Category Archives: Leadership

Reinvention of social enterprises from Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala

Reinvention of social enterprises from Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala

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René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

Off the rails

Rosita spent days thinking, until one day she said to her Mother: I want to be a doctor, will you let me go study?

Ah, my daughter, your Dad is going to get upset, María responded. That night María told her husband José that Rosita wanted to study medicine. He got upset. What? Women are for the kitchen! Who stuck those ideas in her head?

María cried the entire night.

In the morning José left to talk to his patron. He asked permission for his daughter to study. The patron reacting angrily, What? Women don´t have the head for those things. They are here to give birth to peons. Send her to me to work, the devil got into her for being lazy!

At midnight José told María what his patron has said. If you send her, she is going to be his, for a time, pronounced María between sobs.

Rosita heard that whispering. She remembered her days in school, her grandmother and her “stolen” friends. Am I myself? Am I crazy? she asked herself. There has to be another way to live, she responded and prepared her bag. She left a note and took off. The note said, “I am leaving alone with my thoughts.”


In this story appears the colonial structure where it is thought that a peasant woman cannot think (“does not have the head for that”), the patriarchal structure where is it believed that women cannot make decisions, and the capitalistic structure where women are valued if they reproduce the labor force. People move about in this triad structure, like trains on their rails. Rosita, nevertheless, detects that structure, has aspirations, achieves the support of her mother and her father, leaves, not “stolen”, secretly “alone with her thoughts”. A social enterprise is like Rosita, it thinks, acts, ponders and begins a different path. What characteristics do these types of organizations have who go “off the rails?” How are they able to continue along this different path over time?

Rosita can begin a different path, but with the passage of time abandon her thoughts and end up acting like her parents and the patron, or she can mature her “thoughts” of being different. Something similar happens with social enterprises (cooperatives, community stores and roasters). Here we begin identifying these structures that make them de-volve, and then we delve into the rural social enterprises that are going deeper along a different path.

1.    Introduction

The domination triad of colonial and patriarchal capitalism rests on the assumption that the values of a society are considered universal, and assume progress as a lineal evolution where race, capital and the rod (authoritarianism) are “the rails.” We base this theoretical introduction on Quijano, Polanyi, Federici, and Lucas dos Santos and Banerjee.

Following Quijano (1992), separate from the defeat of political colonialism, a “colonization of the imagination of the dominated” persists. How did this occur?

This was the product, in the beginning, of systematic repression, not just the repression of specific beliefs, ideas, images, symbols or knowledge that did not serve global colonial domination. The repression fell, above all, on the forms of knowing, producing knowledge,  perspectives, images and systems of images, symbols, forms of meaning; on resources, patterns and instruments of formalized and objectified intellectual or visual expression. It was followed by the imposition of the use of patterns of expression appropriate to those who were dominant, as well as their beliefs and images referring to the supernatural, which served not just to block the cultural production of the dominated, but also as a means of social and cultural control, when the immediate repression ceased to be constant and systematic (1992:12)

The “colonialization of the imagination” happens when a culture is repressed and replaced by another through systematic violence. In Figure 1 we lay out the detail of what Quijano proposes.

In time that “universal cultural model” became an aspiration of other cultures, particularly the “illiterate peasant subculture, condemned to oral expression” (13), who were left without a form of intellectual expression.

In this process, European culture appears as rational, belonging to “actors”, while all other cultures it is assumed are not rational, are inferior, “objects” of study. Correspondingly, in harmony with Saint-Simon, the idea emerged of an organic society, where one part of the body  is in charge of the others without dispensing with them, the brain in charge of the arms. So, in society the owners are the brains and the workers are the arms. It is an image of society as a closed and hierarchical structure, where each part is subject to the totality. There history is conceived as an ongoing revolution from the primitive to the civilized, from savagery to the rational, from pre-capitalism to capitalism.

This Eurocentrism, according to Quijano (2014), is the specific logic of colonialism. The notion of race assumes that biologically some are inferior, and from capitalism the notion of the division of labor is reinforced reciprocally with race, for example that the workers by their inferiority are not worthy of wages, and the peasants should not aspire to be managers. That is where the Eurocentric myth originates of the “evolutionist perspective, of movement and unilateral and unidirectional change of human history.” (Quijano, 2014: 800).

Polanyi (2001, published for the first time in 1944) described this transformation of pre-industrial to industrial Europe in the XIX and XX centuries, the passage from a system of dispossession which led Europe from a “society with markets” to a “society of markets”, which led Germany, Portugal, Spain, Japan and Italy to fascist authoritarianism, and to the Second World War. Polanyi detected in addition forms of capitalization that were globalizing, which has been called neoliberalism, with the dominion of the force (laws and justice) of the globalizing market. Fifty years later, Stiglitz (2001:vii), rereading Polanyi, said in the prologue: “Due to the fact that the transformation of European civilization is analogous to the transformation that developing countries face throughout the world today, at times it seems as if Polanyi is speaking directly to the current situation.”

Stiglitz is correct in his observation but does not go far enough. This capitalism is colonial in the countries of the South, made worse than in the situation of Europe itself, expressed – without distinction as to political, religious or market leanings – in authoritarian structures mediated by the notion of race.

This colonial capitalism is also patriarchal. Federici (2010), studying capitalism from a feminist perspective, coincides with Marx in that primitive accumulation is salaried work separated from the means of production, she also understands it as separation from production by the market, while the reproduction of life is feminized and women are subjected to men for family sustenance. She found in the XVI and XVII centuries that capitalism caused hunger by the labor force, and that the belief was that the wealth of a nation consisted in having abundant salaried people, which is why the State and the Church, using violence, imposed witch hunting criminalizing birth control and controlling the female body, the uterus, to increase that labor force. “If in the Middle ages women had been able to use different contraceptive methods and had exercised an indisputable control over the birthing process, starting now their uteruses were transformed into political territory, controlled by men and the State: procreation was directly placed at the service of capitalist accumulation” (Federici, 2010: 138-139).

In the story at the beginning of the chapter, the patron repeats this rule of primitive accumulation, “those women are for producing peons”, and the father confirms that “women are for the kitchen.” If only 20% of land owners are women in Latin America, they are easily considered to be “arms” or a “rib”. In this way, race, capital and uterus are the rails of colonial and patriarchal capitalism, which we try to synthesize in Figure 2.

Lucas dos Santos and Banerjee (2019), from a framework of “economic colonialism” in line with Quijano (1992), observe how social enterprises are run and measured under the parameters of that framework. So, some are seen as advanced and others as backward. The authors detect five deficiencies in the functioning of social enterprises, see Table 1.


Table 1. Conception of social enterprises
Deficiencies What these deficiencies ignore Assumptions
1. Concern about the technical aspect and their performance Economic democracy goes with different community rationalities, not just performance with predefined results Collective innovation is replaced by quick technical responses; collective solutions take time.
2. Under-representation of subordinate people in decision making processes A broad perspective should include subordinated groups, whose voices should not be interpreted nor edited Subordinate groups have different conditions and meanings to negotiate
3. Vision of pacifist civil society focused on organization Voices, whispers, and silences express participation; principles of distribution, reciprocity and family maintenance. Minorities do not have voice in social enterprises; markets shape the economy in the social and political order.
4. No attention to gender issues Role of women in reciprocity, distribution and family maintenance should appear in debates. More women participate in social enterprises, but theoretical debates with a feminist perspective are scarce.
5. Non problematization of the political and economic dimension Economic autonomy, publc voice and visibility, unique solutions and protection networks in alternative arenas. Alternative economies are defined by economic colonialism. Challenge of decolonializing social enterprises.
Source: based on Lucas dos Santos and Banerjee (2019)

Lucas dos Santos and Banerjee (2019) assume that promoting economic democracy in order to overcome “economic colonialism” requires addressing these five deficiencies. Cutting across these deficiencies is the idea of the market shaping social enterprises, without the perspectives of society having any importance. The authors insist that the voices of subordinate groups with their different rationalities should be made visible, even though these processes take time, and they question whether diverse and alternatives economies can be decolonialized.

2.    Cooptation of social enterprises

Cooperatives were born from the womb of colonial countries and during the expansion of industrial capitalism, but in opposition to that system. That strength of “swimming against the current”, nevertheless, devolved through almost two centuries of history; today it is difficult to distinguish a cooperative from a private enterprise, to such an extent that in France they call it “cooperative capitalism” (Georges and Pascal, 2009). The word “enterprise” in its identifying definition entered for the first time in 1995 in the Congress of the International Cooperative Alliance, in the crest of the world rise of neoliberalism.

This colonial and patriarchal capitalism is reproduced by the social enterprises themselves. The deficiencies that Lucas dos Santos and Banerjee (2019) observe are taken on, for example, in the rural social enterprises in Central America, which does not lack any of them. The economic successes are emphasized without distributing surpluses, decisions are centralized without being transparent with information, are controlled by the market and technocracy, their actions and decisions are depoliticized, they exclude youth, women and workers without land. Figure 3 shows this structure that moves like one cogwheel crushing any option that goes off “the rails.”

Social enterprises are considered “the third sector”, alongside the State and the market, which is why it is expected that they might be a real counterweight, being democratic and equitable. This tends not to happen; social enterprises reproduce the hierarchical structures of the State and the market. The organizational chart of organizations has the assembly as their highest decision-making authority, but usually the assembly is only a formality. Technocratic elites in the organizations (social enterprises, business or sports associations, churches) became hierarchical, and the only gateway for the members to markets, states and gods. Markets see the social enterprise as a means to increase volume or to carry out imported projects. These elites see themselves as the “brain” embedded in the “strong man”, moving about in “black masses” (collusion among elites), from where they see the peasantry as “the arm,” “illiterate people who do not think”, that “the more brutish they are the more they produce.”  For their part, aid organizations that tend to accompany them, even though bathed in discourses about democracy, are also hierarchical, reluctant to study the social enterprises, and inebriated with the technocratic belief that “they already know” the problems and solutions for the social enterprises, tacitly taking on the colonial logic that sees the social enterprises as the reflection of their past.

Most social enterprises are constituted by the State. It is assumed that forming a cooperative is a “matter of legalizing them”, promising them credit, land or some project; it is like getting married first before falling in love. This was true for the boom of cooperatives in Nicaragua in the 1980s, those of Venezuela in the first decade of the current millennium, or the rural banks in Honduras in the second decade of the current millennium. They are organized around mono-cropping systems or credit services. They are structures that see themselves only as rational businesses and individuals, neglect in practice their associative side and collective actions. They are formed under the idea that “a cooperative is for those who have” (land, coffee, sugar cane or cacao), and exclude those who “do not have anything” (women, youth and workers without land). They are organizations that are desperate to grow economically, which is why they do not distribute profits and intensify the hundred-year rule of “peasants are only for providing raw materials”.

These social enterprises have geographically dispersed membership and offices in the cities. They do not try to build trust among their membership as the basis for any action. The more they depend on markets and international aid agencies, the more they stick to formal aspects: contracts, audits, meeting minutes, and bids, disconnected from the processes of their membership. 20% of their members are women, most of them included as a formality. This low percentage is coherent with organizations dedicated to raw materials, where men are kings, while women are restricted to the kitchen and the reproduction of the labor force. The families themselves of the members are an expression of these hierarchical structures: husband/father centralizes decision making, and the family embraces the mono-cropping system. This social order is maintained even by violence, because social enterprises think that it is their duty to generate profits. The rule that governs them is “those who have, save yourselves”, at the cost of human lives and nature; it is the same rule of capitalism.

These three elements reveal the strength of colonial and patriarchal capitalism, coopting social enterprises, and using them as a means of dispossession. Table 2, reading it in a vertical way, shows what colonialism, capitalism and patriarchy are in the social enterprises, an expression of control and dependency, the superiority/inferiority duality that in the long term justifies violence. Meanwhile, reading it horizontally, it shows how embedded these three systems are: being guided by the patron, the market and men; the elite, the market and intelligent men; letting themselves be carried away by the oligarchy, the market and formality; mono-cropping, physical work and not processing products; predominance of discarding instead of change. They are intellectual sounding boards against the members, but in their name and through their own organizations. In the face of this, the elites of the market, the State and international aid organizations do not want to know whether the social enterprises are democratic, whether they distribute their profits, whether they are transparent, whether they have environmental sustainability, whether the voice of the members counts, whether subordinated groups are included…They are interested in the fact that the market rules in order to have profitable partners. The social enterprises with larger transaction volume and more working capital are praised and considered “advanced”.


Table 2. The triad reproduced by social enterprises
Colonialism Capitalism Patriarchy
Peasants dream about being a patron: ordering, exploiting people and having money. Cooperative wants to be a business and an actor in the market A couple wants a son who “wields a machete” and not a daughter who “tends the hearth”.
Elites who see themselves as “the brain”: priest, sacristan and bell ringer all in one. Member: “waits for directions from above” The market knows more, dictates justice and gives value to products and organizations Head of the family (law, judge and jury); women in the kitchen, women for re-producing; cooperative is for men
Formal democracy in the assembly conceals control of the oligarchy There are no decisions to make, just working and being an enterprise. Membership of women is a formality, just to meet a requirement.
Cooperative is for mono-cropping, anchor for elites, divorced from the land Peasants have comparative advantages with a crop that requires physical labor. If peasants are only for raw materials, then there is no space for women who process and sell processed goods.
Strategy of change: I remove you to take your place. Take land away from peasant to give them a job. Exchange your wife for someone younger.
Source: author, based on accompaniment of organizations in Central America


Can social enterprises be decolonialized? We argue that they can, if the structures in which they operate change. This we will see in the following sections.

3.    Social enterprises that go “off the rails”

“Put ourselves in the shoes of others” is advised to see the world from the perspective of other people. To do so, before that, we need to “take off the shoes we are wearing.”

3.1  Case studies

In each case we include the specific context, history of the organization and its community, distinctive rules and organization.

3.1.1       Nicaragua and organizations in synergy

From several cases with similar processes, we highlight one community with 2 cooperatives, 2 community stores and 2 community roasters.

The context is a rural community 260 kms from the capital in the municipality of San Juan del Río Coco, which in the last 30 years has become dependent on coffee and on one cooperative and conventional mediation for selling that coffee.The elite of that cooperative, like the intermediaries, used to hide information from the members, took the surplus, and the president has held the post for more than 30 years. This cooperative was worse than the intermediaries in that he manipulated the contributions of the members and collected coffee in the municipal capital (not in the community, like intermediaries do). The peasants reproduced the imposed rules: only producing raw materials, staying within their “piñuela fence”, money moves everything, and being concerned only about themselves –“those who have, save yourselves”.

As a result, the members where unaware of what happened to their coffee once it left their farms, more than 85% of the added value of coffee was captured outside of the community, they left the worst coffee for their own consumption, and lost control over their cooperatives. In a parallel fashion, groups of alcoholics and the abuse of women increased, while children without fathers continued to increase. Desperation spread: the producers more and more wanted to earn quick money, work less and went more into debt. The idea of “thinking big” controlled them, but understood as having greater volume, size (i.e. more members), capital (having a loan portfolio without concern about debt), and physical investment, at the cost of nature and people´s lives.

In the face of this situation, different groups reflected on their realities based on the question what would be opposed to the dominant cooperative model? They responded: depending on our own resources, members coming from just one community, and rotating leadership, more women and youth as members, working on different products and processing them, leaving the best for their own consumption, operating the entire year and not just during the coffee season, being guided by rules collectively agreed upon, distributing profits and being transparent. Correspondingly, one group organized a new cooperative, and another group, two community stores and coffee roasters.

The cooperative collected the coffee harvest in the community, got involved in credit and trade in beans, and in alliance with another enterprise, grew cardamom as a medicinal and agro-forestry plant with demand outside and inside the country. Their financial basis came from the contributions of their membership, and from a loan through a triangulated agreement between a cooperative with a dry mill and export services, an international financial foundation, and the cooperative itself; the first processes and looks for buyers, the second provides credit and the third ensured quality coffee. Visits of board members to the members of the cooperative increased, as did their informational transparency and the distribution of profits, thus recovering the best rules of cooperativism (see Box 1). Slowly they are improving endogenous institutions of aid, like sharecropping with beans; they are recreating rules of commercial mediation, instead of “I finance you and you sell me the harvest”, “we finance you, we sell your harvest, and then we distribute the profits.”

The community stores and roasters provide fair prices and fair weighing  for products and services that they offer. The stores, in addition to conventional products, buy and sell products from the community, and promote group initiatives: e.g. they finance ingredients for bread-making for one group, they buy their bread to resell it. The basis of these social enterprises is also a form of triangulation: shareholders from the community, shareholders from outside the community and owners of the building who administer those services. Even though shareholders are mentioned, and the word “share” comes from Corporations (Inc), the stores and roasters seek to be democratic and equitable: see Box 2 with the principal rules.

The weight of women and youth is growing in these social enterprises and in initiatives linked to them, like the processing and trade of products. These social enterprises are  becoming a source of credit and jobs for the shareholders themselves (e.g. rotation in the role of supervision and distributing), and spaces where they learn accounting, social business administration, written culture (recording data, taking notes and analyzing them), organization of initiatives and correcting rules that help people in their communities. Concerning the latter point, for example, selling products on credit that does not imply getting the family of the customer into debt, distinguishing between a collective asset (the store or roaster) and an individual asset (resource that belongs to a person), which allows administering another´s asset without squandering it, promoting collective innovations like raising chickens, bread-making, sewing. People want to contribute resources if they know where their resource is going, if they receive profits, and if these enterprises benefit the community.

Seen in its entirety, that authoritarian cooperative, even though at the beginning more so because its members did not desert it, joined together to contribute to the community in road improvement and visiting some of their members. The new cooperative stands out from the old model of cooperative, and feels pressure from the community stores and roasters who are scaling up based on their own resources. This indirect interaction (see Figure 4) is pressuring them to improve their democracy, transparency and equity. Said figuratively, instead of directly correcting the twisted tree, planting other trees, which combining sun and wind, slowly correct the twisted tree (authoritarian cooperative). “Thinking big”, in this sense, is multiplying organizations in the community around actions that break the curse of “only raw materials” and “we always need a patron”. The objective is not money but energizing the community.

When a social enterprise opens up a new path to be collective action, people take that path, learn it, and have the opportunity to catalyze their own changes.

3.1.2       Honduras and community organizations


Table 3. Events in the community
1975 Los Encinos Peasant Store
1996 Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
1999 Juan Bautista Community Store
1997-2003 Introduction of vegetables (FIA: Honduran Foundation for Agricultural Research)
2003 APRHOFI: Intibucá Association of Vegetable and Fruit Producers
2003 Inclusion of Los Encinos Store in the COMAL Network
2010 Introduction of irrigation systems (USAID)
2011 EMATE: Los Encinos Weaving Craft Enterprise
2011 Recovery of APRHOFI
2012 Introduction of ecological agriculture
2012 ESMACOL: Lenca Community Alternative Multiple Service Enterprise. (7 Stores are the owners of Esmacol)
2016 Introduction of greenhouses

In contrast to Nicaragua, the experience of Honduras is a community that organizes, expands outward based on a community store that emerged in the 1970s, and aims for the local and provincial market. It is the indigenous community of Encimos in the province of Intibucá, 115 kms from the capital.

The 1960s and 1970s were marked by changes in the social doctrine of the Catholic Church with the Second Vatican Council (1962), through which radio schools came into the rural area that taught people how to read and write and encouraged people to organize, and by the Alliance for Progress from the United States, to prevent infection from the Cuban revolution, pushing governments to carry out certain reforms to maintain control over the peasantry; in this way the National Association of Peasants of Honduras (ANACH) emerged, and the National Union of Peasants (UNC).

It was in those years that the people, harassed by large landowners and the Police, grabbed on to religion and liquor, one group visioned “bringing the store from the city to their community,” they formed the first store in 1975 and the second in 1999. Afterwards, international aid introduced technology into vegetables, created APROHOFI (business that marketed vegetables), and included the two stores in the COMAL Network, with rules and control from outside the community. It is in the decade of 2010 that the community groups scale up: they established their stores, formed EMATE in weaving, assimilated ecological agriculture and irrigation systems, took control over and corrected the rules of APROHOFI, and along with stores from other communities, co-governed ESMACOL. See Table 3.

Figure 5 shows the network in its entirety. The 3 organizations become a reference point in the community. They rescue APROHOFI from poor management; they consolidate it with governance from the community. ESMACOL, after 7 years, continues to be weak, like 5 of the 7 stores; co-governance with weak stores makes it difficult for ESMACOL to improve. A lesson that is emerging is that social enterprises tend to improve if the governance and rules come from the community itself.

What is described is the expression of a virtuous circle between technological change, markets, organization and finances: see Figure 6, supported by the image of a 4 layered onion. The organizations (stores, distributor, seller, weavings), the introduction of potatoes and vegetables, and investments in irrigation systems and greenhouses, reveals that there is an interaction between the technological, social, economic, cultural and spiritual. In other words, new crops and greater technological productivity implies more social cooperation between families, which generates economic costs and income, requires changes in the cultural sphere to the extent that agriculture intensifies and grapples with markets, which has repercussions on the spiritual-religious life of families, and this in turn on the technology…

What explains this circular process that began 45 years ago? First, the idea of “getting closer to the market” was a powerful vision within a context of political tensions and religious opening in the rural areas, a vision that assumed that the peasantry was valuable and could organize a store. A vision that later is made a reality on the basis of their own resources, learning each month to add and subtract what is bought and sold in the store, in spite of the fact that most of them did not know how to read. That vision and passion for the store to continue has accompanied them since that time.

Second, there was success with the rules for starting the store. Each member contributes 1500 Lempiras to their peasant store in January of each year, and with that they receive the equivalent of 100% of that contribution as earnings in December of each year. If a member contributes more than 1500 Lempiras, they receive 20% of that amount as earnings; that 20% continues being a greater benefit than saving it in a bank. The members get in credit the equivalent of up to twice their minimum contribution, in other words, up to 3,000 Lempiras; if the person is not able to pay in the annual term, the store is paid with the 3,000 of the distribution of profits-contribution. The stores offer products at prices slightly below market prices, while the salary of the administrator of the store is 30% of gross profits, which is why the administrator is incentivized to sell more, as the population is incentivized to make their purchases in the store. Box 3 lists the principal rules of the store and the other social enterprises.

Third, like many communities, in Encinos a good number of youth fell into alcoholism, putting the store itself at risk. The school teacher, Jenny Maraslago, saw this fact and helped to create the conditions for change. This is how Bernardo Gonzales remembers it: “In 1996 the teacher said, `such intelligent youth, it makes me sad to find them in the gutters.’ So she brought in the rules of AA; and introduced to us a friend from AA. Encouraged by my older brother, we immediately began to meet, and look, we quit getting drunk, everything changed that day.” 25 years later we found those youth, no longer in the gutters, but leading organizations. In 1975 they woke up to the possibility of bringing a store to the community, and in 1996 the rules of AA of not drinking liquor for 24 renewable hours showed them the path to take care of their community.

These three changes – vision, rules and awakening – contributed to creating the conditions so that in the years following Encinos would multiply their organizations and change their own way of farm production. After several decades of traditional agriculture, that hundred-year-old institution of “this is how I have always planted and how I always will”, gave way to “planting in furrows”, and later to ecological agriculture, and then to including greenhouse systems. They are mechanisms of identifying and applying the rules of each organization and nature itself, along with their organs taking up their respective roles, which led them to keeping just one person from playing the roles of “priest, sacristan and bell ringer”, and creating communities beyond the geographic space of Encinos.  And in the opposite direction, every time that external actors consider and have an agenda foreign to that of the communities, initiatives like ESMACOL take more time to be sustainable and useful for the communities.

3.1.3       Guatemala and ecological agriculture which transcends

In Guatemala, a mostly indigenous country, a cooperative cultivates a transnational relationship and social cohesion with its members and organic agriculture. It is the cooperative of La Voz in the municipality of San Juan La Laguna, in the Province of Sololá, founded in 1979.

For decades they have experienced a context of discrimination from the people of San Pedro (non-indigenous from the neighboring town), of dispossession of their best land. Also, on the part of the Chalet owners, foreigners and non indigenous who took over the shores of Atitlan, one of the 7 wonders of the world, and built their chalets. In this context, and when organizing themselves under military dictatorships sounded like communism, a group of people understood that if they did not organize, they would die along with their relatives. They formed a cooperative and after suffering several attacks, one of them by the Police themselves, they turned themselves into an organic coffee cooperative, with a collective wet mill, even though with productive yields in weight equivalent to 60% of the conventional coffee of the San Pedro coffee growers. The first key to their persistence was their social cohesion as a group with a high rotation of members in leadership posts; the second key was their relationship with a market in the United States that were paying them well for their organic coffee. Up until 2004 that was the story of this cooperative, something unusual.

Between 2005 and 2010 the cooperative experienced a social, economic and environmental crisis. Hurricane Stan in 2005 and Agatha in 2010 made the waters of Atitlan rise, and with that a lot of land in dispute disappeared. In a parallel fashion, the cooperative fell into acts of corruption that put them at risk of going broke. In 2005 the cooperative got nearly half a million dollars in credit from a social bank and two loan sharks. In that same period the cooperative exported double the volume of their organic coffee, buying the other 50% from third parties, and passing it off as if it were fair trade, organic coffee from the cooperative. The members did not receive that loan, much less the profits for the resale of the other 50%. That was possible thanks to the complicity of the board and administrative staff of the cooperative, and the complacency of the certifiers (organic and fair trade), social banks and coffee buyers.

The members in that period of the board (2005-2006) were not aware of what was happening in the cooperative. In the next period (2007-2008) with a new board the situation was noticed because debt collectors came in, so they unraveled the origins of the debt. In the assembly they studied the causes, they met with the social banks, certifiers, buyers and aid agencies. What had led them to this crisis?

“If a member spoke well, we would say that that member was good, that he should be president. We trusted what the manager or the president would tell us, “This project is coming…sign here.” That is fine and we would sign. We did not verify the document to see what it ended up saying. They only would come in to tell us. There was no control over the travel allowance of the manager nor about the salaries they earned. We let them sign checks for the employees. Even in one season the manager was the legal representative of the cooperative. We would change everyone in each period, there were meetings, but we did not know how the administration was doing. The Credit Committee let the board authorize the loans, and we would say that it was good. As the legal representative, the manager would negotiate and talk with the buyers and the banks; we were afraid of talking to a business person and were happy with the manager doing it. Going to the capital was something we did not like to do…” (Board members of the cooperative).

The rotation of members in the posts out of formality led them to this crisis. Board members who did not take notes of the meetings that they held, did not read the minutes nor contracts, did not study the numbers of their organization, and did not ensure that the agreements from the assembly were applied, turned into decorative board members, it did not matter how good the practice of leadership rotation might be. Custom turned into law: signing oficial minutes and checks without verifying, putting in posts people that spoke well, letting the administration represent the cooperative and sign their checks, leaving the president or the manager to authorize loans instead of the credit committee, and avoiding talking with buyers and the banks. It was a “law” legitimized by the fair trade and organic certifiers´ audits.

That situation became a crisis when the bills came in and they had a new board. Realizing that the instigators of taking over the collective resources had been backed also by the organic certifier struck a blow to hundred year old beliefs that had nested in their minds: “foreign auditors have the final word”; “a person with a degree is trained to lead organizations”; “indigenous are not capable of talking nor traveling.” They were absorbed by the formality of the cooperative: the rotation of leaders was insufficient, and the audits of the international organizations were just papers. They awoke even from their cultural self enclosure: “a ladino cannot teach an indigenous person about coffee”; this idea had blocked them from benefitting from technical consultancies in order to improve their coffee. They also understood that the force of the market (maximizing individual earnings) was guiding the fair-trade organizations connected to the administration of the cooperative and the formality of its bodies.

It was a collective awakening in ongoing assemblies. There they decided to defend themselves against judicial claims of usurers; they understood that leadership rotation was insufficient if the administration was on the other side of the street, which is why the board studied the finances that the administrative area worked on. At the same time, they rebuilt their relationships with external actors: aid organizations and the State, administering resources efficiently; social banks honoring the debt, in spite of the fact that only part of those resources had gotten to the cooperatives and that the social bank had failed in their vetting mechanisms; they changed their organic certifier for another one that “visits the countryside”; and they worked with their coffee buyers so that quality requirements be connected to differentiated prices. They recognized that they could improve in their production areas, and that technical assistance from the state was useful, they hired a permanent technical promoter who accompanied the members and decided to produce organic inputs (compost worm fertilizer) that the members would buy. They got involved in roasting coffee aimed at the local market. They established a clinic for women based on their social fund, as an expression of commitment to their municipality.

Since 2010 they began to feel the changes and their results: see Figure 7. Organic agriculture bore fruit: if previously the organic coffee had a smaller yield than conventional coffee, within years the soil became so fertile that their coffee yield was better than the yield for conventional coffee. Without affecting those high yields, the families also grew corn, beans, bananas and other trees in between the rows of coffee – the rule of the certifiers that prohibited other crops is overcome if the soil is completely fertilized with organic fertilizers, feeding the soil and not the crop is “the rail.”

In addition to processing and exporting good quality organic coffee (cup score of 84), roasting coffee gave them several advantages. 5% of their total coffee was roasted, ground and sold through their coffee shops. This allowed them to know more about the yield from cherry to export coffee, to ground, roasted coffee and to the number of cups of coffee. They use this information to make their negotiations with coffee buyers transparent, because the cooperative and the buyers understand how unfair the New York stock price is, when they say that 1 lb of coffee is worth $1.50, that same pound in the United States or Europe, now roasted, ground and packaged, is worth ten times more, and even much more if it is sold as cups of coffee. The coffee shop in the cooperative is also a door to agro-ecological tourism for people connected to the coffee trade, and for the public in general. This creates environmental awareness and allows understanding what the coffee economy and part of the culture of the communities of San Juan are like. Also, coffee shops in the United States that buy coffee from the cooperative transmit live on their monitors farms in Guatemala.

In terms of results, some people from San Juan are repurchasing land from the people of San Pedro. The cooperative is creating jobs for the member families themselves on the farms, in the wet and dry mills, in the roasting and grinding of coffee, in the coffee shop and in the clinic.

Awakening to this crisis opened their minds. They learned that the relationship between the associative part and the business part, elucidated in assemblies, is what moves the cooperative, that the rotation of leaders implies getting involved in the administration of the actions of the cooperative; and that a transparent transnational alliance where each one does their part, supports social, economic and environmental equity processes for the communities. See box 4.

In spite of this progress, the cooperative and its network are not out of danger. In fact, it is said that human beings are the only animal that trips over the same stone twice. How can we make the risk less likely? From the history of social movements we learn that, after being mobilized “from below”, even the best leaders tend to believe that the people can only be mobilized “from above” – by a political vanguard, manager or the market. The more a cooperative creates mechanisms to mobilize itself “from below”, and does so within a framework of alliances with global actors, the more it distances itself from the risks of going broke. This is what this experience shows us.

3.2  Commonalities in these cases

What common waters run beneath these innovative experiences? See Table 4.


Table 4. Common elements
Context History Organization Rules
Nicaragua Community is smothered by commercial mediation and traditional cooperatives, mono-cropping and the search for money at the cost of human and natural life. -They reflect on their situation, awaken and swim against the hierarchical “rails”

-They crawl forward with their own resources, diversify, process and sell their products.

-Alliance in international triangulation around coffee

-Alliance in local triangulation that catalyzes economic initiatives and densifies social connections.

-Contributing and distributing equitably

-Decisions in assemblies; rotation of leadership and tasks; information transparency; visiting one another.

Honduras Under the Alliance for Progress and the opening of the Catholic Church, a community far from markets, moves in a context of  harassment of large land owners, alcoholism and learning to read and write. -Vision: Bringing stores to the community

-Religious opening: they value themselves

-Keeping honesty with monthly cash out, assemblies and through oversight board.

-diversify crops, weaving and commerce.

-Community store – distributor– seller of vegetables in the city

-Community store and weaving group in the community

-Self governance: Member families in posts of organizations

Contributing/distribution /credit which does not surpass amount to be distributed.

-Rotation of leaders that also looks at the administration

-managers that implement decisions of the organs.

Guatemala Discrimination and dispossession of their lands in 1970-80s; now when organized they suffer theft from common crime and the Police, and later the complicity of external actors with local elites threaten to make the cooperative go broke. -Vision: organizing is resisting as indigenous

-They find a niche: organic soil for several crops, processing and coffee shop

-They awaken to the corruption and leadership rotation without getting involved in administration.

-transnational alliance between coffee buyer, certifier who “visits the countryside” and cooperative around organic coffee

-Cooperative produces fertilizer, works wet/dry mills, roasts and coffee shop for the local market.

-Rotation of leaders directing actions of the cooperative

-Transnational alliance whose members have roles that they carry out

-Assembly is the decisive entity and follows up on actions.


Regardless of the historical period and country, markets and States intensify hierarchical structures of inequality and discrimination that belittle people. They do it with commercial mediation, mono-cropping and tacit rules like “save yourselves those who have” (land, money), separated from human and natural life, which is why people tend to isolate themselves, drown themselves in alcohol and religious fundamentalism. When these people, organized in cooperatives, are dragged along by these waters along with their external allies, then they end up forming alliances over raw materials and the peasantry stay within their “piñuela fences” and women stay secluded “in their kitchens”.

Those who reflect on their realities, awaken, see and crawl forward with their own resources, form organizations that on a small scale become what humanity would aspire to be- that is their story. On reflecting they discover those adversities that they are presented with as something natural and/or determined by some supernatural being. Reflection leads them to awaken to the extent that they encounter their own roots, with which they can free themselves from those adversities which are reproduced in their minds and hearts. Then they envision something different, connected to their roots, the opposite of those structures. And they hold on to that vision using their own resources. These organizations are like a family that rotates their crops to maintain soil fertility, while they protect a patch of forest where their water source is; the fact of having food and water gives them a strength for negotiating with the large land owner or rancher who wants to buy their labor force and/or their land. These exceptional organizations stick to their vision. Let us illustrate what this “stick to” means with the peasants in the store in Encinos in the 1970s, they, without knowing how to read and write, sat down every month to do the cash-inventory audit of their store, they knew that they were charting a new path and that they had to persist even if fire rained down; month after month, year after year, they turned their store into one of the exceptional organizations of Central America – but not seen nor recognized as such by NGOs, aid agencies nor the State[2].

Innovative forms of organization stand out in these stories. The triangulation or agreement between three actors, one transnational, and another more local. The first is between the buyer, the financier, and the seller (cooperative) around coffee, a triangulation “conditioned” on the equitable distribution of surpluses, informational transparency and on being democratic organizations[3]. The second is between local actors with a strong interest in the processing and commercialization of a diversity of products, a triangulation “conditioned” on including women and youth as protagonists in the social enterprises. In any of these expressions, the social enterprises are self governing and rotate leadership and jobs. These social enterprises, in addition, catalyze new organizations in the same community around other initiatives, this includes more marginalized people and keeps one person from becoming a “big chief” when there is only one organization.

It highlights the fact that in order to be democratic, transparent and equitable organizations, one does not need so much money, training, nor many pages of laws and norms. Few rules are needed, implementing them, and recreating them following their spirit in accordance with the changes that the communities experience as global spaces. When their members contribute and the social enterprise distributes the surplus with equity, and it is directed by its organs, the services (credit, processing, commercialization, health care or education) are sustainable. To do so, three interdependent rules are key. The “contribute-distribute” rule generates – and is generated by – trust; if under this rule a person requests a loan for an amount equal to or less than the amount of their contribution and their possible share of the distribution of surplus, and if once the term is past that person does not pay, the social enterprise deducts that amount from that person´s resources; any person who is the object of distribution asks for information and identifies with their organization – let us recall the biblical saying “where your treasure is, there your heart will be”. The rules “only the assembly is the decisive body” and “rotation of leadership and posts” are favored because the social enterprise belongs to the community, they make the voice of all the groups be heard, allows women to participate with or without babies; information flows through the community.

Under what conditions do these rules make a difference? When they are connected to endogenous institutions of the communities, which emerge through study and self-study: the rule “contribute-distribute” is connected to relationships of indigenous-peasant exchanges, e.g. sharecropping; the rule “assembly is decisive” is connected to collective actions-decisions of indigenous peoples. These are signs of “societies with markets”.

These interconnected rules, under alliances or triangulations, around modes of production that go beyond the curse of “raw materials” and cultivate relationships of life with nature, make us walk outside the rails of capitalist and patriarchal colonialism.

4.    Conceptualization of alternative processes

Let us go back to Quijano (1992), who proposes elements of decolonialization: freeing the production of knowledge, reflection and communication from the potholes of European rationality; recognizing the heterogeneity of all reality, the contradictory nature and legitimacy of what is diverse in all societies; requiring the idea of the other, what is diverse, different. For their part, Lucas dos Santos and Banerjee (2019), in order to decolonialize social enterprises, think about seeing oneself as a specific and contextualized reality within a broad framework, recognizing western discourse on development, wealth and poverty, measuring and explaining the diversity of production logics that exist in the world, revising the meaning of what “the economic” is, recognizing community knowledge in order to find solutions, promoting symbolic autonomy…

From the described cases, we are rethinking the idea of community as a heterogeneous space, conflictual, and different from capitalist and patriarchal colonialism, where social enterprises rediscover their institutional roots, they are the means for people to recreate their identities and generate spaces for building, in the midst of conflicts, trust in ones own culture – that which they are rediscovering and not that capitalist and patriarchal colonialism reproduced by those same people. These social enterprises and the processes that they generate, correct, expand and catalyze become mechanisms which, like social laboratories, produce ideas, images, symbols and knowledge that guide people to improve their lives and their communities in a holistic way – not being dragged along by the commercialization of race, capital and the uterus. See Table 5.

Table 5. Community that organizes, revives rules that are connected to social enterprises
Principles of decolonialized societies Reinvented social enterprises Peasant rules and values Peasant rules and values that benefit women
Rootedness (place, origins for recreating identities, relationship with the land) -Members come from the same community; meetings, transaction and exchanges happen in the community itself -Not divide land into pieces nor sell it; the land is the mother, has life

-diversified farm

-Women on water committee, school  boards …;

-They feed sons and daughters

-garden: my Mom´s green thumb

Growth with equity -Distribution of profits

-Diversified and agro-industrial farms; systems for saving

-Improve roads, clínic-health


-Share voluntary labor support, seed for grains


-processing and commercializing


-sharing oregano, lard, lemon … (food)

Ownership of your organization -Monthly cash-inventory audit;

-Oversight from within and without- with or without posts

Honesty for choosing treasurers, without regard to whether one is “learned” or not If the social enterprise belongs to the community, women will assume leadership posts
Participatory democracy -Decisions made in assemblies

-Connected to one another, creating more organizations, membership from different ages and genders

Let the feet (footprints) guide and ruminate (reflect) at night -Visiting one another; visiting the sick

-Equity in inheritances

Learning apparatuses -Diversification of services

-Space for reading, taking notes, analyzing and making decisions based on analysis.

-Farm-cornfield and forest: the landscape reveals the life of the family

-sharecropping and sharing voluntary labor

-Weaving, processing, commerce, garden




Abstracting from specific cases, we find ideas, images and symbols in the peasantry and indigenous peoples. The connection of the social enterprises with the endogenous institutions of communities show other realities under construction. The farm or the cornfield is a symbol of crop diversity to ensure food for the family and cooperation with neighbors, the garden (“my Mom´s green thumb”) expresses indigenous plants (pumpkin, chayote, chile, annatto, chicory, mint…[4]), weavings, religiosities and phrases reveal beliefs, images and knowledge, many of them from prior to colonialization. Figure 8 shows this confluence of institutions and shows the collective results in terms of trust, living relationships with nature, other paths, recreation of identities …

Under this framework of community which organizes and recreates itself, several elements stand out. Discerning the specific context implies “digging” into the context in which cooperatives emerged in Europe, from workers getting off the rails of industrial capitalism (England) or from peasants freeing themselves from usury (Germany), building principles of self help, self governance and self responsibility, and of “digging” into the context of peasant and indigenous communities, to then connect both contexts out of which might emerge the spirit of social enterprises, word and change. This is “digging out” endogenous rules buried by so many layers of colonial, capitalist and patriarchal dust, in Europe as well as in our communities of Central America.

With this spirit of innovation, few rules and values emerging, social enterprises implement it through decisions made in assemblies and rotation of members in organs involved in the associative and business sides. In this way social enterprises practice self governance. When this happens, the transnational and local triangulations (alliances) generate mutually beneficial synergies, social enterprises deepen their processes, and external actors adjust their changes – because studying good changes infects one to do self-study, that it is possible to change the “rails” you are on. Behind Table 5 there are a world of cross-overs experienced: triangled contributions, distribution and credit is connected to diversified farm/cornfield, savings and collaboration (e.g. sharing pork-lard); rotation of leaders and decisions made in assemblies connected to visiting one another (“getting out of the kitchen and the home”[5]), commerce, equitable inheritances, not dividing up the farm and the forest.

In this type of social enterprises, that rule of “get rid of you to put me in”, done so that nothing changes in the mechanisms of dispossession, is left far behind.That technocratic and elite pretension of conceiving themselves as the brain and guides to community social enterprises is left aside. Those dualities of condemning the peasantry to only raw materials, women to just reproduction, or the forest as a simple symbol of waste are diluted.  These social enterprises are mixtures and combinations of forces, wills, knowledge and emotions, of organizing other forms of life, communities that function in a spiral fashion, like the conch seashell, opening doors and multiplying organizations.

These social enterprises turn communities into universities. About re-understanding how to organize cooperatives, associations and stores. About re-ordering the farm/cornfield. About recovering the garden in the yard of the home, behind the phrase “My Mom´s green thumb.” About rediscovering women in multiple roles. About discerning the footprints (feet) alongside the reflection (reasoning, head). About rediscovering images, like the mountain with lush trees that produce water, wood, food and oxygen, without needing to be fertilized nor have chemical inputs applied.

5.    Conclusions

We started this chapter with the question about what characterizes the type of organizations that get “off the rails” of capitalist and patriarchal colonialism, and how they are able to remain different over time. We read Quijano, Polanyi, Federici, and Lucas dos Santos and Banerjee. Afterwards we characterized the type of social enterprises dominant in Central America. Then we went into describing the cases of innovative social enterprises in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. From there we pulled out what is common to them. And on this basis we reconceptualized the community that organizes on their own “rails”. It is like we have followed the young woman of the story, who went away alone with her thoughts, starting another path, with the difference that we studied “Rosita” in 3 countries, finding her 45 years (Honduras), 40 years (Guatemala) and 5 years (Nicaragua) later.

These social enterprises or community forces have a history of “swimming against the current”. Instead of partnering people and providing profitable services, with managers who are eternal, hierarchical structures, subjecting women and nature, and believing that change comes from above, the social enterprises described have few rules which are decided in their assemblies and get implemented. Their members reflect, awaken and envision every day. They self govern. They break out of their “piñuela fences” and free themselves from the curse of “raw materials”, and consume the best of what they produce. They multiply organizations in the same community and at the same time build alliances in forms of triangulation where all benefit. Symbols like the farm/cornfield, the garden or the forest acquire new meaning; images like water, phrases like “eating the best of what we produce”, “my Mother´s green thumb”, and “alone with my thoughts” permeate deeply into their self esteem.

New challenges are appearing. Including more powerfully written culture. If Europe is rational, how can we be rational, emotional and intuitive looking at our footprints? Making the most marginalized people in the communities themselves become protagonists. Distinguishing more the Mesoamerican culture to find our roots and making communities even more innovative.

In the end we learn that when we lose all that technocratic emphasis and formality, that logic of volume, having more land, more money and more children, and that desire of wanting to be “the brain”, we encounter ourselves with our roots and the roots of our friends from any country.

6.    Bibliography


Federici, S., 2010, Caliban y la Bruja. Mujeres, cuerpo y acumulación primitiva. Madrid: Traficiantes de Sueños.

Ferrer Valero, S., 2015, Mujeres Silenciadas en la Edad Media. España: Punto de Vista Editores

Georges, L. y Pascal, P., 2009, Les défis du capitalisme coopératif: ce que les paysans nous apprennent de l’économie. Francia: Pearson Education France.

Lucas dos Santos, L. y Banerjee, S., 2019, “Social enterprise: is it possible to decolonise this concept?” In: Eynaud P., Laville J.L., Dos Santos L.L.., Banerjee S., Hulgard H., Avelino F. (2019), Theory of social enterprise and pluralism: Social Movements, Solidarity Economy, and Global South, Routledge Publisher, Oxfordshire, pag 3-17.

Polanyi, K., 2001, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Second Edition. Google Books.

Quijano, A., 1992, Colonialidad y modernidad/racionalidad, Perú Indígena. 13(29).

Quijano, A., 2014, “Colonialidad del poder, eurocentrismo y América Latina”, en: Cuestiones y horizontes: de la dependencia histórico-estructural a la colonialidad/descolonialidad del poder. Buenos Aires : CLACSO

Stiglitz, J., 2001, “Prologue” in: Polany, 2001. K. Polanyi, 2001, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Second Edition. Google Books.

Wheelock (1998), J.R., 1998, La Comida Nicaraguense, Managua: Editorial Hispamer.

[1] René has a PhD in development studies and accompanies rural organizations in Central America. He is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (, associate researcher of IOB Antwerp University and member of Coserpross (

[2] In April 2018 they invited me to a meeting with the Municipal government of Intibucá. The Mayor spoke about the effort that his government made in favor of the poor. I said to him that one of the most interesting organizations of Latin America existed in his municipality. He was surprised, “What organization?” he asked. “The Store of Los Encinos; more than 40 years of existence; economically sustainable without ever having received foreign donations-projects; they distribute their profits each year; their members rotate in leadership and are leaders of other municipal organizations”. “In Encinos?” he asked. He could not get over his surprise. “Yes,” I responded.

[3] We say “conditioned” in the sense that this triangulation does not make sense if the social enterprise is not democratic, transparent and distributes its profits. That triangulation makes sense only if equity, democracy and transparency are a constituent part of the actors that make up that triangulation.

[4] In order to get inside Nicaraguan food based mostly on the garden and cornfield, see Wheelock (1998).

[5] Women who can leave their kitchens and homes, to which they were reduced by the mono-cropping system. “Leaving” signifies an institutional change, which is facilitated by the meetings of the social enterprises and/or their initiatives for commercializing products. For a broad historical perspective of influential women, see Ferrer Valero, 2015.

[6] The phrase “my Mother´s green thumb” we found among elderly people recalling the garden that their Mother had some 80-100 years ago. Gardens that have practically disappeared nowadays, replaced by the logic of mono-cropping. That phrase is like a living hieroglyph, it expresses the culture of the peasantry itself.


The Virus and Mental Frameworks

Virus and Mental Frameworks

René Mendoza Vidaurre

The best ideas are not implemented due to the mental frameworks that we carry with us. Peter Senge (1990) in his book “The Fifth Discipline” points out: “we carry in our minds images, assumptions and stories” that block the application of proven experiments, big ideas and refined proposals.

Beliefs allied with the virus

In the face of COVID-19 there is scientific information disseminated by the World Health Organization (WHO), governments and social networks. But most people ignore it. Why? Our minds are full of beliefs that do not cede space to new information, like a bucket full of water, when we put more water in it, none of it goes in, it overflows. In the same way scientific recommendations do not get into our minds, they spill out.

What beliefs? A belief related to the destiny of individuals is probably the most damaging, which goes like this: “when it is your time, it is your time”, “everything has been written”. A drunk who drives a car, crashes and dies, then you hear people say, “it was his time”, and “God took him”; with this they justify his irresponsibility, along with his social background of getting drunk and having caused the accident. A second belief says ”there is no better doctor than God”, “chlorine bleach does not save, God does”. A third belief is “you go to the hospital to die”. These three beliefs fill human minds and control people; it is not God who controls them, and they are not the ones who are “sent.”

Consequently, people heard that one can be infected in crowds (meetings, demonstrations, religious celebrations, parties), but that information slips out of their minds. People get into crowds without protection, because their mind tells them, “when it is your time, it is your time”, “God protects me”. If someone tells them, “God protects you if you take care of yourself”, that person will say, “the devil is putting me to the test, for God nothing is impossible.” And if the person gets infected with COVID-19, they resist going to the health center because “you only leave there in a box”, the historic distrust in the State that has dispossessed them of their resources ends up condemning them.

The worst that these beliefs can do is that people get resigned and only watch the days and nights go by. If everything is already written, people are the puppets of some supernatural being, which is why there is no reason to improve or change, unless that change “is written from above.”

The first step to avoid the virus: free the mind from beliefs

We do not resign ourselves to the fact that these beliefs control us. How can we free ourselves from them? A first step is talking about them to understand them, and asking questions that allow us to reflect. The very act of reflecting is already a big contribution, because the biggest power of beliefs is preventing people from reflecting. “Believing is enough, thinking makes one sick”- beliefs whisper into the ears of people. How to reflect? Let us read this conversation:

-The best doctor is God – Juan tells us, while he cleans beans.

-If God protects those who believe in God, why are so many pastors, religious, and pious people dying of COVID-19? –we ask him

-Ahh, I am sure that they did not have faith in God, I do have faith–he responds, very sure of himself.

-I wonder. Is it not that God expects people to do their part, take care of themselves and save their loved one, improving their diet? –we insisted.

-Who knows… –he no longer seems so sure. He begins to question, reflect.

This step also requires people who work in the chain of aid organizations, or the chain of State institutions, to do self-study and discover their beliefs. One of their beliefs is “people are saved with donations and training.” Correspondingly, they want the “papers” (receipts, contracts) of those donations to be “supported”, that products like chlorine get to the leaders of an organization, or that there be a health center. It is a technocratic assumption, which assumes that THE leader is going to distribute the products, that families will pay attention to what they are told, and that whoever gets sick will go to the health center. Provoking reflection includes challenging our own beliefs.

The assumption in the first belief is that “The bibles says it.” The Bible does not say that. What it says is that people have “free will” (“everything that you can do, do it with all your strength”, Ecc 9:10) and that “he who sows inequity, will harvest inequity” (Prov 22:8). In other words, each person writes their own story according to the circumstances in which they find themselves, the group in which they move, and their values. The assumption in the beliefs of many organizations and institutions, including intellectuals, is that “they know” the problem and the solutions for people.

When beliefs get examined, they appear as the beliefs that they are, they lose their power and that aura of being “sacred truths”. Then they can be expelled, even though that be painful; that belief has nested itself in the mind of the individual, who on expelling it, will feel “orphaned” and “insecure.” Nevertheless, once we are able to challenge these and other beliefs, the mind will have space to process new information, ideas or proposals.

Second step: testing new ideas in horizontal spaces

Let us look at an example of how people, on freeing themselves from harmful beliefs, can apply new ideas with better results. Up until the end of the 1970s it was believed that “the more brutish the workers are, the better they perform”, so bosses and experts would direct the work from their offices, while a ton of workers implemented the ideas of the experts. This is how the Ford car industry worked in the United States. But the Japanese in the Toyota industry discovered that belief as the cause for making expensive and poor-quality vehicles, they expelled those beliefs and tested new ideas in a gradual way and produced better quality and cheaper vehicles. What ideas did they introduce? That the experts and the workers innovate together, as a team they were all experts; that the workers should propose how to improve each action that they carried out; decentralizing decisions.  It was a revolutionary change that later was extended to other industries in the world, which was possible when people realized that they write their own history.

How can communities protect themselves? Reflection, we said, is the first step. Toyota teaches us that the environment (team, understanding that each person is an expert in their area, decentralization of decisions) favors the generation of new ideas, tells us to test and adjust changes gradually. A cooperative, association or a community store should facilitate these reflections and create these favorable conditions for producing ideas and applying them. The president, manager, donor, government or intellectual, should not act as if they were “gods” dominated by the fordist belief, that they already know the problems and the solutions for people, they should go to the homes of people and talk with them. How can we protect ourselves from COVID-19 and other viruses? The lowliest person can have responses, but a favorable environment is needed in their own homes and communities in order to produce and express them.


The “ladder” and conditions for rethinking “not leaving anyone behind”

The “ladder” and conditions for rethinking “not leaving anyone behind”

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

-the big producers increase their coffee areas, the small ones produce less, and we are all from the same cooperative–María observed in the assembly

-we are on different steps of the ladder –responded Claudio.

-The small producers should not hold offices, being “bit players” is their fault- adjudged their administrator.

– If we looked at one another and helped one another, maybe our cooperative would be a cooperative- María shot back, while the big producers smiled.

Claudio Hernandez, a peasant cooperative member, by saying that “we are on different steps” in the cooperative, referred to the social inequality in his cooperative. In this article we want to study the hierarchical side of this phrase, and how to move beyond it in the communities.

The force of structures

In the story the administrator presupposes a vertical structure, classifies the small producers as “bit players”, and puts them outside the range of officers. This image of the “ladder” is the structure of hierarchical power that comes from societies, families and absorbs any organization or institution. Figure 1 shows people going up the ladder, there is no other way up. On that ladder it is not possible for a group of people to be on the same rung; they would fall. Most aspire to go up the ladder, even though they are not able to get close to it. If someone makes a bid to go up, they alert the one on top, “ he is going to get ahead of you”. The one who reaches the top unseats him: “get down so I can get up.” Only the “one in charge” is on the top of the hill, “the more authoritarian he is, the more he does for us”, “I am nothing without him”. Even though those who generally reach the top are men, if a woman reaches the top, the ladder does not change.

This structure defines the position of big and small, of those who have, and do not have rights in a society. It names people to the offices of organizations or institutions, turns leaders into politicians or technocrats. Likewise, the age structure in families defines their members: those who “are good” for doing physical tasks, like “a load” for those who no longer can carry one because of their age; the spouse “discarded”, replaced by a young woman. It is a structure that is reinforced by animalizing human relations: “he is going to better you”, assumes that the person left below is an animal, which is worse if the person “bettered” is a woman. If someone praises a boy it is because “he is looking at his shoulders” – for carrying, labor, an object of exploitation. It is a language that defines, “she is female, I am male” – but using words in Spanish that generally are used to designate the sex of animals. A male, a macho is, as the writer Octavio Paz said, “awesome, the father who has abandoned his wife and children”, and who feels proud of it.

It is a structure that takes voice and agency away from people and reproduces rules contrary to good humanity. It says to the impoverished, “we will always need a patron”; to the abused woman, “he is my husband, he has the right to beat me”; to the Evangelical pastor, “I am the anointed one, I speak in the name of God”; to the priest, “only I can celebrate the Eucharist”; to people in communities and neighborhoods, “God has a plan for us”, “the leader has a plan for us”. As the Spanish saying goes, “no one goes to heaven without a ladder”.

There can be a peaceful or violent revolution in a country, church or any organization, be it school, sports club or communal organization, that revolution is basically “get rid of you to put in me”, “getting ahead”, and repeating “I am the anointed one”/”leader, direct us!”/ “spouse in pants or skirt, direct us!” They can sing that they are “new men” or dress in habits, the ladder is the same. Everything changes, so as not to change. We see cooperatives like this whose members, men and women, rebel against their presidents or managers, replace them with other people, and in a short period of time, the chosen person turns into the “top man” or “top woman”.

From within these structures the slogan of many international organizations “leave no one behind” can be understood as pulling the impoverished person to the “ladder”, so that they are not left behind, while the ladder continues being the “ladder”.

Change of structures

How can we change to really change? If we ignore the ladder, it will be like the sun, it will keep us from seeing the stars and will make us repeat the rule of elites: “without the leader, there is nothing”, “without legality and office in the town, there is no organization”. We need to distinguish between the ladder (structure; sun) from what is outside of it (stars). Identifying the ladder to reveal that it was made by human beings, that its reproduction is not automatic but mediated by human interpretation, which is why it can be undone or redone. Let us recall what Max Weber said, it is not the rule of courtesy that makes one tip the hat, but the interpretation by people of that rule. Understanding this helps us to create conditions to awaken and recreate our identities, to recognize those structures and then look for other paths.

María in the above story says, “If we looked at one another and helped one another, maybe our cooperative would be a cooperative.” There is a new interpretation there, which is the awareness of looking for alternative options to the ladder, seeing the stars. How?

From communitarian perspectives we can put on the shoes of different people, even though first we need to take off those we have on. From those “soles” it is not possible to put the “ladder” to one side, because in the end it is in our own minds and feet. Hmmmm! After identifying it, how can we proceed?

Following Figure 2, we propose three steps. First, forming organizations with membership in just one community, and limiting their size: that it not have more than 50 members, nor that it only grow economically. This will keep a leader from becoming the “big chief”, because his organization will be relatively small, and its membership will be more informed about their organization from living in the same community or micro-territory. This will reduce the size of the ladder and pull it toward the community.

Second, multiplying organizations in the same community: forming more cooperatives and facilitating the emergence of new forms of organization – stores, roasters, bee keepers, bakeries and poultry farms of groups of people. At the same time, recognize that there are organizations in the same community: water committees, parent teacher organizations, representatives of municipal government, road committees. This multiplication of organizations, in addition to their economic and social impact, also contribute to the democracy of the organizations in the same community. In this, there tend to be two or three people who control organizations in a community: e.g. a “chief” as mayor´s representative, and president of the water committee and the cooperative. If in a community a second and third cooperative are formed, that “chief” can only be the member of one cooperative. If in that community a community store and/or roaster emerges, their administration requires full time work, which means it would be difficult for that “chief” to be the administrator of a community store. The characteristic of the “chiefs” is that their two or three organizations tend to be long ladders, financed and controlled from outside; while the organizations that are multiplying are smaller, from the same micro-territory and move more with their own resources. Multiplying organizations is like opening more windows and doors for the community.

Third, expanding and generating connections between different organizations on the basis of already existing and emerging relationships of collaboration is a challenge. For example, the delegates of the word of the Catholic Church tend to be part of dense relationships. If a good part of that social base are also members of an organization, they contribute to trust, which is a basic asset for building connections; for that reason it is necessary to show those dense relationships. When a new organization emerges, it is like opening a new channel for previously dammed water to flow; and if that organization, in contrast to traditional ones, is composed of women and/or young people, fresher and cleaner water flows through that channel uniting more lives.

In these connections we are not talking about alliances. So far, we are not aware of interesting and lasting alliances. We see that when organizations multiply, collective and community actions also multiply; e.g. road repair, disease prevention actions, like the current COVID-19. We do envision the possibility of forming second tier organizations in the same micro-territory, which would be practically the opposite of the “big headed dwarf” model of the second-tier cooperatives that exist today – something to discuss in another article.


The change of structure that we are proposing is discovering the “ladder” which we ourselves are part of, and move beyond it by reducing its size, multiplying ladders, and expanding their connections in the same community or micro-territory. These perspectives in the long term can democratize our societies and offer better conditions where the voice of people is heard and listened to, shared leadership flourishes, and collective innovations are possible.

This process, no matter how praiseworthy it might be, requires hard work for hours beyond “the work day” on the part of some people in the communities and those who accompany them. Because that “ladder” is like the roots of a bad weed that lives in our minds, resists being discovered, and on being discovered fights to persist and intensifies its domination in old and new organizations.

From community perspectives, it is not a matter of “not leaving anyone behind.” It is a matter of each person getting closer to others, and on doing so, they draw closer to their own capacity and potential. Then the community will be more than the sum of its parts.

[1] René has a PhD in development studies and accompanies rural organizations in Central America. He is a member of Coserpross (, an associate researcher of IOB-Antwerp University, and a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (

Rural communities and the challenge of thinking about COVID-19

Rural communities and the challenge of thinking about COVID-19

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]


Health comes first

-How are you doing, Pipita?

-Owing money, without beans, grey hair, and …

-If you have your health, the rest doesn´t matter

-Ahh! Yes, exactly! But coronavirus scares me …

-Who isn´t afraid? Fear is the biggest enemy of reason. Think, Pipita, your love for others is stronger than anything…Besides, the rain is coming now!

The entire world is experiencing difficult days. People feel fear, impotence, the desire to cry. The only thing certain is uncertainty. Every person would like to support themselves with something, protect themselves under the shade of a tree. But there are almost no natural, supernatural nor social “trees” anymore. It is when that Nicaraguan phrase becomes even truer, “if you have your health, the rest doesn´t matter.” And health is like the rain, it does not fall from the sky with some prayers, it is something that is provided and strengthened with human actions. And who provides it? And how is it provided? Maybe “the love” that one feels for others provides it, maybe the love with which we were made in a passionate morning helps provide it. Maybe it is time to look farther ahead, because “the rain is coming now.”

In this article we reflect on this rural world, that thin strand between hygiene and the economy, between home, church, health center, and between individual and collective actions. To do this we list the facts or risks, we start to explain this “strand”, we look at how scientific recommendations help these different cultures revive – like plants which dry up become green again when the clouds release the first drops of water, and we point out the role of accompanying organizations. The importance of grassroots organizations in protecting their communities runs throughout the article, while the notion of community matures with the turning of each page.

1.    Conditions that work for and against COVID-19

The situation with COVID-19 seems to be getting worse. The gap between the official information in any country and what is in the social networks is large, with which anxiety buzzes like a mosquito at night. In rural communities this concern is connected to the continuity of classes in school, religious celebrations in churches, and festive crowds, with or without quarantine. People think that through that “door” of the school, church or public transportation, the virus can get into their homes and pass through the community. What are the rural conditions that work for or against COVID-19?

Rural families have some advantages and some disadvantages in the face of the virus. The advantages are: the physical distance between people to avoid COVID-19 is facilitated by the low population density, and because a good number of families live on their own farms; the average age of the population is relatively young, which limits the effect of COVID-19, even though this advantage is evaporating because of poverty[2]; living in areas with little air pollution[3]; communities that have grassroots organizations with members and offices in the community itself, through which they access some information and some collective actions. The disadvantages are: if people are infected, it will be difficult for them to go to the health centers with the first symptoms[4] and it will be difficult for them to stay at home, or prevent visits when rumors buzz along the footpaths of neighboring houses, all of which have the potential to infect more people; the quality of the health centers, in any country in Latin America, is less in the rural municipal capitals  and is inexistent in rural communities.

Gatherings of people in schools and churches is the greatest risk; let us remember that in a church in Washington one member infected from between 52 to 60 members of the choir, 65 were infected in a Zumba class in South Korea, 80 people in a concert. Rural gatherings tend to happen in groups separated by the lack of connection between organizations. Cooperatives, schools, churches and party or governmental organizations (e.g. councils, mayor representatives) move in a “walled off” manner; each person in their own world, and under their own leadership. Churches move in their religious world and with their own leadership structure. Schools with their educational programs and with their own institutional leadership. Cooperatives focus on the economy with their own leadership structure. And so on. This separation means that the gatherings move separately, isolated, which is why people tend to behave in an opportunistic way: “let others spend on hygiene to prevent COVID-19”, “I don´t care, I don´t have children in school”, “I am going to church because God is protecting me, what better doctor than God?”

This separation is worse with external institutions. Markets are reduced to offering hygiene products, raising their prices because of increasing demand, and move by means of intermediation; States limit themselves to making an effort in health centers; aid organizations provide resources within the circles in which they move; and second tier organizations and NGOs expect to mediate resources[5]. None of them tend to cross over “to the other side of the river”, in the sense of understanding how rural societies move, lack experience working at the community level with grassroots organizations. This limits our ability to understand rural population from their own perspectives, and limits the communities from understanding external organizations. We live in a world of one-eyed people that is attractive for any virus.

This separation or “fortress-effect” feeds the prevalence of beliefs. It is a universal truth that when there is less information and less articulate comprehension about certain habits, beliefs prevail. What beliefs? In peasant families: “If I believe in God, nothing is going to happen to me”, “lightening is not what kills you, it is just your time has come”; “long suffering people will resist any virus”; “I am not washing my hands because my hands are hot because of work”, “chloroquine and azithromycin get rid of the virus” (self-prescribing without evidence that it cures and without investigating its damaging effect on the heart; and according to the WHO seem to increase the risks and consequences of the disease). Beliefs in external institutions: “information confuses people”; “money makes the monkey dance”; “if the economy improves, all improves”; “give them alcohol and with that COVID-19 will not affect them”; “boil eucalyptus and cypress leaves”; “read the bible where it announces the end of the world”, “everyman for himself”. Doña Coronavirus laughs and is attracted by these beliefs!

We resist learning. We read about the 15 countries of the Asia-Pacific region, China, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the 10 member countries of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations), Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, as the region that has best dealt with COVID-19, a region that has 2 billion people of the 7.7 billion that exist in the world. How did they do it? With good public health: they closely observe the symptoms people have, if there are symptoms, they test them, if they are positive, they isolate them in their homes or in hospitals, and they do contact tracing[6]. In other words, the more they diagnose, they more they know what to do, and thus save more lives. In contrast, national and international organizations tend not to do diagnoses to formulate and implement policies, except to appear to formally comply; our mentality of providentialism and resignation resists learning from rural populations, we do not seek to understand them, we believe that we already know them, that “the market knows more”. We are societies that seem to live like in the middle ages under the church with the inquisition, in those times “there was no reason to think, it was enough to believe”, when thinking was a sin and punished by death.

2.    Hygiene in rural societies

What is it that we need to understand? We begin with some history, to then paint something about the rural reality and show the vein that we have to continue exploring.

There are several studies on diseases and the architecture of cities and homes[7], not much on rural spaces. Public health has contributed to the fact that the population lives longer, architecture has also done that. So closets were imposed instead of armoires, because they were anti-hygienic because they accumulated dust. In the last 150 years we know of great changes in the cities of London, Barcelona or Paris; in 1866 they cleaned up most of the river Thames in London, and that clean up saved most of the people of the city from the threat of cholera; in 1844 they redesigned the city of Barcelona, knocking down walls that contributed to the overcrowding, which made lack of hygiene worse and supported epidemics; also Paris was redesigned for health purposes. Other smaller changes also had large impacts: clean water and management of sewage to prevent malaria or yellow fever; in the face of the bubonic plague, that killed 12 million people between 1855 and 1959, they rebuilt homes with more concrete and metal to keep out the rats who carried that pestilence. In other words, the design of homes and cities for health purposes lengthened the lives of people.

Now with COVID-19 architecture is challenged to redesign homes. Even though architecture has not been able to respond to respiratory illnesses, COVID-19 can cause the redesign of the home, where the idea of what is private is reconceptualized, giving way to the home as a space for school, work, reflection and gymnasium[8].

Unfortunately, there are no studies about that same relationship between architecture and health for rural areas, at least none that I am aware of. In rural areas, hygiene has been in deficit for centuries, a situation that has been made even worse by the discrimination toward the rural world. This situation of hygiene is due in part to the fact that rural families every day are grappling with land, farming, agro-chemicals, small livestock, slaughtering or the fire in the kitchen, and they do it without having protective measures like gloves, boots or masks, partly because they are living with limited water or means of catching water, on large haciendas the patrons customarily do not provide protective equipment to their workers, and partly because they do not have access to information while beliefs lead them to not protect themselves.

This daily work of women with fire, or men with the land leads them to bathe less frequently. This is not necessarily, however, a lack of hygiene; in fact, many people during the winter in Europe and the Andean altiplano do not bathe very frequently. The difference is that peasant families think that after work a person should not touch water, it is an understanding about the combination of temperatures; so it is that after making tortillas they do not wash their hands, after weeding they do not bathe “because the body is hot”. Also the lack of water and minimal infrastructure has conditioned them to carry out certain practices; women gather dirty clothes to go to the river to wash them, they spend little water to wash dishes. Likewise, little access to information has an impact on daily life, for example, dishes are not washed with Clorox that could contain the salmonella bacteria, which tends to be found in food contaminated with animal feces. We mention these points to illustrate how difficult it could be the fact that, now with COVID-19, they have to wash their hands frequently and with soap, when customs and their natural (water) and economic conditions weigh in.

Most rural homes, particularly those of low-income people, have dirt floors and are closed structures with little ventilation. For example, it is known that Chagas disease, that “forgotten illness” because the pharmaceutical industries do not see it as profitable, mostly happens in homes with grass roofs and cracks in the clay walls where the insects that cause this disease tend to live[9]. Peasant homes are a prolongation of the farm, or the reverse, for example corn is stored inside the home or above the hearth, while the cats deal with stalking the rats who are after the corn…

These rural practices became customs, and those customs, laws, which tend not to be seen by  the eyes of State institutions, markets and international aid agencies. External actors, instead, tend to see agriculture or ecology as separate from hygiene in the home and family, and the economy as separate from health, education and religion. External actors, when they touch on the issue of hygiene, do so viewing the rural reality from the urban experience, and so any weed seems dirty to them, any home for them should be in towns or villages, any farm should be mono-cropped, and any insect should be fought with agro-chemicals. From the urban perspective it is hard to understand that a home on a farm probably is healthier than a city with an over-populated cattle industry, or chicken or turkey industry, which are true virus factories.

We need to scrutinize the relationship between hygiene and agriculture, home and farm and school and church to understand the culture of hygiene in rural populations, to then look at improvements and changes to be made. Without understanding, one cannot see, Rodrigo López told us, a peasant from Waslala. How true that is! Otherwise, how can we imagine that just using chlorox and alcohol is going to prevent COVID-19? Without understanding, how they can reflect on and change their habits coming from their own cultures and farming systems, any chlorox or alcohol that they are given runs the risk of ending up in the municipal markets, as has happened with the donation of tin roofing sheets, pure bred hogs, coffee roasters or grain silos. The community, that heterogeneous amalgam of disputed realities, is like a book, inside of which dance letters, pages and imagination, opened up only by the reading of those who love it, a reading which is like a person who shells a corncob sensing a hot tortilla with “”cuajada.

Our challenge is to rethink community spaces from a perspective in which health and economics are embedded in each other. Homes on farms with materials that protect them from rats and the insects that carry Chagas disease, and at the same time are ventilated spaces, and agro-forestry farms, in communities with spaces for food, reflection, social interaction, entertainment, open field school and collective actions. Communities with fresh air, revived, which end up being the “tree” to protect oneself from the virus. This is the vein to dig into.

3.    It is the moment for organized rural societies

While we study, let us not lose the pulse on COVID-19. What should we do? If classes and/or religious celebrations continue, and if markets and States do not show they are effective, grassroots organizations (cooperatives, associations, parent-teacher committees, water committees…), located in the communities, must act to protect their communities. The effectiveness of these organized rural societies can be better if supported by organized global societies (international aid organizations).

How? These grassroots organizations must turn themselves into entities that inform, connect with schools and churches to accompany them to understand the problem and their prevention practices in the face of COVID-19, and look up while they deepen their roots.

3.1  Informing yourself and analyzing the information


Box 1. Symptoms for diagnosis

Dry cough + sneezing = air pollution

Cough + mucus + sneezing + nasal secretions = common cold

Cough + mucus + sneezing + nasal secretions + body aches + weakness + mild fever = flu

Dry cough + sneezing + body aches + weakness + high fever + difficulty breathing = coronavirus

Source: Pathology Department, UCH London

In the first box are the elements to tell whether a person has coronavirus, flu, a cold or just air pollution. The scientific community reveals that a person with COVID-19 can show mild symptoms, and days later have other more serious symptoms. In other words, a person could have a cough and sneezing, and not have a high fever, which does not mean that they do not have COVID-19, in the days following the other symptoms may appear. Box 1 is a simple aid to differentiate, it does not assure you that you do not have COVID-19 with the first symptoms, but at the same time helps you to not get alarmed with the first symptoms, helps you to stay calm and discern; this is a big help in rural areas where it is difficult to go to a hospital.

COVID-19 is not just a new virus, but the scientific community still does not know much about it. Current evidence reveals that a little more than 40% of people with the virus were infected by people who did not have symptoms of COVID-19. This obviously makes prevention difficult, at the same time, knowing this helps us to get a grip on the problem and respond in the best way possible[10].


Box 2. Recommendations

1.     Do not touch your face–because the virus enters through the mouth, nose and eyes

2.     Wash your hands with soap – the virus is dissolved with 20 seconds of hand washing.

3.     Maintain physical distancing (1.5 mts) from another person; avoid groups of people

4.     If you do not feel well, stay home. The family can help you determine whether it is coronavirus (see box 1)

5.     Avoid meetings in closed spaces without ventilation

6.     Above all, think, think, and think–it is the most vital thing that we should practice.

Box 2 has information also based on studies. Grassroots organizations can disseminate it in their communities, but first they should read and analyze it: why shouldn´t you touch your face? Why should you wash your hands with soap? Why maintain a distance of 1.5 meters with other people? Why should you stay home when you have a cough, mucus and sneezing?  The more we think about it, the more we understand it, the more we are going to put it into practice and tell other people. Talking through information allows us to think about reorganizing activities, for example, the measure of maintaining a physical distance of 1.5 meters can help so that in a religious celebration, a meeting in the cooperative, or a class in the school people take their seats maintaining that distancing, so that the meetings be for shorter periods of time or with frequent recesses, or so that the meetings might be better prepared in advance so that, like chickens, you go straight to the “grain.” Information that is thought through can save lives.

Grassroots organizations also should reflect on other contributions from scientists. Let us look at 3 contributions. The first, studies show that children under the age of 12 do not get infected much, compared to adults; in the cases when they are infected, they almost never get seriously sick, nor are they great transmitters of the virus, like they were in the case of the flu, because the amount of receptors that COVID-19 needs are less in children under the age of 12, and consequently the viral charge (in other words, the amount of the virus that they can gather) is much smaller[11]. Statistics confirm this statement, minors under 12 are less than 0.2% of COVID-19 deaths.

Second, statistics how that men become more infected by COVID-19 than women, and they tend to suffer more from the virus than women who are affected. This is due to the fact that “the blood of men has higher concentrations of the converter enzyme of angiotensin II (ACE2) than the blood of women (…). This receptor is found on the surface of healthy cells, and helps coronavirus infect them” (see: ). Active genes linked to the X chromosome provide women (XX) greater protection against coronavirus than men”. In addition, be it for the type work in which rural women are more involved, in general they have more hygienic habits than men, for example, they wash their hands more frequently, be it because they are washing dishes, clothing or for personal care. This indicate the importance of hand washing.

Third, studies also tell us that the use of masks is preventive, but they also warn us of the risk of reusing them, because they can become a means of infection, because the virus can remain for hours and even days in the masks. The masks are more for infected people, with or without symptoms, so they do not infect other people. Why the masks? Because they reduce the particles that come out of the mouth when a person breathes or talks. When should masks be used? They can use them in school during classes in closed classrooms with little ventilation, in relatively closed churches during celebrations, when it is not possible to maintain physical distancing, when the interaction lasts a certain length of time, in places with human crowding (banks, markets…). They should also be used when you travel to town, on returning home you should wash it, in this way the mask will be ready for a new outing or meeting. Countries that have overcome COVID-19 have used the masks as part of their strategies, which is why rural communities probably will have to introduce the use of masks as part of their culture of care, particularly for the moments we just pointed out.

3.2  Linking to and contacting schools and churches

It seems easy to connect to and assume that any organization or institution will be happy to be contacted. Nevertheless, churches, schools and party structures are not accustomed to coordinate with community organizations, except to “orient them” about what to do, and treat them as their dependents. Their worlds and leadership which we mentioned previously really carry weight, they are true walls to community coordination. How is a grassroots cooperative going to react if the pastor of a church tells them, “God is our doctor, we trust in God?”[12] What is it going to say and do if the principal of a school tells them, “we can only receive support if it comes through the ministry of education”? What are they doing to do if a committee of a political party, the councils or mayor deputies say that “directions and projects only come from above?”. What can you say to the parent of a family who only believes in the patron of their hacienda? How difficult it is to be community and work for the community! There, where things get complicated, money will not even make monkeys dance.

In the midst of these worlds we have learned the following steps. First, discussing the information in figures 1 and 2 really empowers people, it is in-forming, and informing is forming. Information can be an antidote to despotic religious, political and economic leaders. Second, the cooperative or association should start from what it is and has; what do they have and who are they? Each member has, at least, a family member who is a student, believer of some religion and/or is member of a political party; they should talk with them, discuss the COVID-19 situation, and the information provided here. Third, members of the organs of the cooperatives, having now conversed at the grassroots level, visit the parent/teachers committee of the school, people with positions in the churches, (e.g. deacons, delegates of the word) and party members or government authorities, reflect with them and discuss the information. Finally, the board members of cooperatives communicate with the parent/teacher committee of the school and with deacons and delegates of the word[13]. In other words, connect with the grassroots of different organizations and institutions, their intermediate leaders, to then connect with the leadership of the organizations and institutions. In these steps, it is not a matter of convincing anyone, but of listening, bringing together elements that help to understand, and once each person understands, they will be able to see and then act – it is like preparing the soil and planting a seed, then you have to let the seed germinate and struggle to grow[14].


Table. Cost of kit for 90 people (1 month; in US dollars)

Products Quantity Price Total cost
Chlorox (cleaning equipment) (liters) 4 2.94 11.76
Hand towel (units) 6 2.35 14.1
Bar of soap (units) 90 0.51 45.9
Gel-Alcohol (liters) 2 5.15 10.3
Re-usable masks (units) 180 0.74 133.2
Instruction sheets 90 0.09 7.94
Total 223.20

With these steps, each organization can supply  itself with a kit of hygiene products to prevent COVID-19 (see table). Cooperatives have a social fund that they can use to acquire the kit, unless they have used it for other social agendas that they tend to have. Schools can, through the parent/teachers committees, gather resources to acquire the kit. If the cooperatives, with or without international support, can gather resources to support the schools and churches, it could make a difference, strengthening the bonds in the community, and the entire community would benefit. The more bonds there are, the more autonomous the community will be.

3.3  Looking forward


The sixth recommendation in Figure 2 is the most important reason for a grassroots organization rooted in the community to exist: think, think and think. Thinking is the most important element to resisting COVID-19. Thinking is looking forward and seeing beyond our noses. A cooperative is not a church nor a political party, its members are there voluntarily, they are not subordinated to anyone, they discuss and reach agreements in their assemblies, which is why they must examine their beliefs and fight with and against them. Individually they can believe or not in God, but they should not expect God to send them angels or saints to wash their hands for them, or put their masks on, just as they would not expect that he plant beans for them or remove botflies from their cattle; they can believe in their political leaders, but it is shameful to subordinate themselves to anyone. As cooperative members they have free will, their source of power is the assembly composed of the members themselves, and their reason for being is thinking, thinking and thinking in favor of their communities.

Part of this thinking is reflecting about COVID-19: How to protect their own community? If the State does not show up in a community, the cooperative must also take on that role. If the health system capacity is overcome, grassroots organizations should discuss how to help prevent the outbreak in their communities, and how to help people who might be affected by the virus. If in any country COVID-19 is being controlled, in all countries there are waves of outbreaks of the disease, so the cooperative should keep looking for those possible outbreaks. In Central America the urban waves of COVID-19 are still ongoing, which is why the rural waves that come later, can be lethal, not just for the reasons mentioned in this article, but because we are in the midst of the rainy season, which will make it more difficult for infected people to get to a health center or any support. If a community receives external support, the cooperative must be careful that that support not be counterproductive, because there can be support that displaces grassroots organizations, and when that donation ends the community´s own autonomy and their own efforts can be left eroded.

Cooperatives need to organize how a network of women can sew masks, how to make soap with lard, how to recover old ways of making alcohol in order to use on hands, how to recover natural medicine… Cooperatives need to think about connecting hygiene, economics, social and environmental elements, thinking about the food in the community beyond COVID-19, thinking about environmental sustainability with pure air and water, thinking, thinking, thinking.

4.    Role of international organizations in living communities

Even though for multiple reasons most of the international aid organizations have withdrawn from Central America, there are still international organization that are supporting the region. There also is the fair-trade network, as well as local-global networks among national and international organizations, unions, churches, social banks and universities in the world. When there is the will, there is the way, as the saying goes. If each person feels a mission of service, we can deepen those relationships of collaboration and reactivate “dead” relationships, because “where there are ashes, there was fire.” Each person and organization can play an important role if in this COVID-19 context they realize the importance of working on the community level that is organizing: what good does it do to provide individualized credit or training, as neoliberalism does, promoting mono-cropping, environmental degradation and the erosion of communities? The current situation wakes us up: people who organize and follow rules agreed upon in their assemblies, instead of gurus or chiefs who see themselves as the law, are those who really energize their communities, sustainable farming systems and contribute to social and environmental equity. Communities save communities.

Within this framework, what role do aid organizations have? Traditional donations, involving donating and awaiting reports invented by organizations “confined” to the cities, can be counterproductive, particularly if they displace the efforts of the communities themselves, which in the long term would undermine communities. Aid organizations need to connect with counterparts[15] who really are working with grassroots organizations that meet the following criteria: they are democratic, redistribute their surplus, are transparent with their information and are rooted in their communities or specific micro-territories. This type of organization will persist in the communities, while other external organizations, or those with disperse membership, will continue treating the communities like their lovers, showing up from time to time and leaving. Forming alliances with grassroots organizations so that a donation might provide an initial push, for example, with what is indicated in the table, supporting wash basins in schools with access to water, or working on agro-forestry systems that would protect water sources, where grassroots organizations might accompany their communities, and that their national partners might accompany them in the communities themselves, being careful, but overcoming fear, is the network which need to be built now and always.[16] The dilemma is not whether to leave your urban home or a rural farm; it is how we strengthen internal community assets, how we can take advantage of this “momentum” that exists in global awareness as an effect of COVID-19 to see the importance of communities. In this way, external financing to build a community response would decisively help the community deal with the virus and its new outbreaks, and help in the long term to democratize the community itself.

5.    By way of conclusion

In this article we showed the risks of COVID-19, we have begun a reflection on the relationship between hygiene, the economy and social factors, we described the strength of communities if they build lasting connections, we have emphasized the role of grassroots organizations to reflect on their values and principles in light of what is happening in their communities, and generate ways to cooperate in the prevention of COVID-19, and to innovate in ways of accompanying their communities in the midst of the uncertainty. We showed that, through these short term measures, and starting from an analysis of the processes which we are experiencing, it is possible to look forward to the medium and long term: to improve, correct, and generate habits of hygiene connecting home, farm and nature, and home, school, health center and community building.

The impact of what we are proposing, nevertheless, will be seen above all on more structural issues. For example, an exponential increase is coming of people in extreme poverty, the goal of eliminating extreme global poverty for 2030 is going to be only left on paper. The crisis for rich families of the world is how to have less desert options in their dinner, while for our communities the crisis means that they might miss a meal or face empty plates, becoming vulnerable again to any disease. This article and the previous one on basic grains aim at preventing those impacts.

The current situation also provides us with opportunities, because “behind every adversity there is an opportunity”. What opportunity? Mitigation of climate change which, in the case of rural communities, means water, land with life, biodiversity; it is the moment to rethink farming systems and intensify more sustainable forms and farming systems that stop the loss of nutrients in food because of the decreasing quality of the soil. It is the time for communities, never before has the importance been so clear of investing in communities who organize and embrace a culture of care; now is the hour for life, amen.

To look at these structural issues we must understand that it is not the economy that solves health care, it is not a matter of knowing whether the chicken or the egg is first, now the economy is public health and community health; and health, the economy, social and environmental reality are like a mountain slope, if you are on the higher part it looks different than seeing it from below, if you are on the very top, it looks different from one side than from the other, but it is the same slope, the same mountain slope.


“Think, Pipita, your love for others is stronger than anything else…Besides, the rain is coming!”


[1] The author has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (, associate researcher of the IOB-Antwerp University (Belgium) and member of the Coserpross cooperative ( We are grateful to J. Bastiaensen and M. Lester for their suggestions to the draft of this article.

[2] T. McCoy and H. Traiano, in The Washinton Post, write that in developing countries the advantage of being young is being annulled: in Brazil 15% of those deceased because of COVID-19 are under 50 years of age, which is 10 times more than in Spain or Italy. In Mexico it is 24%, India 50% are under 60. Why? Probably: many people have to continue working to survive; in addition to dealing with the diseases of the region (malaria, dengue, tuberculosis) they also are dealing with diseases of the wealthy countries: diabetes, obesity, hypertension…See:

[3] It is likely that air pollution facilitates the virus and makes its impact worse, which in part would explain why countries in Europe have had high mortality, measured by the indicator of “over-deaths” or “over-mortality” (number of deaths above the average deaths from previous years) as an effect of COVID-19.

[4] Many people even with clear signs of having been infected, decide not to go to the health centers or hospitals. Why? “They say the hospitals have no room”, “I don´t want to die intubated”, “I want my family to wake me” and “we want to now where he is going to be buried to be able to go to pray for him”. The express burials frighten the population.

[5] Interesting exceptions tend to be organizations like Aldea Global ( or Addac ( in Nicaragua, whose staff tend to be located in the rural municipalities themselves.

[6] See interview of Jeffrey Sachs, by G. Lissardy, en: BBC News Mundo, Nueva York, 15 mayo 2020. Ver:

[7] L. Engelmann, J. Henderson and Ch. Lynteris (eds), 2018, Plague and the City. Londron: Routledge. They study the relationship between plagues and measures to fight plagues and cities from the middle ages up to the modern era; they also include cities like Buenos Aires.

[8] D. Ventura, May 10, 2020, “Coronavirus: how pandemic changed architecture and what will change in our cities after covid-19” in: BBC News Mundo. See:

[9] Inspired in these realities and by actions of Dr. Mazza and his team, in 1995 they filmed the movie Casas de Fuego. See: The movie illustrates the relationship between disease-insects, homes (shacks) and social inequality, the wealthy class is against homes being rebuilt, because “they are not concerned” about the millions of poor people.

[10] To help with reading about this point, see:

[11] We are not saying that they do not get infected nor that they do not transmit. We are saying that they do not get infected MUCH and therefore, even though they can be infected, they are not big transmitters – in comparison with other ages. About those studies, see:

[12]The movie Casas de Fuego (footnote No. 5) illustrates the duality science/faith and committed science/academic science. The priest is opposed to science benefitting the most impoverished and affected communities; for him “faith and science are fighting over the same people”; a Manichean dilemma that smacks of the middle ages and that did a lot of damage to humanity. Also in this movie, that captures a good part of that experience, the University blocks the mission of Dr. Mazza and his team; fortunately Dr. Mazza and his team persist, their commitment is worth more than restrictive science, a commitment that nevertheless, they paid for with their lives, caused by the Chagas disease itself.

[13] If there are other organizations in the community, like alcoholics anonymous, water or road committees, the same is done as with the schools and churches.

[14] Note that traditional organizations tend to do just the opposite: the meet first and only with the leadership of the organizations, and then send technicians to “train” (in other words, convince).

[15] If some national or international organization wants to provide support under this spirit, they can contact the Coserpross cooperative ( in Nicaragua, the Comal Network in Honduras ( Coserpross and the Comal Network accompany dozens of grassroots organizations in the region, synthesize verified information to provide to the grassroots organizations, and move about in those same territories. There are also organizations like Aldea Global and ADDAC that we mentioned in footnote 5; their uniqueness is that their network is present in dozens of communities.

[16] What would happen if a bee stayed in its hive? It could live as long as the food that it stored lasted, the honey that it produced, and then? We must understand that we, flowers, bees and humans, are all one network. The bee leaves its hive and goes from flower to flower, pollinizes, does it at the risk of losing themselves and of losing their lives. So is the network. So are we accompaniers, taking on the corresponding measures (use of mask and frequent hand washing), we should not “pass by on the other side” like the priest and Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, we should be inspired by people like Chagas and Mazza did and their teams in Brazil and Argentine that the movie Casas de Fuego portrays.

Equitable distribution of surplus in cooperatives

Equitable distribution of surplus in cooperatives

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

Paying back is improving

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”[2]. 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)[3], 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)[4], 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[5]. 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[6]; likewise some companies that buy coffee or cacao[7].

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)[8] 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[9].

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.

5.    Conclusions

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.

[1] 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).

[2] 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.

[3] Polanyi, K., 1976, El sistema económico como proceso institucionalizado, en: Antropología y Economía (ed. Godelier, M.), Barcelona pp. 155-178

[4] Santana, M.E., 2014, “Reciprocidad y Redistribución en una Economía Solidaria” in: Ars & Humanitas 8/1. Slovenia.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] Polanyi, K., 2001, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Second Edition. Google Books. (First publication in English in 1957).

[9] 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!

The Principle of Stewardship in Cooperatives

The Principle of Stewardship in Cooperatives

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

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.[2]. 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?”[3] 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[4]) in their lives by their great-great grandfather/grandmother, who in turn was touched by their great-great grandfather/grandmother[5]. 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[6].

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)[7] 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)[8] 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[9]. 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[10]). 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)[11] 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[12], 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[13], could be taking on Block´s stewardship, particularly those that function under the approach of “open book management”[14], 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.

5.     Conclusion

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”.

[1] 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.  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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] “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.

[5] This variation in interpretation is found in “seven generation sustainability” (

[6] 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”, 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.

[7] Vargas, O.R., 1999, El Síndrome de Pedrarías. Managua: Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Nacional.

[8] Bendaña, A., 2019, Buenas al Pleito, Mujeres en la rebelión de Sandino. Managua: Anama ediciones.

[9] 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.

[10]Doug MacNamara, 2004, Stewardship, in: Leadership Acumen

[11] Block, P., 2013, Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-interest. California: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. 2da edición

[12] See: Yale Center for Business and the Environment, Just Good Business: An Investor’s Guide to B Corps

[13] 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.

[14] 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.

The Principle of Stewardship in Cooperatives

The Principle of Stewardship in Cooperatives

René Mendoza, Steve Sheppard and Mark Lester

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.