Category Archives: Fair Trade

A Coronavirus Firewall

*an earlier version of this article was published here on March 27th. This more extended version was published in the May 2020 edition of ENVIO, no. 466. We reproduce the text here at the request of the author.

Viruses multiply when humanity provides the conditions. Deforestation, the agricultural model and factory farming, breaking up public health systems, even individualism, and so many other features of the development model imposed on the world by neoliberal capitalism, facilitate the appearance of viruses such as COVID-19. A firewall is a swath of land left uncultivated to keep forest fires from spreading to crops. What firewalls will stop the coronavirus and those that come after?

by René Mendoza Vidaurre / Inti Gabriel Mendoza Estrada

“ Coronita, little crown, how hungry you are!” SARS tells COVID-19. SARS (CoV-1)—which caused the 2002-3 epidemic affecting 26 countries and feasting on only 8,000 people but with 774 fatalities—is closely related to COVID-19, the coronavirus causing the current pandemic affecting 210 countries and over 3.7 million people with 257,000 dead so far… and counting by the minute.
“Hungry, little brother? Not me… Seven hundred years ago our great-great-grandmother, the Black Death, wiped out a third of humanity.”
“And how many do you plan to take with you…?”
“Only a few!… But it’s the humans themselves who are calling me from hither and yon…”

“And how do they do that…?”
“They destroy the soils and fill them with poisons, they destroy the forests to make roads, they fatten those they call animals with chemicals and then eat them… And with all that they do, what do they expect from me…?”

The combination
that attracts plagues

Over the years we have learned that unhealthy conditions cause problems when demographic growth, social deterioration and environmental degradation are combined. People’s wellbeing depends on their being healthy in mind and body, living in a healthy social community and in a sustainable environment.

Researchers of plagues that have decimated humanity at various times in history show that viruses, bacteria, fungi, bacilli, all pathogenic germs, multiply when they find the right conditions that humanity has created for them, consciously or unconsciously.

When the rust blight hit Central America, the coffee plantations were weak, overcrowded and in “tired” soils, largely thanks to mono-cropping, a system that had even permeated the agricultural cooperatives. These conditions attracted the parasitic rust fungus and it devastated the coffee plantations. It hit Nicaragua harder, Honduras a little less, and even less the other countries in the region, as I wrote in “Who’s responsible for the coffee rust plague and what can be done?” (envío, March 2013).

William H. McNeill, in his interesting book Plagues and Peoples, studied dozens of plagues that have devastated humanity over the centuries and explains how the Black Death, which arrived in Europe in the 14th century, created a crisis affecting all aspects of the feudal system as half the European population died, creating a scarcity of labor, and the institutions supporting feudalism lost prestige.

Neoliberal capitalism was
the incubator for COVID-19

Neoliberal capitalism—led by the world elites and strengthened by the rest of humanity’s passivity or powerlessness—has damaged the social, health and natural conditions of every country in the world, propitiating the spread of all kinds of plagues.

A similar view has been expressed in various ways by others. In a report published in Brazil by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Roberta Zandonai states that the coronavirus pandemic “reflects environmental degradation.”

The Argentinian illustrator and journalist Marina Aizen wrote in 2016 that epidemics “are nothing other than the result of the annihilation of ecosystems—mostly tropical—razed to plant industrial-scale mono-crops. They are also the result of handling and trafficking in wildlife which, in many cases, is in danger of extinction.” She explained how more deforestation results in more explosions of viral diseases, and more mono-cropping and agribusinesses result in more epidemics.

Robert Wallace, a biologist who has studied a century of pandemics, argues that the capitalist production model (mono-cropping and industrialized fattening of animals), which mixes pesticides, transgenic foods, antibiotics and antivirals at the expense of natural ecology generates increasingly more dangerous pathogens for humanity.

Wallace believes that COVID-19 is related to these production methods. The corporations and companies behind this agri-food system and the industrial breeding of animals for human food are so powerful that they govern those who say they rule our countries.

Bayer, Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF and Corteva are in the transgenic business while Cargill, Bunge, ADM and others are in the animal feed business.

Where  markets rule

State authority has been reduced throughout the world in the last 40 years and market forces such as these agri-business corporations have taken over world governance, even education and health systems, which have to a large extent been privatized.

The markets imposed strict fiscal discipline on the States—reducing spending, increasing interest rates and eroding social rights—in order to attract foreign investment. The result: global big capital moved its companies to countries where the working class receives low wages and has no unions or laws to protect it.

According to the Gimbe Foundation, in the last 10 years Italy has lost 70,000 hospital beds; 359 hospital wards have been closed and many small hospitals have been converted to other purposes or abandoned as a result of the reduction in social spending.

In Spain, unions report that between January and February of this year, in full coronavirus expansion, 18,320 healthcare workers were laid off, similar to what happened in 2013, a year of adjustment policies and cutbacks. These policies turned health into a commodity subject to the laws of the market, dominated by the corporations.

Making matters worse, healthcare systems in Latin America tend to be bureaucratic, urban, racist and non-preventive. People who go to a health center with a serious illness are very frequently given an appointment several months later. Furthermore, the rural population in multiethnic countries rightly resists going to what they see as mono-cultural systems.

It was capitalist greed

Was it bats, pangolins, a Wuhan seafood market or a virus created in a Chinese laboratory? Whatever the answer, the causes are found in capitalist voracity. For more than a century, capitalist “culture” has misled us into individualism: into taking advantage of others, having no interest in collective collaboration, making us live under the rule of “I am, if I destroy you.” It has led companies to the principle of “the more resources I control, the more I dominate you.” It has driven us to consumerism at the cost of debt. As they said in a rural Central American community, “When the price for coffee was good, we bought a motorbike or a car, even though we didn’t need it and only used it once a week.” Put more succinctly, the causes lie in greed.

Capitalist ambition has contaminated humanity, nature, ecosystems, the planet. Throughout the world, it has induced diabetes, obesity, hypertension and more in the human population. It has paved the way for plagues to multiply and affect us. This is the factory for COVID-19 and the other future pandemics the scientific community is warning us about.

Coronavirus
does make distinctions

It is said, without much reflection, that COVID-19 makes no racial, social or national distinctions… only differentiates by age, in that it affects children less and the elderly more.

By simply looking at the data on victims, however, we realize that it does make distinctions: it targets the most vulnerable, especially those most affected by capitalism.

It has affected more men than women and much more those living in overcrowded cities, especially in the poor neighborhoods of big cities such as Guayaquil in Ecuador; more of the African-American and Latino populations in the US; and more of those over 70 years of age…

The Spanish writer and activist Clara Valverde says in her book The necro-politics of neoliberalism (2015) that neoliberalism applies necro-politics: it leaves those people who aren’t profitable for capitalism to die, those who neither produce nor consume, or, as this graffiti puts it: Under the dictatorship they killed us, now they just leave us to die.

The expansion of COVID-19 in Latin America could be especially lethal for its indigenous peoples. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA: https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenous-peoples-es/areas-de-trabajo/salud.html), over half of indigenous people older than 35 suffer from type 2 diabetes, one of the preconditions worsening vulnerability to COVID-19 .

There’s a palpable difference in the life expectancy of indigenous peoples and other peoples. In Guatemala they live 13 years less, in Panama 10, in Mexico 6, in Nepal 20, in Australia 20, in Canada 17, and in New Zealand 11.
COVID-19 could be brutal to them, which would also affect the forests, because where there are forests there are indigenous peoples: it’s their habitat. Despite this, it’s notable that the word indigenous doesn’t even appear in the repeated statements by governments about the pandemic.

COVID-19 among those above
and those below… way below


This differentiation between the effects of COVID-19 on the health and economy of certain sectors and others, of certain places and others, leads us to the award-winning Korean film Parasites (2019). We can imagine or guess that the pandemic’s effects would be very different in the poor and resourceful family that lives cramped up in the basement and the very rich family that lives in a huge and practically vacant house with all the comforts.

For example, the rain in Parasites, which the son of the rich couple perceives as a diversion, a relief from the heat and even motive for a party the next day, is a veritable tragedy for the poor family, which loses the little it has because their basement and those of their neighbors get flooded.

The same is true for COVID-19. For the elites of the world, who live “above,” the problem is one of health, and the compulsory quarantine is a huge nuisance that interrupts their lifestyle. For the millions who live “below” and survive hand to mouth in the cities and the countryside, the problem is also one of health but of everything else too. Whether to die from the virus or from hunger is the dilemma facing those millions who live in the planet’s “basement.”

Two generations:
different responsibilities and visions


This differentiation is also expressed in the awareness of the different generations that today coexist on the planet. In Europe there’s a debate about COVID-19 and climate change between the current generation and that of the “baby boomers,” those born after World War II between 1946 and 1964.

To some extent, climate change is the result of actions taken by the baby boomer generation, after their parents made the effort to build a welfare state following the Great Depression of 1929 and then the disasters of World War II.

Venture capitalist Bruce Gibney accuses US baby boomers of looting the country’s economy by cutting taxes for the richest and ignoring climate change, thus ruining previous generations’ legacy of large infrastructure and leading to bankruptcy, which the current generation now has to pay for. Today, while COVID-19 more cruelly attacks third-age people—the baby boomers of yesteryear—the current generation is fighting to protect them and themselves.

In Latin America, the older generations born after 1930 accelerated the expansion of the agricultural frontier as demand for meat grew in the US. Those in the large cities, seeing how forests were being replaced by pasture for cattle, resisted capitalist agribusiness, faced military dictatorships and passed on a deep distrust of the depredating State to generations that followed.

That generation of over-60s, who assured their children’s education without themselves having studied, is now under attack by COVID-19. Today’s generation, while sometimes falling into consumerism and religious or ideological fundamentalism, advocates non-authoritarian societies, defend sustainable agriculture as part of their past, worry about climate change and, far from questioning their grandparents, fight, like their peers in the US, to protect them and themselves.

Home quarantine for everyone?


During the worst years of the Black Death (1347-1353), rich Europeans went to their country homes, while the poor remained terrified and overcrowded in the cities, where they were kept isolated and under surveillance. Today, fear is spread on Facebook, Twitter, the social networks… and people must stay at home, in lockdown, while borders are closed and health systems are overwhelmed.

The compulsory quarantine project assumes that home is a safe and harmonious place and that everyone has a house, which isn’t usually the reality of the cities’ poor neighborhoods and rural communities.

Mandatory confinement assumes that every family has savings or daily income, which isn’t the case for most families in many countries, as they depend on the informal economy and live in rented accommodations. The political class should take a public bus and get off at the last stop where the subterranean city begins… There they should reflect on social and economic policies that could make a difference in the lives of these, the majority of the population.

Authoritarianism and
capitalism worsen


More than strengthening health systems and providing truthful information about the pandemic, some governments seem interested in taking advantage of it to increase authoritarianism and validate questionable measures. It shouldn’t be forgotten that following the emergency from the 9/11 attacks, the US government effectively legalized torture as a method to combat terrorism.

In the United States, Trump’s government isn’t so much interested in saving the poorest from COVID-19. It is far more interested in saving the large companies that helped create conditions that incubate the plague and, at the same time, threaten Venezuela, where big US and Chinese companies contributed to the conditions that generated COVID-19.

In Brazil, the largest country in Latin America, Bolsonaro’s government is responding to the pandemic with religious fundamentalism and dismissing science’s inputs to stop its spread. The greatest risk is that if those who incubated COVID-19 and will incubate future plagues present themselves as the bearers of solutions, whether directly or mediated by authoritarian governments. We would then be on the verge of a new plundering of public assets, humanity’s common and natural assets.

Brutal austerity imposed by big capital


Big capital is lying in wait behind today’s fears and the authoritarianism of both governments and the market. In The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), the Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein explains how big capital has taken advantage of natural and social disasters in the last 30 years to dismantle what remains of the welfare State in order to impose the neoliberal model.

Now, with the advent of the pandemic caused by COVID-19, and in a virtual meeting from her home, Klein reflects that we do need to stay home and one of the reasons is because our leaders didn’t heed the warning signs and imposed brutal economic austerity on the public health system, cutting it back to the bare bones and leaving it unable to cope with this kind of situation… After the 2008 financial crisis, Southern Europe was ground zero for the most sadistic austerity policies. Is it surprising that, despite having to provide public medical care, their hospitals are so badly equipped to deal with this crisis?

Naomi Klein also reminds us that the capitalist system has always been willing to sacrifice life on a massive scale for profit.

The first victim is the truth


Today, big capital could be calculating how to frighten our societies in order to divert our attention from neoliberalism’s nefarious effects, which attract the pandemic and lay the groundwork for wealth accumulation through dispossessing lands and resources; making States invest public resources to improve public health systems that are later privatized at ridiculous prices; promoting laws that reduce or exempt the wealthy from taxes; eliminating laws that limit the extraction of natural resources; and imposing and steamrolling investment projects in indigenous territories, always under the principle that the rich are “development’s driving force.”

In revealing the lies with which the United States made war on Iraq, Julian Assange said: “The first victim of war is the truth.” It’s possible that truth is also the first victim of the “war” against COVID-19.

Where’s the “invisible hand” today?


In Latin America today, there’s disinformation, fear, pastors and priests who repeat that the pandemic is a sign of the “end of days” and propose prayers as a spiritual shield. They have done this for centuries and in the face of every disaster… although it’s also true that we are dusting off science and venerating virologists, reluctantly in Trump’s case and clumsily in Bolsonaro’s.

There’s also some civic awareness in our countries, questioning the powerful laws of the world market and the state institutions that have yielded to those laws for many years and imposed the normality of the capitalist system on us. COVID-19 is laying bare today’s world: without leadership or world coordination. It is showing us that the neoliberal emperor has no clothes. Can anyone tell us where the market’s “invisible hand” is coordinating actions against this pandemic?

Perhaps it’s behind the philanthropists who are distributing food in Europe and the US to prevent looting for food, just as USAID did in Central America in 2001, when coffee prices plummeted. It took food to big coffee plantations to keep hungry workers from going out to the highways to demand help from drivers. We’re waking up to the idea that the “developed” countries are really not so developed.

A new awareness
for post COVID-19


Awareness is also growing in this other “underdeveloped” world that COVID-19 can be tackled with coordinated human action: hygiene, solidarity, responsibility, physical distancing, rapid virus-detection testing, scientific information backed by virtual technology…

In Latin America, as in the rest of the world, we are in transition that goes beyond COVID-19: the virus arrived in a context of economic conflict between the US and China over global markets and natural resources, with Europe scarcely out of the Brexit crisis and Latin America divided and constantly besieged by the greed of big capital.

Despite the uncertain economic future and the possibility of an economic depression similar to that of 1929, and with equally uncertain expressions about ongoing climate change, now is the time for our societies—as represented by their different cooperatives, associations, social companies, community organizations, diverse social movements, etc.—along with the very weakened capitalist reformist forces to emerge strengthened.

Will the link between the different community organizations and social movements and the capitalist reformist forces (politicians, certain international cooperation agencies, some international organizations) have real potential to alter post COVID-19 trends? It could be. It is this awareness that we are gradually awakening to, like the sun that humanity and all other living things arise to every morning.

The firewall of an
informed public…


Faced with the crisis of institutional legitimacy and with big capital “lying in wait,” socially legitimate organizations and institutions, including the churches, could make a difference to their members and their communities by providing truthful health information and preaching responsibility and calm through example.

In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari states that humans have the advantage of being able to share information across borders. Korea can advise us on how to deal with COVID-19, something viruses can’t do with each other. Local organizations are the first firewall against the coronavirus in the work of sharing information. Harari says that a motivated and well-informed population is usually much more powerful and effective than an ignorant one under surveillance.

By mobilizing their communities, local organizations and institutions can build a firewall against the coronavirus and future epidemics. The vaccine is a short-term technical solution, exclusively for this virus, not for other, imminent pandemics. If the world continues looking only in one direction like a blinkered horse, responding only technically to COVID-19, we will be left midway.

We must mobilize as an informed public so the responses governments give to the coronavirus don’t facilitate big capital accumulating wealth through dispossession, as happened in the 2008 financial crisis. In that case substantial resources from society were given to the financial system despite it having generated the real estate bubble and causing a world food crisis. Or, as has happened on so many other occasions, when capitalism was resuscitated again and again, stripping societies of their assets: land, water, trees, minerals, public assets, etc.

…of a mobilized public…


In addition to preventing vaccines being handled as commodities, we can’t allow capitalism to continue producing the current immoral black hole of inequality where 1% of the population appropriates 80% of the planet’s wealth and continues intensifying the terrible climate change that is the factory for COVID-19 and those that will follow.

As a mobilized public we must promote fairer tax systems, demanding more taxes from big capital, the driving force behind the neoliberal development model. We must further demand that those taxes be used to improve the capacity of public health systems in every country; that health and education be outside the laws of the market; that health also be accessible to impoverished families; that health systems be multicultural; and that governments strive to save lives regardless of any utilitarian calculation about the economic consequences of doing so.

…and of mindful and
organized communities


We must also create another firewall of interconnected localities to respond to the causes generating plagues and putting Planet Earth at risk.

We must reflect in an organized way on how social inequality and environmental deterioration favored the arrival of this virus and on how to increase cooperation between communities; expand small production practices, diversified production systems that respect the environment, urban gardens and allotments… Reflect on the urgency of making dietary changes, choosing products that come from sustainable agriculture and breed free range fowl and cattle.

We must promote critical thinking and not repeat traditional religious or other beliefs: “Only God can save us,” “Private always works better,” “Only the rich give us work,” “More agrochemicals mean more food,”… Now is the time for those who are below to organize and make themselves felt, so that those in the “basement” and those on the “first floor” (peasantry, indigenous peoples, laborers…), those who maintain the structure of humanity, are recognized and protected from “savage capitalism.”

It’s the time of small-scale production, which usually maintains most of the population in every country but lacks social security and is the markets’ victim from the weighing stations to the credit they receive from money-lenders, to the prices their produce is valued at. It’s time to build societies that care for our common home, for people and the many ways they organize.

“We’re in a better
position than in 2008″


Naomi Klein says the Earth’s habitability is being sacrificed to our profound ecological crisis, to climate change. We must think what kind of response we’re going to demand. It will have to be based on the principles of a truly regenerative economy, based on care and repair…

She says the good news is that we’re in a better position than in 2008 and 2009. During these years we’ve worked hard in social movements to create platforms of people… She says she’s hopeful because of the ways people are collaborating in the pandemic. It’s ironic: we’ve never been so physically distant and perhaps it’s because of that distance we are so determined to reach out to each other.

The firewall of democratic organizations


The fourth firewall is associative organizations and local institutions working at being democratic, at improving their social fund’s policies—social redistribution of their surpluses—so as to tackle pandemics, organize information backed by technology and be transparent with their members.

We must learn to organize information using cutting-edge technology and at the same time prevent governments from using it to subordinate societies. Organizations in specific zones must learn to coordinate with each other about health, food and climate change challenges, so as to practice participatory and representative democracy and not obedience and an authoritarian mentality, which the Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han says Asian cultures have used to deal with COVID-19.

With the redistribution of surplus, transparency of information, inclusion of women and men of all ages, and different organizations coordinating, we will be able to stop the conflagration of plagues and of savage capitalism and the elites who, with virtual technology, are trying to subordinate societies, with a mere click.

We need a change that
changes the future


In the midst of the current uncertainty and insecurity due to the pandemic and its unpredictable economic, social and political consequences, including whether the US hegemony will be replaced by China or by multipolarity, the only certainty in our societies should be, as Franz Hinkelammert said: I am if you are.
Staying home and in the communities stops the virus in the short term and helps nature regenerate, but we need more than that: a long-term and far-reaching change that changes the future.

It’s time for associative organizations and other institutions to take over leadership of the communities, promoting these four firewalls in the communities to reinvent our societies and their institutions: giving truthful information, preventing capitalism from strengthening itself with the pandemic, reversing the conditions that create viruses by building different futures, and being coherent—democratic, transparent and equitable.

Let’s avoid going back to pre-COVID-19 normality; let’s allow capitalism to die so other futures can be born. The virus won’t defeat capitalism; no virus will make revolution. But as the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek says, COVID-19 carries an ideological virus, “the virus of thinking about an alternative society, a society beyond the nation-State, a society that actualizes itself in the form of solidarity and global cooperation.”

It’s we human beings who must rethink and hatch new futures, against the totalitarian vigilance that countries will try to import from China.

These four firewalls are possible if instead of nationalist isolation we express global solidarity in many ways. Working together for solutions will make our differences small by comparison.

Let’s not be ruled by the fear of death. Fear is a more damaging emotion in times of crisis because it creates hysteria and paralyzes action. Yes, COVID-19 is an adversity, but as Benjamin Franklin said: Out of adversity comes opportunity.

Let’s try to see behind the adversity and envision various alternative futures to neoliberalism. They will be possible if, in addition to “I am if you are,” we adopt another principle: “We are if the communities where we live are.”

René Mendoza Vidaurre is a researcher who collaborates with the Minnesota-based Winds of Peace Foundation and accompanies rural organizations of Central America. His son, Inti Gabriel Mendoza Estrada, is a student at Austria’s Graz University of Technology.

Food production in times of COVID-19

Food production in times of COVID-19

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

Aid that entraps

On one occasion I talked with a former director of a European aid agency.

-We are bringing in a donation of rice for Central America, so that people would let go of their native seed and end up buying rice seed from our business; we finance potatoes under the same condition …

-Do all aid agencies do this?

-Not all … What do you expect, that they would provide it for free? Nestle did this also in Africa, gave away free milk in the hospitals so that mothers would give it to their newborns, and after some days those mothers did not have breast milk, and had to buy Nestle´s milk.

-What?!

-That is why some organizations in the south, the larger they are, the more deals they make for fewer people, they keep part of that aid; while ecological agriculture or peasant agriculture trips over every trap that they set for them.

-And when does this happen?

-All the time, but even more in times of crisis.

I bring up this conversation held 10 years ago. Under the shadow of COVID-19 multinational enterprises are moving their pieces like a game of chess, while the peasantry is groping about under the inclement sun of April. In many cases governments of developed countries act with both arms, with one arm they help, and with the other arm harvest what the first arm planted; it is their foreign policy where “nothing is free,” These practices of dispossession are intensified “more in times of crisis.”

In this article we show the urgency of producing food in the circumstances of COVID-19, the adversity that these circumstances represent, and the opportunity before our eyes. We identify the indigenous and peasant families who produce the food in the region, the basic grains, beans, rice and corn, even though in this article we emphasize more beans and corn. We expose the intentions of commercial mediation and the dispossession “traps” of capitalism with its “two arms.” And we make an effort to present proposals from grassroots organizations – we are referring to first tier cooperatives, but it extends to associations, associative enterprises, rural banks and peasant (or community) stores.

1.     Introduction

According to the IMF (https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WEO/Issues/2020/04/14/weo-april-2020), as an effect of COVID-19, the world economy is going to decline this year 2020 (-3%), particularly the economies of the so-called developed countries (-6%). This can be expressed in the fact that investment and consumer spending falls. For the countries of the south, that means that their export products are going to have less demand in Europe and the United States, which in fact is already happening; with drop in demand, prices fall for products like meat, coffee, bananas, apples…Will the same thing happen with basic commodities like beans, rice or corn? By way of hypothesis, for the case of Central America, if the supply of basic commodities falls more than demand, then their prices are going to rise, and low income consumer families will be affected. Let us remember, in Latin America there are hundreds of varieties of corn and beans, but in Central America some varieties are the ones that are produced and consumed, like red beans in Nicaragua, Costa Rica and El Salvador, or black beans in Guatemala. There can be corn like what is used for corn flour with varieties from Mexico, but the indigenous and peasant communities in Central America consume the corn that they produce.

The quarantine in the United States and Europe means that people are confined to their homes, which is why their consumption goes down. This means that the price of products, particularly the products that are not basic commodities, will fall. For example, if the price of meat in the United States drops, this affects prices down the line in the mediation chain in the meat industry,  which reaches down to the farms and haciendas themselves in countries of Latin America. The graph of the FAO (see http://www.fao.org/worldfoodsituation/foodpricesindex/en/) reveals dramatic drops in the months of January to March in vegetable oils, sugar and meat, a drop that according to other reports, continues in this month of April.[2]

Products like beans and corn also are dropping, but to a lesser extent (see yellow line for cereals on graph). In Mesoamerica, beans, corn and rice are basic commodities, they are the number 1 ingredient in the Mesoamerican family plate of food, which is why it would be difficult for their demand to drop. “As long as there are beans with tortilla and some corn, the rest is a treat”, people are heard saying in the communities.

Even though in Latin America those crops are produced by producers of different sizes (medium and large in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and northern Mexico), in Central America, particularly in the case of corn and beans, almost all is produced by small producers. In this region (see Table 1), even though the data is from 13 years ago, it tells us that there are a little more than two million basic grain producers, who, including their families, represent a little more than 10 million people, and they constitute 56% of the total rural population and 29% of the total population of the region.

 

Table 1. Number of basic grain (corn, beans, rice and sorghum) producers & rural  population 2005-07
  Basic grain producers (thousands) Rural population basic grains (column 1 x aver. family size) Total rural population % Rural pop. BG / total  rural population
Guatemala 941.8 4,673 6,935 67
El Salvador 325 1,481 2,719 54
Honduras 385.1 2,024 3,738 54
Nicaragua 289.3 1,565 2,440 65
Panamá 115.7 551 919 60
Costa Rica 7.6 30 1,664 2
Total 2,064.5 10,337 18,415 56
Source: Baumeister (2010), Pequeños productores de granos básicos en América Central. Honduras: FAO-RUTA. http://www.fao.org/3/a-au202s.pdf%20 This is data based on standard of living surveys and agricultural census.

 

Table 2. Basic grain areas 2006 (hectares)
  Corn Beans
Guatemala 791,759 247,822
Nicaragua 343,160 228,518
Honduras 305,000 128,000
El Salvador 240,978 87,379
Panamá 54,570 9,860
Costa Rica 6,260 14,035
Total 1,741,727 715,614
Source: Baumeister (2010)

This population produces 2,457,341 hectares of corn and beans: see Table 2. Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras have more production area. Both crops are cultivated at 3 times of the year: first planting (May), second (August) and third (December); plantings that coincide with the rainy seasons by edaphoclimatic zone.

Since the quarantine affects the entire region, the agro-chemical industry and banks are limited in the scope of their action, which means that the provision of credit, seed and agro-chemicals for planting basic grains is limited. The decree of a quarantine reduces the spread of COVID-19, and at the same time, limits farm production, not so much because families are confined to their homes, or because peasant and indigenous families are “confined” to their farms, but because the movement of producer families in the region, except for Nicaragua, to do their purchases of inputs and financial transactions is limited; for example, in Honduras, with the curfew people can only leave their homes one day per week as determined by their identity card.

As an effect, the supply of corn and beans tends to be less: by planting smaller areas in May, less smaller volumes will be harvested in July, which is why the second planting is going to be smaller…If this happens, the scarcity of basic grains in the entire region is going to cause an increase in prices and possible hoarding of large volumes to do price speculation[3]; in fact, the price of beans already increased starting on April 21. Going back to Tables 1 and 2, we conclude that if other countries drop their production by 30%, Nicaragua should increase its production areas to contribute to the region.

How should this situation be addressed? After this introduction, we summarize the mediation practices that make bean supply and demand possible, but mediated by unfair institutions, that affect human population and nature. Then we involve the efforts of international aid and we warn of its risks. Then we describe a different path as a proposal. Finally, we lay out a decisive and unconfined accompaniment on the part of those of us who say we are accompanying rural families. In the conclusions we recall that we need to open ourselves to the people who are more underprivileged.

2.     More of the same with businesses of mediation

In general, we are seeing an intensification of the old practices of mediation, more of the same. Meanwhile, part of the peasantry is preparing to grow basic grains with relative autonomy. There is no variation in the mediation technology and relationships, in spite of what is said in the world that after COVID-19 “nothing will be the same”.

The logic that traditional mediation intensifies is: dependency on agro-chemicals and certified seed, unfair weighing and disproportionate application of percentage of defects, disinformation, absence of incentives for product quality, and the power of ideas like “more inputs, more production”, “without glyphosate there are no beans and corn”, and “clearing land causes joy” -clearing land refers to deforestation or felling trees to plant basic grains or for ranching.

Within this logic there are three types of mediation. The first, businesses or intermediaries provide seed and agro-chemicals to be paid with beans or corn, under the condition that the entire harvest be sold to them. The second type is businesses or cooperatives that offer a package the includes seed, agro-chemicals and technical supervision, to be paid with beans, and on the condition that they be sold the entire harvest; the difference with the first type is that in this second version they offer them C$100/qq over the street (market) price. The third type of mediation is scattershot, there are people from the community itself who lend money under terms of usury to families who are not able to save to pay for the rental of land and to buy uncertified seed, they are families whose harvests are sold to local buyers, who collect the harvest for municipal mediators (“truckers”), who in turn sell the grains to provincial buyers. The first two types of mediation export beans to other countries in the region, particularly to Costa Rica and El Salvador, countries that produce less (see Table 2) and have a large population that demands grains; the third type also export to countries outside the region.

The effects of these 3 mediations are multiple: loss of soil fertility, increase in the resistance of insects to agro-chemicals, pressure to cut down patches of forest that still remain on peasant and indigenous farms, lack of water in the communities because the deforestation leaves the water sources and creeks unprotected, systematic reduction in the profit margins of grains for producer families (the nefarious “plier squeeze”: more expensive inputs, combined with lower prices for peasant produce), migration and sale of land, erosion of communities, hoarding and price speculation…

Those who escape from this network of mediation throughout the region are indigenous and peasant families with small areas of land. They are families who cultivate for their own consumption, who store native seed, use little or no agro-chemicals, and sell their surplus grains to the highest bidder. They are families who live in relatively stable communities. With or without quarantine, these families will continue producing. These families and communities, nevertheless, are ever fewer, the new generations are being de-peasantized, which is why it is easy to find communities that 30 years ago were owners of land, and now mostly are families who plant grains on rented land.

3.     Efforts of international aid organizations

Before the crisis we heard different voices from international aid organizations, including the so- called fair-trade organizations. Their practice seems to be “more of the same” as well; this worldwide discourse that “everything will be different” after COVID-10 is beginning to be carried away in the wind.

Some organizations look to support NGOs whose staff are confined to their homes. Other organizations, and this is what we uncover in this section, remember rural families, but tend to fall into or brandish two old modalities of aid.

The first modality intensifies the first two types of mediation described in the previous section, and at the same time is distinct from them. It intensifies because it provides credit and induces them to make an arrangement with traditional mediation to sell them inputs and buy their harvests. It is distinct when they work with second tier cooperatives to collect the grains and sell them to international organizations, or some large buyer; in general they pay for and demand quality. In the context of COVID-19 this type of practice is intensified.

The second modality is being revived with COVID-19. It is an old form of aid that generally emerges “in times of crisis”. It goes well with the story that we described at the beginning of this article. There are organizations that donate in cash or food to “more vulnerable” families; it was a boom when Hurricane Mitch hit in 1998, or in 2001 when prices for coffee fell to $70/qq for export quality coffee. To do so, aid organizations use the cooperatives or NGOs to identify the families in a vulnerable situation, and to channel the donation. Let us magnify this type of aid to see its possible adverse effects on the explicit objectives that they pursue.

Aid organizations ask the administration (manager and technical team) of the cooperatives to prepare a list of families, not members of the cooperative. On these lists generally are a good number of people without land, or with little land; most of them are day laborers, and in the corresponding periods grow basic grains on rented land, or work in a sharecropping arrangement with the owner of the land, and pay the rent generally with their savings from harvesting coffee. When the donation gets to this sector, even though the good intentions of the aid organizations might be praiseworthy, it results in two risks that can be counterproductive to the spirit of help that motivates the aid organizations, and counterproductive to the reason for being of the cooperatives. What are those risks?

 A first risk is that a good number of these families, on receiving the aid, might decide to not plant basic grains, or reduce the area that they are planning on planting. It can happen with peasant family owners of small areas of land. And it can happen with day laborers. A day laborer, on receiving an amount in cash or food that meets their needs that day, and the following days, their first reaction, coherent with this mentality of a day laborer, is “to not work”, in some cases even “look for beer” (alcoholism). In other words, the aid can result in less area planted, which means less food, which means more problems particularly for women concerned about putting three meals on the table. This type of aid, in the long term, can cause a bigger crisis in the family, even  selling off the little land that they have or their yard. If the family does not plant, and prefers to consume the donation, without saving or investing it, in a matter of three months that family is going to be in a worse situation, because they are not going to harvest, and so will cry out for new aid. Since the cooperative was the channel for the first aid, they will expect the cooperative to resolve their problem.

A second risk is that the sustainability of the cooperative might be diminished, and crack the social cohesion of the community. The members, on realizing that they are not part of the list, and that instead are subsidizing aid to non-members, are going to have their idea that “the members are not in charge in the cooperative” be confirmed, and some with debts to the cooperative will say that “they are not going to pay.” The organs of the cooperatives also tend to be weakened in their functioning, because the aid organizations erroneously assume that the cooperative is equal to its management, they make arrangements with them, and pressure them to execute the donation; the administration tends to obey them under the rule of “you don´t look a gift horse in the mouth,” while the organs of the cooperative are placed to the side. In terms of the community, the non- members not benefitted by the donation, resent not being part of the aid, so possible long standing internal schisms revive. The population will feel that it turns their stomachs to understand the message of the donation: “you have to be impoverished to receive aid,” “the working person does not deserve aid”; which is contrary to the Law of Talents from Matthew 25, or certain values about one´s own effort that tends to be promoted in the communities.

Taking these risks into account, international aid organizations that make donations to impoverished families should be coherent with their own policy: accepting the effects of their actions. If they donate, they should do it every 3 months to those families for at least two years; delivering the donations directly to beneficiary families, so that the benefitting population might applaud or complain to the donor organization. The cooperative, one that is committed to its sustainability and that of its community, should not get wrapped up in unsustainable actions, and even less so, if these actions have the potential to erode the future of their organization and their communities.

National and international aid organizations are good for moving about in the aid market, grassroots cooperatives should recognize them for that skill. Grassroots cooperatives, those who are seeking their sustainability and that of their communities, know their families better, aid organizations should listen to them and learn from them.

4.     An alternative path from those who are more impoverished

In the context of COVID-19, if traditional mediation intensifies their unjust mechanisms against the peasantry and the environment, and if international aid organizations impose their “aid that entraps”, in the short term, low supply and institutional situation of hoarding will be felt, famine could break out, as well as water scarcity in an agriculture which deforests and is dependent on agro-chemicals. Without the peasantry producing, and a change in the institutional arrangement that would respect the right of the population to access food, the region will be affected. In this section we sketch out a different path, not just donations, not just business, but contributing to the production of food in the short term, and through that “window” entering into long term change, local and global living communities with sustainable agriculture that restores their soil and water.

Table 3:  Costs of production for beans (C$*)
  With agro-chemicals (1 mz) With sustainable agriculture (1 mz)
Land rental 2500 2500
Labor 8000 12000
Agro-chemicals 5700 0
Agro-organic 0 5000
Total 16,200 19,500
Financing (30% costs) 4860 5850
* To get cost in dollars divide by C$34 = US$1

Source: estimate with support of  ing. Elix Meneces

In the last week of April people finish the arrangements for renting land and begin to prepare the soil for planting, awaiting the “rain showers of May” – the first rains of the year. Let´s remember, some families plant on their land, they need minimal support in credit for seed and other costs; some families rent land to plant basic grains, they have difficulties in coming up with the C$2500/mz that the land owner charges, maybe they need 50% of that amount; some families seek to plant by halves, they expect that the land owner would provide the land and seed, or between two people, they rent the land and work it 50-50. These families, growing their grains, on harvesting them need to save their seed to begin a life less dependent on mediation and aid, then they need to improve their soil and protect their water… They can do it if they organize into cooperatives, associations or associative enterprises that move on the basis of agreements in their assemblies.

In the face of this situation, international organizations and grassroots cooperatives can join forces. Both have a common, explicit objective: help the most vulnerable families, and that there be water for life. Correspondingly, they should agree on the fact that aid should help. How?

The cooperative can finance the amount that families need to rent land and obtain their inputs (see Table 3), and/or go into halves with families that desire to do so. The table shows that the area of sustainable agriculture is more expensive, that is because it requires more labor, which also should be read as greater creation of employment and environmental benefit.  The cooperative can finance 30% of an area with agro-chemicals and an area with sustainable agriculture, supervise those plantings, and technically advise the family within the framework of community. The condition for this service would be that the families pay the loan with beans, commit to sell their harvest to the cooperative, that 50% of the area be cultivated without agro-chemicals and with organic inputs[4], and that they protect water sources throughout the farm. In the case of compliance by both parties, the cooperative would distribute their surplus in accordance with the norms of the cooperative, a distribution which is both social and individual: 10% legal reserves, 20% social fund, 20% capitalization of the cooperative and 50% individual distribution in accordance with the quantity that the producers have sold to the cooperative. In the long term, these sustainable products could be better remunerated. What would you prefer, reader, rice and beans with glyphosate or without glyphosate?

Under these agreements the cooperative can collect an estimated 25qq/mzs of beans and 35qq/mzs of corn; if a cooperative under the terms described would support 100mzs of beans and 100 mzs of corn, it would collect 2500qq of beans and 3500qq of corn; we can imagine what is possible with 20 or 100 cooperatives taking on these practices. 5% of this total could be saved as seed, to organize the second planting (August). The rest of the volume of grains can be sold in accordance with the health situation and the demand for food that we would have in the months of July, August and September; cooperatives can make more favorable decisions for society and social justice, while capital only sees merchandise, money and moves under the justice of the market.

Consistent with this perspective, a cooperative can commit to producing organic inputs in an ongoing way. It can do it by itself or in alliance with international enterprises that offer organic inputs to revitalize soils, and not like the chemical inputs that are directed only at the crop and are only short term. This would mean working with landowners who would revitalize their soil in the long term, and working with families who would rent land from landowners for a minimum of 10 years, because the revitalization of the soil happens over years and its benefits are lasting.[5] Landowners will benefit from a stable agreement and from those practices that revitalize the soil, in addition to the financial benefits.

Through this short term “window” of organizing the production of food, the cooperative can enter to work on the in-depth issue: mitigating climate change with sustainable agriculture and energizing living communities.

There is a perspective here in which international organizations can redefine their forms of aid. It is a perspective that in the long term transforms traditional mediation and “aid that entraps”, leads them to respect and empower the rights of people to produce and have access to healthy food, and respect the rights of nature. It is a perspective that encourages mechanisms be directed to fair weighing, quality control with incentives, prices with redistribution, and the fact that communities can scale up by adding value to their products and their waste.

5.     Accompaniment needed

Some people from NGOs confined to their homes are not going to move about; we respect their decision, even though they can help us studying the behavior of markets, and reflecting on the changes that the NGOs themselves should begin. Some of us who are accompanying the rural families who are organizing, we are “confined” to accompanying families in their communities. What does it mean to accompany?

The biblical passage of the Road to Emmaus (Lk 24: 13-25) can be a guide. The Puerto Rican theologian, Carmelo Álvarez, says: “This passage encourages us to walk in the midst of uncertainty, which is being transformed into certainty and confidence. Jesus approaches these hopeless, frustrated, and hurting travelers/disciples, and accompanies them without showing his identity. He establishes a dialogue of travelers. And he patiently provides elements that illuminate the faith! He is able to get the travelers to be receptive to his words and presence. So, an invitation emerges, “stay with us” (…) The Supper calls for sharing, revealing the Mystery …Today, more than ever, we need the Pilgrim of Emmaus, so that he might help us with this presence, to continue walking with the faith of open eyes…”

This accompaniment should include three elements: studying, training and innovating. Studying people to apprehend ways of expanding their relationships of cooperation. We can suggest something to people IF we know their situations, like the producer Rodrigo López from the community of Ocote Tuma (Waslala, Northern Atlantic Region, Nicaragua) was telling us, “if you do not understand, you do not see”; accompanying is the people themselves teaching us to advise them – “stay with us”. Training means creating conditions for awakening, taking on the consequences of our actions and decisions, awakening to the way  of life that we are leading, the way of working and way of organizing ourselves, realizing that no matter had bad off we may be, we always have something good to hold on to. Innovating along with families forms of making the proposal just described a reality, innovating day by day in agriculture, commercialization, collective organization and learning. The people that we accompany, we need to understand that studying, training and innovating are interdependent, it is the holy trinity of accompaniment – understanding in order to see.

Each cooperative can be the Pilgrim of Emmaus. Each church, University and NGO could be the Pilgrim of Emmaus.

6.     Conclusions

After COVID-19 “nothing will return to what it was before”. This phrase is hollow when we look at the current behavior of  traditional mediation of capital, products and words. We must make that expression a reality to the extent to which we build different futures, futures more socially and environmentally just and equitable.

In this article we have started from the idea that basic commodities, like basic grains, could become scarce as an effect of COVID-19, that in the face of this possibility, it is urgent that indigenous and peasant families get involved in producing. But that they do so under different conditions from those imposed by traditional mediation and by the aid industry, whose actions do damage and create perverse incentives for producers as well as for their organizations. Let them produce in alliance with local organizations, with incentives in which landowners and producer families all gain in the short term, and as living communities gain in the long term.

This proposal is in relation to basic commodity foodstuffs that encompass the entire population of the region. It is about growing basic grains whose first planting season is about to begin (May 1). But if we still are not able to work at total strength in this season, we can begin, and prepare ourselves for the second planting (August). The same can be done with vegetables – squash, cucumbers, garlic, summer squash…

This proposal is even more important, because it involves families who are farther down, the most impoverished families who sustain humanity, they are 29% of the total population of the region. The mentalities of this 29% are even much lower from centuries of domination, but that with good accompaniment, like that of the Pilgrim of Emmaus, the good of that population can emerge as well as the good of their accompaniers.

This is a proposal for the grassroots organizations who maybe have embraced only export crops, so that they can include basic commodity crops. Not just because they are primary foodstuffs, but because getting involved in them will provide them roots in the communities and local markets. It will also feed into their environmental perspective, particularly the indigenous populations will make us understand that the land has life, is the mother, and therefore it is not conceivable to buy or sell “the mother” or mercilessly drown her with agro-chemicals. Or is it?

[1] René has a PhD in development studies and accompanies rural organizations in Central America. He is a member of Coserpross (http://coserpross.org/es/home/), associate researcher of IOB-Antwerp University, and a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/).

[2] Even though the fall in the prices of sugar and (palm) oil is due more to the fall in the price of petroleum, products that are used for the production of biofuels. We are grateful to Arturo Grigsby for this information.

[3] Even if the supply of basic grains were less, possibly it would be enough to feed the population. What might happen is hoarding that might cause famine. In this sense, it is worthwhile to dust off the study of A. Sen (1981) Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Clarendon Press, Oxford. In that study, Sen shows that there was no lack of food in the 1943 famine in Bengal (India) or the famine in Ethiopia in 1972, but social institutions that hoarded food and deprived people of their right to have access to food.

[4] 50-50 is viable, while a radical change of cultivating 100% with ecological agriculture could be unreal. The advantage of the ecological area is that it is intensive work, generates Jobs, and makes use of resources existing in the community itself. The ecological agriculture area part implies a radical change: betting on the soil instead of betting on a crop.

[5] On this issue of rental within a context of drought, see: R. Mendoza, 2015, “la sequía y el arrendamiento de la tierra”, in: Confidencial. https://confidencial.com.ni/author/rene-mendoza-vidaurre/

Riding astride coffee yield and quality in Nicaragua

Riding astride coffee yield and quality in Nicaragua

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

Good coffee

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

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

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

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

1.    Coffee Yield and Quality

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

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

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

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

 

Table 1. Evolution of coffee production, Central American countries (in 1,000 sacks of 60 kg)
1990/91 1999/00 2009/10 2018/19
Honduras 1568 2985 3603 7328
Nicaragua 461 1554 1871 2510
Guatemala 3271 5120 3835 4007
Costa Rica 2562 2485 1477 1427
El Salvador 2465 2598 1075 761
Panama 215 166 138 130
Source: http://www.ico.org/historical/1990%20onwards/PDF/1a-total-production.pdf

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

2.    Elements that are affecting this quality and yield

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

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

2.1  Climate variability

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

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

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

 

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

 

Beans with changes in its normal coloration Prolonged storage and poor storage conditions
Beans with intense yellow caramel or reddish coloring Delay between picking and pulping
Silverskin, can tend toward reddish brown coloring Dirty fermentation tank, use of contaminated water, overheating, storage of wet coffee.
Management of dry milling Flat bean with partial fractures Coffee walked on during drying process; hulling of wet coffee
Bean with white veins Dampened after being dried
Source: based on Federacafe – Comunidad Madrid, http://cafe-noticias.over-blog.com/article-36108278.html

2.2  The “suffocating embrace” of prices

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

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

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

2.3  Coffee management on the farm

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

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

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

2.4  Coffee management in the dry mill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.    Governing coffee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.    Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] The classification by scores is based on: Susana Gomez, “¿Cómo se determina la calidad del café?” en: QuéCafé, https://quecafe.info/como-se-determina-la-calidad-del-cafe/

[5] R. Mendoza, M.E. Gutiérrez, M. Preza and E. Fernández, 2012, “Las cooperativas de café de Nicaragua: ¿Disputando el capital del café a las grandes empresas?” en: Observatorio Social, Cuadernillo No. 13 El Salvador, http://www.observatoriosocial.com.ar/images/pdf_cuadernillos/cuader13.pdf; For English version see: https://peacewinds.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Articulo-CAFENICA-Cooperativas-english.pdf ;  R. Mendoza, 2012, “Coffee with the Aroma of Coop” in: Revista Envío No. 372. Managua: UCA https://www.envio.org.ni/articulo/4558

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

[7] R. Mendoza, 2013, “Who is responsible for the Coffee Rust Plague and What can be done”, in: Envio 379, Managua: UCA, https://www.envio.org.ni/articulo/4664

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

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

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

[11] Samanth Subramanian (2019, Is fair trade finished? The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/jul/23/fairtrade-ethical-certification-supermarkets-sainsburys) analizes how Fair Trade (FLO), based on prices, is losing ground with the abandonment of the FLO seal on the part of large corporations, questioning whether fair trade is achieving what it promises, and preferring instead to organize their own seals and mechanisms to measure their social, economic and environmental impact. We have also warned from Central America about the involution of fair trade, see R. Mendoza, 2017, “Toward the Reinvention of Fair Trade, or “Hacia la re-invención del comercio justo”, en: Tricontinental, Bélgica, http://www.cetri.be/Hacia-la-re-invencion-del-comercio?lang=fr

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

[13] These experiments include testing the form of management common in Costa Rica, of receiving raw cherry coffee, and in a mechanized way, separating ripe beans from speckled and green ones, and then passing the uniform ripe beans directly from the pulper to the mechanical drier, eliminating fermentation. Ivan Petrich (2018, “Fermentación: Qué es & Cómo Mejora la Calidad del Café”, https://www.perfectdailygrind.com/2018/07/fermentacion-que-es-como-mejora-la-calidad-del-cafe/) explains the advantages of aerobic and anaerobic fermentation for coffee quality.

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

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

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

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

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