Category Archives: Education

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….

President of the UCA. “This is a punishment for having critical thinking”

The UCA in these days received the news that the budget subsidy that they have received by constitutional mandate – like all universities that belong to the National University Council (CNU)-  was drastically cut by 26.74% this year, when the rest of the universities received cuts of between 0.03 to 1.48%. La Prensa interviewed the President of the UCA, who is also part of the National Dialogue, about this incident and the current situation.

[When the 6% from the CNU for the UCA was not disbursed in August 2018, the Jesuit Universities in the US started a scholarship fund for the UCA, which is now more important than ever. 

President of the UCA. “This is a punishment for having critical thinking”

The National University Council (CNU) cut more than 26% of the budget for the Central American University, which will affect some two thousand scholarship students.

By Ivette Munguía Argeñal, January 11, 2019 La Prensa

[original article in Spanish at https://www.laprensa.com.ni/2019/01/11/nacionales/2512306-rector-de-la-uca-esto-es-un-castigo-por-tener-pensamiento-critico ]

One of the most painful chapters of the recent history of Nicaragua was etched with blood and bullets on the principal entry gate of the Central American University (UCA). Stones, broken glass, bullet holes and the impressive padlock that exist there brings to mind the thousands of people fleeing the attack of the Sandinista mobs, who on not being able to reach their prey, discharged their fury against the university that sheltered them.

Since April 18, 2018 the attacks on the UCA have been constant, their students have been jailed or forced into exile, the president is under death threats, the Orteguista Police (OP) stalks those who arrive at the alma mater, and now the National University Council is trying to take away the state subsidy that is due them by law.

The president of the UCA, José Alberto Idiáquez, a Jesuit priest, is convinced that the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega intends to punish the UCA by taking away their state subsidy for promoting critical thinking among the students, because in authoritarian regimes “a thinking person becomes dangerous”, because for them “ignorance is strength”.

How is the reduction of the state subsidy going to impact the university?

All the universities have (a budget reduction) of between 0.23 to 1.4%, and we -26%, that with the devaluation (of the cordoba) we get to 30%, this affects more than two thousand scholarship students that are already in the UCA, and also the new students because on having to fulfill our commitment to those who have to graduate, we cannot with this large a disruption provide scholarships to the new students who have requested them.

Why does the UCA need the 6%?

Last year we had around eight thousand students, and of those, five thousand receive scholarships, but those scholarships are not given for political reasons in this university, they are given for academic reasons. Young people who have good grades, no matter what their color may be, evangelical, Catholic, atheist, from any political party, if they are a good student and keep their grades up, have their scholarship, here there is no political patronage, we have a scholarship commission where the president is the director.

What are you going to do for this academic year?

We are discussing the possibilities, because we also cannot put the young people at risk. This country is a country of uncertainty, and we are experiencing this 24 hours every day, so we have to make that decision as we get closer to it, we cannot put the youth at risk if there is a situation of insecurity, because the parents are not going to send their children either in this context, where in every university you have three or four patrol cars, anti-riot police, I think that is not very helpful.

The new president of the CNU is the president of the UNAN-Managua, Ramona Rodríguez. How is the relationship with the new administration of the CNU?

I do not have any personal situation, even in the Dialogue we would greet one another, I think that this is not a matter of personalizing it, nor do I have anything against the new president of the CNU…we are respectful, but what we will not allow are unjust attitudes, and we cannot allow that students continue to be detained, we have to denounce that, we have ex students of the UCA who are jailed, (Edwin) Carcache is one of those who continues in jail. The people politically abducted cannot continue there, because it is a great injustice and the UCA is committed to the students.

Could it be said that the UCA is paying for defending the students?

I think that there are several factors: a university where people think becomes dangerous, a thinking person becomes dangerous, because (George) Orwell in his famous novel 1984 said that “ignorance is strength”, so in this university people are taught to think, to be critical thinkers and to have contact with the reality. You are not going to study in order to obey orders from someone who is telling you to kill another person… In the Society of Jesus and the Jesuit educational institutions we have to be on the side of the victims, the people who are suffering and who are experiencing injustices, like our students who do not have any reason to be hidden.

They are not promoting this critical thinking in other universities?

I could not talk about the other universities, but I can tell you that here in the UCA it is fundamental…even though I should say that it was a lack of respect on the part of the UNEN to make that petition against the UCA, because they know perfectly well that here there are poor students like them, but that think differently. So, punishing one person because they think is a bad sign. I think – as you are saying – that this is a punishment for having critical thought, and it is not just now, since I have been president they have been telling me “be careful about what you say”, and I believe that there are issues that one should not be quiet about, if they are killing students, murdering peasants and taking them prisoner, that the demand of the service of faith and the promotion of justice obliges you to not stay quiet, because if not, we are going to be accomplices.

Daniel Ortega promised the UNEN to evaluate their petition to take the 6% away from the UCA and include the universities of the Caribbean, how are you preparing yourself?

First of all, I am happy that Mr. Ortega thinks about the Caribbean…but not at the cost of taking money away from another university out of punishment, because they do not think the same as he, that it what it seems to me is not right, but I do congratulate him, if he truly is going to support the universities of the Caribbean.

Have you discussed a scenario without the money from the 6%?

Right now we have to discuss, it because this is a step before [that one], it would seem that since we are not well-thought-of, if the economic situation gets worse, it would not surprise me that they would take away the 6%, I do not discard that possibility.

In June 2018 you received death threats, do they continue?

I have received (messages through) Whatsapp where they insult me, since I have precautionary measures (from the IACHR), I report them. I cannot say that Mr. Ortega and the Ms. Murillo are ordering me to be killed, I cannot say that, but it is clear that at some moments when I go out they are following me. I have also received insults from people who tell me that I am a “coup monger”, that I am a “traitor priest”, and other insults that are not worth mentioning, which are typical of those trying to discredit a person.

Are you in fear for your life?

The truth is that I am calm, if it happens it happens, I believe that as a human being even Jesus himself was afraid when he sweated blood and put things in the hands of his Father…My professors were murdered in El Salvador, I know what I am involved in, and I know the consequences that being a Jesuit and being in favor of justice imply.

Have you thought about leaving the country?

No, I have to stay here, I would only leave with the six million inhabitants, even though I no longer know how many of us are here right now. If it is time for me to go to the cemetery, well some day I will have to go there.

In Nicaragua there is a lot of uncertainty. You were part of the National Dialogue, do you see some way out of the crisis?

You are asking me a very difficult question, when you see that all the signs are of non dialogue, and that rather people who think differently are attacked, the truth is at this moment I do not see in Mr. Ortega and Ms. Murillo the willingness to do that. They will have their own reasons, but nor can I be unrealistic, because the signs are not signs of dialogue, rather of harassment, because they have not stopped raiding houses, capturing people unjustly and a situation of fear.

Could external pressure be the solution?

I hope that good sense comes at the right time and that they realize that there is nothing to gain by leaving the country destroyed, continuing to kill people, all of us have hope that there is a reasonable way out. I as a priest always ask God that we find a way out, I know that all these things are pressures for which the people of Nicaragua pay a cost; so he who has food and is assured is fine, but the poor, who are the majority of this country, are the ones who are paying that cost.

Is it possible that there be a solution that would not imply an armed conflict?

I said when we were starting the dialogue that it would be a disaster that this country would go into a civil war, this would be a big mistake. I think that we Nicaraguans have to peacefully endure, because we have to show that it is not weapons, it is not killing people that problems get solved.

Updated version- The power of a shared vision in peasant-indigenous cultures

The power of a shared vision in peasant-indigenous cultures

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

In the film “Spartacus” on the slave rebellion in 71 BC we recognize the strength of a shared vision. After twice defeating the Roman legions, the gladiators/slaves fell before the legion of Marcus Crassus, who says to thousands of survivors: “you were slaves and you will be slaves again, but you can save yourself from crucifixion if you turn Spartacus over to me.” So Spartacus takes a step forward and shouts, “I am Spartacus”. The man by his side also steps forward, “I am Spartacus”. Within a minute all shout that they are Spartacus. Each gladiator/slave choses death. Why? Following Peter Senge (1990, the Fifth Disciplne) they are not expressing loyalty to Sparacus, but to a shared vision of being free in such a profound way that they prefer dying to being slaves again. “A shared vision – says Senge – is not a idea, not even an important idea like freedom. It is a force in the hearts of people.” In this article we lay out some long term visions, show their importance for lasting change, and we take note of the role of organizations related to the peasantry of our millennium.

Millenary Visions

That vision of being free emerged as a profound human aspiration in the face of the slavery system, a fire that neither the cross nor death were able to extinguish. In the movie the lover of Spartacus comes up to him and reveals to him that his vision will be realized, “Your son will be born free!” 2089 years later that powerful vision continues present in the foundation of our societies.

Another vision, one of democracy, emerged even before in the years of 500 BC. Even though it excluded 75% of the population (slaves, women and foreigners), that vision arose based on assemblies, building institutions under the power (cracia) of the people (demo). 2500 years later, in spite of the fact that the elites flipped that vision to where democracy exists only under the control of a minority, that Greek vision based on assemblies continues moving millions of hearts.

The vision of the reign of God was sketched out by Jesus of Nazareth, son of a peasant woman and a carpenter, in 30 AD. In a hierarchical and despotic patriarchal world, Jesus envisions the possibility of a “kingdom” for those who are looked down upon – who might be like children, destitute and who would build peace, a reign that is small and becomes big like the mustard seed. Since then, that vision of the kingdom, in spite of being androcentric (king-dom), has mobilized millions of people. It is a vision that made Luther in the 1500s challenge the institutional church and translate the Bible into vernacular languages so that people might have access to God without religious intermediaries.

In the XVIII century the encyclopedists (1751-1772), living at a time with a minority of educated people, envisioned “putting up a wall against barbarism.” That vision of making “papers speak” has moved humanity with revolutions and fights against racism and extreme poverty. It is enough to see the movie “The Power of One” filmed in 1992, based on Africa in the 1930s, to recognize the vision of the encyclopedists, that learning to read made a difference. It is also the advice that we heard from our grandmothers in the countryside, “study, a pencil weighs less than a shovel.”

Even though the idea of organization and the construction of the State emerged with capitalism in the XVI century, societies envisioned alternative forms of organization to the control and rule of capitalism and the State. Thus the cooperative emerged in England against the textile industry and in Germany against usury, under the conviction of joining forces in line with the ideas of associativity of Saint-Simon, Fourier, Cabet and Owen. Along these lines the agrarian cooperative movement in the United States from 1870-1910 made explicit the cooperative vision of democratizing the economy (L.Goodwin, 1978, The Populist Movement). This alternative vision, of joining forces –“elbow to elbow we are much more than two”, as Mario Benedetti would say – to democratize the economy continues moving millions of people who are organizing.

Finally the non violent vision of M. Gandhi (1869-1948) in order to achieve the independence of India from the British empire, and improve the well being of both. That pacifist movement saw that “humanity cannot free itself from violence except through non violence”, that “eye for an eye will leave everyone blind” and that “there is no path for peace, peace is the way”. It is a vision in line with Jesus: “you hear that it was said, eye for an eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, do not resist the one who is evil; before, to anyone who would hit you on the right cheek, turn to him also the other (Mt 5:38-39). The methods of Gandhi, in accordance with that vision, were the use of hunger strikes, the “salt march” (salt satia graha) that affected the principal source of taxes for England, and being coherent in his actions and ideas (he made his own clothes and was a vegetarian), methods introduced in accordance with the realities and experiences that thehy promoted. That movement inspired Martin Luther King in the United States in the 1960s in his vision of a society where people were treated equally, regardless of their race and color. And Domitila Barrios of Bolivia walked the same route in 1978 with a vision of a country without fear overthrowing the dictatorship of Banzer peacefully, in the words of Eduard Galeano:

I was seated in the principal plaza with 4 other women and a poster that said: “We come from the mines, we are on a hunger strike until the military dictatorship falls.” People made fun of them as they went by. “So just like that 5 women are going to overthrow a military dictatorship! Hahaha, what a great joke!” And the women, unmoved, in solemn silence…After the 5 women they were 50, then 500, then 5,000, then 50,000 and then half a million Bolivians that came together and overthrew the military dictatorship. Why? Because those women were not wrong, fear was what was mistaken.

All these shared visions connect hearts by common aspirations. Yuval Noah Harari (2011, Sapiens: A brief History of humankind) tells that in human evolution homo sapiens differentiated themselves from other species like chimpanzees by their ability to invent myths capable of mobilizing millions of people to cooperate. Visions belong to that genre, they are real, palpable and move incredible forces born from human hearts.

Peasant and indigenous visions

In our days we hear visions that, like those quoted, are mobilizing a good part of humanity. Scrutinizing them, we understand that they are both new and connected to millennial flames. Let us start with the oldest. Our ancestors that lived close to 2 million years ago as hunters and gatherers envisioned human survival based on agriculture, which led them to domesticate plants and animals between 9500 and 3500 BC. Since those years in our DNA is that tense vision of humans subjugating nature or plants like soy beans, wheat, sugar cane and sunflowers multiplying at the cost of “domesticating” humans (Yuval Noah Harari).

Following that vein, the vision of peasant families has been to have land. In the 1970s in Honduras (Azomada, Lempira), the peasants saw idle land taken away from their ancestors and recognizing that fire that came from their grandparents to “recover a piece of land to produce on it”, took those lands as thousands of peasants have done on the face of the earth under the anti-large estate idea that “the land Is for those who work it with their hands” of Emiliano Zapata in 1911. In 1985 when the war was raging in Nicaragua, the State moved 74 indigenous families from Cusmapa and San Lucas to Samarcanda (San Juan del Rio Coco), organized them into cooperatives to confront the Nicaraguan Resistance, as had happened in so many places in the country; one of the leaders, Claudio Hernández recalls, “to get land with coffee we risked our lives, and we accepted being treated as fieldhands and soldiers”; the paradox was that many of those involved in the Nicaraguan Resistance also were fighting for land.

In the 1980s Ricardo Falla S.J. put that vision into words: “a peasant without land is like a being without a soul.” In 1993 I went to La Primavera in Ixcan, Guatemala where hundreds of families that returned from Mexico with the signing of the peace agreements were working the land collectively; at one dinner that a woman shared with me, she whispered: “help us, my husband was killed by the military, I want a piece of land to leave to my children, that his death not be in vain!”; it was a vision shared by families of Mesoamerica and beyond.

Being a farmer is more than having land, as in 9500 BC. In Nicaragua Marchetti and Maldidier (1996, El campesino-Finquero y el Potencial Económico del Campesinado Nicaraguense) detected that peasant vision: “I dream of that day in which my friends visit me and say, what a beautiful farm you have!” The land would not just be a plot with annual crops on it, but a diversified farm with permanent crops – because “tree have value”, said Tupac Barahona and Marcelo Rodríguez with the peasantry of Masaya (Nicaragua) and nourish biodiversity, as Abraham Cruz observed in Peñas Blancas (El Cuá, Nicaragua); “the birds of the forest come to eat on the farms.” In Honduras, Carlos Cantoral from Terreritos (Nueva Frontera) in the 2000s, sketched out what food sovereignty and peasant autonomy is, echoing our ancestors thousands of years ago:”being a peasant is producing what my family eats, without depending on anyone” – without a debt with the usurer, without giving in to the intermediary, and without lowering your head in the presence of the politician and religious leader. And again in Honduras Porfirio Hernández de Trascerros (Nueva Frontera) in 2018 describes those who lose that vision: “even having cattle they walk around money in hand looking for their corn grinder,” unfortunate is that family that does not first ensure their food. These are the families that resist being a clone of monocropping, families that grow their corn and produce their food on more and more diversified farms, which gives them the freedom to generate their own thinking and experiments, and a basis for cultivating their autonomy and resisting proletarization – and much more if it is organic agriculture.

Being a farmer and processing what is produced to ensure food “in green and mature times” has been a vision for thousands of years. Humanity learned to dry meat under the sun in its era of hunting and gathering, and in the years of 3000 BC made bread, and the Incas stored potatoes as starch, exposing potatoes to the sun during the day and to the cold at night. In this vein we find the peasantry of the XVII and XVIII centuries envisioning agro industrializing raw material in their communities. That vision, in spite of being squashed by capitalist industry and later by the socialism of Preobrazhensky and Stalin, persisted within Europe itself. That is why there are around 1100 flavors (brands) of beer in Belgium today, or vineyards and wine in Trentino, Italy. And it persists in Latin America. In Honduras in 2008 (Laguna de La Capa, Yoro), in the face of the “vocation” of the agricultural frontier to receive a peasantry whose grandchildren migrated with sugar cane and sugar mills defeated by the slavish rule that “only the rich make sugar”, the COMAL Network and peasant families started to process granulated sugar in the community itself. Cirilo George from the APROCATY Associative Enterprise put that fire into words, “we will not go back”, referring to the fact that individually they fell with their sugar cane into that destiny and that slavish rule, but organizing themselves, they made that vision of agro-industrialization palpable, as the Manduvirá Cooperative of Paraguay has done. In 2015 Raul Cruz from the Forest Rangers Cooperative (El Cuá, Nicaragua), after years of growing coffee, visiting two roasters, had a vision: “I imagined myself selling roasted, ground coffee”; what he imagined kept him from sleeping and he began to make his roasters from barrels in order to today sell roasted, ground coffee in 1 lb packages. Visions that move human will and show a path for creating living communities.

Having land, being a farmer, processing food…and selling! What a chain of visions! Even though the peasantry sees itself at odds with commerce, their aspirations include commercializing in order to cooperate. Within this perspective, in Honduras (Encinos, Intibucá) in the midst of intimidating polices under the Alliance for Progress of the 1960s and 1970s, women and men who would walk for days through mud to buy what they were not producing, envisioned “bringing in a store managed by us the Lenca peasant ourselves, right here.” That community, like the members of the La Unión Store in Taulabé, Honduras. Maquita Cosunchej of Ecuador, or the Hope of the Peasants Cooperative in Panama, overcame the old rule that “peasants and indigenous are no good at selling, only at planting.” Maybe individually it is difficult for a peasant family to sell, they say that it is a “betrayal of a promise” (buying oneself in order to sell your own product later), but organized is another story, because “the market is really relationships of people coming together, getting to know one another and trusting one another”– Peter Druckers would say to Peter Schwartz (1996, The Art of the Long View). In the 1990s again in Honduras a dozen leaders of several organizations, among them Auristela Argueta, saw a vision that continues to light up deep Mesoamerica: “we now have land, we are producing our food and something more, a market for selling and exchanging our products.” That aspiration that markets can connect organized people to one another, was the seed that gave rise to the Comal Network of Honduras.

What is distinctive about these visions and the imperative to see them

These visions, far from the current ones that businesses tend to express to generate capital or the blueprint of organizations of “being a leader” to find donations and “to put a patch on the problem” (formulate visions as a formality), move human determination through time and are like flames that do not go out, in search of a greater good. What distinguishes them? They are born out of crises, when that which should die, does not, and what should sprout, does not, as A. Einstein used to say: “creativity is born from anguish as day from night.” Adversity is overcome by “swimming against the current” and connecting oneself with centennial and millennial human aspirations that, like tectonic plates, shake even the most solid land, like that outrageous belief that a divine being or the market writes human destiny. They are understood by people discontent with the status quo, geniuses who question their worlds, see other possible realities, expand their mental horizons and really believe in their capacity to create the future because they experience it daily. As Blanca Rios advised her sons Juan, Victorino and Noel Adams, members of the Bosawas Cooperative in El Cuá, Nicaragua, “never feel you are on a horse, even if you are in the stirrups, because many people on a horse can end up on foot.” They are shared visions that emerge from personal visions, and not from adhering to visions prepared by managers or consultants; they derive their energy and commitment precisely from the fact that they come from personal visions.

These shared visions reorder life. If your vision is that your family eats what you produce, that makes you reorder your farm, the work of your family and your relationships with your neighbors, and if that vision is shared by other people of an organization, this reorients the organization toward that vision. They are concrete visions, here and now, visions that make them encounter the stranger and discover themselves. They are visions that cause changes day to day, brick to brick, seed after seed, the drop of water that cracks the stone.

In the face of these visions of future frameworks that we want to create, the challenge for peasant and indigenous organizations is to encourage their members to express their visions, understand them, and embody them in agreements and new rules to support the peasantry, the basis for food and assurance of environmental sustainability for humanity. For that purpose, the more an organization opens itself to learning, the more it tunes its ear to hear the visions, the more it takes out a pencil to take notes and ruminate on them, the more it reinvents itself, breaking rules like “the older one gets, the less one changes”, “the more one studies, the more one forgets about where they came from”, and “the more power one gets, the more farther they get from the people”. A peasantry that organizes itself and awakens to the fact that they can create their future, is more connected to the vision of Jesus, feels more the vision of the gladiators/slaves, seeks to have more democratic assemblies, aspires more the path of non-violence, makes agriculture an art, and weaves more of their own thinking, seed after seed- like constantly falling drops of water that eventually make a hole even in stone. Shared visions, in the midst of the tensions and adversities of all times, move human mountains and help us to be generators of long term change that started just yesterday.

[1] René has a PhD in development studies, is an associate researcher of IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium), collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/) and member of the COSERPROSS Cooperative RL. rmvidaurre@gmail.com

Toward the Re-Invention of “Fair Trade” (updated edition)

The height of injustice is to be deemed just when you are not. Plato

Even an honest man sins in the face of an open treasure. Saying.

The VII song of the Odyessy tells how the goddess Circe warned Ulysses that the sailors of those waters were so enchanted by the song of the sirens that they went mad, and lost control of their ships. To not succumb to that enchantment, Ulysses asked that he be tied to the mast of the ship, and that the oarsmen have wax put in their ears, and ordered that if he, because of the spell of their song, would ask that they free him, instead they should tighten the knots. So it was that Ulysses and his oarsmen were saved, and the sirens, failing in their objective, threw themselves off the cliff.

Facing unfair commercial relations, Fair Trade (FT) emerged as an alternative so that people who organized might improve their lives and be a space of solidarity among different actors beyond their countries´ borders. Nevertheless, in our case study in Nicaragua and Central America, we show that the institutional structure of power relationships under the market control of elites is like the sirens in the myth, capable of seducing the FT network, turning it against its own principles, and turning solidarity into just a bunch of words, numbers and papers. How can FT tie itself up so as to not succumb to the song of the sirens, and in this way, grow, enhancing its FT alternative principles? To respond to this question we take as a given that there are exceptional cooperatives, organizations, and people who confirm the importance of organizing and cultivating global solidarity, and that there are successful cooperatives, in countries in the south as well as in the north, in FT as well as outside of it. Nevertheless, in this article we study certain practices of the FT framework that seem to indicate its involution, and on that basis we suggest its reinvention. To do so we focus on coffee, which constitutes 70% of the volume of what is sold through FT.

Pull down full article here

 

Grant-Making in Nicaragua

The following reflection was written during my recent week in Nicaragua.  I had the unusual experience of writing it on paper, with a pencil, no less.  It was composed in nearly “real time,” as if for a journal, and only minutes after the experience occurred.  Maybe that’s partly how it came to be such a personal, emotional record.  (And for the record, writing with paper and pencil still works.)

The time is 8:35.  We are overnighting in the municipality of El Cua, in the department of Jinotega.   The mountains of Peñas Blancas are just behind us; indeed, the road from the mountains to El Cua features some of the most beautiful kms anywhere on earth.  The vistas around each corner are filled with valleys and peaks that truly steal the breath away.  Hotel El Chepita is arguably one of the more modern accommodation in the town,  though in order to flush the toilet in my bathroom, I am required to lift up on the back of the toilet until the stopper, which is somehow attached to the tank lid, is pulled up and the flush can commence.

We are a little late getting in.  We arrive to an empty registration desk and even the desk bell fails to summon anyone to receive us.  Mark calls the phone number for the hotel and we can hear the distant ringing of a phone, but it has no more effect than the bell.  A guest from the lobby, impatiently waiting to retrieve her room key,  comes to the desk and bangs on that desk bell with a fury.  But the assault proves to be no more effective than the other summons, so we simply wait and discuss other lodging options.

After maybe 15 minutes, a young woman comes running to the desk with profuse apologies and a promise to get us registered immediately.  She defends herself by explaining that she is the only person working at the hotel in that moment and she is having understandable difficulty covering all bases.  As she records our identities, she does inquire whether it would be acceptable if one of the rooms has no TV.  Since I still do not speak Spanish with any skill even approaching “just getting by,” a TV is of no import to me so the registration continues.

The room, not unexpectedly, is sparse in its appointments.  There is no chair.  No table.  No clothing hooks adorn the walls, the bathroom has no counters, my room looks directly across the narrow street to a discotheque (yes, even in this era) and the music there is only drowned out by the persistent roar of motorcycle and truck engines racing down our street.  I can shut my slat-style windows, but I need the air in my air-conditioner-free room.  Besides, two of the glass louvers are missing from my windows, so the effectiveness in shutting out noise is highly suspect.  But the barking dogs in the property next to ours do take a break every half-hour or so to rest their voices.

My room is dark and hot.  (Oh-oh, there go the dogs again.)  I keep the single overhead light turned off, to reduce the heat and the depressing feeling that overhead lights always convey to me.  The overhead fan tries hard to keep up with the heat in this upstairs room, but the blades cannot turn fast enough to generate any meaningful cooling.  All I can do is to lie on my bed in the dark and read by the light of my Kindle.  I keep the bathroom light on, though, because the 8 o’clock hour is too early to fall asleep for the night, even in weary Nicaragua.

Staring across the room into that dimly-lit WC gives me pause to wonder to myself how I possibly came to be in a place like this on a Tuesday in March.  It is certainly unlike any place I ever experience in the course of my “normal” life.

And that is precisely the point.  The sounds, the smells, the conditions reveal the life of rural Nicaragua in ways that words or even photographs cannot.  At this moment, I would not choose to be in any other place but this.  In a single, isolated moment I am confronted with gratitude for the good fortune of my life, the shame of my self-centeredness, a humility at my recognition of being the most fortunate of men, an anger that I have not shown the strength and wisdom to have accomplished more, a thankfulness for the men and women here who have taught me even as I posed as the teacher, and gratefulness at being permitted to be among people who are at war with the injustice of their poverty.  Ironically, this place and time represents privilege: my privilege at the opportunity to become a part of their lives, if only for a short time.

To be sure, this evening I miss my wife and the comforts of our Iowa home, as I always do when I travel.  But I am filled up tonight in ways that I could not at home.  In this moment, it turns out that the most important grant during this trip is the one made to me….

 

Dismantling the large estate with cooperativism

Dismantling the large estate with cooperativism

René Mendoza Vidaurre with Edgar Fernandez[1]

You have to look at coffee like the fingers on a hand; the first year we plant, the second year the coffee develops, The third year we harvest, the fourth we harvest more and the fifth year the coffee begins to decline       R. Mairena, President

The cooperative works for me: it sells my coffee at a better price, it gives me credit. And it guides me in growing coffee. M.D. Gómez, Member

Plato in his book “The Republic” tells the story of the cave. A group of prisoners remained chained in a cave since their birth. They cannot turn their heads, they can only see the wall in the back. Behind them is a corridor and a bonfire. Men are passing through the corridor with different objects which project shadows on the wall because of the light. The prisoners believe that the shadows of the objects are real. One day one of the prisoners is freed and seeing the light from the fire, the people, trees, lakes and the sun, realizes the origin of the shadows and that they are only shadows. He returns to the cave to free his fellow prisoners, who on hearing that the shadows were only shadows, do not believe him, make fun of him and treat him as if he were crazy. This allegory reveals the strength of mindsets (tacit beliefs that rule the lives of people).

What is this kind of mindset in a cooperative? How can a cooperative free itself and build its own way? We explain this mindset, study it seeking to change it: we do it from the experience of the Solidaridad Cooperative in Nicaragua[2].

1.     Mental frameworks and their origins

“The large estate provides, and the farm is a drain”, “we always need a patron”, “the patron knows and decides, the rest obey”, “only one crop, more inputs, more production”, “the dumber the fieldhand, the more hardworking they are”, “ the cheaper you pay the fieldhand, and the cheaper the land is, the more money can be made”. These beliefs sustain a hierarchical and discriminating framework, internalized by a good part of our society.

This mentality was refined over centuries all over. By 1880 Matagalpa had an indigenous population with more than 200,000 mzas of mountainous land, most of it was expropriated by the State for coffee; the mindset was in line with the myth of mestizo Nicaragua (J. Gould): “coffee, a civilized crop, indigenous an obstacle for civilization.” Thus between 1889 and 1895 there were more than 200 foreigners in Matagalpa. In time, in the zone of Arenal, Thomas, Manning, Crespi, Harrison and Vita formed large estates. Vita founded the Aranjuez estate (hacienda), later bought by Potter, then by De Savigny, later on turned into the first mountain hotel and later Somoza turned it into a Sanatarium for people with tuberculosis. From the start of the XX century up to now, temporarily interrupted by the war in the 1980s, the following haciendas were formed: El Quetzal, Marsellesa, Monimbo, La Aurora, El Paraíso, El Paraisito, Los Helechos, Santa Ana, La Esperanza and La Minita. The Solidaridad cooperative is in Aranjuez and El Arenal, has an indigenous past and is now surrounded by haciendas.

The hacienda system was imposed with State backing. Racism and dispossession mechanisms went hand in hand, which is the origin of that mentality that persists even in our times. In the 1990s a hacienda closed the road on 62 members of the Carlos Rodríguez cooperative, forcing them to sell their lands at the price that the hacienda had set. Currently the El Quetzal hacienda closes the road after 6pm, thus leaving the communities “closed in”, communities where its own workers live, as well as some families who are members of the cooperative. After 2010 several haciendas of the area have been facing a drop in the production of their coffee, the soils are exhausted, the exploited environment no longer produces: more inputs, more dead soil, the more coffee is exposed to full sunlight, the more the soil is washed away with the rainfall.

The very act of explaining the origin of that mentality awakens people. The hacienda has built itself by taking. More inputs and mono-cropping has led to greater soil deterioration. Closing roads no longer leads to cheaper land, nor does it force the hand of producer families. The “stupid” fieldhand, leaving the hacienda, has become a farmer.

2.     A check on the hacienda: the cooperative

The 63 members of the cooperative have more than 300 mzs of land and produce about 7,000 qq of export coffee. The cooperative collects and exports 60% of the coffee of its members, 30% of that as quality coffee. 20 years ago most of these 63 members were fieldhands – some of them foremen – of the haciendas, they were families with little or no land, some of them producing some flowers and vegetables. Of the 63, some 25 members produce between 30-100qq export coffee per manzana, producing more than some haciendas. A small producer of Aranjuez, who is not a member of the cooperative, with 5 mzs of coffee, won the 2017 Cup of Excellence Award with 91.16 points. That is quality coffee! Diversified coffee farms with bananas and citrus, and not mono-cropping haciendas, produce quality coffee, not just standard coffee. All of this makes the land increase in value, puts a check on the hacienda, and in addition the hacienda sees its earnings decreasing.

It is easy to find examples to illustrate these results. There is a member who is a single mother who lives off her 2 mzs of coffee and bananas, that produces enough for her to support her mother and married daughters. Another member of the cooperative was able to intensify his coffee with bananas and citrus through the cooperative, and left his job as a fieldhand of the hacienda. There is a foreman who became a member of the cooperative and ended up being president of the cooperative.

What has generated this change? Well, the cooperative! Its strategy? First, it understood the importance of regularity in the application of inputs (urea and leaf sprayed fertilizer) that coffee needs in order to produce more, which is why the cooperative provides in-kind credit so that, under technical supervision, each member family applies it and pays for it with that same coffee, for which the cooperative finds markets. Secondly, they got past the biannual nature of coffee (one good year of production and the next year low production), pruning 25% of the coffee each year, and systematically renovating their old coffee plants. Third, the member families are concentrated in a microterritory and receive credit services, technical assistance and collect the harvest right there, which reduces their transaction costs and facilitates a close relationship between members-leaders and members-administration. Fourth, strong leadership pushing the cooperative in new challenges in a calm, gradual way; “directed credit”, “piloting direct exporting with a small amount”, and “getting into milling with low volume”; they do it as they establish relationships with the social banking sector, coffee buyers and chemical input companies.

Seen from the results, organized small scale production provides more and better farms, good for the people and good for the environment. Nevertheless, seen from the processes, following a different path from that of the hacienda, the response is two pronged: increasing family ownership over their production, but not over their organization. On the one hand, the discipline of applying inputs every 30-35 days on their coffee, and selectively pruning 25% of the plants has become a custom, and thereby a tacit law; as well as turning their coffee in to the cooperative, paying their loans and waiting for a better price. On the other hand, the mindset planted by the hacienda persists: “more inputs, more production”, “without the president we would fall”, “information is not up to date and does not get to the members”, “decisions about credit and who can have a better price for their coffee are not made in the organs of the cooperative”, “a buyer even chooses 10 members to buy their coffee”, “we members rely on the president, we only come in to get our loans and our payments”, “the members who do not increase their production will not increase it no matter what we give them”, “if we apply the rules of the cooperative we would be left without members”, “let the member with the most volume of coffee set the price”. A good part of the cooperative and some of its allies breathe in this mindset.

The benefits of the cooperative for the member families and the environment, for Aranjuez and el Arenal are visible, but their durability depends on changes in their mentality. As Saint-Exupéry said in his novel The Little Prince, what is most important is what is invisible. Taking your own path involves getting off the path of the hacienda.

3.     Transformation of  mental models

In addition to increasing production, the cooperative proposes increasing coffee quality, diversified farms with environmental sustainability, stronger relationships with the social banks and buyers, members who study their farms, and good relations between members, leaders and workers. And they are on that path. One member who studies and experiments: “I make a selective leaf spray, because I am watching over my plants, I recognize the coffee bore or rust, I observe it daily, if it progresses, I spray it, if it does not progress, I enclose it”; “I spray the entire coffee field, for prevention”; “ before putting a chemical on it I test it a little”, “what I learned when I had organic coffee I continue applying, I spend less and it goes further”, “I have coffee trees for repopulating and to sell”. The member/leader, the one that asks questions, accepts positions of responsibility and exercises them, complies with the rules of the cooperative and the decisions of its respective bodies, is still a subject under construction. Relationships with the workers, encouraged by a coffee buying organization, are making progress: “Coffee with a union aroma” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_SD3QBJ7r_U&feature=share)

For that the cooperative is refining its strategy. First, it is strengthening the observation and study that led them to determine the regularity in the application of inputs, this time to get beyond the belief of “more inputs, more production” to “more observation and management, more quality production”, including mixtures of coffee in micro-lots. Second, it is keeping its decision to have an office and services in the same territory, trying to get their sons and daughters to participate in the life of the cooperative – as members and personnel-staff. Third, it is making the policies and rules of the cooperative be applied, that decisions come from the organs of the cooperative, that members, board and administrative staff be subject to those agreements, and that the international allies respect and strengthen that institutionality. Fourth, the distribution of earnings based on updated information be posted on the wall- information on loans, financial statement, balance statement, volume of coffee collected, services of processing and exporting – so that the member families might come in to be informed, because informing is forming.

The Solidarity cooperative has taken a giant step: it stopped the hacienda. But even though it is at a standstill; it is still intact; the member families, even though are progressing in production and organization, are dividing up their land through inheritances, and their cooperative instrument continues being a challenge. The myth of the cave could change in the cooperative framework if the 4 elements of the strategy – observation, territory, institutionality and transparency – are carried out as the origin of its “light”, that would let them dismantle the mindset of the hacienda (“shadows”) and discern a new path. Their challenge is also the challenge of the entire world.

[1] René has a PhD in development studies, is an 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 Edgar is also a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation.

[2] We talked with the member families, their leaders and staff and we facilitated workshops in Aranjuez. This article is the result of that collective learning with the member families that observed their farms and reflected on their cooperative. We are grateful to J. Koldegaard for his comments on the draft of this article.

Together Is Better

Long ago and far away, I sat in a January classroom and concluded what was then called January Interim.  The month of January was dedicated to students choosing a topic of study that was likely outside the realm of their major field.  Biologists studied Shakespeare, English majors learned about personal investments, accounting majors looked at the solar system.  (One cold January I even studied a UI, the “language of space,” developed by one of the school’s psychology professors.  Foosh um bru?)  The Interim was an open space in which to explore new ideas while taking a break from the rigors of  a major field of study. The J Term, as it is now often called by many of the schools which offer it, is still very alive and well, though it has morphed significantly.  Instead of reading about far-off spaces, today’s J Term student is just as likely to travel there.

As expansive as that opportunity may be, there’s another level of engagement that has been created at some schools.  More recently, it’s a matter of not just traveling there, but also interacting with local populations and contributing something of significance and lasting value.  Winds of Peace Foundation has been in the middle of facilitating that. The Foundation has partnered with Augsburg University for more than 30 years as it has sought to study, analyze and provide resources for development in rural Nicaragua.  It’s the Augsburg Center for Global Education and Experience (CGEE) that has led the Foundation there and served as significant conduit for contacts and entres to the country and the countryside.

What has worked so well is a synergy.  WPF has a acquired an in- depth understanding of Nicaragua’s persistent poverty through its development work; it has not only funded organizations seeking to strengthen themselves through access to capital and education, but also created  a research base of sociological evidence.  Meanwhile, Augsburg has had the benefit of a development “laboratory” at its CGEE site in Nicaragua, a real-life classroom application for students and academics from around the entire country.  What began as a small symbiotic partnership has expanded to something larger and more potentially significant.

What the synergy has created is a real-life boilerworks, wherein learners have the direct contact and impact on people somewhere else in the world.  It’s well past book learning, and even beyond the personal immersion experiences of the old J Terms.  The synergy here is bringing together students who seek to learn and to understand the reach of their abilities, coupled with rural peasants who live day-to-day in deep need of modern resources.  How else would one describe the application of mathematics to measure arboreal CO2 outputs of the actual forest surrounding a peasant farm?  The result is knowledge for the farmers who can now appreciate the precise contribution and importance of their trees, and real-life, vocational application by students who experience the practical effects of a chosen field of study.

It has been a curious mix, this bridging between rural Nicaraguan populations and urban U.S. students.  They would seem, at first glance, to be unlikely collaborators.  They speak different languages.  Their worlds are thousands of miles apart.  Many of the peasant farmers are of an older generation; their student counterparts are millennials or Gen Z members.  Rural Nica education is experience, with perhaps a bit of history thrown in.  Student education is primarily from the books and classrooms of expensive university surroundings.  How different can two group be?

But the “synergy” which holds them together is their universal longing and need to work together, to benefit from each other, to give in return what each has received.  What they have experienced, what the University and WPF has sought to foster, what real life teaches us to be true, is that we need each other.  We’re better together.  We may see the world differently and hold differing views of what that world is trying to tell us, but our differences help us to see it better.  What a lesson!  If you doubt its truth, just observe any group of U.S. young people saying good-bye to their Nica community.

The collaboration between peasant and student is a remarkable coming together of two disparate entities; that’s a lesson in and of itself.   It’s also a mirror of the alliance between Augsburg University and Winds of Peace Foundation: another two disparate entities in collaboration.  And, if I may be so bold, a blueprint for our organizational and political leaders in an expanding fog of mutual marginalization….

Book It

“No one who can read ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one who cannot.”                         -Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens 

I finished reading two books last week, one an historical recounting of the life of Native American figure Red Cloud and the other about the worst hurricane ever to hit the U.S.   I love to read.  Reading informs my world view, piques my curiosities, temporarily abducts me from the nonsense in everyday life, makes me laugh, makes me cry.  It shapes my opinions and my character.  In fact, a love of reading was the lifeline that helped me through college, aided in obtaining my first real job, and guided my vocational choices, even to the present: in my next career, I’d like to return to performing voice-over work, reading for the benefit of others.

There’s nothing terribly unusual in that confession; indeed, most of us are creatures of the written word.  Reading is the central tenet of education, vocation, communication with other human beings and of evolution itself.  Imagine, for a moment, where civilization and the human parade might be without the ability to read.

It’s not such a far-fetched thing to imagine.  There are people who cannot read; not that they choose not to read, but that they are unable to read the written word.  They are certainly to be found in the U.S.  And I have met far too many of them in Nicaragua, frequently in the rural areas where education often may not exceed third grade due to the need for every family member to work for the family’s basic sustenance.  The need to eat comes before the ability to read.

This is the context in which “Let’s Read, Reading Is Fun!” was born and continues to grow in Nicaragua.  (I have written about the program here previously, but it continues to be one of the most directly impactful and [for me] personally satisfying endeavors that Winds of Peace Foundation supports.)  The premise is simple: get books into the hands of school-age children and thus release the inherent joys to be found in reading.

It’s easy to take reading for granted when using the skill everyday.  We read books.  We scan newspapers. We network within social media.  We send and receive e-mails.  We read menus before dining, ballots prior to voting, road signs while driving, and airline tickets before boarding.  In short, reading is perhaps the essential skill of modern living.  But in Nicaragua, books are not in great supply, so reading skills become stalled for lack of attractive and engaging materials.  I can only imagine what my own literacy might be today without help from Dr. Seuss and The Hardy Boys.  Where might you be today without the ability to read?  (Among other things, you wouldn’t be reading this essay!)

“Let’s read, Reading Is Fun” recognizes the essential need and right that is reading.  In 2017,  another 9,670 books were distributed within 313 schools.  Since its inception in 2010, nearly 54,000 children have participated in the reading program, honing a skill that forever changes who they are and what they will become.  (The full report of the “Let’s Read” campaign for 2017 and its cause and effect is posted under the Education Funds section of this website, located on the homepage.)

If you are able to read this entry, congratulations on possessing the skill to do so.  While the content written here may not shape your future or your character, what you absorb from the written word elsewhere most certainly will.  Go read a book- it will change you.  It’s a particularly good thing to know that in rural Nicaragua, those same transformations are happening.  You can make book on it….