

[15] Aldea Global is the only organization in Nicaragua that, starting in March 2020 will have their own first version of their app, to pilot providing personalized technical assistance by cell phone to 150 producers. The biggest challenge in this will not be providing that information, but using it. The app is a software progran that those 150 people will Access through their cell phones.

[16] A  2019 film “Ford vs Ferrari”, directed by James Mangold and written by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, shows the change that Henry Ford II underwent in the competition with Ferrari. That precise moment of change: not just producing quantities of vehicles but winning competitions, illustrates the spirit we are seeking.

[17] Style of Barcelona where they pass between one another while opposing team wears itself out running after the ball, and when an opening appears, attack the goal.

Cultivating the golden bean: Volume and quality

Cultivating the golden bean: Volume and quality

René Mendoza, Fabiola Zeledón, Elix Meneces, Hulda and Eliseo Miranda[1]

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”[2] 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.

[1] The authors are part of a network that facilitates the training of cooperatives governed by their members.

[2] 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 Principle of Stewardship in Cooperatives

The Principle of Stewardship in Cooperatives

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

I dedicate this article to my daughter Itza Irene and my sons Jaren and Inti Gabriel.


Planting a cooperative

A cooperative was attacked from outside and inside; it went broke. Its administrative council called the last assembly where they provided an accounting of each cent of the cooperative, the motorcycle, the computer, the desks, the portfolio of debts…

Given that their own sons and daughters and other youth from the community formed a new cooperative, the assembly agreed to donate all their resources to them: “We started with 10,000 córdobas and we worked 20 years, receive these 300,000 córdobas and let them serve our community at least 30 times more than us”, they said. Along the paths and creeks the rumor of the people was left etched in the stones: “The president, the Vice President, all left with a clean slate”, “humble and honest they started, humble and honest they left”. And more helpful”, shouted an elderly woman.

The 10,000 or 200,000 was not as important as the humility, honesty and service.

Is this what it means to be a cooperative member? Asked the granddaughter of the president. “In part, daughter, in part”, responded her mother as she gave her a hug.

The graveyard for cooperatives is sizable, larger in some countries than in others, generally because their members forget that the cooperative is a mean for a larger objective, their community. They do not follow their own agreements. Some of their board members “get big heads”, stay in their posts under “death do they part”, and others take over the resources that belong to all the members of the cooperative. In this way the collective effort turns into “damned money” that is served mouth to mouth in bars, and this type of cooperative, like a vine that climbs into the branches of lemon, tangerine and orange trees, choking them off and preventing them from bearing fruit, chokes off the communities where their members come from.

The parable reveals a different prospect, where even death, a good death, can generate life. Sporadically we know how to find some cooperatives that, even going broke, plant the future: they leave good footprints in women and men who were their members. This footprint is like the collective effort of 300,000 córdobas that the cooperative did not split up into pieces, nor let some few appropriate them, as happens with most peasant families who are always dividing up their land into pieces. Those members, in assembly, agreed to give it to the new cooperative that was starting, and committed it to return to the community “30 times more”. Behind this collective effort are values like humility and honesty that guide their steps, and what the cooperative cultivated and the elderly woman observed: service. Behind these values and that sense of service is the vision of a cooperative as a means (instrument) of living communities, that is the horizon in which that inheritance of values and resources become very important, but let us notice, just “partly”, as the mother points out to her daughter.

Those of us who also share these perspectives and support these processes in rural communities tend to be asked by rural families, with some incredulity, why do you come in to support us? What interest do you have in us when not even presidents of cooperatives nor mayors visit us? Even though in our mind it is that “part” of being cooperatives that the stones whisper “along the paths and creeks”, sometimes we have responded recounting the experience of the Catholic Church between 1958 and 1978, within the framework of its social doctrine, that opened the doors of their churches and monasteries and allowed for decades of religious and laity to accompany impoverished families in their communities; that experience allowed believing that God was living in these impoverished families, a seed of service and commitment that has germinated in hundreds of people.[2]. Other times we have responded alluding to the fact that each person has a sense of service, and that each person deploys that service in a thousand ways in the places where they live.

In this article we show the idea of stewardship as a more thought out response to the questions that they tend to ask us. Stewardship is a perspective that gives more meaning to cooperativism and that adds another additional “part” about what the mother saw and the daughter heard in the parable. We do so basing ourselves on something from the indigenous, religious and business traditions, to then conceive of the cooperative as a rooted organization that could take on stewardship in their communities. At the end of the article we re-conceptualize this idea of stewardship as the greatest motor and the most intense light of humanity.

1.     Seventh generation thinking

 “Now we crown you with the sacred emblem of buck antlers, the emblem of your lordship. Now you will become a mentor of the people of the Five Nations. The thickness of your skin will be seven tranches, in other words you will be a test against anger, offensive actions and criticism. […] Look and listen to the wellbeing of all the people, and always have present in mind not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are still below the surface of the earth, the future nation that has not yet been born.”

(Law of the Iroquois nation written between 1142 and 1500)

A Confederation of five Iroquois nations in the United States wrote their law between the years 1141 and 1500, that started seventh generation thinking. It is a principle of innovative stewardship, conceived and taken on prior to the Spanish colonization in Latin America, and before the British colonization in the United States. The principle suggests that in each deliberation its impact up to the seventh coming generation should be taken into account, that is, thinking about the great-great grandchildren of our great-great grandchildren. In other words, when we deliberate, make decisions and take actions we should ask ourselves: “Where is the seventh generation in these decisions? Where are we going to take that generation? What are they going to have?”[3] Imagine if you were an Iroquois, let us say  centuries ago, when the climate was relatively stable, your people were connected to nature, living certainly with conflicts between nations, you had that thought to the seventh generation. Meanwhile now, in the current conditions of climate and degraded nature, we realize clearly that we have abandoned that thinking. In spite of that, this thought challenges and guides us. Correspondingly, the decisions that we make today on the environment, water, energy, social relations between indigenous and non-indigenous people, the relations between women and men, or about the life of the communities, are going to have an impact on the lives of coming generations, up to the seventh, which is a nation of people who have yet to be born. It is a matter of living and working for the benefit of that future seventh generation; that really is thinking long term!

There are two ways of understanding this principle. The first way, if each generation differs from the previous one by 20 years, the seventh generation is in 140 years, which is why we should think about 140 years in our deliberations and decisions: see Figure 1.

The second way is varying the thinking about the seventh generation, and expanding the period in years in which a person is touched (influenced, awoken[4]) in their lives by their great-great grandfather/grandmother, who in turn was touched by their great-great grandfather/grandmother[5]. In other words, we place ourselves in a 360 year period and from there, looking 180 years backward (7 generations) and 180 years forward (7 generations), we can understand our roots and plant our future: see Figure 2[6].

When from our peasant realities we look at the questions asked within the framework of the seventh generation, they seem very hard. Following the first perspective, most peasant families are reducing their land area by inheritance and the sale of land, this means that the seventh generation will be left without land, and with a relationship divorced from nature, for example. Given the graveyard for cooperatives and those cooperatives taken over by elites, what cooperative are we leaving for the seventh generation?

Following the second perspective, this very reality of the division of land is demonstrated by looking at the 180 years since our mothers/fathers and grandmothers/grandfathers, and so we question ourselves looking at the the next 180 years: How can we stop this dividing up? What are we leaving the great-great grandchildren of our great-great grandchildren? We can respond to these questions in each family and community, or we can respond to them alluding to current issues like climate change, water…we can also see them from the history of our countries with a historical perspective, issues or challenges like peace and indigenous and non-indigenous social relations. For the case of Nicaragua, Oscar René Várgas (1999)[7] argues, based on an event that happened in the XVI Century, more than 400 years ago, that Nicaragua is a prisoner of the syndrome of authoritarianism and disregard for law; Alejandro Bendaña (2019)[8] presents to us the invisibility and margination of women by historians and the guerrilla leaders themselves in the war of Sandino between 1926 and 1934, something that in light of our current realities appears not to have changed. In that 400-year view and 100-year view, it frightens us to confirm that authoritarianism (hierarchical structures) and gender inequality, both accompanied by violence, changed so much as to not change “even a little”. We find the same thing in each country[9]. It would seem that each generation that has gone by has not been able to leave not even a little change that might benefit the seventh generation, it would seem that each generation intensifies those old and harmful institutions.

The notion of stewardship, from the Iroquois indigenous tradition, begins to move us. It makes us think about the change of any “syndrome”.

2.     Stewardship in the biblical tradition

The Catholic and Evangelical religions, professed by most of the population in Latin America, have the notion of stewardship in the Bible, which can be understood in two ways. The first way is God as the creator of the earth, where people are his administrators (stewards). Paul explains it this way: “Because we are collaborators with God, and you are the work of God, God´s edifice” (1 Cor 3:9). Stewardship is oikonomos: the person who administers. The second perspective is that people, women and men, are co-creators with God: if previously they had to multiply as the creation of God, in the new testament women and men are co-creators: “Go and make disciples of all peoples” (Mt 28:19).

The first perspective assumes that the patrón (owner) of all is God, and that tends to justify “each one of the verticalisms on earth”, warns the ex-Jesuit priest, Peter Marchetti. Correspondingly, Marchetti continues, “at the level of subjectivity, it is up to the grassroots to begin to work on the concept of God”. The second perspective as “co-creators” is a more horizontal perspective, even though the subordinated relationship of nature to human being persists. Marchetti counsels us: “The challenge is recovering traditional ecological knowledge that existed prior to the idea of God the patrón; the path is emulating traditional knowledge to be able to dismantle the idea of God the patrón.” Correspondingly, the Iroquois seventh generation thinking, for example, is very useful for us, because it comes precisely from prior to the Spanish and English colonization, where we could say that the “patrón” is the seventh generation.

From both sections, our challenge is “working on the subjectivity at the same time as the materiality”. The latter is, for example, the democratization of organizations and their economies, while the subjectivity is working on attitudes. Among these attitudes is dialoguing with the biblical perspectives of God as “creator” (patrón) of everything and humans as co-creators, as well as dialoguing with our great-great grandfathers and grandmothers, and at the same time thinking about the impact of our actions on – or dialoguing with – the great-great grandchildren of our great -great grandchildren. Here are the first brushstrokes about what stewardship is, which combines subjectivity and materiality, begins to dialogue with other perspectives, generations and with the attitude itself to free ourselves from the “patróns”, not matter what they may be. Now let us look at how businesses address and take on stewardship, to later focus on cooperatives.

3.     Stewardship in businesses

In the past the church and the military caste dominated the world. 30 years ago the private sector dominated the world. Common interest, the State, education, the church, health care, the army are all read from the perspective of business; for example, each one of these areas or institutions are measured by their efficiency, costs, and their power relationships defined as technical things, that can be resolved through social engineering, through management. It is recognized that businesses create jobs, that they fight against racism, assume actions compatible with environmental sustainability and “social responsibility.” Business people who achieve financial success are admired as true heroes, and are named as directors of health care, education, churches or presidents of countries, like war heroes or religious martyrs used to be venerated, no matter what side they were on.

We identify two perspectives in these enterprises. In the first perspective are most of the large corporations, who prioritize their profits, dividends (% of profits) for their shareholders, while they are desperate to produce wealth today, and satisfy consumer society; this is short term thinking that produces short term results. There are few corporations in the second perspective, they are, for example, investors in pension and insurance funds, businesses that innovate, invest in the formation of their staff and get involved in profitable recycling actions instead of dumping it in spaces of poor countries; they look to develop long term thinking (MacNamara, 2004[10]). Nevertheless, business organizations, like the churches and military structures in past centuries, intensify those millennial authoritarian, patriarchal and hierarchical structures that concentrate wealth and power. It changed so much in order to not change much at all.

Recognizing these hard institutions, and at the same time seeing the potential of companies, Block (2013)[11] proposes the notion of stewardship as

An alternative to leadership. Stewardship asks us to be profoundly responsible for the results of an institution, without forcing the purpose of others to be defined, controlling them or overprotecting the rest. It can be defined more simply as ordering the dispersion of power.

Block defines stewardship as the change in the governance of businesses, that distribute power, privileges and wealth in favor of the people below and people marginalized in the businesses. Stewardship as “alternative to leadership” conceived as hierarchical and patriarchal, that does not subdue nor treat others as “minors” (“overprotected”); more than directing organizations, it is cultivating organizations, more than controlling and deciding for others, it is facilitating so that people might be empowered – controlling is accepting “the dispersion of power”; facilitating is democratizing (ordering) power. Stewardship is seen as an option of action at the service of those with little power and for the common good, it is long term thinking. This is taking care of the wellbeing of the next generation. How can this idea of stewardship be carried out? Block thinks that it is difficult to carry out with the dominant patriarchal leadership of our times, in the service of the short term and being operational with those few who have power.

Block provides the elements that characterize a real stewardship, whose notion we try to draw in Figure 3.

Stewardship has to do with a partnership of working together in democracy, which is opposed to the colonial belief that those above are the only ones responsible for the success of the organization and the wellbeing of the members. It is a matter of empowering each member of the enterprise, where it is assumed that their security and freedom is in their own hands, contrary to depending on those above, believing that they know what the rest of the people need, and contrary to the fact that they treat people as subordinated children. And it is a matter of service, that is committed to their organization and their community without expecting anything in exchange, cares for the common good and creates community, and distributes power and wealth, because it assumes a commitment for something beyond oneself, contrary to looking out for ones own interest at the cost of others.

In this notion of stewardship, of working together, in partnership, empowered and in service, underlies the idea that our life is brief, “we are on borrowed time”, as rural populations say, and our work in any organization or area is even briefer, which is why we want to turn over any task that we have taken on in the past in a more advanced stage. In this sense, let us remember the parable of the talents (Mt 25. 14-30), that we should multiply the talent received; this challenge becomes difficult in the case of peasant families, for whom if that talent was the land that they received from their parents as inheritance, after some 30-40 years that land would have to be more fertile and not “worn out” (less fertile, eroded soils) – something very difficult, while for enterprises, the land conceived as something that produces only based on agrochemicals, it is impossible for them to turn over land in 30 or 40 years with more fertile soils.

Bringing  those questions about the seventh generation here, we would say: How can businesses be built in partnership, that empower and are of service to the seventh generation? How can the land be worked so that it might benefit the great-great grandchildren of our great-great grandchildren? If the land is the mother of any product and any life, can businesses be built of any size with long term thinking, which would be watchful over its social and environmental impact and the elements of stewardship that Block advocates? Paraphrasing Jesus of Nazareth, probably it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than C-Corporations to assume this role of stewardship that Block proposes. Nevertheless, from the world of corporations there are good attempts; B-corporations[12], founded in 2006 and by the end of 2018 totaled 2500 in 50 countries around the world, could meet what Block proposes; B-corporations are certified for having good governance, transparency and good social and environmental impact. Also businesses whose workers become owners, governed by the ESOP law in some countries[13], could be taking on Block´s stewardship, particularly those that function under the approach of “open book management”[14], because they cultivate a culture of ownership (of being owners) for long term success.

4.     Stewardship in cooperatives

B- corporations and ESOP enterprises with “open book management” could be exercising a role of stewardship. But the most suitable seem to be cooperatives, and even more so, if they bring together people with few resources. The problems is that most cooperatives also are an expression of hierarchical structures, like C-corporations, and are more and more moved by the short term thinking of the god of the market. Recognizing this fact, we argue that a renovated cooperative, that “is born again”, can be a serious option. To assume this role of stewardship, the cooperative must take up the ideas of Block and impress on it their own historical essence, because it is with renovated cooperatives that the ideas of Block could have greater possibilities of being carried out. See Figure 4.

We reread Block from the perspective of a renovated cooperative: in partnership we understand that people from different ages (grandparents, offspring, grandchildren), sexes and social sectors (e.g. workers) participate in a cooperative; that the cooperative is a space where each person is empowered in horizontal and vertical agricultural and non-agricultural diversity, using the market and not subordinated to it; and that the members cultivate a sense of voluntary service coherent with the idea of co-creation in dialogue with nature. Given this interpretation, the type of renovated cooperative is one that walks with both of its “feet”, the associative and the business one, is distinguished by its democracy, transparency and for distributing its profits (wealth). With these elements the members, and also their allies, make their own values and cooperative values their own, more and more intensely illuminated by a long-term perspective, and deliberately seeking to have an impact on – and dialogue with – its seventh generation.

This is the perspective of stewardship which a reborn cooperative implements, which pushes it to reorganize itself systematically as an alternative to despotic, hierarchical and patriarchal leadership. This is the promise that each member makes to the other members and to themselves from the first day in which they join a cooperative, which in turn, bears the potential of significant self-realization, which frequently is lacking in our organizations.

Correspondingly, how can a cooperative be reorganized from a role of stewardship? How can a cooperative member be a steward? First, a member accepts an office conceiving it as a service, serving other people, it is not to serve oneself at the cost of the other people. The office responds to the mandate of the members, which is why this service implies willingness and availability, being a person who does not have time, and always has time to serve other people, who listens and helps them to connect events and ideas, so that the members resolve their problems and/or take advantage of opportunities. Coherently, a person who occupies the office of president fulfills their role of president, and respects the role of each member of the Administrative Council and respects the functions of organs of the cooperative (Administrative Council, Oversight Board, Education Committee, Credit Committee). The same does the vice president, treasurer, secretary. Likewise, each member of the Oversight Board, the credit committee, the education committee. In addition to taking on their own role and respecting the other roles, these member help other people to exercise their offices; if the secretary has difficulties in writing the minutes, or the treasurer doing their financial report, the people from other offices, or those who already had those offices, support them (facilitates or trains them), so that they might lean to do the minutes and the financial report, but without taking their place. The assembly does not name people to posts to just to fill a post, nor out of formality, but it is a real need.

Promoting the culture of stewardship is going against the current of the culture of most of our rural organizations, where a person tends to believe they are the patrón and God, it is like a person walked around with 10 hats on their head at the same time, the hat of president, secretary, treasurer, oversight board, assembly, education committee, credit committee…That is not possible, right? That is what generally happens. One of the consequences of this fact is that that person believes himself to be the owner of the cooperative, and treats the members as their “minors”, does not let them grow, wants them to serve him, be subject to him; he disempowers them. “My poor patron, he thinks that the poor person is me” goes the song of Cabral, that seems applicable to this type of person with multiple hats, and who does not obey the mandate of his assembly. A president or manager with the commitment of stewardship is completely different: he supports and celebrates the work of the oversight board, administrative council, credit committee, because those structures help him to fulfill the sacred responsibility of co-creating the cooperative to the benefit of their communities, to redistribute power and surpluses, to empower the members so that they might take their own steps.

Secondly, a cooperative member, with or without an office, administers in a responsible way – and generates – financial resources (money), physical resources (building, infrastructure, assets) and productive resources (coffee, cacao, beans, bananas…) for the members. There is an awareness that those resources will last beyond our present lives. No one individually appropriates them under the pretext that “it is my effort”. Everyone cultivates the relationships of their organization with other global and local actors (financiers, buyers, accompaniers), without centralizing those contacts for their own exclusive benefit. Each person is accountable to themselves, their families, the cooperative and their community. It makes them think about co-creating and benefiting their community and the seventh generation, a task for which they are guided by the virtuous rules from the time of the great great grandparents of their great great grandparents, and in accordance with agreements and rules of their cooperative in line with the cooperative principles defined 175 years ago, in 1844, by 28 working artesans in cotton factories in the city of Rochdale, England. Correspondingly, any loan of money to a member, for example, is done from the appropriate body, according to agreements, with a receipt and later accountability  to the assembly; the board members understand that they cannot make and use the resources of other at their own discretion, that there are organs and rules under which the resources, information and power relations flow. This very specific exercise can be generalized to other levels, including the country, building citizens with rights and obligations, not so much consumer societies.

Third, support to people to exercise their offices, and the fact that there are rules and structures that guide being cooperative members, implies also that the members be committed to learning and changing. If there is no transformation inside each member, if there is no re-evaluation of our desires, yearnings and expectations as far as we are explicit about the harmful and virtuous rules that govern us, any structural change for the operations of our cooperatives will be like a stripped bolt. In fact, in Central America we have experienced dictatorships and revolutions, a boom of organizations and religions, and all those changes have been like stripped bolts, our lives continue being guided by century-old structures and harmful rules that reproduce social, environmental and gender inequalities, which make us see the cooperative as “a thing of men”, “mono-cropping services” and “hierarchical and authoritarian bodies.”

Joining a cooperative means that we have chosen and accepted that relationship of organizational and personal transformation to energize our communities. The choice and acceptance become our contract. Our desires for financial gain, participation, self-expression and the expectations that we have for being part of a community, are only possible if we are committed to the objectives, results, limitations and principles of the organization in general. The agreement on the elements of the contract is the basis for the association and the basis of the community. Stewardship offers more options and local control, in exchange for that promise of commitment on the part of its members, a promise that should be given from the very beginning (Block, 2013).

With these three elements the cooperative can “be born again” and assume its role of stewardship in light of its community, which is as local as it is global. Forming its own membership, generating collective innovations, working on equitable rules, adding value to the products of the community, producing good land…to benefit the seventh generation.

5.     Conclusion

The Church dominated the world for centuries. The military as well. For half a century, businesses have dominated the world. Century after century the land and the relationships between human groups seem to have deteriorated, currently we find ourselves in an inflection point in terms of the future of the earth; the domination of the private sector – the god of the market – intensified it. Our bet is that the decade of 2020 the community might begin, through its forms of cooperative organization, not to dominate the world, but contribute to the democratization of the world, and that we rethink nature not as something subordinated to homo sapiens, not even in a relationship humans-nature, but homo sapiens as part of nature. This is possible if the communities, through their cooperatives, and other organizational expressions, take on the role of stewardship.

In this article we have reviewed the idea of stewardship from the indigenous tradition, religious tradition and from economic business sciences, in order to re-conceptualize cooperatives. From this review and re-conceptualization, we understand that stewardship can be applied to individuals, businesses, organizations, institutions and communities. Stewardship is the word that summarizes the vision of the cooperative, and any organization, for its members. That is so if the community is the starting point, while at the same time the horizon – that community as local as it is global. It makes us learn another way of understanding and organizing life. What is the idea of stewardship that we have been shaping in this article?

Figure 5 shows the perspective of the community that rereads the cooperative in its material expression (organizational) and its subjective expression (personal), from which originate 4 elements that make the meaning of stewardship visible.

The community of human beings and nature is something living, geographically concentrated and at the same time globally clustered through dense relationships around products. This utopia or horizon makes us reread the transformation of a cooperative in its material expression, organizational change, and in its subjective expression, individual change. In other words, a person awakens, for example, to the fact that only through collective actions can some problems be resolved, like hierarchical and authoritarian structures; it is that material-subjective combination that mobilizes the cooperative in its role of stewardship, expressed in its 4 elements. First element, thinking about the great-great grandchildren of our great-great grandchildren, in other words, more than 140 years, which is contrary to the short term thinking or the mining and push button culture, of wanting to earn money immediately believing that tomorrow everything could change. Second element, co-creating that world along with other people, with nature and with divine energies beyond our human comprehension, empowering particularly impoverished people, which is contrary to believing oneself to be the patrón (owners of this world), intensifying social and environmental inequality. Third element, cultivating a spirit of voluntary service, taking on offices and cultivating the cooperative, which in the long term benefits each individual, which is contrary to abusing the cooperatives for personal profit at the cost of coming generations. Fourth element, being guided by human values like humility, honesty and respect for the collective good, which is contrary to just betting on finances.

With this reconceptualization of stewardship, we can reorganize the cooperative in another way. We can even expand on the Iroquois law; that each person have “skin as thick as the bark of a pine tree” to confront not only “anger, offensive actions and criticisms”, but to exercise a stewardship that benefits “the future nation that has not yet been born.”

In the parable, “planting a cooperative, the daughter “reads” being a cooperative is about that collective force, values and sense of mission, while her mother recognizes that precisely is what it means to be a cooperative member, even though just “in part”. With the expansion of the framework that we have worked on, the reader can read this article again and contribute “30 times more” to the effectiveness of their decisions and actions. Even so, in light of the seventh generation, that contribution to the notion of stewardship, surely, will continue being “in part”.

[1] René has a PhD in development studies, is an associate researcher of the IOB-Antwerp University (Belgium), collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (WPF) and a member of the cooperative COSERPROSS RL.  I am grateful to Steve Sheppard and Mark Lester, president and director of  WPF, respectively, for the inspiration and ideas that they have offered us in the work with cooperatives, and particularly in regards to a very brief first text on this topic, published at the end of 2019.

[2] We recount the experience of the Catholic Church, but the same happened with a good number of protestant churches, particularly the historic ones- Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans. Also, university students in those years, without necessarily professing any religious faith, also moved to the countryside and marginal neighborhoods. It is also the experience of many people who later on were connected to guerrilla movements.

[3] These questions we adapted from the questions that Oren Lyons, chief of the Onondaga nation, formulated and are quoted in “An Iroquois Perspective”, in: Vecsey, C. and Venables, RW (Eds), 1982, American Indian Environments: Ecological Issues in Native American History. Vol. 46.4. New York: Syracuse University Press. p. 173, 174. For a broader understanding of the indigenous culture in the United States and their lessons for today, see: Kathleen E. Allen, 2018, Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World, USA: Morgan James Publishing.

[4] “Touched” is when a person feels gratitude for something good that someone did for that person. In the context in which we are using it, by “touched” we mean when your great-great grandmother or grandfather made you look at your life in a different way, or something fundamental in your life, that marked you in your feelings or perspectives for the rest of your life. What is yours for the future, the possibility that you, on becoming a great-great grandfather, might influence (“touch”) the lives of your great-great grandchildren, which is possible because you had the possibility of learning about life for nearly a century.

[5] This variation in interpretation is found in “seven generation sustainability” (

[6] There have also been methodological proposals based on seventh generation thinking. One of them is the alternative proposal to the logical framework, a planning tool that organizations tend to use. See: Kathleen Allen, 2018, “Seventh Generation Thinking – A Replacement for SWOT”, It deals with locating ourselves in the fourth generation and from them gathering lessons from the three previous generations and using them as information for our future decisions that would include the next three generations. This can be done as an organization, particularly if there are people from 3 generations within its membership; they can be worked on in groups.

[7] Vargas, O.R., 1999, El Síndrome de Pedrarías. Managua: Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Nacional.

[8] Bendaña, A., 2019, Buenas al Pleito, Mujeres en la rebelión de Sandino. Managua: Anama ediciones.

[9] For example, Goodwyn (1978,  The Populist Moment,  New York: Oxford University Press) studied the rural populist movement that occurred between 1870 and 1910, about a peasantry that organized into cooperatives in such a way that they founded their own political party and came close to an electoral victory, but which the political and economic elites coopted and subsumed until crushing them. Goodwyn concludes that that democratic process in the United States was the last opportunity for the US nation to democratize.

[10]Doug MacNamara, 2004, Stewardship, in: Leadership Acumen

[11] Block, P., 2013, Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-interest. California: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. 2da edición

[12] See: Yale Center for Business and the Environment, Just Good Business: An Investor’s Guide to B Corps

[13] Owners can sell their businesses to their own workers, there is a law in the US and England to facilitate this. In the United States it is called Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), and in England there are two types, the incentive plan and the savings plan. There are also ESOPs in India.

[14] Jack Stack and a group of workers bought the business of Springfield ReManufacturing Corporation in the 1980s. More than being successful, they designed a transparent form to govern and work the business, which they called “open book management”. See: Stack, J and Burlingham, B., 2002, A Stake in the Outcome, New York: Doubleday.

Communities ploughing the seas

Communities ploughing the seas

René Mendoza Vidaurre, Mark Lester and Fabiola Zeledón

The unfaithful market

“Bring your coffee and I will pay you 100 córdobas more per quintal than that coyote that is circling you”, Carmelón the trader said by cell phone. Pedro weighed his coffee before leaving on the bus, it weighed 3 quintals. Now in town, Carmelón put the three sacks on the scale and it weighed 2.3 quintals! He paid him 2990 córdobas, at 1300 per quintal. Pedro left dazed: in his own village they were offering him 3600, at 1200/qq; and he would have saved the cost of the transportation and the lost day. He arrived home with a headache. “What is bothering you?”, asked his wife, Julita. “Carmelón cheated me,” he responded angrily. Ah Pedrín, you know very well that the market is like a lover, you cannot demand that it be faithful. Pedrín felt like the earth opened up in front of him, how right his beloved was!

The market is like a lover, you cannot demand that it be faithful“. If it does not cheat you with the price it does it through the weight, if not, it tells you that your sun-dried coffee is wet, and if not that, it tells you to “wait on me.” Price, weight, and quality are structural challenges that can be resolved if people organize into a cooperative. But it is not automatic, most cooperatives are taken over by elites who turn their backs on their members, and turn into traders dressed up as “cooperatives”. Ah, but when the members of a community organize and the organs of their cooperative function, in that community they reduce violence, generate more equality and peace – this is what Esterlina Talavera says, from the 13th of October Cooperative in San Antonio: “In these cooperatives where only one person is in charge, one is not worth anything; in this cooperative, where the assembly is in charge, there I feel like I do have value.” If importers, roasters and sellers of ground coffee in the United States and Europe work with those corrupt cooperatives, they instead sow violence in peasant communities, like what happens with traditional mediation connected to big corporations, but if they work with democratic cooperatives, they support peace with justice.

 Under what conditions can small producers, women and men, and small roasters and coffee sellers build communities of peace between rural areas of Central America and consumers in the United States and Europe?  Responding to this question in this article, we see that markets can become “faithful” to the challenge of making peace with justice.

1.     Perspective and ways of riding the markets

With Mark Lester´s visit to 50 importers and roasters in the United States, we discovered similar perspectives on both sides of the ocean: buyers and producers. He met with roasters who buy from 6 sacks of coffee a year to those who bought containers of coffee; there are peasant families also who produce 4 quintals of export coffee to those who produce 100 or 150 quintals of export coffee. In the face of this situation, there are importers who connect these two worlds: they import coffee in lots in one containers for roasters who want lots of a smaller size than that of a container; they are lots that come from 3 or 5 producers with the same coffee profile, possible through the grassroots cooperatives (1st tier).

He learned that roasters ask for samples of coffee to be able to express their interest in buying; some cup and define their own cup profile, and others ask the importer to define their cup profile; generally they are looking for a score above 82, because they think that is the way that they can differentiate themselves and compete in the face of large corporations whose costs are less because of their economies of scale. The cooperative sends the sample, indicates the volume of coffee that it offers from that sample, and the roaster responds whether they are interested in that coffee or not; as a sign of loyalty, the cooperative does not sell the volume it offered with the sample until the roaster has responded, to do so would be behaving as an “occasional lover”; the roaster or importer responds as quickly as possible, to not do so would be to behave like a “lover”. The roasters prefer lasting connections, it does not work out to each year have a new seller of coffee, because they want to maintain their cup profile; the cooperative also wants to have lasting relationships, especially if the buyer pays them based on quality and there is good deal; this implies that the cooperative also is loyal to its members, only collects their coffee, and thus maintains the same cup profile that it agreed upon with its buyer. It is a loyalty among several actors who revolve around coffee.

Mark found roasters and importers concerned about the sustainability of their enterprises and that of the coffee growing peasant families. If the peasantry with less than 5 hectares of coffee goes broke, the coffee is left in the hands of large mono-cropping enterprises, thus the quality of the coffee would drop because they are committed to varieties that produce volume and they grow them in full sun. This is not helpful to the buyers nor to the peasants. So from both sides of the ocean they want peasant families to increase their productivity (more and better coffee per hectare), and importers and roasters process more coffee in the same physical space. Both sides of the ocean also want diversification and the commitment to coffee quality to lead them to increase their productivity, that diversification would also include sustainable practices with several crops and the agro-industrialization of products, roasters who diversify their markets; university communities that demand coffee from cooperatives…

2.     Trust, the beginning of triangulation

Cultivating these described connections and commitments are not possible with conventional practices. Financial organizations provide credit requiring financial statements (indicating expenses and income) and balance statements (indicating assets of the cooperative versus its debts) from the cooperatives; but these in turn tend to hire accountants who “invent” their financial reports, while their members do not have access to that information, and if they do, the numerical chaos is incomprehensible to them. Financial organizations and buyers assume that on signing contracts with cooperatives, they actually are operating as cooperatives; at the same time it is seen that most of them do not redistribute their earnings, they treat their members as any intermediary would treat them; they are cooperatives whose members do not rotate in their posts, nor does their administrative staff rotate in accordance with their merits. So the aid organizations, on learning of these realities, turn a blind eye; thus, trust in people becomes trust in money on the part of a small global club.

Those connections and commitments can, nevertheless, be built based on trust if cooperatives function as cooperatives, if buyers and roasters treat them as cooperatives and not as if they were haciendas, connecting only with the manager or only with their president. How can trust be built? From the work of the Winds of Peace Foundation (WPF) with grassroots cooperatives and its contacts with buyers and roasters, we propose an inclusive triangulation.

Social banks, buyers and second tier cooperatives already practice triangulation, they sign contracts where the cooperative collects coffee with financing from the social banks, and the buyer pays the loan owed by the cooperative to the social bank. But it stays there, they are that club that turns a blind eye to the true functioning of the cooperative and its members. We take up that triangulation, buyers, financiers and cooperatives, but not with second tier cooperatives but with grassroots cooperatives (first tier); and we do not stay there, we do an inclusive triangulation, that implies that part of the contract stipulates the distribution of profits and information, that they be democratic and efficient organizations (that they lower costs), and work in sustainable agriculture. That this inclusive nature be verified by an accompaniment that helps the members govern their cooperatives, and that the transparency between buyers, roasters and cooperatives be reciprocal.

Being inclusive means that the member families coordinate among themselves to achieve a cup quality of 85, improving their soils, assuming the costs of sending coffee samples: not letting the market govern them, believing that it is only a matter of putting up money and moving coffee; it is that we work with members over the entire year and not just in the coffee harvest season, connecting small producers who organize into cooperatives with small roasters. If one actor acts as an opportunist, they damage the entirety of the coordination with the different actors, and they do damage to themselves. If the price in the market goes way up, the cooperatives prefer to stay in a lasting relationship; if the prices of the market go way down, the buyers prefer to stay in a lasting relationship. This is coordinating, trusting and being faithful.

3.     Role of accompaniment

There are roasters aware of the fact that peasant families cannot improve their lives if they do not organize into cooperatives, and that is why they seek out healthy relationships with these cooperatives. There are importers who understand the importance of connecting small roasters with small producers who are organized into grassroots cooperatives. There are also foundations, like WPF, that accompany this process of triangulation.

In this role, WPF, in collaboration with a team from the COSERPROSS cooperative, accompanies the grassroots cooperatives, contacts importers and roasters, and because of its connections with Universities in the United States, works so that the triangulation reaches university communities.

Previously WPF did not play this role. It assumed that that role belonged to the cooperatives. But seeing that the cooperatives are being absorbed by structures that sow injustice, violence and environmental unsustainability, WPF took on new roles, of being a hinge in the relationships between cooperatives and buyers, helping to make transparent the agreements between the different actors. If previously WPF provided credit on the basis of bilateral trust with a cooperative, now it does it in the framework of an inclusive triangulation, precisely to build greater trust.

4.     Conclusion

At the beginning of this article we asked ourselves about the conditions in which small producers and small roasters can build communities of peace. We provided three responses. First, small producers and roasters pursue common perspectives; perspectives that start from having similar size, committed to coffee quality, and social and environmental sustainability, innovating through diversification. Second, establishing relationships of an inclusive triangulation where the economic transaction goes along with the economic and organizational democratization of the cooperative and the other allied actors. Third, ongoing accompaniment of these perspectives and this inclusive triangulation.

Under these three conditions trust, mutual loyalty and lasting relationships can be built. This leads us to be concerned about the people. It is a perspective where Pedro and Julita, from the story at the beginning of the article, organized in a cooperative can collect their coffee harvest in their own communities. It is a path where markets can work to build communities of peace with justice, communities that plough the seas.

Getting off the old path and getting on the cooperative path

Getting off the old path and getting on the cooperative path

[for pdf version]

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

I was a fieldhand. I was a foreman. I knew how to become a patron. That is what I wanted. That is what I was doing when one day in 1968, on returning home, I ran into an unknown person on a mule. He extended his hand to me, greeting me:

  • I am the priest of Santa Fe- he told me.
  • I do not believe you, priests only greet the rich – I responded.
  • There is always a first time for everything, I invite you to a meeting this Thursday – he surprised me.
  • I do not have time for meetings- I reacted, turning my head back to the path.
  • No? Those are the people I am looking for, people who do not have time – he said good-by and left me without a foot to stand on.

I went to the meeting. I saw him greeting people, even the children, that shook me. We sat in a circle. What I saw that day, what I heard that day, made me think differently. That day changed me forever”.

Jacinto Peña, founder of the Esperanza de los Campesinos Cooperative, Santa Fé, Panamá

In this story there are three moments. In the first, Jacinto knows the patron-fieldhand path and dreams about becoming a patron, who priests greet. In the second, the encounter happens on a muddy path, a moment of awakening between the clash of events and words; the priest goes to people and shakes the sweaty and calloused hands of peasants, exchanging words, where two mentalities confront one another and at the same time coincide in “people who do not have time” (people involved in initiatives), and the possibility of change appears: “there is always a first time for everything”. In the third moment, the meeting takes place, and a new path takes shape in which what stands out is what happened before and during the meeting: greeting people, including the littlest, time to reflect in a circle and listening to one another, causes “thinking differently”. A year later they would organize their cooperative, and with that they would channel this awakening and new path in a sustainable way.

In this article we describe that old path, its reproduction in coopted cooperatives, and the appropriate path of the cooperative that, connected to peasant and indigenous roots, guides the centenary dreams of people. In the wrap up we leave open ended conclusions.

1.    The old path

The old path is a dominant perspective and seen as the only one; it is a structure defined with rules honed over centuries. See figure 1.

It is a relationship of power over the labor force, peasant products, female bodies and nature. The perspective is that what is important is what comes from above; if someone has a pressing need or emergency, they look upward, and go to the person considered to be the “top honcho”. In this structure each person knows their place. This is where the expression “know your place”, fieldhands or peasants understand “their place” and consider themselves “brutes” and “powerless”, that is why the cook on a farm or hacienda works twice the amount of time than the men, and earn less than one day of work of a man, and in addition is sexually harassed as her daughters are – “whatever moves in my hacienda is mine”. The patron believes he owns the land, the cattle and the truth: while the fieldhand or peasant dreams about becoming a patron (see in the story of Jacinto Peña how he dreams of becoming a patron) on the basis of impoverishing the most vulnerable and nature, or resigns himself to his current condition under the belief that “the corncob, even though there is a good rainy season, will always be a just a corncob” (if you are born mediocre you will always be mediocre), ashamed of being “small” and believing that his current position is by “the will – or punishment – from above (God).”

Fear and subordination are generated on this path, while “going to the top honcho” is glorified: being “close to a tree with shade”.

“By your side I am safe”, repeats the woman. The foreman moves about safely because he answers to the patron and walks under his “shade”, he protects that door and is afraid that others might go pass through it. Fieldhands and peasants, including technicians from the haciendas or farms and the State itself, do not ask about the origins of the profits, it is considered that the economic distribution (wages for work, payment for product and earnings for the patron) is natural and divinely fair. Asking about these topics is considered a sin. Only technical and de-politicized questions are asked: where to weed or whether to use more agrochemicals. Meanwhile, whoever dares to ask about the accumulation of capital or its redistribution, do so because they “have lost their mind”, are drunk or are not controlling their anger, and when that happens, that person is accused of “equalizing himself” by his fellow workers and the “shade” of the patron fails to cover him. There are people, nevertheless, who awaken up to how unjust this path is, but since they cannot see another path, express their disagreement by cutting down a plant, stealing bananas, using more agrochemicals, or putting stones in the bag of coffee that he has sold. There is no absolute power of the patron (or trader-broker) over the peasantry, there are always cracks for rebellion, but they are channeled–even armed rebellions– without moving outside this path or structure.

From several rules that exist along this path, in addition to “profits belong to the patron”, and “profits organize the economy”, let us highlight the rule that “without money there is no work” or better said “if I am not in debt I do not work”. As they say in Brazil “the pig squeals for its crossbar[2]”, if you take the crossbar off of the pig, after a while the pig will squeal. Peasants reproduce this same rule: “I will provide product based on what you lend me”; peasants await the “crop lien loan” in the “months of silence” to commit their coffee for the next cycle; they harvest a product that “is already paid for”. In this way they are not able to get out of the cycle of dispossession, because the crop lien loan means that they sell their product or work at less than half its price several months before the harvest (see Mendoza et al, 2012[3]); they do not work without being “lent to”; and the distribution of the wealth is the decision of the patron. This circle of iron squeezes the peasant or fieldhand, who see that their only way out is sticking to this structure, and it squeezes the patron or merchant who understands it as their only way to accumulate wealth. See Figure 2, the iron circles under which the economy is organized (see green arrow showing where value is pulled upwards), inequality moves and people and nature are impoverished.

This patrón-foreman-fieldhand or peasant unit is so durable and has become so natural that, following the history of different countries, we see them together even in war itself, some fighting as soldiers and others as captains and generals.

This millennial path crushes any possibility of a different path or rules that oppose it from the family, the farm (diversified) or the community. These perspectives of virtuous rules and a different path, nevertheless, still persist –“there are still embers where there was fire”, we would say with a phrase used about people in love.

2.    Cooperatives that reproduce the old path

The boss and his hen house

Maria was making tortillas when Reymundo arrived upset. “They tell me that you are organizing a cooperative. Why do you want another hen house? Shot off Reymundo, the eternal president of a cooperative.

“Ahh we were talking…”, stammered Maria.

“Cooperatives are made with money, and there is no money”, he interrupted her.

“For that very reason, a cooperative is for thinking and helping one another; in your hen house the members do not think nor is their vote respected”, Maria responded more strongly.

Reymundo raised his index finger: “you are deluded, leaders are born, not made …”

“Do you think you were born from the Virgin Mary?”, María laughed heartily.

“Chicken brain! –shouted Reymundo– a leader is sacred, the people at the grassroots get confused …”

“Do you see a hen´s beak on me?” –Maria laughed again.

“You can´t talk to women!” Reymundo left in a huff.

María, flipping the tortilla, ruefully watched him leave: “He thinks he is the little boss, king of the world! He treats people like chickens, he never understood what a cooperative is”.[4]

In this story the president of a cooperative is a captive of the old path. He understands the cooperative as a “hen house”, and the members as chickens without agency (decision and vote) who follow the rooster each time he crows when he finds some worms. He understands that “nothing is done without money”. In contrast to a cooperative where leaders are made, he believes that “leaders are born”, that he “is sacred”, that those who are “confused” are the members, and that insubordinate women have “chicken brains”; he thinks exactly like the traditional patron.

2.1  Ceremonial glocal cooptation

The presidents are products of structures where the coopted cooperatives reproduce the old path[5].

Following figure 3, compared with figure 1 and how it is described, essentially it is the same structure with two differences. It is more glocal (global and local) which includes international actors, and it is more ceremonial in that hundreds of rules appear (e.g. fair trade rules and those of several types of certifications), and documents signed (buy and sell contracts, financing contracts, forms filled out, written reports and minutes). These two elements contribute to the fact that the role of the management/administration becomes more important (“professional”), becomes the hinge or the entity that has the key to the inside and  outside of organizations. By outside we are referring to international market actors (buyers, financiers, certifiers, aid organizations) and the State. This ceremonial and glocal differences, in addition, expressed in more bureaucratized ways, shape the entire structure with impersonalized relationships.

In this structure the buyers are interested in making money, and therefore are interested in the coffee, cacao or sesame seed product; the private banks and social banks are interested in recovering their capital; the aid organizations want financial reports; and the certifiers want their formats filled out; all of them are interested in arranging things with one person in the cooperative. On the side of the cooperative, the manager or president understands those interests, and respond with product, payment of loans and reports –“whatever the papers can stand”. If the buyers want to hear the song about the “poor producers”, “women members” and “democratic cooperative”, that intermediate layer learns to satisfy them, sings that song for them. Thus business is done in that small “club” of external actors (buyers, financiers and/or aid organizations), and the manager or president of the cooperative. It is a deal around goods – coffee or cacao – based on formal agreements. The role of the State there is to legally provide legitimacy to the existence of the cooperative; this involves confirming that the documents (official minutes) of the cooperative are done well as the state wants them, regardless of whether those documents are pure inventions of the manager or president of the cooperative.

A common characteristic is that, apart from speeches with good intentions, none of them are interested in the origins of the product, nor how the cooperative is functioning, much less whether the members have access to the profits of their organization, whether they received the loan, whether the members benefitted from the project, whether the members meet and there is rotation in the leadership, or whether the organic product really is organic. It is assumed that the fieldhands or peasants have nothing to do with that product, because any product “is made with money” that comes from outside. They are interested in the papers that conceal the expropriation of profits.

This structure makes the associative side of the cooperative disappear (see Figure 4). The external actors connect only with the business foot. The cooperative moves only on that foot. The manager and/or president is seen to be on the old path, with the difference that the control of the “patron” (external actors) is not ongoing, but ceremonial. This structure pulls them from their roots: the president “becomes independent” from the members who elected him, they put the statutes in a drawer; the staff on the business side “become independent” from the associative side which gave birth to it. From that business foot where the old glocalized and bureaucratized path takes over, the manager and/or president present themselves as indispensable to the members: “Those above only receive and send messages to me, only I can negotiate resources – not even God loves you”, “without me, the cooperative would fall apart”; in other words, they mention the external actors as their backing (“their patron”) and their work is rather a favor so that the cooperative does not go broke. They (manager or president) centralize relationships with the actors, they see them as their connections, instead of contacts and/or alliances of the cooperative. In this way the manager or president remain in their posts eternally and deadlock the cooperative; so, when a person enters the cooperative, they understand that there is no possibility to scale up on the associative foot, nor on the business foot, because the president or manager change “on the death of a bishop”.

2.2  The subsumption of the members

Under this framework of cooptation, the cooperative subsumes the members. The notion of subsumption we take ¡from Dussel (1990: 353)[6] who, rereading Marx in the context of industrial capitalism, understood that the worker (living work) and the machine (objectified work) are subsumed by capital; it is a secret way of creating surplus value for the capitalist. Here the member loses control over their product beyond their “picket fence,” and loses their organization while breaking away from their associative foot (figure 4), left as a producer of raw materials and encapsulated as a “member”, while the global chain appropriates the surplus value. How does this happen?

Figure 5 shows the same logic of figure 2 of the old path. The three rules that move the members are the abduction of the profits (surplus value), the fact that the cooperative is to “provide credit” and that the business foot might “manage the yield of the product and buy wherever what is needed to meet the market demand”. These three rules make the members turn in (“sell”) their coffee, and resign themselves to letting the business side run them.

The global chain pulls up the value of the product, those who do not produce the coffee capture 88% or more of the total value of the coffee, while the members get less than 12% (Mendoza, 2012: 159)[7]. From this global chain framework, the cooperative assumes the role of “not distributing the profits of the cooperative” and the mentality of the member is that of being a producer of raw materials – and nothing more. How does this work? The cooperatives that sell organic coffee or cacao turn over the “organic premium” as an effort of the manager and the technicians, as a “favor”, and not as the effort and right of the members. It is like some political parties who when they get to power in a country, redistribute something of the wealth without changing the capitalist path nor model; it is the trickle down economics of neoliberalism, of the assumption that ‘the more the capitalist accumulates wealth, the more it spills over´. They redistribute as a good patron would, who instead of providing grilled meat once a year, gives it to them three times a year, reinforcing that old path even more. The managers who run these cooperatives, tacitly assuming that the cooperatives are like “their properties”, justify it: “we do not redistribute the profits because we are consolidating the future of the cooperative by investing in assets”; they are cooperatives that are more than 20 years old, that continue investing in assets vetoing the redistribution of profits. The paradox is that the redistribution of profits is in the statutes of the cooperatives, something that the State tends to ignore.

The members do not ask about the profits (or earnings), because they believe that it is not their right nor the fruit of their effort as members. By not conceiving the cooperative and its efforts as their own, they do not do the calculations for the conversion of coffee in cherry to export coffee, nor cacao in pulp to dry cacao, nor the value formation of their product, nor do they calculate to the amount to be paid from the loan received, nor the expenses and income of the cooperative. Many producers do the calculations of their farms: ”I calculate how much I am going to harvest, what I am going to sell it at; and from there I go down, what I am going to pay the workers, the food, and I spend accordingly” (Rufino Espinoza); but they do not do the same with their cooperative, because they see it as “someone else´s”. The mentality of the members is: “I am a seller of raw materials, the rest is not of my interest”; “they lent me money and they said how much I am going to pay, the rest is up to them”. It is like borrowing money from the patron, whose earnings are unquestionable because he is “doing you a favor”. In the cooperative the money of the members is read from the lens of the old path, they say “it is money from the cooperative, not our money, the money of the members”; and even worse, “the manager lent me the money, I owe him” – the paradox is that it is a resource of the members themselves.

Now let us look at the second rule: “I do not work if they do not give me credit (crop lien loan)” (Figure 3). The members appear to doubt that their farm is theirs and disengage from it; correspondingly, it is common to find ourselves in coffee fields in bad shape, particularly in the case of organic crops. The members have the idea that the cooperative (manager and/or president) is there to “bring them credit” and to “buy their production”, which is why they do not work their farm if there is no credit. It would seem that to become a member is to neglect your own farm, because the “foreman” (manager or president) does not come in to supervise them. If the manager or the president shows up to visit them, they do not see it as a visit, but as “credit”, that he is coming to “provide credit”, “to collect”, or to “supervise”. The board members behave like “foremen”. “If we redistribute the profits, the members are going to feel free, without a commitment to the cooperative; if we give out earnings as credit, they are going to assure coffee for the cooperative” (a president of a coffee cooperative); “If we are going to visit the members they are going to believe that we already are bringing loans, and then they are only going to want to talk about that” (Idem).

The third rule refers to the yield of the product, and the fact that products from non-members comes in as if it were from the members. The yield refers to the processing of the product and its production on the farm. The former happens from the harvest collection to its sale (be it exported or sent to the national market): from sun dried coffee to dried, warehoused, hulled, selected and bagged; from cacao pulp to fermented, dried, bagged and warehoused; from sugar cane to the extraction of juice, boiled in cauldrons, granulated and bagged. This phase is carried out under the leadership of the business foot of the cooperatives, which is interpreted by the members as “not my job”, which is why they do not demand the earnings referred to in the first rule, and do not access information about that yield. This is what leads them to say, “I am a seller of sun-dried coffee, of cacao pulp, of sugar cane…” and not of “export coffee, or granulated sugar”.

Another rule emerges for the yield of the organic produce on the farm: “an organic farm is not applying anything”. It means zero agrochemicals. It has been extended from there to “zero organic inputs”. A good number of the members, except those who apply agrochemicals in secret, let their coffee field produce what natures provides it, that organic fertilizer “is nature itself”, as if they were in the agricultural frontier areas where the virgin soils are fertile. Behind this is the idea that growing coffee or sugar cane is applying agrochemicals under the order of the patron, and that nature “just responds to the mandate of the patron”. In other words, the cooperative reproduces the old path, but in a feeble way: the “foreman” does not supervise the production nor determines how to manage nature. This gets worse when the organic certifiers  prohibit them from planting other crops in the same area as the organic crop, pushing them towards monocropping, intensifying this feeling that these organic areas are “someone else´s”, that they belong to the technicians and the buyers who give them the “organic premium”. It is probable that the reaction by some members to not work these organic areas is also a form of protest, “well they manage that part, so I am not going to apply anything”; or that the rule of “if there is no credit I do not work” is even more true in the case of organic producers, because they work less, when they would have to work triple the amount of time in organics, because if a conventional coffee area requires 10qq of urea, a similar area of organic coffee requires 30qq of organic fertilizer, which implies more family labor. Consequently, production drops, families get more impoverished[8] and managers or presidents, responding to the market (global chain of actors), buy conventional products from non-members, and pass them off as organic coffee from the members, without the members realizing it.

Some members and leaders hear rumors about these practices, and are tempted to ask about them. But the business foot reacts strongly: “You owe me”, says the manager or the president to the member, as if the cooperative were the manager or president, or as if the resources of the members belonged to the manager and/or president. “The cooperative spends more on you who only turns in 500 lbs”, they accuse the smaller producers of coffee or cacao, reproducing the ideas of the old path, where the one who has more materials resources rules the rest. The accusations escalate: they throw in their face that they are small producers, that they had to buy produce from outside to cover administrative costs. On one hand, the members are afraid of the manager, president or technical trainer; they do not demand their rights out of fear that they will not give them loans, exclude them from some project, collect what they owe in front of the other members; the women are doubly afraid, afraid of their husbands and the manager or president. In this way the members end up believing that they are “small” and that is something to be ashamed of (“we do not make demands because we are small producers”), that the cooperative “is someone else´s”, and therefore their actions are not connected to the results of the cooperative. In other words, the members also are disengaged from their cooperative.

In this process there are people who wake up, but they are not able to get beyond this structure, they thought that by joining a cooperative they would leave that old path. They discover this reality, awaken, when they realize that the rules that they are following are not their own, nor do they come from their community nor from the cooperative, but from those who exploit and oppress them, that they do so clothed as cooperatives, democracy, revolution or fair trade. They understand what is happening, they abhor it, and see their relatives moving under these pernicious “exogenous” rules, believing that they are “their own”. It is when they feel disgusted, that their mind is conflicted, they do not know whether to believe in what woke them up, they become schizophrenic, wander on paths like sleepwalkers, while dragging along pieces of humanity. If they share their meditations, they are accused of being crazy, so with the look of someone lost, they murmur “I am disoriented” or “I am confused”. This happens to them because they have awoken to their condition, but the cooperative through which they thought they could leave that situation, ends up being the same structure, more global, more formal and offering more training, but it is the same structure. Of course, there is no absolute power over the members, they divert their coffee or their cacao, avoid paying their debts, wait…

2.3  Advice or assistance to, and from, the business foot

In these cooperatives the accompaniment on the part of allied organizations, or on the part of the technical area of the second-tier cooperatives, is linked to the logic of the business foot of the cooperative. Consequently the trainings and consultancies do not cover the entire glocal chain of actors, nor deal with the redistribution of profits, analysis of the financial information, nor the real traceability of the product – about whether it comes from the members, about whether it really is organic, whether it really comes from women members, whether it is or not a cooperative.

Let us look at two examples. The first, seeing the depressing situation of the coffee field, the aid organizations easily deduce – along the lines of monocropping .- that the members need to be trained, which is convincing or evangelizing the peasant about something that it is assumed he does not know, and that the trainer assumes he/she does, something like “not putting anything on organic cacao”, or pruning, or crop varieties. Nevertheless, in previous pages we have seen that the low production has to do with technical aspects connected to the rules of the old path, something that the accompaniment does not tend to include. The second element is about training in gender, it tends to be about the habits of the couple, that the husband cooks as a favor to his wife, that women work in agriculture, that the cooperative incorporate women to make it look like they are more equitable (husband signs over a piece of his property so it be in the name of his wife); they are trainings that reduce patriarchal relationships to technical responses.

It is a consultancy that does not start from studying the pernicious and virtuous rules on gender or production. They are consultancies that assume that they know them already, because everything has already been “studied”. How can women join cooperatives when their own rules (“having land”) excludes them, in addition to the fact that they tend toward monocropping? Other consultancies insist that the members not be afraid of criticizing their board members and managers, but that can be an act of suicide, if the members themselves do not move beyond the patron-fieldhand structure, and if they are not accompanied by their advisers in that effort. Understanding the problems and opportunities of the member families is also understanding that these problems are also the problems of consultants.

3.    The cooperative path

Is it possible to wake up and take another path? The fact that most of the cooperatives reproduce the old path makes this possibility more difficult, like what happens when a political revolution reproduces the same hierarchical structure that it apparently fought. We say “apparently” because in reality it was “get rid of you to install me”. But of course another path is possible! Here we present the conditions that create a cooperative path, its results in terms of the 3 rules, and the appropriate accompaniment.

3.1  Mechanisms needed for an associative path

We begin with the first mechanism, awakening and envisioning an alternative path.

Louise convinced her husband, Harold, to take a vacation. In 1983 they went to Mexico, El Salvador and Nicaragua, the last two countries in civil wars in those years. One night Harold awoke with a start, sat up in bed, and began to sob. “This is crazy” – he said to himself – “I have not cried as an adult, and now I am crying.” Why was he crying? The previous day while walking through the streets of Managua, a naked child ran up to him and hugged his legs. He looked down at the child, and the child looked up at him. He never saw that child again. That event stayed in his mind. So talking with Louise they decided to make more money with his business, Foldcraft, in the United States to organize a foundation that would provide support in Nicaragua. In 1986 they established the foundation. The couple has since died, and that Foundation continues supporting dozens of peasant families through their rural organizations in Nicaragua.

Harold and Louise as a young couple began to make furniture in the garage of Harold´s mother´s house, a business that over the years became a million-dollar enterprise. That daily effort made the couple believe that the rules under which they moved were the rules of the rest of the world. Nevertheless, that night when Harold woke up crying, he realized that it is NOT true; that his rules in his business were not the same rules in countries like Nicaragua. According to what people close to the family tell us, Harold was a very conservative member of the Republican party, and Louise was from the Democratic party. Being so conservative, how did they realize that the rules were not the same? The couple were mentally open to understanding that their rules and the rules in Nicaragua were not the same, that so there was injustice. That small, naked boy had shaken their hearts and their minds. Harold and Louise did not become cooperative members, but they found a path to make their awakening effective. They sold their business to their own workers, and they understood that the biggest challenge was that the workers would become owners, and that that also was the challenge of the members of cooperatives. So they left behind their resources for this new path of justice.

Now let us consider the awakening of Jacinto Peñas, described at the beginning of this text. He awoke and envisioned another path based on “thinking differently”. That path took shape in a matter of months. He and other founders remembered it.

We awoke to the injustice of the wages, the cheating that the stores did to us through the weighing, and the prices for what we produced, and what we bought from them. We decided to form a cooperative. But how could we do that if we had no money nor anything? So Fr. Hector threw a nickel in the middle of where we were sitting and asked, “How many pieces of candy can we buy with this coin?” “Five!” we responded. Another person among us looked then for a nickel in his pocket. And others threw in more coins. Father picked up ten coins and told us that it was enough to buy 50 pieces of candy. He asked a boy to go out and buy them. It was noon and we were hungry.

The boy shared the candy with the fifty of us peasants who were there, and Father asked us again. “What does it taste like”” Someone said, “It tastes like glory!” We laughed. “This is how cooperativism is done”, concluded the priest.

The next week a group from Pantanal bought a hundred-pound sack of salt to resell as retail, and in El Carmen each person began to save 10 cents per week. In this way la esperanza de los campesinos [the hope of the peasants] was started, that is how our cooperative got started.

So started the Esperanza de los Campesinos[9] [Hope of the Peasants] Cooperative. Surely after several visits and group reflections they were awoken. They realized that the old path produced injustice, that money was made by lowering salaries and on the basis of cheating in the weight and the price. They understood that together they could solve these structural problems, like the weighing and pricing, that that was possible with the accompaniment of the priest Gallego, taking another path. Hope begins for them, and they propose forming a cooperative. At the very beginning a rule of the old path, and a belief about themselves, pop up: “without money nothing can be done”; (we have) “nothing”. They have a collective awakening there about the cooperative path, where they discover their own capacities: their own resources to contribute, initiatives for generating resources (in El Pantanal with a “hundred-pound bag of salt”); it is a collective awakening that frees up their energies to start their cooperative path in their own territory; and a reflective process, accompanied by the priest Gallego, who in our language “throws the ball back to them” – it is a type of accompaniment that we espouse in each one of these mechanisms.

Figure 6 shows the second mechanism, cooperative functioning in a circular path. Instead of elites sending directions down from above, like in figure 3, reproducing the old path expressed in figure 1, now the international actors are part of a triangulated relationship, where buyers and financiers are interested in the product and in their capital in so far as the cooperative improves as a resource for the members, and in so far as the international organizations themselves are freed from the NY price for different products. On this path the most important product is not the coffee, cacao or granulated sugar, but the organization itself, and the chain of organizations with the allies.

The third mechanism is that the cooperative walk on two feet, the associative foot and the business foot (see Figure 7). It is the interaction of both feet that makes it move forward, as the song days “there is no path, you make the path by walking”. The associative foot defends redistribution, democratic exercise, and informational transparency; the society side. And the business foot defends the increase in wealth, efficiency (more income and less expenses) and effectiveness in economic transactions; it is the market side. One foot dominating the other is the termination of this cooperative path. An organization that only walks on the associative foot shares its wealth and is left with unsustainable democratic methods. Likewise, an organization only with the business foot is left as a means of dispossession subject to the market.

Within this framework a cacao buyer wants to negotiate, talk and reflect with people from both feet of the cooperative; the same with a financial or academic institution. There are no followers there, but leaders, there are no small nor large producers; one person, one vote; all the members have the right to elect and be elected, which is why the rotation of leadership is a principle on the associative side as well as on the business side. New members or a new worker in the cooperative will see from the beginning that, regardless of their level of schooling, they can scale up in title and learning.

The fourth mechanism is about values. On the old path values are talked about, but those values are turned into fetishes – words (values) that hide their commodification, and separate human actions from their economic, social and political results. The cooperatives that reproduce those old values repeat the laws, cooperation and solidarity, but their meaning comes from the old path, it means subjecting themselves and using the law for individual interest at the cost of the collective and its processes. In cooperatives that depart from the old path, values like honesty, solidarity or cooperation are connected to the origins of cooperativism, the roots of their members, and communities where they come from – see Figure 8. These values are connected with our childhood and with fair norms and equity in our families and communities: “equal inheritance”, “respecting collective assets”, sharecropping”, “shared labor”. These values, said figuratively, we have buried under layers of soil and we have to dig them up; on this path doubts about whether we are on the right path assail us. Swimming against the current is rare and difficult; the question guides us.

The fifth mechanism is the rootedness of the organization in its communities and in the diversified nature of its production. The old path makes society subject itself to the market, and with that promotes the extinction of the peasantry through monocropping, a colonial strategy for dispossession, now intensified by capitalism. This old path expressed through cooperatives coopted by the market follow that same strategy, even promoting organic production, just as we saw previously. This path leads us to serve the market, adopt monocropping, turns us into enemies of nature, disconnects us from other people and from ourselves. On the cooperative path, we deepen the horizontal and vertical diversification, it connects us to nature and our roots. The more diversified we are, the more we energize our communities, the more we connect ourselves to different markets. The more agroecological practices we adopt, the greater autonomy that we attain, and the more we pull our cooperatives to function in our own territories. It is in this context that we talk about improving production, the quality of what we produce, to the extent that we improve the land.

Finally the mechanism that reinforces a contingent awareness. The old path makes the worker disconnect from the wealth that is produced on the farm, hacienda or factory, makes the producer family believe that their country ends at their own hedgerow, makes the member believe that it only means calling yourself a member, while always being a “seller of raw materials”. This old path makes the accompanying NGO or technician believe that their advice does not have to do with the results of the cooperative or the family. This act of believing that our actions have nothing to do with the situation of a country, the environmental situation, and the democratic system or not of our countries, is an act of alienation that intensifies climate change and social inequality. The cooperative path is precisely reconnecting our actions and their aggregated effects of unintended consequences.

On throwing in 10 nickels, 50 members saw how that act was turned into candy, into their redistribution, in a collective act that started a cooperative, a space for learning and created a living community. In the story “the little boss and his henhouse”, contrary to the mentality of the president Reymundo, Maria connects the actions of people, that “a cooperative is for thinking and helping one another.” The mental openness of Harold and Louise led them to think that there were unjust rules that generated results like that “naked boy”. It is Jacinto in the story at the beginning of this article that connects processes and “thinking differently”. The redistribution of profits is one of greatest expressions for members to connect their actions with the results of their organization.  It is the connection between individual ideas and actions, and their collective aggregated effects (results), that gives us the possibility of awakening, and consequently of changing. This is the basis for cultivating a contingent awareness, that there is nothing that is given, that we humans transform realities; that there is no “above”, only the circle of Figure 6.

3.2  Elements of repossession

Ownership is the biggest result of the mechanisms just mentioned. This ownership is expressed in three rules: redistributing profits, providing credit that breaks with the crop lien system, and horizontally and vertically diversifying in a way connected to nature. The three rules are interdependent on one another. See Figure 9.

Redistributing is the first rule. On the old path, the member summarizes their identity as “I am a seller of sugar cane”, “seller of sun-dried coffee”, “seller of cacao pulp”, or “seller of my labor”. On this old path, reproduced by the coopted cooperatives, that mentality of treating the members as “hens” is intensified, giving them “the organic premium”, or improving the price for their sugar cane, coffee or cacao. These cooperatives do not allow discussing the profits of the cooperative, nor do their global actor allies bring up these topics. In contrast, on the cooperative path that notion of redistribution* is inherent to being a cooperative.

In the story about the emergence of the “Esperanza de los Campesinos” cooperative, 10 peasants contributed 5 cents, and 50 candies were redistributed among 50 peasants; the object of that meeting was not to buy candy and distribute them, but that act of re-distributing them (“multiplication of the loaves”) gave them the sense of ownership of being a cooperative from the very beginning. This is what Harold and Louise experienced after that night of tears, that ownership was the biggest challenge for the workers to become the owners of the business, and likewise in the case of members with their cooperatives. Redistribution is a means of ownership over your organization, which makes profits, information and rotation in leadership be shared. This is what wakes up the member, generates in the member interest in being informed, occupying positions of leadership, and keeping watch over their organization. In this way, Rufino Espinoza who calculates his income and costs for his farm, could ask for information and calculate the income and expenses of the cooperative; the members can calculate the yield of their coffee from cherry form to export coffee, and even roasted and ground coffee. Because “where your treasure is, there your heart will be” (Mt 6:21); a (economic, social, political and environmental) treasure that is the result of collective effort.

Contrary to “giving credit to go into debt” or “providing credit as payment for your produce at less than half its market price”, the second rule of change is: credit that frees the members from indebtedness and the crop lien system. This is possible coupled to the rule of redistribution of the cooperative´s profits, as well as receiving part of the loan in kind (farm inputs), making the relationships and information transparent in the heart of the family, that leads them to savings in times of  “fat cows” for the lean times, and stagger income throughout the year.

This takes us to a third rule: diversifying connected to nature. It is not possible to stagger income without breaking with colonial mono-cropping; nor to save if a family and their cooperative are not promoting diversification in its various expressions. Staggering income comes from horizontally diversifying on the farm and vertically in forms of forward agro-industrialization (e.g. roasting coffee, making chocolate, making marmalade from fruit on the farm) and backward industrialization (making organic fertilizer and natural fungicide, protecting water sources). This rule fights that pernicious rule of “not putting anything on it”, connected to the lack of ownership over their own farm and cooperative; let us recall the old Spanish proverb “what nature does not bestow, Salamanca cannot provide[10]. That relationship between production and nature must be rethought from the idea of holistic ecology, proposed in Laudato Si. There Pope Francis urges recognizing one common cry from the most impoverished people and degraded nature; not seeing nature are something isolated nor much less as a thing, but connected, people with the environment, with God, with oneself and with other people; it is a notion that starts from the fact that there is an interconnection between society and nature, politics, economics and the environment, personal dignity and the common good, generational justice, culture and lifestyles. In other words, diversifying linked to nature is something that you connect with multiple and different areas.

These three rules are interconnected within a glocal framework. Composting is not done, in spite of hundreds of trainings received, because doing composting is a technical matter connected to policy, ownership of the farm and the cooperative. Credit can be a means for freeing the members from their debts and keeping the business foot from subjecting the cooperative to its interests, if that loan is connected to the redistribution of surpluses, if the financial organizations support this purpose, and if the member families improve their capacity for savings in so far as they diversify their activities.

3.3  Transformational accompaniment

This glocal cooperative path requires an accompaniment coherent with, and in the interest of, the aforementioned mechanisms (3.1) and results (3.2). It requires that we be in the home of the member family, and at the same time connected to the entire chain of global actors, in other words, working in networks, in teams, moving as part of the circle in figure 6. “Staying on top of the pulse”, and “being in the game”.

The priest Gallego is a source of inspiration in this. He had his religious network for working with the peasantry, he moved in the communities themselves, reflected in a circle with the peasant families, and contributed to the fact that the peasant families organized; his idea of church went beyond the temple in the municipal capitals. Pope Francis would add: listening to the cry of those most impoverished and the cry of nature as one cry. And we add the compelling need to conceptualize what we learn from the cooperative and from ourselves as accompaniers. We are not looking to do the impossible, but to break down our limits.

Open ended conclusions

Few rules move the world, even though below that “bridge” there might be a lot of running water. What this article dealt with should not be seen as a prescription. It is only a small door to multiple realities in which it must be reinterpreted, corrected, expanded and added to. How to wake up and build cooperatives that would channel the dreams of peasant and indigenous families? How to accompany them breaking through our limits which the traditional academy imposed on us?

In this article we showed that sustained changes are possible if a specific cooperative in a certain community decides to do it. Even more so, if the global actors awaken and join the circle of change. Will global actors have the courage to awaken and change?

What is seen here is not exclusive to cooperatives and the chain of actors linked to them. We find the same structures in any organization or institution, be it grassroots, on the national or international level, the academy or the church. Nevertheless, the hope for change is present even in the most pernicious and inhumane organization or institution that has existed on the face of the earth. Can these organizations dig into their history and that of humanity to re-encounter their real mission in our common home?

[1] Collaborator of Winds of Peace Foundation (, associate researcher of IOB- University of Antwerp (Belgium) and member of Coserpross (

[2] Crossbar refers to two stick tied to its neck to keep it from digging under a fence.

[3] R. Mendoza, E. Fernandez y K. Kuhnekath, 2012, “¿Institución patrón-dependiente o indeterminación social? Genealogía crítica del sistema de habilitación en el café”, en: Revista ENCUENTRO, No. 92. Managua: UCA  In English at:

[4] This parable is inspired by a visit that a colleague had. I changed the names to protect them.

[5]The old path exists in an infinity of types of organizations: political parties, NGOs, Universities, Churches or sports organizations. “If a teacher misses a class, he does not let us know that he is going to miss, and later decides when to make up that class without consulting the students; that is the order in the University”. I was told this by a student in the fourth year of Oriental medicine studies.

[6] Enrique Dussel, 1990, La producción teórica de Marx, un comentario a los Grundrisse. México: s. XXI.

[7] R. Mendoza, 2012, Gatekeeping and the struggle over development in the Nicaraguan Segovias. PhD tesis. Belgium: University of Antwerp.

[8] Several studies have now found this correlation between organic production for markets and poverty. See: Joni Valkila, 2009, “Fair Trade organic coffee production in Nicaragua — Sustainable development or a poverty trap?” in: Ecological Economics.

[9] In an article we pulled together the genesis of this cooperative, see: R. Mendoza, 2017, “A priest, a coop and a peasantry that regulates the elites”, in: ENVIO 425. Managua: IHCA-UCA. This year the cooperative celebrates its 50th anniversary, see:

[10] This expression probably refers to the fact that one of the most prestigious universities of Europe is in Salamanca, and the first to receive the title of university. It is a saying that indicates nothing is a given, your genes do not ensure your success, rather it is sustained effort that is required.

The alternative path of associativism

The alternative path of associativism

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

The betrayal of their own path

People dispossessed for so many years collected their savings and gave them to one of their sons, Solin, for him to pay for the coffee that was collected from their own group. Solin had never had so much money; he was like a deer in the headlights. He paid for the coffee. Some of the same people who had saved, behind the back of the rest, went to him to get him to lend them money. Solin first said no, but these people insisted, and he gave in. More people showed up, also from other parts of the country, and he ceded. Solin felt like a little patrón, “The people trust me”, his chest puffed out like a balloon. This path of giving out other people´s money, saying that it was his, led him to lie and believe his own lie. When other people showed him his mistake, Solin offered them money to shut them up, and if they did not accept it, he would slander them. One day he looked himself in the mirror and was frightened to find that he did not recognize himself.

When the owners of the money asked him to give it back, he had lent it all out. “And where is the money?”, they raised their voices. “You have already eaten it,” the theft reverberated like 10, 100 and 1000 years ago. Solin and several of the savers had betrayed their own path. Both took the path trodden for centuries by the old hacienda owners and fieldhands, by the comandante and those who died, by the manager and those who believed themselves to be cooperative members.

This story illustrates what happens frequently in cooperatives. A group of people save, define their purposes, agreed on their rules and then betray that path. The old path trodden by the patrón where the fieldhands follow for their pay, become indebted and to look for a favor, a path also taken by governments and churches (“Holy Patron Saint”), clouds and blocks any other path. In the story this group of people and Solin look at themselves in the mirror, or ask about their resources, and are surprised to be on the old path of dispossession, moving from being “servers” to “being served”. Their biggest tragedy is not so much the use of the money, but the fact that they have betrayed their path, this is the reason for the bad use of the money and the fact that their lives have taken a 360 degree turn, arriving at the same place. How can people who organize be able to follow their own path?

1.     Individual-collective duality and the dilemma of betrayal

In organizations that face corrupt acts, there is finger pointing, accusations and complaints. “He is incorrigible”, “he is guilty of bad administration”, “she is not accountable”, “she uses our money for her benefit and that of her managers”, lash out the members. These

 phrases in a cooperative belie an individual perspective, accentuated by the religious conservatism of “personal salvation”, and by the neoliberal doctrine where what is important is the individual and not society–there is no such thing as society, said the first female British Prime Minister M. Thatcher in 1987, during the full eruption of neoliberalism. Reproducing this perspective, nevertheless, is a way of “washing our hands”, of showing oneself to be innocent while pointing out others as the guilty parties.

These same expressions, nevertheless, can be read as “spitting against the wind” from the collective perspective. Because the member who is doing the accusing, with or without a title in some organ of their organization, on seeking a loan directly from the administrator, behind the back of his own cooperative, is not exercising his/her role, and/or violates the rules of their own organization; on the other hand, the corrupt administrator establishes himself reproducing the idea of the patrón;: “With 100 cordobas I keep them happy.” Many times even the State or aid organization officials who support the cooperatives borrow money from the managers, knowing that it is money that belongs to the cooperatives. “The spit” also falls on this member and this official who preaches cooperativism. A systematic act of corruption happens, above all, because of the lack of functioning of the respective organs, because of the lack of compliance with the rules of the organizations, and the accounting norms on the administrative side, as well as because of the acceptance of aid organizations*.

The members know the rules and procedures, but they see them as tedious, “paperwork”, “bureaucracy” – high transaction costs, they would say in economics. The members of the organs also see it in this way: “meeting is a waste of time.” While the patrón “from one big roll” decides to lend to them or not. In this process the members believe the administrator about any version about the source of the money, there is no culture of verifying their versions, because, they think, it would be distrusting and ungrateful; for that very reason, they do not ask for receipts either, the patrón does not do receipts – his word is enough! In addition to believing him, they fear him, “a person with other people´s money is capable of anything”, they whisper, so they keep quiet – do not speak in front of the patrón! This is a rule that is resurrected. From here the “vice” of playing with “other people´s money”, more than individual and exclusive of the manager or some president, is a collective “vice”; a collective act causes individual behavior – of corruption or honesty. See the upper part in Figure 1.

“The law is not being applied to him”, state the members and advisers of the organizations. With this they mean to say that organizations have laws, the State oversees compliance with the law; and that aid organizations have rules, and they do not apply them. This, however, continues to assume an individual perspective, believing that by “applying the law” “the patron is going to self correct”. It ignores what the history of any country tells us, “the patrón makes the laws”, be that with his right hand or his left. So we detect that this individual perspective, clothed in a collective and legal perspective, is moved by structures of dispossession; the “accusing”, the “abusing other people´s money” and “preaching laws” make the path of cooperativism disappear, and accentuate the path of dispossession – it is the dilemma of the betrayal. So we perceive that this structure is like rails for a train, it does not matter who the conductor is that is driving the train, nor how many years of schooling he might have, how many advisers and protectors of the law he has, that train will move along the rails; not matter who the administrators or presidents may be, these structures (“rails”) trap the conductors. In this way cooperatives can go broke, while these structures remain unmoved –“in an open treasure even the just will sin”, goes the saying.

At the same time this structure is being challenged. On the one hand, there are some members who cultivate a contingent awareness, that it is possible to make your own path and walk it; and on the other hand there are administrators who understand their role, respecting accounting rules and the collective perspective of organizations, shunning “inflating themselves” like balloons that run the risk of “bursting.” They do not “spit into the wind”, but recreate that collective perspective which finds itself supported by mechanisms that are coherent with more communitarian structures, and consultancies that study these rural underworlds – this is overcoming the dilemma of betrayal. See the lower part of Figure 1.

2.     Innovative mechanisms for cooperatives as the vehicle for repossession

“They do not let us be peasants”, shot off a Costa Rican leader in 1991, recognizing the onslaught of neoliberalism in turning the peasantry into workers and “wetbacks”. The “be peasants” has been more coherent with community structures, in conflict with structures of dispossession. It goes with mechanisms that make an alternative path possible, mechanisms that we have been learning from the exceptional organizations in Central America: see figure 2.

They are mechanisms that “de-commodify” peasant life, they involve awakening and organizing, deepening their roots, improving the organization of the commons, and sharing the path in a glocal alliance- because every space is glocal (global and local).

Mechanism 1: Voluntary genesis of cooperativism congruent with community principles

Nearly two centuries ago a group of textile workers in England saved part of their salaries to start a store, and with that stabilize their income and defend their basic needs. In Germany peasants organized to free themselves from usury. In both cases, the people understood that individually they were not able to overcome structural problems, like the low buying power of their salary and the usury that indebted them for life; organized, they could do so. Thus they defined their path and walked it. Over time cooperativism has expanded throughout the entire world and has become a double edged sword, a means for repossession for its members and communities from whence they come, and a means for dispossession when small elites appropriate it for profit. Read the brief dialogue in the box.

From the angle of the genesis of cooperativism, this dialogue shows the incomprehension of the administrator about what a cooperative is, as well as the wisdom of the younger brother about the social rule of “respecting someone else´s assets”. “The need of the other affects me”, says the administrator; precisely the crude “need” of people led to the fact that cooperativism emerged standing under the principle of respecting collective assets. The error of the administrator in this dialogue is providing a loan from money that is not his, and doing it outside of the rules and organs of the cooperative that named him “administrator”; with that he dispossessed the members of their resources, and full of a short term vision condemned needy people to suffering. Being “proud” is abusing “another´s assets”. This deformation results from the individual perspective derived from structures of dispossession.

The cooperative that originated in the will of its members to overcome structural adversities, and does it with rules based on community principles, like those expressed by the “younger brother” in the dialogue of respect for collective goods, is a long term structural mechanism.

Mechanism 2:  Rooted in diversified bases

The market demands a product and does not matter whether the one who produces it comes from one place or another; the State and aid agencies behave in a similar way, they legalize organizations or demand changes like “including women as members” without regard to where they come from. From working with cooperatives we learned that a cooperative that is rooted in its micro-territory has more possibilities of walking their walk, of being inclusive…

How to be rooted? Even though the members of a cooperative come from the same micro-territory, deciding that the administration –and therefore the financial transactions – are done in the territory itself, requires making explicit in a reflective way several beliefs written in stone for centuries: “Here they are going to steal from us, in the town there are Policemen and that is why it is safer there”, “no buyer or certifier is going to come out here to our place, we have to go out to civilization”, “here we are living in the brush, the patrón lives in the town”, “that little girl doesn´t know anything about administration, only men who ride on motorcycles know it.”

When the members of a cooperative come from the same micro-territory, and decide that their building and its administration are going to be in the same space, then we create favorable conditions for a good cooperative. The possibility that corruption might emerge and intensify is reduced. The mobility of the members to the cooperative´s building, as well as the attendance of women and men in the meetings is greater. We say that more women and men go to the meetings, because of the geographic proximity and because they do not have to travel to the municipal capital to attend meetings; the women can go to the meeting with their babies and/or children, something that is difficult if the meeting is in the municipal capital. This contributes to the cementing of trust among the members. Also the coordination between the administration and the organs of the cooperative can improve. The care of the members and board members over their administration increases, which is why the security of the resources of the cooperative in that place increases. Accessing information and asking their questions is also more possible.

The payments that are made in the territory itself to the members, be it for coffee, cacao, sugar cane or another crops, has an impact on the economy of the territory. The storefronts and small businesses sell more, new businesses tend to emerge. The interest of the partner of the member, and their children, in the receipts that their Father or Mother bring from the cooperative is greater. The possibility of having lovers under the argument that “I am going to town for a meeting” is reduced. It is like the butterfly effect in a world as interconnected as today´s world is, even more so is life interconnected in a micro-territory and in families.

Mechanism 3: the functioning of the cooperative organs and administration

The fact that a member might understand that organized they can overcome their structural problems is one step, the fact that they can facilitate that because their cooperative is rooted in their territory is a second big step. Nevertheless, there are cooperatives that in spite of having taken both steps, go broke or turn into a means for dispossession manipulated by small elites. The third mechanism is that each member, with or without a title, function in accordance with the rules and organs of their organization, without going “in secret” to the “real person in charge”, because the “real person in charge” in the cooperatives are its rules and organs.

It is easy to say that the organs of a cooperative function according to its rules. But it is difficult for it to happen. The phrase that is read in laws and management, that they are “management organs” illustrates that they are not “decision making organs”, that the power of making decisions was expropriated by the elites. How can the organs be “decision making” and the administration “management”, the former with a strategic role and the latter with an operational role? Apart from the fact that they know their statutes (rules), meet systematically and cultivate connections with their members and with external actors, the key is in the fact that they become learning organizations. How? First, each member is seen as a leader in their community, understanding that the biggest treasure is in their own social territory; consequently, their first task being multiplying their visits to other people, members or not of the cooperative, so that through conversations, they might understand the problems and opportunities that exist in their territory. Knowing them and sharing them is their fuel for pushing the cooperative to improve, and it is their source of ideas for enlightening cooperativism.

Second, the relationship between the administration and the organs is developed to the extent that they organize information, analyze it and on that basis define their policies and strategies to be followed. This provides work content for each organ. For example, information on loans and arrears is analyzed by each organ, particularly the credit committee; the Oversight Board finds one of its principle follow up tasks in this; the education committee, as a result of this analysis, proposes to work on financial education with the members about how to save, invest better and working with more autonomy, breaking with that old institution of “going into debt” and putting up with any exploitation for being “indebted”.

Third, making decisions based on the visits and the data analysis makes it possible for them to make better decisions. A particular area is diversification. A cooperative, even one with organs functioning acceptably, if it continues embracing mono-cropping, sooner rather than later will go broke; if it continues, it will work to dispossess. Promoting diversification, nevertheless, is difficult because of the atrocious structure of international power. Today to speak about agricultural cooperatives is nearly to talk about mono-cropping. So there are “successful” cooperatives that have credit, marketing and technology services just for one crop; the effect of mono-cropping on the peasant economy and the environment have been horrible for decades and centuries. The attached box illustrates the expansion of mono-cropping even through organic agriculture reduced to its dimension as a commodity, and the fact that people of good will from international organizations work against the peasantry while believing that they are “benefitting” them. Visiting and analyzing data leads us to question the origins of our policies and respond to the millennial strategy of peasant resistance: diversification and environmental sustainability. If the organs and the administration of a cooperative focus their tasks on diversification of the farm and agro-industry, their cooperative will democratize a little more, and will include more youth and women in general.

The geographical proximity facilitates organizational functioning, and this, focused on diversification, makes the cooperative be even more rooted, produces new innovative rules and starts the path of being an organization of repossession – of peasant viability with economic and social diversification, and environmental stability.

Mechanism 4: Glocal alliance for the cooperative path

These three mechanisms facilitate changes in the cooperative and in the economy of the member families and their territories, but they will achieve sustainability to the extent that they take on the attitude of a cooperative member. It is not just organizing voluntarily, looking at their territory, making decisions through their organs, it is feeling themselves to be, and being cooperative members. What does this mean?

For centuries indigenous and peasant families have cultivated a mentality of producing to eat. Then in the 1920s in Central America cash crops came in like coffee, sugar cane, cacao, and cattle. In that process they molded a mentality of being a “seller of coffee”, “seller of sugar cane”, or “seller of milk”. Consequently, they reasserted their territory (“country”) in their plot or farm: “My country ends with my agave fence”, they declared, which means that within this area there is a structure and a person in charge, that outside of that is not his world, that his world ends at the fence where the buyers come to buy his products. They do not even sell, they buy off of him. This mentality was intensified by the markets, “I will buy your coffee sun-dried or wet, the rest does not matter”, “I will buy your sugar cane”; likewise national and international aid organizations, allies of associative organizations, with people trained in universities that taught them that only “Inc.” companies produce profits, say to them: “work on the raw materials and the rest will we take care of”, “you are good for harvesting, industry and trade is our thing”.

What is the problem with this mentality? The peasant receives payment for their coffee or milk, that is their world; the other world is that of the patrón, where the profits are; the peasant never is interested in this other world, knowing what their patrón did with his profits; the very fact of asking him was showing ingratitude, insubordination and social suicide – their own people would treat them as someone trying to be his equal. This institutionality has been reproduced in associative organizations and their allies; a member looks for payment for their coffee, sugar cane or milk, they are not interested in knowing whether their organization generated profits or not; in Fair Trade the use of the premium of US$20/qq of coffee is previously defined in social investment, infrastructure… and $5 for the member family to invest in their farm; the premium for organic coffee of US$30 is perceived like this, “premium”, equal to a “roasted cow” that the patrón would provide for them at the end of the harvest, “premium” of a day of fiesta. In other words, the agave fence of the peasant member is “price of NY + premium” (see box); the member family understands that their profits and premiums are not an expression of their rights, but “a favor” (something “extra”, “charity”) of the local or global patrón, that is why they do not ask about it, do not ask for information, nor keep their receipts nor complain over the distribution of profits. Knowing this reality, the patrón (administrator or fair trade coffee buyer) repeats, “with 100 córdobas I keep them happy”, “with pig rinds and booze they leave happy”, “I buy from them at a good price and I give them a premium, whether that gets to the member´s family or not is their issue.”

Complaining over your profits is like being a “beggar with a club”. It is like a woman subjected by her husband, she feels “kept” and without the right to ask him about the “rest of his money”, and it is the mentality of the citizen who pays taxes and instead of complaining that his government reinvest in public works and provide him “good service”, see these works as the result of the goodness of the government (patrón).

The three mechanisms listed need to be complemented by this fourth one, with which we will move beyond this glocal mentality. How? First, building a mentality where the peasant family has awareness about the fact that their actions create value and have unexpected consequences, which is why they can refine their policies and carry out actions of even greater value and impact. This is possible if they observe and reflect on some details; for example, making sure that through the payment for the harvested coffee in that territory positive aggregate effects are generated in the economy of that territory, beyond their “agave fence”; observing the impact of their diversified organic agriculture on their farms as well as on the territory; reflecting on the effect of violating the agreements of their own cooperative, that leads them to lose resources as a cooperative and as a territory. On observing these positive and negative effects, the members can awaken their awareness of being coop members and of moving from their “agave fence” to understand that regardless of their purposes, their actions have a repercussion on the territory. In a parallel fashion, let also global actors awaken and understand that their actions have repercussions on the lives of the peasant people; if they look at a cooperative just as “coffee” or “cacao”, commodities, and believe that by providing a good price and premium they have already contributed to the families, they should ask themselves if they are sure that they have “contributed”; if one person turns into an elite capturing those premiums, are the buyers contributing to the well being of the peasant families?

Second, making relationships between different glocal actors (global and local) be living alliances that are committed to the formation of associativism, complementing the mechanisms mentioned here. This does not mean improving the prices of raw materials. It means that organizations add up all the income (value of sold product +premiums+incentives for quality and other bonuses), subtract their expenses and costs, and from the gross profits they agree to redistribute according to a certain percentage, let us say 50 or 60%. We repeat, it is not a matter of improving the price of the sugar cane or the coffee, it is not distributing the premiums; it is redistributing the gross profits of your organization.* The remaining 50 or 40%, or other percentage, goes to internal funds, social fund, legal reserves, investment fund in the organization…

Third, all the actors, cooperative, associative enterprises, aid agencies, Universities and State Institutions, we all should commit in an ongoing and systematic way to cooperative formation, based on the lessons and challenges of the organizations themselves. On emphasizing profits we are not reducing ourselves to the economic, we understand with Aristotle that quantity is an element of quality; consequently, the members will move from a mentality of “I am a seller of sugar cane” to “I am a seller of granulated sugar”, from “I am a seller of coffee” to “I am a cooperative member exporter of export quality coffee”. This will mean that each member pushes that their organization generates more profits and redistributes them, they will make an effort to be informed, to be trained, to diversify more. With these elements, the formation will help their cooperative and territory, the board and their members, the cooperatives in the north and the south, to maintain strong ties of collaboration and mutual learning.

3.     “Muddy” accompaniment from the underworld of the member families

Most cooperatives have been accompanied, be it by the State, Churches, aid agencies or Universities. Standardized accompaniment has meant providing them trainings, legalizing them, buying products from them and /or providing them with donations; it is an accompaniment that does not cross over toward the communities and the underworld of the cooperatives, which is why it ends up legitimizing corruption, or that cooperatives get turned into a means for dispossession. A new type of accompaniment is required so that these four mechanisms emerge, are adapted and make a difference.

Owen and other associative people inspired the emergence of cooperativism in England, Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen accompanied the first cooperative in Germany. A distinctive accompaniment in Central America has been that of the Catholic Church in the years 1960-1970; that accompaniment helped them to reflect on a God living among them, and a Reign of God that began in those very communities – the “treasure” (God) was in the communities themselves. This accompaniment gave rise to dozens of cooperatives and peasant stores based on their own resources; a good part of them still persist after 40 and 50 years[2]. Consistent with this type of accompaniment, even though not from a religious perspective, we describe here an accompaniment that enters into the cooperative underworld in interaction with the 4 described mechanisms.

What are the distinctive characteristics of this accompaniment? The first is that the accompanying people understand that only by entering the underworld of the cooperatives and their territory will they be able to understand the process in which the cooperative finds itself, awaken reflection and help create mechanisms like those worked on here. The fact that we intellectuals might have the “best” assessment is useless if the members are not reflecting on and walking their own cooperative path. For that reason the accompaniers need to pass beyond the control of the “patroncito”, be that the administrator, manager or president, and through the conversation be exposing the struggle between the path of the patrón and that of the cooperative, as well as the complexity of walking their own path.

Second, accompanying is discerning mindsets from the inside. Along with studying the cooperative underworld, where the old path is imposed based on betrayal and subordination, and where people wander between doubt and intuition, the accompaniers discern the mindsets in the cooperatives, and their own mindset as accompaniers. When the cooperative is trapped in acts of corruption, it is moving under the rules of “the clever one takes advantage of what he administers”, and “we always need a patrón”; these rules conceal actions against their own organization; then the members see the accompaniers as “intruders”, unfurl the banner of “autonomy” to keep the accompaniers from “crossing over the threshold” of the territory, and make up lies in the territory that these accompaniers “are taking advantage of the cooperative.” Discerning their mindsets implies “muddying ourselves” in their beliefs and lies, at the risk that this might erode the legitimacy of the accompanier and drive him/her out of the territory. What distinguishes good accompaniment is the persistent act of overcoming our own mentality that it is “enough to train, legalize and help them to export in order to live better”, “taking their pulse” and innovating with member families to the extent that destructive mentalities that prevent learning are dispelled.

Third, accompanying well is allowing member families to take their own steps, provided that we understand that our actions also have repercussions in the lives of the member families. The accompanier risks the fact that the members might perceive him or her also as a “little patrón”, impairing them from walking their own cooperative path. Let us illustrate this with one experience; in a cooperative, after the second mechanism took place, of rootedness, the results in terms of informational transparency, reduction of corruption and a motivating environment because of its economic and social impact in the territory were admirable. So the board members complained to the accompaniers: see attached box.

In the box the leader sees the accompanier as a “little patrón” with the capacity to stop the corruption and impose decentralized administration on the territory of the cooperative. The response of the accompanier to the first complaint is that having intervened as a “firefighter” to “put out the fire” of corruption, even though this act would have saved them financially, it would have constrained them from building their own cooperative path, which is structural and long term. The response to the second complaint reveals an accompaniment that helps to innovate mechanisms to the extent that it studies and learns from the cooperative itself and its underworld. Even now that we have innovated these four mechanisms they would not be recipes for any organization, they are mechanisms that need to be adapted to each situation, and that each cooperative should experience their processes. These two responses illustrate that accompanying is letting member families walk their path, provided that it studies them and provokes reflection.

Finally, in this process we are getting to know ourselves, re-knowing ourselves in our actions, and we are developing a sense of reasoned compassion. Not the “rational being” of homo economicus. On understanding the mentality of a group of members who “always need a patrón that steals from us”, we understand that for more than 100 years this institution has been deeply etched in their grandparents and parents, reproduced now by this group. At the same time we understand that this institution is not characterized by “being peasants”, but that it is the centuries old path of the patrón-fieldhand. This reflective reasoning envisions this reality for us, and awakens “being peasants” in the lives of cooperative member families and our lives, through respecting the collective good, the rules of the collective and mother earth, the horizon for which we produced the four mechanisms.

Accompaniment makes us remember that the change is in alliance between the peasant families and those of us who accompany them, while we walk together. It is not a stationary accompaniment, but along the road. It is a tense alliance, with stumbles and doubts, but embracing each other for the purpose of creating a vehicle for repossession to the benefit of peasant families.

By way of conclusion

We began this text with the following question: How can people who are organizing follow their own path? First we identified how the colonial patrón-fieldhand path intensified by capitalism that only values merchandise (commodities) erodes the cooperative path, and leads people to betray their own path. This teaches us that individual actions respond to certain perspectives (individual or collective), and they in turn come from structures in conflict, communitarian structures and structures of dispossession; and that this cooperative path is connected with community life, also in resistance for centuries. These two paths clash, for example, in “the good of others”: the colonial and capitalist path is nourished by dispossessing “the good of others” (land, financial resources, labor) from the peasantry, while the cooperative path is connected to community structures which precisely originate in repossessing “the good of others”, which in this case is the “collective good”, material assets (financial resources), as well as alliances and collectively decided arrangements. This “good of others” in the cooperative path is then a “social relationship”, as Federici would say.[3]

Lining ourselves up with this cooperative path, we list four innovative mechanisms that, contrary to the saying that “in an open treasure even the most just sins”, make the cooperative into “a treasure with rules and associative governance where even the biggest sinner becomes just.” These four mechanisms are: voluntarily organizing, rooted in specific micro-territories, making the cooperative organs and administration function, and within a glocal alliance framework help the member families to cultivate an awareness of “being a cooperative member”, that their actions generate changes in their lives and the life of their territory, and making the cooperatives expand their profits and redistribute them with informational transparency and as an expression of respecting “the good of others” (common good, collective good, their own good), in contrast to capitalism that is nourished from dispossessing material assets from peasant families. Then we argued that cooperatives need an accompaniment that makes a difference, that crosses over formal and despotic structures and gets into the underworld of the territories, from which they innovate with the member families, like the mechanisms listed here, and accompany them through thick and thin.

Is this text important only for cooperatives and their allies in their social territories? What happens in the cooperatives and their social territories at the micro level is happening in countries at the macro level. Following the cooperative vision is overcoming the “commodity” vision, the colonial patrón-fieldhand path and the belief that “with money you can even make monkeys dance”, and it is creating a society that cooperates, makes rules and follows them, expands their profits and redistributes them, learns and democratizes. Will it happen?

[1] René has a PhD in development studies, associate researcher of the IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium), collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation ( and member of the COSERPROSS RL. cooperative

[2] A case to illustrate this type of accompaniment is that of the Cooperativa La Esperanza de los Campesinas in Panama. See: R. Mendoza, 2017, “A priest, a cooperative and a peasantry that regulates the elites”, in: ENVIO 425. Managua: IHCA-UCA.

[3] Lucia Linsalata, 2015, “Three general ideas for thinking about the commons. Notes around the visit of Silvia Federici” in Bajo el Volcán, year 15, number 22. Federici talks about the commons in the community, she says “there is no commons if there is no community”. In this article we present the cooperative as an expression of people from a community who decide to organize, and for them “the commons” is within the cooperative, even though in relation to their communities or social territories.

Conditions and processes where youth energize family agriculture cooperative movement

Conditions and processes where youth energize the family agriculture cooperative movement

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

You cannot direct the wind but you can change the direction of your sails.

Chinese proverb

Tell me something and I will forget it, teach me something and I will remember it, make me participate in something and I will learn it.



The paradox of the last thirty years is that the peasantry, in spite of having offspring with higher levels of formal education, is experiencing an economic and social crisis that threatens their very existence. Cooperativism could be its “ship” to resist and reach a safe port. To do so this cooperativism, coopted by economic and political elites, needs to “change the direction of its sails” and reorganize. This is possible if they youth are participants in this process. So, under what conditions can rural youth participate in this process of the reinvention of cooperatives to make family agriculture viable? This article wrestles with this question and arrives at a conclusion: when the peasantry in cooperative spaces studies the harsh rules, studies their own attitudes and mobilizes to innovate for the peasant families who are organizing, that crisis can become an opportunity to improve our societies.


Key words: rural youth, family agriculture, cooperative reorganization, innovation


In the last thirty years the peasantry have faced greater crises over climate change, systematic dispossession from elites, and because there is no more virgin land to “colonize.” A form of resistance has been organizing into cooperatives, but these tend to be coopted by the State, markets and international aid. Likewise, as never before in rural history, there are more rural youth with higher education, but they are distancing themselves from agriculture and are migrating to the cities and outside the country. If this situation continues, in addition to deepening the inequality and the democracy deficit in our societies, it will affect world food that depends in good measure on family agriculture, which according to ECLAC, FAO and IICA,[2] represent more than 75% of the production units in nearly every country of Latin America. If the youth who graduated are participants in the change of “direction” of the “sails” of cooperativism, as never before in rural history they can make family agriculture – also called peasantry and small producers – viable. Under what conditions can rural youth participate in this process of the reinvention of cooperatives to make family agriculture viable? We respond to this question throughout five sections. In the first section I review historical experiences in Europe, the United States and Latin America to show that in spite of the heterogeneity of the rural situation in Latin America and the variety of historical contexts, certain common patterns have worked against family agriculture. After understanding these patterns, in the second section I discuss how this peasant (family agriculture) crisis has been faced. To do so I summarize the idea of “heroic voluntarism” which has generally prevailed with adverse results. I go back to look at the experience of productive youth in the United States during 1870 and 1910, and I summarize the path of how to innovate, based on Albert Einstein, a method that if used by the youth, could contribute to resolving the crisis of family agriculture. After recuperating historical responses to the crisis and a referential framework for innovating, in the third section I discuss the conditions under which the youth and their parents could build bridges in pursuit of this innovation. In the fourth section, I show concrete cases of the type of innovations that lead to the reinvention of cooperativism. And in the fifth section I list guidelines about how to generate a cooperative movement hand in hand with the youth.

  1. Crisis in family agriculture

The waves of the sea and the current of water under the waves tend to go in opposing directions. So goes economic growth and representative democracy in Latin America, where the military dictatorships were left in the past, while family producers are pulled by the “current” of dispossession. Time and time again the peasantry (currently called family agriculture) in the world has been at the point of triumphing in the face of this dispossession. What has made the laws of the elites unassailable? What has kept the peasantry from charting their own farm and industrial path? In this section we briefly review the situation of the peasantry (or family agriculture) in Europe, the United States and Latin America. We do it to surprise ourselves about what concurs in the conditions that oppose the peasantry through the crop lien system, usury and trade mediation, which have been dispossessing them of their resources, turning them into proletarians and expelling them from their places.

1.1. In Europe and the United States

In Europe industrial capitalism was imposed, and dispossessed peasant families of their lands, which turned them into proletarians so that they might work in industry, which they opposed with thousands of forms of resistance. Part of this resistance was the emergence of cooperatives in England with textile workers, as well as cooperatives in Germany in the decade of 1840 with Hermann Schulze-Delitzch, in the decade of 1850 with Friedrich Raiffeisen, and in the decade of 1860 with Wilhelm Haas, cooperatives which in part were a reaction to the failed revolution of 1848-1849 in that country, and mostly to the suffocating economic laws. Raiffeisen, for example, found a relationship between poverty and dependency on usury and on commercial mediation, and argued that to overcome poverty that dependency had to be overcome, which is why he promoted cooperatives under triple S: self-help, self government and self responsibility.[3]

A closer picture we have in the United States. After the Civil War there (1861-1865), the industrial and commercial elite – between 1870 and 1930 – destroyed the hopes of the peasantry organized into cooperatives. What happened there? Lawrence Goodwyn[4] describes that the Civil War, accompanied by economic “prosperity”, was followed by a period of stress under the “new rules” of trade. In the face of these “hard times”, the peasantry had to “work even harder”. Since this did not turn out well, millions of families migrated to the western part of the country believing that with “hard work” on virgin lands they would generate more income than debt. That did not work out either. They realized that the rules of trade in Kansas and Texas were the same as those in Ohio, Virginia and Alabama. Rosa[5] described what was happening in the United States:

Such are the characteristics of the domination of capital in the world. It expelled the peasantry from England (after having left them without land) to the Eastern part of the United States; from the East to the West on the ruins of the economy of the Indians, to turn them into small producers of merchandize; from the West it expelled them again, once again ruined, to the North; ahead of the peasantry went the railroads, and after it, ruin; capital always went before it, as guide, and capital followed behind it to finish them off. The general scarcity of farm products has followed the great drop in prices in the last decade of 1800, but the small North American farmer has obtained as few fruit from it as the European peasant.

Figure 1. Framework of the crop lien system in the United States. (1860-1930)

What rules? The crop lien system backed by laws and the economic power of the country. That is, a merchant manages two prices, one for cash and another on credit; a producer family is not able to buy with cash, which is why the merchant provides them with food, inputs and tools on credit, to be paid with the harvest of cotton at implicit interest rates between 100-200%. The harvest arrives, the merchant is paid with cotton, and the family generally is left in the red. In the case that the producer family lacks land and/or mules, the landowner rents them out to them and, in coordination with the merchant, are paid with the harvest. For the next harvest the merchant provides credit again, this time the family leaves their property mortgaged. In the second, third or fifth year, the merchant is paid with the property.

This system was part of the mediation and national industry structure. Industry provided the inputs and tools to the intermediaries, and they in turn to the producers on credit. Those red balances got worse, because the cotton buyers in England turned their purchases to Egypt and India, in other words, the producer family was suffocated by the nefarious “embrace”: cotton prices fell and prices of inputs and tools for growing cotton rose. If the family did not raise cotton, they were not given credit; if they planted cotton, they had to depend on agro-chemicals. This system, in addition, was backed by laws of the State and by the economic power of the elites behind industry and commerce.

With these mechanisms the concentration of land and industry increased, as well as corporate centralization and the policy of the United States under a cover of being “democratic.” Something similar had happened in Europe, on the one hand, they extracted wealth from the peasants and turned them from farmers  into their workers, because they withstood better the harsh and long hours of work in the industries than the urban people did; and on the other hand, they created resigned behavior in the population, by making them believe that these situations were natural, that their luck was due to the fact that they were “lazy”, “insecure” and “backward” and that things could not be changed.

1.2. In Latin America

Even though the mechanisms of dispossession varied from region to region, and within each country, there are certain common patterns. “Peasants are like stones, we are bouncing downhill”, said Félix Meza, a peasant from the agricultural frontier in 1991 (Wiwilí, Nicaragua). Based on the harsh rules of trade, from the metropolis that demanded meat or sugar, to the mountains, the pressure of the “domino effect” was felt on the purchase of land, from the wealthiest to the least wealthy in cascade. This means that a peasant family would stay in a place for an average of twenty years; then they would leave the land to their children, who would sell it and go farther into the mountains to expand their land area. This history repeated from generation to generation has intensified in the last thirty years, because the amount of “virgin lands” has been dramatically reduced, which has expelled the rural youth toward the cities and outside the country.

Figure 2. Crop lien system framework in Latin America, XX and XXI Centuries

Source: Author´s elaboration based on field observations in countries in Central America

It seems like this anti-peasant system of Europe and the United States is pretty similar in Latin America, with the respective variations that each context brings to it. We will explain this in terms of products, labor and land. With products, the trader buys coffee futures during “times of silence” (months of scarcity) at half of the market price, to be paid with coffee when the harvest arrives.[6] With labor, large estate owners and companies tend to get their permanent workers indebted and ensure themselves of temporary workers for the next harvest. For example, a family receives a loan during the “time of silence” for which the woman (single mother or wife of the peasant) will cook on the large estate serving the workers 16 hours a day for an average of $6 dollars a day during the coffee harvest; in contrast, without that debt she could make $6 working 8 hours a day in the harvest itself. With land, even though land purchasing continues, for some crops like peanuts, tobacco and sugar cane companies tend to have the peasant families rent them the land, which after a period of time is left useless because of the excessive use of intensive technology (mechanization and agro-chemicals). It is a system that provides resources for the short term and erosion in the long term, makes the payments evaporate quickly, and the families get indebted and are systematically dispossessed.

These rules are made more harsh by the nefarious “embrace” of peasant product prices that are going down, and the prices of agro-chemicals that are going up; and by the “pliers” effect, on the one side, the system of commerce and on the other side, the extractive system of natural resources that in many cases goes hand in hand with criminal organizations. This situation is taken advantage of by intermediaries to get them indebted around one crop, with increasingly mechanized technology and dependent on chemical inputs. It is a system that leads to mono-cropping. In fact, for centuries big businesses have moved on these rails, first with sugar cane, then with cotton, cattle, coffee, peanuts, sunflowers, soy beans, African palm… This system of mono-cropping has been permeating into peasant families because the financial and agro-chemical industries also condition them to that. What is noteworthy is that a good part of the cooperatives and the so-called “fair trade”has moved along these same rails.

Consequently, the concentration of land, natural resources, industry and commerce, like extractive concessions, are on the increase. They are doing it backed by the State, legitimized by the Church, and with universities that educate the children of peasants with their backs to peasant agriculture. In this way, hierarchical structures combined now with neoliberalism impress a resigned, providential attitude, and with an awareness of believing themselves to be free. This is the order from which orientations are issued for peasant families.

  1. Heroic, deliberate and innovative voluntarism

How can these “harsh rules”, erected by the elites and internalized by families, be confronted and overcome? For the last thirty years Raul Zibechi[7] has described several social and political movements that have emerged in Latin America with certain differentiating characteristics: assemblies, youth, communities and greater flow of people in their leadership, and in terms of the rural situation, they deal with movements against extractive and mono-cropping – colonial inheritances. Years later, nevertheless, Zibechi[8] himself criticizes some of those who went on to assume Governments and turned against their origins, and argues for movements to be alternatives to the State. In retrospect, the history of humanity is full of rebellions and demonstrations, for example, the student movement of the 1960s where the students believed they were influencing the inherited structures of power and privilege,[9] rural uprisings in past centuries in Europe,[10] rebellions that were put down by institutionalized violence or coopted by elites.

Why did these rebellions fail? In the previous section, we delved into the system that opposed rural families. Now we will understand, from the side of the rural families, the structures that sustain their resignation and we will describe an outstanding cooperative peasant movement.

2.1. Heroic voluntarism

Andrés Pérez-Baltodano[11] describes how the youth of the new millennium in Nicaragua are repeating the elders of the 1980s, and detected that, after two hundred years of wars and revolutions, Nicaragua continues being one of the most backward societies of the continent. This history of failures, according to the author, is explained by a trinity of ideas: Providential God the father, the resigned pragmatism offshoot, and the heroic voluntarist spirit (see figure 3).

Figure 3. Pillars of societal behavior

Source: Author´s based on ideas proposed by Pérez-Baltodano (2013).

The notion of providentialism offers a vision of history as a process controlled by a God who decides everything, where people deny the need for politics: i.e. human decisions that generate change. Pérez-Baltodano (2013) makes a distinction between general providentialism and meticulous providentialism. The former explains the history of Europe where what prevailed was the idea of a God as a force that did not block the exercise of freedom, and that “free will” existed. It is a process through which the absolutism of God in history was ended, and where the Enlightenment of the XVIII Century expressed the idea that people make their history and their destiny. Meticulous providentialism, in contrast, was a vision that prevailed in the Middle Ages, when it was believed that God decided everything and nothing escaped his control. The author concludes that this latter notion dominates Latin American society today.

The notion of resigned pragmatism comes from the providential culture and has history seen as a game of chance where the only thing left is to respond intuitively. It is a vision of politics as the ability to accommodate oneself to the circumstances defined by power, accept that reality, not be scandalized by the injustices, and abandon any willingness to transform that reality.

Finally, the notion of heroic voluntarism provides a vision of activism (action over reason) to transform reality. It is thought that events result from fortuitous causes and that will prevails over understanding. It is an impulsive, emotional voluntarism that depends on physical force to determine history, like mechanically copying European political ideologies without knowing the philosophies that they came from. This is what Edelberto Torres Rivas[12] calls “activism without theory” in his review of the revolutions and democracies in Central America.

This trinity of notions explains the failed uprisings and movements. With a providentialist mentality, where we deny human decisions as motors of change, we adapt ourselves to the reality imposed by power, and we react spontaneously to events. The absence of reflection and study has taken our societies to not transforming their realities, and to the fact that the different expressions of resistance ended up failing. The consequence of this would be that the providential and resigned mentality is even more accentuated.

2.2. Challenge to the century old structure

Probably this trinity of notions also influenced what was described about the United States, particularly the resigned pragmatism and heroic voluntarism. In fact, Goodwyn[13] notes that the first reaction of the producers was political insurgency: it did not work for them. They learned that lesson and organized a movement based on cooperativism. How did it go?

We said that after the Civil War (1861-1865), peasant migration to the west of the country was a victim of the harsh rules of trade prevailing throughout the country. In the face of this, in the decade of the 1870s some producers shared their problems, and several youth, with and without formal education, began to read books on the economy to explain for themselves why the “times were hard” when the entire country believed it was living a time of “economic progress”. So some youth began to speak strongly about their “right” to say that the things that were happening were “not right”. So they formed the Producers Alliance, and from there they formed self help economic organizations, cooperatives, and over the years even a political party.

This movement was noteworthy by the decade of 1880, even though their effects were not felt in the change of the crop lien system described above, rather the crisis continued to get worse. Nevertheless, producer families did not give up, their organizations multiplied and they grew into a massive and coordinated movement that spread throughout the country. Millions of people believed that the “new day” would come, that cooperativism would lead to the democratization of the economy. This is the movement that in the decade of 1890 was known as the “populist uprising.”

Knowing that the agrarian uprising had been aborted by industrialized societies, how were they able to achieve this massive and sustained character for nearly two decades? According to Goodwyn,[14] it was a sequential process. First, the formation of the movement: they studied their situation and had interpretations contrary to the dominant narrative. Second, entry into the movement: ways were created so that people in a massive way could join the different forms of cooperative organization that they created. Third, the education of the movement: they did a social analysis of the process, which created collective self confidence and internal communication. The principal basis of education was the cooperative experiment in itself and its opposition to the commercial stores, distributors, banks, railroads, land companies, etc. The idea was to cooperate, not compete. Fourth, the politicization of the movement: the process of education led them to generate new ideas, share them massively, and organize independent political actions as a possible reality, that led them to propose the democratization of the national monetary system.

Training, gathering, educating and politicizing is how they formed that massive agrarian uprising. The gradual evolution of the cooperative was the basis of that uprising. Thus the Producers Alliance was able to buy and sell cotton, increase the number of itinerant speakers, form different cooperative expressions, acquire machinery and infrastructure to economically scale up, have newspapers and a political party. It was a factory of indignant leaders with the capacity of articulating their ideas and communicating with producers in their own language.

That massive movement, in spite of harvesting success and lasting more than twenty years, collapsed in the end. They failed above all for falling into the same liberal logic of their time, economies of scale, mono-cropping and for the tendency toward the hierarchicalization of the movement. They left us some lessons: a movement generated by youth and producer families themselves, and the political awakening of the youth to the extent that they studied their realities, experimenting with cooperative forms and reflecting on their processes, elements that allowed them to build a shared vision of democratizing the economy through cooperativism – without using violence.

2.3. Innovation possible from the youth

If we return to current Latin America, which is a witness to the boom of youth with more formal education, along with more intensification of the rules of the commercial-financial system opposed to family agriculture, how can the youth reinvent cooperativism which could transform agrarian realities?

We begin with the crisis of family agriculture in Latin America, and we include the migration of youth from rural areas. Then we identify the “hard commercial and extractive rules” in the history of Europe and the United States, as well as in current Latin America. We verify that these processes were resisted, but that in the end capitalism was imposed. To the question as to why the agrarian uprisings failed, in addition to the harshness of the opposing system, with the focus on Latin America, we argue that it is due to a providential and resigned mentality, and wanting to change the system through the force of pure will. Nevertheless, we find the agrarian revolt of the United States based on cooperatives, where they studied and self-studied (not just voluntarism), they envisioned democratizing the economy (overcame resignation) and built their own history (not providential). On this basis we now work on the innovative role of youth. 

Figure 4. Innovative capacity

Source: Thorpe (2000).


We take this step supported by Scott Thorpe.[15] He analyzes how the genius of the XX century, Albert Einstein, discovered the theory of relativity. Einstein was 23 years old when, while working as a washing machine electrician, observed that the speed of light and time seemed to be the same velocity relative to the observer. This problem had not be resolved because Isaac Newton, three centuries earlier, had decreed the rule of absolute time: time did not pass quickly or slowly, it was a constant of the universe – because God is behind the universe. Scientists never challenged that rule. Einstein, in contrast, broke it. Thorpe finds something more, after that innovation: Einstein spent his life establishing it and did not achieve another innovation, he fell into the rule of certainty. So the elderly Einstein said: “God does not roll dice with the universe”. The experience of Einstein is not an exception: the younger a person is, the less they know, and more capacity they have to solve problems (see Figure 4).

Far from voluntarism, Table 1 summarizes a methodology for innovating, which interests us for the youth. A “problem” is structural, whose presentation seeks to satisfy real, felt needs. From Einstein we learn that each detail can be a space for great ideas (for example, when a washing machine is repaired). If that problem was not resolved, it is because there are rules that keep it from being resolved, that is why, as Einstein said, that a problem cannot be solved with the same thinking that created it. While identifying those rules, we detect them in our own minds. We break them. Then the conditions are ripe for solutions to emerge.

Table 1. Methodology for innovating

Problem Rules Breaking rules Solution
-Constructing a problem to find solutions.

-It is a “Gordian knot”, diffícult to untie

-It is something cognitive: it causes problems, it creates crises.

-If there is a problem, there is a rule.

-The rule is like the rails on a train: if you go where they do, fine; some solutions are not found on those rails

-They seem right, but they are old rules that block the solutions that are outside of those rules

-They seem to be unbreakable rules, which they are if we believe then to be so.

-Behind the rules are ideas.

-On discovering the rule, you have to find those protected beliefs as “sacred” in the mind itself.

-“Common sense is the series of prejudices acquired by the age of 18” (Einstein).

-The secret of the genius is discovering those rules of common sense, see them as absurd and break them.

-On breaking the rule, solutions emerge.

-an idea appears different to the idea that started the problem.

Source: based on Thorpe (2000).

The challenge in Latin America is that the youth push for breaking the rules, and generate new thinking to find solutions to the viability of family agriculture. Let us go there (see table 2).

Table 2. The innovation that youth can work on

Problem Rules Breaking rules Solution
Cooperatives coopted by elites subject their members to mono-cropping and are submissive. -“Change comes from above”: resources, laws, market salvation and directions.

-Thought: democracy functions if a minority directs it; belief that “we are nothing without a patron”.

-Providential, resigned thinking and actions based on voluntarism. A member awakens.

-New thought: the cooperative is a means of resistance to the dispossession when it responds to its members.

-Studying and self study

-Organizing the cooperatives as schools for learning and innovating.

Source: author.

Family agriculture is in crisis, more and more corralled by the economic system, fiscal policies, large estates and companies that rent and buy land to expand the mono-cropping system, and by extraction. Families can revert this corralling if they organize into cooperatives, but they have become functional for the system that opposes the peasantry; they are like private enterprise that responds to markets, while they neglect their associative side; they are committed to mono-cropping; they take on the logic of maximizing profits and neglect the redistribution of their earnings; they tend to concentrate physical investments and centralize decision making; they are guided by hierarchical structures of elites who manipulate markets and States.[16] This type of cooperatives are given legitimacy by aid agencies, States, fair trade and the International Cooperative Alliance that emphasizes mega cooperatives. The rule that moves them: “Changes come from above”. Nevertheless, if these cooperatives reinvent themselves and recover the original meaning of opposing industrial capitalism (England) and usury (Germany), commit to democratizing the economy (United States between 1870 and 1910), to the extent that their members govern them through their organs, they could be the best means to make diversified family agriculture viable, and consequently a new society with less inequality. This is possible if the youth contribute to their reinvention. How? That is what the following sections are about.

  1. Generational disputes

If an increasing majority of youth have higher educational studies and the capacity to innovate, why are the youth still not participants in this process of reinventing cooperatives? There are three structural conditions in dispute that explain it.

The first refers to the current generation of parents and children. In Europe, they talk about the “neither nor” youth: they neither study nor work. Zygmunt Bauman,[17] in his studies on inequality observes that the generations of Europe after the Second World War, supported by redistribution policies, looked forward to improve, while today the “neither nor” are the first generation that do not manage the successes of their parents as the start of their career, but rather ask themselves what their parents did to get ahead. These youth are not looking forward, but backward.

Up until some years ago in rural Latin America, parents received their inheritance and would go farther into the mountains to expand their area (buy cheaper land or clear virgin land) so that, later on, they could leave that land to their children, and these in turn to theirs. The inheritance was the starting point for each new generation. But now the agricultural frontier has reached its limit. So, on the one hand, parents are not expanding their areas to leave them, nor are they inculcating their children with farm culture. Because in contrast to the years prior to 1980 when the children grew up working on their farms and homes, their children now spend their childhood, adolescence and a good part of their youth studying, and on the other hand, this group of youth are not finding jobs in their majors, nor do they like the agriculture of their parents. And in those case where they do, they run up against a wall: “They are not leaving me an inheritance because they say that the “pig sheds its lard only after it has died”.[18]

Table 3. Profitability of corn in dollars (Honduras, 2017)

Units Price Dollars
Production (qq) 24 12,9 309,0
Costs 302,1
Preparation (pd=person days) 16 5,2 82,4
Planting (pd) 4 5,2 20,6
Seed (lbs) 25 0,2 4,3
Fungicide (pd) 1 5,2 11,2
Fungicide (lt herbicide) 2 5,6 20,6
2 fertilizing (pd) 4 5,2 20,6
2 fertilizing (sack fertilizer) 4 21,5 85,8
Bend and harvest (pd) 12 5,2 61,8
Blowing 2 5,2 10,3

Source: Author based on cases of producers in Honduras de Honduras.

The second condition refers to the perspective of the knowledge acquired by the youth in higher education. In 2015 according to a report from UNESCO, 98% of the youth of Latin America study. When they return to their parents, many do economic calculations and conclude that what their parents are growing is not profitable (see table 3 for corn). Underlying this acquired knowledge is a perspective contrary to the peasant economy: they consider the crop as merchandise isolated from the production system where it grows, and outside the rationale of the family that produces it. The same thing happens with other crops, for example, they study coffee or cacao and ignore the citrus trees, plantains and forest trees that are in the same area as the coffee or the cacao. These assumptions are in line with the perspective of companies who embrace the mono-cropping system, they bet on volume based on intensive technology and maximizing their profits. In other words, in spite of the fact that 75% of the production units are family agriculture, universities are teaching the logic and technologies of this remaining 25% of modern agriculture, which is why the youth come out deaf and blind to that 75%. The paradox is that the peasantry pays for the studies of their children, and yet their children learn how to belittle the culture of their parents –“you raise crows and they take your eyes out”, as a popular expression goes.

These facts are contested in families. Children love their parents who are getting older, but no longer for their decisions and actions. Parents and children are trapped by an old belief that they themselves repeated. “Son, go to study so that you might not be like me, a peasant” and “a pen weighs less than a shovel” say the parents; “I did not study to go back into the weeds” say the children. By “weeds” they understand family agriculture as equivalent to backwardness, a seed that the university planted in their minds. By “shovel” they assume that agriculture is a thing of physical force, of muscles. When the children do not find jobs in the majors that they studied, the parents get frustrated on not being able to set them on their future, as their parents did for them when they inculcated them in how to think and work on the farm. Now the world of digital technology in which the youth swim is foreign to their parents: “The more they study the more complicated they talk to me.” The youth and their parents do not understand that in family agriculture today the most important muscle is the brain. Distrust builds a nest in their minds; “If I leave him an inheritance, he does not know how to work the land, so he will sell the land and leave, he is like the oxen, if we do not know how to manage them they get tangled up”, and “unoccupied mind is the devil´s workshop”, say the parents; “if I stay with my parents, I studied for nothing” and “old people don´t change” – say their children. The paradox is that the youth reject the vertical decisions (heroic voluntarism) of their parents, but in time reproduce them (resigned pragmatism) for their own children, as happened to their parents.

If the youth along with their parents loaded themselves up with patience, a dialogue could be helpful, like what we reproduce in what follows with a Honduran family. I asked them, “Why are you devoted to corn and beans?” With a millennial patience, the family stripped back the husk, “we plant corn, beans, chicory…because we learned it from our parents to feed our families, not to accumulate money”. Yes, the times have changed, and you have to plant what is profitable (I react). They respond: “planting corn we eat tamales, montucas, atol, corn on the cob, baby corn, tortillas, new corn tortillas. Could we eat all that if we quit planting corn?”, “the protein from recently harvested corn does not compare with that anemic imported corn”, “the tortillas that we eat, have nothing to do with those corn meal tortillas that look like ears”, “with the beans we make green beans, bean soup, cooked beans..” I hear, I like what they are telling me, I understand that corn is more than the tortilla, and the beans are more than ground beans. They continue: “When we now have corn and beans we feel relieved, then we look for plantains, eggs…we go from mouthful to mouthful”. And then “the beans that we are not going to eat we sell, like the other products, to buy other needs and to pay for the studies of our children.”

And profitability? I insist. With a cold stare and face tanned by the sun and the cold, he explained to me: “If we do not plant corn, we would have to buy tortillas. We are six in the house and I need thirty tortillas for each meal, that is 15 lempiras (L); if I plant we eat twenty tortillas because the tortillas we make are thick.” Time to do the numbers so that we convince our parents: 1) from 1 lb comes twenty tortillas, 3 lbs per day for the three meals, 90 lbs per month, in other words 10.8 qq per year, the remaining 13.2 qq from Table 3 are for seed, the chickens and the pigs, from the chickens come between 6-10 eggs every day and 2 piglets every 6 months; 2) if a family does not plant corn, then a family of six needs L16,425 ($714 dollars) to buy tortillas in the year, another amount for atol, eggs and pork. I begin to wake up. On looking at my notes, table 3 and the numbers they give me, I understand that table 3 does not explain that the corn is linked to smaller livestock and also leaves out the corn on the cob, baby corn, new corn tortillas…

To save what the universities have taught us, I ask: And if you only plant corn like the wealthy? “To buy tortillas and what I told you, more in months when money is scarce, I would have to go into debt. The wealthy want that in order to hire me as a peon and pay me the salary that they want. I would end up selling this land, and all the trees would disappear, as you see where there are sunflowers, soy beans, sugar cane…” They say that it does not produce, but it does” – the roar of the wind is heard because my “sails” have changed direction. Where did they learn that? “Listening and working on the farm with my parents.”

The third condition refers to the rural organizations that tend to express the excluding rules and mentality of the elites. It is common to find cooperatives whose members average 50 years of age. If the life expectancy of the countries of Latin America is around 75, the paradox is that the organizations are getting old while they are closing themselves from the young – particularly young women. They make a condition that you have to have land, they support them only in one crop and only in farming activities. A tacit rule is: “organize so that when you are old you can forestall the youth”. In addition, international aid agencies promote the idea of “generational replacement”, an approach that assumes “replacing the old people”, which clashes with the machista culture of organizations, where men “replace” their wives (discard culture), but as elites they do not accept being “replaced”. Explaining these rules can lead to the fact that the cooperative and the member families rethink themselves.

The three conditions are related and are being contested. Studying them is rethinking them in order to innovate in any area of the family, farm, home, cooperative, universities, organizations, etc (see table 4). The challenge is explaining those rules that underlie the problems, and realize that they respond to hierarchical and neoliberal thinking, identify them in our minds, and open a window toward new, more democratic ideas in families and organizations, and in this way glimpse solutions for a family agriculture that would not depend on land, be internally autonomous and consider the cooperatives as spaces for dialogue.

Table 4. The path for the youth

Problem Rules Breaking rules (underlying ideas in our minds) Solution
Without land there is no farm nor are you a cooperative member. “Pig sheds its lard after it dies”. -Agriculture is done when one has land.

-If I give him land he will abandon me (discard).

-More than land, he inherits the hierarchical form of decision making.

Doing agriculture without depending on the land.
Anti-peasant education. Modern agriculture is the future.

Private enterprise is development.

-being a peasant is being backward; family agriculture ia a matter of physical strength.

-Modern agriculture is capital, big companies, mono-cropping.

-Research, basis for autonomy in university and family.

-Dialogue with capacity to listen to one another.

Aging cooperative with a wall for the youth. Cooperative is for people with land; cooperative, without having members, defends its assets. -Cooperative reproduces who we are, rather than protects assets, we inherit the rule of discard: change her for someone younger, but without letting go of decisions (posts). -Cooperative: space for dialogue between generations and people of different sexes

-Member family creates their future.

Source: Author.

  1. The strength of the youth and their importance for reinventing cooperativism

Our vision is democratizing the economy, which would expand family agriculture, and to do so, the strategy is the reinvention of cooperatives. This means building cooperatives that grapple with the economy to the extent that they are schools of learning for making rules and following them, for innovating and training themselves as a team. It is the path of autonomy and citizenship, possible if the youth are participants. Here we pinpoint ways for creating those spaces from the cooperatives to the youth, and viceversa.

4.1. From the cooperatives, spaces for the youth

Box 1. Conversation with the administrator


-How much is your salary?

-Administrator: I do not have a salary, nor do the board members. We rotate.

-I do not believe you. Why don´t you have a salary?

-Producing milk generates good income for us, more than charging for administrating the cooperative.

We start from a concrete experience. The Colega cooperative in Colombia, with members who are ranchers, collect and sell milk. “We are in second place in productivity, behind New Zealand”, they say. These words have backing: they are efficient members who innovate in the management of the livestock, they zealously care for the forest that surrounds them, and their board members administer the cooperative as a service.

Box 2. Conversation with a young member

-You were a little Colega, pre-Colega and now a member.


-Why did you stay here?

-My friends left for Bogotá to study and I took the risk of staying. There, they did not study and they tell me that they do not feel safe going out at night. In contrast, I, studied here and I feel completely safe visiting my friends at night.

This cooperative organizes two groups with the children of their members: the little Colegas who are under 14 years of age, and the pre-Colegas who are between 15 and 18 years of age. Each little Colega is given a calf to care for, the cooperative gives milk to the child as provision for the calf, and the family of the boy or girl provides the inputs for the calf. When the little Colegas become pre-Colegas, because they cared for and increased the number of their calves, the cooperative gives them scholarships to study and benefits as if they were members, because they already participated in production like their parents. When they reach 18 year of age they become members (see Box 2 on the experience of becoming a member, and the externality of security that it generates in the community).

The cooperative, in addition, seeks to create a sense of pride in being a member of the cooperative. In the school they teach a course on cooperation. Each year the cooperative organizes events to which they invite the little Colegas. So from an early age they are cultivating being a future “rancher-member”.

What do we learn from this experience? In contrast to the “generational replacement” a cooperative can form new members with the children of their members and conceive this process as an economic and social investment that energizes the cooperative and the community where it is located. In contrast to large companies where one learns to do a job, in small organizations, like cooperatives, youth learn to pursue their dreams with deep passion. From here, if a cooperative, without waiting on the members leaving land to their children, dedicates 1% of its earnings to provide them an asset (a calf, $1 a month of savings, a pig or a pair of chickens) as an incentive to a child so that, accompanied by the cooperative and the member families, they are trained as people committed to family agriculture and being cooperative members, that cooperative will be planting its own future. And if that policy is supported by universities that teach the perspective of the 75% of the producers of family agriculture and 25% of companies, we would be turning the direction of our “sails”.

4.2. Spaces are opened from the youth

Also the youth should open up spaces. They are the ones who, in spite of having less knowledge, possess more capacity for solving problems. Through what we learned, these steps should be taken to the extent that we discover our providential mentality of “it is not the lightening that kills us but the stingray”[19], adapting ourselves resignedly to the power of structures where “for money even the monkey dances” and the voluntarist impulse that pushes us to solve hard problems spontaneously “just pure man style” or “pure talk” (based on hearsay or threats of force). The peasant experience of the United States in the 19th Century gives us a guide. Their uprising for many years implied organizing into different forms of cooperatives. Youth started it who were looking for books to read and study their realities, on that basis they did not mobilize frontally against the State, but reflected strategically and organized cooperatives. According to Goodwyn,[20] they almost achieved it. Probably the economy of scale logic, concentrating physical investments, competing with private enterprise on an equal basis, the hierarchical structure that permeated them and had roots in the families, ended up undermining their path. But it constituted a good starting point for the youth of today: studying their realities, reading, organizing and continue reflecting on their strategic prospects.

In what follows, we provide some more steps: recover the written culture for the cooperative movement, that the youth organize into different cooperative forms, innovate in the area where they find themselves, and disseminate their learnings to produce a real movement.

4.2.1. Bridges between oral and written cultures

Peasant families are based on oral traditions, transmitted from generation to generation, while the youth of today pass through the academic classrooms based on written culture. Combining both traditions, instead of one replacing the other, is a promising path.

Let us challenge this apparent duality: the oral tradition is not so oral, nor is the written tradition so written. The oral tradition is not just the transmission of cultural expressions from parents to children, but about why and how to produce the food and keep a family. This tradition is also expressed as living hierglyphs through a farm (diversified crops, agriculture-forests), garden (“the green thumb of my Mom”, referring to horticulture and medicinal plants), cornfield, diet, design of the home and idiomatic expressions that reveal perspectives. The written tradition does not seem to find a home in universities, because most of the universities in Latin America do not do research for the formation that they offer, and because, according to Torres Rivas,[21] the “faith in reason” of the Enlightenment is replaced by the “postmodern and neoliberal logic” where “one walks from the academic to the role of the consultant”. Consequently, the youth who graduate have little written tradition and investigative spirit.

Table 3. Strategic Conversation between parents and children

-My parents taught me to plant corn and beans, and that will kill me!

-Dad, times have changed, why don´t you plant other crops?

-For you who have studied talk is easy. I am a peasant

-And how is it that my grandparents decided to plant corn and beans?

– Daughter, for food, if I have food I am not going to be a worker for a bad salary, I can decide to or not, that is how your grandparents were

-This is a very good reason. How did my grandparents plant corn? Why didn´t they plant cassava which also is food?

-We should never be without corn. My parents took a piece of land here and there, they looked where it was better for corn, plantains…they went around testing it

-They taught you to study the land and thus decide what to plant…

-I used to observe them. I would listen to them talk in their bed.     They talked with the neighbors. At times they would tell me “I brought this seed, test it to see if it sprouts”. “You have to plant several things so that the soil gets fed”



To combine them requires unlearning. Table 3 is a dialogue from the peasant side. There are three moments to which we provide color to help understand it. In the first moment is the belief that being a peasant is to be a planter of corn and beans, believing that that is the inherited knowledge. When the daughter questions him, her father shuts her down, “I am a peasant”. That belief, reduced to “what” (crops), blocks the possible learning of both of them. In the second moment, the daughter does not give up, she asks again. There is when the family wakes up, is unblocked: they had learned how to cultivate autonomy, study the soil and experiment. In the third moment, the oral tradition is undressed: observation, conversation, curiosity, experimentation, relationship to the land. This type of strategic conversation is behind a variety of diversified farms or a stew of food. The best of the grandparents is capturing the “how” they taught and how their children learned. And that is reviving them.

Table 4. Strategic conversation between parents and children II


-Mom, I feel bad, I did not get a job as an engineer.

-Work here, son, we need arms on the farm.

-I am not a peasant, I am an agronomist!

-Don´t you think it would help you to practice being an “agronomist”?

-I studied modern agriculture to think big

-What is “big”

-Plant just one crop, mechanized, agrochemicals…

-And who works on that?

-Companies, large estates, businesses, corporations…

-Aren´t they the ones who divert rivers for their rice, they leave areas without trees and unusable land where ever they go?

–Noooo, yes, but …

-They won you over without having to pay for your studies, we being backward and paying for your studies, lost you…

-Ah Mom, I don´t know what to tell you

From the other side, the youth move about self secure for having studied in universities. The attached table expresses another three moments. In the first, Mom and son coincide in that the “agronomist” looks for work, while they need “arms” on the farm. This idea of agronomist blocks the possibility of seeing opposing realities like the peasantry versus large estate owners, production systems on farms versus mono-cropping. In the second moment, the Mother asks and makes the son strip down what he learned in the university. In the third moment, what modern agriculture consists in is explained, and the curtain falls dramatically: the “backward” ones paid for the studies so that the companies might have another engineer. The security of being an engineer at the beginning of the conversation is replaced by the doubt: “I don´t know what to tell you”. Mother and son are awakening.

This unlearning gives way to re-learning. Retrospectively, we started from the duality of the oral-written tradition, then we set out to hold strategic conversations between children and parents where both sides are awakening. Notice, the two tables are like the notes that we take in our notebooks, while the analysis is what we are writing alongside. This re-learning is the bridge between the written culture and the oral culture, which we argue is what the peasant way in Europe and the United States lacked, and what we can undertake in Latin America. This bridge implies: observing, questioning, conversing and analyzing attitudes in the other person and in oneself (for urban youth these steps are possible through immersion).[22] To that we add what was learned from the agrarian uprising in the United States: reading, studying the realities of the harsh rules, reflecting massively with the peasantry, and organizing cooperatives as a result of those studies.

Writing is thinking, accumulating knowledge and sharing it. “Papers talk”. In this process the belief tends to appear that “studies are not done without money”, which assumes surveys, laboratories, and people with doctorates. If there is a will, there is a way. Youth and people of any age can buy a notebook and pen for 1 dollar to take notes, find the veins and follow them. Writing is combining pen and shovel with the greatest stubbornness in the world. From there, what is written are living hieroglyphs: published articles, farms, gardens, financial statements, communities, plates of food, webpages… Taking notes begins the circle of innovation.

4.2.2. Innovative role of the youth in the details

The fact that the youth can build bridges between oral and written traditions opens them to the field of innovating in any area – farm, garden, store, community, family, cooperative. Here we describe two groups of examples where it is important to innovate.

The first group is the farm. If organic agriculture saves us in chemical inputs and feeds the soil in a lasting manner for good production; if bee-keeping, in addition to producing honey, contributes to reordering the farm and increasing its productivity; if the combination of agriculture and ranching is one of the successful veins; if agro-industry in communities adds value to products, knowledge to families and expands social relations in the community; if poultry and pigs are a food source and generator of income; if the garden with horticulture and other plants are food and medicine for families; if stores generate daily income and provide a service to communities bringing them products and selling their products…What innovations can be worked on in these cases and under what conditions can they be expanded? If in the last 30 years Governments and international organizations have failed in their support for gardens, bee-keeping, poultry raising, organic agriculture, agro-industry and commerce, then innovating in these areas is a real challenge.

The second group is the family. The peasantry are made up of decentralized and extended families, while hierarchical at the same time. Elizabeth Dore[23] talks about “patriarchy from below” and refers to the fact that the man in the house is the patriarch, who keeps their financial accounts and centralizes decision making. This patriarchal relationship from “below” is transferred to cooperatives where the president or the manager keep the financial accounts and centralizes decision making. This is true also in community and other organizations. If the family frees itself from the hierarchical institution that forms it, the entire family will review their receipts, and recognize that in that they have an instrument to demand their rights as members.[24] This will have a positive repercussion on the family, cooperatives and other spaces where the members of the family participate: Church, sports, municipal government…It will contribute to social, economic and political equity. Thousands of trainings and sermons have not made a difference in families and organizations. How can this patriarchy from below be transformed which Jesus already challenged 2,000 years ago? What can be done so that in the family the financial accounts are managed by the entire family? I mention this issue of the receipts because it is a detail, so that, like Einstein, the youth might focus on the details and innovate.

4.3. Youth as counterbalance in the cooperatives

These innovations can be facilitated in cooperative spaces. There are some like the Colega Cooperative that systematically include the youth (4.1), while in most the youth lack the instruments to insert themselves in the cooperatives. By proposing to reinvent or create cooperatives with a new design, we are suggesting a role of counterbalance for the youth. This role is a concrete instrument to facilitate innovation.

Cooperatives can reinvent themselves if the youth take on the role of counterbalance from within. In Nicaragua, we work along this line. Between an accompanying organization, like that to which the author of this article belongs, and cooperatives, we agreed to collaborate. The cooperative recognizes that its business side absorbed the associative side, and that this has caused breakdowns, and accepts that its associative side be responsible for the strategic decisions, and its business side for making them operational, as the statutes and cooperative law indicate (see Figure 5).

Figure 5. Youth as counterbalance

Source: Author´s own.

First, there is a tripartite relationship of coordination between the cooperative, financial organizations and buyers, and the accompanying organization, to ensure that the cooperative be treated as a cooperative and not as a private entity by the organizations. Second, within the previous framework, the accompanying organization prepares instruments (guides) so that each organ might function effectively; it does so to the extent that it studies it and is part of the process of change. Third, one young person per cooperative has the role of studying the cooperative, accompanying each organ while using the instruments, and ensures that the information and its analysis flow from the business side of the cooperative to the associative side, and viceversa. Studying the operation of the cooperative allows the youth to detect attitudes in play, make them visible, and propose new innovative rules. Fourth, the accompanying organization creates spaces for workshops with the youth that work on these arrangements, where each one talks about their concerns and innovations, ideas are shared and methodologies worked on about how to hold conversations with member families, innovate, write and share their findings.

Some lessons from this experience. To the extent that the youth study the reason why an organ is not functioning and how it can function, instead of only sticking to the what (statutes and cooperative law), the members see that the cooperative is a different path from private enterprise. When the youth perceive that technical language is a wall in their communication, they understand that they are behaving as technocrats, believing that they have the solution without studying the realities, then, humility gains space, they study the details of the hierarchical structure and how they give way in the face of cooperativism. For example, they understand the tacit rule of the members that “loans are decided by the person at the top”, not the rules agreed upon in the assembly, which is why they study what makes this informal rule persist – there are always reasons! This path of making the organs function according to the rules agreed upon by the member assembly avoids the common result of the work of NGOs, who tend to train leaders and “replacement” youth, who, on assuming their posts, turn into the “person at the top” under the rule of “get rid of you to put me in”. To the extent that the youth devote themselves to this role of counterbalance, the belief that they are “useless slackers” gives way to greater trust.

Box 5. Learning cycle in cooperative reinvention

Steps Content
Study Harsh (adverse) rules and bases for resignation, strategic conversations.
Self study Beliefs that control our minds.
Innovate Experiment with products (farm, stores, processing), services (credit, commerce), relationships (family, community).
(Re) organize Redesign existing cooperatives (role of internal counterbalance) and creation of new cooperatives with new design.
Share Dissemination of results and lessons.

Source: Author´s own.

There are also youth who prefer to create new cooperatives. The advantage is that they are not going to be “organized” by the State or some external organization, they are born with autonomy. The disadvantage is that they do not have external resources for their first steps. They can perdure over time if they start based on innovations that can only be carried out with the collaboration of several people. How can they be accompanied? Table 5 provides the steps, worked on here. Each one of them requires taking notes and analyzing them. It is circular: after the first cycle of study, self study, innovate, (re) organize and share, the next cycle returns to the study of the changing realities, this time self-study is about the operation of the cooperative, reflecting and looking at the world without letting it pass by, and so on successively. Rene Mendoza is developing instruments about how to observe, converse, analyze notes, analyze secondary data and how to innovate along with the youth, texts which, although they are drafts, can be downloaded by young people.[25]

  1. Sharing in the digital era

More than reinventing a cooperative, it is a matter of generating a movement for the reinvention of cooperativism. In this text we focused on the agrarian reality, but it is equally necessary to do it in other areas. How can a movement be generated? The steps of Table 5 are basic ones. Planning each innovation as Pep Guardiola teaches us, and sharing it through different media as Chef Acurio teaches us.[26] In this effort the use of webpages and social media, in addition to other written media and videos, can be paths to explore.

Inti Mendoza[27] finds that the use of webpages is still limited in organizations. The cooperatives who have a webpage are few, and of those that have them, few use them. Innovating in this area to use it as a means for learning is an pending task. In Nicaragua we are experimenting combining webpages[28] with murals in the cooperatives: the same information (minutes of meetings, financial statements, loan portfolio, innovations) disseminated on the webpage month by month, are also presented on the mural of the cooperative. On that same webpage articles are published, databases, guides for the operation of the cooperative, learning guides for the youth, accounting software, stories about how cooperatives are organized, strategic conversations, and basic information is offered on the cooperatives with which they collaborate. We look for students from different universities in the world to study the cooperatives through the webpage, because of the information that is found there and because they can be in direct contact with the cooperatives.

Social networks are another means to discuss difficult topics of the cooperatives. If a cooperative is the captive of hierarchical structures, it can be discussed in social networks. Likewise, how a cooperative constructs its autonomy, or the conditions under which women organize or are excluded from the cooperative; why a cooperative embraces mono-cropping; whether the cooperatives has policies that are excluding youth (for example, having land) or policies against machismo (for example, expulsion of a member who physically mistreats his spouse); whether the international organizations treat cooperatives as cooperatives or only as businesses; whether cooperatives distribute their profits; whether second tier cooperatives concentrate investments and centralize decision making, or whether they facilitate first tier cooperatives scaling up. These topics can be debated on social networks under the question about what is it to be a cooperative and how does the cooperative support the well being of its members?

In the digital era the youth can innovate on ways of sharing their reflections and successes. The webpage is a means for analysis, and social networks a means for informing themselves and debating.

By way of conclusion

There are three ways in which the youth mobilize for social change. One is confronting the State in the streets in a violent way, generally in circumstantial reaction to policies, acts of corruption or acts of repression. Another way is where the peasantry studies the harsh rules (commercial and/or extractive), but forgets to study their own mentality, this is the case of the populist cooperative movement of the United States between 1870 and 1910. The third way is when the peasantry studies the harsh rules (commercial and/or extractive), self-studies their mentality, and mobilizes not to confront the State, but to innovate for the peasant families who are organizing.

Throughout this text we worked on the third modality of mobilization of youth who are moved to reinvent cooperativism as a means to make family agriculture viable. According to L. David Covey, “we are in the midst of one of the most profound changes in the history of humanity, where the principal work of humanity is moving from the industrial era of ‘control’ to that of the worker of knowledge”.[29] The viability of family agriculture is possible today, based not on strength and virgin lands as in the past, but on knowledge and innovation, for which the youth can be the principal motor. The most important muscle in current family agriculture is the brain.


 Barker, C. “Some reflections on student movements of the 1960s and Early 1970s”, in: Revista Crítica de Ciências Sociais. Nº 81. Coimbra, 2008, pp. 43-91.

Bauman, Z. ¿La riqueza de unos pocos nos beneficia a todos? Barcelona: Paidós, 2014.

CEPAL, FAO e IICA. Perspectivas de la agricultura y del desarrollo rural en las Américas. Una mirada hacia América Latina y el Caribe. San José: CEPAL-FAO-IICA, 2014.

Covey, S. “Foreword”, en: L.D. Marquet. Turn the ship around! How to create leadership at every level. Texas: Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2012.

Dore, E. Myths of Modernity. Peonage and Patriarchy in Nicaragua. Duke University Press, 2006.

Goodwyn, L. The populist moment. A short history of the agrarian revolt in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Luxemburg, R. The accumulation of capital. A contribution to an economic explanation of imperialism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1913.

Mendoza, I. 2018, “Porqué una página web en pymes/organizaciones asociativas?”, unpublished.

Mendoza, R., Fernández, E. y Kuhnekath, K. “¿Institución patrón-dependiente o indeterminación social? Genealogía crítica del sistema de habilitación en el café”, en: Revista de la Federación de Cafeteros de Colombia. Nº 29. Bogotá, 2013.[English version]

Mendoza, R. “Inmersión, inserción, escritura y diálogo: mecanismos de aprendizaje para el desarrollo territorial”, en: J. Bastiaensen, P. Merlet y S. Flores, S. (eds.). Rutas de desarrollo en territorios humanos. Las dinámicas de la vía láctea en Nicaragua. Managua: UCA, 2015. [English version]

— “Hacia la re-invención del comercio justo”, en: Tricontinental. Nº XX.,  Louvain-La-Neuve, 2017. [English translation]

— “Construcción de una paz justa en Colombia”, en: Tricontinental. Nº XX. Louvain-La-Neuve, 2018. [English version]

Munck, T. La Europa del siglo XVII. 1598-1700. Madrid: Akal, 1990.

Oppenheimer, A. ¡Crear o morir! Nueva York: Vintage Español, 2014.

Pérez-Baltodano, A. Postsandinismo: crónica de un diálogo intergeneracional e interpretación del pensamiento político de la generación XXI. Managua: IHNCA-UCA, 2013.

Entre el Estado conquistador y el Estado nación: providencialismo, pensamiento político y estructuras de poder en el desarrollo histórico de Nicaragua. Managua: IHNCA-UCA, 2003.

Pineda, C.J., Castillo, M.E., Pardo, E.E. y Palacios, N.V. Cooperativismo mundial 150 años. Bogotá: Consultamericana, 1994.

Thorpe, S. How to think like Einstein. Simple ways to break the rules and discover your hidden genius. Naperville: Sourcebooks, 2000.

Torres Rivas, E. “Acerca del pesimismo en las ciencias sociales”, en: Ciencias Sociales. Nº 94. San José, 2001, pp. 151-167.

Centroamérica: entre revoluciones y democracia. Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 2015.

Wolf, E., People without History. California: University of California Press, 1982

Zibechi, R. La revuelta juvenil de los 90. Las redes sociales en la gestación de una cultura alternativa. Montevideo: Nordan, 1997.

La mirada horizontal. Movimientos sociales y emancipación. Montevideo: Nordan, 1999.

Dispersar el poder. Los movimientos como poderes antiestatales. Buenos Aires: Tinta Limón y Textos Rebeldes, 2006.

Descolonizar. El pensamiento crítico y las prácticas emancipatorias. Bogotá: Desdeabajo, 2015.

Latiendo resistencia. Mundos nuevos y guerras de despojo. Granada: Baladre-Zambra, 2016.

[1] Doctor in Development Studies, associate researcher of IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium), collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation ( and member of the COSERPROSS RL. Cooperative. Email:

[2] CEPAL, FAO e IICA (2014).

[3] Pineda et al. (1994).

[4] Goodwyn (1978).

[5] Luxemburg (1913), 201.

[6] See Mendoza et al. (2013).

[7] Zibechi (1997, 1999, 2006).

[8] Zibechi (2015, 2016).

[9] Ver Barker (2008).

[10] Ver Munck (1990), Wolf (1982).

[11] Pérez-Baltodano (2013).

[12] Torres Rivas (2015).

[13] Goodwyn, op. cit., 26.

[14] Goodwyn, op. cit.

[15] Thorpe (2000).

[16] Mendoza (2017, 2018).

[17] Bauman (2014).

[18] The lard is taken from the pig once it has died (been slaughtered). In rural areas of Central America this expression is used to indicate that the parents in the countryside wait until they die to leave their land to their sons and daughters.

[19] This saying relies on a play of words that does not exist in English: rayo=lightening, raya=stingray

[20] Goodwyn, op. cit.

[21] Torres Rivas (2001).

[22] See Mendoza (2015).

[23] Dore (2008).

[24] Edgar Fernández, a consultant to cooperatives, tells that he visited a member of a cooperative in crisis. Fernández asked if he had receipts. The member showed his receipts and began to tremble: “Please don´t tell the manager that I showed you the receipts”. The extreme in some cooperatives is that they have their members so subjected that they begin to believe that ceasing to cover up acts of corruption is “betraying” their cooperative, that “making demands is a thing of cowards”. A receipt is a detail. How important are the details!

[25] last date accessed: August 19, 2019.

[26] Oppenheimer (2014).

[27] Mendoza (2018).

[28] See,

[29] Covey (2012), xiii.