Category Archives: Education

Rural communities and the challenge of thinking about COVID-19

Rural communities and the challenge of thinking about COVID-19

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

 

Health comes first

-How are you doing, Pipita?

-Owing money, without beans, grey hair, and …

-If you have your health, the rest doesn´t matter

-Ahh! Yes, exactly! But coronavirus scares me …

-Who isn´t afraid? Fear is the biggest enemy of reason. Think, Pipita, your love for others is stronger than anything…Besides, the rain is coming now!

The entire world is experiencing difficult days. People feel fear, impotence, the desire to cry. The only thing certain is uncertainty. Every person would like to support themselves with something, protect themselves under the shade of a tree. But there are almost no natural, supernatural nor social “trees” anymore. It is when that Nicaraguan phrase becomes even truer, “if you have your health, the rest doesn´t matter.” And health is like the rain, it does not fall from the sky with some prayers, it is something that is provided and strengthened with human actions. And who provides it? And how is it provided? Maybe “the love” that one feels for others provides it, maybe the love with which we were made in a passionate morning helps provide it. Maybe it is time to look farther ahead, because “the rain is coming now.”

In this article we reflect on this rural world, that thin strand between hygiene and the economy, between home, church, health center, and between individual and collective actions. To do this we list the facts or risks, we start to explain this “strand”, we look at how scientific recommendations help these different cultures revive – like plants which dry up become green again when the clouds release the first drops of water, and we point out the role of accompanying organizations. The importance of grassroots organizations in protecting their communities runs throughout the article, while the notion of community matures with the turning of each page.

1.    Conditions that work for and against COVID-19

The situation with COVID-19 seems to be getting worse. The gap between the official information in any country and what is in the social networks is large, with which anxiety buzzes like a mosquito at night. In rural communities this concern is connected to the continuity of classes in school, religious celebrations in churches, and festive crowds, with or without quarantine. People think that through that “door” of the school, church or public transportation, the virus can get into their homes and pass through the community. What are the rural conditions that work for or against COVID-19?

Rural families have some advantages and some disadvantages in the face of the virus. The advantages are: the physical distance between people to avoid COVID-19 is facilitated by the low population density, and because a good number of families live on their own farms; the average age of the population is relatively young, which limits the effect of COVID-19, even though this advantage is evaporating because of poverty[2]; living in areas with little air pollution[3]; communities that have grassroots organizations with members and offices in the community itself, through which they access some information and some collective actions. The disadvantages are: if people are infected, it will be difficult for them to go to the health centers with the first symptoms[4] and it will be difficult for them to stay at home, or prevent visits when rumors buzz along the footpaths of neighboring houses, all of which have the potential to infect more people; the quality of the health centers, in any country in Latin America, is less in the rural municipal capitals  and is inexistent in rural communities.

Gatherings of people in schools and churches is the greatest risk; let us remember that in a church in Washington one member infected from between 52 to 60 members of the choir, 65 were infected in a Zumba class in South Korea, 80 people in a concert. Rural gatherings tend to happen in groups separated by the lack of connection between organizations. Cooperatives, schools, churches and party or governmental organizations (e.g. councils, mayor representatives) move in a “walled off” manner; each person in their own world, and under their own leadership. Churches move in their religious world and with their own leadership structure. Schools with their educational programs and with their own institutional leadership. Cooperatives focus on the economy with their own leadership structure. And so on. This separation means that the gatherings move separately, isolated, which is why people tend to behave in an opportunistic way: “let others spend on hygiene to prevent COVID-19”, “I don´t care, I don´t have children in school”, “I am going to church because God is protecting me, what better doctor than God?”

This separation is worse with external institutions. Markets are reduced to offering hygiene products, raising their prices because of increasing demand, and move by means of intermediation; States limit themselves to making an effort in health centers; aid organizations provide resources within the circles in which they move; and second tier organizations and NGOs expect to mediate resources[5]. None of them tend to cross over “to the other side of the river”, in the sense of understanding how rural societies move, lack experience working at the community level with grassroots organizations. This limits our ability to understand rural population from their own perspectives, and limits the communities from understanding external organizations. We live in a world of one-eyed people that is attractive for any virus.

This separation or “fortress-effect” feeds the prevalence of beliefs. It is a universal truth that when there is less information and less articulate comprehension about certain habits, beliefs prevail. What beliefs? In peasant families: “If I believe in God, nothing is going to happen to me”, “lightening is not what kills you, it is just your time has come”; “long suffering people will resist any virus”; “I am not washing my hands because my hands are hot because of work”, “chloroquine and azithromycin get rid of the virus” (self-prescribing without evidence that it cures and without investigating its damaging effect on the heart; and according to the WHO seem to increase the risks and consequences of the disease). Beliefs in external institutions: “information confuses people”; “money makes the monkey dance”; “if the economy improves, all improves”; “give them alcohol and with that COVID-19 will not affect them”; “boil eucalyptus and cypress leaves”; “read the bible where it announces the end of the world”, “everyman for himself”. Doña Coronavirus laughs and is attracted by these beliefs!

We resist learning. We read about the 15 countries of the Asia-Pacific region, China, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the 10 member countries of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations), Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, as the region that has best dealt with COVID-19, a region that has 2 billion people of the 7.7 billion that exist in the world. How did they do it? With good public health: they closely observe the symptoms people have, if there are symptoms, they test them, if they are positive, they isolate them in their homes or in hospitals, and they do contact tracing[6]. In other words, the more they diagnose, they more they know what to do, and thus save more lives. In contrast, national and international organizations tend not to do diagnoses to formulate and implement policies, except to appear to formally comply; our mentality of providentialism and resignation resists learning from rural populations, we do not seek to understand them, we believe that we already know them, that “the market knows more”. We are societies that seem to live like in the middle ages under the church with the inquisition, in those times “there was no reason to think, it was enough to believe”, when thinking was a sin and punished by death.

2.    Hygiene in rural societies

What is it that we need to understand? We begin with some history, to then paint something about the rural reality and show the vein that we have to continue exploring.

There are several studies on diseases and the architecture of cities and homes[7], not much on rural spaces. Public health has contributed to the fact that the population lives longer, architecture has also done that. So closets were imposed instead of armoires, because they were anti-hygienic because they accumulated dust. In the last 150 years we know of great changes in the cities of London, Barcelona or Paris; in 1866 they cleaned up most of the river Thames in London, and that clean up saved most of the people of the city from the threat of cholera; in 1844 they redesigned the city of Barcelona, knocking down walls that contributed to the overcrowding, which made lack of hygiene worse and supported epidemics; also Paris was redesigned for health purposes. Other smaller changes also had large impacts: clean water and management of sewage to prevent malaria or yellow fever; in the face of the bubonic plague, that killed 12 million people between 1855 and 1959, they rebuilt homes with more concrete and metal to keep out the rats who carried that pestilence. In other words, the design of homes and cities for health purposes lengthened the lives of people.

Now with COVID-19 architecture is challenged to redesign homes. Even though architecture has not been able to respond to respiratory illnesses, COVID-19 can cause the redesign of the home, where the idea of what is private is reconceptualized, giving way to the home as a space for school, work, reflection and gymnasium[8].

Unfortunately, there are no studies about that same relationship between architecture and health for rural areas, at least none that I am aware of. In rural areas, hygiene has been in deficit for centuries, a situation that has been made even worse by the discrimination toward the rural world. This situation of hygiene is due in part to the fact that rural families every day are grappling with land, farming, agro-chemicals, small livestock, slaughtering or the fire in the kitchen, and they do it without having protective measures like gloves, boots or masks, partly because they are living with limited water or means of catching water, on large haciendas the patrons customarily do not provide protective equipment to their workers, and partly because they do not have access to information while beliefs lead them to not protect themselves.

This daily work of women with fire, or men with the land leads them to bathe less frequently. This is not necessarily, however, a lack of hygiene; in fact, many people during the winter in Europe and the Andean altiplano do not bathe very frequently. The difference is that peasant families think that after work a person should not touch water, it is an understanding about the combination of temperatures; so it is that after making tortillas they do not wash their hands, after weeding they do not bathe “because the body is hot”. Also the lack of water and minimal infrastructure has conditioned them to carry out certain practices; women gather dirty clothes to go to the river to wash them, they spend little water to wash dishes. Likewise, little access to information has an impact on daily life, for example, dishes are not washed with Clorox that could contain the salmonella bacteria, which tends to be found in food contaminated with animal feces. We mention these points to illustrate how difficult it could be the fact that, now with COVID-19, they have to wash their hands frequently and with soap, when customs and their natural (water) and economic conditions weigh in.

Most rural homes, particularly those of low-income people, have dirt floors and are closed structures with little ventilation. For example, it is known that Chagas disease, that “forgotten illness” because the pharmaceutical industries do not see it as profitable, mostly happens in homes with grass roofs and cracks in the clay walls where the insects that cause this disease tend to live[9]. Peasant homes are a prolongation of the farm, or the reverse, for example corn is stored inside the home or above the hearth, while the cats deal with stalking the rats who are after the corn…

These rural practices became customs, and those customs, laws, which tend not to be seen by  the eyes of State institutions, markets and international aid agencies. External actors, instead, tend to see agriculture or ecology as separate from hygiene in the home and family, and the economy as separate from health, education and religion. External actors, when they touch on the issue of hygiene, do so viewing the rural reality from the urban experience, and so any weed seems dirty to them, any home for them should be in towns or villages, any farm should be mono-cropped, and any insect should be fought with agro-chemicals. From the urban perspective it is hard to understand that a home on a farm probably is healthier than a city with an over-populated cattle industry, or chicken or turkey industry, which are true virus factories.

We need to scrutinize the relationship between hygiene and agriculture, home and farm and school and church to understand the culture of hygiene in rural populations, to then look at improvements and changes to be made. Without understanding, one cannot see, Rodrigo López told us, a peasant from Waslala. How true that is! Otherwise, how can we imagine that just using chlorox and alcohol is going to prevent COVID-19? Without understanding, how they can reflect on and change their habits coming from their own cultures and farming systems, any chlorox or alcohol that they are given runs the risk of ending up in the municipal markets, as has happened with the donation of tin roofing sheets, pure bred hogs, coffee roasters or grain silos. The community, that heterogeneous amalgam of disputed realities, is like a book, inside of which dance letters, pages and imagination, opened up only by the reading of those who love it, a reading which is like a person who shells a corncob sensing a hot tortilla with “”cuajada.

Our challenge is to rethink community spaces from a perspective in which health and economics are embedded in each other. Homes on farms with materials that protect them from rats and the insects that carry Chagas disease, and at the same time are ventilated spaces, and agro-forestry farms, in communities with spaces for food, reflection, social interaction, entertainment, open field school and collective actions. Communities with fresh air, revived, which end up being the “tree” to protect oneself from the virus. This is the vein to dig into.

3.    It is the moment for organized rural societies

While we study, let us not lose the pulse on COVID-19. What should we do? If classes and/or religious celebrations continue, and if markets and States do not show they are effective, grassroots organizations (cooperatives, associations, parent-teacher committees, water committees…), located in the communities, must act to protect their communities. The effectiveness of these organized rural societies can be better if supported by organized global societies (international aid organizations).

How? These grassroots organizations must turn themselves into entities that inform, connect with schools and churches to accompany them to understand the problem and their prevention practices in the face of COVID-19, and look up while they deepen their roots.

3.1  Informing yourself and analyzing the information

 

Box 1. Symptoms for diagnosis

Dry cough + sneezing = air pollution

Cough + mucus + sneezing + nasal secretions = common cold

Cough + mucus + sneezing + nasal secretions + body aches + weakness + mild fever = flu

Dry cough + sneezing + body aches + weakness + high fever + difficulty breathing = coronavirus

Source: Pathology Department, UCH London

In the first box are the elements to tell whether a person has coronavirus, flu, a cold or just air pollution. The scientific community reveals that a person with COVID-19 can show mild symptoms, and days later have other more serious symptoms. In other words, a person could have a cough and sneezing, and not have a high fever, which does not mean that they do not have COVID-19, in the days following the other symptoms may appear. Box 1 is a simple aid to differentiate, it does not assure you that you do not have COVID-19 with the first symptoms, but at the same time helps you to not get alarmed with the first symptoms, helps you to stay calm and discern; this is a big help in rural areas where it is difficult to go to a hospital.

COVID-19 is not just a new virus, but the scientific community still does not know much about it. Current evidence reveals that a little more than 40% of people with the virus were infected by people who did not have symptoms of COVID-19. This obviously makes prevention difficult, at the same time, knowing this helps us to get a grip on the problem and respond in the best way possible[10].

 

Box 2. Recommendations

1.     Do not touch your face–because the virus enters through the mouth, nose and eyes

2.     Wash your hands with soap – the virus is dissolved with 20 seconds of hand washing.

3.     Maintain physical distancing (1.5 mts) from another person; avoid groups of people

4.     If you do not feel well, stay home. The family can help you determine whether it is coronavirus (see box 1)

5.     Avoid meetings in closed spaces without ventilation

6.     Above all, think, think, and think–it is the most vital thing that we should practice.

Box 2 has information also based on studies. Grassroots organizations can disseminate it in their communities, but first they should read and analyze it: why shouldn´t you touch your face? Why should you wash your hands with soap? Why maintain a distance of 1.5 meters with other people? Why should you stay home when you have a cough, mucus and sneezing?  The more we think about it, the more we understand it, the more we are going to put it into practice and tell other people. Talking through information allows us to think about reorganizing activities, for example, the measure of maintaining a physical distance of 1.5 meters can help so that in a religious celebration, a meeting in the cooperative, or a class in the school people take their seats maintaining that distancing, so that the meetings be for shorter periods of time or with frequent recesses, or so that the meetings might be better prepared in advance so that, like chickens, you go straight to the “grain.” Information that is thought through can save lives.

Grassroots organizations also should reflect on other contributions from scientists. Let us look at 3 contributions. The first, studies show that children under the age of 12 do not get infected much, compared to adults; in the cases when they are infected, they almost never get seriously sick, nor are they great transmitters of the virus, like they were in the case of the flu, because the amount of receptors that COVID-19 needs are less in children under the age of 12, and consequently the viral charge (in other words, the amount of the virus that they can gather) is much smaller[11]. Statistics confirm this statement, minors under 12 are less than 0.2% of COVID-19 deaths.

Second, statistics how that men become more infected by COVID-19 than women, and they tend to suffer more from the virus than women who are affected. This is due to the fact that “the blood of men has higher concentrations of the converter enzyme of angiotensin II (ACE2) than the blood of women (…). This receptor is found on the surface of healthy cells, and helps coronavirus infect them” (see: https://www.iprofesional.com/actualidad/315900-coronavirus-por-que-hombres-se-contagian-mas-que-mujeres ). Active genes linked to the X chromosome provide women (XX) greater protection against coronavirus than men”. In addition, be it for the type work in which rural women are more involved, in general they have more hygienic habits than men, for example, they wash their hands more frequently, be it because they are washing dishes, clothing or for personal care. This indicate the importance of hand washing.

Third, studies also tell us that the use of masks is preventive, but they also warn us of the risk of reusing them, because they can become a means of infection, because the virus can remain for hours and even days in the masks. The masks are more for infected people, with or without symptoms, so they do not infect other people. Why the masks? Because they reduce the particles that come out of the mouth when a person breathes or talks. When should masks be used? They can use them in school during classes in closed classrooms with little ventilation, in relatively closed churches during celebrations, when it is not possible to maintain physical distancing, when the interaction lasts a certain length of time, in places with human crowding (banks, markets…). They should also be used when you travel to town, on returning home you should wash it, in this way the mask will be ready for a new outing or meeting. Countries that have overcome COVID-19 have used the masks as part of their strategies, which is why rural communities probably will have to introduce the use of masks as part of their culture of care, particularly for the moments we just pointed out.

3.2  Linking to and contacting schools and churches

It seems easy to connect to and assume that any organization or institution will be happy to be contacted. Nevertheless, churches, schools and party structures are not accustomed to coordinate with community organizations, except to “orient them” about what to do, and treat them as their dependents. Their worlds and leadership which we mentioned previously really carry weight, they are true walls to community coordination. How is a grassroots cooperative going to react if the pastor of a church tells them, “God is our doctor, we trust in God?”[12] What is it going to say and do if the principal of a school tells them, “we can only receive support if it comes through the ministry of education”? What are they doing to do if a committee of a political party, the councils or mayor deputies say that “directions and projects only come from above?”. What can you say to the parent of a family who only believes in the patron of their hacienda? How difficult it is to be community and work for the community! There, where things get complicated, money will not even make monkeys dance.

In the midst of these worlds we have learned the following steps. First, discussing the information in figures 1 and 2 really empowers people, it is in-forming, and informing is forming. Information can be an antidote to despotic religious, political and economic leaders. Second, the cooperative or association should start from what it is and has; what do they have and who are they? Each member has, at least, a family member who is a student, believer of some religion and/or is member of a political party; they should talk with them, discuss the COVID-19 situation, and the information provided here. Third, members of the organs of the cooperatives, having now conversed at the grassroots level, visit the parent/teachers committee of the school, people with positions in the churches, (e.g. deacons, delegates of the word) and party members or government authorities, reflect with them and discuss the information. Finally, the board members of cooperatives communicate with the parent/teacher committee of the school and with deacons and delegates of the word[13]. In other words, connect with the grassroots of different organizations and institutions, their intermediate leaders, to then connect with the leadership of the organizations and institutions. In these steps, it is not a matter of convincing anyone, but of listening, bringing together elements that help to understand, and once each person understands, they will be able to see and then act – it is like preparing the soil and planting a seed, then you have to let the seed germinate and struggle to grow[14].

 

Table. Cost of kit for 90 people (1 month; in US dollars)

Products Quantity Price Total cost
Chlorox (cleaning equipment) (liters) 4 2.94 11.76
Hand towel (units) 6 2.35 14.1
Bar of soap (units) 90 0.51 45.9
Gel-Alcohol (liters) 2 5.15 10.3
Re-usable masks (units) 180 0.74 133.2
Instruction sheets 90 0.09 7.94
Total 223.20

With these steps, each organization can supply  itself with a kit of hygiene products to prevent COVID-19 (see table). Cooperatives have a social fund that they can use to acquire the kit, unless they have used it for other social agendas that they tend to have. Schools can, through the parent/teachers committees, gather resources to acquire the kit. If the cooperatives, with or without international support, can gather resources to support the schools and churches, it could make a difference, strengthening the bonds in the community, and the entire community would benefit. The more bonds there are, the more autonomous the community will be.

3.3  Looking forward

 

The sixth recommendation in Figure 2 is the most important reason for a grassroots organization rooted in the community to exist: think, think and think. Thinking is the most important element to resisting COVID-19. Thinking is looking forward and seeing beyond our noses. A cooperative is not a church nor a political party, its members are there voluntarily, they are not subordinated to anyone, they discuss and reach agreements in their assemblies, which is why they must examine their beliefs and fight with and against them. Individually they can believe or not in God, but they should not expect God to send them angels or saints to wash their hands for them, or put their masks on, just as they would not expect that he plant beans for them or remove botflies from their cattle; they can believe in their political leaders, but it is shameful to subordinate themselves to anyone. As cooperative members they have free will, their source of power is the assembly composed of the members themselves, and their reason for being is thinking, thinking and thinking in favor of their communities.

Part of this thinking is reflecting about COVID-19: How to protect their own community? If the State does not show up in a community, the cooperative must also take on that role. If the health system capacity is overcome, grassroots organizations should discuss how to help prevent the outbreak in their communities, and how to help people who might be affected by the virus. If in any country COVID-19 is being controlled, in all countries there are waves of outbreaks of the disease, so the cooperative should keep looking for those possible outbreaks. In Central America the urban waves of COVID-19 are still ongoing, which is why the rural waves that come later, can be lethal, not just for the reasons mentioned in this article, but because we are in the midst of the rainy season, which will make it more difficult for infected people to get to a health center or any support. If a community receives external support, the cooperative must be careful that that support not be counterproductive, because there can be support that displaces grassroots organizations, and when that donation ends the community´s own autonomy and their own efforts can be left eroded.

Cooperatives need to organize how a network of women can sew masks, how to make soap with lard, how to recover old ways of making alcohol in order to use on hands, how to recover natural medicine… Cooperatives need to think about connecting hygiene, economics, social and environmental elements, thinking about the food in the community beyond COVID-19, thinking about environmental sustainability with pure air and water, thinking, thinking, thinking.

4.    Role of international organizations in living communities

Even though for multiple reasons most of the international aid organizations have withdrawn from Central America, there are still international organization that are supporting the region. There also is the fair-trade network, as well as local-global networks among national and international organizations, unions, churches, social banks and universities in the world. When there is the will, there is the way, as the saying goes. If each person feels a mission of service, we can deepen those relationships of collaboration and reactivate “dead” relationships, because “where there are ashes, there was fire.” Each person and organization can play an important role if in this COVID-19 context they realize the importance of working on the community level that is organizing: what good does it do to provide individualized credit or training, as neoliberalism does, promoting mono-cropping, environmental degradation and the erosion of communities? The current situation wakes us up: people who organize and follow rules agreed upon in their assemblies, instead of gurus or chiefs who see themselves as the law, are those who really energize their communities, sustainable farming systems and contribute to social and environmental equity. Communities save communities.

Within this framework, what role do aid organizations have? Traditional donations, involving donating and awaiting reports invented by organizations “confined” to the cities, can be counterproductive, particularly if they displace the efforts of the communities themselves, which in the long term would undermine communities. Aid organizations need to connect with counterparts[15] who really are working with grassroots organizations that meet the following criteria: they are democratic, redistribute their surplus, are transparent with their information and are rooted in their communities or specific micro-territories. This type of organization will persist in the communities, while other external organizations, or those with disperse membership, will continue treating the communities like their lovers, showing up from time to time and leaving. Forming alliances with grassroots organizations so that a donation might provide an initial push, for example, with what is indicated in the table, supporting wash basins in schools with access to water, or working on agro-forestry systems that would protect water sources, where grassroots organizations might accompany their communities, and that their national partners might accompany them in the communities themselves, being careful, but overcoming fear, is the network which need to be built now and always.[16] The dilemma is not whether to leave your urban home or a rural farm; it is how we strengthen internal community assets, how we can take advantage of this “momentum” that exists in global awareness as an effect of COVID-19 to see the importance of communities. In this way, external financing to build a community response would decisively help the community deal with the virus and its new outbreaks, and help in the long term to democratize the community itself.

5.    By way of conclusion

In this article we showed the risks of COVID-19, we have begun a reflection on the relationship between hygiene, the economy and social factors, we described the strength of communities if they build lasting connections, we have emphasized the role of grassroots organizations to reflect on their values and principles in light of what is happening in their communities, and generate ways to cooperate in the prevention of COVID-19, and to innovate in ways of accompanying their communities in the midst of the uncertainty. We showed that, through these short term measures, and starting from an analysis of the processes which we are experiencing, it is possible to look forward to the medium and long term: to improve, correct, and generate habits of hygiene connecting home, farm and nature, and home, school, health center and community building.

The impact of what we are proposing, nevertheless, will be seen above all on more structural issues. For example, an exponential increase is coming of people in extreme poverty, the goal of eliminating extreme global poverty for 2030 is going to be only left on paper. The crisis for rich families of the world is how to have less desert options in their dinner, while for our communities the crisis means that they might miss a meal or face empty plates, becoming vulnerable again to any disease. This article and the previous one on basic grains aim at preventing those impacts.

The current situation also provides us with opportunities, because “behind every adversity there is an opportunity”. What opportunity? Mitigation of climate change which, in the case of rural communities, means water, land with life, biodiversity; it is the moment to rethink farming systems and intensify more sustainable forms and farming systems that stop the loss of nutrients in food because of the decreasing quality of the soil. It is the time for communities, never before has the importance been so clear of investing in communities who organize and embrace a culture of care; now is the hour for life, amen.

To look at these structural issues we must understand that it is not the economy that solves health care, it is not a matter of knowing whether the chicken or the egg is first, now the economy is public health and community health; and health, the economy, social and environmental reality are like a mountain slope, if you are on the higher part it looks different than seeing it from below, if you are on the very top, it looks different from one side than from the other, but it is the same slope, the same mountain slope.

 

“Think, Pipita, your love for others is stronger than anything else…Besides, the rain is coming!”

 

[1] The author has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/), associate researcher of the IOB-Antwerp University (Belgium) and member of the Coserpross cooperative (http://coserpross.org/es/home/). rmvidaurre@gmail.com We are grateful to J. Bastiaensen and M. Lester for their suggestions to the draft of this article.

[2] T. McCoy and H. Traiano, in The Washinton Post, write that in developing countries the advantage of being young is being annulled: in Brazil 15% of those deceased because of COVID-19 are under 50 years of age, which is 10 times more than in Spain or Italy. In Mexico it is 24%, India 50% are under 60. Why? Probably: many people have to continue working to survive; in addition to dealing with the diseases of the region (malaria, dengue, tuberculosis) they also are dealing with diseases of the wealthy countries: diabetes, obesity, hypertension…See: https://www.washingtonpost.com/es/tablet/2020/05/24/en-los-paises-en-vias-de-desarrollo-el-coronavirus-esta-matando-muchos-mas-jovenes/?fbclid=IwAR3ShYUOPzWytA6i7e7HJC3jfKlVtrgSHPyunHnxYYyU7fup1Lvt2Mq7SsQ

[3] It is likely that air pollution facilitates the virus and makes its impact worse, which in part would explain why countries in Europe have had high mortality, measured by the indicator of “over-deaths” or “over-mortality” (number of deaths above the average deaths from previous years) as an effect of COVID-19.

[4] Many people even with clear signs of having been infected, decide not to go to the health centers or hospitals. Why? “They say the hospitals have no room”, “I don´t want to die intubated”, “I want my family to wake me” and “we want to now where he is going to be buried to be able to go to pray for him”. The express burials frighten the population.

[5] Interesting exceptions tend to be organizations like Aldea Global (https://aglobal.org.ni/) or Addac (http://www.addac.org.ni/) in Nicaragua, whose staff tend to be located in the rural municipalities themselves.

[6] See interview of Jeffrey Sachs, by G. Lissardy, en: BBC News Mundo, Nueva York, 15 mayo 2020. Ver: https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-internacional-52672591?fbclid=IwAR0ztSK3QLNSkZjj_2rq5Tco9-_vCXphrgRrWSEnveQQYZIYG9-fPsJhdH0

[7] L. Engelmann, J. Henderson and Ch. Lynteris (eds), 2018, Plague and the City. Londron: Routledge. They study the relationship between plagues and measures to fight plagues and cities from the middle ages up to the modern era; they also include cities like Buenos Aires.

[8] D. Ventura, May 10, 2020, “Coronavirus: how pandemic changed architecture and what will change in our cities after covid-19” in: BBC News Mundo. See: https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-52314537?fbclid=IwAR3LCBRj1yh_wEVsG_oMr-HdlD9C2f8AtR_hgG3dCpQkJaPMT_SrbNq3yuA

[9] Inspired in these realities and by actions of Dr. Mazza and his team, in 1995 they filmed the movie Casas de Fuego. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6yWNBytu3U The movie illustrates the relationship between disease-insects, homes (shacks) and social inequality, the wealthy class is against homes being rebuilt, because “they are not concerned” about the millions of poor people.

[10] To help with reading about this point, see: https://espanol.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/prevention.html

[11] We are not saying that they do not get infected nor that they do not transmit. We are saying that they do not get infected MUCH and therefore, even though they can be infected, they are not big transmitters – in comparison with other ages. About those studies, see: https://www.vox.com/2020/5/2/21241636/coronavirus-children-kids-spread-transmit-switzerland

[12]The movie Casas de Fuego (footnote No. 5) illustrates the duality science/faith and committed science/academic science. The priest is opposed to science benefitting the most impoverished and affected communities; for him “faith and science are fighting over the same people”; a Manichean dilemma that smacks of the middle ages and that did a lot of damage to humanity. Also in this movie, that captures a good part of that experience, the University blocks the mission of Dr. Mazza and his team; fortunately Dr. Mazza and his team persist, their commitment is worth more than restrictive science, a commitment that nevertheless, they paid for with their lives, caused by the Chagas disease itself.

[13] If there are other organizations in the community, like alcoholics anonymous, water or road committees, the same is done as with the schools and churches.

[14] Note that traditional organizations tend to do just the opposite: the meet first and only with the leadership of the organizations, and then send technicians to “train” (in other words, convince).

[15] If some national or international organization wants to provide support under this spirit, they can contact the Coserpross cooperative (http://coserpross.org/es/home/) in Nicaragua, the Comal Network in Honduras (http://www.redcomal.org.hn/). Coserpross and the Comal Network accompany dozens of grassroots organizations in the region, synthesize verified information to provide to the grassroots organizations, and move about in those same territories. There are also organizations like Aldea Global and ADDAC that we mentioned in footnote 5; their uniqueness is that their network is present in dozens of communities.

[16] What would happen if a bee stayed in its hive? It could live as long as the food that it stored lasted, the honey that it produced, and then? We must understand that we, flowers, bees and humans, are all one network. The bee leaves its hive and goes from flower to flower, pollinizes, does it at the risk of losing themselves and of losing their lives. So is the network. So are we accompaniers, taking on the corresponding measures (use of mask and frequent hand washing), we should not “pass by on the other side” like the priest and Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, we should be inspired by people like Chagas and Mazza did and their teams in Brazil and Argentine that the movie Casas de Fuego portrays.

“If the school year is going to be lost, then lose it”, the reality of thousands of Nica children in the face of COVID-19

The Nicaraguan government has been harshly criticized internationally  for its lack of response to COVID-19, including not implementing social distancing measures. Keeping  schools open is one example of them. On May 25 the Government released a White Paper associating criticism of its COVID-19 response  to attempts of “coup supporters” to destabilize the economy.  This article gives a glimpse into the impact of the virus on the educational system, and the decisions that parents are facing in light of the virus and government policy.

“If the school year is going to be lost, then lose it”, the reality of thousands of Nica children in the face of COVID-19

By Ana Cruz in La Prense, May 24, 2020

[original article]

Losing the right to education or taking the risk that your children be infected with COVID-19. This is the dilemma that parents face in light of the decision of the Ministry of Education to continue classes in spite of the fact that the pandemic is in the phase of exponential expansion.

For some people the home has been turned into a school, while others are already resigned to repeating the school year, because the Ministry of Education decided not to suspend classes for public schools, which is why many students had to quit attending classes to avoid being infected with COVID-19.

He is just a five year old boy, and he was beginning to get used to getting up early, doing homework, having a teacher and classmates, but now he asks, why am I not going to school? Tania Muñoz, former political prisoner from Masaya and an opponent to the regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, told La Prensa that for more than a month one of her grandsons, “the youngest”, had to quit school to ensure his health.

Muñoz explained that, after the first case of COVID-19 was announced in Nicaragua in March 2020, she began to talk to her daughters and sons that were still going to class, so that they would quit going or quit sending her grandchildren.

One of the youngest grandchildren of Muñoz quit going to class in the Benito Juárez Public School, where he was in third level of preschool, because his relatives said that “they were not giving us options there to continue classes from home.”

The former political prisoner stated that, when she spoke with her daughter, she told her that she did not want “to be bitterly crying over the death of one of her grandkids just so he wouldn´t lose a year of school. I told her that if the boy was going to lose the year, let him lose it, but we are not going to expose him to being infected” with COVID-19.

Now, in the afternoon and sometimes into the evening, the Muñoz home is turned into “the school”, because her grandchildren and children work on studying the guides that they receive from the private schools where they go, while the youngest who was pulled out of the public school works on coloring and getting to know numbers and letters, until he can safely return to school.

Without options

The situation of Muñoz´s grandson is not unique in Nicaragua. According to statistics offered by the Vice President of the Ortega regime, Rosario Murillo, at the beginning of the school year there were a total of 1,800,000 students in different schools in the country.

According to Murillo, in preschool the registration was 280,558 children. In primary school, 890,932 children, including distance primary school in the countryside, while there were 390,569 students registered in secondary school, including distance secondary school in the countryside.

The presidential advisor on educational issues, Salvador Vanegas, in an interview on Channel 10 at the end of April 2020, after more than 3 weeks of the announcement of the first COVID-19 case in the country, recognized that 50% of the students in “the more urban” public schools quit going to school.

“The fall in attendance varies from one municipality to another. In more urban municipalities like Managua, absenteeism was larger. The farther the schools are from the urban areas the more they are operating practically with normal attendance of between 88-92%. In the more urban schools, it has dropped to approximately 50%”, said Vanegas.

Juana Palacios, who had one of her sons studying in a public school in the capital, recognized that certainly part of that percentage of absenteeism was due to the absences of her son, because she says that since the report of the first case of COVID-19 in the country, she began to send him in a staggered way, and protected with a mask.

The son of Palacios is 14 years-old and was in the third year of high school in a school in the capital. His mother states that she sent him in a staggered way at least for a week and a half with the hope that the Ministry of Education “would do something.” The mother was hoping, at least, that they would allow her son to receive guides from his teachers once a week, but that they would not make him be exposed. Nevertheless, that did not happen, and she decided to quit sending him.

The third-year students in addition informed his mother that, during those days that he had to attend in a staggered way, he noticed that only between 8-10 of his classmates were showing up, when in his section there are more than 20 students.

Palacios recognized that even though classes were not suspended, they decided to put a sink for hand washing at the principal entrance to the school, but she thinks that this “was not enough.”

The mother tried to talk with the teachers and reach an agreement, so that her son would not quit exercising his right to education, but it was not possible because the order was clear, they had to keep attending classes.

“I spoke with the teachers, I told him that I was going to quit sending him because of the situation, and he said to me that I should do what I thought was helpful”, commented the mother of the secondary student.

Now the adolescent passes the time closed up at home and from time to time – on learning about the topics that are being taught in the school – works on reviewing them with the help of his older sister, but not always, because the teachers are not providing guides to the children who withdrew out of fear of infection from COVID-19.

“I cannot expose him. If he has to lose the school year, let him lose it, because here we are only in the hands of God,” said the mother of the student.

The family of Palacios survives on a minimum salary, and the contribution that now her older daughter provides, who is now working, nevertheless, this is not enough to put the adolescent in a private school, which is why they have the hope that – once the pandemic passes or they can control it – the student can return to classes in a public school and with all the assurances of safety for his health.

Up to now according to the government in Nicaragua a total of 279 positive cases of COVID-19 have been reported, 17 have died, 199 have recovered and the rest are active cases.

They violate the right to education

The high number of absences in public schools, according to experts on educational issues, could have been avoided if the Ministry of Education would have complied with its task of providing options to the student community to continue safely exercising their right to education.

Ernesto Medina, the president of the Eduquemos Forum, stated that the first thing that the authorities of the country had to have was the “political will to help the poorest find a solution, and unfortunately so far we have not seen this, because they have not suspended classes and are not providing an alternative to those who report that they are going to quit sending their children to protect them from COVID-19.”

The expert stated that it is critical that the authorities “seek out a humane solution, because the solution cannot be to expose some children to the danger or threaten them with losing the school year for defending the right to life.”

On his part, Jorge Mendoza, the Director of the Forum on Education and Human Development, recalled that in times of emergencies “the creation of alternative programs is justifiable,  they should even be already prepared,” which is why he states that for all those children who have not gone to school because their parents want to protect their right to life, it is critical that MINED ensure they have safe access, with options that would reassure their parents and not allow that the younger ones lose the school year.

In addition, he recommended that the Ministry of Education “suspend classes immediately” and adopt measures that would be adapted to the economic reality of the students and the capacities of the teachers.

The experts agree that MINED, in the case that it would decide to suspend in person classes, should consider the use of means like television, radio or cell phones themselves to teach “essential content”, and in this way the students might be able to continue learning from home and exposing themselves to less risk of contracting COVID-19.

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
Source: http://www.ico.org/historical/1990%20onwards/PDF/1a-total-production.pdf

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, http://cafe-noticias.over-blog.com/article-36108278.html

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 (https://aglobal.org.ni/), president, vice manger and manager, respectively; René is a consultant to rural organizations and a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (https://peacewinds.org/). 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, https://quecafe.info/como-se-determina-la-calidad-del-cafe/

[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, http://www.observatoriosocial.com.ar/images/pdf_cuadernillos/cuader13.pdf; For English version see: https://peacewinds.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Articulo-CAFENICA-Cooperativas-english.pdf ;  R. Mendoza, 2012, “Coffee with the Aroma of Coop” in: Revista Envío No. 372. Managua: UCA https://www.envio.org.ni/articulo/4558

[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, https://www.envio.org.ni/articulo/4664

[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, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/jul/23/fairtrade-ethical-certification-supermarkets-sainsburys) 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, http://www.cetri.be/Hacia-la-re-invencion-del-comercio?lang=fr

[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”, https://www.perfectdailygrind.com/2018/07/fermentacion-que-es-como-mejora-la-calidad-del-cafe/) 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: www.coserpross.org . 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.

Conclusion

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 UNAN held a “black mass” to order to expel students

This is the second part to the previous article dealing with the expulsion of over 110 students from public universities by the Government. 

The UNAN held a “black mass” to order to expel students

By Keyling T. Romero/Franklin Villavicencio in REVISTA NIÚ January, 2020

II and last part

[original Spanish]

A “Security Commission” decreed their “academic death”. Members of the UNEN turned in a list of “coup supporting” university students.

The verdict of “academic death” against at least 110 students from the campuses of the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN) came out of a “black mass” with the participation of members of the National Union of University Students (UNEN). Three weeks before the University finalized the expulsion in August 2018, the University Council authorized the creation of a Special Extraordinary Commission that would analyze the consequences for university students critical of the regime, many of them barricaded and even political prisoners of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo.

University students confirmed for REVISTA NIÚ that since the beginning of August 2018 the University Council held emergency meetings in the Center for Research on Aquatic Resources of Nicaragua (CIRA-UNAN). The Special Commission there analyzed case by case the list of “coup supporting students” provided by the UNEN itself. The result was the first massive expulsion of students in the history of Nicaragua, in a process that violated the internal regulations of the university itself, and curtailed the right to education for more than a hundred university students.

None of the students that were expelled on August 17, 2018 knew that a process against them existed, as the internal regulations of the UNAN require. Nor did they receive notification in writing for the reasons or the final resolution, nor did they have the possibilities for appeal.

The Special Commission, also known as the Security Commission, was created apart from the two disciplinary commissions that were already established in the academic rules of the UNAN. And in those they created sub-commissions for each school, but not all had to do with the academic lives of the accused students. There was one whose task was the revision of the social networks of each university student.

Authorities are silent about the expulsions

This new commission was a closed commission. It was just called the Special Commission. It was never revealed who they were. “Another process that is completely illegitimate because you have to know who is judging you,” denounced the student Elthon Rivera, a member of University Action, the student movement that has gathered information about this case.

“That commission,” adds Rivera, “had the mission of spying and doing follow up to identify those who were criticizing the Government, and based on that, to do the expulsions.”

This month of January 2020 will be 17 months since these massive expulsions, and the UNAN had not publicly recognized how many students were sanctioned, what campuses they were from, what the proof was that resulted in that decision, why the students were not notified either of the process nor of the decision, and who formed the Special Commission that issued the decision against the students.

The only official communication that alludes to the expulsions is a document leaked in September, but dated August 20, 2018. In the document Luis Alfredo Lobato, General Secretary of the UNAN writes to César Rodríguez Lara, Director of Registration.  Lobato mentions the Extraordinary Session No. 13-2018, carried out on August 17th. That day a “report” was presented prepared by the Special Commission, along with the resolution of the University Council. The annex: the names, majors, schools and identification numbers of 82 expelled students.

According to figures from the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), in the UNAN 144 expulsions were carried out, recorded by University Action. The movement argued to REVISTA NIÚ that they could not share the details of those figures, because the information was provided in confidence. Nevertheless, it provided a list of 55 students expelled with their personal data and identities protected.

The “crimes” of the students

The commission and sub commissions that banished the university students from their campuses, started with the approval of the University Council, the highest body of the UNAN. The Council is composed of seven members under the responsibility of the President Ramona Rodríguez. In addition, ten deans of schools, three secretaries and twelve presidents of the UNEN, led by Allan Daniel Martínez, and Iris Valeria Cruz Martínez, the student president of the Ruben Darío campus in Managua.

“The decision to expel the students was made in the University Council, but it had to pass through a disciplinary commission. That commission never existed,” complains Alejandra Centeno, a young woman expelled in spite of her academic excellence, and a member of University Action. Centeno also criticizes the fact that a Security Commission was created that did not exist in the University Council. “We do not know exactly who got the idea to expel the students, we think that the UNEN made the list and turned it in,” she denounced. The UNEN, she clarifies, is a member with voice and vote in the University Council.

Among the reasons to justify the expulsion of the students, the Special Commission alleged “having participated in barricades, use of devices for physical aggression, allowing the entry of people from outside the university, vandalistic behavior, calls for academic disobedience and inciting hate and violence.”

In addition, it prohibited those expelled from entering the campus again, threatening to file charges against them “in court.” At the end of the leaked sheet of paper is the detail: “cc (copy to): Ramona Rodríguez Pérez”, the President of the UNAN, who later was named president of the National University Council (CNU), the umbrella organization of higher education in Nicaragua.

“Publicly accepting that she expelled students who are opponents is openly accepting that you violated a human right, and that the State is not capable of ensuring education,” denounced Centeno.

Ramona Rodríguez, the key element within the UNAN.

If the repression against the students came to expulsions, the principal person responsible for allowing it – assess the students – is the President, Ramona Rodríguez, who in August 2019 was  named the new president of the National University Council (CNU).

“She goes into history as the worst president that the UNAN has had. There are videos where she appeared haranguing and threatening the students with taking away their scholarships if they participated in marches (…) and since then, some questions have been raised as to whether her nomination followed the criteria established by law to name or elect the president of the CNU. Her academic qualifications have been questioned, because the president of a university should be an academic par excellence, and she did not have the best academic attributes to be the president”, assesses Jorge Mendoza, President of the Forum on Education and Human Development (FEDH).

According to her academic profile published on the web site of the UNAN-Managua, Ramona Rodríguez has a Masters in Environment and Natural Resources, a specialization in Scientific Research Methodology, and a licentiate in Education Sciences. In addition, she was the Director of the Regional School of Estelí from 1994 to 2010. Then she was chosen as the General Vice President on the Managua campus, and since March 2015 has been the President of that campus.

REVISTA NIÚ requested an interview with the President of the UNAN and President of the CNU, Ramona Rodríguez, to get to know the official version of the university, but she has not responded to communications.

The academic and former President of the UNAN-León, and American University (UAM), Ernesto Medina, commented, “I do not know whether that woman sleeps peacefully, because of everything that is happening in her university and the CNU, because it is also a body that has lost the little prestige that it might have.” In his judgement Rodríguez “does not play any role in being concerned about higher education,” but rather in administering the 6% of the General Budget of the Republic that is shared among the universities as a reward or punishment, depending on their positions in respect to the Government. “In recent years – Medina criticizes – that has been her only concern.”

They violated procedures

The Student Discipline Regulations of the UNAN-Managua establish that when a student commits a serious offense – all the expulsions were justified in this way – the case should be taken to the Facultative Disciplinary Commission, which must notify the student in a period of three days, with the purpose of starting the investigation. Then, the case is taken to the Higher Disciplinary Commission, that has between 10-15 days to investigate and listen to the version of the student. And finally, both commissions deliberate and issue their verdict.

The student, adds the regulations, has the power to appeal to the President. Nevertheless, this procedure was not followed in the massive expulsion decided in August 2018 against more than a hundred university students, and none of them were notified of the accusation, nor of the verdict.

The youth denounced that in addition to being expelled, they lost the opportunity to take up their studies in other universities, because the authorities also refused to give them their certified academic records which even, in some cases, were completely erased from the records.

The takeover of campuses in protest

The takeover of universities, schools, churches and public buildings as a form of protest and resistance has been recorded for more than sixty years in Nicaragua. The ruling Sandinista Front, which through the control of the UNEN and the authorities of the UNAN in August 2018 pushed for the expulsion of at least 110 students after the protests that erupted in April of that year, also used the takeover of institutions and campuses.

“When I was a student (in the seventies) we did it several times to protest for the freedom of the political prisoners and, at that time, that was beautiful, marvelous, we were heroic; now we are vandals and coup supporters for doing what the youth have always done,” criticizes the academic Ernesto Medina, who was student and president of UNAN-León, and until November 2018, the president of the American University (UAM).

At that time, Medina recalls, the only expulsion was against two leaders of the University Center of the Autonomous University of Nicaragua (CUUN) in the León campus. In protest, the students took over the campus again, and the president was forced to allow them to return. Then, he adds, there was other takeovers, but there were no expulsions.

“In the times of university autonomy there were never expulsions for reasons of a political nature,” maintains the professor, former president of UNAN León, and ex Minister of Education, Carlos Tunnermann. “It did not even occur to either Dr. Mariano Fiallos (considered the father of university autonomy), nor to  I, to expel anyone,” he states.

Medina and Tunnermann agree today in the Civic Alliance opposition group, and while talking about the current expulsions against university students, they compared their own experience when they coincided in the León campus, Medina as a student and Tunnermann as the President.

In those years, Nicaragua was under another dictatorship, the Somoza one. Nevertheless, they state that in the universities the students had freedom of thought, and that was where they organized, protested and even raised money to send to the Sandinista Front.

On one occasion, remembers Medina, the students protested over a book. “In that book there was a chapter on the American Embassy, and that is why we ended up taking over the university. We went to sing a serenade to Dr. Tunnermann (then the President of the campus) and it never occurred to him to expel us. He knew who we were who were singing songs to him in front of his house. Even more, when there were problems within the university, we would pull out the benches and block the street. And the authorities would show up to talk to us,” he relates.

University autonomy, approved in 1958, is hamstrung with the new dictatorship that Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo lead. The public universities are controlled from within by the tentacles of the regime: the UNEN, the Sandinista Workers Center, the Provincial Sandinista Committees and the university authorities who are strategically chosen by the party to follow their guidelines.

A researcher of educational issues, María Josefina Vijil, assesses that “education in Nicaragua is suffering” at all levels, because it has become partisan. “Many youth have told us that the public universities are like a big prison: you cannot come on a day when you do not have classes, they have lowered the amount of class hours to keep the students from meeting among themselves, and a ton of repressive measures to keep them from organizing. The University – she laments – has become a repressive institution for the youth.”

Here and There

It has been a strange week for me.

My  head spent the days immersed in matters like employee ownership, organizational strengthening, empowerment, open book management, continuous improvement, transparency and the wisdom inherent in organizations.

My heart was in Nicaragua, at the foot of Peñas Blancas, with more than 50 peasant producers who are spending the week in another edition of the Certificate Program, an on-site immersion into holistic development of their farms, coops, families and futures.  I have come to know many of these folks, having worked with them in previous settings, and I miss being with them.

My body was at home in Iowa, trying to figure out how to respond to a mysterious malady that inflames all of my joints and aches my body’s systems like a bad case of the flu.  I need to learn what is wrong and how to make it right.  I’m saddened not to be in Nicaragua and frustrated at the reasons for it.

So my time was divided among three states of being this week.  And as I reflected on my uneasiness at this state of affairs, it  dawned on me that what I was experiencing was not unlike the normal circumstances of our Certificate Program participants.  Their lives are under the stresses of being torn in multiple directions, as a way of life.

The heads of many peasants are filled with trying to discern what’s happening within their country.  Investment has all but vanished.  Foreign aid organizations have pulled out long ago.  There is enormous tension between the Ortega government and the Civic Alliance, giving ongoing potency to the anxious uncertainties of every day life, even in the countryside.

The peasants must have found it hard to concentrate on their organizations, with their heads already immersed in matters like: What is really happening in our country?  What is true?  What do I have to do to protect my family and myself?  Can I trust my neighbor?  How do I process all of it?  Of course, all of this is context for the ongoing, every day questions about climate, weather, the cost of inputs, the income from harvest, the presence and absence of rain, maintaining the farm, worrying about kids.  Oh yes, and the ever-present worry about health, of the family, of the spouse, of self.

Their hearts are firmly in Nicaragua, even if at times they cannot actually be there.  Despite the warped perceptions of a U.S. president, under normal conditions Nicaraguans essentially have little desire to leave Nicaragua.  It’s their home.  It’s both their inheritance and their future assignment to their children.  They treasure their history and culture no less than any U.S. citizen does about their North American homeland.  But if conditions and opportunities diminish to the point of complete destitution, then alternatives become realities, and the idea of immigration emerges.

Their hearts know, deep inside, that only new ways of managing the coops will bring about greater success, despite the urges to cling to the old ways, the means by which survival has been possible for generations.  There is heartbreak in leaving old ways, the comfortable ways, behind.  It can even feel like betrayal.  There is anguish in having to choose the unknown.

Their hearts remember that the land that once belonged to their elders, and that should be destined to belong to the youth, is a sacred trust, an honor-bound commitment to family.  But their hearts also are fatigued from the consumption of energy and spirit by injustices that so often infect the poor.  My acquaintances in Nicaragua are strong of heart, unflinching in the face of crushing poverty, but also realists who are willing to break their own hearts for survival.

Their bodies are the resilient homes for hopeful spirits.  Their physical bodies are asked to endure and thrive in the face of limitations on healthcare, nutrition, clean water, education opportunities, healthy incomes and environmental health.  In the face of huge  physical demands, the rural farmers accept and adapt to such challenges as a matter of course, and largely fulfill the requirements of their days.

I cannot help but imagine the course of activities undertaken by such a farmer experiencing my current set of symptoms.  With some embarrassment, I imagine perseverance that puts my days in these weeks to shame.  In many ways, our Nica colleagues are far more adaptable to change than we might think.

Comparisons are a likely outcome, I suppose, when time is abundant, when my head is teeming with ideas, when my heart is restless and my body compromised.  But there is substantial learning available despite it all, and I find that my Nica colleagues can teach me well, even from a long distance away….

 

 

 

in Nicaragua, working with peasant farmers on issues of cooperativism and continuous improvement.

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 (http://peacewinds.org/research/) and member of the COSERPROSS RL. cooperative rmvidaurre@gmail.com.

[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. http://www.envio.org.ni/articulo/5304

[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.

Making Sense of the Senseless

Nicaragua.  I’m astonished at the turn of events that has wracked the country I have come to know over the past 13 years.  I read about places where I have traveled, remember fondly the warmth of the people I have met, recall the beauty and awe of the land, and then must imagine those same images against a backdrop of grief and gangs, barricades and bullets, hatred and horrors.   I am saddened, but only feel a fraction of the despair that my Nica friends must be experiencing.  Indeed, I cannot begin to comprehend what Nicas are going through in this time of upheaval.

The context raises the inevitable questions that accompany every instance of political unrest: how could this have happened?  Can there be, in fact, any reasonable understanding of what has led to the unraveling of an entire society and system?

They are questions that I have found myself asking about circumstances in the U.S., though understandably in a different context.  There are significant differences, but many similarities: a society that is fractured; an overriding unwillingness on both sides of the divide to talk of compromise; massive protests against the government; claims of government abuse of power; calls for the removal of a sitting president; alienation of other nations by virtue of nationalistic postures.  The list goes on, and so does my wondering.

In the shadow of the current impasse being experienced in Nicaragua, the Center for Global Education and Experience (CGEE) at Augsburg University is offering a “virtual course” on the crisis there, designed to delve into the competing historical narratives each side uses.  The analysis will allow participants to assess the validity of their application today, and  deepen an understanding of the perspective of each side.  For anyone who loves Nicaragua, who has been enriched by the place and its people, it can be a course of immense clarification and understanding.

But in addition to gaining a better understanding of the crisis in Nicaragua, my own hope is that it might provide me with some insights into the dysfunction which currently grips the U.S.  I do not require reminders about how enormously different our respective histories and developments have been; I know them well (as well as some of the intersections between us which figure into the Nica problems significantly).  But I have moved within the two cultures significantly enough over recent years to have acquired a perspective which asks whether many of the same factors might have been at work in each.

I’m interested in  the CGEE course about current Nicaragua in and of itself, to help me understand what has happened in that beautiful place, and why.    But I also have a secondary motive, which is to find some further insights about what has happened in this beautiful place, and why.

I guess I feel like I owe it to someone….