Category Archives: Fair Trade

Cooperatives embedded in a differentiated and diversified economy

Cooperatives embedded in a differentiated and diversified economy

René Mendoza Vidaurre with Elix Meneces, Fabiola Zeledón, Hulda Miranda, Esmelda Suazo and Luis Daniel Meneces[1]

Coffee is more than coffee

-Honey, you seem pensive, what is going on?

Tasting this coffee, I ask myself, what am I drinking?

-Why?

-The coffee is produced from the water that exists in the coffee plant. A good plant adapts to the soil where the water comes from … Over the years the coffee tastes like that soil and the other plants that permeate it through the pollination of bees.

-You are profound, what is soil?

-It is particles produced in an infinite variety of soils for millions of years, particles that through human action become a particular terrain–that is why we hear people talk about “my land”.

-What?

These terrains are produced in multiple stages. The coffee plant (from the Turkish word kahve, and in Arabic is qahwa) appeared between the IX and XIII centuries in Ethiopia, and in Yemen in the XV century, then in the Middle East, Europe, northern Africa and Latin America … The coffee plant adapts to different soils and altitudes. The workers interact with the plants and the soil, some even meditate on them. If there is no diversity of insects on a coffee farm with citrus trees, plantains, avocados, and cedar trees, pesticides have barged in. The laws of governments and certifiers come into play. The markets make coffee dry, washed, natural or honey coffee, and it ends up being espresso, capuccino, moca, latte…, it is cupped and packaged…

-Wow!, in other words, this coffee is more than just coffee!

This parable shows us how while sitting down to drink coffee we are really savoring millions of years of natural and human life. It is not just coffee, wine, potatoes, carrots…it is more than that. Behind a farm with coffee and several crops there is a history of thousands and millions of years, where nature interacted with human actions, organizations and institutions. Coffee is water, soil and land, it is a diversified farm and it is the human energy of many generations. It represents rights, policies, economic transactions and spirituality.

Fabiola Zeledón, an advisor of rural cooperatives, tends to say that “the farm expressed the mood of the family”, because the farm is the result of the energies of those who work it. This reminds us of Jesus of Nazareth, his response to the Pharisees two thousand years ago (Lk. 19:39-40):

39 Some of the Pharisees who were among the people complained to Jesus:—Teacher, reprimand your disciples!

40 But he responded:—I tell you that if they keep silent, the stones themselves will shout”.

Jesus was referring to the stones of the temple, in the construction of which enslaved people shed their sweat and blood. The temple of stones could shout. The farm also could shout, as Pope Francis said in Laudato Si, “the cry of the por is the cry of the earth”.

Even though there are a variety of agricultural systems, in this article we focus on a diversified agriculture that resists the pounding of the mono-cropping system, which is the cause of the cry of the poor and the earth. From this point, if a diversified farm is an expression of social and environmental equity, how can cooperatives embrace it, instead of eroding it, surrendering to mono-cropping systems?

1.     Introduction

“Put your eggs in different baskets” and “staggering income and food throughout the year”. Historical diversification strategy of the peasantry

Talking about diversification is nothing new. Historically, the indigenous and peasant strategy precisely has been diversification, expressed in “putting your eggs in different baskets” (if the eggs in one basket break, there will be the other baskets- products), and “staggering income and food” throughout the year. This strategy has happened generally on the horizontal level of diversification, something like the poly-cropping system on farms, and it has functioned in agricultural frontier areas and in communities relatively isolated from towns and markets. Why? Any family that lives a day or two days travel from town cannot go every week or two to town to buy products to meet their needs; they will go to town two or three times a year with “corn that can walk” (pigs or turkeys), or blocks of raw sugar, to supply clothing; they will look to grow corn, beans, a bit of sugar cane, raise poultry and pigs, process their lard, water their garden or oregano, cilantro, mint, and chili, being as self-sufficient as possible. The members of each family participate there, in the raising of poultry and pigs, and also the processing of lard and the tasks of harvesting and cleaning basic grains.

The problem in the new millennium is that, practically speaking, there are no more agricultural frontier areas, the population and their proximity to markets have increased, and the harassment on the part of the elites over their lands, products and labor has intensified, while the soil has lost fertility, water is getting scarce, and the instability of the climate is on the increase. This problem is made worse when peasant agriculture tends to give way to the mono-cropping system, and to its logic of “more agro-chemicals, more production.” This, in turn, has meant that mothers are outside the farm, because the effect of their gardens and raising of chickens and pigs has been reduced, and young women and men are migrating from the countryside, because they look on the farming of their parents as something boring, and that experiences more months of “dead time” when food for the table gets scarce.

Within this context these strategies of poly-cropping, in addition to falling into the peasant curse of remaining a producer or raw materials, inexorably is on the wane, while the mono-cropping system speeds up their impoverishment and environmental degradation. What can be done then? One response has been that peasant families organize into cooperatives and empower their communities. Nevertheless, in most cases the cooperatives are absorbed by elites, who “wed them” to mono-cropping systems. How can cooperatives be recovered on the basis of diversification systems? A first response we have provided in other articles, that when the members of a cooperative come from the same community, and their services are located in that same community, that tends to strengthen the peasant economy of their communities. This is a basic condition, for the cooperative to be embedded in a community economy that gains ground in the face of the mono-cropping system.

To take advantage of this condition, the challenge is transitioning from a type of anti-peasant embeddedness (mono-cropping agriculture and a cooperative with only the business “foot”), which is what Polanyi would call “a market society”, to combining what is differentiated and diversified – horizontally and vertically – of embedded peasant agriculture with the two “feet” of the cooperative (associative and business feet), which Polanyi would call “societies with markets” (see Figure 1). How can that step be taken from one agricultural system to another, when it also implies transitioning from a market society to a society WITH markets? In the section that follows we study this first harmful embeddedness, and then in the other two sections we work on virtuous embeddedness.

2.     Mono-cropping and the business “foot” of the cooperative

Comparative advantage: producing a good at lower costs than others; buying the rest of the products in which you are not competitive (David Ricardo, classical economist, 1772-1823).

Strategy of mono-cropping companies.

The elites subject societies through markets, and promote the disappearance of the peasantry through mono-cropping agriculture. That is, plantations of just one crop, be it sugar cane, peanuts, sunflower seeds, palm, soy, pineapple, large livestock, coffee or cacao, they are imposed with technological patterns (intensive use of agro-chemicals and mechanized labor), in extensive and increasingly larger areas, decreasing the demand for labor, and committing to ever larger production volume – it is the logic of comparative advantages. That market force uses the cooperative itself to promote this mono-cropping agriculture, to such an extent that today to speak about an agricultural cooperative is practically the same as saying a mono-cropping cooperative.

Some organizations, to soften that reality of mono-cropping cooperatives or to camouflage them, call them “specialized cooperatives”, and they conceive of the members as farmers who have several crops for consumption, and a commercial crop to generate income (“cash crop”) that could be coffee, cacao, bananas or block of unprocessed sugar. Hence there are financially successful cooperatives that have credit services, markets and technology for just one crop, or, in the case of serving several crops, they respond with a mono-cropping logic – per crop and not to diversified systems. This mono-cropping agriculture for decades and centuries has done damage to the peasant economy and the environment, something well documented by hundreds of studies.[2] Part of those effects is expanding the area for coffee, peanuts, cacao, pineapple, soy beans, sunflower seeds, or sugar cane, accompanied by environmental degradation (soil erosion, dried up rivers, deforestation and loss of biodiversity), the proliferation of pests that become more resistant to insecticides, and molding peasant behavior toward strategies of “putting all the meat on the spit” (one crop, one market), of the culture of receiving payment once a year, of “the season” (one harvest in the year that pays for debts, food and goods) and that depends increasingly on agro-chemicals, like glyphosate, which replaces workers, affects human and natural health, and wipes out the gardens of peasant homes. The result of these effects is that slowly the peasantry is dispossessed of their land and their organizations, while their curse of being producers of raw materials intensifies.

There are sugar cane cooperatives in countries like Bolivia, for example, that only administer the sending of the sugar cane of their members to the sugar mill, and are the vehicle for the companies to do the mechanized labor and application of agrochemicals in the cane fields. They are cooperatives whose members, previously peasant families who diversified their crops, work on just one crop, and they are left practically as spectators of that crop, because the companies are the ones who plant the sugar cane, do the weeding, apply the agrochemicals, harvest and transport the sugar cane; the member is watchful that those tasks are done at the appropriate time, and in the end receive 2 or 3 dollars per ton of cane. The large sugar companies do not even need to buy land to take it over, instead counting on the cooperatives and governments to establish their control.

The expansion of mono-cropping happens even through organic agriculture, a commercial farming system that emerged in the 1960s in Europe and Japan, countries whose populations demanded organic products in opposition to the companies that recycled used chemicals in the Second World War in “pest control” farming practices. But in time these organic products, regulated with norms and certification programs, were inserted into capitalism as a simple substitution for agrochemical inputs.  Box 1 illustrates the prohibitions for a crop to be certified as organic: there they assume that the members apply agrochemicals to basic grains and gardens, which is why they prohibit them.

Fundamentally it is a rejection of diversification. The paradox is that this organic agriculture is promoted by organizations and companies concerned about the environment, but precisely this mono-cropping character is the opposite of environmental sustainability. A cooperative, even one organizationally rooted in its community, that continues to embrace an agriculture of mono-cropping, be it organic or not, divorces itself from nature, separates people from one another, and undermines the productive bases of peasant families.

The most dramatic effect of elites through the mono-cropping system is their influence over a type of despotic leadership, and their appropriation of peasant organizations, proletarianizing them with or without land. How do they do this? The trader grows their business through one crop, no matter what the product is, believes himself to be indispensable for having money, coming in from outside the community, and having contacts outside the community where he can go to sell it, which is why they focus on the product, not the person, they respond to the market. For that trader the community is just a place where there are products. This is the model that permeates the cooperative. This is what we illustrated above with the sugar cane cooperatives in Bolivia. Let us look at other cases, now referring to coffee and cacao cooperatives in Central America.

On molding the cooperative around one crop, the coffee or cacao cooperative administers their harvest collection, processing and exporting from the town (municipal or provincial capital), and it makes the member family stay only within their farm, tied to a raw material. The rule is: (manager of the cooperative), “give us your product, we will take care of the rest”/ (member producer) “I am a producer of raw materials, the rest does not matter to me”. This institutional setup has made the “business foot” of the cooperative set itself up as the foreman (administrator) of the market, the trader, who pushes the farming of the mono-crop, takes charge of “the rest” of the product outside of the farm. For those activities of harvest collection, processing and commercialization, the only things needed are money, manager, technicians and a president who is one more signature for the checks – from this comes the rule: “money makes even a monkey dance.” Within this structure, and for the business to function, the member does not count, is not needed, even if he does not turn in raw material, that structure (the “business foot”) can resort to traditional traders and buy it in that arena, and then pass it off as a product of the cooperative. This logic has been supported by financial and state institutions, as well as buyers, who are only committed to mono-crop farming; for example, a private or social bank does not finance diversified systems, they finance mono-cropping agriculture – cattle, coffee, sugar cane or soy beans.

As we can see, this embeddedness of the mono-cropping system and the business foot of the cooperative, supported internationally, is anti-peasant and makes the social and environmental inequality worse. The challenge of getting beyond this path is clear. Consequently, assuming that we already have rooted cooperatives, with members who come from the same community, how can a new path of embeddedness be built between a differentiated and diversified agriculture in the community itself, and a cooperative organization with two feet, the business and the associative feet (di2 +  2 feet /community)?

3.     Differentiated and the two “feet” of the cooperative

We said that the indigenous peasant diversification strategy worked under certain circumstances, conditions that now are different in the new millennium. In this and the following section we start from the strategy, and we re-conceptualize it in a way that responds to the circumstances of the current millennium. Peasant farms and economies need to develop a production that is differentiated and a diversification that implies innovating horizontally (on the farm) and vertically (agro-industrialization), which requires a level of coordination made possible with the active participation of each member of the peasant family organized into cooperatives, which operate with their business as well as their associative feet. Let us begin with the differentiation of products, not betting on the volume per crop, maybe not even volume per area, but quality of life – because the farm is more than just a farm.

Let us look at products as differentiated from both focused and multiple perspectives. Seeing differentiated products from a focused perspective means that there are certain activities and products that require cooperative forms of organization, and others that do not. Organizations which are formed around products known as commodities, standard products, tend to fail; for example, a family that produces corn for their consumption and to sell it through mediation, does not need to join a cooperative to repeat the same process, because individually and as a family they already store their corn for 6 months (corncobs above their stove and cured corn in the storeroom). This family does not need a cooperative to store their corn; unless the family needs financial liquidity at the time of the harvest, and then after 3 or 4 months needs corn, just when the price of corn is double or triple the price when they sold it. In that case a cooperative is needed which, covering its costs of storage, can resell them their own corn.

Producing and selling corn in the former case is not a differentiating activity, which is why it does not need to be part of a cooperative. While the latter operation of buying and reselling the corn, saving them 100% of their resources, is a differentiating activity, which requires collective actions, which is why a cooperative is needed. That same is true in the case of beans or other products.

There are products that require a group of producers to coordinate among themselves to do certain practices in a standardized way in order to access certain markets. Then a cooperative is needed. For example, producing quality coffee requires a certain amount of coordination in the organoleptic management of high value varieties, picking red cherries, pulping, drying and hulling by lots; the collection of milk requires a certain amount of synchronization in volume, hygienic practices, delivery of product on time and a place with refrigeration, be that to be sold as milk or processed as cheese; cacao for chocolate requires uniform fermentation and drying; organic agriculture requires learning and making organic fertilizers and natural insecticides, as well as markets that channel the products toward consumers committed to healthy foods; selling vegetables to demanding markets requires homogeneity in size, quality and packaging of the product, in addition to synchronicity in volume and time.

This industrialization and commercialization require coordination and synchronization among several families, which is more possible within the framework of rooted cooperatives; an individual peasant only goes as far as their fence of piñuelas, they do not sell their raw materials, but can sell them through their cooperative. A leader of a cooperative in Honduras said, “the beautiful thing about our sales network of the cooperatives is that the products of other organizations come into our Multiple Services Business (distributor), and then are sold to our peasant stores”.

Now let us get into the differentiation of product with cooperative coordination from a multiple perspective, which refers to the fact that, regardless of the products, the cooperative cultivates a long-term vision to the extent that it can see the “big picture” – different determining factors coming from their own history, the global and local power structure, the challenges of all of humanity and/or glimpsing promising visions of the future. The members see, for example, the benefits of ecological or agroecological agriculture in the long term, and get the big picture of climate change; consequently, the peasantry rethinks their autonomy, conceiving an agroecology that “Incorporates ideas on an agricultural approach more connected to the environment and more socially sensitive; focused not only on production but also on the ecological sustainability of the production system” (Altieri, 1999:17). A leader of the La Voz de Atitlan Cooperative in Guatemala said (Mendoza, 2016d):

After more than 20 years working in organic agriculture, now the changes can be seen. Our lands produce more coffee, and any other crop that we put in the plot produces more and better harvests. This coffee has a good market. We only had to realize that we needed to improve our production and we needed to save our cooperative.

The members understood that small actions mobilize communities, they see their farms as small laboratories, they  see their cooperatives as a schools of collective entrepreneurship, and the community as pluri-versity. The members understand that coordinating among themselves for differentiated products makes their cooperative a different organization. Note: in the following section we will see vertical differentiation, as another form of the multiple perspective and structural empowerment of the peasantry that organizes itself.

Clothed in this focused and multiple perspective of embedded products and cooperatives, it follows that the cooperative makes the different actors coordinate among themselves, from one member to another, and follow up committees are organized for the technological, agroecological, transportation or processing coordination in the territory itself. For example, if the coffee drying would once again become a role of the producer family itself, and the hulling was a function done by the cooperative, the reports of theft of weight in the harvest collection centers and the dry mill in the town, or claims that their sacks of coffee were replaced by other sacks in the dry mill warehouse, would come to an end, because a good part of those tasks would be done on the farm and in the homes of the member families themselves, and in cooperatives rooted in their territories. In this way, the more agroecological or differentiated production practices the peasantry takes on, the greater autonomy it gains, while at the same time it makes the cooperative operate in agroecological systems that make any action more distinctive.

4.     Diversified and the two “feet” of the cooperative

This differentiated production should also be accompanied by diversified production; agroecology, for instance, cannot be understood without diversification. Diversification implies resolving the dilemma of increasing production and generating added value to peasant production. Here the cooperative comes into play, through it we deepen the horizontal diversification (crop association and rotation, and the combination of crops with small and large livestock on the farm) and we enter into vertical diversification (processing of farm and forest products – e.g. pine needles for crafts, wood for rustic furniture).

How can we innovate in agriculture? Let us look at some examples along those lines. Innovating in agriculture is thinking about it as “floors in a building”: crops that spread like watermelon, pipian squash, pumpkin or chayote, are like the first floor; plants like vegetables are the second floor; plants like cassava, beans or corn are the third floor; bananas or papaya are the fourth floor; citrus and avocados are the fifth floor; finally wood and energy trees are the sixth floor; all them in accordance with the energy flow coming from solar light and wind.

Another example is varying the form, while at the same time having common spaces for fostering friendship. This is the case of trellises of grapes, passion fruit or chayote, that can be established horizontally, under which families place seats for moments of friendship and conversation. Or these trellises can be set up vertically, “trellises stood in a line”, that increase the amount of productivity in the same space, and also function as wind breaks. Another case of form with enormous productive, organizational and philosophical meaning is mandala agriculture (in Sanskrit “sacred circle of energy” from the Maya and other cultures like Buddism[3]), producing in circles, combining sizes and the demand for energy coming from solar light and wind, organizational movement in circles (e.g. Apaches), and as a philosophy of life where energy is channeled under the premise that energy is what moves change.

Farming combined with smaller livestock is another open vein in innovation. Poultry in open fields (on diversified farms) that fertilize the crops, capture insects and clear weeds, and at the same time product eggs and meat. Innovating also in the garden (“My Mom´s green thumb”) and natural medicines.

This horizontal diversification should be thought of as linked to vertical diversification: agro-industrialization. This is a way of beating the peasant curse of not moving beyond “your piñuela fence”, condemned to only producing raw materials. How can this be done? For example, collecting, hulling, roasting and grinding coffee in the community itself for different markets; this implies learning how to use the pulp, honey water and coffee hulls as ecological inputs, which generates more jobs and energizes the economy of the community where the cooperative is located. The same can be said about sugar cane for processing granulated sugar blocks, which at the same time are an input for different products like granola, bread, natural medicines and some twenty traditional products; while its wastes are used for alcohol and making molasses (cattle feed) and organic fertilizer.

This vertical diversification is possible when the entire system is carried out in the same territory and is led by a cooperative that functions with both of its “feet”: its business and associative feet. Both feet are needed because high levels of coordination are required between people to respond to the diversity of value creation activities, the diversity of crops directed at different markets, and their degrees of agro-industrialization. With these practices, the dependency and veneration of the members toward the manager, who is located outside of their community, gets diluted, because it is within the community that most of the economic, social and cultural value is generated. The dependency on mono-cropping agriculture of just having activities in the months of the “season”, is replaced by ongoing tasks throughout the entire year on the farm and in the home. The dependency on the work of just the men is replaced by the mobilization of family labor for an endless number of activities that differentiated, diversified and agro-industrialized agriculture requires. Because it is difficult for us to imagine a cooperative of just men growing crops, raising pigs and chickens, and at the same time making marmalade and pine needle baskets, which is why the active participation of women and men, as well as youth, is strategic. In addition, a horizontally and vertically differentiated and diversified agriculture has more possibility of no longer being boring and unpleasant.

This embeddedness of differentiated and diversified agriculture within the “two footed” cooperative, when it happens, breaks up three anti-peasant models. The model of a type of strong man leader who, for just having one crop, turns into a trader of the only crop of the cooperative; the model of the masculine cooperative that for just having one crop and only being a producer of raw materials (e.g. just the sale of wet coffee, cacao pulp, standing sugar cane on the farm itself), lives closed off in just one phase of mono-cropping, while excluding women from the economic activities; and that of a cooperative composed of people over 50 years of age, that combined with the institution of inheritances of “the sow does not shed its lard until it dies” and the rule that “you have to have land to join a cooperative”, closes the door to new members, administering little by little the death of its members, their assets, and their own history. When these models are broken up, women and youth burst in with their different ideas and abilities, while those over 50 have their energies and perspectives renewed, promoting that diversified and agro-industrialized economy, a change that reaches the table itself with a varied and nutritional diet: flavored soups, marmalade, roasted coffee, chicory…

How might this process be seen from the side of the community? If the community diversifies, it builds a new form of commercialization. The land would not be prostituted for just one crop, nor would they depend on agrochemicals, nor would they bet only on volume for only international markets. They would produce land for that differentiation and diversification just begun. The community would demand greater variety of fresh and processed products, they would protect their forests, water and biodiversity, because it would become part of their circle of life. Families would generate income throughout the year, while at the same time their costs would be reduced, because they would produce their own organic inputs…The community would be fun, happy. People from outside would feel an attraction for that community, and it would become even more energized.

5.     Conclusions

It is time to see what we have learned with this article. Having a framework that “coffee is more than coffee” we formulated the question about how the cooperative can embrace diversified agriculture. Throughout the article we made a distinction between two marriages, one damaging and the other virtuous. The former is the mono-cropping system married to a type of cooperative that only functions with its business foot, a marriage that de-peasantizes, degrades the environment, while it rubs the wound of the peasant curse of being condemned to a raw material logic, The virtuous one is a differentiated and diversified agriculture wedded to a type of cooperative that functions with its business and its associative feet, and that breaks down the peasant curse.

We respond to that question along the lines of the virtuous marriage. First, the context in the new millennium requires an institutional change to prevent the de-peasantization underway. Second, the historic peasant strategy of diversification to overcome the peasant curse of being left to embracing raw materials, we re-conceptualize as differentiated products and diversified and agro-industrialized agriculture based on more innovation and collective coordination concentrated in their communities. Third, this virtuous marriage is possible only if women and men of all ages participate actively in this transformative process.

This institutional change means that the image of cooperative as equivalent to one crop, raw materials, and older men collapses, gives way to an inclusive cooperative that looks inward, to their community, diversifies and agro-industrializes in order to consume and sell better. In this type of cooperative there are not many reasons for the board members to leave their communities, they earn their legitimacy in their communities.

In the introduction we made it clear that a cooperative rooted in its community is a basic condition for taking the step of carrying out a differentiated and diversified agriculture. Now that we are getting to the end of the article, we conclude: to develop differentiated products and a horizontally and vertically diversified agriculture is to sustain that deep-rooted cooperative and consolidate that community autonomy, which is building societies WITH markets. All of this is inscribed within the material institutional change, even though the farm is more than something material, does it mean that the participation of women (mothers and spouses) and youth from both sexes also produces changes in the people´s subjectivity? Surely these changes are not an automatic outcome, as if the structure determines the superstructure (ideological sphere) or that they change by the mere fact of joining the cooperative, or vice versa, but rather something more complex, something very important that should be studied and innovated on, and then written about in coming articles.

[1] René is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (WPF), a member of the COSERPROSS cooperative and an associate researcher of the IOB -University of Antwerp (Belgium), Fabiola, Hulda and Esmelda are cooperative advisors,  and Elix and Daniel are leaders of a new model of cooperativism.

[2]For recent studies, see: Gudynas, E. (2013). Extracciones, extractivismos y extrahecciones: un marco conceptual sobre la apropiación de recursos naturales. Observatorio del Desarrollo, CLAES, 18, pp. 1-18. Also: Seoane, J., Taddei, E. y Algranati, C. (Eds.), 2013, Extractivismo, despojo y crisis climática. Buenos Aires: Editorial El Colectivo. For a case in Central America and another in South America, see: Silvetti, F. and Cáceres, D.M., 2015, “La expansión de monocultivos de exportación en Argentina y Costa Rica. Conflictos socioambientales y lucha campesina por la justicia ambiental”, in: Mundo Agrario, 16.32

[3] For the Mayan mandala system, see: Tucci, G., 2001, The theory and practice of the mandala. New York: Dover Publications Inc. For the Tibetian mandala system, see: Tsering, M., 2015, El Mandala en el arte y filosofía de la cultura tibetana. Doctoral thesis. Spain: Universitas Miguel Hernández de Elche

Communities ploughing the seas

Communities ploughing the seas

René Mendoza Vidaurre, Mark Lester and Fabiola Zeledón

The unfaithful market

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

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

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

1.     Perspective and ways of riding the markets

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

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

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

2.     Trust, the beginning of triangulation

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

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

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

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

3.     Role of accompaniment

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

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

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

4.     Conclusion

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

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

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.

Drinking coffee as an act for peace

Drinking coffee as an act for peace in times of polarization

Nicaragua is once again extremely polarized. It is enough to compare different posts on our nica-update to see diametrically opposed views of the ongoing crisis. We post them not to imply that each perspective is equally true, but rather to recognize that important segments of the population hold contradictory views of what is happening and its underlying causes. Even more important are its implications for the future governability of Nicaragua –for any government to be sustainable, it will need to find a way to incorporate the interests of those holding the opposing viewpoint, no matter how “mistaken” they may be judged to be. We certainly learned this lesson at the end of the “contra war” in the early 1990s.

To contribute to the development of this understanding of the conflict, our close ally in Nicaragua, Augsburg University´s Center for Global Education and Experience, has developed an online course that delves into those two perspectives. The Crisis in Nicaragua: U.S. Destabilization or a Democratic Movement?

For our part, given that our major focus for the last few years has been accompanying Nicaraguan cooperatives, we have redoubled our efforts to support their economic and social enterprises in spite of the risks in these times of crisis, because we see them as potential oases of peace. Cooperatives generally have members of different political and religious perspectives who come together to achieve economic and social benefits for their members. By nature, they have to negotiate the accomplishment of common goals with members from different viewpoints.

Furthermore, the history of Nicaragua is full of examples where political violence starting in urban areas ends up claiming many more rural lives, as both sides recruit peasants by offering to meet their historic demands when they come to power. But consistently, after the conflicts end, while a few might end up benefitting, the effective political power of the peasantry remains largely unchanged, in spite of the many promises.

We see our contribution in this context to be helping cooperatives be successful economic and social enterprises in these difficult times. Because when successful, they contribute to the sustainability and stability of their territories, and thus lessen the attractiveness of purveyors of violence.

The problem is that because of increased country risk, credit to the countryside from both banks and microcredit organizations has largely dried up. No access to credit severely cripples the ability of cooperatives to play this role in their communities.

Since 1997, WPF has lent $3.7 million dollars directly to cooperatives and grassroots rural organizations, and has lent another $7.5 million to national microcredit institutions founded to support the rural sector. Even though these numbers show we are a small overall player, we intentionally set out to lend to groups that had never before managed a loan, precisely to help them establish a credit history, and thus open up other sources of credit to them. As a result, a number of cooperatives, and one now very large rural microcredit organization, have “graduated” to the point where they have “outgrown” the amounts we can provide, and now receive much larger amounts from a variety of lenders.

But as a small, private foundation (i.e. one that does not receive donations from the public), we cannot survive very long if those loans are not repaid. Correspondingly we have an overall loan loss rate of only 3.59% in this same period.

Even in this time of crisis, WPF has made loans to grassroots cooperatives worth just under $168,000 in this 2018-19 coffee cycle. But the risks only increase with this next coffee cycle, as economists point out Nicaragua now faces macroeconomic instability. Economic actors continue to send dollars outside the country, and international reserves continue falling. Specifically, this raises the specter that even though we make loans to grassroots coffee cooperatives, and they are able to export their coffee, once the payment for their coffee enters the country, the government may not allow those dollars to leave, thus making payment impossible.

The only way around this problem is to “triangulate” the loans, i.e. include the international buyers in the loan contract, where the buyers, once they have received the coffee, agree to transfer the amount of the loan and interest directly to WPF´s account in the US, sending the remainder to the account of the cooperative. That way the cooperative does not lose access to an international lender for not being able to make a transfer of dollars to the US.

We have already used this mechanism with a number of cooperatives. But given the new risks, we realize it has to be required for all our loans. The problem is in this last coffee cycle the number of contracts between cooperatives and international buyers actually dropped precipitously, while the number of contracts with “local buyers” increased to a similar degree. This strategy would not work with local buyers, because their payment to us would still have to overcome the hurdle of sending dollars outside the country during a possible ban.

Yet our research has shown that these local buyers are actually exporting all the coffee they buy. Given the uncertainty, it appears that previous direct international buyers are working through these intermediaries to source their coffee. This means that in this time of crisis, cooperatives are getting even less value for their coffee, as these intermediaries take a chunk of the money that previously went directly to them. Just when cooperatives need to be supported to promote local stability, they are even more hobbled by the new buying methodology.

WPF for some time now has been working with a team that accompanies some 50 cooperatives. Even before the crisis our team had been working with the cooperatives on issues of internal organizational effectiveness, equity, transparency, and effective member participation.

Now as a contribution to peace, we are willing to continue lending to these cooperatives, in spite of the risks. We want to form an alliance with coffee and cacao buyers interested in making a concrete and real contribution to peace in the countryside by buying directly from grassroots producer cooperatives. This is particularly important for this next coffee cycle.

We would not expect buyers to buy anything less than quality coffee, and the cooperatives we work with, in addition to providing the normal samples required by buyers, could also provide them with abundant information about their members, as many of them have done internal surveys, and even facilitated their member families developing their own “Family Investment Plans”.

Such an alliance would provide quality coffee to buyers, and would provide important income to coffee producers, thus enabling them to be oases for peace in their territory. In this sense, drinking coffee coming from such an alliance would effectively be an act for peace in Nicaragua.

Buyers and roasters interested in contributing to peace in this way in Nicaragua can contact us at marklest@gmail.com. We would also appreciate support from any readers in helping us make contacts with coffee buyers and roasters.

 

 

 

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

 

Headwinds

I can’t help but be startled by the contrast.

I spent the better part of last week with colleagues and guests at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Minneapolis.  The annual gathering features recent Nobel Peace Prize laureates and many others whose passions are about peace-making.  In this year’s edition, Winds of Peace was invited to host a dialogue about the potential impact of cooperatives on post-conflict societies.  In the session, our colleague Rene Mendoza offered his research conclusions about what constitutes strong cooperatives, how all of the “actors” in the cooperative chain sometimes unknowingly contribute to a lack of fairness to the small producer, and how Fair Trade isn’t always fair.

Our session featured representatives from all quarters of the coffee cooperative chain: producers, buyers, roasters, funders, cooperative associations, consultants and even academics.   They came from Europe, Central America, South America, Canada and the U.S.  We sought as many perspectives as we could find to consider the research and join in the discussion about where and how improvements might be made on behalf of the small producer, and in the process contribute to better chances at creating more peaceful societies.  The gathering was an impressive one, made even more so because of the intensity that they brought to the Forum: these were people who were serious about the topic and, especially, to the notion of contributing to peace.

We heard stories from peasant farmers and the nature of perseverance.  We listened to the findings about premium payments in the Fair Trade and Organic markets and how that money often never reaches the farmers who grow the crops.  We heard stories of progress, for women, for peasant farmers, for struggling organizations attempting to fight the currents of political and monied interests.  We learned about the importance of transparency, of walking in another’s shoes, collaborative work, the importance of “the common good.”  And we felt the passionate undercurrent of an eclectic group of people seeking, in their own way, a means of peacemaking.

And then there was the news coverage this week at the U.N.

The President of the United States openly taunted the leader of North Korea, in front of the rest of the world, by referring to him as “rocket man.”  In the same breath, he stated flatly that, “we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”  Later in the week, the leader of the free world, in addressing African leaders, twice referred to the African nation “Nambia.”  Unfortunately, there is no such country.  The chief peacemaker in the world did not know the name of the country to which he referred.

In quoting the President I imply no judgment as to his intelligence or the soundness of his political strategies; all persons on the planet can judge for themselves the appropriateness of the President’s position. I only note the stark contrast between last week’s energies toward building peace, and this week’s headlines threatening an annihilation.

I can’t help but be startled by the contrast….

 

How to keep from tripping over the same stone twice?

How to keep from tripping over the same stone twice?

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out (Jesús, Lc 29.40)

“I already saw that movie”, said the drunk, on seeing the animation of the lion that roars at the beginning of many movies. In the beginning of the 1990s, dozens of women from Marcala (Honduras) began to be trained to defend their rights and cultivate an awareness of equality, to “marry to live together and not to be the property of anyone”, “leave the house to participate in workshops on learning”, and “overcome conformism”. Over the years they understood that that awareness and that fight against violence would require generating their own resources, “on earning some money you can decide what to buy for the house”, so they envisioned an organization that would help them to have land, produce on it, and sell their products. So in 1988 they founded the Coordinator of Women Peasants of La Paz (COMUCAP), and learned that “organization is for bettering oneself and not for being envious”, and that “it is beautiful that both the man and the woman work, you have what you need to eat and you can rest.”

As COMUCAP grew in number of members and economically they acquired investments for processing coffee, aloe and juices; they exported coffee and sold soap, shampoo and juice; they bought land and planted it;M and many projects came in. Nevertheless in 2012 they learned that their organization of 283 women members was about to fall off a cliff. What had happened? What had pushed them to the edge? How could they move away from that cliff? In this article we try to respond to these questions, precisely to “not trip over the same stone twice.” Behind the animation of the roaring lion there is a movie that has not yet been seen. Let´s look at it.

  1. Crisis Situation in COMUCAP

An independent audit revealed that the debt of COMUCAP was close to one million dollars, that the assets of the organization had a lien on them due to the debt, that a piece of property bought for $150,000 had not been turned over to the organization, and that it was not clear where resources from international aid had gone. This information raised the eyebrows of the members in the 2012 assembly. Other data followed: 100% of the coffee exported was organic and fair trade, in the last 3 cycles prior to 2012 they had exported close to 10,000 qq of export coffee; a good part of that coffee was bought off of individuals who were not members, close to 1,000 qq of coffee was from the coordinator of COMUCAP herself, whose quality surprisingly scored at 85, while the coffee of the members was equal to or less than 81; the yields (from 1 qq of cherry coffee to export coffee) were dropping; the premiums for organic and fair trade were confused with project financed by international aid, making it impossible for the members to see that they had not received neither premiums. The crisis was even more harsh because it coincided with the arrival of the coffee rust on the plants, that not only lowered their production yields, but in many cases anthracnose came behind the rust leaving the coffee fields with dead trees.

What had happened? From the beginning the board of directors had granted the coordinator a General Power of Attorney, with which she was able to take loans out of the bank, buy and sell the assets of the organization and sign international aid projects. They had technical and administrative staff subordinated to the coordinator, whose daughter was the commercialization manager for all the COMUCAP products, her sister was the manager of the aloe plant, and her son in law was the coffee manager. The board of directors was used only to sign checks. The reports to the annual assembly appeared to be “sharp” bathed in a sea of numbers, reports that were legitimated by the representatives of international aid as “transparent”. The audit and fair trade and organic certification inspections would confirm every year that “everything was in order.”

The coffee rust and the “human rust” had bashed the organization of the 256 members. Obviously all those losses and debts had to be assumed by the members. All this is like the animation of the roaring lion, because this type of movie is repeated in many parts of Latin America. Nevertheless, as the philosopher Heraclitus said, though we bathe in the same river, we never do it in the same water; the next section responds to the question about what things pushed COMUCAP to the edge of the precipice. Let´s sit down to watch this film.

  1. Process that pushed COMUCAP to the edge of the cliff

Problem: COMUCAP in 2012 was on the edge of the cliff. What pushed it therer? To help, let´s use the “5 whys” of the methodology of Lean: find the cause of the problem, then the cause of that cause, until we reach the root cause. This methodology was developed in the 1950s by Taiichi Ohno, Toyota pioneer (http://www.toyota-global.com/company/toyota_traditions/quality/mar_apr_2006.html). It is the methodology that is behind Aristotle´s idea in seeking the origin of movement: “everything that moves is moved by something” and there is a “motor” that moves everything. That is why we ask ourselves 5 times “why”. See the Table with the 5 “whys” for identifying the “tripping stone.”

Why was COMUCAP on the “brink of a cliff” –debts, poor administrative management and a hold on their assets? The members and aid organizations listened to information in the annual assemblies, but it was information that was not telling them what was really happening. The staff was subordinated to the family that coordinated COMUCAP and the board of directors relegated to being “only for show”, to sign checks; even a leader turned into an employee for two years signed checks as if she were the president. In other words, they would produce information in a disloyal way for the organization and in a way subordinated to the coordinating family.

Why did they not have access to the real information. A good part of the 256 women had been trained for 10, 15 and 20 years in negotiating their rights, managing funds for groups, political advocacy and values like transparency and equality. Why then did they not demand the real information? “Because we fell asleep”, said one of the historic leaders: they stood by. Ther trust in the coordinator was blind and total, because since 1993 she had trained them in women´s rights, and used to tell them that “she worked for the women”, she was from a family with resources and they nearly worshipped her: “having what she needs to live and she works for us” they would say with gratitude, feeling themselves blessed. One member could not be mistrustful when the reports would be presented before the international aid organizations, who would repeat “everything is in order”. One member could not prove that she did not receive the organic nor fair trade premiums for her coffee when the fair trade and organic certification audits would conclude “that everything was in order.” If everything was in order, it was logical to conclude that the information that they were being presented was correct, and it was obvious that if a member dissented, she was running the risk of not being a beneficiary of the next project. It was like feeling like an ant under a transnational elephant that grew and grew.

Why did they stand by? Because they left the decisions in the hands of the coordinator who had an administrative role, and was part of the staff of the organization, not elected by the assembly, as were the women on the board. The decisions that should have been made in the cooperative bodies (board of directors, committees and assembly) and supervised (oversight board or auditing body), were taken on by the coordinator. For the members the coordinator was “the gate” to the market and to international aid projects, and for the fair trade buyers and the aid agencies, the coordinator was the gate to the women leaders and the members. If a aid representative would visit a member, she would say marvelous things about the coordinator, and if a member visited Germany, the buyers would say wonderful things about the coordinator. So COMUCAP functioned as if it were a private enterprise where the 256 members were the poor beneficiaries, defined as such by the coordinator herself: “the women of the board are not capable of administering even 100 lempiras ($5).” This woman who did training on rights saw them as ignorant and those who financed projects and bought coffee saw her as the “Honduran Che Guevara.”

Why did they leave the decisions in the hands of the administration? Because the millennium institution of “we always need a patron” absorbed them. The women had been trained to defend their rights in their homes and to seek equality with their husbands. And this they were doing, supported by an office of COMUCAP itself. Nevertheless, they did not expect that “the patron” would appear in the “new guise”: who would subordinate the staff with loans and salaries, control the members on the basis of projects, and the leaders through travel allowances, and ran COMUCAP as something independent from the members. Like a large estate owner who believes that the land and everything on it is his, or like the holder of an encomienda in the colonial period that would receive land “including the indians that lived on it”, she would repeat to them: “without me COMUCAP would not exist, everything that is here is because of me” – meaning that everything was hers.

Why did the old “patron-client” institution absorb them? Because even though the women woke up about their rights and the importance of generating their income to sustain that awareness, COMUCAP was an external product with members dispersed in several municipalities, started on the basis of external resources and not on the basis of the contributions of the members; and because they did not learn to lead the organization through its organs (assembly, board, oversight board), and in accordance with its rules (statutes), because “we felt it was far away, someone else´s”. That is why they would hold an assembly once a year, as if an organization would have so few decisions that merited meeting only once a year; the board members were content to sign checks and travel every now and then; the groups never met with their boards; a member who needed something from COMUCAP would not propose it in the group meeting, nor to her group board, she thought it was not her right but a favor, which is why she would go directly to the “big honcho.” This lack of ownership and effectiviness in leading the organization left COMUCAP in conditions where the proverb “in an open treasure even the just sin” became a reality. COMUCAP had become a “factory” where a member would become a beneficiary, a leader subordinated, and a coordinator with a social vocation would become the big honcho (patron). Here is the root of the problem – “the motor” as Aristotle would say.

  1. The energy to get out of the crisis

The member assembly in 2012 heard the results of the audit. There was a mixture of everything: silence, murmurs, rage, impotence, feeling of having been betrayed…Some returned to their homes, and recalling the sacrifices that they had made for so many years, cried wanting to hear an echo in the universe. Others moved to defend the offices and the coffee and aloe business of COMUCAP, because the coordinator, her family and allies did not even want to turn over the assets with liens on them. They spent 3 years in hard legal battles, negotiating with the banks, getting the aid agencies and the buyers to see the obvious facts of what was happening, getting the members to trust again, looking for money to buy coffee, looking for markets for their coffee, their aloe, their shampo and juices.

On this path they continued to wear themselves down and had financial losses. The interest and arrears for the debt grew year by year, even though negotiating they were able to get considerable relief. They lost the best coffee areas to the labor lawsuit from the ex-employees, and had expenses on lost trials. They had international coffee buyers who decided NOT to buy their coffee under the logic that “COMUCAP without the “big honcho” did not exist, and because, as one leader said, “a dozen stars will fall from the sky before they ¡recognize that they were mistaken.” And a star did fall! The representative of an aid agency recognized: “I believed in her (the coordinator); forgive me because I did not believe in what you were telling me.”

What really caused the beginning of the change in COMUCAP? Each year an audit would be done, fair trade and the organic certifiers also did audits. There were more than 17 bank accounts because the aid agencies wanted their money to be administered separately. The results indicated that none of that ensured good administration. It is very possible that without the support of two people who worked in 2 aid agencies, who detected the problem, recommended an independent audit, and accompanied the board for some time, and without the awakening of the new board, COMUCAP would now have fallen off the cliff or been completely privatized by the coordinator and her family.

Crisis happens when what should die, does not, and what should be born, does not. After 5 years COMUCAP has been able to grab ahold of some “rock” and not fall off the cliff, in contrast to the prophesy of those who opposed it. Nor has it moved away from that “cliff”, the risk that it might trip over the same “stone”, described in section 2, and fall even harder off the cliff is real. In other words, that which should die still has not died. How can it move away from the cliff, or build a bridge to cross it? For what needs to be born to happen, we suggest three steps (see attached Figure) under the sequential order that follows: awareness and vision of the members as a reference point, looking inward where their roots are, and looking outward to be accompanied.

First step, start from the awareness and vision of the women members. Awareness: “everything that exist is there because we sweated with our fellow members with the sacks of fertilizer planting coffee, aloe, cooking, leaving the family on their own.”; as Jesus would say, if they keep quiet, the stones from the aloe and coffee business and the orange and coffee farms, WOULD CRY OUT. The original vision of dozens of women: COMUCAP started to sell the products of its members and accordingly built equity in their homes and communities. To sell whose products? The products of ITS members!

Second step, finding a solution to the root of the problem, ownership and operating within the democratic mechanisms of COMUCAP. There is their new “motor”. Their “break even point” is not buying coffee from whoever and however, it is not adding new members as best as possible. It is going back and building trust in each family, each group, the board of each group, the asembly, the board of directors, the oversight board and the staff that they have. COMUCAP now has 505 members. Let us recall popular wisdom, the stronger the daughters and sons are, the stronger their parents will be – in other words, the stronger the families are, the stronger the groups will be, the stronger the groups are, the stronger their board and their staff will be, and COMUCAP will be stronger.

Third step, weave alliances with people (and organizations) like those who helped them to begin the change in 2012 and who left them the secret for getting ahead: study the reality itself, wake up to what the study finds, and be accompanied in the process of change.

For these three steps the notion of stewardship helps us: our lives are a breath in the life of the universe, our participation in an organization like COMUCAP is at the most a tenth of a human life: a leader who lives for 90 years will hold posts for less than 9 years, a salaried worker will not be there for much more than that. In other words, while we hold positions of responsibility we must give the most of ourselves serving the 505 women, many of whom are single mothers taking care of their grandchildren, assuming the roles of mother and father. Stewardship, according to Block (2013, Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest), is “the willingness to be responsible for the wellbeing of the organization, working in service of those who surrond us, instead of controlling them. It is responsibility without control nor compliance”.

Can the 505 women and the organizations that consider themselves to be their allies let die what needs to die, and give birth to what need to be born? The lionesses of Marcala are roaring: this movie has barely begun.

[1] René has a PhD in development studies, is an associate researcher at 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

 

Community, that circular mobilizing utopia

Community, that circular mobilizing utopia

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

Utopia is on the horizon. I walk two steps, and it moves away two steps, and the horizon runs ten steps further. So what good does utopia serve? For that, for walking. Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015)

Once they discover the strength of the community, they will be able to do anything. Priest Héctor Gallego (disappeared in Panama in 1971).

The myth of the “harmonious” community was held by anthropology (see: Redfield R., 1930, Tepoztlan, a Mexican village: A study in folk life) until the 1950s, when Lewis (1951, life in a Mexican village: Tepoztlan restudied), restudying the same village that Redfield did, found that communities are disputed spaces mediated by power relations. In spite of the fact that this myth was debunked, it continues to attract followers: “living community”, “autochthonous community”, “peasant community”, “indigenous community”…; and they idealize it again as “harmonious”, at times as “exotic” to be directly visited, and other times as opposing globalization (Pérez J.P. Andrade-Eekhoff K.E., 2003, Communities in Globalization, the Invisible Mayan Nahual). In this article we describe a peasant-indigenous community in Honduras and argue that, following Gallegos, their disputed processes indicate steps with their diverse forces, this time in glocal (global and local) spaces, and that this path shows the utopia and horizon of Galeano, which the allied organizations of the communities –also conflicted – pursue.

  1. Glocal economic transformation
Events in the community
1975 Los Encinos Peasant Store
1996 Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
1999 Juan Bautista Community Store
1997-2003 Introduction of vegetables and marketing (IAF: Honduras Foundation for Agricultural Research)
2003 APRHOFI: Intibucá Association Of Vegetable and Fruit Producers
2003 Los Encinos Store joins the COMAL Network
2010 Introduction of irrigation systems (USAID, State agreement, EDA)
2011 EMATE: Los Encinos Thread Craft Enterprise
2011 Recovery of APRHOFI
2012 Introduction of Ecological Agriculture
2012 ESMACOL:Lenca Alternative Community Multiple Service Enterprise. (7 stores are the owners of Esmacol)
2016 Introduction of greenhouses

 

The community of Encinos, with a population of 500 and  Lenca roots, emerged at the beginning of the XX century[2]. In the last 42 years this community has experienced big changes in their agriculture, forms of organization and access to markets, one part with national and international aid organizations, and another part based on their own funds. It is the product of a millennial indigenous culture and globalization, as ideas and resources came to this place. How did this transformation happen? See the above Table .

The 1960s and 1970s were marked by changes in the social doctrine of the Catholic Church with the II Vatican Council (1962), through which radio broadcast schools came to the rural areas that taught reading and writing and encouraged people to organize. And the Alliance for Progress of the United States came in to prevent the contagion from the Cuban revolution, pushing governments to permit the emergence of the National Association of Peasants of Honduras (ANACH) and the National Union of Peasants (UNC). In that context, a group in Encinos envisioned a store in and for the community, while in other places they envisioned a piece of land to leave to their sons. It was a time when they introduced potatoes and began to plant by “ploughing” their cornfield. It was when they built leadership coordinating families using their own resources.

The decades of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s were times of international conservatism in religion and economics, and a boom time for international aid. The struggle for the land was blocked by the law for farm modernization (1992), and the protection of the agro-food basis for the country was removed with the free trade agreement (CAFTA, 2004). The arrival of Popes John Paul and Benedict made the priests return to their parishes. Projects from organizations with physical investment and training crossed the rock and barbed wire fences. In this context organizations multiplied, and a group of leaders from various organizations envisioned “if we already have land and are producing on it, we need markets to sell our products”. Thus the COMAL network emerged in Honduras, and another additional store opened in Encinos. It was a time when vegetables and irrigation were introduced to Encinos, and the tug of war with the markets began. It was when they built leadership based on negotiating external resources.

The decade of 2010 found Honduras under the coup, additional reforms to the law of agricultural modernization, the approval of the anti-terrorist law that criminalized social protests, international aid withdrawing from Central America, a Catholic Church that seemed to be reanimated with the arrival of Pope Francis to the Roman Curia, and a world concerned about climate change. It was a period in which the COMAL Network saw itself forced to end mediation as a wholesaler of products, while the leaders of Encinos envisioned organizing enterprises to improve their stores and sell their products. Accordingly, along with 5 other stores from other municipalities of Intibucá, they bought ESMACOL as a distributor of products, recovered APRHOFI to sell their potatoes and vegetables to supermarkets, introduced greenhouses and sustainable agriculture practices to increase their productivity and lower costs, and organized another associative weaving enterprise in a decentralized fashion. It was a time when they built a leadership connecting the resources that they had (stores, distributor, renovated agriculture and commercialization enterprise) and cultivating relationships with the few aid agencies.

  1. Circular dynamic in process

This description appears to be an expression of a virtuous circle between technological change, markets, organization and financing. It is more than that: see the figure inspired by a 4 layer onion. The organizations (stores, distributor, commercialization enterprise, weavings), the introduction of potatoes and vegetables and investments in irrigation systems and greenhouses, reveal that there is an interaction between the technological, social, economic, cultural and spiritual aspects. In other words, new crops and greater productivity (technology) implies more cooperation between families (social), which generates costs and income (economic), which requires changes in habits (cultural) as agriculture intensifies and deals with the market, this has repercussions in the spiritual-religious life of families, and this in turn on technology…

This network of organizations and changes creates prospects for improvement. There is a technological change (farm), business change (administration and entrepreneurial initiatives) and change in social relations with external actors. Multiple perceptions can be appreciated in this dynamic: in the business administration staff, in the members of the producer families, in the consumers in – and outside of – the community, in the aid agencies determined to “manage and execute”, and the leaders moving about in various “waters”. What explains this 42 year old circular process? In addition to what is described in section 1, we point to two facts. First, after several decades of cultivating the same areas, in the 1970s the weariness of the land began to be felt (decrease in fertility), due to that institution of “I will sow as I have always sown”, handed down for generations. It gave way to “ploughing”, at the same time that they organized the peasant store as a way of getting closer to a market that they could control. Second fact, like in many communities, in Encinos alcoholism reduced them to “measuring the streets”[3], and put the very existence of the store at risk. So Professor Jenny Maraslago saw this, suggested a solution and created the conditions for the change. This is how Bernardo González remembers it: “The professor in 1966 said,”it makes me sad to find these intelligent young men in the gutter”. Then the professor brought us the rules of AA and introduced us to a professor friend from AA. Encouraged by my older brother, we would meet continuously, and look, we quit getting drunk, from that day on everything changed.” 20 years later we find those young people no longer in the gutter, but leading the organizations.

These two changes contributed to creating the conditions so that Encinos in the following years would multiply their organizations. Nevertheless, seen from our times, the changes that occurred emphasize the technological-social-economic-cultural-religious elements that are the first layer of the onion (See Figure), while the changes in the other layers of the onion – on the level of the individual, family and community – are slight. On the community level, it is estimated that half of the population is outside of the described organizations, which means that there is exclusion and internal dispute: “they are conformists” vs “they do not let us in, only they eat”; in fact, 4 or 5 last names in the community underlie all the organizations, they are families whose commitment has generated organizations and benefits, and at the same time are the “bottlenecks” of local power, the door to external organizations. On the family level, the stores in the last 10 years have not included  even one new member, not even their own sons and daughters, which is not strange given that the institution of land inheritance favors the sons, and does not discharge the inheritance “until the pig sheds it lard”;  in addition a quick survey shows that the existence of children outside of marriage is similar in both organized and unorganized families. On the individual level, centuries-old beliefs have nested in their minds: “there are children outside of marriage because the women allow it”, in other words, following the mentality that “the man has the rights”, and “the woman is to blame”, something tremendously discriminatory. At the same time, all these points are in silent dispute: daughters who work in agriculture demand their rights, and wives who raise their voices against  unfaithfulness (“if he does it to me, I will do it to him”).

The changes in the first layer are unsustainable without changes in the communal, family and individual areas. It is like “learning to fish” assuming that there will always be water in the river, and if the water is diverted for mono-cropping, held back by dams, or dries up from deforestation? In 1975 they woke up to the possibility of bringing in a store for the community, and in 1996 the rules of AA and the discipline of not drinking liquor for 24 hours renewed indefinitely, showed them a path for waking up to harsh realities. How can that capacity for change be expanded on the individual, family and community levels in synergy with the different initiatives achieved so far? Once again the image of the onion helps us to respond to that question: all the layers appear to be separate, but they are united by the root of the onion. In the next section we identify that root.

  1. Mobilization of forces under democratic mechanisms

The elites of the world predict that “economic growth generates democracy”. Encinos shows that is not true. It is important to “manage” the economy with democratic mechanisms where the entire community moves and cultivates a capacity to awaken their consciences in the face of each new reality.

These mechanisms include that the rules (statutes) of each organization be respected, their organs (board of directors, oversight board, assembly) make decisions, there be interaction between the associative side (organs) and the business side (administrative and technical staff) without any side replacing the other, the rotation of leaders be done and the fact that one person would take on various posts be avoided. As they study their realities, the corresponding bodies include policies so that sons and daughters of the members might join the organizations, and exclude those who fall into gender violence, and/or after forming their family, have children outside of marriage. That part of the mission of the organizations be to help the other half of the community, that has been left invisible for the aid agencies, to organize  their own initiatives. That the external organizations contribute to the communities being vigilant about compliance with these mechanisms, and coherent in their democratic processes, overcoming the neoliberal institution of “managing and executing” that goes along the lines of the idea that “the economy generates democracy”, and that instead listens to the forces in the communities and translates them into ideas that are backed by other organizations.

This reminds me of the dilemma of the pons asinorum (bridge of asses) of St Thomas: the asses cannot cross the river because they cannot find the bridge. In our case the “bridge” are these democratic mechanisms interlinked in different spheres – individual, family, community and global – interacting with the economic, social and religious organizations. This is the mobilizing circular dynamic. Nevertheless, many times what happened to the asses happens to us, in spite of the fact that we see the bridge, we do not cross the river on it; and other times we say we did cross it, without really moving from the side of the river where we are. In contrast, the professor alluded to above saw the challenge of crossing, saw the bridge (AA) and brought them to the community of Encinos, and they crossed over!

The priest Gallego said that when people discover “the strength” of the community, people can “do anything.” The writer Galeano said that utopia “serves for walking.” The community of Encinos teaches us that utopia is on the other side of the river, and reveals its strength in the “bridge.” Can we see that bridge and cross the river on it? Here is the dilemma.

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

[2] The success of the peasant store of Los Encinos we describe in : Mendoza, 2016, “Honduras: las comunidades organizadas valen ¡y mucho!”, in: Tricontinental. http://www.cetri.be/Las-comunidades-organizadas-valen?lang=fr

[3] Popular saying to refer to way drunk person staggers from one side of the street to the other.