It is unusual for a media outlet on the Pacific side of the country to publish a long interview of a community leader from the Atlantic Coast. Her experience on the Coast places in a larger perspective the largely student led uprising of April 2018, as well as recent news stories of attacks on indigenous communities.
Susana Marley: “In the Caribbean they do not prescribe jail, just lead”
The Miskita leader is recognized in the North Caribbean as “Mama Grande” because of her closeness to the communities of the Río Coco and her hard work of denouncing human rights violations.
Susana Marley Cunningham, sociologist and teacher by profession, has dedicated nearly two decades of her 62 years of age to defending and denouncing violations of the rights of the Mískita communities of the Northern Caribbean of Nicaragua. She was born in Waspam and began her humanitarian work after Hurricane Mitch in communities bordering the Río Coco, through the Civil Foundation for the Unity and Reconstruction of the Atlantic Coast (FURCA).
The work of Marley has left a mark on the Mískita population. The children who she once taught and defended call her “Mama Grande”. But she has not just won affection. Threats as well. In August 2019 she had to leave her native Northern Caribbean to a more urban area of the Pacific for her safety.
In this interview, Marley denounces the increase of violence in the Caribbean, the advance of invasions, the hunger that the communities are experiencing, the fear of the children to go to school, the corruption of communal governments, and the lack of respect for their forms of organization and elections.
When did the situation of insecurity for the indigenous, Mískitos and Afro-descendants begin to get worse?
The situation of violence and human rights violations I have felt personally since all those actions in the year of the 80s began, with the famous Red Christmas, when our people were taken away or murdered in the forest. I was at the point of dying during that so called Red Christmas, they put me in a line, thanks to God that He used one of those soldiers, I saved myself only because one of them made himself pass as if he were my husband and got me out of there.
Who started that wave of violence in the 80s?
The Sandinista Army and Police. We began to live in an environment of a lot of terror, insecurity and fear. You could not go into the countryside alone, so, since the 1980s the defense of life has gotten worse. Life and human rights are not respected. They have treated us as if we were animals that should be hunted, so they could exploit the land, the minerals, the resources of our territories.
What consequences did the protests of April 2018 have on the Caribbean of Nicaragua?
Our resistance has been historic, and we always denounced that they were killing us, so, after the situation that erupted in April 2018, people began to understand that the same thing that they were doing to us, they were using against the youth, who were unarmed, defenseless and they killed them and they continue killing them. In the Caribbean they do not prescribe jailing, there it is only lead [bullets] , but the situation is pretty similar. It is a terrible, lamentable situation, that has separated families.
In these last weeks, several acts of violence have been registered against indigenous families. What is the current situation of the communities?
December and January are the months for the preparation of the land to harvest rice and beans, but they have not planted this year, because of the violence and the invasion. Famine will be a reality now in our communities. We are experiencing a humanitarian crisis. Classes started and the children go with fear. They are watchful of the forest because now it is not known when someone armed will come out of the forest. The children are psychologically affected in the face of the insecurity, because it is not just what happened this past February 16th, where a girl was wounded. So, in the face of this situation, we think that we are experiencing a serious situation of insecurity, there is no economic stability, there is a lot of poverty and latent lack of respect for our rights.
How did that attack on February 16th happen, where they wounded a minor in the cheek?
That Sunday, around 5:00pm, in the community of Santa Clara, close to a place where there is a creek of the Santa Clara river, the people went to bathe, and while coming a girl resulted wounded. We could not see who were shooting, and it was difficult to be able to get transportation to leave the community. The ambulance was requested at 5:00 pm, and it did not arrive until 11:00pm. It seems that they (the paramilitaries or settlers) were watching those who were bathing, they were stalking them, and at least they did not shoot the girl in the head, but in the cheek. It is not fair that the children also are victims of this type of human rights violations. Minors also suffer this persecution.
How far has the invasion of settlers advanced?
Too far. I want to confide in you that if something happens to me, I hold these murderers responsible, because we are just denouncing this, and we do not have weapons of war. The situation is very bad, and in every testimony we hear, that fear is noticeable, that insecurity. A little while ago a peasant from the community of Santa Clara, who had to leave that territory, commented to me that between the Wangki Twi Tasba Raya and the Li Auhbra territory, that is on the shores of the Río Coco- in between these two – is the Mocó mountain, where there are dozens of settlers or paramilitaries who created a community which is called Araguas. They have large extensions of pastureland and homes, so the advance of the invasion is nearly countless.
What consequences does this invasion of settlers have on the communities?
The encroachment that these people make in our lands has caused the displacement of our people to the Honduran side. Our people are displaced, even people from the community of Santa Clara, located in our Wangki Twi Tasba Raya territory, they migrated from the countryside to the city, and others have been displaced toward Waspam, because they can no longer plant. The leaders of Santa Clara and other communities bordering on the Wangki Twi Tasba Raya territory have had to suffer the deaths of their leaders, so, hunger and insecurity are prompting the forced displacement of our community members.
What is happening with justice in the case of the murders of the leaders?
The murders have been left unpunished. Every time this type of situation happens, we have wanted to denounce it, but we do not have that support, or that contact to denounce each one of these situations of the violation of our human rights. What we are demanding is that the laws that protect us be respected, like Law 28, the Autonomy Law, but these people are organized and willing to continue causing damage.
Some of the communities that you have mentioned are beneficiaries of precautionary measures granted by the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights. Do you think that the State is observing those measures?
No. The State is not protecting these communities. The State should fully comply, but it is not doing so. Recently, the community of Santa Clara – one of those protected by precautionary measures – received threats from settlers or paramilitaries who told them that they have 200 men, and they will go burn the houses, and they are going to kill them, and we have seen how the threats are being carried out.
How has the Army of Nicaragua behaved with the Mískito Indigenous peoples?
There is no protection, because in years past which have had atrocious murders of peasants and indigenous close to their posts, they did not do anything. They know about it, and are direct accomplices in this type of violations, and they fill their mouths with words saying that they are protecting, but in practice they do not do any enforcement at all.
Do you feel unprotected?
Yes, they have left us completely unprotected. The precautionary measures are not observed, and all the authorities are accomplices of everything that is happening to us. The threats in the zone are constant, the same with the attacks, and they do not do anything to stop them, so the situation is very tense, and the indigenous and Afro-descendent populations are unprotected. The theft of cattle, kidnapping of women and labor exploitation are a reality in our communities.
This lack of protection has been in all governments, or it is something that has intensified with the regime of Daniel Ortega?
Our struggle and our resistance are historic. It is sad to say, but each government that has come to power in the country looks on our land for the purposes of exploitation. This is what we have observed.
How many attacks are registered in the course of this year?
The threat is ongoing. They (the paramilitaries) leave nailed on the stalks of the trees threats to the communities. The terror is constant. Just this year the kidnapping of two boys fishing from Santa Clara, the attack on the community of Alal, and now this attack on an adolescent girl.
What is the feeling of these communities who are constantly threatened?
There is a lot of tension. The people are terrorized after receiving the threats, but they are organized. The men have been out on guard, but they have informed me that the big problem is that now they cannot peacefully go out to gather the harvest in the fields, they tell me that they are experiencing hunger. Some only maintain themselves with fruit or dry coconut. A lot of people cannot even sleep, the children have no peace in order to study. Since the 1980s to now they continue murdering us, and it continues intensifying, we demand that they quit killing us.
And what is happening with the regional councils? They are also part of the territorial governments that should be looking for policies to protect the indigenous.
Living in the territories one realizes that the person in the Government building belongs to the government, so, they work in strict coordination with the Government, and only do what they are ordered to do. They do not work in favor of the communities.
And the local council members [síndicos], do they have the same reputation or are they watching out for the well-being of the communities?
The communal council members work hand in hand with the communal leaders. The people choose their communal council members and leaders, but the problem is that, parallel to this, the ruling party chooses their council members, so the Regional Council only accredits the council members that they elect, but the ones elected by the communities, generally, are not accredited, like what happened in Kamla last year. Just so as to not accredit the council person elected by the people, they ordered the people beaten, wounded and threatened. The denouncements about these cases were made, but since they themselves are the ones, there is no justice for the community members who were victims of these abuses.
What is the role of a community council member [síndico]? Why does the Government see them as an obstacle and prefers not to accredit them?
The community council member who remains is a representative of the communities, and can coordinate the use of resources, always in consultation with the communities, but they leave the councilperson elected by the communities without voice nor vote, so it is only the one elected by them that is accredited, and presents papers as the highest authority. In the end, the reality is that that council person that they put there, only does what the Government wants and not what the communities need. For example, the large extensions of land that are taken and through which the paramilitaries come in, they are the ones that give them passage so that they can register those properties. This invasion and land takeovers are done by those people themselves, and that is where the community members have to go to demand their lands. The council members that Orteguism puts in place do not have land, but they order the invaders to be placed there. Government officials promote the invasion in the communities.
Is this something seen since the 1980s or is it something that non -Sandinista governments have also promoted?
This (invasion and violence) started more forcefully since 2009, even though in the 1980s there was displacement and massacre against the Mïskito people through the so called Red Christmas. In the 80s the people sought to displace themselves into Honduras because of the persecution, but in the 90s – when they returned because of the change in Government – they even found tigers in the communities, and little by little they raised up their houses. It was in 2003 that they approved Law 445, which included titling, we did not appreciate that later these titles would be used by corrupt politicians of our region as well, so , they provided the title to people who were not members of the community, and they negotiated our lands, in addition to the fact that they allied with the council members and they allied in order to invade our lands little by little.
Concerning the legislative work that some are doing in supposed representation of the Caribbean, do you feel represented by these people who are officials within the Assembly? Are they promoting projects to improve the situation of the indigenous, Mískitos and Afro-descendants?
Years back, like in 2016, the corrupt political representation of the region was expelled from the Assembly for the illegal sale of our indigenous lands, so how is it that he returned once again to the National Assembly? Is it real that they are allies then? We do not feel that they represent us, and with this I am referring to the Yatama party. They cannot provide for the freedom of our territories from invasion, when they are the very ones who have been pointed out as promoting the invasion with the provision of titles to people from outside the community members. If they were part of the problem, they are never going to be part of the solution.
How do you assess the coalition building process that the members of the National Unity and the Civic Alliance are working on?
Look, when this situation happened in the Pacific in April 2018, many young people gave their lives to see a free Nicaragua, and many politicians holed themselves up, and now, for money and to give an opportunity to this murderer, are uniting. You have to be realistic, because these old and corrupt politicians are not an opposition. There is no sincerity, they must be more sincere, so, I think that there is a lot of falsehood in these traditional politicians. We as Mískitos demand that there be transparency, that there be unity, that they in truth defend the rights of indigenous peoples, peasants, youth, students. They have to give an opportunity to the new generations, because the corrupt politicians are advanced in age, let them go rest with their millions, let them leave the path open to the youth so that Nicaragua might be free and democratic again. If we truly love Nicaragua, let us leave Nicaragua in the hands of the youth, so that this [country] might be led in peace.
Susana Marley, known as “Mama Grande”, was born May 24, 1957 in the community Cabo Gracias a Dios in Waspam, Northern Caribbean.
She graduated as a teacher in 1970 from the Teacher School in Waspam, but a large part of her childhood she lived in the community of Santa Martha, located close to the Wawa River.
The Mískita leader is also a sociologist. She finished her studies in 1997 in the Central American University (UCA).
She is the daughter of Eduardo Marley (deceased), known in Waspam as a Moravian pastor and one of the first teachers in that municipality, and Benicia Cunningham, 95 years of age, popular for being one of the first midwives of her community.
“Mama Grande” had five children, but she had none of them in a hospital. Her births were assisted solely and exclusively by her mother.
In 1981 during the so called Red Christmas, she was at the point of dying, but she states that her beauty and the favor of God saved her.
The revolution and the agrarian reform came, people knew the word and their eyes were opened, many organized into cooperatives and received land, seed and technology, and they said “we are in power.” Within years they sold the land and forgot even the word. They received it, and lost it.
A woman received a cow and in months paid for it with a calf, which was given to another family. She understood that the cow pays for itself, she felt that she paid back, and made an effort along with other families. Paying back is improving.
(Based on a conversation with Gregorio Solórzano, Municipality of Cinco Pinos, Chinandega, Nicaragua)
This parable recalls the historic rules of indigenous and peasant communities. If the action of “giving” is connected with “paying back”, like the woman with the cow and the calf, their lives improve. While “receiving” unilaterally, without “paying back” to the community, creates a false world (“we are in power”) where people are left worse off (“without land and power”). The paradox is that “paying back” is not losing, it is gaining: it makes the person “make an effort” within a collective framework and community space.
That collective framework constitutes the paradoxical difference. In the case of the woman who received a cow and paid back with a calf, an arrangement (agreement, rule) underlies which she fulfills, an arrangement that is connected to a virtuous millennial indigenous institution, “giving-receiving-paying back”. In the case of the beneficiaries of land on the part of the government, a damaging arrangement underlies it, subordinating oneself and depending on the government, something that leads them to be connected to another historical institution, this time a counterproductive institution, “easy come, easy go”; people lose and the government loses. The gaze of the woman is toward the community, while the gaze of the people in the cooperative is directed outside the community.
Giving-receiving-paying back is growing in collective spaces mediated by rules that are connected with virtuous endogenous institutions of the people themselves. Within this framework, how can distributing (“paying back”) in the cooperatives be the key for growing with equity? Perhaps diminishing is growing?
In this article we study these questions in light of the cooperatives, even though it can be generalized to associations, associative enterprises or NGOS with initiatives under the framework of the social and solidarity economy. We start conceptualizing distribution as a different idea from the neoliberal economy, where the market is the great distributer. Then we look at five ways for the distribution of surpluses: legal reserve, cooperative reinvestment, social-educational fund, direct resources to members, and retribution by way of a member´s rights. Then we work on how to carry them out. We conclude reconceptualizing equitable distribution as a cooperative concept and one from the social and solidarity economy, that goes along with the democratization of cooperatives, and connected to endogenous institutions of the peasantry.
1. Distribution rules and policies
In capitalism “the invisible hand” attracts resources and distributes them with inequality, in dependence on the financial power of the actors, their connections, the support of the State for elites (e.g the policy of low taxes for mono-cropping enterprises), and guided by the rule “even the monkey dances for money”. The mediation network captures the resources and returns them as money that buys new products (and labor), mediated by institutions that worsen that inequality: usury, future purchases (crop lien system) and indebtedness. The capitalist, be it merchant, banker or industrialist, is the absolute owner of the surplus.
Polanyi (1976), in an anthropological study, worked on the idea of reciprocity, distribution and interchange. For the topic that concerns us he says: “distribution designates the movements of ownership toward a center and then toward the exterior”, and added, “distribution depends on the presence to some extent of centrality in the grouping”” (1976:7). Santana (2014: 91), rereading Polanyi, indicates that “what is unique here is that there must be trust and loyalty to be able to group the assets in that centrality, knowing that later it is going to be returned in an equitable way.” Let us reread both authors: resources come toward a center, let us say toward a cooperative (like taxes to the State), from there is “goes outside” of the cooperative, to the members in an equitable way. For those “movements of ownership” to happen, there has to be “centrality in the grouping”, which is possible if there is “trust and loyalty”. Without trust and loyalty, there is no “movement.” When is there trust and loyalty that takes resources to the cooperatives and makes them be “paid back”? Our argument: there is trust and loyalty when the rules of the cooperative, connected to endogenous virtuous institutions, guide the cooperative from its beginnings with a societal and communitarian perspective. In other words, the cooperative, from and for the communities, is responsible for the distribution with equity.
Cooperatives currently, nevertheless, are formed and achieve a partial “movement”: they attract resources from dozens of their members, but it is difficult for them to “pay back” the surplus and pay them back in an equitable way. There is the challenge. For that reason, there are written rules. What are they?
Cooperatives include in their statutes, following the laws of each country, the distribution of profits. Cooperatives include a percentage (%) for legal reserve, % for the social or educational fund, % for distribution among the members according to their contributions or economic transactions in the cooperative – note that improvement in the price of the raw materials is not mentioned as “distribution of surplus”, because it is not, the surplus is calculated after the annual financial year. This is consistent with the principles of historic cooperativism: among the Rochdale principles of 1844 is the “payback of surplus”, then in 1966 the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) reformed those principles and replaced it with “the surplus belong to the members”, and finally in another reform in 1995 the ICA said “the economic participation of the members”; in all of them the spirit of the distribution of surplus is maintained. These rules can be connected to the virtuous institutions of agrarian societies, giving-receiving-paying back, the gift that Mauss (1979) described.
Consistent with this cooperative and communitarian principle, the International Fair Trade Movement (FLO), begun in the 1980s and 1990s, in their policy of offering better prices to products coming from families that are organized, included a “fair trade premium”, which in the case of coffee, for example, is US$0.20/lb., a fund so that the members of a cooperative might decide to use it in educational, health projects, and farm improvements or investment in processing installations. Other buyers tend to include also a “cooperative premium”, a fund that the members might decide to use for collective investments that would benefit everyone.
In addition to rules, cooperatives have mechanisms for complying with them. They have their oversight board, the assembly, the education committee, there is also the administration with accounting that issues financial reports. In some countries the State has a role of comptroller of the cooperatives. The international fair trade organizations include their FLO certifier that audits the use of the Fair Trade premium and the democratic processes of the cooperative; social banks require financial statements and balance statements; aid agencies ask for audited reports and evaluate the projects that they finance, and in some exceptional cases withdraw their support when the cooperative fails to fulfill their rules for equitable distribution; likewise some companies that buy coffee or cacao.
Having gotten to this point, what do we observe? In spite of having rules and mechanisms for distribution, it is rare the cooperative whose members participate in the decisions on the use of the social fund, reinvestment fund, or on the cooperative premium; it is rare the cooperative that is transparent with its members on the use of these funds; and it is rate the international aid agency or buyer who ensures this transparency, and that the surplus be distributed. In other words, the rules of the cooperative and the organizations are systematically not met; consequently, there is no confidence nor loyalty, which is why the “movement” is in only one direction: the resources from the members go to the cooperative and then to the companies (fair trade, direct trade, or independents), who do not “pay back” the surplus to the members. The rules of the cooperative and the organizations do not end up connecting to the virtuous endogenous rules.
2. What opposes the distribution of the surplus
Even having rules and mechanisms, why do cooperatives not distribute their surplus? It seems a matter of adding and subtracting, of knowing rules, signing and complying with agreements; it is not a technocratic matter, that a “scholarly” person might resolve; it implies adding and subtracting, showing the strength of the old anti-cooperative model, and of perceiving their own attitudes. Here we start with three interconnected responses, of the several that exist. See Figure 1.
First, the “business foot” of the cooperative, and organizations-international enterprises coincide in the fact that the business (sale-purchase of the product, disbursement-payment of the loan and execution of the project) works, not so much that the cooperative works.
They are content with the protocol, written and legal proof about the functioning of the cooperatives, proof that the elites of the cooperative learn to quickly fabricate: minutes that prove that the organs meet, audits with authorized signatures, financial and narrative reports including registry of data, and even members “trained” to repeat what the organizations want to hear, when some organizations visit. This practice, in turn, is read by the members as something that confirms their ideas that the cooperative does not change at all their way of working and selling their products: “If the organizations says that it is fine, surely it is fine, as we have always worked.” This is the formal structure that covers over the fact that the cooperative does not distribute its surpluses in accordance with its own rules, and the millennial aspiration of indigenous and peasant families.
“The peasant is interested in selling his product, he is not interested in whether there are surpluses”. This phrase presidents and managers of cooperatives repeat, along with buyers and international aid agencies, as well as technicians and boards of NGOs. This phrase underlies century old institutional practices. What are they? It is the institutionalized idea in the hacienda owner or the capitalist, that they have the exclusive rights to surpluses, that the peasantry were born to sell their labor and/or their raw materials. It is the same idea that the peasantry reproduces: “My country ends with my fence of piñuelas”, says the peasant family; “they pay my wage, that is all I ask”, says the working person (field-hand or peon); they never ask themselves about the surplus that their work or their product generates, they take it as given that it is not theirs. That institutionality absorbed the cooperatives and made them forget about the reason for their origins and their rules for distribution, and with that buried even more that indigenous-peasant right to the value that their work creates. So it is that the members demand that they increase the price of their sun-dried coffee, cacao pulp or their sugar cane; in some cases they demand an “adjustment”; “if we got credit as a cooperative so that you pay us a certain price for coffee, and if you paid us as the market price a little less than that set price, then pay us the adjustment”; no one demands their surplus; the presidents and managers behave like the hacienda owner or capitalist. Figure 2 illustrates this institutionality: the worker reaches the wall of their days wage, the peasant their fence of piñuelas, the “business foot” of the cooperative goes as far as the “wall” of the port, and the buyers-roasters-distributors to the sale or even the cafeteria. Each one, and in each wall, seem to follow the rule of “I don´t touch you, and you don´t touch me.”
Second, the organs of the cooperatives are left bound up, because their rules are replaced by others that respond to what Polanyi (2001) called the “market society”, and respond to colonial and patriarchal structures. One of those rules is: “To distribute, first you have to grow.” This rule comes from neoliberalism, that “economic growth is development”, from trickle-down economics: capturing the wealth of the members so that the cooperative might invest and accumulate in the short term, and benefit the members in the long term. This “development” and that “long term” with “benefits”, nevertheless, tends not to arrive; in other words, “they do not pay back”. Consistent with neoliberalism, the cooperatives assume that “distributing decapitalizes the organization” and they embark on the path of the “big headed dwarf”, whose head is large and is made of steel (concentration of physical investments and resources), and whose feet are clay (impoverished members who do not participate in the decisions of their organizations nor rotate offices). In this logic the managerial staff or the president tend to end up feeling themselves to be the true owners of the resources of the cooperative, that it is “their effort”, while the board members tend to abandon the volunteer nature that their offices imply, and seek any gap to take advantage individually, be it through travel allowances, loans on top of loans, or benefitting themselves from the donations that the cooperatives eventually might receive. Also consistent with neoliberalism, the fair trade and direct trade bodies reduce their relations with the cooperatives to just the financial aspect, and treat the cooperatives as just “businesses”.
Distribution, expressed in colonial rules, says to the members: “We always need a patron.” The field-hand depends on the patron, who “provides” for him (future purchase of his labor), like the peasant depends on the trader who “provides” for him (future purchase of his product). For them, this “providing for” is the best “distribution”; they know no other. This is what penetrates into the cooperative where the members confirm naturally that they never had rights to the surplus.
Distribution is also expressed in the heart of the family. There, the patriarchal rule says, “The father decides to leave the inheritance to the eldest son, and that will be carried out when he dies.” That will is conceived as something sacred. The family is an institution that attracts resources because of the family labor of its members, and in the end “pays back” (inherits) in an unequal way, leaving tacit that that older son is going to distribute the inheritance among his brothers and sisters, and what happens? Not always, but generally, that older son takes over the inheritance, or sells it and squanders it. That family institution also penetrates into the cooperative, where many times the person who occupies the presidency or management is seen like that “eldest son”, while the rest of the members are submitted to his will, in spite of the fact that they are the “parents” (owners of the cooperative) of that “eldest son.”
The cooperative, guided under this capitalist, colonial and patriarchal spell, tends to start with enthusiasm and when it capitalizes, the board members or the administrative staff turn into elites, exclude those who question them, and privatize the cooperatives. Thus, W. Berrios, from the CAFOD aid agency, observes, “In my years of work in Central America I have seen that it is in the maturation curve that the cooperatives go broke.” Infrequently they restructure the cooperative into a private enterprise, but many times they make it function as a private enterprise sheltered under the legal status of a cooperative, or under the discursive mantle of the social and solidarity economy. In both cases the members are treated as simple sellers of raw materials.
Finally, there is dovetailing between the mentality of international organizations (buyers, banking institutions, certifiers and aid agencies) and that of the members. The international organizations turn a blind eye to the lack of compliance with the rule of distribution, because, following Streeck (2019), “the policy of distribution only function in nations; in world society there are donations,” global governance “is not democratic”, because “above the nation-state there is only the “international free market”, which consists in large enterprises that are free to do whatever they want.” That mentality leads them to have a mentality of turning a blind eye to distribution, which coincides with the mentality of the members, who have never had access to surpluses, they always saw them as something that belonged to the patron or intermediary, from there it is that the members also turn a blind eye to their right that they be “paid back” (distribute) the surplus. This is what Figure 2 expresses with the walls, “I don´t touch you and you don´t touch me.”
3. Distribution of the surplus (“paying back”)
How can cooperatives unbind this adverse triangle and distribute the surplus? By distribution people tend to fall into two beliefs: that it is “distributing financial surpluses” and that it is “distributing all the surplus to the members.” From here comes the idea that “distributing is decapitalizing.” In this section we break down what equitable distribution of surplus is, expanding the content of the distribution already described in the rules of cooperatives.
Let us start with the attached graph. This illustrates the components of this “paying back” that include collective forms (legal reserve, reinvestment fund and social fund), and the individual forms that the members receive directly (distribution to members and payments when they leave the cooperative). The percentages in the graph are arbitrary estimates, they vary depending on the laws in each country, and the decisions of the cooperatives agreed upon in their statutes.
Note that this graph breaks with the belief that “distributing decapitalizes”: the reinvestment fund refers to the fact that their own fund or their own “capital” grows in accordance with the percentage approved in the cooperative. The assumption in the graph is that exercising distribution in the five ways, combination of collective-community and individual distribution, builds trust and loyalty, which makes the members turn in their products to their organizations in larger amounts and with better quality; from here distribution instead allows the economic transactions of the cooperative to increase, and therefore the entirety of their funds grow; in other words, ”decreasing” (paying back or distributing) is “growing” in resources. The graph also shows the underlying reason for cooperativism, that it is not to accumulate just to accumulate capital, the cooperative is a means, and the members and their communities are the end (final objective). We break down these funds in what follows, including some important remarks.
3.1 Components of collective distribution
Let us describe those funds that are in the statutes, let us clarify and add what they can have which is unique. “Legal reserves” is to cover losses that eventually the cooperative might have during the year in the economic fiscal year; it is a financial cushion that prevents the cooperatives from going broke. In the case that there are no losses, that reserve could swell the investment fund, or, for example, cover legal paperwork expenses, the opening or updating of bank accounts, the legal defense of the cooperative in the face of lawsuits from third parties, the legal defense of the members in cases that affect the cooperative, or to have legal counsel in the face of certain situations or issues.
“Cooperative fund” or “reinvestment fund”, belongs to the cooperative. In addition, some buyers tend to increase the price of the product that they buy with a “cooperative premium” or with an “infrastructure fund”, resources that are added to the funds of the cooperative. These funds are to buy equipment that the cooperative might need, repair or enlarge the infrastructure (building, harvest collection center) of the cooperative, and/or to increase the funds of the cooperative itself, which would increase the loan portfolio, or would pre-finance the payment that the members make on receiving products, while they process and sell them – avoiding the need to seek outside credit.
“Social or educational fund”. It is a fund from the rules of the cooperative itself, and is a fund that increases if the cooperative sells its product through fair trade organizations or buyers that condition a certain amount for a social fund. In general, cooperatives use it to finance some demand of the community school, provide backpacks to the children, provide support to the local sports team, or for trainings that their education committee might organize. Even though these initiatives are praiseworthy, physical investment in the school is the obligation of the State for which society pays taxes. The sports teams are going to function with or without the support of the cooperative, the children will go to school with an old or new backpack. Some innovative cooperatives use that fund under the following criteria: invest in something that generates value for the community, that is not the role of another institution, and doing so as a long-term investment. An example of this is the fact that two or three cooperatives from the same community might invest in libraries for children under 7 years of age, story books that their families might borrow to read to them before going to sleep, promoting reading in the family itself, and that the cooperative might organize reading circles with the support of people who promote reading; the long-term impact of this initiative in the creativity and cooperative spirit of the community can be significant.
3.2 Components of individual distributions
Following graph 1, 50% of the surplus of the cooperative is distributed to its members directly. The criteria for that varies from cooperative to cooperative, and depends on the services that they offer. In some cases, it is in accordance with the contributions of each member. In other cases, it is in accordance with the volume of product transacted with the cooperatives that collect the harvest and sell the product of its members. In other cases, it is in accordance with the quantity of products bought in their cooperative. And in other cases, it depends on the amount saved in their cooperative. There are cooperatives with similar services, and that “pay back” under different criteria; for example, the peasant store Los Encinos in Honduras “pays back” 100% of the amount of the agreed upon contribution, while the Esperanza of the Campesinos Cooperative with several supermarkets, “pays back” based on the amount that each member buys from those supermarkets.
These criteria promote the capacity of each member, and increase their trust in the collectivity that the cooperative is. There are members with more financial capacity and do not necessarily have larger contributions in the cooperative; it depends on the trust that the members have in their cooperative, and on the opportunity cost that each member thinks their resources have. In this sense, the biblical parable of the talents (Mt 25: 14-30) illustrates part of what the cooperative looks to incentivize with direct distribution; in that parable three people receive talents, one 5, another 2 and another 1, “in accordance with their capacity”. After a time, the person who received 5 and the one who received 2 double theirs, and the one who received 1 maintained it. In light of this, the person who gave them the talents rewarded the first two, and took away the only talent from the third, “because he who has, will be given more, and they will have an abundance, but he who does not have, even what they have will be taken away from them.”
From the religious context, this indicates that God gives people talents in order to develop them, which reveals an individual vision, where each person is responsible for duplicating their talents. From the cooperative context, one is “paid back” in proportion to the trust and loyalty of that member, demonstrated by contributions, savings, delivery of product or amount purchased; that “payback” is not taken away from them in the cooperative, in contrast with what happens in the parable of the talents, where each individual responds individually with the talents received; instead, there is cooperation among the members mediated by commonly agreed upon rules, compliance mechanisms and there is accompaniment so that each member might increase their capacities; there is individual responsibility within the framework of collective responsibility.
3.3 Compensating by rights those who resign from the cooperative
Following cooperative statutes, the member who resigns from the cooperative has the right to the return of their extraordinary contributions, and the “reimbursement of social assets” (shareable surplus) within a term generally of 90 days. This “departure” arrangement should be thought of and agreed upon from the beginning when the cooperative is founded, even though it is clear that in the beginning, being immersed in making the cooperative survive, no one thinks about this; it should be done, because it is thinking about the future, and because each member should be clear about their rights from the very beginning.
In our societies the member who resigns from the cooperative tends to leave without recovering, many times, not even their contributions; likewise, those who die, their relatives do not tend to receive any benefit that by rights the family members are due. For some members, having joined a cooperative is even a financial loss. In the case that there are voices that are raised about this, some board members pull out the ghost that “distributing is decapitalizing”.
If the cooperative does not pay the member who resigns, or the relatives of those who die, in accordance with their rules and the rights of each member, the cooperative signals distrust in its own future, and sends an erroneous message that they are not members, that the “cooperative does not belong to its members”, which undermines any sense of ownership of those who stay in the cooperative, and those in the community who observe it. If in contrast, the members fulfill the rights that each members has on leaving the cooperative, that they be paid the part that corresponds to them that the cooperative has at that moment, probably that person will leave with a good amount of resources, and happy for having been a member of a coop. In the short term, this is a hard moment for the cooperative, because it is going to disburse in cash resources what it surely needs; at the same time, each member will see themselves in the person who resigns: in the same way that they treat the person who leaves, they will treat me. If the member joined the cooperative with little, and leaves with a good amount of resources, those who remain will ask themselves: if after the cooperative fails, will we be the most unlucky ones? The doubts will keep them up at night. But in the long term, those who are left are less, which means that they will receive more from the future resources that the cooperative accumulates; more than that, each member, seeing that the one who left took what corresponded to him, will confirm that in truth he is a member of the cooperative, that the cooperative really does belong to him.
Let us talk about numbers to estimate the amount that could be due to a person who resigns. What is the arrangement with the member who leaves? A member who leaves or dies, that person or their relatives have the right to part of the assets or resources that the cooperative has generated. Let us help ourselves with an example. If through the use of the “cooperative fund” or the “reinvestment fund”, extraordinary contributions of $100 per member, and donations that the cooperative received, a cooperative has assets valued at $200,000; if that cooperative had 20 members at its founding 10 years ago; then if one of them resigns from the cooperative, they are due $10,000 (200,000/20 = 10,000). This amount could be paid over a term that the statutes indicate, or, if the cooperative does not have the $10,000 available, they can arrive at friendly arrangements for the time frame for the payment.
The biggest impact of this fact, nevertheless, is not in the financial “payback”, but in the fact that the 19 remaining members, and the rest of the community, confirm that effectively the cooperative does belong to its members. This is the seed of incomparable ownership. This implies greater trust, loyalty and the deployment of individual and collective capacities.
Concluding this section, distribution in the cooperative generates equity, and incentivizes the development of each member. An estimate of 40% of the surplus protect the cooperative from losses, increases their investments or their own capital fund, and contributes to the community with unique investment in education. With an estimated 50% of the surplus, the cooperative incentivizes the development of the capacities of each member, their trust and mutual loyalty. And with an estimated 10% of the surplus, the cooperative ensures the recognition of members who leave the cooperative, far from seeing it as a “financial loss”, they recognize the rights of the cooperative member and with that plant the seed of ownership. This collective and individual outcome is the way in which the cooperative distributes its surplus with equity, which is connected to the virtuous peasant institutions of giving-receiving-paying back, expressed in shared labor, sharecropping, and shared harvesting, among other institutions.
Now that distribution with equity appears obvious, along with its importance. How can it be carried out?
4. How to implement equitable distribution
Inequitable pay back… breaks down the organization
The Spanish, Mexicans and US tried to dominate the Apaches; they failed. The Apaches had the nant’an as their leaders, they were decentralized, operated in circles. Their adversaries, as they did with the Aztecs and the Incas, did away with the
nant’an, but the Apaches did not fall apart, immediately another nant’an would emerge. But one day the North Americans donated cattle to the nant’an; since cattle were scarce, the nant’an had the power to distribute them, so everyone wanted to be nant’an, the egalitarian power structure became hierarchical. The Apaches were defeated.
(Based in Brafman, O. and Beckstrom, R.A., 2007, The spider and the starfish. Barcelona: Empresa Activa).
This historical passage shows us that distribution is more than distribution of surplus. It is important to have holistic egalitarian structures that include equitable rules and mechanisms for carrying them out. Before continuing, we cannot avoid comparing this event of the Apaches with the action of the government in the parable at the beginning of this article; the government in the parable, and the North Americans in this other one, seek to subordinate the cooperative or the Apaches, the first donates land to them, and the second donates cattle, in both cases without “payback”, thus they undermine them before their members, leave them not looking toward their community, which causes the cooperative and the Apaches to fall apart. Militarily the Apaches were indomitable, but a simple donation eroded their entire organization, like termites on wood. How did this happen?
The Apaches lacked equitable rules for the distribution of assets donated to their leaders. The North Americans took advantage of that gap, and donated the asset that was the scarcest, cattle, directly to the nant’an and not to the Apache tribe that surely had their own organization. This practice internally stirred up the Apaches, who fought over being nant’an, for having that connection to the North Americans and accessing the cattle; surely, like the managers or presidents in conventional cooperatives, the nant’an said to their tribe that the “cattle had cost them”, that they should be content with what “trickled down”, that they were their “connections”, and that without them they would all die of hunger -or in other words, the evil of the “big headed dwarf” began to corrode the minds of the nant’an and sow distrust in the rest of the tribe. This process led them to become hierarchical structures, and consequently to collective failure; it is what has also happened to most of the conventional cooperatives.
Cooperatives, in contrast to the Apaches, have rules and mechanisms for equitably distributing the surplus (including donations), but they lack democratic processes in their functioning, which is why they do not comply with their rules for equitable distribution. In many cases the cooperatives were started by the State with donations in land or other assets, undermining them from their own beginnings. International organizations (buyers, financiers and donors) have continued on this same path. Like the North Americans with the Apaches, they only connect with the nant’an of the cooperatives (managers or presidents), and they are not interested in knowing the consequences that their actions provoke. How can cooperatives fulfill their rules and make distribution their most valuable attribute for growing equitably?
This point about the Apaches leads us to understand that a cooperative that distributes its surplus with equity is that which, in addition to having rules for it, is democratic and transparent: See Figure 3.
If the organs, in democratic exercise, ensure the fulfillment of the agreements about equitable distribution, that cooperative will embark at a good port. In the case of the Apaches, their organs operated around resisting militarily, including their food, but they lacked the rules for donations and relationships with external actors. We can imagine that the Apaches, in decentralized groups, hunted animals for food; for which they had their rules and they applied them, but not so that some nant’an individually might receive 10 head of cattle as a gift behind the backs of the tribe, even precisely for their tribe.
This combination (rules-democracy) requires, nevertheless, a third foot: transparency. It is depressing to find members who after contributing for 5, 10 or 15 years do not know how to add up their contributions, and that do not recognize their rights over the surplus. It is not just having democratic economic management coherent with the rules themselves and the rotation of members in the different offices and decision making in the corresponding organs, but informational transparency with the members and with the allies. The idea of transparency or accountability in the cooperative is not being subject to trial, measured and humiliated by “the magic of the numbers”. It is sharing information that in turn forms and commits the members. A member can understand that their surplus might be $30 per qq of coffee that they have delivered to the cooperative, if he is informed about how that surplus was produced; otherwise that person will see that surplus as “an award” or a “favor” of the patron, as his historical rules make him see it. Distributing surplus implies distributing responsibilities (democracy) and information; the way “the legal reserve”, “investment fund” and “social fund”; the expenses and income… were produced and used. This information forms people and commits them: the member, based on transparent information, will want to participate in the definition of the goals for the year for their cooperative, and will want to be part of the implementation of those goals, because he recognize that his individual surplus will increase, that the benefits to his community will improve, that if the cooperative increases its reinvestment, any member who leaves will be able to go with more resources. In addition, if the first tier cooperative is a member of a second tier cooperative, the member also needs to be informed about the second tier cooperative, know how surplus is generated in that organization, and how much is due his cooperative, and how much of that amount is due each member. That explanation can happen in an assembly, in visits to each member family, on whiteboards or through brochures, and on the day of the distribution of surplus, combine festivities and information.
Correspondingly, transparency implies being accountable; for example, it is commendable that the credit record include columns for the amount of credit, amount past due and contributions; it is also commendable that the record include the amount that the member is leaving for “legal reserves”, “social fund” and for the “reinvestment fund”; the first format for the record contains control information for the member, and the second format has the accounting of the cooperative to its members. Being accountable in the assembly about their resources expresses the rights of each member, and it is an obligation of the cooperative that each member know that. From here, if the members are informed about each step of their cooperative, they will be committed to their cooperative, if their cooperative faces difficulties, they will sweat the fear of failing and will row the canoe together even in the midst of the biggest waves.
Equitable distribution is possible within a framework of democracy and transparency. There, being a cooperative member is thinking beyond salary, beyond raw materials and beyond exported product; it is thinking about the entirety of the cooperative, and the entirety of the chain of actors where value is created. In other words, it is breaking down the walls of Figure 2 and understanding that what creates value is the human work of the working person, producer, processer, importer, roaster and seller of the coffee in the stores and coffee shops. It is “I touch you and you touch me”, entering into different worlds. This implies including the international organizations and companies, which goes in the direction of global triangulation that we worked on in several other articles, about an alliance of actors that work for equitable distribution.
You read a book from beginning to end. You lead a business just the opposite way. You start with the end, then you do what you have to in order to achieve it.
Harold Geneen, 1984, Managing. New York: Double-day
At the beginning of the article we asked ourselves how cooperatives can distribute (“pay back”) in order to grow with equity. Equitable distribution in a renovated cooperative is very different from the distribution of the market in the neoliberal economy, which is one unilateral way, from society to businesses and institutions, from which there is no “pay back” beyond what “trickles down”.
In the renovated cooperative, and in alliance with global actors, equitable distribution is illustrated in Figure 4.
It is the distribution of surplus combining the collective (social fund, reinvestment fund, and legal reserves) and the individual (direct distribution to the member for their differentiating actions and payment of what by right is due the member who leaves); it is financial and social distribution. Then, equitable distribution implies that the organization be democratic (rotation of officers, collegial decisions and compliance with the rules). Then equitable distribution implies distributing information under the maxim that the more informed the members are, the better their decisions will be.
This notion of equitable financial, social and political distribution (democratic and transparent), mobilize energies and hearts when it is connected to the endogenous institutions of the members, in our case, the peasantry. Consequently, each member feels part of the cooperative, seeks to know its goals, have an impact on them and commit themselves to fulfilling them.
Finally, when the members and their global allies follow equitable distribution connected to endogenous institutions, that is when they see the entirety of the cooperative and the entirety of the value-added chain with equity. Far away are left the “walls” that separated the worlds. Paraphrasing Harold Geneen, we organize a cooperative from its end, from its equitable distribution to the benefit of the members and their local and global communities. The more that is distributed, the more that it grows.
 René has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation, member of the COSERPROSS cooperative, and associate researcher of the IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium). email@example.com
 Mauss (1979: 204-211), based on a type of distribution known as potlach, practiced in Eskimo societies in the Northwest of the US, finds the triple obligation of the gift culture: giving, receiving and paying back. “You do not have the rights to reject a gift, a potlack, because acting in this way makes clear that you are afraid to have to pay back and be left diminished, it is losing the “importance” of your name, it is declaring oneself beaten in advance, or in some cases proclaiming oneself victor or invincible” (p. 208). Marcel Mauss, 1979, Ensayo sobre los Dones. Motivo y forma de cambio en las sociedades primitivas, en: Sociología y Antropología, Madrid. Note that this identified institution is pretty similar to institutions of indigenous communities in Latin America.
 Polanyi, K., 1976, El sistema económico como proceso institucionalizado, en: Antropología y Economía (ed. Godelier, M.), Barcelona pp. 155-178
 Santana, M.E., 2014, “Reciprocidad y Redistribución en una Economía Solidaria” in: Ars & Humanitas 8/1. Slovenia.
 Surpluses result from deducting costs and expenses of the cooperative, amortization (value for deterioration of fixed assets). In associative organizations the term “profits” is used more, which is pretty similar to “surpluses”. The term “earnings” is different, there could be earnings through a discount if a product is sold above its acquisition price.
 W. Berrios, from the CAFOD aid agency, refers to the fact that some aid agencies linked to churches in Europe tend to withdraw their support for organizations that in theory assume the social and solidarity economy approach, but in practice do not follow it, and that instead become part of conventional mediation.
 Several buyer companies left Fair Trade on realizing that their premium payments were not getting to the member families, so they formed another movement called direct trade, to get around “cooperative mediation”. There are also European enterprises and cooperatives that buy coffee or cacao in Central America and want the cooperative that they work with to distribute their surpluses; correspondingly, some of them avoid the second-tier cooperatives and prefer buying directly from the first-tier cooperatives.
 Polanyi, K., 2001, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Second Edition. Google Books. (First publication in English in 1957).
 See: Jack Stack, 2002, A Stake in the Outcome, New York: Doubleday. Stack, along with other workers, founded an innovative enterprise in the United States. In this book he recounts how they struggled with this issue from the beginning of their company. If they did it as a company, how much more should a cooperative!
I dedicate this article to my daughter Itza Irene and my sons Jaren and Inti Gabriel.
Planting a cooperative
A cooperative was attacked from outside and inside; it went broke. Its administrative council called the last assembly where they provided an accounting of each cent of the cooperative, the motorcycle, the computer, the desks, the portfolio of debts…
Given that their own sons and daughters and other youth from the community formed a new cooperative, the assembly agreed to donate all their resources to them: “We started with 10,000 córdobas and we worked 20 years, receive these 300,000 córdobas and let them serve our community at least 30 times more than us”, they said. Along the paths and creeks the rumor of the people was left etched in the stones: “The president, the Vice President, all left with a clean slate”, “humble and honest they started, humble and honest they left”. And more helpful”, shouted an elderly woman.
The 10,000 or 200,000 was not as important as the humility, honesty and service.
Is this what it means to be a cooperative member? Asked the granddaughter of the president. “In part, daughter, in part”, responded her mother as she gave her a hug.
The graveyard for cooperatives is sizable, larger in some countries than in others, generally because their members forget that the cooperative is a mean for a larger objective, their community. They do not follow their own agreements. Some of their board members “get big heads”, stay in their posts under “death do they part”, and others take over the resources that belong to all the members of the cooperative. In this way the collective effort turns into “damned money” that is served mouth to mouth in bars, and this type of cooperative, like a vine that climbs into the branches of lemon, tangerine and orange trees, choking them off and preventing them from bearing fruit, chokes off the communities where their members come from.
The parable reveals a different prospect, where even death, a good death, can generate life. Sporadically we know how to find some cooperatives that, even going broke, plant the future: they leave good footprints in women and men who were their members. This footprint is like the collective effort of 300,000 córdobas that the cooperative did not split up into pieces, nor let some few appropriate them, as happens with most peasant families who are always dividing up their land into pieces. Those members, in assembly, agreed to give it to the new cooperative that was starting, and committed it to return to the community “30 times more”. Behind this collective effort are values like humility and honesty that guide their steps, and what the cooperative cultivated and the elderly woman observed: service. Behind these values and that sense of service is the vision of a cooperative as a means (instrument) of living communities, that is the horizon in which that inheritance of values and resources become very important, but let us notice, just “partly”, as the mother points out to her daughter.
Those of us who also share these perspectives and support these processes in rural communities tend to be asked by rural families, with some incredulity, why do you come in to support us? What interest do you have in us when not even presidents of cooperatives nor mayors visit us? Even though in our mind it is that “part” of being cooperatives that the stones whisper “along the paths and creeks”, sometimes we have responded recounting the experience of the Catholic Church between 1958 and 1978, within the framework of its social doctrine, that opened the doors of their churches and monasteries and allowed for decades of religious and laity to accompany impoverished families in their communities; that experience allowed believing that God was living in these impoverished families, a seed of service and commitment that has germinated in hundreds of people.. Other times we have responded alluding to the fact that each person has a sense of service, and that each person deploys that service in a thousand ways in the places where they live.
In this article we show the idea of stewardship as a more thought out response to the questions that they tend to ask us. Stewardship is a perspective that gives more meaning to cooperativism and that adds another additional “part” about what the mother saw and the daughter heard in the parable. We do so basing ourselves on something from the indigenous, religious and business traditions, to then conceive of the cooperative as a rooted organization that could take on stewardship in their communities. At the end of the article we re-conceptualize this idea of stewardship as the greatest motor and the most intense light of humanity.
1. Seventh generation thinking
“Now we crown you with the sacred emblem of buck antlers, the emblem of your lordship. Now you will become a mentor of the people of the Five Nations. The thickness of your skin will be seven tranches, in other words you will be a test against anger, offensive actions and criticism. […] Look and listen to the wellbeing of all the people, and always have present in mind not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are still below the surface of the earth, the future nation that has not yet been born.”
(Law of the Iroquois nation written between 1142 and 1500)
A Confederation of five Iroquois nations in the United States wrote their law between the years 1141 and 1500, that started seventh generation thinking. It is a principle of innovative stewardship, conceived and taken on prior to the Spanish colonization in Latin America, and before the British colonization in the United States. The principle suggests that in each deliberation its impact up to the seventh coming generation should be taken into account, that is, thinking about the great-great grandchildren of our great-great grandchildren. In other words, when we deliberate, make decisions and take actions we should ask ourselves: “Where is the seventh generation in these decisions? Where are we going to take that generation? What are they going to have?” Imagine if you were an Iroquois, let us say centuries ago, when the climate was relatively stable, your people were connected to nature, living certainly with conflicts between nations, you had that thought to the seventh generation. Meanwhile now, in the current conditions of climate and degraded nature, we realize clearly that we have abandoned that thinking. In spite of that, this thought challenges and guides us. Correspondingly, the decisions that we make today on the environment, water, energy, social relations between indigenous and non-indigenous people, the relations between women and men, or about the life of the communities, are going to have an impact on the lives of coming generations, up to the seventh, which is a nation of people who have yet to be born. It is a matter of living and working for the benefit of that future seventh generation; that really is thinking long term!
There are two ways of understanding this principle. The first way, if each generation differs from the previous one by 20 years, the seventh generation is in 140 years, which is why we should think about 140 years in our deliberations and decisions: see Figure 1.
The second way is varying the thinking about the seventh generation, and expanding the period in years in which a person is touched (influenced, awoken) in their lives by their great-great grandfather/grandmother, who in turn was touched by their great-great grandfather/grandmother. In other words, we place ourselves in a 360 year period and from there, looking 180 years backward (7 generations) and 180 years forward (7 generations), we can understand our roots and plant our future: see Figure 2.
When from our peasant realities we look at the questions asked within the framework of the seventh generation, they seem very hard. Following the first perspective, most peasant families are reducing their land area by inheritance and the sale of land, this means that the seventh generation will be left without land, and with a relationship divorced from nature, for example. Given the graveyard for cooperatives and those cooperatives taken over by elites, what cooperative are we leaving for the seventh generation?
Following the second perspective, this very reality of the division of land is demonstrated by looking at the 180 years since our mothers/fathers and grandmothers/grandfathers, and so we question ourselves looking at the the next 180 years: How can we stop this dividing up? What are we leaving the great-great grandchildren of our great-great grandchildren? We can respond to these questions in each family and community, or we can respond to them alluding to current issues like climate change, water…we can also see them from the history of our countries with a historical perspective, issues or challenges like peace and indigenous and non-indigenous social relations. For the case of Nicaragua, Oscar René Várgas (1999) argues, based on an event that happened in the XVI Century, more than 400 years ago, that Nicaragua is a prisoner of the syndrome of authoritarianism and disregard for law; Alejandro Bendaña (2019) presents to us the invisibility and margination of women by historians and the guerrilla leaders themselves in the war of Sandino between 1926 and 1934, something that in light of our current realities appears not to have changed. In that 400-year view and 100-year view, it frightens us to confirm that authoritarianism (hierarchical structures) and gender inequality, both accompanied by violence, changed so much as to not change “even a little”. We find the same thing in each country. It would seem that each generation that has gone by has not been able to leave not even a little change that might benefit the seventh generation, it would seem that each generation intensifies those old and harmful institutions.
The notion of stewardship, from the Iroquois indigenous tradition, begins to move us. It makes us think about the change of any “syndrome”.
2. Stewardship in the biblical tradition
The Catholic and Evangelical religions, professed by most of the population in Latin America, have the notion of stewardship in the Bible, which can be understood in two ways. The first way is God as the creator of the earth, where people are his administrators (stewards). Paul explains it this way: “Because we are collaborators with God, and you are the work of God, God´s edifice” (1 Cor 3:9). Stewardship is oikonomos: the person who administers. The second perspective is that people, women and men, are co-creators with God: if previously they had to multiply as the creation of God, in the new testament women and men are co-creators: “Go and make disciples of all peoples” (Mt 28:19).
The first perspective assumes that the patrón (owner) of all is God, and that tends to justify “each one of the verticalisms on earth”, warns the ex-Jesuit priest, Peter Marchetti. Correspondingly, Marchetti continues, “at the level of subjectivity, it is up to the grassroots to begin to work on the concept of God”. The second perspective as “co-creators” is a more horizontal perspective, even though the subordinated relationship of nature to human being persists. Marchetti counsels us: “The challenge is recovering traditional ecological knowledge that existed prior to the idea of God the patrón; the path is emulating traditional knowledge to be able to dismantle the idea of God the patrón.” Correspondingly, the Iroquois seventh generation thinking, for example, is very useful for us, because it comes precisely from prior to the Spanish and English colonization, where we could say that the “patrón” is the seventh generation.
From both sections, our challenge is “working on the subjectivity at the same time as the materiality”. The latter is, for example, the democratization of organizations and their economies, while the subjectivity is working on attitudes. Among these attitudes is dialoguing with the biblical perspectives of God as “creator” (patrón) of everything and humans as co-creators, as well as dialoguing with our great-great grandfathers and grandmothers, and at the same time thinking about the impact of our actions on – or dialoguing with – the great-great grandchildren of our great -great grandchildren. Here are the first brushstrokes about what stewardship is, which combines subjectivity and materiality, begins to dialogue with other perspectives, generations and with the attitude itself to free ourselves from the “patróns”, not matter what they may be. Now let us look at how businesses address and take on stewardship, to later focus on cooperatives.
3. Stewardship in businesses
In the past the church and the military caste dominated the world. 30 years ago the private sector dominated the world. Common interest, the State, education, the church, health care, the army are all read from the perspective of business; for example, each one of these areas or institutions are measured by their efficiency, costs, and their power relationships defined as technical things, that can be resolved through social engineering, through management. It is recognized that businesses create jobs, that they fight against racism, assume actions compatible with environmental sustainability and “social responsibility.” Business people who achieve financial success are admired as true heroes, and are named as directors of health care, education, churches or presidents of countries, like war heroes or religious martyrs used to be venerated, no matter what side they were on.
We identify two perspectives in these enterprises. In the first perspective are most of the large corporations, who prioritize their profits, dividends (% of profits) for their shareholders, while they are desperate to produce wealth today, and satisfy consumer society; this is short term thinking that produces short term results. There are few corporations in the second perspective, they are, for example, investors in pension and insurance funds, businesses that innovate, invest in the formation of their staff and get involved in profitable recycling actions instead of dumping it in spaces of poor countries; they look to develop long term thinking (MacNamara, 2004). Nevertheless, business organizations, like the churches and military structures in past centuries, intensify those millennial authoritarian, patriarchal and hierarchical structures that concentrate wealth and power. It changed so much in order to not change much at all.
Recognizing these hard institutions, and at the same time seeing the potential of companies, Block (2013) proposes the notion of stewardship as
An alternative to leadership. Stewardship asks us to be profoundly responsible for the results of an institution, without forcing the purpose of others to be defined, controlling them or overprotecting the rest. It can be defined more simply as ordering the dispersion of power.
Block defines stewardship as the change in the governance of businesses, that distribute power, privileges and wealth in favor of the people below and people marginalized in the businesses. Stewardship as “alternative to leadership” conceived as hierarchical and patriarchal, that does not subdue nor treat others as “minors” (“overprotected”); more than directing organizations, it is cultivating organizations, more than controlling and deciding for others, it is facilitating so that people might be empowered – controlling is accepting “the dispersion of power”; facilitating is democratizing (ordering) power. Stewardship is seen as an option of action at the service of those with little power and for the common good, it is long term thinking. This is taking care of the wellbeing of the next generation. How can this idea of stewardship be carried out? Block thinks that it is difficult to carry out with the dominant patriarchal leadership of our times, in the service of the short term and being operational with those few who have power.
Block provides the elements that characterize a real stewardship, whose notion we try to draw in Figure 3.
Stewardship has to do with a partnership of working together in democracy, which is opposed to the colonial belief that those above are the only ones responsible for the success of the organization and the wellbeing of the members. It is a matter of empowering each member of the enterprise, where it is assumed that their security and freedom is in their own hands, contrary to depending on those above, believing that they know what the rest of the people need, and contrary to the fact that they treat people as subordinated children. And it is a matter of service, that is committed to their organization and their community without expecting anything in exchange, cares for the common good and creates community, and distributes power and wealth, because it assumes a commitment for something beyond oneself, contrary to looking out for ones own interest at the cost of others.
In this notion of stewardship, of working together, in partnership, empowered and in service, underlies the idea that our life is brief, “we are on borrowed time”, as rural populations say, and our work in any organization or area is even briefer, which is why we want to turn over any task that we have taken on in the past in a more advanced stage. In this sense, let us remember the parable of the talents (Mt 25. 14-30), that we should multiply the talent received; this challenge becomes difficult in the case of peasant families, for whom if that talent was the land that they received from their parents as inheritance, after some 30-40 years that land would have to be more fertile and not “worn out” (less fertile, eroded soils) – something very difficult, while for enterprises, the land conceived as something that produces only based on agrochemicals, it is impossible for them to turn over land in 30 or 40 years with more fertile soils.
Bringing those questions about the seventh generation here, we would say: How can businesses be built in partnership, that empower and are of service to the seventh generation? How can the land be worked so that it might benefit the great-great grandchildren of our great-great grandchildren? If the land is the mother of any product and any life, can businesses be built of any size with long term thinking, which would be watchful over its social and environmental impact and the elements of stewardship that Block advocates? Paraphrasing Jesus of Nazareth, probably it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than C-Corporations to assume this role of stewardship that Block proposes. Nevertheless, from the world of corporations there are good attempts; B-corporations, founded in 2006 and by the end of 2018 totaled 2500 in 50 countries around the world, could meet what Block proposes; B-corporations are certified for having good governance, transparency and good social and environmental impact. Also businesses whose workers become owners, governed by the ESOP law in some countries, could be taking on Block´s stewardship, particularly those that function under the approach of “open book management”, because they cultivate a culture of ownership (of being owners) for long term success.
4. Stewardship in cooperatives
B- corporations and ESOP enterprises with “open book management” could be exercising a role of stewardship. But the most suitable seem to be cooperatives, and even more so, if they bring together people with few resources. The problems is that most cooperatives also are an expression of hierarchical structures, like C-corporations, and are more and more moved by the short term thinking of the god of the market. Recognizing this fact, we argue that a renovated cooperative, that “is born again”, can be a serious option. To assume this role of stewardship, the cooperative must take up the ideas of Block and impress on it their own historical essence, because it is with renovated cooperatives that the ideas of Block could have greater possibilities of being carried out. See Figure 4.
We reread Block from the perspective of a renovated cooperative: in partnership we understand that people from different ages (grandparents, offspring, grandchildren), sexes and social sectors (e.g. workers) participate in a cooperative; that the cooperative is a space where each person is empowered in horizontal and vertical agricultural and non-agricultural diversity, using the market and not subordinated to it; and that the members cultivate a sense of voluntary service coherent with the idea of co-creation in dialogue with nature. Given this interpretation, the type of renovated cooperative is one that walks with both of its “feet”, the associative and the business one, is distinguished by its democracy, transparency and for distributing its profits (wealth). With these elements the members, and also their allies, make their own values and cooperative values their own, more and more intensely illuminated by a long-term perspective, and deliberately seeking to have an impact on – and dialogue with – its seventh generation.
This is the perspective of stewardship which a reborn cooperative implements, which pushes it to reorganize itself systematically as an alternative to despotic, hierarchical and patriarchal leadership. This is the promise that each member makes to the other members and to themselves from the first day in which they join a cooperative, which in turn, bears the potential of significant self-realization, which frequently is lacking in our organizations.
Correspondingly, how can a cooperative be reorganized from a role of stewardship? How can a cooperative member be a steward? First, a member accepts an office conceiving it as a service, serving other people, it is not to serve oneself at the cost of the other people. The office responds to the mandate of the members, which is why this service implies willingness and availability, being a person who does not have time, and always has time to serve other people, who listens and helps them to connect events and ideas, so that the members resolve their problems and/or take advantage of opportunities. Coherently, a person who occupies the office of president fulfills their role of president, and respects the role of each member of the Administrative Council and respects the functions of organs of the cooperative (Administrative Council, Oversight Board, Education Committee, Credit Committee). The same does the vice president, treasurer, secretary. Likewise, each member of the Oversight Board, the credit committee, the education committee. In addition to taking on their own role and respecting the other roles, these member help other people to exercise their offices; if the secretary has difficulties in writing the minutes, or the treasurer doing their financial report, the people from other offices, or those who already had those offices, support them (facilitates or trains them), so that they might lean to do the minutes and the financial report, but without taking their place. The assembly does not name people to posts to just to fill a post, nor out of formality, but it is a real need.
Promoting the culture of stewardship is going against the current of the culture of most of our rural organizations, where a person tends to believe they are the patrón and God, it is like a person walked around with 10 hats on their head at the same time, the hat of president, secretary, treasurer, oversight board, assembly, education committee, credit committee…That is not possible, right? That is what generally happens. One of the consequences of this fact is that that person believes himself to be the owner of the cooperative, and treats the members as their “minors”, does not let them grow, wants them to serve him, be subject to him; he disempowers them. “My poor patron, he thinks that the poor person is me” goes the song of Cabral, that seems applicable to this type of person with multiple hats, and who does not obey the mandate of his assembly. A president or manager with the commitment of stewardship is completely different: he supports and celebrates the work of the oversight board, administrative council, credit committee, because those structures help him to fulfill the sacred responsibility of co-creating the cooperative to the benefit of their communities, to redistribute power and surpluses, to empower the members so that they might take their own steps.
Secondly, a cooperative member, with or without an office, administers in a responsible way – and generates – financial resources (money), physical resources (building, infrastructure, assets) and productive resources (coffee, cacao, beans, bananas…) for the members. There is an awareness that those resources will last beyond our present lives. No one individually appropriates them under the pretext that “it is my effort”. Everyone cultivates the relationships of their organization with other global and local actors (financiers, buyers, accompaniers), without centralizing those contacts for their own exclusive benefit. Each person is accountable to themselves, their families, the cooperative and their community. It makes them think about co-creating and benefiting their community and the seventh generation, a task for which they are guided by the virtuous rules from the time of the great great grandparents of their great great grandparents, and in accordance with agreements and rules of their cooperative in line with the cooperative principles defined 175 years ago, in 1844, by 28 working artesans in cotton factories in the city of Rochdale, England. Correspondingly, any loan of money to a member, for example, is done from the appropriate body, according to agreements, with a receipt and later accountability to the assembly; the board members understand that they cannot make and use the resources of other at their own discretion, that there are organs and rules under which the resources, information and power relations flow. This very specific exercise can be generalized to other levels, including the country, building citizens with rights and obligations, not so much consumer societies.
Third, support to people to exercise their offices, and the fact that there are rules and structures that guide being cooperative members, implies also that the members be committed to learning and changing. If there is no transformation inside each member, if there is no re-evaluation of our desires, yearnings and expectations as far as we are explicit about the harmful and virtuous rules that govern us, any structural change for the operations of our cooperatives will be like a stripped bolt. In fact, in Central America we have experienced dictatorships and revolutions, a boom of organizations and religions, and all those changes have been like stripped bolts, our lives continue being guided by century-old structures and harmful rules that reproduce social, environmental and gender inequalities, which make us see the cooperative as “a thing of men”, “mono-cropping services” and “hierarchical and authoritarian bodies.”
Joining a cooperative means that we have chosen and accepted that relationship of organizational and personal transformation to energize our communities. The choice and acceptance become our contract. Our desires for financial gain, participation, self-expression and the expectations that we have for being part of a community, are only possible if we are committed to the objectives, results, limitations and principles of the organization in general. The agreement on the elements of the contract is the basis for the association and the basis of the community. Stewardship offers more options and local control, in exchange for that promise of commitment on the part of its members, a promise that should be given from the very beginning (Block, 2013).
With these three elements the cooperative can “be born again” and assume its role of stewardship in light of its community, which is as local as it is global. Forming its own membership, generating collective innovations, working on equitable rules, adding value to the products of the community, producing good land…to benefit the seventh generation.
The Church dominated the world for centuries. The military as well. For half a century, businesses have dominated the world. Century after century the land and the relationships between human groups seem to have deteriorated, currently we find ourselves in an inflection point in terms of the future of the earth; the domination of the private sector – the god of the market – intensified it. Our bet is that the decade of 2020 the community might begin, through its forms of cooperative organization, not to dominate the world, but contribute to the democratization of the world, and that we rethink nature not as something subordinated to homo sapiens, not even in a relationship humans-nature, but homo sapiens as part of nature. This is possible if the communities, through their cooperatives, and other organizational expressions, take on the role of stewardship.
In this article we have reviewed the idea of stewardship from the indigenous tradition, religious tradition and from economic business sciences, in order to re-conceptualize cooperatives. From this review and re-conceptualization, we understand that stewardship can be applied to individuals, businesses, organizations, institutions and communities. Stewardship is the word that summarizes the vision of the cooperative, and any organization, for its members. That is so if the community is the starting point, while at the same time the horizon – that community as local as it is global. It makes us learn another way of understanding and organizing life. What is the idea of stewardship that we have been shaping in this article?
Figure 5 shows the perspective of the community that rereads the cooperative in its material expression (organizational) and its subjective expression (personal), from which originate 4 elements that make the meaning of stewardship visible.
The community of human beings and nature is something living, geographically concentrated and at the same time globally clustered through dense relationships around products. This utopia or horizon makes us reread the transformation of a cooperative in its material expression, organizational change, and in its subjective expression, individual change. In other words, a person awakens, for example, to the fact that only through collective actions can some problems be resolved, like hierarchical and authoritarian structures; it is that material-subjective combination that mobilizes the cooperative in its role of stewardship, expressed in its 4 elements. First element, thinking about the great-great grandchildren of our great-great grandchildren, in other words, more than 140 years, which is contrary to the short term thinking or the mining and push button culture, of wanting to earn money immediately believing that tomorrow everything could change. Second element, co-creating that world along with other people, with nature and with divine energies beyond our human comprehension, empowering particularly impoverished people, which is contrary to believing oneself to be the patrón (owners of this world), intensifying social and environmental inequality. Third element, cultivating a spirit of voluntary service, taking on offices and cultivating the cooperative, which in the long term benefits each individual, which is contrary to abusing the cooperatives for personal profit at the cost of coming generations. Fourth element, being guided by human values like humility, honesty and respect for the collective good, which is contrary to just betting on finances.
With this reconceptualization of stewardship, we can reorganize the cooperative in another way. We can even expand on the Iroquois law; that each person have “skin as thick as the bark of a pine tree” to confront not only “anger, offensive actions and criticisms”, but to exercise a stewardship that benefits “the future nation that has not yet been born.”
In the parable, “planting a cooperative, the daughter “reads” being a cooperative is about that collective force, values and sense of mission, while her mother recognizes that precisely is what it means to be a cooperative member, even though just “in part”. With the expansion of the framework that we have worked on, the reader can read this article again and contribute “30 times more” to the effectiveness of their decisions and actions. Even so, in light of the seventh generation, that contribution to the notion of stewardship, surely, will continue being “in part”.
 René has a PhD in development studies, is an associate researcher of the IOB-Antwerp University (Belgium), collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (WPF) and a member of the cooperative COSERPROSS RL. firstname.lastname@example.org I am grateful to Steve Sheppard and Mark Lester, president and director of WPF, respectively, for the inspiration and ideas that they have offered us in the work with cooperatives, and particularly in regards to a very brief first text on this topic, published at the end of 2019.
 We recount the experience of the Catholic Church, but the same happened with a good number of protestant churches, particularly the historic ones- Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans. Also, university students in those years, without necessarily professing any religious faith, also moved to the countryside and marginal neighborhoods. It is also the experience of many people who later on were connected to guerrilla movements.
 These questions we adapted from the questions that Oren Lyons, chief of the Onondaga nation, formulated and are quoted in “An Iroquois Perspective”, in: Vecsey, C. and Venables, RW (Eds), 1982, American Indian Environments: Ecological Issues in Native American History. Vol. 46.4. New York: Syracuse University Press. p. 173, 174. For a broader understanding of the indigenous culture in the United States and their lessons for today, see: Kathleen E. Allen, 2018, Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World, USA: Morgan James Publishing.
 “Touched” is when a person feels gratitude for something good that someone did for that person. In the context in which we are using it, by “touched” we mean when your great-great grandmother or grandfather made you look at your life in a different way, or something fundamental in your life, that marked you in your feelings or perspectives for the rest of your life. What is yours for the future, the possibility that you, on becoming a great-great grandfather, might influence (“touch”) the lives of your great-great grandchildren, which is possible because you had the possibility of learning about life for nearly a century.
 There have also been methodological proposals based on seventh generation thinking. One of them is the alternative proposal to the logical framework, a planning tool that organizations tend to use. See: Kathleen Allen, 2018, “Seventh Generation Thinking – A Replacement for SWOT”, https://kathleenallen.net/seventh-generation-thinking-a-replacement-for-swot/ It deals with locating ourselves in the fourth generation and from them gathering lessons from the three previous generations and using them as information for our future decisions that would include the next three generations. This can be done as an organization, particularly if there are people from 3 generations within its membership; they can be worked on in groups.
 Vargas, O.R., 1999, El Síndrome de Pedrarías. Managua: Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Nacional.
 Bendaña, A., 2019, Buenas al Pleito, Mujeres en la rebelión de Sandino. Managua: Anama ediciones.
 For example, Goodwyn (1978, The Populist Moment, New York: Oxford University Press) studied the rural populist movement that occurred between 1870 and 1910, about a peasantry that organized into cooperatives in such a way that they founded their own political party and came close to an electoral victory, but which the political and economic elites coopted and subsumed until crushing them. Goodwyn concludes that that democratic process in the United States was the last opportunity for the US nation to democratize.
 Owners can sell their businesses to their own workers, there is a law in the US and England to facilitate this. In the United States it is called Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), and in England there are two types, the incentive plan and the savings plan. There are also ESOPs in India.
 Jack Stack and a group of workers bought the business of Springfield ReManufacturing Corporation in the 1980s. More than being successful, they designed a transparent form to govern and work the business, which they called “open book management”. See: Stack, J and Burlingham, B., 2002, A Stake in the Outcome, New York: Doubleday.
Stewardship is a biblical idea. God is the creator of the earth, and people are his administrators. Paul explained it, “Because we are co-workers of God, and you are the God´s field, God´s building.” (1 Cor 3:19). Stewardship is oikonomos: a person who administers. In business the idea of stewardship evolved, from a servant to being the administrator of assets, and from there comes the word stewardship: the responsible administration of the resources of others. From here we can understand stewardship in the cooperatives as meaning that each member of the organs, and each member of the cooperative, should be a responsible administrator of the resources that belong to the members, resources that will last beyond our present lifetimes. It is a serious pledge that each member makes to the other members and to himself/herself. And it carries with it the potential for a significant self-fulfillment that is all-too-often missing in our organizations.
If a board member administers responsibly the resources of the members, resources that in the end belong to God, how can a cooperative follow this principle of stewardship? First, a title is a service, for serving other people, it is not to serve oneself at the cost of other people. Second, that service implies a willingness and availability, of being a person who does not have time, yet always has time to serve others. Third, being watchful over the resources of the members, resources that in the end belong also to the community, to humanity, to God. Fourth, it is a voluntary and watchful service in coordination with other members of the cooperative, and allies from other global and local organizations.
What do these four elements mean for the actions of a cooperative? If a post is a service, then a president fulfills his role as president, and respects the role of each member of the Administrative Council, and respects the functions of each organ of the cooperative (Administrative Council, Oversight Board, Education Committee, Credit Committee). The same with the vice president, treasurer, secretary, and each member of the Oversight Board.
When we practice biblical stewardship in the cooperative, we do not make loans without receipts, and without the approval of the credit committee, we are accountable to the members who are the owners of the resources, the board members understand that they cannot make use of the resources according to their own whims. Their sacred responsibility is to care for them.
A president or manager with a commitment to stewardship does not act on their own, but support and welcome the work of the oversight board, the administrative council, the credit committee, because these structures help them fulfill the sacred responsibility of caring for the resources of the cooperative. If the secretary has difficulties in writing up the minutes, it is up to us to support that person learn to write the minutes, but not to replace that person. If a treasurer has problems doing the financial report, it is up to us to help them, but not to replace them. People are not named to a post just to fill a vacancy.
Promoting the biblical culture of stewardship means going against the current of the culture of most of our rural organizations, where one person believes themselves to be the patron and treats the other members as fieldhands. “My poor patron, he thinks that the poor person is me” – goes the song of Cabral.
But this support also means commitment in return. If there is no transformation inside each member, if there is no re-evaluation of our wants, longings and expectations, then all of the structural change in the world will have no impact on the functioning of our cooperatives. Membership in a cooperative means we have CHOSEN and ACCEPTED this relationship. The choice and acceptance become our contract. Our desires for financial gain, participation, self-expression- whatever we may want from being part of a community- are possible only so long as we can commit to the objectives, the results, constraints, principles and difficulties of the larger organization. If we cannot support these requirements, then we should leave. If our colleagues cannot commit to this contract, they should leave or we should separate them, even if it takes time and discomfort. Agreement on the elements of the stewardship contract is the foundation for partnership and the basis for community. Stewardship offers more choice and LOCAL CONTROL in exchange for a promise from its members. The promise the larger organization requires needs to be clear and agreed to right at the beginning. (Stewardship by Peter Block)
Stewardship is administering the sacred resources of the cooperative in accordance with collective rules and with transparency and justice. These resources are financial (money), physical (building, infrastructure, assets), productive (coffee, cacao, beans, bananas…), human (people with different capacities). The rules are the statutes and agreements that the cooperative approved in their Assembly. Transparent and just action is that each organ and each member be accountable to themselves, their family, the cooperative, the community and to God.
The practice of stewardship is a different way of organizing a cooperative. But it is a better way of strengthening and sustaining its success and long life.
by Fabiola Zeledón, Freddy Pérez, Claudio Hernández, Hulda Miranda, Rebeca Espinoza and René Mendoza
Juan, president of the cooperative, got off the bus, and walked like a rooster, with his chest held high.
-Greetings, young lady. I am the president of the cooperative
-Good day, Juan.
-Call me “Mr Juan”. I was born a leader. I am the way, the truth and the money, hahaha.
-Ahh… Who said that…?
Didn´t you hear me…? Tell your Dad to send his contributions. I will give him a loan.
A sparrow that was flying around the area, seeing that was happening, crashed against a tree. The bird couldn´t believe what it was hearing!
When at last there was a restructuring of the organs and administration of a cooperative, winds of change were felt. Among other reasons, the cooperative was founded to be a democratic space and a place for learning for the members. Nevertheless, a short time after the changes, the cooperative tends to return to its old course: hierarchical structure, absence of information, disillusioned members, lack of ownership… How things change so as to not change. Why do we trip over the same stone time and time again? Here, in contrast to the sparrow, we reflect on what is happening. Then we add a second question: How can we avoid this stone and walk along the cooperative path without “crashing” into the first tree? In this article we reflect on these questions based on our own experience of recovering a cooperative.
1. That tripping stone
In Chapter 12 to 16 of the Book of Revelation in the Bible, John, from the island of Patmos, warns about the first beast that shows itself to be powerful. But he warns us that its power comes from another beast, that we should not get confused. That second beast also is powerful, but its power is not its own either, but comes from a third beast. Something similar happens in a good number of cooperatives. See Figure 1.
The manager or president personified in a person tends to appear as the patron. He says: “Aid organizations only write to me”; “I am going to give the members directions because you are like children”; “I give you loans”; “You owe me”. The members resign themselves: “to whatever he says”; “we are small producers”; “I go to him for loans”. The leader or patron who centralizes decisions and concentrates resources, ends up believing that there is no need for assemblies, that he was born a leader and that is sacred. If some institution sees that that cooperative is like a hacienda, the patron shouts to the four winds about “autonomy” and against “third party [outside] actors”. He believes himself to be the general assembly, oversight board, administrative council and manager all rolled into one. The members dream of one day becoming that patron; Fanon said that then in Algeria: “The oppressed dream about being the oppressor”.
But his power is not his own. He or she is the face, generally, of a group that is as global as it is local, who live off the control of the resources that revolve around the cooperative. These include buyers, certifiers, agro-industry, State institutions, financial organizations…Behind these acronyms are individuals who manipulate their own organizations. They say: “information confuses the members”; “Buy coffee or cacao in the street and pass it off organic”. The patron senses that he lacks power, that his power comes from that group, so he goes to church and there whispers to himself: “I am not a bad person, I was tempted by money”.
The power of this group is not its own either. It comes from the patron-fieldhand structure, wedded to capitalism. This structure says: “everything is possible with money”; “more volume, more earnings”; “everything has already been studied”; “even God does not like stupid people”. Any natural force or wealth, economic wealth and friends of the member families remain diluted in the face of this structure.
Now we are able to understand how it is that we trip over the same stone. The saying goes: “human beings are the only animal that trips twice over the same stone”. We started a cooperative, and it is trapped by this harmful group, and this group responds to that hacienda and capitalist structure. If our patron is removed from his post, the new president or administrator takes his place, they make him repeat [his term] and keep him as an errand boy, while they make him believe that he is the top honcho! What happened? That structure awaits the new president or administrator as the “spare tire”, once he arrives, they exchange him for the “flat tire”, while the “vehicle” keeps rolling on. So it is that time and time again we trip over the same stone.
2. Walking on the cooperative path
There were elections in the Reynerio Tijerino cooperative. The members were happy.
-Luis Javier Vargas, a member, quoting the Bible, exclaimed: “When the just rule, the people are happy”
-the recently named president, Justo Rufino Espinoza, responded: “Let´s not be overconfident”.
It was a moment of joy, heart, reason and consciousness.
A hummingbird that was flying by, began to sing of joy.
When we began to get tired of tripping, discovering those three “beasts” woke us up. We refused to be that patron, that “spare tire”. The brief conversation between Luis Javier and Justo Rufino reveals that individual and collective combination, between emotion and reason, between hope and reality. A person makes themselves just, they are not born just. “In an open treasure, even the most just sins”, says an old saying, that is why the new president warned: “Let´s not be overconfident”. In other words, the cooperative has to create mechanisms to build trust and produce justice. How can it do so? Here we list some mechanisms.
The first is preparing for each activity. This means studying each situation and reflecting on the notes that we have taken of past conversations and meetings. Claudio Hernández says: “I have been taking notes for years, I can lose anything in my house, but not my notes”. Freddy Pérez adds: “If I would have known that my notes were important for learning, I would have taken notes sooner”. On the basis of notes and other information, we prepare ourselves for each meeting, negotiation and activity – imagining each detail before doing things. In this way we overcome the old practice of the patron, of doing things impulsively, because you feel safe under the shadow of the second beast, we overcome relying on the patron who says “leave it to me, I will solve it”. The more we prepare ourselves and coordinate as a group, the more our confidence increases and the more we help the cooperative.
The second mechanism is realizing that in the cooperative people have the power that comes from interpreting and applying the rules of the cooperative. These rules are the result of the decisions of the Assembly, wedded to the values of our communities. Our patron are the legitimate rules and processes. We guide ourselves by these rules, and we apply them through the corresponding organs. Our loyalty is not to money, but to the general assembly composed of the members, who produce these rules and who every three years elect other members for the different posts. Money is a means; the end are the members.
So if a member is looking for a loan, he goes to the credit committee, and follows the rules that the assembly of the cooperative approved. No one should take the place of the credit committee in a cooperative; it is not like in the haciendas, where the patron is at the same time the credit committee, general assembly, oversight board and manager. Our statutes tell us that profits are redistributed in the cooperative, therefore we must redistribute the profits of the cooperative. In a cooperative each member has rights, voice and vote, without regard to whether they produce a little or a lot, each member has the right to become president, to their part of the profits, and to have a copy of the statutes of their cooperative. In a cooperative the directions do not come down from above, they are made in the Assembly, and in the other organs of the cooperative. “Oh”, said Freddy Pérez, “I thought that being a board member was solving the problems of the members, rather it is the members who solve their problems through the cooperative”. “It pains me what I experienced, I know that I should not lend the money of the cooperative to the members, but I did it again”, expressed Claudio Hernández, recognizing that those “3 beasts” have formed a nest in our minds, but that our consciousness wrestles with them, and that being a cooperative is gaining more and more terrain. “We do not need credit, we need our profits”, insists Josué Moisés Ruíz.
The third mechanism is connecting the inside forces with the outside ones. Figure 2 shows the harmful leadership style, the patron who believes himself to be the door to the cooperative and to outside the cooperative; while Figure 3 shows the style of leadership that a real cooperative practices. If the cooperative is guided by its statutes, the State will legalize its path. If this process happens making its organs function, external institutions and aid agencies will respect the cooperative; they will treat it as a cooperative, and not as a hacienda arranging everything only with the patron. For example, the credit committee will meet with the institutions or organizations that might provide credit to the cooperative. The commercialization committee will meet with commercial enterprises and organizations that provide processing services for their products.
Internally, the members of the organs visit the members, and encourage them to visit one another as members. Members of the commercialization committee visit a member family, see their product and their wet mill, and at the same time come to understand the family in their multiple interests – most deeply felt needs and dreams; it is on this basis that the committee advances in their work strategies. The members of the oversight board, credit committee, education committee and the Administrative Council all do the same. A visit is a blessing that makes friendship and trust, loyalty and truth blossom. The more informed a member family is, the more it contributes with their ideas and oversight to the cooperative; the more connections are cemented in visits that generate friendship, the more the cooperatives become instruments for the majority of their members.
The fourth mechanism is that organizational improvement must improve our farms and homes. The cooperative is not there to apply agrochemical inputs and then lie, saying that we have organic production. Nor is producing an organic crop leaving it “without applying anything”. If we visit the member families, each family should visit their plants every day as well. The cooperative is not there so that our members might consume the coffee dregs, but to consume the best of their coffee, honey, grains, vegetables, bread and the best of their enchiladas…
3. In conclusion
This article is the product of 5 months of tension, and the pursuit of a cooperative to defend its rights, speak the truth and have the strength to change. This process taught us that a small group, in alliance, is capable of making cooperativism contagious. The biggest changes start in our own minds. The rule that “we will always need a patron” or that “leaders are born” comes from the hacienda institution and capitalism, and has built a nest in our minds. How can we get that idea out of our heads? To the extent that we reflect, demonstrating it, trying mechanisms out and being persistent, we can free ourselves from that idea.
At the beginning of the article we asked ourselves why we were tripping over the same stone. Throughout the article we have discovered the “three beasts”, who have trapped most of the cooperatives in our countries. These “beasts” make us trip time and time again.
The second question was how to avoid tripping again. We listed 4 mechanism that we have experimented with: preparing oneself for each meeting and not moving impulsively, following the rules of the cooperative, being a leader who connects with the members and the external actors, and making organizational improvement go hand in hand with the improvement of our production. Our aspiration is that these four mechanisms might help us to get those harmful norms out of our minds that come from the “3 beasts”. Being a cooperative is path that we peasant families need to hone. If we do it, the hummingbirds will be joyful as well, and the sparrows will not longer crash against any trees!
Let us end this article recalling another rule of the patron: “you should not help members, because they are ungrateful”, the patrons repeat. When Sandino decided to not surrender, General José María Moncada said to him, “The people are ungrateful; what is important is living well”. Sandino did not crack. There is no better gratitude than the members recovering their cooperative and closing the door on the thief, the patron, and the three beasts, and follow their own path.
As a member of the first National Dialogue, representing the Peasant Movement Against the Canal, this peasant leader was abducted and eventually sentenced to 216 years in jail, and was released eventually as part of the second negotiations. This interview is important because it shows the perspective of the peasant movement on the government repression and killing, their solution to the crisis, and the Civic Alliance
Medardo Mairena: “They Cut Peasants Piece by Piece Until They Brought Them Down”
The peasant leader talks about the persecution of their movement, but also about the relationship they have with representatives of big business leaders in Nicaragua in the Civic Alliance.
In a matter of months, Medardo Mairena went from being under an isolation regime in jail cell 300, maximum security in the Penitentiary System of Nicaragua, to meeting in the United States with members of the Security Council of Donald Trump. In one photo he is seen in a Big League baseball stadium, and in another, pretty serious, alongside the secretary of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro.
As head of the Peasant Movement, a week ago Mairena got a hearing with the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to present a detailed report on executions of peasants by the regime of Daniel Ortega during 12 years in power. According to the document there are 55 executed leaders, and that is from April 2018 to September 25, 2019.
“They are not looking for us peasants in order to put us in jail, but to kill us”, says Mairena, who was in jail nearly a year, most of the time in maximum security cells. “During the 80s the Sandinista regime killed the peasants because some of them were commanders of the Contras; now their family members are being persecuted and murdered”, he added by phone from Boston in the United States.
Mairena used the example of his father, who was jailed for refusing to join Patriotic Military Service in the decade of the 80s. “And now (last year) it was my turn (to go to jail)”, he says. That is why he is clear that Nicaragua needs “true democratization,” and believes that it will be achieved through a negotiation in which Ortega first must show political will, freeing political prisoners, providing democratic freedoms and stopping selective assassinations of peasants.
Since when have you been opposed to the regime of Daniel Ortega?
Ideologically I have never been in agreement with him, because in the decade of the 80s my Dad was kidnapped by the same Orteguistas for thinking differently, because they wanted to force him to do Patriotic Military Service. What the peasantry and the Miskitos in those years experienced was brutal repression, in addition to the fact that they tried to impose an ideology to follow Ortega with a completely erroneous government. My Dad had his land and was dispossessed. He lost everything on being evacuated because of the war. Since then we thought that the way Ortega governed has been a failure. In the 80s he destroyed the economy and once again in power he is destroying the economy again.
Why do you think that the Sandinista regime has always gone against the peasantry?
Most of the people who took up arms in the Contras were peasants. At that time, because they confiscated land, they did not respect private property. They did the “piñata”. They wanted power and money. That showed during that mandate as well: the ambition for political and economic power. Wanting to exploit natural resources: the mafias in the Indio Maíz and Bosawas reserves. The Miskitos have defended the natural resources, and he has killed them as well. The ambition to stay in power had led him to commit crimes against humanity. Since then it has been hate against the peasants. I think that if there were greater connectivity to the internet in the countryside, there would be much more evidence about how the hate against the peasants is shown. Like how the Army, that says that it has not participated in the massacre, has murdered peasants. There have been cases where they have tortured peasants and have cut them up piece by piece until bringing them down. And it is a way of showing their hate for them, just for raising their voices and thinking differently.
You have said that Daniel Ortega used the two dialogues to buy time. What makes you think that he would do it in good faith a third time?
First of all, if he wants to negotiate, he has to free the political prisoners, allow us to demonstrate in the streets, stop the killing and persecution of peasants. These are the signs to enter into negotiations. Because we cannot go to the [negotiating] table when we know there are brothers who are being slowly killed off. We cannot sit down at a table if they are out persecuting us. It is not possible what happened to me, being in the dialogue, they took me to jail.
Do you think the dialogue is the only solution, or can there be another?
We believe that it is the best solution, because it is the way that we can avoid bloodshed, because we know that the persecution could end in a wave of violence, which would be difficult. We know that Ortega has the weapons, and already killed disarmed people. That is why it is important that there be national and international pressure so that we can find a solution through a negotiation where the people are taken into account.
The perception that exists is that while you were in jail you earned the sympathy of the opposition in the country. Do you feel a special responsibility?
Of course I do. Because I am at the head of a humble people with whom I identify. Now, other movements have supported us, because we are honest people, and do not have skeletons in our closets. Because we have always been there in the bad times, but at the front of the victims to support them. That is why we have asked the international community for the freedom of the prisoners, and advocated for the Nicaraguans who are in the detention centers, even in the United States.
How were you involved in the rebellion of last year?
We began marches and protests, and we told the people of Nicaragua that we supported the students who started the struggle. Later came the dialogue, and we know what happened: he jailed us and invented crimes. We saw the irresponsibility of the judges and prosecutors that allowed themselves to be led by their drive for their political ideology.
It is said that you still belong to the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC). How true is this?
I was a regional council person elected by the peasants in the PLC. I was not a designated candidate, rather I participated in primary elections to be the representative to the regional government. I had the support of the peasants. At that time emerged the fight for our lands over the Interoceanic Canal. That is why they tried to minimize me, and did not allow me to pass development projects in the community. I was elected for the PLC, but at this time I am not actively engaged in any party, and I am not interested in any party banner. I know that this crisis is going to end in an electoral issue, and for me that will be the decision of the people. I understand that some people, out of envy and political jealousy, are trying to discredit us, because they know that the Peasant Movement is pure.
Have you had offers for public offices?
I never got organized to obtain an office and make money. It is known that before 2018 they made me an offer on the part of the regime and other opposition parties. They offered me candidacies to be a deputy and for the municipal government. I am clear that I have had the leadership to win it, but I did not join an organization for that purpose. I did it for the peasants, and that is why I continue to be their soldier, and for those who feel represented by me. I did not accept the candidacies because they have never interested me, but that does not mean that I ignore them, because I am clear that this crisis will end in elections. That is why the people of Nicaragua have to be alert: they cannot allow people to be elected who are guilty of the grief.
Would you like to take on some public office?
I think that one does not look for public office, rather they look for you. Within the responsibility that I have, and my desire is, that it be the people who make the decision. I am not interested in obtaining those spaces; but I am interested in the fact that those spaces stay in the hands of honest people and that they respond to the people.
Have you ever been a fan of the Sandinista Front?
Never. And even less now that it has become a terrorist organization.
There are many criticisms of the Civic Alliance, which you are part of, because it is coopted by Nicaraguan big capital. Why are you supporting it?
I am with it since its founding. And for us it has been the vehicle for representation in the negotiations. The Peasant Movement has its autonomy like the other movements. So we see it as a space in light of a dialogue where the Peasant Movement will take its demands in the context of negotiations, as well as the other movements will take their own. What we are trying to do is unite our efforts, in spite of the differences that we might have. Because the love we have for Nicaragua, and the need to find solutions, have to be greater. Now it is important to point out that we have to be responsible with the unity, because we cannot allow the [practice of] divvying up of offices to come back. What we need is for the people to be the overseers, witnesses, that they propose and elect their next authorities. But at this moment, our priority is the freedom of the political prisoners and providing for those children who have their parents abducted or who were left orphaned. This struggle is not the struggle of a group, but of all Nicaraguans.
Have you not seen signs that the business sector has wanted to make arrangements behind the scenes with the regime?
In what I have been involved, I have never seen that there was an internal arrangement. Last week we were together in Washington and agreed that it is the moment that there must be more pressure. That is why we agreed that we need to seek the application of the Democratic Charter, because it is not funny that we are in the OAS, when the regime did not even permit the entry of the Commission [IACHR], and this regime cannot be democratic when it continues killing.
What accomplishment in the negotiation would satisfy you?
The democratization of Nicaragua. That I can return to my home, with my family: that I can live as we have lived; on my farm, as any peasant. That there be no persecution. There have to be changes in all the branches of the State, so that they be completely independent and that they be ruled by the Constitution. That the peasants can return peacefully to their lands.
That children t receive a good education, and that the taxes that we pay be invested in development projects in the community. That would be the most important. We know that we are not going to achieve everything, because those who lost their loved ones we are not going to get them back, unfortunately. For us they are going to live forever because they offered their lives to bring peace back to the country.
In the first months of the rebellion it was thought that the regime was in checkmate. What failed at that moment?
I think that we accepted to participate in the dialogue believing that Ortega was going to quit killing the students. Also it was necessary that all the expressions unite together to apply pressure. I think that the private sector left much to be desired at that time. We know that the people of Nicaragua asked for an indefinite strike. Unfortunately that did not happen. But we do not want to stay in the past, and in what could have been done, but in what we are going to do from now on.
But do you think there is the will on the part of the business sector now?
In these times, even though we do need to apply pressure, it is not the same as the opportunity we had at that time. But we do need there to be pressure. Now, I understand that the private sector is concerned that the economy is falling, but we are concerned because they are killing our fellow demonstrators. But today a strike would not have the same impact, but we believe that it is necessary.
Up to April 2018 the business sector maintained a type of economic pact with the Ortega government. How has it been to be seated now with these representatives that ignored your complaints?
It has been difficult for us, because at that time, not only were they not saying anything, but part of them were the authorities of the Interoceanic Canal project. In other words, they were against us. We, the peasants, if we are in that place, it is to find a solution as quickly as possible. We are making great efforts to control our emotions. And we believe that the only solution is bringing all the expressions [of the opposition] together. In such a way that we hope that all those who have placed themselves on this side of the table, that their conscience does not punish them from this day forward.
Medardo Mairena, Peasant leader.
Medardo Mairena was born on November 30, 1978 in the community of Nueva Guinea in the Southern Caribbean region of Nicaragua. In the last 19 years he has lived in Punta Gorda, in a community that is called Polo de Desarrollo Daniel Guido Sánchez with his wife Yaritza Báez, 40 years of age, and three children that they have together. The youngest, a three-year old girl, is named Kathia. According to a report from Domingo in June of this year, he has a 255 acre farm where he is raising 40 head of cattle. He also uses the land to plant. During the national dialogue of 2018 Mairena said to Ortega: “The people demand that you go. We do not want more deaths, and you are the ones responsible.” Mairena got as far as the first year of secondary school, because to go to school he had to travel 30 kilometers. He started his studies at the age of 16 on his own. He participated in five certificate programs on management and leadership.
People dispossessed for so many years collected their savings and gave them to one of their sons, Solin, for him to pay for the coffee that was collected from their own group. Solin had never had so much money; he was like a deer in the headlights. He paid for the coffee. Some of the same people who had saved, behind the back of the rest, went to him to get him to lend them money. Solin first said no, but these people insisted, and he gave in. More people showed up, also from other parts of the country, and he ceded. Solin felt like a little patrón, “The people trust me”, his chest puffed out like a balloon. This path of giving out other people´s money, saying that it was his, led him to lie and believe his own lie. When other people showed him his mistake, Solin offered them money to shut them up, and if they did not accept it, he would slander them. One day he looked himself in the mirror and was frightened to find that he did not recognize himself.
When the owners of the money asked him to give it back, he had lent it all out. “And where is the money?”, they raised their voices. “You have already eaten it,” the theft reverberated like 10, 100 and 1000 years ago. Solin and several of the savers had betrayed their own path. Both took the path trodden for centuries by the old hacienda owners and fieldhands, by the comandante and those who died, by the manager and those who believed themselves to be cooperative members.
This story illustrates what happens frequently in cooperatives. A group of people save, define their purposes, agreed on their rules and then betray that path. The old path trodden by the patrón where the fieldhands follow for their pay, become indebted and to look for a favor, a path also taken by governments and churches (“Holy Patron Saint”), clouds and blocks any other path. In the story this group of people and Solin look at themselves in the mirror, or ask about their resources, and are surprised to be on the old path of dispossession, moving from being “servers” to “being served”. Their biggest tragedy is not so much the use of the money, but the fact that they have betrayed their path, this is the reason for the bad use of the money and the fact that their lives have taken a 360 degree turn, arriving at the same place. How can people who organize be able to follow their own path?
1. Individual-collective duality and the dilemma of betrayal
In organizations that face corrupt acts, there is finger pointing, accusations and complaints. “He is incorrigible”, “he is guilty of bad administration”, “she is not accountable”, “she uses our money for her benefit and that of her managers”, lash out the members. These
phrases in a cooperative belie an individual perspective, accentuated by the religious conservatism of “personal salvation”, and by the neoliberal doctrine where what is important is the individual and not society–there is no such thing as society, said the first female British Prime Minister M. Thatcher in 1987, during the full eruption of neoliberalism. Reproducing this perspective, nevertheless, is a way of “washing our hands”, of showing oneself to be innocent while pointing out others as the guilty parties.
These same expressions, nevertheless, can be read as “spitting against the wind” from the collective perspective. Because the member who is doing the accusing, with or without a title in some organ of their organization, on seeking a loan directly from the administrator, behind the back of his own cooperative, is not exercising his/her role, and/or violates the rules of their own organization; on the other hand, the corrupt administrator establishes himself reproducing the idea of the patrón;: “With 100 cordobas I keep them happy.” Many times even the State or aid organization officials who support the cooperatives borrow money from the managers, knowing that it is money that belongs to the cooperatives. “The spit” also falls on this member and this official who preaches cooperativism. A systematic act of corruption happens, above all, because of the lack of functioning of the respective organs, because of the lack of compliance with the rules of the organizations, and the accounting norms on the administrative side, as well as because of the acceptance of aid organizations*.
The members know the rules and procedures, but they see them as tedious, “paperwork”, “bureaucracy” – high transaction costs, they would say in economics. The members of the organs also see it in this way: “meeting is a waste of time.” While the patrón “from one big roll” decides to lend to them or not. In this process the members believe the administrator about any version about the source of the money, there is no culture of verifying their versions, because, they think, it would be distrusting and ungrateful; for that very reason, they do not ask for receipts either, the patrón does not do receipts – his word is enough! In addition to believing him, they fear him, “a person with other people´s money is capable of anything”, they whisper, so they keep quiet – do not speak in front of the patrón! This is a rule that is resurrected. From here the “vice” of playing with “other people´s money”, more than individual and exclusive of the manager or some president, is a collective “vice”; a collective act causes individual behavior – of corruption or honesty. See the upper part in Figure 1.
“The law is not being applied to him”, state the members and advisers of the organizations. With this they mean to say that organizations have laws, the State oversees compliance with the law; and that aid organizations have rules, and they do not apply them. This, however, continues to assume an individual perspective, believing that by “applying the law” “the patron is going to self correct”. It ignores what the history of any country tells us, “the patrón makes the laws”, be that with his right hand or his left. So we detect that this individual perspective, clothed in a collective and legal perspective, is moved by structures of dispossession; the “accusing”, the “abusing other people´s money” and “preaching laws” make the path of cooperativism disappear, and accentuate the path of dispossession – it is the dilemma of the betrayal. So we perceive that this structure is like rails for a train, it does not matter who the conductor is that is driving the train, nor how many years of schooling he might have, how many advisers and protectors of the law he has, that train will move along the rails; not matter who the administrators or presidents may be, these structures (“rails”) trap the conductors. In this way cooperatives can go broke, while these structures remain unmoved –“in an open treasure even the just will sin”, goes the saying.
At the same time this structure is being challenged. On the one hand, there are some members who cultivate a contingent awareness, that it is possible to make your own path and walk it; and on the other hand there are administrators who understand their role, respecting accounting rules and the collective perspective of organizations, shunning “inflating themselves” like balloons that run the risk of “bursting.” They do not “spit into the wind”, but recreate that collective perspective which finds itself supported by mechanisms that are coherent with more communitarian structures, and consultancies that study these rural underworlds – this is overcoming the dilemma of betrayal. See the lower part of Figure 1.
2. Innovative mechanisms for cooperatives as the vehicle for repossession
“They do not let us be peasants”, shot off a Costa Rican leader in 1991, recognizing the onslaught of neoliberalism in turning the peasantry into workers and “wetbacks”. The “be peasants” has been more coherent with community structures, in conflict with structures of dispossession. It goes with mechanisms that make an alternative path possible, mechanisms that we have been learning from the exceptional organizations in Central America: see figure 2.
They are mechanisms that “de-commodify” peasant life, they involve awakening and organizing, deepening their roots, improving the organization of the commons, and sharing the path in a glocal alliance- because every space is glocal (global and local).
Mechanism 1: Voluntary genesis of cooperativism congruent with community principles
Nearly two centuries ago a group of textile workers in England saved part of their salaries to start a store, and with that stabilize their income and defend their basic needs. In Germany peasants organized to free themselves from usury. In both cases, the people understood that individually they were not able to overcome structural problems, like the low buying power of their salary and the usury that indebted them for life; organized, they could do so. Thus they defined their path and walked it. Over time cooperativism has expanded throughout the entire world and has become a double edged sword, a means for repossession for its members and communities from whence they come, and a means for dispossession when small elites appropriate it for profit. Read the brief dialogue in the box.
From the angle of the genesis of cooperativism, this dialogue shows the incomprehension of the administrator about what a cooperative is, as well as the wisdom of the younger brother about the social rule of “respecting someone else´s assets”. “The need of the other affects me”, says the administrator; precisely the crude “need” of people led to the fact that cooperativism emerged standing under the principle of respecting collective assets. The error of the administrator in this dialogue is providing a loan from money that is not his, and doing it outside of the rules and organs of the cooperative that named him “administrator”; with that he dispossessed the members of their resources, and full of a short term vision condemned needy people to suffering. Being “proud” is abusing “another´s assets”. This deformation results from the individual perspective derived from structures of dispossession.
The cooperative that originated in the will of its members to overcome structural adversities, and does it with rules based on community principles, like those expressed by the “younger brother” in the dialogue of respect for collective goods, is a long term structural mechanism.
Mechanism 2: Rooted in diversified bases
The market demands a product and does not matter whether the one who produces it comes from one place or another; the State and aid agencies behave in a similar way, they legalize organizations or demand changes like “including women as members” without regard to where they come from. From working with cooperatives we learned that a cooperative that is rooted in its micro-territory has more possibilities of walking their walk, of being inclusive…
How to be rooted? Even though the members of a cooperative come from the same micro-territory, deciding that the administration –and therefore the financial transactions – are done in the territory itself, requires making explicit in a reflective way several beliefs written in stone for centuries: “Here they are going to steal from us, in the town there are Policemen and that is why it is safer there”, “no buyer or certifier is going to come out here to our place, we have to go out to civilization”, “here we are living in the brush, the patrón lives in the town”, “that little girl doesn´t know anything about administration, only men who ride on motorcycles know it.”
When the members of a cooperative come from the same micro-territory, and decide that their building and its administration are going to be in the same space, then we create favorable conditions for a good cooperative. The possibility that corruption might emerge and intensify is reduced. The mobility of the members to the cooperative´s building, as well as the attendance of women and men in the meetings is greater. We say that more women and men go to the meetings, because of the geographic proximity and because they do not have to travel to the municipal capital to attend meetings; the women can go to the meeting with their babies and/or children, something that is difficult if the meeting is in the municipal capital. This contributes to the cementing of trust among the members. Also the coordination between the administration and the organs of the cooperative can improve. The care of the members and board members over their administration increases, which is why the security of the resources of the cooperative in that place increases. Accessing information and asking their questions is also more possible.
The payments that are made in the territory itself to the members, be it for coffee, cacao, sugar cane or another crops, has an impact on the economy of the territory. The storefronts and small businesses sell more, new businesses tend to emerge. The interest of the partner of the member, and their children, in the receipts that their Father or Mother bring from the cooperative is greater. The possibility of having lovers under the argument that “I am going to town for a meeting” is reduced. It is like the butterfly effect in a world as interconnected as today´s world is, even more so is life interconnected in a micro-territory and in families.
Mechanism 3: the functioning of the cooperative organs and administration
The fact that a member might understand that organized they can overcome their structural problems is one step, the fact that they can facilitate that because their cooperative is rooted in their territory is a second big step. Nevertheless, there are cooperatives that in spite of having taken both steps, go broke or turn into a means for dispossession manipulated by small elites. The third mechanism is that each member, with or without a title, function in accordance with the rules and organs of their organization, without going “in secret” to the “real person in charge”, because the “real person in charge” in the cooperatives are its rules and organs.
It is easy to say that the organs of a cooperative function according to its rules. But it is difficult for it to happen. The phrase that is read in laws and management, that they are “management organs” illustrates that they are not “decision making organs”, that the power of making decisions was expropriated by the elites. How can the organs be “decision making” and the administration “management”, the former with a strategic role and the latter with an operational role? Apart from the fact that they know their statutes (rules), meet systematically and cultivate connections with their members and with external actors, the key is in the fact that they become learning organizations. How? First, each member is seen as a leader in their community, understanding that the biggest treasure is in their own social territory; consequently, their first task being multiplying their visits to other people, members or not of the cooperative, so that through conversations, they might understand the problems and opportunities that exist in their territory. Knowing them and sharing them is their fuel for pushing the cooperative to improve, and it is their source of ideas for enlightening cooperativism.
Second, the relationship between the administration and the organs is developed to the extent that they organize information, analyze it and on that basis define their policies and strategies to be followed. This provides work content for each organ. For example, information on loans and arrears is analyzed by each organ, particularly the credit committee; the Oversight Board finds one of its principle follow up tasks in this; the education committee, as a result of this analysis, proposes to work on financial education with the members about how to save, invest better and working with more autonomy, breaking with that old institution of “going into debt” and putting up with any exploitation for being “indebted”.
Third, making decisions based on the visits and the data analysis makes it possible for them to make better decisions. A particular area is diversification. A cooperative, even one with organs functioning acceptably, if it continues embracing mono-cropping, sooner rather than later will go broke; if it continues, it will work to dispossess. Promoting diversification, nevertheless, is difficult because of the atrocious structure of international power. Today to speak about agricultural cooperatives is nearly to talk about mono-cropping. So there are “successful” cooperatives that have credit, marketing and technology services just for one crop; the effect of mono-cropping on the peasant economy and the environment have been horrible for decades and centuries. The attached box illustrates the expansion of mono-cropping even through organic agriculture reduced to its dimension as a commodity, and the fact that people of good will from international organizations work against the peasantry while believing that they are “benefitting” them. Visiting and analyzing data leads us to question the origins of our policies and respond to the millennial strategy of peasant resistance: diversification and environmental sustainability. If the organs and the administration of a cooperative focus their tasks on diversification of the farm and agro-industry, their cooperative will democratize a little more, and will include more youth and women in general.
The geographical proximity facilitates organizational functioning, and this, focused on diversification, makes the cooperative be even more rooted, produces new innovative rules and starts the path of being an organization of repossession – of peasant viability with economic and social diversification, and environmental stability.
Mechanism 4: Glocal alliance for the cooperative path
These three mechanisms facilitate changes in the cooperative and in the economy of the member families and their territories, but they will achieve sustainability to the extent that they take on the attitude of a cooperative member. It is not just organizing voluntarily, looking at their territory, making decisions through their organs, it is feeling themselves to be, and being cooperative members. What does this mean?
For centuries indigenous and peasant families have cultivated a mentality of producing to eat. Then in the 1920s in Central America cash crops came in like coffee, sugar cane, cacao, and cattle. In that process they molded a mentality of being a “seller of coffee”, “seller of sugar cane”, or “seller of milk”. Consequently, they reasserted their territory (“country”) in their plot or farm: “My country ends with my agave fence”, they declared, which means that within this area there is a structure and a person in charge, that outside of that is not his world, that his world ends at the fence where the buyers come to buy his products. They do not even sell, they buy off of him. This mentality was intensified by the markets, “I will buy your coffee sun-dried or wet, the rest does not matter”, “I will buy your sugar cane”; likewise national and international aid organizations, allies of associative organizations, with people trained in universities that taught them that only “Inc.” companies produce profits, say to them: “work on the raw materials and the rest will we take care of”, “you are good for harvesting, industry and trade is our thing”.
What is the problem with this mentality? The peasant receives payment for their coffee or milk, that is their world; the other world is that of the patrón, where the profits are; the peasant never is interested in this other world, knowing what their patrón did with his profits; the very fact of asking him was showing ingratitude, insubordination and social suicide – their own people would treat them as someone trying to be his equal. This institutionality has been reproduced in associative organizations and their allies; a member looks for payment for their coffee, sugar cane or milk, they are not interested in knowing whether their organization generated profits or not; in Fair Trade the use of the premium of US$20/qq of coffee is previously defined in social investment, infrastructure… and $5 for the member family to invest in their farm; the premium for organic coffee of US$30 is perceived like this, “premium”, equal to a “roasted cow” that the patrón would provide for them at the end of the harvest, “premium” of a day of fiesta. In other words, the agave fence of the peasant member is “price of NY + premium” (see box); the member family understands that their profits and premiums are not an expression of their rights, but “a favor” (something “extra”, “charity”) of the local or global patrón, that is why they do not ask about it, do not ask for information, nor keep their receipts nor complain over the distribution of profits. Knowing this reality, the patrón (administrator or fair trade coffee buyer) repeats, “with 100 córdobas I keep them happy”, “with pig rinds and booze they leave happy”, “I buy from them at a good price and I give them a premium, whether that gets to the member´s family or not is their issue.”
Complaining over your profits is like being a “beggar with a club”. It is like a woman subjected by her husband, she feels “kept” and without the right to ask him about the “rest of his money”, and it is the mentality of the citizen who pays taxes and instead of complaining that his government reinvest in public works and provide him “good service”, see these works as the result of the goodness of the government (patrón).
The three mechanisms listed need to be complemented by this fourth one, with which we will move beyond this glocal mentality. How? First, building a mentality where the peasant family has awareness about the fact that their actions create value and have unexpected consequences, which is why they can refine their policies and carry out actions of even greater value and impact. This is possible if they observe and reflect on some details; for example, making sure that through the payment for the harvested coffee in that territory positive aggregate effects are generated in the economy of that territory, beyond their “agave fence”; observing the impact of their diversified organic agriculture on their farms as well as on the territory; reflecting on the effect of violating the agreements of their own cooperative, that leads them to lose resources as a cooperative and as a territory. On observing these positive and negative effects, the members can awaken their awareness of being coop members and of moving from their “agave fence” to understand that regardless of their purposes, their actions have a repercussion on the territory. In a parallel fashion, let also global actors awaken and understand that their actions have repercussions on the lives of the peasant people; if they look at a cooperative just as “coffee” or “cacao”, commodities, and believe that by providing a good price and premium they have already contributed to the families, they should ask themselves if they are sure that they have “contributed”; if one person turns into an elite capturing those premiums, are the buyers contributing to the well being of the peasant families?
Second, making relationships between different glocal actors (global and local) be living alliances that are committed to the formation of associativism, complementing the mechanisms mentioned here. This does not mean improving the prices of raw materials. It means that organizations add up all the income (value of sold product +premiums+incentives for quality and other bonuses), subtract their expenses and costs, and from the gross profits they agree to redistribute according to a certain percentage, let us say 50 or 60%. We repeat, it is not a matter of improving the price of the sugar cane or the coffee, it is not distributing the premiums; it is redistributing the gross profits of your organization.* The remaining 50 or 40%, or other percentage, goes to internal funds, social fund, legal reserves, investment fund in the organization…
Third, all the actors, cooperative, associative enterprises, aid agencies, Universities and State Institutions, we all should commit in an ongoing and systematic way to cooperative formation, based on the lessons and challenges of the organizations themselves. On emphasizing profits we are not reducing ourselves to the economic, we understand with Aristotle that quantity is an element of quality; consequently, the members will move from a mentality of “I am a seller of sugar cane” to “I am a seller of granulated sugar”, from “I am a seller of coffee” to “I am a cooperative member exporter of export quality coffee”. This will mean that each member pushes that their organization generates more profits and redistributes them, they will make an effort to be informed, to be trained, to diversify more. With these elements, the formation will help their cooperative and territory, the board and their members, the cooperatives in the north and the south, to maintain strong ties of collaboration and mutual learning.
3. “Muddy” accompaniment from the underworld of the member families
Most cooperatives have been accompanied, be it by the State, Churches, aid agencies or Universities. Standardized accompaniment has meant providing them trainings, legalizing them, buying products from them and /or providing them with donations; it is an accompaniment that does not cross over toward the communities and the underworld of the cooperatives, which is why it ends up legitimizing corruption, or that cooperatives get turned into a means for dispossession. A new type of accompaniment is required so that these four mechanisms emerge, are adapted and make a difference.
Owen and other associative people inspired the emergence of cooperativism in England, Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen accompanied the first cooperative in Germany. A distinctive accompaniment in Central America has been that of the Catholic Church in the years 1960-1970; that accompaniment helped them to reflect on a God living among them, and a Reign of God that began in those very communities – the “treasure” (God) was in the communities themselves. This accompaniment gave rise to dozens of cooperatives and peasant stores based on their own resources; a good part of them still persist after 40 and 50 years. Consistent with this type of accompaniment, even though not from a religious perspective, we describe here an accompaniment that enters into the cooperative underworld in interaction with the 4 described mechanisms.
What are the distinctive characteristics of this accompaniment? The first is that the accompanying people understand that only by entering the underworld of the cooperatives and their territory will they be able to understand the process in which the cooperative finds itself, awaken reflection and help create mechanisms like those worked on here. The fact that we intellectuals might have the “best” assessment is useless if the members are not reflecting on and walking their own cooperative path. For that reason the accompaniers need to pass beyond the control of the “patroncito”, be that the administrator, manager or president, and through the conversation be exposing the struggle between the path of the patrón and that of the cooperative, as well as the complexity of walking their own path.
Second, accompanying is discerning mindsets from the inside. Along with studying the cooperative underworld, where the old path is imposed based on betrayal and subordination, and where people wander between doubt and intuition, the accompaniers discern the mindsets in the cooperatives, and their own mindset as accompaniers. When the cooperative is trapped in acts of corruption, it is moving under the rules of “the clever one takes advantage of what he administers”, and “we always need a patrón”; these rules conceal actions against their own organization; then the members see the accompaniers as “intruders”, unfurl the banner of “autonomy” to keep the accompaniers from “crossing over the threshold” of the territory, and make up lies in the territory that these accompaniers “are taking advantage of the cooperative.” Discerning their mindsets implies “muddying ourselves” in their beliefs and lies, at the risk that this might erode the legitimacy of the accompanier and drive him/her out of the territory. What distinguishes good accompaniment is the persistent act of overcoming our own mentality that it is “enough to train, legalize and help them to export in order to live better”, “taking their pulse” and innovating with member families to the extent that destructive mentalities that prevent learning are dispelled.
Third, accompanying well is allowing member families to take their own steps, provided that we understand that our actions also have repercussions in the lives of the member families. The accompanier risks the fact that the members might perceive him or her also as a “little patrón”, impairing them from walking their own cooperative path. Let us illustrate this with one experience; in a cooperative, after the second mechanism took place, of rootedness, the results in terms of informational transparency, reduction of corruption and a motivating environment because of its economic and social impact in the territory were admirable. So the board members complained to the accompaniers: see attached box.
In the box the leader sees the accompanier as a “little patrón” with the capacity to stop the corruption and impose decentralized administration on the territory of the cooperative. The response of the accompanier to the first complaint is that having intervened as a “firefighter” to “put out the fire” of corruption, even though this act would have saved them financially, it would have constrained them from building their own cooperative path, which is structural and long term. The response to the second complaint reveals an accompaniment that helps to innovate mechanisms to the extent that it studies and learns from the cooperative itself and its underworld. Even now that we have innovated these four mechanisms they would not be recipes for any organization, they are mechanisms that need to be adapted to each situation, and that each cooperative should experience their processes. These two responses illustrate that accompanying is letting member families walk their path, provided that it studies them and provokes reflection.
Finally, in this process we are getting to know ourselves, re-knowing ourselves in our actions, and we are developing a sense of reasoned compassion. Not the “rational being” of homo economicus. On understanding the mentality of a group of members who “always need a patrón that steals from us”, we understand that for more than 100 years this institution has been deeply etched in their grandparents and parents, reproduced now by this group. At the same time we understand that this institution is not characterized by “being peasants”, but that it is the centuries old path of the patrón-fieldhand. This reflective reasoning envisions this reality for us, and awakens “being peasants” in the lives of cooperative member families and our lives, through respecting the collective good, the rules of the collective and mother earth, the horizon for which we produced the four mechanisms.
Accompaniment makes us remember that the change is in alliance between the peasant families and those of us who accompany them, while we walk together. It is not a stationary accompaniment, but along the road. It is a tense alliance, with stumbles and doubts, but embracing each other for the purpose of creating a vehicle for repossession to the benefit of peasant families.
By way of conclusion
We began this text with the following question: How can people who are organizing follow their own path? First we identified how the colonial patrón-fieldhand path intensified by capitalism that only values merchandise (commodities) erodes the cooperative path, and leads people to betray their own path. This teaches us that individual actions respond to certain perspectives (individual or collective), and they in turn come from structures in conflict, communitarian structures and structures of dispossession; and that this cooperative path is connected with community life, also in resistance for centuries. These two paths clash, for example, in “the good of others”: the colonial and capitalist path is nourished by dispossessing “the good of others” (land, financial resources, labor) from the peasantry, while the cooperative path is connected to community structures which precisely originate in repossessing “the good of others”, which in this case is the “collective good”, material assets (financial resources), as well as alliances and collectively decided arrangements. This “good of others” in the cooperative path is then a “social relationship”, as Federici would say.
Lining ourselves up with this cooperative path, we list four innovative mechanisms that, contrary to the saying that “in an open treasure even the most just sins”, make the cooperative into “a treasure with rules and associative governance where even the biggest sinner becomes just.” These four mechanisms are: voluntarily organizing, rooted in specific micro-territories, making the cooperative organs and administration function, and within a glocal alliance framework help the member families to cultivate an awareness of “being a cooperative member”, that their actions generate changes in their lives and the life of their territory, and making the cooperatives expand their profits and redistribute them with informational transparency and as an expression of respecting “the good of others” (common good, collective good, their own good), in contrast to capitalism that is nourished from dispossessing material assets from peasant families. Then we argued that cooperatives need an accompaniment that makes a difference, that crosses over formal and despotic structures and gets into the underworld of the territories, from which they innovate with the member families, like the mechanisms listed here, and accompany them through thick and thin.
Is this text important only for cooperatives and their allies in their social territories? What happens in the cooperatives and their social territories at the micro level is happening in countries at the macro level. Following the cooperative vision is overcoming the “commodity” vision, the colonial patrón-fieldhand path and the belief that “with money you can even make monkeys dance”, and it is creating a society that cooperates, makes rules and follows them, expands their profits and redistributes them, learns and democratizes. Will it happen?
 A case to illustrate this type of accompaniment is that of the Cooperativa La Esperanza de los Campesinas in Panama. See: R. Mendoza, 2017, “A priest, a cooperative and a peasantry that regulates the elites”, in: ENVIO 425. Managua: IHCA-UCA. http://www.envio.org.ni/articulo/5304
 Lucia Linsalata, 2015, “Three general ideas for thinking about the commons. Notes around the visit of Silvia Federici” in Bajo el Volcán, year 15, number 22. Federici talks about the commons in the community, she says “there is no commons if there is no community”. In this article we present the cooperative as an expression of people from a community who decide to organize, and for them “the commons” is within the cooperative, even though in relation to their communities or social territories.