-the big producers increase their coffee areas, the small ones produce less, and we are all from the same cooperative–María observed in the assembly
-we are on different steps of the ladder –responded Claudio.
-The small producers should not hold offices, being “bit players” is their fault- adjudged their administrator.
– If we looked at one another and helped one another, maybe our cooperative would be a cooperative- María shot back, while the big producers smiled.
Claudio Hernandez, a peasant cooperative member, by saying that “we are on different steps” in the cooperative, referred to the social inequality in his cooperative. In this article we want to study the hierarchical side of this phrase, and how to move beyond it in the communities.
The force of structures
In the story the administrator presupposes a vertical structure, classifies the small producers as “bit players”, and puts them outside the range of officers. This image of the “ladder” is the structure of hierarchical power that comes from societies, families and absorbs any organization or institution. Figure 1 shows people going up the ladder, there is no other way up. On that ladder it is not possible for a group of people to be on the same rung; they would fall. Most aspire to go up the ladder, even though they are not able to get close to it. If someone makes a bid to go up, they alert the one on top, “ he is going to get ahead of you”. The one who reaches the top unseats him: “get down so I can get up.” Only the “one in charge” is on the top of the hill, “the more authoritarian he is, the more he does for us”, “I am nothing without him”. Even though those who generally reach the top are men, if a woman reaches the top, the ladder does not change.
This structure defines the position of big and small, of those who have, and do not have rights in a society. It names people to the offices of organizations or institutions, turns leaders into politicians or technocrats. Likewise, the age structure in families defines their members: those who “are good” for doing physical tasks, like “a load” for those who no longer can carry one because of their age; the spouse “discarded”, replaced by a young woman. It is a structure that is reinforced by animalizing human relations: “he is going to better you”, assumes that the person left below is an animal, which is worse if the person “bettered” is a woman. If someone praises a boy it is because “he is looking at his shoulders” – for carrying, labor, an object of exploitation. It is a language that defines, “she is female, I am male” – but using words in Spanish that generally are used to designate the sex of animals. A male, a macho is, as the writer Octavio Paz said, “awesome, the father who has abandoned his wife and children”, and who feels proud of it.
It is a structure that takes voice and agency away from people and reproduces rules contrary to good humanity. It says to the impoverished, “we will always need a patron”; to the abused woman, “he is my husband, he has the right to beat me”; to the Evangelical pastor, “I am the anointed one, I speak in the name of God”; to the priest, “only I can celebrate the Eucharist”; to people in communities and neighborhoods, “God has a plan for us”, “the leader has a plan for us”. As the Spanish saying goes, “no one goes to heaven without a ladder”.
There can be a peaceful or violent revolution in a country, church or any organization, be it school, sports club or communal organization, that revolution is basically “get rid of you to put in me”, “getting ahead”, and repeating “I am the anointed one”/”leader, direct us!”/ “spouse in pants or skirt, direct us!” They can sing that they are “new men” or dress in habits, the ladder is the same. Everything changes, so as not to change. We see cooperatives like this whose members, men and women, rebel against their presidents or managers, replace them with other people, and in a short period of time, the chosen person turns into the “top man” or “top woman”.
From within these structures the slogan of many international organizations “leave no one behind” can be understood as pulling the impoverished person to the “ladder”, so that they are not left behind, while the ladder continues being the “ladder”.
Change of structures
How can we change to really change? If we ignore the ladder, it will be like the sun, it will keep us from seeing the stars and will make us repeat the rule of elites: “without the leader, there is nothing”, “without legality and office in the town, there is no organization”. We need to distinguish between the ladder (structure; sun) from what is outside of it (stars). Identifying the ladder to reveal that it was made by human beings, that its reproduction is not automatic but mediated by human interpretation, which is why it can be undone or redone. Let us recall what Max Weber said, it is not the rule of courtesy that makes one tip the hat, but the interpretation by people of that rule. Understanding this helps us to create conditions to awaken and recreate our identities, to recognize those structures and then look for other paths.
María in the above story says, “If we looked at one another and helped one another, maybe our cooperative would be a cooperative.” There is a new interpretation there, which is the awareness of looking for alternative options to the ladder, seeing the stars. How?
From communitarian perspectives we can put on the shoes of different people, even though first we need to take off those we have on. From those “soles” it is not possible to put the “ladder” to one side, because in the end it is in our own minds and feet. Hmmmm! After identifying it, how can we proceed?
Following Figure 2, we propose three steps. First, forming organizations with membership in just one community, and limiting their size: that it not have more than 50 members, nor that it only grow economically. This will keep a leader from becoming the “big chief”, because his organization will be relatively small, and its membership will be more informed about their organization from living in the same community or micro-territory. This will reduce the size of the ladder and pull it toward the community.
Second, multiplying organizations in the same community: forming more cooperatives and facilitating the emergence of new forms of organization – stores, roasters, bee keepers, bakeries and poultry farms of groups of people. At the same time, recognize that there are organizations in the same community: water committees, parent teacher organizations, representatives of municipal government, road committees. This multiplication of organizations, in addition to their economic and social impact, also contribute to the democracy of the organizations in the same community. In this, there tend to be two or three people who control organizations in a community: e.g. a “chief” as mayor´s representative, and president of the water committee and the cooperative. If in a community a second and third cooperative are formed, that “chief” can only be the member of one cooperative. If in that community a community store and/or roaster emerges, their administration requires full time work, which means it would be difficult for that “chief” to be the administrator of a community store. The characteristic of the “chiefs” is that their two or three organizations tend to be long ladders, financed and controlled from outside; while the organizations that are multiplying are smaller, from the same micro-territory and move more with their own resources. Multiplying organizations is like opening more windows and doors for the community.
Third, expanding and generating connections between different organizations on the basis of already existing and emerging relationships of collaboration is a challenge. For example, the delegates of the word of the Catholic Church tend to be part of dense relationships. If a good part of that social base are also members of an organization, they contribute to trust, which is a basic asset for building connections; for that reason it is necessary to show those dense relationships. When a new organization emerges, it is like opening a new channel for previously dammed water to flow; and if that organization, in contrast to traditional ones, is composed of women and/or young people, fresher and cleaner water flows through that channel uniting more lives.
In these connections we are not talking about alliances. So far, we are not aware of interesting and lasting alliances. We see that when organizations multiply, collective and community actions also multiply; e.g. road repair, disease prevention actions, like the current COVID-19. We do envision the possibility of forming second tier organizations in the same micro-territory, which would be practically the opposite of the “big headed dwarf” model of the second-tier cooperatives that exist today – something to discuss in another article.
The change of structure that we are proposing is discovering the “ladder” which we ourselves are part of, and move beyond it by reducing its size, multiplying ladders, and expanding their connections in the same community or micro-territory. These perspectives in the long term can democratize our societies and offer better conditions where the voice of people is heard and listened to, shared leadership flourishes, and collective innovations are possible.
This process, no matter how praiseworthy it might be, requires hard work for hours beyond “the work day” on the part of some people in the communities and those who accompany them. Because that “ladder” is like the roots of a bad weed that lives in our minds, resists being discovered, and on being discovered fights to persist and intensifies its domination in old and new organizations.
From community perspectives, it is not a matter of “not leaving anyone behind.” It is a matter of each person getting closer to others, and on doing so, they draw closer to their own capacity and potential. Then the community will be more than the sum of its parts.
René Mendoza Vidaurre with Fabiola Zeledón and Esmelda Suazo
The drunkard´s curse
-Why are you selling your land?
-I have debts, I have no money…I no longer know what to do.
-Ahh, you have the drunkard´s curse.
-The drunk sells what he has and keeps the craving for alcohol, returns to look for what he can sell or steal, and it increases his urge to drink.
-I am not a drunk! What does this drunkard´s curse have to do with me?
There have been hundreds of innovations that, on the death of the “boss”, have fallen apart like a house of cards. In good measure due to the “drunkard´s curse”. The drunk who wakes up with a hangover, looks to see if he can find even a little bit of alcohol, and there is nothing that can stop him from getting that drink, he will get it by begging, selling what is within his reach or stealing it.
In terms of this article, those “cravings” are the social rules of families that push or pull people to get rid of any initiative with potential for success, on the condition of getting “a drink” (short term earnings). These families, nevertheless, are unaware of these social rules, those “cravings” as in the story: “I am not a drunk! What does this drunkard´s curse have to do with me?” It is like, literally, the initiative “got drunk”, whose owners end up selling “the cow that provides the milk” instead of selling “the milk”; or better still, instead of making cheese, cream and cream cheese with “the milk.”
RSEs analyze these realities. They are not isolated from them. They study them, they study themselves, correct and catalyze transformational actions. In fact, SREs emerged while analyzing these realities, looking at how to chart a different path and at the same time contribute to the community. How do the SREs catalyze good changes in communities? In this booklet we try to respond to this question, while we invite those who read it to reflect on their own responses. Here we describe some of those harmful social rules, we identify other rules with which initiatives can pave the way, we denote the role of these types of initiatives for generating good changes in communities, and we conclude that this path deserves being tested.
1. The strength of social rules
While studying the commercialization of products, the way that families decide on inheritances, production systems, how women become single mothers, how sharecropping relationship work, being a day worker, or how cooperatives work, time and time again structural conditions appear that leave people or organizations like hobbled hens in terms of their growth, obstacles appear to trip the feet of those who are walking. What is this common pattern? Figure 1 shows three rules, individual opportunism, men as the law, and the big payoff culture; it is a triangle that like the “cravings” in the drunkard´s curse makes people end up selling “the cow.”
If a couple puts up a storefront, sew shop or makes rosquillas [corn cookies] to sell, their own relatives and friends trip them up. How? They buy on credit, buy on credit, and continue to buy on credit. It is the drunkard´s curse, they promise to pay, they pay and buy on credit again, and on and on. When the amount that they put on their tab surpasses their financial capacities, they get upset when they are asked to pay, and they are resentful if they are not given more credit on top of what they already owe, it is like they earned the right to buy on credit, or that they end up believing that the store belongs to them- this is what we call the opportunism of drunks. The consequence of these practices is that the initiative, on having more than 15% of their capital in the “on the tab” portfolio, begins to fall apart, and families get stressed on being charged and promising payments, and it is like a wound exposed to the sun, gets swollen and is difficult to heal. The rules that lead to failure are: being a relative gives me the right to buy on credit, not necessarily to pay – it is like “what is yours is mine, and what is mine is mine”; no one from the community, individually, should stand out (be successful). Both rules come from the indigenous-peasant family that emerged in a context of bartering (in kind exchanges) and on communal lands, if you do a favor, the other family at some time will return the favor; now, nevertheless, the context is practically the opposite, in addition to the fact that the element of time in a store is a matter of days, and the fact that a basis of common food does not exist.
There are families that, just as they grow quickly, also fall apart quickly. It could be that they buy and accumulate land, or as lenders, accumulate money. The drunkard´s curse is that, even though they try to improve their work, for example, intensifying the use of the soil, they go back to buying more land, and become extensive again in their use of the soil; in this way they have coffee farms where they get 8 loads per manzana, or grazing land where they have 1 cow on 2 manzanas. Then their children trip them up: Dad divides up the land, one part he sells and the other part he divides up into an inheritance for his children. Once the land is received, most of the children begin to sell their part, or borrow money putting it up as collateral, prisoners of the drunkard´s curse. The rule that pulls them toward failure is: only the man (Father/husband) makes decisions and he is the law for the family. With this rule, the man wants to administer and make decisions about any initiative, decisions are made under the culture of “leave it to me”- “I will work it out, this is a man´s issue.” This rule comes from patriarchy, it is a rule that prevents his daughters and sons from learning, which disempowers women (Mothers/wives) and it is a rule that ruins communities.
Raising coffee or sugar cane as a monocrop has meant that families receive payment only once with the harvest, on which income depends the food and clothing of the family. We call this custom the big payoff culture: wanting to receive payment in one bit hit, not getting smaller amounts throughout the year, nor cultivating food for each month. Correspondingly, when a family administers a new initiative, this initiative tends to naturally be trapped by this big payoff culture; they want to have earnings in a few days and in larger amounts, if they are not able to get that, they shout to the four winds for more product, their frustration traps them. They lose sight of the need to learn to administer the RSEs, build up clientele, study their environment, plan; what is important to them is to “win the lottery”; the big payoff, because they believe that there is nothing to learn, or that they already know it. The rule that pulls them to failure is: earn money right now however possible, that tomorrow may be too late. It is a rule that comes from capitalism – like usury or heartless commercial mediation – and that rule is like the sun during the daytime, it keeps you from seeing the stars.
2. Collective actions that make a difference
A RSE can reduce – and avoid – the risk of following the fate of that ton of initiatives and organizations that tend to fall apart. For that purpose, we introduce a RSE as a new seed that grows between the land of the community and the winds that blow from outside the community. This RSE needs the virtuous triangle of figure 2. It is from this virtuous triangle that RSEs can catalyze small but good changes in the community. We use the word “catalyze” to indicate that SREs can cause unexpected changes, without generating or expanding them directly, allowing people in the community to observe, digest, reflect on their realities in the face of this mirror of the SRE, and be correcting, expanding and generating new practices and rules.
The first element is distinguishing collective assets from individual assets. For that purpose let us read about Blanca Victoria from El Cua, as told by her son, Juan Adams:
Rogelio worked for his aunt, Blanca Victoria. On pay day he would say, “Aunt, don´t pay me now, just give me this much.” His aunt saved his money. One day Blanca Victoria needed some money to buy something, and she went running to her nephew, “Rogelio, lend me some money.” “Sure, aunt, just use it,” responded Rogelio. The aunt returned home and took the money from Rogelio´s savings which she kept for him.
The family that administers a RSE is like Aunt Blanca Victoria, and the resources in the store, roaster or bakery are like the resources of Rogelio, and the two dozen shareholders who own the RSE are like Rogelio. The family has those resources in their hands, as the Aunt did, but they are the resources of others; even though they are in their hands, they cannot use them as if they were theirs. They are a collective asset.
Within this framework, a RSE can navigate better. If a relative or a family friend of the person who administers a RSE comes looking to start a tab, they cannot demand that they be given credit under the rule that “we are part of the family”, because the products or the roaster do not belong to the family, they belong to two dozen shareholders; the administrator will be able to say, “If it were mine I would start a tab for you, but this is not mine.” Not even the administrator herself can start her own tab, she cannot take products and “just write it down”, she has to buy them like any other customer.
The second element is that each RSE must be guided by written rules and the numbers. The rules will emerge based on studying and testing policies, which are later approved by all the shareholders. In the RSEs we tested them, and now we have written rules that we all recognize and must follow, which are in booklet 2. They are rules that can be changed in assemblies.
In terms of the numbers, each administrator records data in a timely and trustworthy manner. The payment of the administrator depends on the quality of this record. The improvement of a RSE depends on the quality of this data, analyzing the data and making improvements based on that analysis. For example, for the case of providing products on credit, the numbers and the rules are very indicative of good practice:
Products on credit in a story cannot surpass 5% of the working capital of the store. So, the administrator must register and add up each day the data recorded to apply this rule.
The amount on credit cannot surpass 50% of the monthly income of the person who gets credit. So, before putting it on the tab of the person, that person needs to be studied.
Only products that are shared in the family can be sold on credit. For example, cigarettes are not shared in the family, so do not make up part of the products that can be taken on credit.
Products considered “for pleasure” (e.g. chicken, soda pop…) cannot be given on credit. Only basic need products (oil, salt, sugar, rice, beans).
The third element is the culture of small and staggered payoffs. Grain by grain the hen fills her stomach, our grandmothers used to say. Each RSE is designed for families to generate and save income every day of the year. Each day that they sell or provide roasting services generates income; each day they record data and analyze that data; each day they communicate with customers and take the pulse of the community. A RSE is a university in the home and the community.
3. How RSEs catalyze change in the community
If an RSE operates based on the virtuous triangle, in itself it becomes an oil lamp in the community. It catalyzes change. How? The distinction between collective assets and individual assets will have an impact in the community. People will understand that the land is not an individual asset either, only belonging to the man (husband/father), it also belongs to the mother and the children; in other words, it is a family asset; this will help the family to democratize, be more equitable and the land be better used. The same thing will happen in cooperatives, churches…In this framework Dad and Mom will have a guide for raising their children in a different, better way.
Following rules approved by an assembly is, paradoxically, a new practice. This will have an impact in the community, more and more they will question rules that only the patron sets, only the man who believes he is the law, or rules that come from outside. The source of the rules will slowly be left exposed.
The culture of the small payoff will help people to remember the old practices, of first ensuring the food of the family for the year. Of maybe diversifying production. Processing food and saving it. Generating work in so many things that have to be done every day. Saving for lean times. Having patience.
In this way a RSE, in addition to energizing the economy of a community, buying products from one and selling products to others, becomes a lamp. It helps the community to move from moment 1 to moment 2. The figure of the pyramid captures this realistic aspiration, the community does not cease to be vertical, but it is more inclusive, it becomes wider.
We have conceived of a RSE different from conventional businesses like storefronts, cheesemakers, farms, honey producers…that would be managed by families or associative organizations. Now we understand how RSEs, and any associative organization if it proposes and works as we have shown in these booklets, can avoid reproducing the drunkard´s curse, the big payoff, or “leave it to me” culture.
The role of RSEs seems to be getting clearer day by day, as when fog dissipates and allows us to see farms, houses and roads up ahead. A RSE is not just to get income, not limited just to finances or just for making money; nor is it to reproduce the culture of the big payoff nor the drunkard´s curse. RSEs can have a transformational role in rural societies, becoming an antidote to the drunkard´s curse and despotism, to the extent that it draw a distinction with collective assets, develops a written and number culture, and daily works on what is tangible (service of store and roasting), and what is intangible (social relations with customers, new knowledge for innovating).
Each person should work for RSEs to be a means that help us revive our communities, make it possible for a person to discover their drunkard´s curse (“I am not a drunk!”), and get back on track, and together we get the entire community back on track.
Scaling up and circular movement in Rural Social Enterprises
René Mendoza with Fabiola Zeledón and Esmelda Suazo
Jesús told his disciples a parable (Mt 25: 14-30). A farmer, before traveling, entrusted his farm to them: to one he gave 5 talents, to another 2 and another 1, according to their capacities. On his return he asked for an accounting. The ones who received 5 and 2 had doubled them, the farmer was happy and rewarded them. The third had saved the talent and gave it back to him, the farmer was upset, told him that at least he could have placed it with bankers so it would earn interest, so he took the talent away from him and gave it to the one who had 10. “Because to everyone who has, more will be given and he will have abundance; but the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away.”
This parable is not about avarice or despotism. It is about the fruit that comes from talents received. It is responding to the confidence received, deploying all capacities in order to bear fruit. The parable shows us that discouragement, fear or resentment should not keep us from feeling that confidence received, making us hide the talent. The fruit gives joy to the entire community.
So it is as well in Rural Social Enterprises (RSE). Two dozen people have placed their resources and entrusted a family to administer a community store or a coffee roaster, and another family to administer another store, and so on. The families received resources and trust in accordance with their abilities, they are left the challenge of responding with all their energy and multiplying their fruit. As an effect of those actions, the entire community will be happy.
On multiplying it, like the one who received 5 talents and doubled it to 10, they can receive more resources and trust. How? For the stores, Figure 1 shows us the path in the form of a staircase. But first let us recall that in the previous booklet Claudio Hernández warned us that we are “at different rungs of the ladder”. We address this challenge here: if we scale up collectively with clear rules, we move beyond the individual “ranking”. Even more, our vision is that they scaling up should not be indefinite, ever higher and higher, but it should be circular, that this is what figure 2 will show.
In figure 1, illustrated for a community store, we make a distinction between a conventional (or traditional) storefront, and the community stores that we are organizing. They scale up to the extent that they respond to the trust deposited in them, and in accordance with the energy and mindset that they apply to the talents received. How?
A community store starts on step 1 with a set amount of working capital. If it is managed well, keeping the amount on credit under 5% of total working capital, orders the inventory and orders, attracts customers and the administrator is able to get their earnings (30% of gross profits of the store) above 1500 córdobas, then that store can go up to the next step. As a consequence, SREs take 20% of the net earnings of the store to increase the initial working capital of the store. This step means moving from a conventional storefront to a community store, which means freeing itself from falling into the family rules of “give it to me on credit because we are family”, understanding that working capital is a collective asset, and cultivating an awareness that what benefits the family and the community is the fact that the stores continues to exist.
On step 2, in addition to meeting the challenges of step 1, they do a good job of recording the data, increase the clientele by 10%; process 1-2 products (e.g. popsicles, nacatamales) and form 1 to 2 local alliances (e.g. with bakers, seamstresses, people that make piñatas, raise chickens and have eggs, people who raise chickens, slaughter pigs or sell basic grains). It is a step where the administrator is able to get their gross profits of the store above 2,000 córdobas. If they are able to do all that, then they move to step 3 and they are assigned 20% of the social fund to work with.
On step 3, in addition to meeting the challenges of steps 1 & 2, and increasing clients by 10%, it processes more than 2 products and cultivates more than 2 alliances; lists products and necessary technology to be introduced into the community, such as rice cookers and thermoses, that have the potential of freeing up time for women depending on the conditions in the communities (e.g. if they have electric, water…). It is a step where the administrator can get their 30% of gross profits to be more than 3,000 córdobas. If the administrator is able to do all that, then the store moves to step 4, and their working capital is increased from between 5 to 20% from additional funds coming from new shareholders.
On step 4, in addition to meeting the challenges of steps 1, 2 and 3, and increasing customers by 10%, the store processes more than 3 products and weaves more than 3 alliances; the administrator gets their 30% of gross profits from sales to be more than 4,000 córdobas. As a consequence, this store is a candidate for the annual prize that the Assembly of shareholders grants to the best initiative. In a parallel fashion, the administrator can become initiative supervisor, after accompanying (organizing and advising) other stores, creating new initiatives.
In this way, the staircase (Figure 1) does not add more steps, it becomes a circle of synergy among several stores, roasters, bakers and other initiatives (Figure 2), while people continue being trained and taking on new responsibilities. It is trust which like pickled nancite becomes more dense and increases its flavor and energy.
So the wheel of community improvement turns, turns and turns. It does not go up. It does not go down. It revolves.
 This article is also for cooperatives and any other associative expression. The members contribute resources and ideas. They deposit them in the administration and organs of the cooperative. In doing so, they really are depositing their trust. In return, the administration and organs of the cooperative have the obligation that those resources and trust deposited in them bear fruit in accordance with the rules of their assemblies.
The fifth month of the year is called “May” in honor of Maya, one of the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione from Greek mythology; “Maia”, goddess of abundance. People who dig into history also tell us that it was a month for the elderly, the word “elderly” in Latin is “maiorum”. In Central America May means the first rains of the year, with which agriculture begins, and all the pallid landscape of April turns green and pulses with life; the popular expression is “the rain showers of May”, the month most anticipated. This article is about the force of community, that when we discover it, is like the month of May: abundant, alive, ever changing and very much anticipated. RSEs respond to their community, and have building that community as their reference point or horizon, it is their umbilical cord, their brand and love.
1. What people in the communities see and think
Those who live in a village or hamlet watch the movement of people. They see buyers come in to buy coffee, beans, or agoutis; for the buyers the community is a place to buy things. They see people who have diplomas arrive, and board members of organizations, who greet them from the road, estimate the harvest, fill out paperwork, and leave promises behind; for them the community is a stone paved road. They see people arrive in cassocks, lab coats, or wearing glasses, who enter the church, school or health center; for them, the community is a bunch of cement blocks with tin roof sheeting, and “poor people.”
Among those people who are watching, Elder Lagos, from the community of San Antonio, observes, “The cooperatives collect the coffee harvest in the towns, while the buyers collect it here in the community”. The “town” is the municipal capital, and “the community” is a rural locality. The logical thing would be the reverse: that the cooperatives would collect the harvest in the community itself, but no, no. The upside down world.
From another community, Ocote Tuma, in the municipality of Waslala, Rodrigo López observes: “There are two cooperatives from town with members here, those cooperatives are in the town; they never meet here.” What? And what does it mean to be a cooperative member? “The two cooperatives only want cacao, no matter where it comes from, people are not of value to them.” As we said before, it seems like the world is upside down.
People also look at their own community. There were good times when by growing just coffee, cacao or cattle people bought their vehicles, took on positions of responsibility and went to live in town. Those who have stayed, see and feel that for having clung to just one crop their water sources have dried up, and the soil has become weary, while the prices of those products have dropped, and the prices of agro-chemicals have risen. But even though betting on only one crop is affecting them more and more, people are hanging onto that crop, like the Koala bear hugs the eucalyptus tree! But there are people who open their eyes: Daniel Meneces remembers the words of his uncle Toño, “A lot of people are like the dog who barks at the squirrel believing that it is in the tree, when the squirrel has already left.” Betting on only one crop is like barking at the tree, when “the squirrel has already left.”
Other people open their eyes to see more: they discover the inequality in the community itself, reproduced by the cooperative itself. “We are at different places on the staircase,” said Claudio Hernández from the community of Samarkanda. That expression assumes that everyone rises using that staircase, there is no other, some are higher up and others are lower, there is no way of changing where you are. But the mere fact of recognizing it makes you think differently.
2. What people do when they discover their strengths
These observations awaken three, five, ten and thirty people. So, in this way, awakening, a group of people in the community of San Antonio formed a cooperative. They met to look for ways different from how traditional cooperatives operate; they decided to collect coffee and paid for it in the community itself. They did it. The result: families saved the cost of transporting the coffee to town. It is like they made a different “half staircase”.
Another cooperative was formed in Ocote Tuma, composed mostly of youth. In that cooperative, with their fingernails and the friendship of their neighbors, they bought cacao to dry it in the community itself, and pooled their earnings to invest in a chicken farm. They are beginning to crawl.
There are other people who turn their focus to the land, water, the farm and to processing foodstuffs. They got into making bread, honey…”The cents that it costs us make them more delicious”, concludes Doña Justina Meneces.
When the cooperatives are from the community itself, they help to repair the country road, they are members of the water committee, and look to protect water sources, and organize other committees so that each family might have access to water in their homes. Land and water are valuable and are worth more than money!
And they take more steps. In the face of the custom that has become law of “exporting the best and leaving the worst”, they roast coffee in the communities. In the face of the rule that “organization and projects come from outside”, they talk with one another so that there is water in the community. In the face of the wealthy who say that “only money moves people”, they visit one another, and the affection that they cultivate moves them even more. In the face of the storefronts which make people go into debt and then end up going broke themselves, new community stores emerge that when they let people make purchases on credit, they only allow it for “products that you share with your family” – products like beans or oil, but not cigarettes. This community spirit is like your first love, it has unimaginable flavors.
3. Good changes are done in alliances
Marx, a century and a half ago, said that peasants were like “a sack of potatoes”, meaning that they were similar, and that they lived closed off from society. Some 20 years ago in the Nitlapan Institute, on finding communities that resisted mono-cropping, that generally expelled people and disappeared communities, we used to call them “peasant pockets”. Now we realize that they are neither a “sack of potatoes” nor “peasant pockets” they are people so united and face to face with one another, and with so many connections that their friendships and relatives cross over communities and countries.
So it is difficult for one community to organize itself on its own. It is difficult for outside aid agencies to be able to organize a community, whether they arrive with a sword, the Bible or dollars – they can build their church, company or military post as enclaves. With the RSEs we have learned a different path: a community can organize if people from inside and out connect with one another, not just link, but connect! When people connect, they do magical things. This is how community stores and roasters are emerging.
When this happens, when they connect, the force of communities is like “the rains of May”, which makes good changes sprout. This is the process in which we find ourselves.
Each organization and institution has “rules of the game”. In a family, church, soccer, baseball, school, in a cooperative…there are rules. For example, in soccer 3 rules mean that it ca be played anywhere, in a field, on the street or a soccer stadium; these three rules are: only the goalie can touch the ball with his hands, out of bounds and foul (pushing or kicking another player). Generally, organizations that follow their rules run better.
RSEs also have a few rules: 21. Pretty well tested. Subject to being changed partially by the assembly of shareholders. They are applicable to any RSE. We list these rules in what follows:
The investors can be from inside or outside the community. The family that operates the initiative can also be a shareholder (be it a store, roaster or other initiative)
1 share = C$ 1000 (1,000 Córdobas)
A person becomes a “shareholder” with 1 share or more, and with that share or shares becomes an investor in all the initiatives.
In the case that the family that runs it invests, they will have a dual role, investor and at the same time the family that operates the initiative.
If the shareholder dies, automatically that person´s spouse and children are left as the owners of those shares. In case the shareholder does not have a spouse or children, then the closest relative is left as owner of the shares.
No shareholder will have more than 35% of total shares.
On the work of the family that runs an RSE
Each family that operates it is creative and responsible for making the initiative more successful, so that they can include any other way of buying new products or adding new services, always in function of the “company.”
If the family that operates an initiative decides to no longer continue with the initiative, they will completely withdraw all the products or assets, without those products or assets being provided on credit.
The shareholder group can close an initiative and recover the products and assets if that initiative ceases to be profitable.
On earnings, reinvestment and expenses
From gross profits (sale or service price minus costs and expenses), 30% is for the family that runs it (store, roaster or other initiative).
From net profits (gross profits minus 30%), 20% is for reinvestment, 20% is for a social fund, 10% for equipment repair and 50% is to be distributed among the shareholders in accordance with their number of shares.
In the distribution of shares, for the person who has more than100 shares, each share over that 100 will have the right to 50% of the amount of each share held by those who have 100 or less shares.
The reinvestment done (that 20%) will be added as part of the shares of all the shareholders. In other words, if that 20% comes in as additional products for sale or as a piece of equipment for the roaster, the value of that 20% is added as part of the shares of all the shareholders. Operation: the amount of the reinvestment divided by the total number of shares; that amount is added in accordance with the number of shares held by each shareholder.
If a shareholder decides to withdraw or recover part of their shares, those shares will be bought by any person or shareholder.
On losses or damaged products or assets
If products or assets are lost through theft, it is the responsibility of the family that runs it. The value lost is deducted from their 30%.
If some product is damaged in the store, it must be reported in the monthly audit. The corresponding measure will be taken from a mutual agreement. In any case, the value of the loss will be assumed equally, 50% by the family operating the initiative and 50% by the investors.
On Follow up/ audit/ transparency
The family that operates the initiative will register each operation and have all information up to date.
The supervisor and the operating family will provide followup/audit every 30 days. In doing so, they will audit the numbers, together analyze the month by its results and, taking into account the results from the previous month, will make decisions guided by the rules.
The 30% of gross profit that goes to the family operating the initiative will be paid at the end of each month.
The distribution of surplus based on net profits will be done every 3 months.
On the 10th of each month each shareholder will receive information on the financial results of the previous month from all the initiatives.
René Mendoza with Fabiola Zeledón, Hulda Miranda and Elix Meneses
Violeta Parra (1917-1967)
“Who are you looking for?”, they asked Violeta when she was traveling from one rural community to another in Chile.
-“Someone I do not know, but who has something very important to give me,” she responded. Violeta was a songwriter and artist, she was looking for songs that people in the countryside composed and tended to be left isolated and forgotten. She looked for them for the folklore of her beloved Chile.
Who are we looking for? Someone we do not know but who has “something very important” for their community. It is on the basis of “something very important” that we build the means that can be written in stone, that give identity to their communities. In this booklet we recount how we started to get off the traditional path of cooperatives, as we found “something very important” in the people in the communities themselves.
1. Genesis and brief evolution
In 2018 we concluded that the cooperative path needed other forms of organization. Like Violeta, we decided to go into the communities; since there is no better wedge than a stick, we went into the very communities where some cooperatives came from. We were looking to understand what was the “musical score” that made cooperatives, intermediaries, farmers, churches, storefronts, projects dance. To try to change the dance, we had to understand what the music was, because the dance depends on the music.
To the extent that we got inside and interpreted the “musical score”, we awoke to new realities and possibilities. So, in November 2018 with our own resources we decided to test it out with a new store, then with a roaster…From that combination, study and experimentation, in 2019 we were learning what worked, preparing the rules that would guide us. What most made us wake up? Understanding that, in contrast to what is repeated in traditional cooperatives, that members do not want to make contributions nor do they have money, we found that people want to contribute resources if they know where their resources are going and how they are put to work, if they receive earnings for their resources, and if they feel part of that process-that they can roll along with planet earth, like the character Mafalda, created by that great Argentinian cartoonist Quino (Joaquín Salvador Lavado, 1932).
Table 1. Basic data
Total amount (C$)
3 stores, 3 roasters, 1 wholesaler, coffee purchasers and sale of roasted coffee
In May 2020 we took another leap, we improved the rules, we added new shareholders, the amount in córdobas increased, more initiatives took off and were strengthened, we improved the organization of the initiatives, more investments were made…See Table 1.
If a community organizes, nothing can take it off the good path; if it organizes, it does a “musical score”, it does it in alliance with people from outside the community. So the eggshell seems to break as a new life, the baby chick, pushes out.
One way of organizing is that we might have several initiatives in a group that are functioning, profitable and benefit the community. For that purpose, people can buy as a minimum 1 share which is worth 1,000 córdobas. With these shares stores, roasters and bakeries emerge and provide ever more better services. People from other places can also buy shares, with this we increase our resources and are building another community. In this way the shareholders are the first people to go and make purchases in the stores and to seek roasting services, provide oversight over the initiatives, provide ideas…
Here we learned another lesson: if in order to organize Rural Social Enterprises (RSE), the shareholders are from the communities and from outside the communities, more than just contribute resources, both contribute ideas and legitimacy to the RSEs. Note: prior to 2020 we used to call them “initiatives”, we started to call them RSEs in 2020, in harmony with the Social and Solidarity Economy approach, but adding the word “rural” to it, to give it a distinctive touch.
3. Organization of the RSEs
Figure 1 shows this network of initiatives. Money, products and services move in them like ocean waves; they are visible, we see them. Under the waves there is another current that we do not see, but we feel, they are the shareholders, interest in caring for one another, friendships that cross over walls, affection, community roots and a different path so that anyone can improve.
Store 2 appears in the figure, because we already have Store 1 and Store 3 in another two communities. The bakery, roaster, buying and selling of coffee, wholesaler and other initiatives are around this Store 2, in addition to other initiatives (e.g. buying and selling basic grains). These initiatives are connected with one another, they are in the same place and in the same community- this is the key to our success. For example, if a person comes with their coffee to have it roasted, on their return they buy bread and other products in the store, the baker buys eggs in the community itself to make bread. In this way, nearly all of the community is part of the initiatives –“nearly”. The wholesaler is a reseller, because it buys products for the initiatives at wholesale prices, buys products in the communities themselves to sell them in town, transfers products from one store to another, buys products in one community for the other communities, and the profits benefit all of the shareholders.
How specifically are the RSEs organized?
Each person who runs a roaster, makes bread, administers a store, sells coffee or is responsible for a wholesaler, registers information about each economic transaction in an honest way.
The supervisor each month reviews that record of information in each initiative. Then visits a sampling of clients, studies the local market, and captures the needs of the population, as well as new opportunities.
The results of the supervision are sent to each shareholder on the 10th of every month; there is a mural in each initiative (roaster, bakery, store…) that has the prices of the services, the report of the supervision and data for the community. Honest information benefits all the communities.
Every 3 months there is an assembly of shareholders where, in addition to being informed about the finances of each initiative, they evaluate the quarter, review the goals for the next quarter, and the profits are redistributed. In the annual assemblies all the initiatives are studied, the investments for the year are planned, the most outstanding initiatives win awards for their order, registration of information, generation of profits and largest number of customers.
Each shareholder is committed to the success of each initiative, which is why they report to the community, oversee the initiatives, provide suggestions to improve it, and make their families have a better life.
The effects of these initiatives are seen in 4 distinctive elements of the RSEs: equitable distribution of earnings or surpluses, informational transparency, community democracy and gender and age equity (50% or more youth). In terms of the distribution (see Table 2): from net earnings, 10% is for equipment maintenance and assets that deteriorate; 20% goes to a social fund, a fund that we will save throughout 2020 and that in the annual assembly on May 8, 2021 we will define its use; 20% reinvestment is added to each share in favor of the shareholders, in other words their shares will increase with the reinvestments; and 50% will be provided as cash to each shareholder in accordance with the amount of their shares.
Table 2.Equitable distribution
From gross earnings
From net earnings
30% is to pay the person who runs the RSE
10% equipment maintenance of the RSEs (refrigerators, roasters, grinders)
20% social fund
20% reinvestment fund
50% individual distribution
Informational transparency is the fact that each shareholder, customer and community in general has access to information about the initiatives. The shareholders have the right to know about the finances of the RSEs. The customers have a right to know the price composition, proper weighing and the elements to be good customers, The community has the right to know the rules under which the initiatives are functioning, as well as their financial results.
Democracy is the fact that most of the shareholders are from the community itself. Each administration of each RSE provides honest information. Good supervision. Quarterly assemblies. Each shareholder watches over the progress of each RSE.
Gender equity is that fact that 50% of the shareholders are women, that that is expressed in the amount of their shares. Then, going beyond that formality, we want the RSEs to contribute to freeing up women´s work time, in such a way that they can take on new responsibilities in other RSEs or other activities in their own homes. In age equity, even though we want people of all ages to participate, including children and the elderly, in particular we want the youth to feel themselves to be the motor of these RSEs, as Yader Meneces said, “The older ones do not detach themselves from the old cooperatives that do not value them, they do not believe in us; but we the youth we are asserting ourselves, this store and roaster belongs to us the youth.”
We are building a new culture based on the good that each person has within them. To the question about who she is looking for, Violeta Parra responded, “Someone that I do not know, but has something very important to give me.” In the communities where the RSEs are developing, the RSEs are like the songwriter Violeta, and each person has “something very important”. Each RSE wants to receive it, and at the same time wants each person to find inside themselves that “something very important.” For this purpose The RSEs are emerging for this reason, and need to “be cooked on a low fire.”
This booklet, and the next ones, are texts that accompany what the RSEs are experiencing in San Juan del Río Coco, Waslala and Matagalpa. We call them RSEs, which includes community stores, community roasters, collective bakeries, cooperatives and associations.
René Mendoza Vidaurre, Fabiola Zeledón and Esmelda Suazo
Along the trails
-Cousin, you have traveled so much that I am sure that you earn and know a lot, help us to travel in that way as a cooperative.
-I have traveled along the highway, it is fast, and you only see money rolling on wheels.
-That´s right…. We want to make money.
-When I get out of the car and walk on foot or on horseback, I see people, groups together, I hear that song of the cicadas.
-What do you mean to say?
-If the cooperative takes to the trails, it will touch hearts, dig into our roots, make people think and walk together.
-In other words, feel, walk and begin to cooperate, instead of taking the highway.
-That´s right, Ana, it is the first step…along the trails!
The hurry to make money makes us run and keeps us from seeing what is at our sides. When we reach the goal, we are like the dog in the countryside, who at the first sound of some car, takes off barking at full speed, and then when it reaches the car, nothing happens, it returns in silence. Organizations, aid agencies and institutions are desperately providing their resources and trainings under the discourse of stamping out hunger or poverty, and when they achieve these investment goals, they return in silence. The impoverished population are like the car that the dog reaches, increases its speed of adding more people. With COVID-19 that velocity is increasing dramatically. How can one get out of extreme poverty? The parable tells us that in order to begin to cooperate, let us take to the trails and delve into our origins. What does this mean? It is the time for communities!
1. The reality is in full view
The march of COVID-19 lifts the covers, and realities appear that are difficult for us to recognize. The rural population migrates to the forests or outside the country under the pressure of mono-cropping agriculture or ranching, pushed in turn by the financial and commercial industries. This is not new, with or without cover, we have known it for decades and centuries.
With COVID-19 we were hoping that the internal assets of communities, which have been supported by hundreds of international aid projects, might be guiding preventive actions. That the churches, with so many centuries of preaching the Good Samaritan, might mobilize. That first- tier cooperatives, members of second tier organizations, might move in the face of the virus. Strangely they are still. “We are waiting for directions from above”, “without projects, there is no organization”, “donors are not sending aid to those who organized in cooperatives”, “everything is in the town (municipal capital), the meetings, the harvest collection”. What is left of the “anchor”, “articulations”, “networks”, “public-private alliances” and “empowerment”? The gaze of elderly women seem to tell us: “nothing”. Maybe that is what is new, in the sense that we are surprised.
It would seem that the projects, sermons, credit and commercial policies instead eroded communities. They pushed ideas about being individual, taking on mono-cropping agriculture and relying on aid; some argue that by supporting an individual they are supporting rural families, but a family as an institution is hierarchical and patriarchal, in addition to the fact that the notion of “nuclear family” is nearly non-existent in the rural world, where it is common to see a son or daughter grow up with their grandparents, aunt or uncle, and/or mother. With COVID-19 that erosion is intensified, the quarantine and confinement accentuate the neoliberal idea of “save yourselves those who have”. Because a daily wage earner in farming or construction and most of the population who work in the so-called “informal economy” cannot stay home for more than a week, they begin to go into debt, buy on credit, make storefronts go broke, and affect their daily food intake, and this in the long term will mean loss of human life.
2. Knowing how to get to communities
The idea of harmonic communities of Robert Redfield (1931, A Mexican Village: Tepoztlan), has been left far behind. Since the studies of Oscar Lewis (1951, Life in a Mexican Village: Tepoztlan Restudied) we understand communities as heterogeneous spaces with diversity, and even opposing interests. They are communities with which people identify, it is their utopia and mission – as Thomas More would say (1516, Utopia: The Happy Republic): They are not a “sack of potatoes”, as Marx suggested, nor “pockets of peasants” as certain agrarian literature categorized them for years from 1980 to 1990. They are disputed spaces where external policies and resources should know how to get there, facilitating the first lesson of humanity: cooperation. People who organize can bring their produce together and get better prices, free themselves from usury at the point of group savings, protect water sources in the high areas, and along the length of the creek, and coordinate to prevent natural and social viruses. Individually, they cannot change prices, free themselves from usury, protect water nor prevent viruses.
Let us illustrate how these community assets move from the few interesting experiences that exist in Central America. Rodrigo Pérez, a delegate of the Word from the community of San Antonio, said, “this community store saves me a day, and the bus fare of going to the town to buy what I now buy here.” If the crowding in town favors COVID-19, people like Rodrigo find what they are looking for in the community store. “It is the first cooperative that came to coordinate work with us,” they said in the school in Samarkanda, appreciating the support of the Reynerio Tijerino cooperative so that students and teachers might protect themselves from the virus. “Only our cooperative collects the harvest in the community, and right here does the payments and assemblies,” said Selenia Cornejo. “Buyers and financiers come to visit us in the community,” said Daniel Meneses, from the October 13th Cooperative. We find similar words about community coffee roasters, bread makers, groups of beekeepers…”The coffee that we produce and roast, we sell ourselves along with our relatives outside, isn´t that a network?” Each organization has a mural with information to prevent COVID-19, while at the same time together are weaving a support network for people who end up affected by the virus.
What is common for all of them? They are in the community itself. Their focus is on their origins. They function with their own resources and rules polished in their assemblies. They improve their oral tradition with writing. They represent a diversity of ages, where youth under the age of 40 are leading them. They distribute their profits. They organize and are transparent with their information. They compete for and rotate their leadership. They organize their solidarity. They fight against their old “demons”, the rules of elites that have nested in their minds: “in group, but for me”, opportunistic actions when internal and external control is weak, prejudice against women legitimized by the churches, prejudices against workers without land (“the cooperative is for those who have land”), and providentialism (“God has a plan to protect us”, “the big chief has a plan to take care of his people”). This type of grassroots organization no longer waits for direction from outside, they visit one another, discuss and, in the midst of their internal tensions and mutual distrust, resort to their social fund, while they look for external contacts that can reinforce their collective actions.
How are these community assets formed? Following a universal lesson: studying realities to innovate as a group and train ourselves. Combining efforts of people from the communities and from outside to organize social enterprises in the communities. Recording data, analyzing it and making decisions. Delving into histories to find values and rules with which to cooperate and recreate identities, because “the origins are in front of us, not behind”, as the Mapuche taught us, the indigenous people in Chile and Argentina. Bringing to light their old “demons” and ours as well as accompaniers (“providing information confuses people”, “donating food is the solution to hunger”, “we know your future because that future was our past”). Walking along the trails discerning what the processes themselves show us about how to accompany them.
3. New veins that the effect of COVID-19 forces us to think about
COVID-19 raises the covers, and what appears are not just those realities that it is difficult for us to recognize, but also new veins to be worked on related to the social fund, the connection between organizations, the coherency between words and actions, and the decentralization of decisions.
Grassroots organizations, like those that we have described previously, have the practice of equitable distribution of what they have saved in a social fund. In the current context of COVID-19, that social fund gains importance, like the use of offerings and tithings on the part of churches. If the State provides curative health care, preventive health is an area where grassroots organizations and churches can invest resources and energies. This includes how to improve nutrition, prevent obesity and diabetes, invest in natural medicine and clean water, improve hand washing and introduce the use of masks in crowded spaces. How can this social fund be organized into areas of prevention?
If a person discovers the importance of combining efforts of several people, in the same way also organizations (collective groups) discover that coordinating among organizations to face COVID-19 is fundamental. Making connections among churches, schools, rural community Banks, community councils, businesses and the municipal government expresses the spirit of superimposed communities that exist in every territory. It is like the baby chick that breaks the eggshell, moves out of its comfort zone and connects with other organizations, it is something that we are not accustomed to do, but we need to do. For example, connecting with the church is not to sit down to discuss one or another form of religious faith, it is to rethink together the solidarity of the Good Samaritan, who did not rely on God sending his angels to save the wounded man, but simply acted, while other were in a hurry (“passed by on the other side”). Being connected is having the freedom to express these community cultures of each organization of which one is a member or participant. On their part, each organization should understand itself as a community, where their members or their staff identify with that organization, not so much for “what one gets”, but for “what one gives” the organization, where titles are opportunities to serve. How can churches, farms, community stores, schools, cooperatives and health centers be connected?
Governments, aid organizations, international enterprises should be coherent. Importing the best coffee, and leaving the worst for the producer families, feels bitter. Demanding meat that deforests, and at the same time being ecological, is disgusting. Supporting small scale production with credit for agrochemicals like glyphosate, that is damaging to natural and human health and increases rural unemployment, is repugnant. Donating certified seed to get rid of native seed and making them dependent on companies that sell that certified seed is shameful. Extracting minerals through strip mining and defending nature, seems like that Nazi who during the day sent children to the gas chambers and at night played with his children at home. How can coherency be obtained and also benefit rural communities? How can each organization and institution conceive itself and organize itself as a community?
Decentralizing decisions seem urgent, it is like letting the baby take its first step, this is in all spheres. That each delegate of the word celebrate the Eucharist (sharing bread and wine) in the rural communities would be a real institutional change in the Catholic church. If a grassroots organization understands their community better than an organization with an office in a city, why do aid organizations and international enterprises persist in believing that organization means having an office and manager in the city? Do grassroots organizations need accompaniment? They need it, like aid organizations need grassroots organizations to accompany them. If people organize in a cooperative or a community store to administer their loans, technology and commercialization, why doesn´t a second-tier organization support them in these purposes, instead of abducting those services and decisions? How much we need to reflect on that old and still good principle that “the stronger the children are, the stronger their parents will be”.
The effects of COVID-19 tend to produce more extremely impoverished people, like the title of the novel of Victor Hugo published in 1862 (Les misérables). Along with extreme human impoverishment, the extreme impoverishment of nature, compiled in Laudato Si: “the cry of the poor and the land.”
Between 2000 and 2014, according to ECLAC, 33 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean reduced people in a situation of hunger (extreme poverty) from 73 to 38 million. Julio Berdegué of the FAO stated that between 2015-2018, without the virus, those 38 million increased to 43 million people. ECLAC projects that if economic growth in 2020 falls by 6% we will have 73 million people hungry, the same amount that there were in 2000. And with hunger, probably, will come social and political rebellion. Playing with hunger is playing with fire.
The solution to hunger that aid organizations have practiced and continue suggesting is that States provide food, and that they rely on social and economic organizations; in fine print this means that governments, with the taxes paid by the entire society, buy from large corporations GMO food, coopting grassroots organizations and providing that food to hungry populations. This movie we have seen before, including the magic they tend to perform with the indicators of extreme poverty, its resulting erosion of community assets, and what is called family agriculture, the nullification of native seed, the fact that rural populations become docile masses dependent on aid and electoral patronage, and that aid organizations resist conceiving themselves and organizing themselves as communities, and of something bigger that would cover all of us.
In this article we showed that community efforts can be effective in the face of COVID-19 and the virus of hunger, and that these aid agencies, organizations and institutions of the world that talk about “providing food” as the panacea to evils, might rethink their modus operandi and that culture of believing that they already know the solution without previously knowing the people “in extreme poverty”. We should recognize that if communities organize and have accompaniers who also feel and function as communities, they can – and we can – face this and other viruses, eradicate hunger, producing and distributing food, mitigating climate change and contributing to social cohesion, which prevents violence and instead puts our societies on the path to their democratization.
It is the time for rural communities. It is time for organizations, aid agencies and institutions to feel and act as communities. It is time to feel and think that we are part of something much greater than ourselves.
 René accompanies rural organizations in Central America, is an associate researcher of IOB-Antwerp University, member of Coserpross (http://coserpross.org/es/home/) and a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/). Fabiola and Esmelda are advisors to rural organizations in Nicaragua.
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.
-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.
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.
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
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)
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; 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)
Financing (30% costs)
* 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, 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. 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.
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?
 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.
 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.
 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.