René Mendoza, Fabiola Zeledón, Elix Meneces, Hulda and Eliseo Miranda
Up until 2010 we buyers who were looking for quality coffee, we first would come to Nicaragua. After 2010 we no longer did, first we go to Costa Rica, then Honduras … (Coffee buyer).
In the 60s and 70s tons of people came to Nicaragua from El Salvador and Honduras looking for work, now we are the ones who go to those countries, looking for work. (Flavio Cardoza, producer).
In the dry coffee mills imperfect coffee reached double digits in this 2019/20 cycle: 10%…15%; black beans, faded, chipped, full black beans, insect damaged beans…The fungus moved from “slight” to “severe” and smelled like fish. On the farms of producer families instead of doing “three passes” (three passes of picking red and almost ripe coffee during the coffee season within 2 months), they saw themselves forced to do only two, and even only one pass, because of lack of pickers (labor), while they neglected to regulate their coffee pulper which resulted in those broken and chipped beans. What makes the coffee quality and its production drop? In this brief article we list 4 basic elements on coffee farms in Madriz, Nueva Segovia and Matagalpa, and at the end we offer some suggestions.
What affects coffee production and quality
The literature is full of technical reasons. We list what we observed in this 2019/20 cycle, and what producer families commonly say, based on their own observations, as well as the staff in the dry mill.
Figure 1 shows two scarce resources and two limiting structures, which have a high impact on coffee volume and quality.
A first element is the reduction in nutrients for the coffee plants. In the 2018/19 cycle, the prices for coffee were low. In September 2018 it dropped to $98, and in December 2018 it was at $100, while the prices for agrochemicals rose, as a result of the new tax policy in the country. Not only that, but the financial institutions implemented a policy of loan restructuring without providing new loans. In other words, producer families saw their resources dry up, which is why they applied little or no agrochemical or organic inputs. This had a repercussion on coffee quality, which was seen in the current 2019/20 cycle, precisely when prices went up, reaching $123 on December 16, 2019. Consequently, producer families thinking was “I am going to receive now the same thousand córdobas as last year; this season money is tight, in spite of the fact that prices are better than in the last cycle.”
A second element refers to the scarcity of labor. Pickers are going to coffee fields in Costa Rica and Honduras. Their argument: “They pay us better there, in addition we pick more than we do here.” Isn´t it the same coffee? Yes and no. Most of the coffee of Costa Rica is sold as specialty coffee at better prices; while Honduras has passed Nicaragua in production volume. Both countries have greater productivity, even though in Honduras it is due more to increase in area. This means that the person who picks coffee on small farms in Nicaragua, picks less in a day because the farms have less production; in addition, the price paid “per lata” is low, and varies between 30 to 50 córdobas, plus food, per lata. “It doesn´t work for us,” the pickers complain. Producer families argue that they would prefer to pay all in cash (without food), but the pickers want food, and many of them pick very little, and by midday are already out of the fields and asking for their 3 meals. This situation means pickers are scarce, the consequence of this is that the coffee is not picked on time, with a corresponding loss in volume and quality.
A third element is the mentality of believing themselves to be coffee growers in mono-cropping systems. The producer families who established their farms with coffee and other crops, starting in 1990, after the “big war”, are now getting beyond 60 years of age, which is why their offspring have been taking over farms already “cut up into pieces” through inheritance. Given that in the last 15 years families have become dependent on coffee as a mono-crop, a good number of these offspring, as new family units, inherited also this culture of feeling themselves to be “coffee producers” with 2 to 4 mzs of coffee, which at the most produces 10qq export coffee per manzana, which is why they lost the culture of working “from sunup to sundown” in taking care of the farm, and no longer go out to pick coffee on other farms. Their problem is that they inherited coffee fields affected by coffee rust and anthracnose, which they have to replant now on land which is more worn out (low fertility). Consequently, that combination of feeling themselves to be “coffee producers” and at the same time not having income in the months between March and October has them “underwater” in financial and marriage crises, which is why the children are growing up without Fathers, while they neglect their farms, the regulation of their coffee pulpers, drying, diversification…
The last element is the variation in the climate. Rains were expected for December, which help the grain thicken and ripen; but it did not rain, rather the temperature increased, which is why a good part of the flowering period was lost and the coffee with little liquid did not thicken. The beans that were able to thicken did not reach their optimum level. Many beans, on being picked, pulped and washed, looked as if they had been dried for 6 days. The rains that started on January 10th were not expected, were unnecessary, their prolongation for more than 10 days damaged the roads, reduced the time for picking the coffee, and made it difficult to transport the coffee, and hindered the sun drying process.
The combination of these elements has the power of undermining plans and commitments, and above all, making the families depressed before the harvest ends.
Recovering coffee, the farm, the community
Figure 2 lists the ideas that lead us to confront the 4 elements that affect coffee volume and quality.
Some people from that generation that is now passing 60 years of age are still a good reference point. “My Dad gets up at 4am, drinks his coffee and goes out to work the farm; if in the morning he goes to town to do some task, and returns at 4pm, he still goes to the farm.” (Rebeca Espinoza, Samarkanda). If we add to that culture of dedication to work, youth dedicated to studying their realities and innovating, the families could save resources and invest them, doing their numbers, producing fertile land that would provide them product volume and quality.
If that combination responds to a long term perspective, one that avoids “cutting property into pieces” and children growing up without Fathers, and is committed to the diversification of the farm and processing what they produce, these families could mobilize their members for activities like coffee picking on their own and their neighbor´s farm, and would attract workers from other places.
If we cultivated that work and study culture under a long term perspective, in a space of renovated cooperatives, the members of both sexes and different ages from the same community could cooperate better, and improve their collective actions, like transporting, drying and milling their coffee in their own community, selling any of their products, producing their own farm inputs, protecting and saving water, or preventing domestic violence.
Recovering the coffee quality that we achieved between 1996 and 2005, which the buyer refers to at the beginning of this text, is a challenge. Getting our people to stay in the country picking coffee, which Flavio observed in hindsight, is another challenge.
Both challenges are not achieved with the hundred year old ideas of the elites: “More inputs, more production”, “better price, more quality”, “investing only in coffee to buy the food for the year”, “the more members there are, the better the cooperative”, “farming is something men do”. The consequences of this cookbook, sadly reproduced by most of the farm cooperatives today, are destroyed families and farms, degraded environment, and the advance of elites expelling the peasantry from their communities.
Addressing those two challenges is possible with families that change as people, as they build a new type of cooperative, one in which families cooperate with one another to generate new technologies, organize and analyze new information, and add value to the coffee and a dozen agricultural products.
 The authors are part of a network that facilitates the training of cooperatives governed by their members.
 Lata refers to old cooking oil cans that were used to measure picked coffee beans for paying workers. The term is still used, although the measuring is now mostly done with 5-gallon plastic buckets.
Cooperatives embedded in a differentiated and diversified economy
René Mendoza Vidaurre with Elix Meneces, Fabiola Zeledón, Hulda Miranda, Esmelda Suazo and Luis Daniel Meneces
Coffee is more than coffee
-Honey, you seem pensive, what is going on?
Tasting this coffee, I ask myself, what am I drinking?
-The coffee is produced from the water that exists in the coffee plant. A good plant adapts to the soil where the water comes from … Over the years the coffee tastes like that soil and the other plants that permeate it through the pollination of bees.
-You are profound, what is soil?
-It is particles produced in an infinite variety of soils for millions of years, particles that through human action become a particular terrain–that is why we hear people talk about “my land”.
These terrains are produced in multiple stages. The coffee plant (from the Turkish word kahve, and in Arabic is qahwa) appeared between the IX and XIII centuries in Ethiopia, and in Yemen in the XV century, then in the Middle East, Europe, northern Africa and Latin America … The coffee plant adapts to different soils and altitudes. The workers interact with the plants and the soil, some even meditate on them. If there is no diversity of insects on a coffee farm with citrus trees, plantains, avocados, and cedar trees, pesticides have barged in. The laws of governments and certifiers come into play. The markets make coffee dry, washed, natural or honey coffee, and it ends up being espresso, capuccino, moca, latte…, it is cupped and packaged…
-Wow!, in other words, this coffee is more than just coffee!
This parable shows us how while sitting down to drink coffee we are really savoring millions of years of natural and human life. It is not just coffee, wine, potatoes, carrots…it is more than that. Behind a farm with coffee and several crops there is a history of thousands and millions of years, where nature interacted with human actions, organizations and institutions. Coffee is water, soil and land, it is a diversified farm and it is the human energy of many generations. It represents rights, policies, economic transactions and spirituality.
Fabiola Zeledón, an advisor of rural cooperatives, tends to say that “the farm expressed the mood of the family”, because the farm is the result of the energies of those who work it. This reminds us of Jesus of Nazareth, his response to the Pharisees two thousand years ago (Lk. 19:39-40):
39 Some of the Pharisees who were among the people complained to Jesus:—Teacher, reprimand your disciples!
40 But he responded:—I tell you that if they keep silent, the stones themselves will shout”.
Jesus was referring to the stones of the temple, in the construction of which enslaved people shed their sweat and blood. The temple of stones could shout. The farm also could shout, as Pope Francis said in Laudato Si, “the cry of the por is the cry of the earth”.
Even though there are a variety of agricultural systems, in this article we focus on a diversified agriculture that resists the pounding of the mono-cropping system, which is the cause of the cry of the poor and the earth. From this point, if a diversified farm is an expression of social and environmental equity, how can cooperatives embrace it, instead of eroding it, surrendering to mono-cropping systems?
“Put your eggs in different baskets” and “staggering income and food throughout the year”. Historical diversification strategy of the peasantry
Talking about diversification is nothing new. Historically, the indigenous and peasant strategy precisely has been diversification, expressed in “putting your eggs in different baskets” (if the eggs in one basket break, there will be the other baskets- products), and “staggering income and food” throughout the year. This strategy has happened generally on the horizontal level of diversification, something like the poly-cropping system on farms, and it has functioned in agricultural frontier areas and in communities relatively isolated from towns and markets. Why? Any family that lives a day or two days travel from town cannot go every week or two to town to buy products to meet their needs; they will go to town two or three times a year with “corn that can walk” (pigs or turkeys), or blocks of raw sugar, to supply clothing; they will look to grow corn, beans, a bit of sugar cane, raise poultry and pigs, process their lard, water their garden or oregano, cilantro, mint, and chili, being as self-sufficient as possible. The members of each family participate there, in the raising of poultry and pigs, and also the processing of lard and the tasks of harvesting and cleaning basic grains.
The problem in the new millennium is that, practically speaking, there are no more agricultural frontier areas, the population and their proximity to markets have increased, and the harassment on the part of the elites over their lands, products and labor has intensified, while the soil has lost fertility, water is getting scarce, and the instability of the climate is on the increase. This problem is made worse when peasant agriculture tends to give way to the mono-cropping system, and to its logic of “more agro-chemicals, more production.” This, in turn, has meant that mothers are outside the farm, because the effect of their gardens and raising of chickens and pigs has been reduced, and young women and men are migrating from the countryside, because they look on the farming of their parents as something boring, and that experiences more months of “dead time” when food for the table gets scarce.
Within this context these strategies of poly-cropping, in addition to falling into the peasant curse of remaining a producer or raw materials, inexorably is on the wane, while the mono-cropping system speeds up their impoverishment and environmental degradation. What can be done then? One response has been that peasant families organize into cooperatives and empower their communities. Nevertheless, in most cases the cooperatives are absorbed by elites, who “wed them” to mono-cropping systems. How can cooperatives be recovered on the basis of diversification systems? A first response we have provided in other articles, that when the members of a cooperative come from the same community, and their services are located in that same community, that tends to strengthen the peasant economy of their communities. This is a basic condition, for the cooperative to be embedded in a community economy that gains ground in the face of the mono-cropping system.
To take advantage of this condition, the challenge is transitioning from a type of anti-peasant embeddedness (mono-cropping agriculture and a cooperative with only the business “foot”), which is what Polanyi would call “a market society”, to combining what is differentiated and diversified – horizontally and vertically – of embedded peasant agriculture with the two “feet” of the cooperative (associative and business feet), which Polanyi would call “societies with markets” (see Figure 1). How can that step be taken from one agricultural system to another, when it also implies transitioning from a market society to a society WITH markets? In the section that follows we study this first harmful embeddedness, and then in the other two sections we work on virtuous embeddedness.
2. Mono-cropping and the business “foot” of the cooperative
Comparative advantage: producing a good at lower costs than others; buying the rest of the products in which you are not competitive (David Ricardo, classical economist, 1772-1823).
Strategy of mono-cropping companies.
The elites subject societies through markets, and promote the disappearance of the peasantry through mono-cropping agriculture. That is, plantations of just one crop, be it sugar cane, peanuts, sunflower seeds, palm, soy, pineapple, large livestock, coffee or cacao, they are imposed with technological patterns (intensive use of agro-chemicals and mechanized labor), in extensive and increasingly larger areas, decreasing the demand for labor, and committing to ever larger production volume – it is the logic of comparative advantages. That market force uses the cooperative itself to promote this mono-cropping agriculture, to such an extent that today to speak about an agricultural cooperative is practically the same as saying a mono-cropping cooperative.
Some organizations, to soften that reality of mono-cropping cooperatives or to camouflage them, call them “specialized cooperatives”, and they conceive of the members as farmers who have several crops for consumption, and a commercial crop to generate income (“cash crop”) that could be coffee, cacao, bananas or block of unprocessed sugar. Hence there are financially successful cooperatives that have credit services, markets and technology for just one crop, or, in the case of serving several crops, they respond with a mono-cropping logic – per crop and not to diversified systems. This mono-cropping agriculture for decades and centuries has done damage to the peasant economy and the environment, something well documented by hundreds of studies. Part of those effects is expanding the area for coffee, peanuts, cacao, pineapple, soy beans, sunflower seeds, or sugar cane, accompanied by environmental degradation (soil erosion, dried up rivers, deforestation and loss of biodiversity), the proliferation of pests that become more resistant to insecticides, and molding peasant behavior toward strategies of “putting all the meat on the spit” (one crop, one market), of the culture of receiving payment once a year, of “the season” (one harvest in the year that pays for debts, food and goods) and that depends increasingly on agro-chemicals, like glyphosate, which replaces workers, affects human and natural health, and wipes out the gardens of peasant homes. The result of these effects is that slowly the peasantry is dispossessed of their land and their organizations, while their curse of being producers of raw materials intensifies.
There are sugar cane cooperatives in countries like Bolivia, for example, that only administer the sending of the sugar cane of their members to the sugar mill, and are the vehicle for the companies to do the mechanized labor and application of agrochemicals in the cane fields. They are cooperatives whose members, previously peasant families who diversified their crops, work on just one crop, and they are left practically as spectators of that crop, because the companies are the ones who plant the sugar cane, do the weeding, apply the agrochemicals, harvest and transport the sugar cane; the member is watchful that those tasks are done at the appropriate time, and in the end receive 2 or 3 dollars per ton of cane. The large sugar companies do not even need to buy land to take it over, instead counting on the cooperatives and governments to establish their control.
The expansion of mono-cropping happens even through organic agriculture, a commercial farming system that emerged in the 1960s in Europe and Japan, countries whose populations demanded organic products in opposition to the companies that recycled used chemicals in the Second World War in “pest control” farming practices. But in time these organic products, regulated with norms and certification programs, were inserted into capitalism as a simple substitution for agrochemical inputs. Box 1 illustrates the prohibitions for a crop to be certified as organic: there they assume that the members apply agrochemicals to basic grains and gardens, which is why they prohibit them.
Fundamentally it is a rejection of diversification. The paradox is that this organic agriculture is promoted by organizations and companies concerned about the environment, but precisely this mono-cropping character is the opposite of environmental sustainability. A cooperative, even one organizationally rooted in its community, that continues to embrace an agriculture of mono-cropping, be it organic or not, divorces itself from nature, separates people from one another, and undermines the productive bases of peasant families.
The most dramatic effect of elites through the mono-cropping system is their influence over a type of despotic leadership, and their appropriation of peasant organizations, proletarianizing them with or without land. How do they do this? The trader grows their business through one crop, no matter what the product is, believes himself to be indispensable for having money, coming in from outside the community, and having contacts outside the community where he can go to sell it, which is why they focus on the product, not the person, they respond to the market. For that trader the community is just a place where there are products. This is the model that permeates the cooperative. This is what we illustrated above with the sugar cane cooperatives in Bolivia. Let us look at other cases, now referring to coffee and cacao cooperatives in Central America.
On molding the cooperative around one crop, the coffee or cacao cooperative administers their harvest collection, processing and exporting from the town (municipal or provincial capital), and it makes the member family stay only within their farm, tied to a raw material. The rule is: (manager of the cooperative), “give us your product, we will take care of the rest”/ (member producer) “I am a producer of raw materials, the rest does not matter to me”. This institutional setup has made the “business foot” of the cooperative set itself up as the foreman (administrator) of the market, the trader, who pushes the farming of the mono-crop, takes charge of “the rest” of the product outside of the farm. For those activities of harvest collection, processing and commercialization, the only things needed are money, manager, technicians and a president who is one more signature for the checks – from this comes the rule: “money makes even a monkey dance.” Within this structure, and for the business to function, the member does not count, is not needed, even if he does not turn in raw material, that structure (the “business foot”) can resort to traditional traders and buy it in that arena, and then pass it off as a product of the cooperative. This logic has been supported by financial and state institutions, as well as buyers, who are only committed to mono-crop farming; for example, a private or social bank does not finance diversified systems, they finance mono-cropping agriculture – cattle, coffee, sugar cane or soy beans.
As we can see, this embeddedness of the mono-cropping system and the business foot of the cooperative, supported internationally, is anti-peasant and makes the social and environmental inequality worse. The challenge of getting beyond this path is clear. Consequently, assuming that we already have rooted cooperatives, with members who come from the same community, how can a new path of embeddedness be built between a differentiated and diversified agriculture in the community itself, and a cooperative organization with two feet, the business and the associative feet (di2 +2 feet /community)?
3. Differentiated and the two “feet” of the cooperative
We said that the indigenous peasant diversification strategy worked under certain circumstances, conditions that now are different in the new millennium. In this and the following section we start from the strategy, and we re-conceptualize it in a way that responds to the circumstances of the current millennium. Peasant farms and economies need to develop a production that is differentiated and a diversification that implies innovating horizontally (on the farm) and vertically (agro-industrialization), which requires a level of coordination made possible with the active participation of each member of the peasant family organized into cooperatives, which operate with their business as well as their associative feet. Let us begin with the differentiation of products, not betting on the volume per crop, maybe not even volume per area, but quality of life – because the farm is more than just a farm.
Let us look at products as differentiated from both focused and multiple perspectives. Seeing differentiated products from a focused perspective means that there are certain activities and products that require cooperative forms of organization, and others that do not. Organizations which are formed around products known as commodities, standard products, tend to fail; for example, a family that produces corn for their consumption and to sell it through mediation, does not need to join a cooperative to repeat the same process, because individually and as a family they already store their corn for 6 months (corncobs above their stove and cured corn in the storeroom). This family does not need a cooperative to store their corn; unless the family needs financial liquidity at the time of the harvest, and then after 3 or 4 months needs corn, just when the price of corn is double or triple the price when they sold it. In that case a cooperative is needed which, covering its costs of storage, can resell them their own corn.
Producing and selling corn in the former case is not a differentiating activity, which is why it does not need to be part of a cooperative. While the latter operation of buying and reselling the corn, saving them 100% of their resources, is a differentiating activity, which requires collective actions, which is why a cooperative is needed. That same is true in the case of beans or other products.
There are products that require a group of producers to coordinate among themselves to do certain practices in a standardized way in order to access certain markets. Then a cooperative is needed. For example, producing quality coffee requires a certain amount of coordination in the organoleptic management of high value varieties, picking red cherries, pulping, drying and hulling by lots; the collection of milk requires a certain amount of synchronization in volume, hygienic practices, delivery of product on time and a place with refrigeration, be that to be sold as milk or processed as cheese; cacao for chocolate requires uniform fermentation and drying; organic agriculture requires learning and making organic fertilizers and natural insecticides, as well as markets that channel the products toward consumers committed to healthy foods; selling vegetables to demanding markets requires homogeneity in size, quality and packaging of the product, in addition to synchronicity in volume and time.
This industrialization and commercialization require coordination and synchronization among several families, which is more possible within the framework of rooted cooperatives; an individual peasant only goes as far as their fence of piñuelas, they do not sell their raw materials, but can sell them through their cooperative. A leader of a cooperative in Honduras said, “the beautiful thing about our sales network of the cooperatives is that the products of other organizations come into our Multiple Services Business (distributor), and then are sold to our peasant stores”.
Now let us get into the differentiation of product with cooperative coordination from a multiple perspective, which refers to the fact that, regardless of the products, the cooperative cultivates a long-term vision to the extent that it can see the “big picture” – different determining factors coming from their own history, the global and local power structure, the challenges of all of humanity and/or glimpsing promising visions of the future. The members see, for example, the benefits of ecological or agroecological agriculture in the long term, and get the big picture of climate change; consequently, the peasantry rethinks their autonomy, conceiving an agroecology that “Incorporates ideas on an agricultural approach more connected to the environment and more socially sensitive; focused not only on production but also on the ecological sustainability of the production system” (Altieri, 1999:17). A leader of the La Voz de Atitlan Cooperative in Guatemala said (Mendoza, 2016d):
After more than 20 years working in organic agriculture, now the changes can be seen. Our lands produce more coffee, and any other crop that we put in the plot produces more and better harvests. This coffee has a good market. We only had to realize that we needed to improve our production and we needed to save our cooperative.
The members understood that small actions mobilize communities, they see their farms as small laboratories, they see their cooperatives as a schools of collective entrepreneurship, and the community as pluri-versity. The members understand that coordinating among themselves for differentiated products makes their cooperative a different organization. Note: in the following section we will see vertical differentiation, as another form of the multiple perspective and structural empowerment of the peasantry that organizes itself.
Clothed in this focused and multiple perspective of embedded products and cooperatives, it follows that the cooperative makes the different actors coordinate among themselves, from one member to another, and follow up committees are organized for the technological, agroecological, transportation or processing coordination in the territory itself. For example, if the coffee drying would once again become a role of the producer family itself, and the hulling was a function done by the cooperative, the reports of theft of weight in the harvest collection centers and the dry mill in the town, or claims that their sacks of coffee were replaced by other sacks in the dry mill warehouse, would come to an end, because a good part of those tasks would be done on the farm and in the homes of the member families themselves, and in cooperatives rooted in their territories. In this way, the more agroecological or differentiated production practices the peasantry takes on, the greater autonomy it gains, while at the same time it makes the cooperative operate in agroecological systems that make any action more distinctive.
4. Diversified and the two “feet” of the cooperative
This differentiated production should also be accompanied by diversified production; agroecology, for instance, cannot be understood without diversification. Diversification implies resolving the dilemma of increasing production and generating added value to peasant production. Here the cooperative comes into play, through it we deepen the horizontal diversification (crop association and rotation, and the combination of crops with small and large livestock on the farm) and we enter into vertical diversification (processing of farm and forest products – e.g. pine needles for crafts, wood for rustic furniture).
How can we innovate in agriculture? Let us look at some examples along those lines. Innovating in agriculture is thinking about it as “floors in a building”: crops that spread like watermelon, pipian squash, pumpkin or chayote, are like the first floor; plants like vegetables are the second floor; plants like cassava, beans or corn are the third floor; bananas or papaya are the fourth floor; citrus and avocados are the fifth floor; finally wood and energy trees are the sixth floor; all them in accordance with the energy flow coming from solar light and wind.
Another example is varying the form, while at the same time having common spaces for fostering friendship. This is the case of trellises of grapes, passion fruit or chayote, that can be established horizontally, under which families place seats for moments of friendship and conversation. Or these trellises can be set up vertically, “trellises stood in a line”, that increase the amount of productivity in the same space, and also function as wind breaks. Another case of form with enormous productive, organizational and philosophical meaning is mandala agriculture (in Sanskrit “sacred circle of energy” from the Maya and other cultures like Buddism), producing in circles, combining sizes and the demand for energy coming from solar light and wind, organizational movement in circles (e.g. Apaches), and as a philosophy of life where energy is channeled under the premise that energy is what moves change.
Farming combined with smaller livestock is another open vein in innovation. Poultry in open fields (on diversified farms) that fertilize the crops, capture insects and clear weeds, and at the same time product eggs and meat. Innovating also in the garden (“My Mom´s green thumb”) and natural medicines.
This horizontal diversification should be thought of as linked to vertical diversification: agro-industrialization. This is a way of beating the peasant curse of not moving beyond “your piñuela fence”, condemned to only producing raw materials. How can this be done? For example, collecting, hulling, roasting and grinding coffee in the community itself for different markets; this implies learning how to use the pulp, honey water and coffee hulls as ecological inputs, which generates more jobs and energizes the economy of the community where the cooperative is located. The same can be said about sugar cane for processing granulated sugar blocks, which at the same time are an input for different products like granola, bread, natural medicines and some twenty traditional products; while its wastes are used for alcohol and making molasses (cattle feed) and organic fertilizer.
This vertical diversification is possible when the entire system is carried out in the same territory and is led by a cooperative that functions with both of its “feet”: its business and associative feet. Both feet are needed because high levels of coordination are required between people to respond to the diversity of value creation activities, the diversity of crops directed at different markets, and their degrees of agro-industrialization. With these practices, the dependency and veneration of the members toward the manager, who is located outside of their community, gets diluted, because it is within the community that most of the economic, social and cultural value is generated. The dependency on mono-cropping agriculture of just having activities in the months of the “season”, is replaced by ongoing tasks throughout the entire year on the farm and in the home. The dependency on the work of just the men is replaced by the mobilization of family labor for an endless number of activities that differentiated, diversified and agro-industrialized agriculture requires. Because it is difficult for us to imagine a cooperative of just men growing crops, raising pigs and chickens, and at the same time making marmalade and pine needle baskets, which is why the active participation of women and men, as well as youth, is strategic. In addition, a horizontally and vertically differentiated and diversified agriculture has more possibility of no longer being boring and unpleasant.
This embeddedness of differentiated and diversified agriculture within the “two footed” cooperative, when it happens, breaks up three anti-peasant models. The model of a type of strong man leader who, for just having one crop, turns into a trader of the only crop of the cooperative; the model of the masculine cooperative that for just having one crop and only being a producer of raw materials (e.g. just the sale of wet coffee, cacao pulp, standing sugar cane on the farm itself), lives closed off in just one phase of mono-cropping, while excluding women from the economic activities; and that of a cooperative composed of people over 50 years of age, that combined with the institution of inheritances of “the sow does not shed its lard until it dies” and the rule that “you have to have land to join a cooperative”, closes the door to new members, administering little by little the death of its members, their assets, and their own history. When these models are broken up, women and youth burst in with their different ideas and abilities, while those over 50 have their energies and perspectives renewed, promoting that diversified and agro-industrialized economy, a change that reaches the table itself with a varied and nutritional diet: flavored soups, marmalade, roasted coffee, chicory…
How might this process be seen from the side of the community? If the community diversifies, it builds a new form of commercialization. The land would not be prostituted for just one crop, nor would they depend on agrochemicals, nor would they bet only on volume for only international markets. They would produce land for that differentiation and diversification just begun. The community would demand greater variety of fresh and processed products, they would protect their forests, water and biodiversity, because it would become part of their circle of life. Families would generate income throughout the year, while at the same time their costs would be reduced, because they would produce their own organic inputs…The community would be fun, happy. People from outside would feel an attraction for that community, and it would become even more energized.
It is time to see what we have learned with this article. Having a framework that “coffee is more than coffee” we formulated the question about how the cooperative can embrace diversified agriculture. Throughout the article we made a distinction between two marriages, one damaging and the other virtuous. The former is the mono-cropping system married to a type of cooperative that only functions with its business foot, a marriage that de-peasantizes, degrades the environment, while it rubs the wound of the peasant curse of being condemned to a raw material logic, The virtuous one is a differentiated and diversified agriculture wedded to a type of cooperative that functions with its business and its associative feet, and that breaks down the peasant curse.
We respond to that question along the lines of the virtuous marriage. First, the context in the new millennium requires an institutional change to prevent the de-peasantization underway. Second, the historic peasant strategy of diversification to overcome the peasant curse of being left to embracing raw materials, we re-conceptualize as differentiated products and diversified and agro-industrialized agriculture based on more innovation and collective coordination concentrated in their communities. Third, this virtuous marriage is possible only if women and men of all ages participate actively in this transformative process.
This institutional change means that the image of cooperative as equivalent to one crop, raw materials, and older men collapses, gives way to an inclusive cooperative that looks inward, to their community, diversifies and agro-industrializes in order to consume and sell better. In this type of cooperative there are not many reasons for the board members to leave their communities, they earn their legitimacy in their communities.
In the introduction we made it clear that a cooperative rooted in its community is a basic condition for taking the step of carrying out a differentiated and diversified agriculture. Now that we are getting to the end of the article, we conclude: to develop differentiated products and a horizontally and vertically diversified agriculture is to sustain that deep-rooted cooperative and consolidate that community autonomy, which is building societies WITH markets. All of this is inscribed within the material institutional change, even though the farm is more than something material, does it mean that the participation of women (mothers and spouses) and youth from both sexes also produces changes in the people´s subjectivity? Surely these changes are not an automatic outcome, as if the structure determines the superstructure (ideological sphere) or that they change by the mere fact of joining the cooperative, or vice versa, but rather something more complex, something very important that should be studied and innovated on, and then written about in coming articles.
 René is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (WPF), a member of the COSERPROSS cooperative and an associate researcher of the IOB -University of Antwerp (Belgium), Fabiola, Hulda and Esmelda are cooperative advisors, and Elix and Daniel are leaders of a new model of cooperativism.
For recent studies, see: Gudynas, E. (2013). Extracciones, extractivismos y extrahecciones: un marco conceptual sobre la apropiación de recursos naturales. Observatorio del Desarrollo, CLAES, 18, pp. 1-18. Also: Seoane, J., Taddei, E. y Algranati, C. (Eds.), 2013, Extractivismo, despojo y crisis climática. Buenos Aires: Editorial El Colectivo. For a case in Central America and another in South America, see: Silvetti, F. and Cáceres, D.M., 2015, “La expansión de monocultivos de exportación en Argentina y Costa Rica. Conflictos socioambientales y lucha campesina por la justicia ambiental”, in: Mundo Agrario, 16.32
 For the Mayan mandala system, see: Tucci, G., 2001, The theory and practice of the mandala. New York: Dover Publications Inc. For the Tibetian mandala system, see: Tsering, M., 2015, El Mandala en el arte y filosofía de la cultura tibetana. Doctoral thesis. Spain: Universitas Miguel Hernández de Elche
“It is said that the children of the very poor are not brought up, but dragged up.” Bleak House, by Charles Dickens
It’s an image that is haunting, and daunting, this observation from 1852 Victorian England: the idea that some children- many children, in fact- in the very prime of their learning and forming years were forced to find their way to young adulthood through the hauling and heaving of desperate poverty and abuse. It was a reality distinctly at odds with the Victorians’ self-proclaimed progressive era of reform and improved societal standards. Author Charles Dickens made his mark, in part, chronicling the sad realities of the time.
That was a long time ago. The pokes at our collective conscience by Dickens have persisted since his time, as his works are among the most revered and widely-read in the English language. As a result, we should have every reason to expect that, with the passage of time and a presumed greater enlightenment about healthy societies, our nurture of children might have changed since 1852.
I’ve re-read a number of Dickens’ classics in recent years, including Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, Oliver Twistand A Tale of Two Cities. I’m drawn to his characters and the ambience of the times in his writings. But I also find myself distracted by the conditions encountered by many of his characters, especially the children. The stories are uncomfortable. The children’s circumstances are often abhorrent, to the point occasionally when I think that Dickens has likely exaggerated the realities faced by his young protagonists. But I read on in the certain hope that things will get better by the tale’s end.
Dickens’ hopes for any kind of empathetic reforms or changed sensitivities as a result of his works would be shattered in the face of today’s world. The travesties of Victorian England are comparatively small compared to the cold calculations of despots today. Reading fictional accounts of treachery and evil pales in comparison to the very real atrocities that we tolerate repeatedly on the world stage today.
A Christmas Caroldelights audiences because of its ability to take us from the depths of human greed to the pinnacle of generosity and redemption. It makes us feel good in the hope that it creates for eventual justice. I wonder if Dickens would be inclined to write very different conclusions to his stories today….
People dispossessed for so many years collected their savings and gave them to one of their sons, Solin, for him to pay for the coffee that was collected from their own group. Solin had never had so much money; he was like a deer in the headlights. He paid for the coffee. Some of the same people who had saved, behind the back of the rest, went to him to get him to lend them money. Solin first said no, but these people insisted, and he gave in. More people showed up, also from other parts of the country, and he ceded. Solin felt like a little patrón, “The people trust me”, his chest puffed out like a balloon. This path of giving out other people´s money, saying that it was his, led him to lie and believe his own lie. When other people showed him his mistake, Solin offered them money to shut them up, and if they did not accept it, he would slander them. One day he looked himself in the mirror and was frightened to find that he did not recognize himself.
When the owners of the money asked him to give it back, he had lent it all out. “And where is the money?”, they raised their voices. “You have already eaten it,” the theft reverberated like 10, 100 and 1000 years ago. Solin and several of the savers had betrayed their own path. Both took the path trodden for centuries by the old hacienda owners and fieldhands, by the comandante and those who died, by the manager and those who believed themselves to be cooperative members.
This story illustrates what happens frequently in cooperatives. A group of people save, define their purposes, agreed on their rules and then betray that path. The old path trodden by the patrón where the fieldhands follow for their pay, become indebted and to look for a favor, a path also taken by governments and churches (“Holy Patron Saint”), clouds and blocks any other path. In the story this group of people and Solin look at themselves in the mirror, or ask about their resources, and are surprised to be on the old path of dispossession, moving from being “servers” to “being served”. Their biggest tragedy is not so much the use of the money, but the fact that they have betrayed their path, this is the reason for the bad use of the money and the fact that their lives have taken a 360 degree turn, arriving at the same place. How can people who organize be able to follow their own path?
1. Individual-collective duality and the dilemma of betrayal
In organizations that face corrupt acts, there is finger pointing, accusations and complaints. “He is incorrigible”, “he is guilty of bad administration”, “she is not accountable”, “she uses our money for her benefit and that of her managers”, lash out the members. These
phrases in a cooperative belie an individual perspective, accentuated by the religious conservatism of “personal salvation”, and by the neoliberal doctrine where what is important is the individual and not society–there is no such thing as society, said the first female British Prime Minister M. Thatcher in 1987, during the full eruption of neoliberalism. Reproducing this perspective, nevertheless, is a way of “washing our hands”, of showing oneself to be innocent while pointing out others as the guilty parties.
These same expressions, nevertheless, can be read as “spitting against the wind” from the collective perspective. Because the member who is doing the accusing, with or without a title in some organ of their organization, on seeking a loan directly from the administrator, behind the back of his own cooperative, is not exercising his/her role, and/or violates the rules of their own organization; on the other hand, the corrupt administrator establishes himself reproducing the idea of the patrón;: “With 100 cordobas I keep them happy.” Many times even the State or aid organization officials who support the cooperatives borrow money from the managers, knowing that it is money that belongs to the cooperatives. “The spit” also falls on this member and this official who preaches cooperativism. A systematic act of corruption happens, above all, because of the lack of functioning of the respective organs, because of the lack of compliance with the rules of the organizations, and the accounting norms on the administrative side, as well as because of the acceptance of aid organizations*.
The members know the rules and procedures, but they see them as tedious, “paperwork”, “bureaucracy” – high transaction costs, they would say in economics. The members of the organs also see it in this way: “meeting is a waste of time.” While the patrón “from one big roll” decides to lend to them or not. In this process the members believe the administrator about any version about the source of the money, there is no culture of verifying their versions, because, they think, it would be distrusting and ungrateful; for that very reason, they do not ask for receipts either, the patrón does not do receipts – his word is enough! In addition to believing him, they fear him, “a person with other people´s money is capable of anything”, they whisper, so they keep quiet – do not speak in front of the patrón! This is a rule that is resurrected. From here the “vice” of playing with “other people´s money”, more than individual and exclusive of the manager or some president, is a collective “vice”; a collective act causes individual behavior – of corruption or honesty. See the upper part in Figure 1.
“The law is not being applied to him”, state the members and advisers of the organizations. With this they mean to say that organizations have laws, the State oversees compliance with the law; and that aid organizations have rules, and they do not apply them. This, however, continues to assume an individual perspective, believing that by “applying the law” “the patron is going to self correct”. It ignores what the history of any country tells us, “the patrón makes the laws”, be that with his right hand or his left. So we detect that this individual perspective, clothed in a collective and legal perspective, is moved by structures of dispossession; the “accusing”, the “abusing other people´s money” and “preaching laws” make the path of cooperativism disappear, and accentuate the path of dispossession – it is the dilemma of the betrayal. So we perceive that this structure is like rails for a train, it does not matter who the conductor is that is driving the train, nor how many years of schooling he might have, how many advisers and protectors of the law he has, that train will move along the rails; not matter who the administrators or presidents may be, these structures (“rails”) trap the conductors. In this way cooperatives can go broke, while these structures remain unmoved –“in an open treasure even the just will sin”, goes the saying.
At the same time this structure is being challenged. On the one hand, there are some members who cultivate a contingent awareness, that it is possible to make your own path and walk it; and on the other hand there are administrators who understand their role, respecting accounting rules and the collective perspective of organizations, shunning “inflating themselves” like balloons that run the risk of “bursting.” They do not “spit into the wind”, but recreate that collective perspective which finds itself supported by mechanisms that are coherent with more communitarian structures, and consultancies that study these rural underworlds – this is overcoming the dilemma of betrayal. See the lower part of Figure 1.
2. Innovative mechanisms for cooperatives as the vehicle for repossession
“They do not let us be peasants”, shot off a Costa Rican leader in 1991, recognizing the onslaught of neoliberalism in turning the peasantry into workers and “wetbacks”. The “be peasants” has been more coherent with community structures, in conflict with structures of dispossession. It goes with mechanisms that make an alternative path possible, mechanisms that we have been learning from the exceptional organizations in Central America: see figure 2.
They are mechanisms that “de-commodify” peasant life, they involve awakening and organizing, deepening their roots, improving the organization of the commons, and sharing the path in a glocal alliance- because every space is glocal (global and local).
Mechanism 1: Voluntary genesis of cooperativism congruent with community principles
Nearly two centuries ago a group of textile workers in England saved part of their salaries to start a store, and with that stabilize their income and defend their basic needs. In Germany peasants organized to free themselves from usury. In both cases, the people understood that individually they were not able to overcome structural problems, like the low buying power of their salary and the usury that indebted them for life; organized, they could do so. Thus they defined their path and walked it. Over time cooperativism has expanded throughout the entire world and has become a double edged sword, a means for repossession for its members and communities from whence they come, and a means for dispossession when small elites appropriate it for profit. Read the brief dialogue in the box.
From the angle of the genesis of cooperativism, this dialogue shows the incomprehension of the administrator about what a cooperative is, as well as the wisdom of the younger brother about the social rule of “respecting someone else´s assets”. “The need of the other affects me”, says the administrator; precisely the crude “need” of people led to the fact that cooperativism emerged standing under the principle of respecting collective assets. The error of the administrator in this dialogue is providing a loan from money that is not his, and doing it outside of the rules and organs of the cooperative that named him “administrator”; with that he dispossessed the members of their resources, and full of a short term vision condemned needy people to suffering. Being “proud” is abusing “another´s assets”. This deformation results from the individual perspective derived from structures of dispossession.
The cooperative that originated in the will of its members to overcome structural adversities, and does it with rules based on community principles, like those expressed by the “younger brother” in the dialogue of respect for collective goods, is a long term structural mechanism.
Mechanism 2: Rooted in diversified bases
The market demands a product and does not matter whether the one who produces it comes from one place or another; the State and aid agencies behave in a similar way, they legalize organizations or demand changes like “including women as members” without regard to where they come from. From working with cooperatives we learned that a cooperative that is rooted in its micro-territory has more possibilities of walking their walk, of being inclusive…
How to be rooted? Even though the members of a cooperative come from the same micro-territory, deciding that the administration –and therefore the financial transactions – are done in the territory itself, requires making explicit in a reflective way several beliefs written in stone for centuries: “Here they are going to steal from us, in the town there are Policemen and that is why it is safer there”, “no buyer or certifier is going to come out here to our place, we have to go out to civilization”, “here we are living in the brush, the patrón lives in the town”, “that little girl doesn´t know anything about administration, only men who ride on motorcycles know it.”
When the members of a cooperative come from the same micro-territory, and decide that their building and its administration are going to be in the same space, then we create favorable conditions for a good cooperative. The possibility that corruption might emerge and intensify is reduced. The mobility of the members to the cooperative´s building, as well as the attendance of women and men in the meetings is greater. We say that more women and men go to the meetings, because of the geographic proximity and because they do not have to travel to the municipal capital to attend meetings; the women can go to the meeting with their babies and/or children, something that is difficult if the meeting is in the municipal capital. This contributes to the cementing of trust among the members. Also the coordination between the administration and the organs of the cooperative can improve. The care of the members and board members over their administration increases, which is why the security of the resources of the cooperative in that place increases. Accessing information and asking their questions is also more possible.
The payments that are made in the territory itself to the members, be it for coffee, cacao, sugar cane or another crops, has an impact on the economy of the territory. The storefronts and small businesses sell more, new businesses tend to emerge. The interest of the partner of the member, and their children, in the receipts that their Father or Mother bring from the cooperative is greater. The possibility of having lovers under the argument that “I am going to town for a meeting” is reduced. It is like the butterfly effect in a world as interconnected as today´s world is, even more so is life interconnected in a micro-territory and in families.
Mechanism 3: the functioning of the cooperative organs and administration
The fact that a member might understand that organized they can overcome their structural problems is one step, the fact that they can facilitate that because their cooperative is rooted in their territory is a second big step. Nevertheless, there are cooperatives that in spite of having taken both steps, go broke or turn into a means for dispossession manipulated by small elites. The third mechanism is that each member, with or without a title, function in accordance with the rules and organs of their organization, without going “in secret” to the “real person in charge”, because the “real person in charge” in the cooperatives are its rules and organs.
It is easy to say that the organs of a cooperative function according to its rules. But it is difficult for it to happen. The phrase that is read in laws and management, that they are “management organs” illustrates that they are not “decision making organs”, that the power of making decisions was expropriated by the elites. How can the organs be “decision making” and the administration “management”, the former with a strategic role and the latter with an operational role? Apart from the fact that they know their statutes (rules), meet systematically and cultivate connections with their members and with external actors, the key is in the fact that they become learning organizations. How? First, each member is seen as a leader in their community, understanding that the biggest treasure is in their own social territory; consequently, their first task being multiplying their visits to other people, members or not of the cooperative, so that through conversations, they might understand the problems and opportunities that exist in their territory. Knowing them and sharing them is their fuel for pushing the cooperative to improve, and it is their source of ideas for enlightening cooperativism.
Second, the relationship between the administration and the organs is developed to the extent that they organize information, analyze it and on that basis define their policies and strategies to be followed. This provides work content for each organ. For example, information on loans and arrears is analyzed by each organ, particularly the credit committee; the Oversight Board finds one of its principle follow up tasks in this; the education committee, as a result of this analysis, proposes to work on financial education with the members about how to save, invest better and working with more autonomy, breaking with that old institution of “going into debt” and putting up with any exploitation for being “indebted”.
Third, making decisions based on the visits and the data analysis makes it possible for them to make better decisions. A particular area is diversification. A cooperative, even one with organs functioning acceptably, if it continues embracing mono-cropping, sooner rather than later will go broke; if it continues, it will work to dispossess. Promoting diversification, nevertheless, is difficult because of the atrocious structure of international power. Today to speak about agricultural cooperatives is nearly to talk about mono-cropping. So there are “successful” cooperatives that have credit, marketing and technology services just for one crop; the effect of mono-cropping on the peasant economy and the environment have been horrible for decades and centuries. The attached box illustrates the expansion of mono-cropping even through organic agriculture reduced to its dimension as a commodity, and the fact that people of good will from international organizations work against the peasantry while believing that they are “benefitting” them. Visiting and analyzing data leads us to question the origins of our policies and respond to the millennial strategy of peasant resistance: diversification and environmental sustainability. If the organs and the administration of a cooperative focus their tasks on diversification of the farm and agro-industry, their cooperative will democratize a little more, and will include more youth and women in general.
The geographical proximity facilitates organizational functioning, and this, focused on diversification, makes the cooperative be even more rooted, produces new innovative rules and starts the path of being an organization of repossession – of peasant viability with economic and social diversification, and environmental stability.
Mechanism 4: Glocal alliance for the cooperative path
These three mechanisms facilitate changes in the cooperative and in the economy of the member families and their territories, but they will achieve sustainability to the extent that they take on the attitude of a cooperative member. It is not just organizing voluntarily, looking at their territory, making decisions through their organs, it is feeling themselves to be, and being cooperative members. What does this mean?
For centuries indigenous and peasant families have cultivated a mentality of producing to eat. Then in the 1920s in Central America cash crops came in like coffee, sugar cane, cacao, and cattle. In that process they molded a mentality of being a “seller of coffee”, “seller of sugar cane”, or “seller of milk”. Consequently, they reasserted their territory (“country”) in their plot or farm: “My country ends with my agave fence”, they declared, which means that within this area there is a structure and a person in charge, that outside of that is not his world, that his world ends at the fence where the buyers come to buy his products. They do not even sell, they buy off of him. This mentality was intensified by the markets, “I will buy your coffee sun-dried or wet, the rest does not matter”, “I will buy your sugar cane”; likewise national and international aid organizations, allies of associative organizations, with people trained in universities that taught them that only “Inc.” companies produce profits, say to them: “work on the raw materials and the rest will we take care of”, “you are good for harvesting, industry and trade is our thing”.
What is the problem with this mentality? The peasant receives payment for their coffee or milk, that is their world; the other world is that of the patrón, where the profits are; the peasant never is interested in this other world, knowing what their patrón did with his profits; the very fact of asking him was showing ingratitude, insubordination and social suicide – their own people would treat them as someone trying to be his equal. This institutionality has been reproduced in associative organizations and their allies; a member looks for payment for their coffee, sugar cane or milk, they are not interested in knowing whether their organization generated profits or not; in Fair Trade the use of the premium of US$20/qq of coffee is previously defined in social investment, infrastructure… and $5 for the member family to invest in their farm; the premium for organic coffee of US$30 is perceived like this, “premium”, equal to a “roasted cow” that the patrón would provide for them at the end of the harvest, “premium” of a day of fiesta. In other words, the agave fence of the peasant member is “price of NY + premium” (see box); the member family understands that their profits and premiums are not an expression of their rights, but “a favor” (something “extra”, “charity”) of the local or global patrón, that is why they do not ask about it, do not ask for information, nor keep their receipts nor complain over the distribution of profits. Knowing this reality, the patrón (administrator or fair trade coffee buyer) repeats, “with 100 córdobas I keep them happy”, “with pig rinds and booze they leave happy”, “I buy from them at a good price and I give them a premium, whether that gets to the member´s family or not is their issue.”
Complaining over your profits is like being a “beggar with a club”. It is like a woman subjected by her husband, she feels “kept” and without the right to ask him about the “rest of his money”, and it is the mentality of the citizen who pays taxes and instead of complaining that his government reinvest in public works and provide him “good service”, see these works as the result of the goodness of the government (patrón).
The three mechanisms listed need to be complemented by this fourth one, with which we will move beyond this glocal mentality. How? First, building a mentality where the peasant family has awareness about the fact that their actions create value and have unexpected consequences, which is why they can refine their policies and carry out actions of even greater value and impact. This is possible if they observe and reflect on some details; for example, making sure that through the payment for the harvested coffee in that territory positive aggregate effects are generated in the economy of that territory, beyond their “agave fence”; observing the impact of their diversified organic agriculture on their farms as well as on the territory; reflecting on the effect of violating the agreements of their own cooperative, that leads them to lose resources as a cooperative and as a territory. On observing these positive and negative effects, the members can awaken their awareness of being coop members and of moving from their “agave fence” to understand that regardless of their purposes, their actions have a repercussion on the territory. In a parallel fashion, let also global actors awaken and understand that their actions have repercussions on the lives of the peasant people; if they look at a cooperative just as “coffee” or “cacao”, commodities, and believe that by providing a good price and premium they have already contributed to the families, they should ask themselves if they are sure that they have “contributed”; if one person turns into an elite capturing those premiums, are the buyers contributing to the well being of the peasant families?
Second, making relationships between different glocal actors (global and local) be living alliances that are committed to the formation of associativism, complementing the mechanisms mentioned here. This does not mean improving the prices of raw materials. It means that organizations add up all the income (value of sold product +premiums+incentives for quality and other bonuses), subtract their expenses and costs, and from the gross profits they agree to redistribute according to a certain percentage, let us say 50 or 60%. We repeat, it is not a matter of improving the price of the sugar cane or the coffee, it is not distributing the premiums; it is redistributing the gross profits of your organization.* The remaining 50 or 40%, or other percentage, goes to internal funds, social fund, legal reserves, investment fund in the organization…
Third, all the actors, cooperative, associative enterprises, aid agencies, Universities and State Institutions, we all should commit in an ongoing and systematic way to cooperative formation, based on the lessons and challenges of the organizations themselves. On emphasizing profits we are not reducing ourselves to the economic, we understand with Aristotle that quantity is an element of quality; consequently, the members will move from a mentality of “I am a seller of sugar cane” to “I am a seller of granulated sugar”, from “I am a seller of coffee” to “I am a cooperative member exporter of export quality coffee”. This will mean that each member pushes that their organization generates more profits and redistributes them, they will make an effort to be informed, to be trained, to diversify more. With these elements, the formation will help their cooperative and territory, the board and their members, the cooperatives in the north and the south, to maintain strong ties of collaboration and mutual learning.
3. “Muddy” accompaniment from the underworld of the member families
Most cooperatives have been accompanied, be it by the State, Churches, aid agencies or Universities. Standardized accompaniment has meant providing them trainings, legalizing them, buying products from them and /or providing them with donations; it is an accompaniment that does not cross over toward the communities and the underworld of the cooperatives, which is why it ends up legitimizing corruption, or that cooperatives get turned into a means for dispossession. A new type of accompaniment is required so that these four mechanisms emerge, are adapted and make a difference.
Owen and other associative people inspired the emergence of cooperativism in England, Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen accompanied the first cooperative in Germany. A distinctive accompaniment in Central America has been that of the Catholic Church in the years 1960-1970; that accompaniment helped them to reflect on a God living among them, and a Reign of God that began in those very communities – the “treasure” (God) was in the communities themselves. This accompaniment gave rise to dozens of cooperatives and peasant stores based on their own resources; a good part of them still persist after 40 and 50 years. Consistent with this type of accompaniment, even though not from a religious perspective, we describe here an accompaniment that enters into the cooperative underworld in interaction with the 4 described mechanisms.
What are the distinctive characteristics of this accompaniment? The first is that the accompanying people understand that only by entering the underworld of the cooperatives and their territory will they be able to understand the process in which the cooperative finds itself, awaken reflection and help create mechanisms like those worked on here. The fact that we intellectuals might have the “best” assessment is useless if the members are not reflecting on and walking their own cooperative path. For that reason the accompaniers need to pass beyond the control of the “patroncito”, be that the administrator, manager or president, and through the conversation be exposing the struggle between the path of the patrón and that of the cooperative, as well as the complexity of walking their own path.
Second, accompanying is discerning mindsets from the inside. Along with studying the cooperative underworld, where the old path is imposed based on betrayal and subordination, and where people wander between doubt and intuition, the accompaniers discern the mindsets in the cooperatives, and their own mindset as accompaniers. When the cooperative is trapped in acts of corruption, it is moving under the rules of “the clever one takes advantage of what he administers”, and “we always need a patrón”; these rules conceal actions against their own organization; then the members see the accompaniers as “intruders”, unfurl the banner of “autonomy” to keep the accompaniers from “crossing over the threshold” of the territory, and make up lies in the territory that these accompaniers “are taking advantage of the cooperative.” Discerning their mindsets implies “muddying ourselves” in their beliefs and lies, at the risk that this might erode the legitimacy of the accompanier and drive him/her out of the territory. What distinguishes good accompaniment is the persistent act of overcoming our own mentality that it is “enough to train, legalize and help them to export in order to live better”, “taking their pulse” and innovating with member families to the extent that destructive mentalities that prevent learning are dispelled.
Third, accompanying well is allowing member families to take their own steps, provided that we understand that our actions also have repercussions in the lives of the member families. The accompanier risks the fact that the members might perceive him or her also as a “little patrón”, impairing them from walking their own cooperative path. Let us illustrate this with one experience; in a cooperative, after the second mechanism took place, of rootedness, the results in terms of informational transparency, reduction of corruption and a motivating environment because of its economic and social impact in the territory were admirable. So the board members complained to the accompaniers: see attached box.
In the box the leader sees the accompanier as a “little patrón” with the capacity to stop the corruption and impose decentralized administration on the territory of the cooperative. The response of the accompanier to the first complaint is that having intervened as a “firefighter” to “put out the fire” of corruption, even though this act would have saved them financially, it would have constrained them from building their own cooperative path, which is structural and long term. The response to the second complaint reveals an accompaniment that helps to innovate mechanisms to the extent that it studies and learns from the cooperative itself and its underworld. Even now that we have innovated these four mechanisms they would not be recipes for any organization, they are mechanisms that need to be adapted to each situation, and that each cooperative should experience their processes. These two responses illustrate that accompanying is letting member families walk their path, provided that it studies them and provokes reflection.
Finally, in this process we are getting to know ourselves, re-knowing ourselves in our actions, and we are developing a sense of reasoned compassion. Not the “rational being” of homo economicus. On understanding the mentality of a group of members who “always need a patrón that steals from us”, we understand that for more than 100 years this institution has been deeply etched in their grandparents and parents, reproduced now by this group. At the same time we understand that this institution is not characterized by “being peasants”, but that it is the centuries old path of the patrón-fieldhand. This reflective reasoning envisions this reality for us, and awakens “being peasants” in the lives of cooperative member families and our lives, through respecting the collective good, the rules of the collective and mother earth, the horizon for which we produced the four mechanisms.
Accompaniment makes us remember that the change is in alliance between the peasant families and those of us who accompany them, while we walk together. It is not a stationary accompaniment, but along the road. It is a tense alliance, with stumbles and doubts, but embracing each other for the purpose of creating a vehicle for repossession to the benefit of peasant families.
By way of conclusion
We began this text with the following question: How can people who are organizing follow their own path? First we identified how the colonial patrón-fieldhand path intensified by capitalism that only values merchandise (commodities) erodes the cooperative path, and leads people to betray their own path. This teaches us that individual actions respond to certain perspectives (individual or collective), and they in turn come from structures in conflict, communitarian structures and structures of dispossession; and that this cooperative path is connected with community life, also in resistance for centuries. These two paths clash, for example, in “the good of others”: the colonial and capitalist path is nourished by dispossessing “the good of others” (land, financial resources, labor) from the peasantry, while the cooperative path is connected to community structures which precisely originate in repossessing “the good of others”, which in this case is the “collective good”, material assets (financial resources), as well as alliances and collectively decided arrangements. This “good of others” in the cooperative path is then a “social relationship”, as Federici would say.
Lining ourselves up with this cooperative path, we list four innovative mechanisms that, contrary to the saying that “in an open treasure even the most just sins”, make the cooperative into “a treasure with rules and associative governance where even the biggest sinner becomes just.” These four mechanisms are: voluntarily organizing, rooted in specific micro-territories, making the cooperative organs and administration function, and within a glocal alliance framework help the member families to cultivate an awareness of “being a cooperative member”, that their actions generate changes in their lives and the life of their territory, and making the cooperatives expand their profits and redistribute them with informational transparency and as an expression of respecting “the good of others” (common good, collective good, their own good), in contrast to capitalism that is nourished from dispossessing material assets from peasant families. Then we argued that cooperatives need an accompaniment that makes a difference, that crosses over formal and despotic structures and gets into the underworld of the territories, from which they innovate with the member families, like the mechanisms listed here, and accompany them through thick and thin.
Is this text important only for cooperatives and their allies in their social territories? What happens in the cooperatives and their social territories at the micro level is happening in countries at the macro level. Following the cooperative vision is overcoming the “commodity” vision, the colonial patrón-fieldhand path and the belief that “with money you can even make monkeys dance”, and it is creating a society that cooperates, makes rules and follows them, expands their profits and redistributes them, learns and democratizes. Will it happen?
 A case to illustrate this type of accompaniment is that of the Cooperativa La Esperanza de los Campesinas in Panama. See: R. Mendoza, 2017, “A priest, a cooperative and a peasantry that regulates the elites”, in: ENVIO 425. Managua: IHCA-UCA. http://www.envio.org.ni/articulo/5304
 Lucia Linsalata, 2015, “Three general ideas for thinking about the commons. Notes around the visit of Silvia Federici” in Bajo el Volcán, year 15, number 22. Federici talks about the commons in the community, she says “there is no commons if there is no community”. In this article we present the cooperative as an expression of people from a community who decide to organize, and for them “the commons” is within the cooperative, even though in relation to their communities or social territories.
In the film “Spartacus” on the slave rebellion in 71 BC we recognize the strength of a shared vision. After twice defeating the Roman legions, the gladiators/slaves fell before the legion of Marcus Crassus, who says to thousands of survivors: “you were slaves and you will be slaves again, but you can save yourself from crucifixion if you turn Spartacus over to me.” So Spartacus takes a step forward and shouts, “I am Spartacus”. The man by his side also steps forward, “I am Spartacus”. Within a minute all shout that they are Spartacus. Each gladiator/slave choses death. Why? Following Peter Senge (1990, the Fifth Disciplne) they are not expressing loyalty to Sparacus, but to a shared vision of being free in such a profound way that they prefer dying to being slaves again. “A shared vision – says Senge – is not a idea, not even an important idea like freedom. It is a force in the hearts of people.” In this article we lay out some long term visions, show their importance for lasting change, and we take note of the role of organizations related to the peasantry of our millennium.
That vision of being free emerged as a profound human aspiration in the face of the slavery system, a fire that neither the cross nor death were able to extinguish. In the movie the lover of Spartacus comes up to him and reveals to him that his vision will be realized, “Your son will be born free!” 2089 years later that powerful vision continues present in the foundation of our societies.
Another vision, one of democracy, emerged even before in the years of 500 BC. Even though it excluded 75% of the population (slaves, women and foreigners), that vision arose based on assemblies, building institutions under the power (cracia) of the people (demo). 2500 years later, in spite of the fact that the elites flipped that vision to where democracy exists only under the control of a minority, that Greek vision based on assemblies continues moving millions of hearts.
The vision of the reign of God was sketched out by Jesus of Nazareth, son of a peasant woman and a carpenter, in 30 AD. In a hierarchical and despotic patriarchal world, Jesus envisions the possibility of a “kingdom” for those who are looked down upon – who might be like children, destitute and who would build peace, a reign that is small and becomes big like the mustard seed. Since then, that vision of the kingdom, in spite of being androcentric (king-dom), has mobilized millions of people. It is a vision that made Luther in the 1500s challenge the institutional church and translate the Bible into vernacular languages so that people might have access to God without religious intermediaries.
In the XVIII century the encyclopedists (1751-1772), living at a time with a minority of educated people, envisioned “putting up a wall against barbarism.” That vision of making “papers speak” has moved humanity with revolutions and fights against racism and extreme poverty. It is enough to see the movie “The Power of One” filmed in 1992, based on Africa in the 1930s, to recognize the vision of the encyclopedists, that learning to read made a difference. It is also the advice that we heard from our grandmothers in the countryside, “study, a pencil weighs less than a shovel.”
Even though the idea of organization and the construction of the State emerged with capitalism in the XVI century, societies envisioned alternative forms of organization to the control and rule of capitalism and the State. Thus the cooperative emerged in England against the textile industry and in Germany against usury, under the conviction of joining forces in line with the ideas of associativity of Saint-Simon, Fourier, Cabet and Owen. Along these lines the agrarian cooperative movement in the United States from 1870-1910 made explicit the cooperative vision of democratizing the economy (L.Goodwin, 1978, The Populist Movement). This alternative vision, of joining forces –“elbow to elbow we are much more than two”, as Mario Benedetti would say – to democratize the economy continues moving millions of people who are organizing.
Finally the non violent vision of M. Gandhi (1869-1948) in order to achieve the independence of India from the British empire, and improve the well being of both. That pacifist movement saw that “humanity cannot free itself from violence except through non violence”, that “eye for an eye will leave everyone blind” and that “there is no path for peace, peace is the way”. It is a vision in line with Jesus: “you hear that it was said, eye for an eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, do not resist the one who is evil; before, to anyone who would hit you on the right cheek, turn to him also the other (Mt 5:38-39). The methods of Gandhi, in accordance with that vision, were the use of hunger strikes, the “salt march” (salt satia graha) that affected the principal source of taxes for England, and being coherent in his actions and ideas (he made his own clothes and was a vegetarian), methods introduced in accordance with the realities and experiences that thehy promoted. That movement inspired Martin Luther King in the United States in the 1960s in his vision of a society where people were treated equally, regardless of their race and color. And Domitila Barrios of Bolivia walked the same route in 1978 with a vision of a country without fear overthrowing the dictatorship of Banzer peacefully, in the words of Eduard Galeano:
I was seated in the principal plaza with 4 other women and a poster that said: “We come from the mines, we are on a hunger strike until the military dictatorship falls.” People made fun of them as they went by. “So just like that 5 women are going to overthrow a military dictatorship! Hahaha, what a great joke!” And the women, unmoved, in solemn silence…After the 5 women they were 50, then 500, then 5,000, then 50,000 and then half a million Bolivians that came together and overthrew the military dictatorship. Why? Because those women were not wrong, fear was what was mistaken.
All these shared visions connect hearts by common aspirations. Yuval Noah Harari (2011, Sapiens: A brief History of humankind) tells that in human evolution homo sapiens differentiated themselves from other species like chimpanzees by their ability to invent myths capable of mobilizing millions of people to cooperate. Visions belong to that genre, they are real, palpable and move incredible forces born from human hearts.
Peasant and indigenous visions
In our days we hear visions that, like those quoted, are mobilizing a good part of humanity. Scrutinizing them, we understand that they are both new and connected to millennial flames. Let us start with the oldest. Our ancestors that lived close to 2 million years ago as hunters and gatherers envisioned human survival based on agriculture, which led them to domesticate plants and animals between 9500 and 3500 BC. Since those years in our DNA is that tense vision of humans subjugating nature or plants like soy beans, wheat, sugar cane and sunflowers multiplying at the cost of “domesticating” humans (Yuval Noah Harari).
Following that vein, the vision of peasant families has been to have land. In the 1970s in Honduras (Azomada, Lempira), the peasants saw idle land taken away from their ancestors and recognizing that fire that came from their grandparents to “recover a piece of land to produce on it”, took those lands as thousands of peasants have done on the face of the earth under the anti-large estate idea that “the land Is for those who work it with their hands” of Emiliano Zapata in 1911. In 1985 when the war was raging in Nicaragua, the State moved 74 indigenous families from Cusmapa and San Lucas to Samarcanda (San Juan del Rio Coco), organized them into cooperatives to confront the Nicaraguan Resistance, as had happened in so many places in the country; one of the leaders, Claudio Hernández recalls, “to get land with coffee we risked our lives, and we accepted being treated as fieldhands and soldiers”; the paradox was that many of those involved in the Nicaraguan Resistance also were fighting for land.
In the 1980s Ricardo Falla S.J. put that vision into words: “a peasant without land is like a being without a soul.” In 1993 I went to La Primavera in Ixcan, Guatemala where hundreds of families that returned from Mexico with the signing of the peace agreements were working the land collectively; at one dinner that a woman shared with me, she whispered: “help us, my husband was killed by the military, I want a piece of land to leave to my children, that his death not be in vain!”; it was a vision shared by families of Mesoamerica and beyond.
Being a farmer is more than having land, as in 9500 BC. In Nicaragua Marchetti and Maldidier (1996, El campesino-Finquero y el Potencial Económico del Campesinado Nicaraguense) detected that peasant vision: “I dream of that day in which my friends visit me and say, what a beautiful farm you have!” The land would not just be a plot with annual crops on it, but a diversified farm with permanent crops – because “tree have value”, said Tupac Barahona and Marcelo Rodríguez with the peasantry of Masaya (Nicaragua) and nourish biodiversity, as Abraham Cruz observed in Peñas Blancas (El Cuá, Nicaragua); “the birds of the forest come to eat on the farms.” In Honduras, Carlos Cantoral from Terreritos (Nueva Frontera) in the 2000s, sketched out what food sovereignty and peasant autonomy is, echoing our ancestors thousands of years ago:”being a peasant is producing what my family eats, without depending on anyone” – without a debt with the usurer, without giving in to the intermediary, and without lowering your head in the presence of the politician and religious leader. And again in Honduras Porfirio Hernández de Trascerros (Nueva Frontera) in 2018 describes those who lose that vision: “even having cattle they walk around money in hand looking for their corn grinder,” unfortunate is that family that does not first ensure their food. These are the families that resist being a clone of monocropping, families that grow their corn and produce their food on more and more diversified farms, which gives them the freedom to generate their own thinking and experiments, and a basis for cultivating their autonomy and resisting proletarization – and much more if it is organic agriculture.
Being a farmer and processing what is produced to ensure food “in green and mature times” has been a vision for thousands of years. Humanity learned to dry meat under the sun in its era of hunting and gathering, and in the years of 3000 BC made bread, and the Incas stored potatoes as starch, exposing potatoes to the sun during the day and to the cold at night. In this vein we find the peasantry of the XVII and XVIII centuries envisioning agro industrializing raw material in their communities. That vision, in spite of being squashed by capitalist industry and later by the socialism of Preobrazhensky and Stalin, persisted within Europe itself. That is why there are around 1100 flavors (brands) of beer in Belgium today, or vineyards and wine in Trentino, Italy. And it persists in Latin America. In Honduras in 2008 (Laguna de La Capa, Yoro), in the face of the “vocation” of the agricultural frontier to receive a peasantry whose grandchildren migrated with sugar cane and sugar mills defeated by the slavish rule that “only the rich make sugar”, the COMAL Network and peasant families started to process granulated sugar in the community itself. Cirilo George from the APROCATY Associative Enterprise put that fire into words, “we will not go back”, referring to the fact that individually they fell with their sugar cane into that destiny and that slavish rule, but organizing themselves, they made that vision of agro-industrialization palpable, as the Manduvirá Cooperative of Paraguay has done. In 2015 Raul Cruz from the Forest Rangers Cooperative (El Cuá, Nicaragua), after years of growing coffee, visiting two roasters, had a vision: “I imagined myself selling roasted, ground coffee”; what he imagined kept him from sleeping and he began to make his roasters from barrels in order to today sell roasted, ground coffee in 1 lb packages. Visions that move human will and show a path for creating living communities.
Having land, being a farmer, processing food…and selling! What a chain of visions! Even though the peasantry sees itself at odds with commerce, their aspirations include commercializing in order to cooperate. Within this perspective, in Honduras (Encinos, Intibucá) in the midst of intimidating polices under the Alliance for Progress of the 1960s and 1970s, women and men who would walk for days through mud to buy what they were not producing, envisioned “bringing in a store managed by us the Lenca peasant ourselves, right here.” That community, like the members of the La Unión Store in Taulabé, Honduras. Maquita Cosunchej of Ecuador, or the Hope of the Peasants Cooperative in Panama, overcame the old rule that “peasants and indigenous are no good at selling, only at planting.” Maybe individually it is difficult for a peasant family to sell, they say that it is a “betrayal of a promise” (buying oneself in order to sell your own product later), but organized is another story, because “the market is really relationships of people coming together, getting to know one another and trusting one another”– Peter Druckers would say to Peter Schwartz (1996, The Art of the Long View). In the 1990s again in Honduras a dozen leaders of several organizations, among them Auristela Argueta, saw a vision that continues to light up deep Mesoamerica: “we now have land, we are producing our food and something more, a market for selling and exchanging our products.” That aspiration that markets can connect organized people to one another, was the seed that gave rise to the Comal Network of Honduras.
What is distinctive about these visions and the imperative to see them
These visions, far from the current ones that businesses tend to express to generate capital or the blueprint of organizations of “being a leader” to find donations and “to put a patch on the problem” (formulate visions as a formality), move human determination through time and are like flames that do not go out, in search of a greater good. What distinguishes them? They are born out of crises, when that which should die, does not, and what should sprout, does not, as A. Einstein used to say: “creativity is born from anguish as day from night.” Adversity is overcome by “swimming against the current” and connecting oneself with centennial and millennial human aspirations that, like tectonic plates, shake even the most solid land, like that outrageous belief that a divine being or the market writes human destiny. They are understood by people discontent with the status quo, geniuses who question their worlds, see other possible realities, expand their mental horizons and really believe in their capacity to create the future because they experience it daily. As Blanca Rios advised her sons Juan, Victorino and Noel Adams, members of the Bosawas Cooperative in El Cuá, Nicaragua, “never feel you are on a horse, even if you are in the stirrups, because many people on a horse can end up on foot.” They are shared visions that emerge from personal visions, and not from adhering to visions prepared by managers or consultants; they derive their energy and commitment precisely from the fact that they come from personal visions.
These shared visions reorder life. If your vision is that your family eats what you produce, that makes you reorder your farm, the work of your family and your relationships with your neighbors, and if that vision is shared by other people of an organization, this reorients the organization toward that vision. They are concrete visions, here and now, visions that make them encounter the stranger and discover themselves. They are visions that cause changes day to day, brick to brick, seed after seed, the drop of water that cracks the stone.
In the face of these visions of future frameworks that we want to create, the challenge for peasant and indigenous organizations is to encourage their members to express their visions, understand them, and embody them in agreements and new rules to support the peasantry, the basis for food and assurance of environmental sustainability for humanity. For that purpose, the more an organization opens itself to learning, the more it tunes its ear to hear the visions, the more it takes out a pencil to take notes and ruminate on them, the more it reinvents itself, breaking rules like “the older one gets, the less one changes”, “the more one studies, the more one forgets about where they came from”, and “the more power one gets, the more farther they get from the people”. A peasantry that organizes itself and awakens to the fact that they can create their future, is more connected to the vision of Jesus, feels more the vision of the gladiators/slaves, seeks to have more democratic assemblies, aspires more the path of non-violence, makes agriculture an art, and weaves more of their own thinking, seed after seed- like constantly falling drops of water that eventually make a hole even in stone. Shared visions, in the midst of the tensions and adversities of all times, move human mountains and help us to be generators of long term change that started just yesterday.
We live in an age of walks and runs, and I’m not talking about baseball. It seems as though nearly every organization will sponsor some kind of event that is intended to get people moving for some bigger purpose, like disease research, feeding the hungry or saving animals. I generally like the approach of these initiatives, because they involve the potential donor in active ways that money donation alone cannot, and the exercise by itself is a good thing! But every once in a while, an individual will embark on an undertaking that does not necessarily invite throngs of participants or the clicks of many cameras, but rather demonstrates a kind of quiet commitment, a solitary sojourn to symbolize something important.
A young Korean woman by the name of Kyong Juhn will simply begin to walk. But it won’t be just another Sunday stroll in the Spring. Kyong Juhn will commence a journey of 323 miles on foot, starting in Rochester, Minnesota and ending in Bemidji, Minnesota some three weeks later. The purposes of the trek are several: Ms. Juhn will re-create the long pedestrian migration of her mother from North Korea to South Korea a generation ago, a much more demanding effort; Ms. Juhn will walk, as the event is called, “For Hope and Peace,” an initiative which some may view as naive, but which is something she can do; and finally, Ms. Juhn likely hopes that her pilgrimage will awaken in all who might chance to see or read about her what commitment looks like.
The first rationale of her hike is beautiful in its honor and remembrance of Ms. Juhn’s mother. I do not know the particulars behind the woman’s journey from North Korea to the south, but I can imagine its dangers and demands and the perseverance required to complete such steps. I can further infer that the odyssey was undertaken before Ms. Juhn had been born, imbuing her trek with a determination for her future, and whatever child or children might inhabit that world in the fullness of time. Ms. Juhn will pay a remarkable homage to a woman who is known to very few of us, but who has earned our deep and enduring respect, and her daughter’s abiding love.
Her second rationale for walking might well be a reflection of the artist who is Kyong Juhn. She is a School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) Distinguished Scholar Scholarship awardee, who recently finished her Fine Arts degree at SAIC, where she studied photography and art history. Self-described as having transformed herself from a first generation immigrant-homemaker to a tenacious artist who expresses the complexities of rediscovered identities after returning to school, Ms. Juhn is a creator. Through whatever media or motion suits her need for expression, she undertakes this walk because it conveys an image, a story- several stories, in fact- in manifestation of a deeply-held worldview. This walk is her art on display. Pursuit of peace and hope may be daunting ideas, but the walk is tangible and the act of doing it is an imaginative statement in time which sorely needs personal acts of harmony.
Ms. Juhn will be supported, in part, by the organization Vets for Peace, which will accompany her. They will follow her progress with a “SAG” (support and gear) vehicle for her safety and immediate needs during the trip. (In fact, the sag vehicle is a Vets for Peace bus funded, in part, by a gift from WPF Founders Harold and Louise Nielsen.) With help from VFP, Ms. Juhn will seek all the attention that she can get for the purpose of her walk, so that people like you and me will understand that this is what is required of us: that we have the capacity to make an impact in whatever ways are within us, that we each have a role to play, a responsibility for the good or ill that becomes our collective life together. But we are called to actually do what we imagine, to actually take the first steps for hope and peace.
She will take her first steps on May 6, according to the route below. I hope the date does not find me standing still….
The height of injustice is to be deemed just when you are not. Plato
Even an honest man sins in the face of an open treasure. Saying.
The VII song of the Odyessy tells how the goddess Circe warned Ulysses that the sailors of those waters were so enchanted by the song of the sirens that they went mad, and lost control of their ships. To not succumb to that enchantment, Ulysses asked that he be tied to the mast of the ship, and that the oarsmen have wax put in their ears, and ordered that if he, because of the spell of their song, would ask that they free him, instead they should tighten the knots. So it was that Ulysses and his oarsmen were saved, and the sirens, failing in their objective, threw themselves off the cliff.
Facing unfair commercial relations, Fair Trade (FT) emerged as an alternative so that people who organized might improve their lives and be a space of solidarity among different actors beyond their countries´ borders. Nevertheless, in our case study in Nicaragua and Central America, we show that the institutional structure of power relationships under the market control of elites is like the sirens in the myth, capable of seducing the FT network, turning it against its own principles, and turning solidarity into just a bunch of words, numbers and papers. How can FT tie itself up so as to not succumb to the song of the sirens, and in this way, grow, enhancing its FT alternative principles? To respond to this question we take as a given that there are exceptional cooperatives, organizations, and people who confirm the importance of organizing and cultivating global solidarity, and that there are successful cooperatives, in countries in the south as well as in the north, in FT as well as outside of it. Nevertheless, in this article we study certain practices of the FT framework that seem to indicate its involution, and on that basis we suggest its reinvention. To do so we focus on coffee, which constitutes 70% of the volume of what is sold through FT.
A long-time friend of mine recently bestowed a gift on me, one that has intrigued, perplexed and annoyed all at the same time. It may seem strange that one small gift could accomplish all of this, but given the nature of the giver, I would expect no less.
George is an octogenarian, and one who has stuffed a great many experiences into his years, whether in vocation, family, service to others or contemplation of self. For these reasons, as well as the fact that he is simply a very nice man, I enjoy meeting with him every so often for excellent conversation. Neither one of us will ever be able to recount the winners and losers at The Academy Awards, but both of us like to expound upon what is right and what is wrong with the world today. We both pretend to have the answers, if not the questions.
The gift he brought to me is no less than a presentation of life’s virtues. One hundred thoughtful descriptions of moral excellence and goodness of character are printed on 4X5 cards, along with certain actions which embody the particular virtue. They are a product of The Virtues Project, an international initiative to inspire the practice of virtues in everyday life. Each day at breakfast, I’m confronted with a new aspect of right action and thinking which may or may not be attributable to myself. But they’re good triggers for thought and conversation with my wife, as I either claim ownership of a virtue or confess my weakness of it. (I am too afraid to keep track of whether I have more “hits” than “misses.”) The object is not keeping score, but reflecting on one’s personal posture.
The experience is stimulating. I mean, how often do most of us have the questions posed about our daily existence and how we have chosen to live it? Consider matters of integrity. Honesty. Humanity. Commitment. Honor. Gratitude. Faith. Empathy. Grace. Generosity. Love. Peacefulness. Responsibility. Sacrifice. Tolerance. Truth. The list is as long as it is deep. Serious reflection of virtue is sobering, affirming and complex, all at the same time.
Yet there is a sort of elitist quality about contemplation of such things. My past week in Nicaragua reminds me that consideration of manners and philosophies often becomes subjugated in light of the daily grind of feeding one’s family or securing the particulars of suitable shelter. In some cases, circumstances tend to bend absolute virtues, or at least place them in conflict with other virtuous aims.
I do not imply that Nicaraguan peasants are without virtuous living; in fact, the reality is quite the opposite. My experiences with rural Nica farmers often have been object lessons about living with dignity and hope despite enormously difficult circumstances. Virtuous behaviors come from within, cultivated from generations of living in concert with their faith, the earth and one another, rather than from a conscious deliberation of what “ought to be.”
What occurs to me in the understanding of living against great odds is that the opportunity for meditation on matters of virtue and how to cultivate such behaviors is almost non-existent. The conscious deliberation of what “ought to be” is too often a luxury afforded to those who are well off enough to indulge in contemplation of 4X5 cards.
Perhaps the observations are of no note. Certainly, those who have been blessed with opportunity for musing on such matters have brought about only a modest degree of change and equity in the world: children still starve against the virtues of Generosity, Humanity, Justice, Mercy and Sacrifice. In my own reading of the virtues, I long for the recognition of them inherent within myself, regardless of the words on the cards. But it is not always so, and the gentle reminders of what I could be are blessings to embrace.
There’s still time. The questions are not complete, the answers not finished, our lives are not done, our legacies are not written and our virtues are not known until the end of our days….