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.
-Who isn´t afraid? Fear is the biggest enemy of reason. Think, Pipita, your love for others is stronger than anything…Besides, the rain is coming now!
The entire world is experiencing difficult days. People feel fear, impotence, the desire to cry. The only thing certain is uncertainty. Every person would like to support themselves with something, protect themselves under the shade of a tree. But there are almost no natural, supernatural nor social “trees” anymore. It is when that Nicaraguan phrase becomes even truer, “if you have your health, the rest doesn´t matter.” And health is like the rain, it does not fall from the sky with some prayers, it is something that is provided and strengthened with human actions. And who provides it? And how is it provided? Maybe “the love” that one feels for others provides it, maybe the love with which we were made in a passionate morning helps provide it. Maybe it is time to look farther ahead, because “the rain is coming now.”
In this article we reflect on this rural world, that thin strand between hygiene and the economy, between home, church, health center, and between individual and collective actions. To do this we list the facts or risks, we start to explain this “strand”, we look at how scientific recommendations help these different cultures revive – like plants which dry up become green again when the clouds release the first drops of water, and we point out the role of accompanying organizations. The importance of grassroots organizations in protecting their communities runs throughout the article, while the notion of community matures with the turning of each page.
1. Conditions that work for and against COVID-19
The situation with COVID-19 seems to be getting worse. The gap between the official information in any country and what is in the social networks is large, with which anxiety buzzes like a mosquito at night. In rural communities this concern is connected to the continuity of classes in school, religious celebrations in churches, and festive crowds, with or without quarantine. People think that through that “door” of the school, church or public transportation, the virus can get into their homes and pass through the community. What are the rural conditions that work for or against COVID-19?
Rural families have some advantages and some disadvantages in the face of the virus. The advantages are: the physical distance between people to avoid COVID-19 is facilitated by the low population density, and because a good number of families live on their own farms; the average age of the population is relatively young, which limits the effect of COVID-19, even though this advantage is evaporating because of poverty; living in areas with little air pollution; communities that have grassroots organizations with members and offices in the community itself, through which they access some information and some collective actions. The disadvantages are: if people are infected, it will be difficult for them to go to the health centers with the first symptoms and it will be difficult for them to stay at home, or prevent visits when rumors buzz along the footpaths of neighboring houses, all of which have the potential to infect more people; the quality of the health centers, in any country in Latin America, is less in the rural municipal capitals and is inexistent in rural communities.
Gatherings of people in schools and churches is the greatest risk; let us remember that in a church in Washington one member infected from between 52 to 60 members of the choir, 65 were infected in a Zumba class in South Korea, 80 people in a concert. Rural gatherings tend to happen in groups separated by the lack of connection between organizations. Cooperatives, schools, churches and party or governmental organizations (e.g. councils, mayor representatives) move in a “walled off” manner; each person in their own world, and under their own leadership. Churches move in their religious world and with their own leadership structure. Schools with their educational programs and with their own institutional leadership. Cooperatives focus on the economy with their own leadership structure. And so on. This separation means that the gatherings move separately, isolated, which is why people tend to behave in an opportunistic way: “let others spend on hygiene to prevent COVID-19”, “I don´t care, I don´t have children in school”, “I am going to church because God is protecting me, what better doctor than God?”
This separation is worse with external institutions. Markets are reduced to offering hygiene products, raising their prices because of increasing demand, and move by means of intermediation; States limit themselves to making an effort in health centers; aid organizations provide resources within the circles in which they move; and second tier organizations and NGOs expect to mediate resources. None of them tend to cross over “to the other side of the river”, in the sense of understanding how rural societies move, lack experience working at the community level with grassroots organizations. This limits our ability to understand rural population from their own perspectives, and limits the communities from understanding external organizations. We live in a world of one-eyed people that is attractive for any virus.
This separation or “fortress-effect” feeds the prevalence of beliefs. It is a universal truth that when there is less information and less articulate comprehension about certain habits, beliefs prevail. What beliefs? In peasant families: “If I believe in God, nothing is going to happen to me”, “lightening is not what kills you, it is just your time has come”; “long suffering people will resist any virus”; “I am not washing my hands because my hands are hot because of work”, “chloroquine and azithromycin get rid of the virus” (self-prescribing without evidence that it cures and without investigating its damaging effect on the heart; and according to the WHO seem to increase the risks and consequences of the disease). Beliefs in external institutions: “information confuses people”; “money makes the monkey dance”; “if the economy improves, all improves”; “give them alcohol and with that COVID-19 will not affect them”; “boil eucalyptus and cypress leaves”; “read the bible where it announces the end of the world”, “everyman for himself”. Doña Coronavirus laughs and is attracted by these beliefs!
We resist learning. We read about the 15 countries of the Asia-Pacific region, China, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the 10 member countries of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations), Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, as the region that has best dealt with COVID-19, a region that has 2 billion people of the 7.7 billion that exist in the world. How did they do it? With good public health: they closely observe the symptoms people have, if there are symptoms, they test them, if they are positive, they isolate them in their homes or in hospitals, and they do contact tracing. In other words, the more they diagnose, they more they know what to do, and thus save more lives. In contrast, national and international organizations tend not to do diagnoses to formulate and implement policies, except to appear to formally comply; our mentality of providentialism and resignation resists learning from rural populations, we do not seek to understand them, we believe that we already know them, that “the market knows more”. We are societies that seem to live like in the middle ages under the church with the inquisition, in those times “there was no reason to think, it was enough to believe”, when thinking was a sin and punished by death.
2. Hygiene in rural societies
What is it that we need to understand? We begin with some history, to then paint something about the rural reality and show the vein that we have to continue exploring.
There are several studies on diseases and the architecture of cities and homes, not much on rural spaces. Public health has contributed to the fact that the population lives longer, architecture has also done that. So closets were imposed instead of armoires, because they were anti-hygienic because they accumulated dust. In the last 150 years we know of great changes in the cities of London, Barcelona or Paris; in 1866 they cleaned up most of the river Thames in London, and that clean up saved most of the people of the city from the threat of cholera; in 1844 they redesigned the city of Barcelona, knocking down walls that contributed to the overcrowding, which made lack of hygiene worse and supported epidemics; also Paris was redesigned for health purposes. Other smaller changes also had large impacts: clean water and management of sewage to prevent malaria or yellow fever; in the face of the bubonic plague, that killed 12 million people between 1855 and 1959, they rebuilt homes with more concrete and metal to keep out the rats who carried that pestilence. In other words, the design of homes and cities for health purposes lengthened the lives of people.
Now with COVID-19 architecture is challenged to redesign homes. Even though architecture has not been able to respond to respiratory illnesses, COVID-19 can cause the redesign of the home, where the idea of what is private is reconceptualized, giving way to the home as a space for school, work, reflection and gymnasium.
Unfortunately, there are no studies about that same relationship between architecture and health for rural areas, at least none that I am aware of. In rural areas, hygiene has been in deficit for centuries, a situation that has been made even worse by the discrimination toward the rural world. This situation of hygiene is due in part to the fact that rural families every day are grappling with land, farming, agro-chemicals, small livestock, slaughtering or the fire in the kitchen, and they do it without having protective measures like gloves, boots or masks, partly because they are living with limited water or means of catching water, on large haciendas the patrons customarily do not provide protective equipment to their workers, and partly because they do not have access to information while beliefs lead them to not protect themselves.
This daily work of women with fire, or men with the land leads them to bathe less frequently. This is not necessarily, however, a lack of hygiene; in fact, many people during the winter in Europe and the Andean altiplano do not bathe very frequently. The difference is that peasant families think that after work a person should not touch water, it is an understanding about the combination of temperatures; so it is that after making tortillas they do not wash their hands, after weeding they do not bathe “because the body is hot”. Also the lack of water and minimal infrastructure has conditioned them to carry out certain practices; women gather dirty clothes to go to the river to wash them, they spend little water to wash dishes. Likewise, little access to information has an impact on daily life, for example, dishes are not washed with Clorox that could contain the salmonella bacteria, which tends to be found in food contaminated with animal feces. We mention these points to illustrate how difficult it could be the fact that, now with COVID-19, they have to wash their hands frequently and with soap, when customs and their natural (water) and economic conditions weigh in.
Most rural homes, particularly those of low-income people, have dirt floors and are closed structures with little ventilation. For example, it is known that Chagas disease, that “forgotten illness” because the pharmaceutical industries do not see it as profitable, mostly happens in homes with grass roofs and cracks in the clay walls where the insects that cause this disease tend to live. Peasant homes are a prolongation of the farm, or the reverse, for example corn is stored inside the home or above the hearth, while the cats deal with stalking the rats who are after the corn…
These rural practices became customs, and those customs, laws, which tend not to be seen by the eyes of State institutions, markets and international aid agencies. External actors, instead, tend to see agriculture or ecology as separate from hygiene in the home and family, and the economy as separate from health, education and religion. External actors, when they touch on the issue of hygiene, do so viewing the rural reality from the urban experience, and so any weed seems dirty to them, any home for them should be in towns or villages, any farm should be mono-cropped, and any insect should be fought with agro-chemicals. From the urban perspective it is hard to understand that a home on a farm probably is healthier than a city with an over-populated cattle industry, or chicken or turkey industry, which are true virus factories.
We need to scrutinize the relationship between hygiene and agriculture, home and farm and school and church to understand the culture of hygiene in rural populations, to then look at improvements and changes to be made. Without understanding, one cannot see, Rodrigo López told us, a peasant from Waslala. How true that is! Otherwise, how can we imagine that just using chlorox and alcohol is going to prevent COVID-19? Without understanding, how they can reflect on and change their habits coming from their own cultures and farming systems, any chlorox or alcohol that they are given runs the risk of ending up in the municipal markets, as has happened with the donation of tin roofing sheets, pure bred hogs, coffee roasters or grain silos. The community, that heterogeneous amalgam of disputed realities, is like a book, inside of which dance letters, pages and imagination, opened up only by the reading of those who love it, a reading which is like a person who shells a corncob sensing a hot tortilla with “”cuajada.
Our challenge is to rethink community spaces from a perspective in which health and economics are embedded in each other. Homes on farms with materials that protect them from rats and the insects that carry Chagas disease, and at the same time are ventilated spaces, and agro-forestry farms, in communities with spaces for food, reflection, social interaction, entertainment, open field school and collective actions. Communities with fresh air, revived, which end up being the “tree” to protect oneself from the virus. This is the vein to dig into.
3. It is the moment for organized rural societies
While we study, let us not lose the pulse on COVID-19. What should we do? If classes and/or religious celebrations continue, and if markets and States do not show they are effective, grassroots organizations (cooperatives, associations, parent-teacher committees, water committees…), located in the communities, must act to protect their communities. The effectiveness of these organized rural societies can be better if supported by organized global societies (international aid organizations).
How? These grassroots organizations must turn themselves into entities that inform, connect with schools and churches to accompany them to understand the problem and their prevention practices in the face of COVID-19, and look up while they deepen their roots.
3.1 Informing yourself and analyzing the information
Dry cough + sneezing + body aches + weakness + high fever + difficulty breathing = coronavirus
Source: Pathology Department, UCH London
In the first box are the elements to tell whether a person has coronavirus, flu, a cold or just air pollution. The scientific community reveals that a person with COVID-19 can show mild symptoms, and days later have other more serious symptoms. In other words, a person could have a cough and sneezing, and not have a high fever, which does not mean that they do not have COVID-19, in the days following the other symptoms may appear. Box 1 is a simple aid to differentiate, it does not assure you that you do not have COVID-19 with the first symptoms, but at the same time helps you to not get alarmed with the first symptoms, helps you to stay calm and discern; this is a big help in rural areas where it is difficult to go to a hospital.
COVID-19 is not just a new virus, but the scientific community still does not know much about it. Current evidence reveals that a little more than 40% of people with the virus were infected by people who did not have symptoms of COVID-19. This obviously makes prevention difficult, at the same time, knowing this helps us to get a grip on the problem and respond in the best way possible.
Box 2. Recommendations
1. Do not touch your face–because the virus enters through the mouth, nose and eyes
2. Wash your hands with soap – the virus is dissolved with 20 seconds of hand washing.
3. Maintain physical distancing (1.5 mts) from another person; avoid groups of people
4. If you do not feel well, stay home. The family can help you determine whether it is coronavirus (see box 1)
5. Avoid meetings in closed spaces without ventilation
6. Above all, think, think, and think–it is the most vital thing that we should practice.
Box 2 has information also based on studies. Grassroots organizations can disseminate it in their communities, but first they should read and analyze it: why shouldn´t you touch your face? Why should you wash your hands with soap? Why maintain a distance of 1.5 meters with other people? Why should you stay home when you have a cough, mucus and sneezing? The more we think about it, the more we understand it, the more we are going to put it into practice and tell other people. Talking through information allows us to think about reorganizing activities, for example, the measure of maintaining a physical distance of 1.5 meters can help so that in a religious celebration, a meeting in the cooperative, or a class in the school people take their seats maintaining that distancing, so that the meetings be for shorter periods of time or with frequent recesses, or so that the meetings might be better prepared in advance so that, like chickens, you go straight to the “grain.” Information that is thought through can save lives.
Grassroots organizations also should reflect on other contributions from scientists. Let us look at 3 contributions. The first, studies show that children under the age of 12 do not get infected much, compared to adults; in the cases when they are infected, they almost never get seriously sick, nor are they great transmitters of the virus, like they were in the case of the flu, because the amount of receptors that COVID-19 needs are less in children under the age of 12, and consequently the viral charge (in other words, the amount of the virus that they can gather) is much smaller. Statistics confirm this statement, minors under 12 are less than 0.2% of COVID-19 deaths.
Second, statistics how that men become more infected by COVID-19 than women, and they tend to suffer more from the virus than women who are affected. This is due to the fact that “the blood of men has higher concentrations of the converter enzyme of angiotensin II (ACE2) than the blood of women (…). This receptor is found on the surface of healthy cells, and helps coronavirus infect them” (see: https://www.iprofesional.com/actualidad/315900-coronavirus-por-que-hombres-se-contagian-mas-que-mujeres ). Active genes linked to the X chromosome provide women (XX) greater protection against coronavirus than men”. In addition, be it for the type work in which rural women are more involved, in general they have more hygienic habits than men, for example, they wash their hands more frequently, be it because they are washing dishes, clothing or for personal care. This indicate the importance of hand washing.
Third, studies also tell us that the use of masks is preventive, but they also warn us of the risk of reusing them, because they can become a means of infection, because the virus can remain for hours and even days in the masks. The masks are more for infected people, with or without symptoms, so they do not infect other people. Why the masks? Because they reduce the particles that come out of the mouth when a person breathes or talks. When should masks be used? They can use them in school during classes in closed classrooms with little ventilation, in relatively closed churches during celebrations, when it is not possible to maintain physical distancing, when the interaction lasts a certain length of time, in places with human crowding (banks, markets…). They should also be used when you travel to town, on returning home you should wash it, in this way the mask will be ready for a new outing or meeting. Countries that have overcome COVID-19 have used the masks as part of their strategies, which is why rural communities probably will have to introduce the use of masks as part of their culture of care, particularly for the moments we just pointed out.
3.2 Linking to and contacting schools and churches
It seems easy to connect to and assume that any organization or institution will be happy to be contacted. Nevertheless, churches, schools and party structures are not accustomed to coordinate with community organizations, except to “orient them” about what to do, and treat them as their dependents. Their worlds and leadership which we mentioned previously really carry weight, they are true walls to community coordination. How is a grassroots cooperative going to react if the pastor of a church tells them, “God is our doctor, we trust in God?” What is it going to say and do if the principal of a school tells them, “we can only receive support if it comes through the ministry of education”? What are they doing to do if a committee of a political party, the councils or mayor deputies say that “directions and projects only come from above?”. What can you say to the parent of a family who only believes in the patron of their hacienda? How difficult it is to be community and work for the community! There, where things get complicated, money will not even make monkeys dance.
In the midst of these worlds we have learned the following steps. First, discussing the information in figures 1 and 2 really empowers people, it is in-forming, and informing is forming. Information can be an antidote to despotic religious, political and economic leaders. Second, the cooperative or association should start from what it is and has; what do they have and who are they? Each member has, at least, a family member who is a student, believer of some religion and/or is member of a political party; they should talk with them, discuss the COVID-19 situation, and the information provided here. Third, members of the organs of the cooperatives, having now conversed at the grassroots level, visit the parent/teachers committee of the school, people with positions in the churches, (e.g. deacons, delegates of the word) and party members or government authorities, reflect with them and discuss the information. Finally, the board members of cooperatives communicate with the parent/teacher committee of the school and with deacons and delegates of the word. In other words, connect with the grassroots of different organizations and institutions, their intermediate leaders, to then connect with the leadership of the organizations and institutions. In these steps, it is not a matter of convincing anyone, but of listening, bringing together elements that help to understand, and once each person understands, they will be able to see and then act – it is like preparing the soil and planting a seed, then you have to let the seed germinate and struggle to grow.
Table. Cost of kit for 90 people (1 month; in US dollars)
Chlorox (cleaning equipment) (liters)
Hand towel (units)
Bar of soap (units)
Re-usable masks (units)
With these steps, each organization can supply itself with a kit of hygiene products to prevent COVID-19 (see table). Cooperatives have a social fund that they can use to acquire the kit, unless they have used it for other social agendas that they tend to have. Schools can, through the parent/teachers committees, gather resources to acquire the kit. If the cooperatives, with or without international support, can gather resources to support the schools and churches, it could make a difference, strengthening the bonds in the community, and the entire community would benefit. The more bonds there are, the more autonomous the community will be.
3.3 Looking forward
The sixth recommendation in Figure 2 is the most important reason for a grassroots organization rooted in the community to exist: think, think and think. Thinking is the most important element to resisting COVID-19. Thinking is looking forward and seeing beyond our noses. A cooperative is not a church nor a political party, its members are there voluntarily, they are not subordinated to anyone, they discuss and reach agreements in their assemblies, which is why they must examine their beliefs and fight with and against them. Individually they can believe or not in God, but they should not expect God to send them angels or saints to wash their hands for them, or put their masks on, just as they would not expect that he plant beans for them or remove botflies from their cattle; they can believe in their political leaders, but it is shameful to subordinate themselves to anyone. As cooperative members they have free will, their source of power is the assembly composed of the members themselves, and their reason for being is thinking, thinking and thinking in favor of their communities.
Part of this thinking is reflecting about COVID-19: How to protect their own community? If the State does not show up in a community, the cooperative must also take on that role. If the health system capacity is overcome, grassroots organizations should discuss how to help prevent the outbreak in their communities, and how to help people who might be affected by the virus. If in any country COVID-19 is being controlled, in all countries there are waves of outbreaks of the disease, so the cooperative should keep looking for those possible outbreaks. In Central America the urban waves of COVID-19 are still ongoing, which is why the rural waves that come later, can be lethal, not just for the reasons mentioned in this article, but because we are in the midst of the rainy season, which will make it more difficult for infected people to get to a health center or any support. If a community receives external support, the cooperative must be careful that that support not be counterproductive, because there can be support that displaces grassroots organizations, and when that donation ends the community´s own autonomy and their own efforts can be left eroded.
Cooperatives need to organize how a network of women can sew masks, how to make soap with lard, how to recover old ways of making alcohol in order to use on hands, how to recover natural medicine… Cooperatives need to think about connecting hygiene, economics, social and environmental elements, thinking about the food in the community beyond COVID-19, thinking about environmental sustainability with pure air and water, thinking, thinking, thinking.
4. Role of international organizations in living communities
Even though for multiple reasons most of the international aid organizations have withdrawn from Central America, there are still international organization that are supporting the region. There also is the fair-trade network, as well as local-global networks among national and international organizations, unions, churches, social banks and universities in the world. When there is the will, there is the way, as the saying goes. If each person feels a mission of service, we can deepen those relationships of collaboration and reactivate “dead” relationships, because “where there are ashes, there was fire.” Each person and organization can play an important role if in this COVID-19 context they realize the importance of working on the community level that is organizing: what good does it do to provide individualized credit or training, as neoliberalism does, promoting mono-cropping, environmental degradation and the erosion of communities? The current situation wakes us up: people who organize and follow rules agreed upon in their assemblies, instead of gurus or chiefs who see themselves as the law, are those who really energize their communities, sustainable farming systems and contribute to social and environmental equity. Communities save communities.
Within this framework, what role do aid organizations have? Traditional donations, involving donating and awaiting reports invented by organizations “confined” to the cities, can be counterproductive, particularly if they displace the efforts of the communities themselves, which in the long term would undermine communities. Aid organizations need to connect with counterparts who really are working with grassroots organizations that meet the following criteria: they are democratic, redistribute their surplus, are transparent with their information and are rooted in their communities or specific micro-territories. This type of organization will persist in the communities, while other external organizations, or those with disperse membership, will continue treating the communities like their lovers, showing up from time to time and leaving. Forming alliances with grassroots organizations so that a donation might provide an initial push, for example, with what is indicated in the table, supporting wash basins in schools with access to water, or working on agro-forestry systems that would protect water sources, where grassroots organizations might accompany their communities, and that their national partners might accompany them in the communities themselves, being careful, but overcoming fear, is the network which need to be built now and always. The dilemma is not whether to leave your urban home or a rural farm; it is how we strengthen internal community assets, how we can take advantage of this “momentum” that exists in global awareness as an effect of COVID-19 to see the importance of communities. In this way, external financing to build a community response would decisively help the community deal with the virus and its new outbreaks, and help in the long term to democratize the community itself.
5. By way of conclusion
In this article we showed the risks of COVID-19, we have begun a reflection on the relationship between hygiene, the economy and social factors, we described the strength of communities if they build lasting connections, we have emphasized the role of grassroots organizations to reflect on their values and principles in light of what is happening in their communities, and generate ways to cooperate in the prevention of COVID-19, and to innovate in ways of accompanying their communities in the midst of the uncertainty. We showed that, through these short term measures, and starting from an analysis of the processes which we are experiencing, it is possible to look forward to the medium and long term: to improve, correct, and generate habits of hygiene connecting home, farm and nature, and home, school, health center and community building.
The impact of what we are proposing, nevertheless, will be seen above all on more structural issues. For example, an exponential increase is coming of people in extreme poverty, the goal of eliminating extreme global poverty for 2030 is going to be only left on paper. The crisis for rich families of the world is how to have less desert options in their dinner, while for our communities the crisis means that they might miss a meal or face empty plates, becoming vulnerable again to any disease. This article and the previous one on basic grains aim at preventing those impacts.
The current situation also provides us with opportunities, because “behind every adversity there is an opportunity”. What opportunity? Mitigation of climate change which, in the case of rural communities, means water, land with life, biodiversity; it is the moment to rethink farming systems and intensify more sustainable forms and farming systems that stop the loss of nutrients in food because of the decreasing quality of the soil. It is the time for communities, never before has the importance been so clear of investing in communities who organize and embrace a culture of care; now is the hour for life, amen.
To look at these structural issues we must understand that it is not the economy that solves health care, it is not a matter of knowing whether the chicken or the egg is first, now the economy is public health and community health; and health, the economy, social and environmental reality are like a mountain slope, if you are on the higher part it looks different than seeing it from below, if you are on the very top, it looks different from one side than from the other, but it is the same slope, the same mountain slope.
“Think, Pipita, your love for others is stronger than anything else…Besides, the rain is coming!”
 It is likely that air pollution facilitates the virus and makes its impact worse, which in part would explain why countries in Europe have had high mortality, measured by the indicator of “over-deaths” or “over-mortality” (number of deaths above the average deaths from previous years) as an effect of COVID-19.
 Many people even with clear signs of having been infected, decide not to go to the health centers or hospitals. Why? “They say the hospitals have no room”, “I don´t want to die intubated”, “I want my family to wake me” and “we want to now where he is going to be buried to be able to go to pray for him”. The express burials frighten the population.
 L. Engelmann, J. Henderson and Ch. Lynteris (eds), 2018, Plague and the City. Londron: Routledge. They study the relationship between plagues and measures to fight plagues and cities from the middle ages up to the modern era; they also include cities like Buenos Aires.
 Inspired in these realities and by actions of Dr. Mazza and his team, in 1995 they filmed the movie Casas de Fuego. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6yWNBytu3U The movie illustrates the relationship between disease-insects, homes (shacks) and social inequality, the wealthy class is against homes being rebuilt, because “they are not concerned” about the millions of poor people.
The movie Casas de Fuego (footnote No. 5) illustrates the duality science/faith and committed science/academic science. The priest is opposed to science benefitting the most impoverished and affected communities; for him “faith and science are fighting over the same people”; a Manichean dilemma that smacks of the middle ages and that did a lot of damage to humanity. Also in this movie, that captures a good part of that experience, the University blocks the mission of Dr. Mazza and his team; fortunately Dr. Mazza and his team persist, their commitment is worth more than restrictive science, a commitment that nevertheless, they paid for with their lives, caused by the Chagas disease itself.
 If there are other organizations in the community, like alcoholics anonymous, water or road committees, the same is done as with the schools and churches.
 Note that traditional organizations tend to do just the opposite: the meet first and only with the leadership of the organizations, and then send technicians to “train” (in other words, convince).
 If some national or international organization wants to provide support under this spirit, they can contact the Coserpross cooperative (http://coserpross.org/es/home/) in Nicaragua, the Comal Network in Honduras (http://www.redcomal.org.hn/). Coserpross and the Comal Network accompany dozens of grassroots organizations in the region, synthesize verified information to provide to the grassroots organizations, and move about in those same territories. There are also organizations like Aldea Global and ADDAC that we mentioned in footnote 5; their uniqueness is that their network is present in dozens of communities.
 What would happen if a bee stayed in its hive? It could live as long as the food that it stored lasted, the honey that it produced, and then? We must understand that we, flowers, bees and humans, are all one network. The bee leaves its hive and goes from flower to flower, pollinizes, does it at the risk of losing themselves and of losing their lives. So is the network. So are we accompaniers, taking on the corresponding measures (use of mask and frequent hand washing), we should not “pass by on the other side” like the priest and Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, we should be inspired by people like Chagas and Mazza did and their teams in Brazil and Argentine that the movie Casas de Fuego portrays.
Day after day, I have hesitated to write here because the onslaught of news has kept me off-balance. There have been few times in my life when the matters of politics, social upheaval, public health and dysfunctional economics have all come together with such overwhelming force. Every one of the issues is daunting. Facing them all together is nearly beyond our imaginations. But here we are, and the national nightmare will not be gone when we awaken tomorrow.
We are living within a perfect storm of challenges. It’s as if the crises before us conspired to come together at the same moment to test our individual and national resolve. In the past we have demonstrated strength and resilience and prided ourselves in the effort. But what about our capacities to triumph over all of this? Surely it seems that we are being tested. It’s a little bit like recovering from a physical injury: we nurse ourselves and rest and rehabilitate, and then we’re whole again. But facing an injury, an illness, an emotional strain and loss of eyesight is an entirely different proposition; recovery is not so simple, nor so assured. That’s when looking at our circumstances requires a more holistic diagnosis, because often the presence of one infirmity causes others.
Over the past year, I have faced a multitude of physical challenges, a sequence of oddities that have offended (and physically hurt) my beloved sense of fitness and well-being. First it was my hip. Then my lower back and joints. This rheumatological malaise was followed by a spinal matter. The adjustments I had to make for that gave rise to tendonitis in the left ankle. And, of course, favoring the left ankle caused bruising of my right heel. Add in a first-ever bout with kidney stones and the picture becomes rather self-explanatory: where one part of the whole is ill, the rest of the parts are not far behind.
Nationally, we are ill. We have a political system that is failing us, exacerbated by a president whose sole objective is narcissistic self-service. That dysfunction has amplified a malaise of polarization which prevents even a pretext of collaborative problem-solving. Those fixed contrapositions have laid a fertile groundwork for a Covid-19 pandemic in which to gestate, taking more than 100,000 lives in our country so far. The resultant unemployment, loss of stability and economic collapse have fostered a hopelessness not experienced since the Great Depression. And that despair is the powder keg which the murder of George Floyd ignited, now into our seventh day of dystopian unraveling. We are loathe to wonder what the next pain might be, what disablement is yet to come.
While I have no single diagnosis for all of the symptoms of our current disease, I do know how some of our best organizations go about the process of problem-solving. The process is intended to “drill down” to the root cause of the ailment, to identify the most underlying base of pain. In the present instance, I submit that we know what that root cause is.
Underlying our national malady is a persistent and growing inequality- racial, social and economic- that has been the bedrock for growth and power in our country since its founding. There is no disputing the foundation upon which the U.S. grew to unparalleled prominence in the world: the lands we control today were territories inhabited by Native Americans long before the presence of the first Caucasian. The labor upon which the “new” landowners relied for expansion and wealth creation was provided substantially by black slaves imported from other lands. Inequality is a cornerstone of this nation’s history, whether we feel justification for it or not. And it persists.
From obscene pay equity issues within our economy (Really? A CEO is really worth 500 times the compensation of his her workers?) to the knee of a white police officer on the neck of his black suspect (for maybe passing a counterfeit $20 bill?), hostile inequality remains at the forefront of national policy, practice and preference. It’s there because we allow it. We prefer it. In the aftermath of daily upheavals, we hear elected officials or neighborhood residents making the claim, “This is not who we are.” But it is. Otherwise, neither the inequality which spawns it nor the rioting in response to it would be happening.
That is not to say that it must be this way, only that it is this way. The central mantra of our economic system says that if one works hard and applies creativity and motivation to opportunity, financial and social success can be had. What is not made clear in that proposition is that in today’s culture of winner-take-all, that achievement will be at an often dangerous expense of others. This isn’t an argument against free enterprise or the promises of risk-reward. Rather, it’s simply the underlying truth, the underlying cause, of the inequalities that are driving many of the awful symptoms witnessed this summer so far.
Holistic well-being exists when the body is in synch with itself, when the systems and appendages are well and complementing one another. A nation’s health is exactly the same: no individual can achieve maximum well-being as long as others are not well. As a result, we’ll have some decisions to be made in the months ahead, once the smoke clears and political actions have been promised. We’ll either have interventions that we’re willing to embrace, or we won’t. We’ll actually deliver the systemic change promised over decades of disparity, or we won’t. At the end of the day, it will be up to us to determine whether the level of inequality has finally become intolerable, or whether a knee to the neck is just something we prefer to live with….
*an earlier version of this article was published here on March 27th. This more extended version was published in the May 2020 edition of ENVIO, no. 466. We reproduce the text here at the request of the author.
Viruses multiply when humanity provides the conditions. Deforestation, the agricultural model and factory farming, breaking up public health systems, even individualism, and so many other features of the development model imposed on the world by neoliberal capitalism, facilitate the appearance of viruses such as COVID-19. A firewall is a swath of land left uncultivated to keep forest fires from spreading to crops. What firewalls will stop the coronavirus and those that come after?
by René Mendoza Vidaurre / Inti Gabriel Mendoza Estrada
“ Coronita, little crown, how hungry you are!” SARS tells COVID-19. SARS (CoV-1)—which caused the 2002-3 epidemic affecting 26 countries and feasting on only 8,000 people but with 774 fatalities—is closely related to COVID-19, the coronavirus causing the current pandemic affecting 210 countries and over 3.7 million people with 257,000 dead so far… and counting by the minute.
“Hungry, little brother? Not me… Seven hundred years ago our great-great-grandmother, the Black Death, wiped out a third of humanity.”
“And how many do you plan to take with you…?”
“Only a few!… But it’s the humans themselves who are calling me from hither and yon…”
“And how do they do that…?”
“They destroy the soils and fill them with poisons, they destroy the forests to make roads, they fatten those they call animals with chemicals and then eat them… And with all that they do, what do they expect from me…?”
that attracts plagues
Over the years we have learned that unhealthy conditions cause problems when demographic growth, social deterioration and environmental degradation are combined. People’s wellbeing depends on their being healthy in mind and body, living in a healthy social community and in a sustainable environment.
Researchers of plagues that have decimated humanity at various times in history show that viruses, bacteria, fungi, bacilli, all pathogenic germs, multiply when they find the right conditions that humanity has created for them, consciously or unconsciously.
When the rust blight hit Central America, the coffee plantations were weak, overcrowded and in “tired” soils, largely thanks to mono-cropping, a system that had even permeated the agricultural cooperatives. These conditions attracted the parasitic rust fungus and it devastated the coffee plantations. It hit Nicaragua harder, Honduras a little less, and even less the other countries in the region, as I wrote in “Who’s responsible for the coffee rust plague and what can be done?” (envío, March 2013).
William H. McNeill, in his interesting book Plagues and Peoples, studied dozens of plagues that have devastated humanity over the centuries and explains how the Black Death, which arrived in Europe in the 14th century, created a crisis affecting all aspects of the feudal system as half the European population died, creating a scarcity of labor, and the institutions supporting feudalism lost prestige.
Neoliberal capitalism was
the incubator for COVID-19
Neoliberal capitalism—led by the world elites and strengthened by the rest of humanity’s passivity or powerlessness—has damaged the social, health and natural conditions of every country in the world, propitiating the spread of all kinds of plagues.
A similar view has been expressed in various ways by others. In a report published in Brazil by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Roberta Zandonai states that the coronavirus pandemic “reflects environmental degradation.”
The Argentinian illustrator and journalist Marina Aizen wrote in 2016 that epidemics “are nothing other than the result of the annihilation of ecosystems—mostly tropical—razed to plant industrial-scale mono-crops. They are also the result of handling and trafficking in wildlife which, in many cases, is in danger of extinction.” She explained how more deforestation results in more explosions of viral diseases, and more mono-cropping and agribusinesses result in more epidemics.
Robert Wallace, a biologist who has studied a century of pandemics, argues that the capitalist production model (mono-cropping and industrialized fattening of animals), which mixes pesticides, transgenic foods, antibiotics and antivirals at the expense of natural ecology generates increasingly more dangerous pathogens for humanity.
Wallace believes that COVID-19 is related to these production methods. The corporations and companies behind this agri-food system and the industrial breeding of animals for human food are so powerful that they govern those who say they rule our countries.
Bayer, Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF and Corteva are in the transgenic business while Cargill, Bunge, ADM and others are in the animal feed business.
Where markets rule
State authority has been reduced throughout the world in the last 40 years and market forces such as these agri-business corporations have taken over world governance, even education and health systems, which have to a large extent been privatized.
The markets imposed strict fiscal discipline on the States—reducing spending, increasing interest rates and eroding social rights—in order to attract foreign investment. The result: global big capital moved its companies to countries where the working class receives low wages and has no unions or laws to protect it.
According to the Gimbe Foundation, in the last 10 years Italy has lost 70,000 hospital beds; 359 hospital wards have been closed and many small hospitals have been converted to other purposes or abandoned as a result of the reduction in social spending.
In Spain, unions report that between January and February of this year, in full coronavirus expansion, 18,320 healthcare workers were laid off, similar to what happened in 2013, a year of adjustment policies and cutbacks. These policies turned health into a commodity subject to the laws of the market, dominated by the corporations.
Making matters worse, healthcare systems in Latin America tend to be bureaucratic, urban, racist and non-preventive. People who go to a health center with a serious illness are very frequently given an appointment several months later. Furthermore, the rural population in multiethnic countries rightly resists going to what they see as mono-cultural systems.
It was capitalist greed
Was it bats, pangolins, a Wuhan seafood market or a virus created in a Chinese laboratory? Whatever the answer, the causes are found in capitalist voracity. For more than a century, capitalist “culture” has misled us into individualism: into taking advantage of others, having no interest in collective collaboration, making us live under the rule of “I am, if I destroy you.” It has led companies to the principle of “the more resources I control, the more I dominate you.” It has driven us to consumerism at the cost of debt. As they said in a rural Central American community, “When the price for coffee was good, we bought a motorbike or a car, even though we didn’t need it and only used it once a week.” Put more succinctly, the causes lie in greed.
Capitalist ambition has contaminated humanity, nature, ecosystems, the planet. Throughout the world, it has induced diabetes, obesity, hypertension and more in the human population. It has paved the way for plagues to multiply and affect us. This is the factory for COVID-19 and the other future pandemics the scientific community is warning us about.
does make distinctions
It is said, without much reflection, that COVID-19 makes no racial, social or national distinctions… only differentiates by age, in that it affects children less and the elderly more.
By simply looking at the data on victims, however, we realize that it does make distinctions: it targets the most vulnerable, especially those most affected by capitalism.
It has affected more men than women and much more those living in overcrowded cities, especially in the poor neighborhoods of big cities such as Guayaquil in Ecuador; more of the African-American and Latino populations in the US; and more of those over 70 years of age…
The Spanish writer and activist Clara Valverde says in her book The necro-politics of neoliberalism (2015) that neoliberalism applies necro-politics: it leaves those people who aren’t profitable for capitalism to die, those who neither produce nor consume, or, as this graffiti puts it: Under the dictatorship they killed us, now they just leave us to die.
The expansion of COVID-19 in Latin America could be especially lethal for its indigenous peoples. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA: https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenous-peoples-es/areas-de-trabajo/salud.html), over half of indigenous people older than 35 suffer from type 2 diabetes, one of the preconditions worsening vulnerability to COVID-19 .
There’s a palpable difference in the life expectancy of indigenous peoples and other peoples. In Guatemala they live 13 years less, in Panama 10, in Mexico 6, in Nepal 20, in Australia 20, in Canada 17, and in New Zealand 11.
COVID-19 could be brutal to them, which would also affect the forests, because where there are forests there are indigenous peoples: it’s their habitat. Despite this, it’s notable that the word indigenous doesn’t even appear in the repeated statements by governments about the pandemic.
COVID-19 among those above
and those below… way below
This differentiation between the effects of COVID-19 on the health and economy of certain sectors and others, of certain places and others, leads us to the award-winning Korean film Parasites (2019). We can imagine or guess that the pandemic’s effects would be very different in the poor and resourceful family that lives cramped up in the basement and the very rich family that lives in a huge and practically vacant house with all the comforts.
For example, the rain in Parasites, which the son of the rich couple perceives as a diversion, a relief from the heat and even motive for a party the next day, is a veritable tragedy for the poor family, which loses the little it has because their basement and those of their neighbors get flooded.
The same is true for COVID-19. For the elites of the world, who live “above,” the problem is one of health, and the compulsory quarantine is a huge nuisance that interrupts their lifestyle. For the millions who live “below” and survive hand to mouth in the cities and the countryside, the problem is also one of health but of everything else too. Whether to die from the virus or from hunger is the dilemma facing those millions who live in the planet’s “basement.”
different responsibilities and visions
This differentiation is also expressed in the awareness of the different generations that today coexist on the planet. In Europe there’s a debate about COVID-19 and climate change between the current generation and that of the “baby boomers,” those born after World War II between 1946 and 1964.
To some extent, climate change is the result of actions taken by the baby boomer generation, after their parents made the effort to build a welfare state following the Great Depression of 1929 and then the disasters of World War II.
Venture capitalist Bruce Gibney accuses US baby boomers of looting the country’s economy by cutting taxes for the richest and ignoring climate change, thus ruining previous generations’ legacy of large infrastructure and leading to bankruptcy, which the current generation now has to pay for. Today, while COVID-19 more cruelly attacks third-age people—the baby boomers of yesteryear—the current generation is fighting to protect them and themselves.
In Latin America, the older generations born after 1930 accelerated the expansion of the agricultural frontier as demand for meat grew in the US. Those in the large cities, seeing how forests were being replaced by pasture for cattle, resisted capitalist agribusiness, faced military dictatorships and passed on a deep distrust of the depredating State to generations that followed.
That generation of over-60s, who assured their children’s education without themselves having studied, is now under attack by COVID-19. Today’s generation, while sometimes falling into consumerism and religious or ideological fundamentalism, advocates non-authoritarian societies, defend sustainable agriculture as part of their past, worry about climate change and, far from questioning their grandparents, fight, like their peers in the US, to protect them and themselves.
Home quarantine for everyone?
During the worst years of the Black Death (1347-1353), rich Europeans went to their country homes, while the poor remained terrified and overcrowded in the cities, where they were kept isolated and under surveillance. Today, fear is spread on Facebook, Twitter, the social networks… and people must stay at home, in lockdown, while borders are closed and health systems are overwhelmed.
The compulsory quarantine project assumes that home is a safe and harmonious place and that everyone has a house, which isn’t usually the reality of the cities’ poor neighborhoods and rural communities.
Mandatory confinement assumes that every family has savings or daily income, which isn’t the case for most families in many countries, as they depend on the informal economy and live in rented accommodations. The political class should take a public bus and get off at the last stop where the subterranean city begins… There they should reflect on social and economic policies that could make a difference in the lives of these, the majority of the population.
More than strengthening health systems and providing truthful information about the pandemic, some governments seem interested in taking advantage of it to increase authoritarianism and validate questionable measures. It shouldn’t be forgotten that following the emergency from the 9/11 attacks, the US government effectively legalized torture as a method to combat terrorism.
In the United States, Trump’s government isn’t so much interested in saving the poorest from COVID-19. It is far more interested in saving the large companies that helped create conditions that incubate the plague and, at the same time, threaten Venezuela, where big US and Chinese companies contributed to the conditions that generated COVID-19.
In Brazil, the largest country in Latin America, Bolsonaro’s government is responding to the pandemic with religious fundamentalism and dismissing science’s inputs to stop its spread. The greatest risk is that if those who incubated COVID-19 and will incubate future plagues present themselves as the bearers of solutions, whether directly or mediated by authoritarian governments. We would then be on the verge of a new plundering of public assets, humanity’s common and natural assets.
Brutal austerity imposed by big capital
Big capital is lying in wait behind today’s fears and the authoritarianism of both governments and the market. In The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), the Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein explains how big capital has taken advantage of natural and social disasters in the last 30 years to dismantle what remains of the welfare State in order to impose the neoliberal model.
Now, with the advent of the pandemic caused by COVID-19, and in a virtual meeting from her home, Klein reflects that we do need to stay home and one of the reasons is because our leaders didn’t heed the warning signs and imposed brutal economic austerity on the public health system, cutting it back to the bare bones and leaving it unable to cope with this kind of situation… After the 2008 financial crisis, Southern Europe was ground zero for the most sadistic austerity policies. Is it surprising that, despite having to provide public medical care, their hospitals are so badly equipped to deal with this crisis?
Naomi Klein also reminds us that the capitalist system has always been willing to sacrifice life on a massive scale for profit.
The first victim is the truth
Today, big capital could be calculating how to frighten our societies in order to divert our attention from neoliberalism’s nefarious effects, which attract the pandemic and lay the groundwork for wealth accumulation through dispossessing lands and resources; making States invest public resources to improve public health systems that are later privatized at ridiculous prices; promoting laws that reduce or exempt the wealthy from taxes; eliminating laws that limit the extraction of natural resources; and imposing and steamrolling investment projects in indigenous territories, always under the principle that the rich are “development’s driving force.”
In revealing the lies with which the United States made war on Iraq, Julian Assange said: “The first victim of war is the truth.” It’s possible that truth is also the first victim of the “war” against COVID-19.
Where’s the “invisible hand” today?
In Latin America today, there’s disinformation, fear, pastors and priests who repeat that the pandemic is a sign of the “end of days” and propose prayers as a spiritual shield. They have done this for centuries and in the face of every disaster… although it’s also true that we are dusting off science and venerating virologists, reluctantly in Trump’s case and clumsily in Bolsonaro’s.
There’s also some civic awareness in our countries, questioning the powerful laws of the world market and the state institutions that have yielded to those laws for many years and imposed the normality of the capitalist system on us. COVID-19 is laying bare today’s world: without leadership or world coordination. It is showing us that the neoliberal emperor has no clothes. Can anyone tell us where the market’s “invisible hand” is coordinating actions against this pandemic?
Perhaps it’s behind the philanthropists who are distributing food in Europe and the US to prevent looting for food, just as USAID did in Central America in 2001, when coffee prices plummeted. It took food to big coffee plantations to keep hungry workers from going out to the highways to demand help from drivers. We’re waking up to the idea that the “developed” countries are really not so developed.
A new awareness
for post COVID-19
Awareness is also growing in this other “underdeveloped” world that COVID-19 can be tackled with coordinated human action: hygiene, solidarity, responsibility, physical distancing, rapid virus-detection testing, scientific information backed by virtual technology…
In Latin America, as in the rest of the world, we are in transition that goes beyond COVID-19: the virus arrived in a context of economic conflict between the US and China over global markets and natural resources, with Europe scarcely out of the Brexit crisis and Latin America divided and constantly besieged by the greed of big capital.
Despite the uncertain economic future and the possibility of an economic depression similar to that of 1929, and with equally uncertain expressions about ongoing climate change, now is the time for our societies—as represented by their different cooperatives, associations, social companies, community organizations, diverse social movements, etc.—along with the very weakened capitalist reformist forces to emerge strengthened. Will the link between the different community organizations and social movements and the capitalist reformist forces (politicians, certain international cooperation agencies, some international organizations) have real potential to alter post COVID-19 trends? It could be. It is this awareness that we are gradually awakening to, like the sun that humanity and all other living things arise to every morning.
The firewall of an
Faced with the crisis of institutional legitimacy and with big capital “lying in wait,” socially legitimate organizations and institutions, including the churches, could make a difference to their members and their communities by providing truthful health information and preaching responsibility and calm through example.
In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari states that humans have the advantage of being able to share information across borders. Korea can advise us on how to deal with COVID-19, something viruses can’t do with each other. Local organizations are the first firewall against the coronavirus in the work of sharing information. Harari says that a motivated and well-informed population is usually much more powerful and effective than an ignorant one under surveillance.
By mobilizing their communities, local organizations and institutions can build a firewall against the coronavirus and future epidemics. The vaccine is a short-term technical solution, exclusively for this virus, not for other, imminent pandemics. If the world continues looking only in one direction like a blinkered horse, responding only technically to COVID-19, we will be left midway.
We must mobilize as an informed public so the responses governments give to the coronavirus don’t facilitate big capital accumulating wealth through dispossession, as happened in the 2008 financial crisis. In that case substantial resources from society were given to the financial system despite it having generated the real estate bubble and causing a world food crisis. Or, as has happened on so many other occasions, when capitalism was resuscitated again and again, stripping societies of their assets: land, water, trees, minerals, public assets, etc.
…of a mobilized public…
In addition to preventing vaccines being handled as commodities, we can’t allow capitalism to continue producing the current immoral black hole of inequality where 1% of the population appropriates 80% of the planet’s wealth and continues intensifying the terrible climate change that is the factory for COVID-19 and those that will follow.
As a mobilized public we must promote fairer tax systems, demanding more taxes from big capital, the driving force behind the neoliberal development model. We must further demand that those taxes be used to improve the capacity of public health systems in every country; that health and education be outside the laws of the market; that health also be accessible to impoverished families; that health systems be multicultural; and that governments strive to save lives regardless of any utilitarian calculation about the economic consequences of doing so.
…and of mindful and
We must also create another firewall of interconnected localities to respond to the causes generating plagues and putting Planet Earth at risk.
We must reflect in an organized way on how social inequality and environmental deterioration favored the arrival of this virus and on how to increase cooperation between communities; expand small production practices, diversified production systems that respect the environment, urban gardens and allotments… Reflect on the urgency of making dietary changes, choosing products that come from sustainable agriculture and breed free range fowl and cattle.
We must promote critical thinking and not repeat traditional religious or other beliefs: “Only God can save us,” “Private always works better,” “Only the rich give us work,” “More agrochemicals mean more food,”… Now is the time for those who are below to organize and make themselves felt, so that those in the “basement” and those on the “first floor” (peasantry, indigenous peoples, laborers…), those who maintain the structure of humanity, are recognized and protected from “savage capitalism.”
It’s the time of small-scale production, which usually maintains most of the population in every country but lacks social security and is the markets’ victim from the weighing stations to the credit they receive from money-lenders, to the prices their produce is valued at. It’s time to build societies that care for our common home, for people and the many ways they organize.
“We’re in a better
position than in 2008″
Naomi Klein says the Earth’s habitability is being sacrificed to our profound ecological crisis, to climate change. We must think what kind of response we’re going to demand. It will have to be based on the principles of a truly regenerative economy, based on care and repair…
She says the good news is that we’re in a better position than in 2008 and 2009. During these years we’ve worked hard in social movements to create platforms of people… She says she’s hopeful because of the ways people are collaborating in the pandemic. It’s ironic: we’ve never been so physically distant and perhaps it’s because of that distance we are so determined to reach out to each other.
The firewall of democratic organizations
The fourth firewall is associative organizations and local institutions working at being democratic, at improving their social fund’s policies—social redistribution of their surpluses—so as to tackle pandemics, organize information backed by technology and be transparent with their members.
We must learn to organize information using cutting-edge technology and at the same time prevent governments from using it to subordinate societies. Organizations in specific zones must learn to coordinate with each other about health, food and climate change challenges, so as to practice participatory and representative democracy and not obedience and an authoritarian mentality, which the Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han says Asian cultures have used to deal with COVID-19.
With the redistribution of surplus, transparency of information, inclusion of women and men of all ages, and different organizations coordinating, we will be able to stop the conflagration of plagues and of savage capitalism and the elites who, with virtual technology, are trying to subordinate societies, with a mere click.
We need a change that
changes the future
In the midst of the current uncertainty and insecurity due to the pandemic and its unpredictable economic, social and political consequences, including whether the US hegemony will be replaced by China or by multipolarity, the only certainty in our societies should be, as Franz Hinkelammert said: I am if you are.
Staying home and in the communities stops the virus in the short term and helps nature regenerate, but we need more than that: a long-term and far-reaching change that changes the future.
It’s time for associative organizations and other institutions to take over leadership of the communities, promoting these four firewalls in the communities to reinvent our societies and their institutions: giving truthful information, preventing capitalism from strengthening itself with the pandemic, reversing the conditions that create viruses by building different futures, and being coherent—democratic, transparent and equitable.
Let’s avoid going back to pre-COVID-19 normality; let’s allow capitalism to die so other futures can be born. The virus won’t defeat capitalism; no virus will make revolution. But as the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek says, COVID-19 carries an ideological virus, “the virus of thinking about an alternative society, a society beyond the nation-State, a society that actualizes itself in the form of solidarity and global cooperation.”
It’s we human beings who must rethink and hatch new futures, against the totalitarian vigilance that countries will try to import from China.
These four firewalls are possible if instead of nationalist isolation we express global solidarity in many ways. Working together for solutions will make our differences small by comparison.
Let’s not be ruled by the fear of death. Fear is a more damaging emotion in times of crisis because it creates hysteria and paralyzes action. Yes, COVID-19 is an adversity, but as Benjamin Franklin said: Out of adversity comes opportunity.
Let’s try to see behind the adversity and envision various alternative futures to neoliberalism. They will be possible if, in addition to “I am if you are,” we adopt another principle: “We are if the communities where we live are.”
René Mendoza Vidaurre is a researcher who collaborates with the Minnesota-based Winds of Peace Foundation and accompanies rural organizations of Central America. His son, Inti Gabriel Mendoza Estrada, is a student at Austria’s Graz University of Technology.
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.
We were waiting for you like the “rain showers of May”,said the girls as they hugged their grandparents.
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 power of community, that when we discover it is like the month of May: abundant, living, ever changing and very much anticipated.
Those who live in a village or hamlet watch the movement of people. They see the 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, they greet them from the road, they estimate the harvest, fill out paperwork, and leave promises; 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 people who applaud them.
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.” Rodrigo López from the community of Ocote Tuma, also observes, “There are two cooperatives with members from here, these cooperatives are in the town; they never meet here.” These observations awaken three, five, ten, up to thirty people, who form cooperatives, meet, collect the coffee harvest, and pay for it in the community itself, they save the people the cost of transportation of having to take their coffee to town. Others, with their fingernails and the friendship of their neighbors, buy cacao to dry it in the community itself, and pool their cents together to start a chicken farm. “The cents that it costs us make it more savory”, concludes Doña Justina Meneces.
There were good times when growing just coffee, cacao or cattle people bought their vehicles, they took on positions and went to live in town. But at the same time, their water sources dried up, the land grew tired, and the prices of those products dropped, and the price of agro-chemicals rose. 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.” People like Daniel become aware of this reality, three more do, then ten more…they turn their attention to the land, water, and processing foodstuffs: making bread, honey…The land is valuable and worth more than money!
“We are at different steps on the ladder,” said Claudio Hernández from Samarkanda, recognizing the inequality in the communities. That is why, in the face of the law of “exporting the best and leaving the worst”, they are roasting coffee in the communities; in the face of the rule that “organization and projects come in from outside,” they are talking among themselves, so that the community might have water; in the face of the wealthy who say that “people are only moved by money”, they visit one another, and the mutual affection that they cultivate moves them more. So, the community stores are saying, “I am going to give you products on credit that you share with your family” – products like beans or oil, but not cigarettes. This spirit is like the spirit of the first time one falls in love.
The power of communities is like “rain showers in May”, which causes good changes to bloom.