Scaling up and circular movement in Rural Social Enterprises
René Mendoza with Fabiola Zeledón and Esmelda Suazo
Jesús told his disciples a parable (Mt 25: 14-30). A farmer, before traveling, entrusted his farm to them: to one he gave 5 talents, to another 2 and another 1, according to their capacities. On his return he asked for an accounting. The ones who received 5 and 2 had doubled them, the farmer was happy and rewarded them. The third had saved the talent and gave it back to him, the farmer was upset, told him that at least he could have placed it with bankers so it would earn interest, so he took the talent away from him and gave it to the one who had 10. “Because to everyone who has, more will be given and he will have abundance; but the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away.”
This parable is not about avarice or despotism. It is about the fruit that comes from talents received. It is responding to the confidence received, deploying all capacities in order to bear fruit. The parable shows us that discouragement, fear or resentment should not keep us from feeling that confidence received, making us hide the talent. The fruit gives joy to the entire community.
So it is as well in Rural Social Enterprises (RSE). Two dozen people have placed their resources and entrusted a family to administer a community store or a coffee roaster, and another family to administer another store, and so on. The families received resources and trust in accordance with their abilities, they are left the challenge of responding with all their energy and multiplying their fruit. As an effect of those actions, the entire community will be happy.
On multiplying it, like the one who received 5 talents and doubled it to 10, they can receive more resources and trust. How? For the stores, Figure 1 shows us the path in the form of a staircase. But first let us recall that in the previous booklet Claudio Hernández warned us that we are “at different rungs of the ladder”. We address this challenge here: if we scale up collectively with clear rules, we move beyond the individual “ranking”. Even more, our vision is that they scaling up should not be indefinite, ever higher and higher, but it should be circular, that this is what figure 2 will show.
In figure 1, illustrated for a community store, we make a distinction between a conventional (or traditional) storefront, and the community stores that we are organizing. They scale up to the extent that they respond to the trust deposited in them, and in accordance with the energy and mindset that they apply to the talents received. How?
A community store starts on step 1 with a set amount of working capital. If it is managed well, keeping the amount on credit under 5% of total working capital, orders the inventory and orders, attracts customers and the administrator is able to get their earnings (30% of gross profits of the store) above 1500 córdobas, then that store can go up to the next step. As a consequence, SREs take 20% of the net earnings of the store to increase the initial working capital of the store. This step means moving from a conventional storefront to a community store, which means freeing itself from falling into the family rules of “give it to me on credit because we are family”, understanding that working capital is a collective asset, and cultivating an awareness that what benefits the family and the community is the fact that the stores continues to exist.
On step 2, in addition to meeting the challenges of step 1, they do a good job of recording the data, increase the clientele by 10%; process 1-2 products (e.g. popsicles, nacatamales) and form 1 to 2 local alliances (e.g. with bakers, seamstresses, people that make piñatas, raise chickens and have eggs, people who raise chickens, slaughter pigs or sell basic grains). It is a step where the administrator is able to get their gross profits of the store above 2,000 córdobas. If they are able to do all that, then they move to step 3 and they are assigned 20% of the social fund to work with.
On step 3, in addition to meeting the challenges of steps 1 & 2, and increasing clients by 10%, it processes more than 2 products and cultivates more than 2 alliances; lists products and necessary technology to be introduced into the community, such as rice cookers and thermoses, that have the potential of freeing up time for women depending on the conditions in the communities (e.g. if they have electric, water…). It is a step where the administrator can get their 30% of gross profits to be more than 3,000 córdobas. If the administrator is able to do all that, then the store moves to step 4, and their working capital is increased from between 5 to 20% from additional funds coming from new shareholders.
On step 4, in addition to meeting the challenges of steps 1, 2 and 3, and increasing customers by 10%, the store processes more than 3 products and weaves more than 3 alliances; the administrator gets their 30% of gross profits from sales to be more than 4,000 córdobas. As a consequence, this store is a candidate for the annual prize that the Assembly of shareholders grants to the best initiative. In a parallel fashion, the administrator can become initiative supervisor, after accompanying (organizing and advising) other stores, creating new initiatives.
In this way, the staircase (Figure 1) does not add more steps, it becomes a circle of synergy among several stores, roasters, bakers and other initiatives (Figure 2), while people continue being trained and taking on new responsibilities. It is trust which like pickled nancite becomes more dense and increases its flavor and energy.
So the wheel of community improvement turns, turns and turns. It does not go up. It does not go down. It revolves.
 This article is also for cooperatives and any other associative expression. The members contribute resources and ideas. They deposit them in the administration and organs of the cooperative. In doing so, they really are depositing their trust. In return, the administration and organs of the cooperative have the obligation that those resources and trust deposited in them bear fruit in accordance with the rules of their assemblies.
Each organization and institution has “rules of the game”. In a family, church, soccer, baseball, school, in a cooperative…there are rules. For example, in soccer 3 rules mean that it ca be played anywhere, in a field, on the street or a soccer stadium; these three rules are: only the goalie can touch the ball with his hands, out of bounds and foul (pushing or kicking another player). Generally, organizations that follow their rules run better.
RSEs also have a few rules: 21. Pretty well tested. Subject to being changed partially by the assembly of shareholders. They are applicable to any RSE. We list these rules in what follows:
The investors can be from inside or outside the community. The family that operates the initiative can also be a shareholder (be it a store, roaster or other initiative)
1 share = C$ 1000 (1,000 Córdobas)
A person becomes a “shareholder” with 1 share or more, and with that share or shares becomes an investor in all the initiatives.
In the case that the family that runs it invests, they will have a dual role, investor and at the same time the family that operates the initiative.
If the shareholder dies, automatically that person´s spouse and children are left as the owners of those shares. In case the shareholder does not have a spouse or children, then the closest relative is left as owner of the shares.
No shareholder will have more than 35% of total shares.
On the work of the family that runs an RSE
Each family that operates it is creative and responsible for making the initiative more successful, so that they can include any other way of buying new products or adding new services, always in function of the “company.”
If the family that operates an initiative decides to no longer continue with the initiative, they will completely withdraw all the products or assets, without those products or assets being provided on credit.
The shareholder group can close an initiative and recover the products and assets if that initiative ceases to be profitable.
On earnings, reinvestment and expenses
From gross profits (sale or service price minus costs and expenses), 30% is for the family that runs it (store, roaster or other initiative).
From net profits (gross profits minus 30%), 20% is for reinvestment, 20% is for a social fund, 10% for equipment repair and 50% is to be distributed among the shareholders in accordance with their number of shares.
In the distribution of shares, for the person who has more than100 shares, each share over that 100 will have the right to 50% of the amount of each share held by those who have 100 or less shares.
The reinvestment done (that 20%) will be added as part of the shares of all the shareholders. In other words, if that 20% comes in as additional products for sale or as a piece of equipment for the roaster, the value of that 20% is added as part of the shares of all the shareholders. Operation: the amount of the reinvestment divided by the total number of shares; that amount is added in accordance with the number of shares held by each shareholder.
If a shareholder decides to withdraw or recover part of their shares, those shares will be bought by any person or shareholder.
On losses or damaged products or assets
If products or assets are lost through theft, it is the responsibility of the family that runs it. The value lost is deducted from their 30%.
If some product is damaged in the store, it must be reported in the monthly audit. The corresponding measure will be taken from a mutual agreement. In any case, the value of the loss will be assumed equally, 50% by the family operating the initiative and 50% by the investors.
On Follow up/ audit/ transparency
The family that operates the initiative will register each operation and have all information up to date.
The supervisor and the operating family will provide followup/audit every 30 days. In doing so, they will audit the numbers, together analyze the month by its results and, taking into account the results from the previous month, will make decisions guided by the rules.
The 30% of gross profit that goes to the family operating the initiative will be paid at the end of each month.
The distribution of surplus based on net profits will be done every 3 months.
On the 10th of each month each shareholder will receive information on the financial results of the previous month from all the initiatives.
René Mendoza with Fabiola Zeledón, Hulda Miranda and Elix Meneses
Violeta Parra (1917-1967)
“Who are you looking for?”, they asked Violeta when she was traveling from one rural community to another in Chile.
-“Someone I do not know, but who has something very important to give me,” she responded. Violeta was a songwriter and artist, she was looking for songs that people in the countryside composed and tended to be left isolated and forgotten. She looked for them for the folklore of her beloved Chile.
Who are we looking for? Someone we do not know but who has “something very important” for their community. It is on the basis of “something very important” that we build the means that can be written in stone, that give identity to their communities. In this booklet we recount how we started to get off the traditional path of cooperatives, as we found “something very important” in the people in the communities themselves.
1. Genesis and brief evolution
In 2018 we concluded that the cooperative path needed other forms of organization. Like Violeta, we decided to go into the communities; since there is no better wedge than a stick, we went into the very communities where some cooperatives came from. We were looking to understand what was the “musical score” that made cooperatives, intermediaries, farmers, churches, storefronts, projects dance. To try to change the dance, we had to understand what the music was, because the dance depends on the music.
To the extent that we got inside and interpreted the “musical score”, we awoke to new realities and possibilities. So, in November 2018 with our own resources we decided to test it out with a new store, then with a roaster…From that combination, study and experimentation, in 2019 we were learning what worked, preparing the rules that would guide us. What most made us wake up? Understanding that, in contrast to what is repeated in traditional cooperatives, that members do not want to make contributions nor do they have money, we found that people want to contribute resources if they know where their resources are going and how they are put to work, if they receive earnings for their resources, and if they feel part of that process-that they can roll along with planet earth, like the character Mafalda, created by that great Argentinian cartoonist Quino (Joaquín Salvador Lavado, 1932).
Table 1. Basic data
Total amount (C$)
3 stores, 3 roasters, 1 wholesaler, coffee purchasers and sale of roasted coffee
In May 2020 we took another leap, we improved the rules, we added new shareholders, the amount in córdobas increased, more initiatives took off and were strengthened, we improved the organization of the initiatives, more investments were made…See Table 1.
If a community organizes, nothing can take it off the good path; if it organizes, it does a “musical score”, it does it in alliance with people from outside the community. So the eggshell seems to break as a new life, the baby chick, pushes out.
One way of organizing is that we might have several initiatives in a group that are functioning, profitable and benefit the community. For that purpose, people can buy as a minimum 1 share which is worth 1,000 córdobas. With these shares stores, roasters and bakeries emerge and provide ever more better services. People from other places can also buy shares, with this we increase our resources and are building another community. In this way the shareholders are the first people to go and make purchases in the stores and to seek roasting services, provide oversight over the initiatives, provide ideas…
Here we learned another lesson: if in order to organize Rural Social Enterprises (RSE), the shareholders are from the communities and from outside the communities, more than just contribute resources, both contribute ideas and legitimacy to the RSEs. Note: prior to 2020 we used to call them “initiatives”, we started to call them RSEs in 2020, in harmony with the Social and Solidarity Economy approach, but adding the word “rural” to it, to give it a distinctive touch.
3. Organization of the RSEs
Figure 1 shows this network of initiatives. Money, products and services move in them like ocean waves; they are visible, we see them. Under the waves there is another current that we do not see, but we feel, they are the shareholders, interest in caring for one another, friendships that cross over walls, affection, community roots and a different path so that anyone can improve.
Store 2 appears in the figure, because we already have Store 1 and Store 3 in another two communities. The bakery, roaster, buying and selling of coffee, wholesaler and other initiatives are around this Store 2, in addition to other initiatives (e.g. buying and selling basic grains). These initiatives are connected with one another, they are in the same place and in the same community- this is the key to our success. For example, if a person comes with their coffee to have it roasted, on their return they buy bread and other products in the store, the baker buys eggs in the community itself to make bread. In this way, nearly all of the community is part of the initiatives –“nearly”. The wholesaler is a reseller, because it buys products for the initiatives at wholesale prices, buys products in the communities themselves to sell them in town, transfers products from one store to another, buys products in one community for the other communities, and the profits benefit all of the shareholders.
How specifically are the RSEs organized?
Each person who runs a roaster, makes bread, administers a store, sells coffee or is responsible for a wholesaler, registers information about each economic transaction in an honest way.
The supervisor each month reviews that record of information in each initiative. Then visits a sampling of clients, studies the local market, and captures the needs of the population, as well as new opportunities.
The results of the supervision are sent to each shareholder on the 10th of every month; there is a mural in each initiative (roaster, bakery, store…) that has the prices of the services, the report of the supervision and data for the community. Honest information benefits all the communities.
Every 3 months there is an assembly of shareholders where, in addition to being informed about the finances of each initiative, they evaluate the quarter, review the goals for the next quarter, and the profits are redistributed. In the annual assemblies all the initiatives are studied, the investments for the year are planned, the most outstanding initiatives win awards for their order, registration of information, generation of profits and largest number of customers.
Each shareholder is committed to the success of each initiative, which is why they report to the community, oversee the initiatives, provide suggestions to improve it, and make their families have a better life.
The effects of these initiatives are seen in 4 distinctive elements of the RSEs: equitable distribution of earnings or surpluses, informational transparency, community democracy and gender and age equity (50% or more youth). In terms of the distribution (see Table 2): from net earnings, 10% is for equipment maintenance and assets that deteriorate; 20% goes to a social fund, a fund that we will save throughout 2020 and that in the annual assembly on May 8, 2021 we will define its use; 20% reinvestment is added to each share in favor of the shareholders, in other words their shares will increase with the reinvestments; and 50% will be provided as cash to each shareholder in accordance with the amount of their shares.
Table 2.Equitable distribution
From gross earnings
From net earnings
30% is to pay the person who runs the RSE
10% equipment maintenance of the RSEs (refrigerators, roasters, grinders)
20% social fund
20% reinvestment fund
50% individual distribution
Informational transparency is the fact that each shareholder, customer and community in general has access to information about the initiatives. The shareholders have the right to know about the finances of the RSEs. The customers have a right to know the price composition, proper weighing and the elements to be good customers, The community has the right to know the rules under which the initiatives are functioning, as well as their financial results.
Democracy is the fact that most of the shareholders are from the community itself. Each administration of each RSE provides honest information. Good supervision. Quarterly assemblies. Each shareholder watches over the progress of each RSE.
Gender equity is that fact that 50% of the shareholders are women, that that is expressed in the amount of their shares. Then, going beyond that formality, we want the RSEs to contribute to freeing up women´s work time, in such a way that they can take on new responsibilities in other RSEs or other activities in their own homes. In age equity, even though we want people of all ages to participate, including children and the elderly, in particular we want the youth to feel themselves to be the motor of these RSEs, as Yader Meneces said, “The older ones do not detach themselves from the old cooperatives that do not value them, they do not believe in us; but we the youth we are asserting ourselves, this store and roaster belongs to us the youth.”
We are building a new culture based on the good that each person has within them. To the question about who she is looking for, Violeta Parra responded, “Someone that I do not know, but has something very important to give me.” In the communities where the RSEs are developing, the RSEs are like the songwriter Violeta, and each person has “something very important”. Each RSE wants to receive it, and at the same time wants each person to find inside themselves that “something very important.” For this purpose The RSEs are emerging for this reason, and need to “be cooked on a low fire.”
This booklet, and the next ones, are texts that accompany what the RSEs are experiencing in San Juan del Río Coco, Waslala and Matagalpa. We call them RSEs, which includes community stores, community roasters, collective bakeries, cooperatives and associations.
The revolution and the agrarian reform came, people knew the word and their eyes were opened, many organized into cooperatives and received land, seed and technology, and they said “we are in power.” Within years they sold the land and forgot even the word. They received it, and lost it.
A woman received a cow and in months paid for it with a calf, which was given to another family. She understood that the cow pays for itself, she felt that she paid back, and made an effort along with other families. Paying back is improving.
(Based on a conversation with Gregorio Solórzano, Municipality of Cinco Pinos, Chinandega, Nicaragua)
This parable recalls the historic rules of indigenous and peasant communities. If the action of “giving” is connected with “paying back”, like the woman with the cow and the calf, their lives improve. While “receiving” unilaterally, without “paying back” to the community, creates a false world (“we are in power”) where people are left worse off (“without land and power”). The paradox is that “paying back” is not losing, it is gaining: it makes the person “make an effort” within a collective framework and community space.
That collective framework constitutes the paradoxical difference. In the case of the woman who received a cow and paid back with a calf, an arrangement (agreement, rule) underlies which she fulfills, an arrangement that is connected to a virtuous millennial indigenous institution, “giving-receiving-paying back”. In the case of the beneficiaries of land on the part of the government, a damaging arrangement underlies it, subordinating oneself and depending on the government, something that leads them to be connected to another historical institution, this time a counterproductive institution, “easy come, easy go”; people lose and the government loses. The gaze of the woman is toward the community, while the gaze of the people in the cooperative is directed outside the community.
Giving-receiving-paying back is growing in collective spaces mediated by rules that are connected with virtuous endogenous institutions of the people themselves. Within this framework, how can distributing (“paying back”) in the cooperatives be the key for growing with equity? Perhaps diminishing is growing?
In this article we study these questions in light of the cooperatives, even though it can be generalized to associations, associative enterprises or NGOS with initiatives under the framework of the social and solidarity economy. We start conceptualizing distribution as a different idea from the neoliberal economy, where the market is the great distributer. Then we look at five ways for the distribution of surpluses: legal reserve, cooperative reinvestment, social-educational fund, direct resources to members, and retribution by way of a member´s rights. Then we work on how to carry them out. We conclude reconceptualizing equitable distribution as a cooperative concept and one from the social and solidarity economy, that goes along with the democratization of cooperatives, and connected to endogenous institutions of the peasantry.
1. Distribution rules and policies
In capitalism “the invisible hand” attracts resources and distributes them with inequality, in dependence on the financial power of the actors, their connections, the support of the State for elites (e.g the policy of low taxes for mono-cropping enterprises), and guided by the rule “even the monkey dances for money”. The mediation network captures the resources and returns them as money that buys new products (and labor), mediated by institutions that worsen that inequality: usury, future purchases (crop lien system) and indebtedness. The capitalist, be it merchant, banker or industrialist, is the absolute owner of the surplus.
Polanyi (1976), in an anthropological study, worked on the idea of reciprocity, distribution and interchange. For the topic that concerns us he says: “distribution designates the movements of ownership toward a center and then toward the exterior”, and added, “distribution depends on the presence to some extent of centrality in the grouping”” (1976:7). Santana (2014: 91), rereading Polanyi, indicates that “what is unique here is that there must be trust and loyalty to be able to group the assets in that centrality, knowing that later it is going to be returned in an equitable way.” Let us reread both authors: resources come toward a center, let us say toward a cooperative (like taxes to the State), from there is “goes outside” of the cooperative, to the members in an equitable way. For those “movements of ownership” to happen, there has to be “centrality in the grouping”, which is possible if there is “trust and loyalty”. Without trust and loyalty, there is no “movement.” When is there trust and loyalty that takes resources to the cooperatives and makes them be “paid back”? Our argument: there is trust and loyalty when the rules of the cooperative, connected to endogenous virtuous institutions, guide the cooperative from its beginnings with a societal and communitarian perspective. In other words, the cooperative, from and for the communities, is responsible for the distribution with equity.
Cooperatives currently, nevertheless, are formed and achieve a partial “movement”: they attract resources from dozens of their members, but it is difficult for them to “pay back” the surplus and pay them back in an equitable way. There is the challenge. For that reason, there are written rules. What are they?
Cooperatives include in their statutes, following the laws of each country, the distribution of profits. Cooperatives include a percentage (%) for legal reserve, % for the social or educational fund, % for distribution among the members according to their contributions or economic transactions in the cooperative – note that improvement in the price of the raw materials is not mentioned as “distribution of surplus”, because it is not, the surplus is calculated after the annual financial year. This is consistent with the principles of historic cooperativism: among the Rochdale principles of 1844 is the “payback of surplus”, then in 1966 the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) reformed those principles and replaced it with “the surplus belong to the members”, and finally in another reform in 1995 the ICA said “the economic participation of the members”; in all of them the spirit of the distribution of surplus is maintained. These rules can be connected to the virtuous institutions of agrarian societies, giving-receiving-paying back, the gift that Mauss (1979) described.
Consistent with this cooperative and communitarian principle, the International Fair Trade Movement (FLO), begun in the 1980s and 1990s, in their policy of offering better prices to products coming from families that are organized, included a “fair trade premium”, which in the case of coffee, for example, is US$0.20/lb., a fund so that the members of a cooperative might decide to use it in educational, health projects, and farm improvements or investment in processing installations. Other buyers tend to include also a “cooperative premium”, a fund that the members might decide to use for collective investments that would benefit everyone.
In addition to rules, cooperatives have mechanisms for complying with them. They have their oversight board, the assembly, the education committee, there is also the administration with accounting that issues financial reports. In some countries the State has a role of comptroller of the cooperatives. The international fair trade organizations include their FLO certifier that audits the use of the Fair Trade premium and the democratic processes of the cooperative; social banks require financial statements and balance statements; aid agencies ask for audited reports and evaluate the projects that they finance, and in some exceptional cases withdraw their support when the cooperative fails to fulfill their rules for equitable distribution; likewise some companies that buy coffee or cacao.
Having gotten to this point, what do we observe? In spite of having rules and mechanisms for distribution, it is rare the cooperative whose members participate in the decisions on the use of the social fund, reinvestment fund, or on the cooperative premium; it is rare the cooperative that is transparent with its members on the use of these funds; and it is rate the international aid agency or buyer who ensures this transparency, and that the surplus be distributed. In other words, the rules of the cooperative and the organizations are systematically not met; consequently, there is no confidence nor loyalty, which is why the “movement” is in only one direction: the resources from the members go to the cooperative and then to the companies (fair trade, direct trade, or independents), who do not “pay back” the surplus to the members. The rules of the cooperative and the organizations do not end up connecting to the virtuous endogenous rules.
2. What opposes the distribution of the surplus
Even having rules and mechanisms, why do cooperatives not distribute their surplus? It seems a matter of adding and subtracting, of knowing rules, signing and complying with agreements; it is not a technocratic matter, that a “scholarly” person might resolve; it implies adding and subtracting, showing the strength of the old anti-cooperative model, and of perceiving their own attitudes. Here we start with three interconnected responses, of the several that exist. See Figure 1.
First, the “business foot” of the cooperative, and organizations-international enterprises coincide in the fact that the business (sale-purchase of the product, disbursement-payment of the loan and execution of the project) works, not so much that the cooperative works.
They are content with the protocol, written and legal proof about the functioning of the cooperatives, proof that the elites of the cooperative learn to quickly fabricate: minutes that prove that the organs meet, audits with authorized signatures, financial and narrative reports including registry of data, and even members “trained” to repeat what the organizations want to hear, when some organizations visit. This practice, in turn, is read by the members as something that confirms their ideas that the cooperative does not change at all their way of working and selling their products: “If the organizations says that it is fine, surely it is fine, as we have always worked.” This is the formal structure that covers over the fact that the cooperative does not distribute its surpluses in accordance with its own rules, and the millennial aspiration of indigenous and peasant families.
“The peasant is interested in selling his product, he is not interested in whether there are surpluses”. This phrase presidents and managers of cooperatives repeat, along with buyers and international aid agencies, as well as technicians and boards of NGOs. This phrase underlies century old institutional practices. What are they? It is the institutionalized idea in the hacienda owner or the capitalist, that they have the exclusive rights to surpluses, that the peasantry were born to sell their labor and/or their raw materials. It is the same idea that the peasantry reproduces: “My country ends with my fence of piñuelas”, says the peasant family; “they pay my wage, that is all I ask”, says the working person (field-hand or peon); they never ask themselves about the surplus that their work or their product generates, they take it as given that it is not theirs. That institutionality absorbed the cooperatives and made them forget about the reason for their origins and their rules for distribution, and with that buried even more that indigenous-peasant right to the value that their work creates. So it is that the members demand that they increase the price of their sun-dried coffee, cacao pulp or their sugar cane; in some cases they demand an “adjustment”; “if we got credit as a cooperative so that you pay us a certain price for coffee, and if you paid us as the market price a little less than that set price, then pay us the adjustment”; no one demands their surplus; the presidents and managers behave like the hacienda owner or capitalist. Figure 2 illustrates this institutionality: the worker reaches the wall of their days wage, the peasant their fence of piñuelas, the “business foot” of the cooperative goes as far as the “wall” of the port, and the buyers-roasters-distributors to the sale or even the cafeteria. Each one, and in each wall, seem to follow the rule of “I don´t touch you, and you don´t touch me.”
Second, the organs of the cooperatives are left bound up, because their rules are replaced by others that respond to what Polanyi (2001) called the “market society”, and respond to colonial and patriarchal structures. One of those rules is: “To distribute, first you have to grow.” This rule comes from neoliberalism, that “economic growth is development”, from trickle-down economics: capturing the wealth of the members so that the cooperative might invest and accumulate in the short term, and benefit the members in the long term. This “development” and that “long term” with “benefits”, nevertheless, tends not to arrive; in other words, “they do not pay back”. Consistent with neoliberalism, the cooperatives assume that “distributing decapitalizes the organization” and they embark on the path of the “big headed dwarf”, whose head is large and is made of steel (concentration of physical investments and resources), and whose feet are clay (impoverished members who do not participate in the decisions of their organizations nor rotate offices). In this logic the managerial staff or the president tend to end up feeling themselves to be the true owners of the resources of the cooperative, that it is “their effort”, while the board members tend to abandon the volunteer nature that their offices imply, and seek any gap to take advantage individually, be it through travel allowances, loans on top of loans, or benefitting themselves from the donations that the cooperatives eventually might receive. Also consistent with neoliberalism, the fair trade and direct trade bodies reduce their relations with the cooperatives to just the financial aspect, and treat the cooperatives as just “businesses”.
Distribution, expressed in colonial rules, says to the members: “We always need a patron.” The field-hand depends on the patron, who “provides” for him (future purchase of his labor), like the peasant depends on the trader who “provides” for him (future purchase of his product). For them, this “providing for” is the best “distribution”; they know no other. This is what penetrates into the cooperative where the members confirm naturally that they never had rights to the surplus.
Distribution is also expressed in the heart of the family. There, the patriarchal rule says, “The father decides to leave the inheritance to the eldest son, and that will be carried out when he dies.” That will is conceived as something sacred. The family is an institution that attracts resources because of the family labor of its members, and in the end “pays back” (inherits) in an unequal way, leaving tacit that that older son is going to distribute the inheritance among his brothers and sisters, and what happens? Not always, but generally, that older son takes over the inheritance, or sells it and squanders it. That family institution also penetrates into the cooperative, where many times the person who occupies the presidency or management is seen like that “eldest son”, while the rest of the members are submitted to his will, in spite of the fact that they are the “parents” (owners of the cooperative) of that “eldest son.”
The cooperative, guided under this capitalist, colonial and patriarchal spell, tends to start with enthusiasm and when it capitalizes, the board members or the administrative staff turn into elites, exclude those who question them, and privatize the cooperatives. Thus, W. Berrios, from the CAFOD aid agency, observes, “In my years of work in Central America I have seen that it is in the maturation curve that the cooperatives go broke.” Infrequently they restructure the cooperative into a private enterprise, but many times they make it function as a private enterprise sheltered under the legal status of a cooperative, or under the discursive mantle of the social and solidarity economy. In both cases the members are treated as simple sellers of raw materials.
Finally, there is dovetailing between the mentality of international organizations (buyers, banking institutions, certifiers and aid agencies) and that of the members. The international organizations turn a blind eye to the lack of compliance with the rule of distribution, because, following Streeck (2019), “the policy of distribution only function in nations; in world society there are donations,” global governance “is not democratic”, because “above the nation-state there is only the “international free market”, which consists in large enterprises that are free to do whatever they want.” That mentality leads them to have a mentality of turning a blind eye to distribution, which coincides with the mentality of the members, who have never had access to surpluses, they always saw them as something that belonged to the patron or intermediary, from there it is that the members also turn a blind eye to their right that they be “paid back” (distribute) the surplus. This is what Figure 2 expresses with the walls, “I don´t touch you and you don´t touch me.”
3. Distribution of the surplus (“paying back”)
How can cooperatives unbind this adverse triangle and distribute the surplus? By distribution people tend to fall into two beliefs: that it is “distributing financial surpluses” and that it is “distributing all the surplus to the members.” From here comes the idea that “distributing is decapitalizing.” In this section we break down what equitable distribution of surplus is, expanding the content of the distribution already described in the rules of cooperatives.
Let us start with the attached graph. This illustrates the components of this “paying back” that include collective forms (legal reserve, reinvestment fund and social fund), and the individual forms that the members receive directly (distribution to members and payments when they leave the cooperative). The percentages in the graph are arbitrary estimates, they vary depending on the laws in each country, and the decisions of the cooperatives agreed upon in their statutes.
Note that this graph breaks with the belief that “distributing decapitalizes”: the reinvestment fund refers to the fact that their own fund or their own “capital” grows in accordance with the percentage approved in the cooperative. The assumption in the graph is that exercising distribution in the five ways, combination of collective-community and individual distribution, builds trust and loyalty, which makes the members turn in their products to their organizations in larger amounts and with better quality; from here distribution instead allows the economic transactions of the cooperative to increase, and therefore the entirety of their funds grow; in other words, ”decreasing” (paying back or distributing) is “growing” in resources. The graph also shows the underlying reason for cooperativism, that it is not to accumulate just to accumulate capital, the cooperative is a means, and the members and their communities are the end (final objective). We break down these funds in what follows, including some important remarks.
3.1 Components of collective distribution
Let us describe those funds that are in the statutes, let us clarify and add what they can have which is unique. “Legal reserves” is to cover losses that eventually the cooperative might have during the year in the economic fiscal year; it is a financial cushion that prevents the cooperatives from going broke. In the case that there are no losses, that reserve could swell the investment fund, or, for example, cover legal paperwork expenses, the opening or updating of bank accounts, the legal defense of the cooperative in the face of lawsuits from third parties, the legal defense of the members in cases that affect the cooperative, or to have legal counsel in the face of certain situations or issues.
“Cooperative fund” or “reinvestment fund”, belongs to the cooperative. In addition, some buyers tend to increase the price of the product that they buy with a “cooperative premium” or with an “infrastructure fund”, resources that are added to the funds of the cooperative. These funds are to buy equipment that the cooperative might need, repair or enlarge the infrastructure (building, harvest collection center) of the cooperative, and/or to increase the funds of the cooperative itself, which would increase the loan portfolio, or would pre-finance the payment that the members make on receiving products, while they process and sell them – avoiding the need to seek outside credit.
“Social or educational fund”. It is a fund from the rules of the cooperative itself, and is a fund that increases if the cooperative sells its product through fair trade organizations or buyers that condition a certain amount for a social fund. In general, cooperatives use it to finance some demand of the community school, provide backpacks to the children, provide support to the local sports team, or for trainings that their education committee might organize. Even though these initiatives are praiseworthy, physical investment in the school is the obligation of the State for which society pays taxes. The sports teams are going to function with or without the support of the cooperative, the children will go to school with an old or new backpack. Some innovative cooperatives use that fund under the following criteria: invest in something that generates value for the community, that is not the role of another institution, and doing so as a long-term investment. An example of this is the fact that two or three cooperatives from the same community might invest in libraries for children under 7 years of age, story books that their families might borrow to read to them before going to sleep, promoting reading in the family itself, and that the cooperative might organize reading circles with the support of people who promote reading; the long-term impact of this initiative in the creativity and cooperative spirit of the community can be significant.
3.2 Components of individual distributions
Following graph 1, 50% of the surplus of the cooperative is distributed to its members directly. The criteria for that varies from cooperative to cooperative, and depends on the services that they offer. In some cases, it is in accordance with the contributions of each member. In other cases, it is in accordance with the volume of product transacted with the cooperatives that collect the harvest and sell the product of its members. In other cases, it is in accordance with the quantity of products bought in their cooperative. And in other cases, it depends on the amount saved in their cooperative. There are cooperatives with similar services, and that “pay back” under different criteria; for example, the peasant store Los Encinos in Honduras “pays back” 100% of the amount of the agreed upon contribution, while the Esperanza of the Campesinos Cooperative with several supermarkets, “pays back” based on the amount that each member buys from those supermarkets.
These criteria promote the capacity of each member, and increase their trust in the collectivity that the cooperative is. There are members with more financial capacity and do not necessarily have larger contributions in the cooperative; it depends on the trust that the members have in their cooperative, and on the opportunity cost that each member thinks their resources have. In this sense, the biblical parable of the talents (Mt 25: 14-30) illustrates part of what the cooperative looks to incentivize with direct distribution; in that parable three people receive talents, one 5, another 2 and another 1, “in accordance with their capacity”. After a time, the person who received 5 and the one who received 2 double theirs, and the one who received 1 maintained it. In light of this, the person who gave them the talents rewarded the first two, and took away the only talent from the third, “because he who has, will be given more, and they will have an abundance, but he who does not have, even what they have will be taken away from them.”
From the religious context, this indicates that God gives people talents in order to develop them, which reveals an individual vision, where each person is responsible for duplicating their talents. From the cooperative context, one is “paid back” in proportion to the trust and loyalty of that member, demonstrated by contributions, savings, delivery of product or amount purchased; that “payback” is not taken away from them in the cooperative, in contrast with what happens in the parable of the talents, where each individual responds individually with the talents received; instead, there is cooperation among the members mediated by commonly agreed upon rules, compliance mechanisms and there is accompaniment so that each member might increase their capacities; there is individual responsibility within the framework of collective responsibility.
3.3 Compensating by rights those who resign from the cooperative
Following cooperative statutes, the member who resigns from the cooperative has the right to the return of their extraordinary contributions, and the “reimbursement of social assets” (shareable surplus) within a term generally of 90 days. This “departure” arrangement should be thought of and agreed upon from the beginning when the cooperative is founded, even though it is clear that in the beginning, being immersed in making the cooperative survive, no one thinks about this; it should be done, because it is thinking about the future, and because each member should be clear about their rights from the very beginning.
In our societies the member who resigns from the cooperative tends to leave without recovering, many times, not even their contributions; likewise, those who die, their relatives do not tend to receive any benefit that by rights the family members are due. For some members, having joined a cooperative is even a financial loss. In the case that there are voices that are raised about this, some board members pull out the ghost that “distributing is decapitalizing”.
If the cooperative does not pay the member who resigns, or the relatives of those who die, in accordance with their rules and the rights of each member, the cooperative signals distrust in its own future, and sends an erroneous message that they are not members, that the “cooperative does not belong to its members”, which undermines any sense of ownership of those who stay in the cooperative, and those in the community who observe it. If in contrast, the members fulfill the rights that each members has on leaving the cooperative, that they be paid the part that corresponds to them that the cooperative has at that moment, probably that person will leave with a good amount of resources, and happy for having been a member of a coop. In the short term, this is a hard moment for the cooperative, because it is going to disburse in cash resources what it surely needs; at the same time, each member will see themselves in the person who resigns: in the same way that they treat the person who leaves, they will treat me. If the member joined the cooperative with little, and leaves with a good amount of resources, those who remain will ask themselves: if after the cooperative fails, will we be the most unlucky ones? The doubts will keep them up at night. But in the long term, those who are left are less, which means that they will receive more from the future resources that the cooperative accumulates; more than that, each member, seeing that the one who left took what corresponded to him, will confirm that in truth he is a member of the cooperative, that the cooperative really does belong to him.
Let us talk about numbers to estimate the amount that could be due to a person who resigns. What is the arrangement with the member who leaves? A member who leaves or dies, that person or their relatives have the right to part of the assets or resources that the cooperative has generated. Let us help ourselves with an example. If through the use of the “cooperative fund” or the “reinvestment fund”, extraordinary contributions of $100 per member, and donations that the cooperative received, a cooperative has assets valued at $200,000; if that cooperative had 20 members at its founding 10 years ago; then if one of them resigns from the cooperative, they are due $10,000 (200,000/20 = 10,000). This amount could be paid over a term that the statutes indicate, or, if the cooperative does not have the $10,000 available, they can arrive at friendly arrangements for the time frame for the payment.
The biggest impact of this fact, nevertheless, is not in the financial “payback”, but in the fact that the 19 remaining members, and the rest of the community, confirm that effectively the cooperative does belong to its members. This is the seed of incomparable ownership. This implies greater trust, loyalty and the deployment of individual and collective capacities.
Concluding this section, distribution in the cooperative generates equity, and incentivizes the development of each member. An estimate of 40% of the surplus protect the cooperative from losses, increases their investments or their own capital fund, and contributes to the community with unique investment in education. With an estimated 50% of the surplus, the cooperative incentivizes the development of the capacities of each member, their trust and mutual loyalty. And with an estimated 10% of the surplus, the cooperative ensures the recognition of members who leave the cooperative, far from seeing it as a “financial loss”, they recognize the rights of the cooperative member and with that plant the seed of ownership. This collective and individual outcome is the way in which the cooperative distributes its surplus with equity, which is connected to the virtuous peasant institutions of giving-receiving-paying back, expressed in shared labor, sharecropping, and shared harvesting, among other institutions.
Now that distribution with equity appears obvious, along with its importance. How can it be carried out?
4. How to implement equitable distribution
Inequitable pay back… breaks down the organization
The Spanish, Mexicans and US tried to dominate the Apaches; they failed. The Apaches had the nant’an as their leaders, they were decentralized, operated in circles. Their adversaries, as they did with the Aztecs and the Incas, did away with the
nant’an, but the Apaches did not fall apart, immediately another nant’an would emerge. But one day the North Americans donated cattle to the nant’an; since cattle were scarce, the nant’an had the power to distribute them, so everyone wanted to be nant’an, the egalitarian power structure became hierarchical. The Apaches were defeated.
(Based in Brafman, O. and Beckstrom, R.A., 2007, The spider and the starfish. Barcelona: Empresa Activa).
This historical passage shows us that distribution is more than distribution of surplus. It is important to have holistic egalitarian structures that include equitable rules and mechanisms for carrying them out. Before continuing, we cannot avoid comparing this event of the Apaches with the action of the government in the parable at the beginning of this article; the government in the parable, and the North Americans in this other one, seek to subordinate the cooperative or the Apaches, the first donates land to them, and the second donates cattle, in both cases without “payback”, thus they undermine them before their members, leave them not looking toward their community, which causes the cooperative and the Apaches to fall apart. Militarily the Apaches were indomitable, but a simple donation eroded their entire organization, like termites on wood. How did this happen?
The Apaches lacked equitable rules for the distribution of assets donated to their leaders. The North Americans took advantage of that gap, and donated the asset that was the scarcest, cattle, directly to the nant’an and not to the Apache tribe that surely had their own organization. This practice internally stirred up the Apaches, who fought over being nant’an, for having that connection to the North Americans and accessing the cattle; surely, like the managers or presidents in conventional cooperatives, the nant’an said to their tribe that the “cattle had cost them”, that they should be content with what “trickled down”, that they were their “connections”, and that without them they would all die of hunger -or in other words, the evil of the “big headed dwarf” began to corrode the minds of the nant’an and sow distrust in the rest of the tribe. This process led them to become hierarchical structures, and consequently to collective failure; it is what has also happened to most of the conventional cooperatives.
Cooperatives, in contrast to the Apaches, have rules and mechanisms for equitably distributing the surplus (including donations), but they lack democratic processes in their functioning, which is why they do not comply with their rules for equitable distribution. In many cases the cooperatives were started by the State with donations in land or other assets, undermining them from their own beginnings. International organizations (buyers, financiers and donors) have continued on this same path. Like the North Americans with the Apaches, they only connect with the nant’an of the cooperatives (managers or presidents), and they are not interested in knowing the consequences that their actions provoke. How can cooperatives fulfill their rules and make distribution their most valuable attribute for growing equitably?
This point about the Apaches leads us to understand that a cooperative that distributes its surplus with equity is that which, in addition to having rules for it, is democratic and transparent: See Figure 3.
If the organs, in democratic exercise, ensure the fulfillment of the agreements about equitable distribution, that cooperative will embark at a good port. In the case of the Apaches, their organs operated around resisting militarily, including their food, but they lacked the rules for donations and relationships with external actors. We can imagine that the Apaches, in decentralized groups, hunted animals for food; for which they had their rules and they applied them, but not so that some nant’an individually might receive 10 head of cattle as a gift behind the backs of the tribe, even precisely for their tribe.
This combination (rules-democracy) requires, nevertheless, a third foot: transparency. It is depressing to find members who after contributing for 5, 10 or 15 years do not know how to add up their contributions, and that do not recognize their rights over the surplus. It is not just having democratic economic management coherent with the rules themselves and the rotation of members in the different offices and decision making in the corresponding organs, but informational transparency with the members and with the allies. The idea of transparency or accountability in the cooperative is not being subject to trial, measured and humiliated by “the magic of the numbers”. It is sharing information that in turn forms and commits the members. A member can understand that their surplus might be $30 per qq of coffee that they have delivered to the cooperative, if he is informed about how that surplus was produced; otherwise that person will see that surplus as “an award” or a “favor” of the patron, as his historical rules make him see it. Distributing surplus implies distributing responsibilities (democracy) and information; the way “the legal reserve”, “investment fund” and “social fund”; the expenses and income… were produced and used. This information forms people and commits them: the member, based on transparent information, will want to participate in the definition of the goals for the year for their cooperative, and will want to be part of the implementation of those goals, because he recognize that his individual surplus will increase, that the benefits to his community will improve, that if the cooperative increases its reinvestment, any member who leaves will be able to go with more resources. In addition, if the first tier cooperative is a member of a second tier cooperative, the member also needs to be informed about the second tier cooperative, know how surplus is generated in that organization, and how much is due his cooperative, and how much of that amount is due each member. That explanation can happen in an assembly, in visits to each member family, on whiteboards or through brochures, and on the day of the distribution of surplus, combine festivities and information.
Correspondingly, transparency implies being accountable; for example, it is commendable that the credit record include columns for the amount of credit, amount past due and contributions; it is also commendable that the record include the amount that the member is leaving for “legal reserves”, “social fund” and for the “reinvestment fund”; the first format for the record contains control information for the member, and the second format has the accounting of the cooperative to its members. Being accountable in the assembly about their resources expresses the rights of each member, and it is an obligation of the cooperative that each member know that. From here, if the members are informed about each step of their cooperative, they will be committed to their cooperative, if their cooperative faces difficulties, they will sweat the fear of failing and will row the canoe together even in the midst of the biggest waves.
Equitable distribution is possible within a framework of democracy and transparency. There, being a cooperative member is thinking beyond salary, beyond raw materials and beyond exported product; it is thinking about the entirety of the cooperative, and the entirety of the chain of actors where value is created. In other words, it is breaking down the walls of Figure 2 and understanding that what creates value is the human work of the working person, producer, processer, importer, roaster and seller of the coffee in the stores and coffee shops. It is “I touch you and you touch me”, entering into different worlds. This implies including the international organizations and companies, which goes in the direction of global triangulation that we worked on in several other articles, about an alliance of actors that work for equitable distribution.
You read a book from beginning to end. You lead a business just the opposite way. You start with the end, then you do what you have to in order to achieve it.
Harold Geneen, 1984, Managing. New York: Double-day
At the beginning of the article we asked ourselves how cooperatives can distribute (“pay back”) in order to grow with equity. Equitable distribution in a renovated cooperative is very different from the distribution of the market in the neoliberal economy, which is one unilateral way, from society to businesses and institutions, from which there is no “pay back” beyond what “trickles down”.
In the renovated cooperative, and in alliance with global actors, equitable distribution is illustrated in Figure 4.
It is the distribution of surplus combining the collective (social fund, reinvestment fund, and legal reserves) and the individual (direct distribution to the member for their differentiating actions and payment of what by right is due the member who leaves); it is financial and social distribution. Then, equitable distribution implies that the organization be democratic (rotation of officers, collegial decisions and compliance with the rules). Then equitable distribution implies distributing information under the maxim that the more informed the members are, the better their decisions will be.
This notion of equitable financial, social and political distribution (democratic and transparent), mobilize energies and hearts when it is connected to the endogenous institutions of the members, in our case, the peasantry. Consequently, each member feels part of the cooperative, seeks to know its goals, have an impact on them and commit themselves to fulfilling them.
Finally, when the members and their global allies follow equitable distribution connected to endogenous institutions, that is when they see the entirety of the cooperative and the entirety of the value-added chain with equity. Far away are left the “walls” that separated the worlds. Paraphrasing Harold Geneen, we organize a cooperative from its end, from its equitable distribution to the benefit of the members and their local and global communities. The more that is distributed, the more that it grows.
 René has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation, member of the COSERPROSS cooperative, and associate researcher of the IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium). firstname.lastname@example.org
 Mauss (1979: 204-211), based on a type of distribution known as potlach, practiced in Eskimo societies in the Northwest of the US, finds the triple obligation of the gift culture: giving, receiving and paying back. “You do not have the rights to reject a gift, a potlack, because acting in this way makes clear that you are afraid to have to pay back and be left diminished, it is losing the “importance” of your name, it is declaring oneself beaten in advance, or in some cases proclaiming oneself victor or invincible” (p. 208). Marcel Mauss, 1979, Ensayo sobre los Dones. Motivo y forma de cambio en las sociedades primitivas, en: Sociología y Antropología, Madrid. Note that this identified institution is pretty similar to institutions of indigenous communities in Latin America.
 Polanyi, K., 1976, El sistema económico como proceso institucionalizado, en: Antropología y Economía (ed. Godelier, M.), Barcelona pp. 155-178
 Santana, M.E., 2014, “Reciprocidad y Redistribución en una Economía Solidaria” in: Ars & Humanitas 8/1. Slovenia.
 Surpluses result from deducting costs and expenses of the cooperative, amortization (value for deterioration of fixed assets). In associative organizations the term “profits” is used more, which is pretty similar to “surpluses”. The term “earnings” is different, there could be earnings through a discount if a product is sold above its acquisition price.
 W. Berrios, from the CAFOD aid agency, refers to the fact that some aid agencies linked to churches in Europe tend to withdraw their support for organizations that in theory assume the social and solidarity economy approach, but in practice do not follow it, and that instead become part of conventional mediation.
 Several buyer companies left Fair Trade on realizing that their premium payments were not getting to the member families, so they formed another movement called direct trade, to get around “cooperative mediation”. There are also European enterprises and cooperatives that buy coffee or cacao in Central America and want the cooperative that they work with to distribute their surpluses; correspondingly, some of them avoid the second-tier cooperatives and prefer buying directly from the first-tier cooperatives.
 Polanyi, K., 2001, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Second Edition. Google Books. (First publication in English in 1957).
 See: Jack Stack, 2002, A Stake in the Outcome, New York: Doubleday. Stack, along with other workers, founded an innovative enterprise in the United States. In this book he recounts how they struggled with this issue from the beginning of their company. If they did it as a company, how much more should a cooperative!
I dedicate this article to my daughter Itza Irene and my sons Jaren and Inti Gabriel.
Planting a cooperative
A cooperative was attacked from outside and inside; it went broke. Its administrative council called the last assembly where they provided an accounting of each cent of the cooperative, the motorcycle, the computer, the desks, the portfolio of debts…
Given that their own sons and daughters and other youth from the community formed a new cooperative, the assembly agreed to donate all their resources to them: “We started with 10,000 córdobas and we worked 20 years, receive these 300,000 córdobas and let them serve our community at least 30 times more than us”, they said. Along the paths and creeks the rumor of the people was left etched in the stones: “The president, the Vice President, all left with a clean slate”, “humble and honest they started, humble and honest they left”. And more helpful”, shouted an elderly woman.
The 10,000 or 200,000 was not as important as the humility, honesty and service.
Is this what it means to be a cooperative member? Asked the granddaughter of the president. “In part, daughter, in part”, responded her mother as she gave her a hug.
The graveyard for cooperatives is sizable, larger in some countries than in others, generally because their members forget that the cooperative is a mean for a larger objective, their community. They do not follow their own agreements. Some of their board members “get big heads”, stay in their posts under “death do they part”, and others take over the resources that belong to all the members of the cooperative. In this way the collective effort turns into “damned money” that is served mouth to mouth in bars, and this type of cooperative, like a vine that climbs into the branches of lemon, tangerine and orange trees, choking them off and preventing them from bearing fruit, chokes off the communities where their members come from.
The parable reveals a different prospect, where even death, a good death, can generate life. Sporadically we know how to find some cooperatives that, even going broke, plant the future: they leave good footprints in women and men who were their members. This footprint is like the collective effort of 300,000 córdobas that the cooperative did not split up into pieces, nor let some few appropriate them, as happens with most peasant families who are always dividing up their land into pieces. Those members, in assembly, agreed to give it to the new cooperative that was starting, and committed it to return to the community “30 times more”. Behind this collective effort are values like humility and honesty that guide their steps, and what the cooperative cultivated and the elderly woman observed: service. Behind these values and that sense of service is the vision of a cooperative as a means (instrument) of living communities, that is the horizon in which that inheritance of values and resources become very important, but let us notice, just “partly”, as the mother points out to her daughter.
Those of us who also share these perspectives and support these processes in rural communities tend to be asked by rural families, with some incredulity, why do you come in to support us? What interest do you have in us when not even presidents of cooperatives nor mayors visit us? Even though in our mind it is that “part” of being cooperatives that the stones whisper “along the paths and creeks”, sometimes we have responded recounting the experience of the Catholic Church between 1958 and 1978, within the framework of its social doctrine, that opened the doors of their churches and monasteries and allowed for decades of religious and laity to accompany impoverished families in their communities; that experience allowed believing that God was living in these impoverished families, a seed of service and commitment that has germinated in hundreds of people.. Other times we have responded alluding to the fact that each person has a sense of service, and that each person deploys that service in a thousand ways in the places where they live.
In this article we show the idea of stewardship as a more thought out response to the questions that they tend to ask us. Stewardship is a perspective that gives more meaning to cooperativism and that adds another additional “part” about what the mother saw and the daughter heard in the parable. We do so basing ourselves on something from the indigenous, religious and business traditions, to then conceive of the cooperative as a rooted organization that could take on stewardship in their communities. At the end of the article we re-conceptualize this idea of stewardship as the greatest motor and the most intense light of humanity.
1. Seventh generation thinking
“Now we crown you with the sacred emblem of buck antlers, the emblem of your lordship. Now you will become a mentor of the people of the Five Nations. The thickness of your skin will be seven tranches, in other words you will be a test against anger, offensive actions and criticism. […] Look and listen to the wellbeing of all the people, and always have present in mind not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are still below the surface of the earth, the future nation that has not yet been born.”
(Law of the Iroquois nation written between 1142 and 1500)
A Confederation of five Iroquois nations in the United States wrote their law between the years 1141 and 1500, that started seventh generation thinking. It is a principle of innovative stewardship, conceived and taken on prior to the Spanish colonization in Latin America, and before the British colonization in the United States. The principle suggests that in each deliberation its impact up to the seventh coming generation should be taken into account, that is, thinking about the great-great grandchildren of our great-great grandchildren. In other words, when we deliberate, make decisions and take actions we should ask ourselves: “Where is the seventh generation in these decisions? Where are we going to take that generation? What are they going to have?” Imagine if you were an Iroquois, let us say centuries ago, when the climate was relatively stable, your people were connected to nature, living certainly with conflicts between nations, you had that thought to the seventh generation. Meanwhile now, in the current conditions of climate and degraded nature, we realize clearly that we have abandoned that thinking. In spite of that, this thought challenges and guides us. Correspondingly, the decisions that we make today on the environment, water, energy, social relations between indigenous and non-indigenous people, the relations between women and men, or about the life of the communities, are going to have an impact on the lives of coming generations, up to the seventh, which is a nation of people who have yet to be born. It is a matter of living and working for the benefit of that future seventh generation; that really is thinking long term!
There are two ways of understanding this principle. The first way, if each generation differs from the previous one by 20 years, the seventh generation is in 140 years, which is why we should think about 140 years in our deliberations and decisions: see Figure 1.
The second way is varying the thinking about the seventh generation, and expanding the period in years in which a person is touched (influenced, awoken) in their lives by their great-great grandfather/grandmother, who in turn was touched by their great-great grandfather/grandmother. In other words, we place ourselves in a 360 year period and from there, looking 180 years backward (7 generations) and 180 years forward (7 generations), we can understand our roots and plant our future: see Figure 2.
When from our peasant realities we look at the questions asked within the framework of the seventh generation, they seem very hard. Following the first perspective, most peasant families are reducing their land area by inheritance and the sale of land, this means that the seventh generation will be left without land, and with a relationship divorced from nature, for example. Given the graveyard for cooperatives and those cooperatives taken over by elites, what cooperative are we leaving for the seventh generation?
Following the second perspective, this very reality of the division of land is demonstrated by looking at the 180 years since our mothers/fathers and grandmothers/grandfathers, and so we question ourselves looking at the the next 180 years: How can we stop this dividing up? What are we leaving the great-great grandchildren of our great-great grandchildren? We can respond to these questions in each family and community, or we can respond to them alluding to current issues like climate change, water…we can also see them from the history of our countries with a historical perspective, issues or challenges like peace and indigenous and non-indigenous social relations. For the case of Nicaragua, Oscar René Várgas (1999) argues, based on an event that happened in the XVI Century, more than 400 years ago, that Nicaragua is a prisoner of the syndrome of authoritarianism and disregard for law; Alejandro Bendaña (2019) presents to us the invisibility and margination of women by historians and the guerrilla leaders themselves in the war of Sandino between 1926 and 1934, something that in light of our current realities appears not to have changed. In that 400-year view and 100-year view, it frightens us to confirm that authoritarianism (hierarchical structures) and gender inequality, both accompanied by violence, changed so much as to not change “even a little”. We find the same thing in each country. It would seem that each generation that has gone by has not been able to leave not even a little change that might benefit the seventh generation, it would seem that each generation intensifies those old and harmful institutions.
The notion of stewardship, from the Iroquois indigenous tradition, begins to move us. It makes us think about the change of any “syndrome”.
2. Stewardship in the biblical tradition
The Catholic and Evangelical religions, professed by most of the population in Latin America, have the notion of stewardship in the Bible, which can be understood in two ways. The first way is God as the creator of the earth, where people are his administrators (stewards). Paul explains it this way: “Because we are collaborators with God, and you are the work of God, God´s edifice” (1 Cor 3:9). Stewardship is oikonomos: the person who administers. The second perspective is that people, women and men, are co-creators with God: if previously they had to multiply as the creation of God, in the new testament women and men are co-creators: “Go and make disciples of all peoples” (Mt 28:19).
The first perspective assumes that the patrón (owner) of all is God, and that tends to justify “each one of the verticalisms on earth”, warns the ex-Jesuit priest, Peter Marchetti. Correspondingly, Marchetti continues, “at the level of subjectivity, it is up to the grassroots to begin to work on the concept of God”. The second perspective as “co-creators” is a more horizontal perspective, even though the subordinated relationship of nature to human being persists. Marchetti counsels us: “The challenge is recovering traditional ecological knowledge that existed prior to the idea of God the patrón; the path is emulating traditional knowledge to be able to dismantle the idea of God the patrón.” Correspondingly, the Iroquois seventh generation thinking, for example, is very useful for us, because it comes precisely from prior to the Spanish and English colonization, where we could say that the “patrón” is the seventh generation.
From both sections, our challenge is “working on the subjectivity at the same time as the materiality”. The latter is, for example, the democratization of organizations and their economies, while the subjectivity is working on attitudes. Among these attitudes is dialoguing with the biblical perspectives of God as “creator” (patrón) of everything and humans as co-creators, as well as dialoguing with our great-great grandfathers and grandmothers, and at the same time thinking about the impact of our actions on – or dialoguing with – the great-great grandchildren of our great -great grandchildren. Here are the first brushstrokes about what stewardship is, which combines subjectivity and materiality, begins to dialogue with other perspectives, generations and with the attitude itself to free ourselves from the “patróns”, not matter what they may be. Now let us look at how businesses address and take on stewardship, to later focus on cooperatives.
3. Stewardship in businesses
In the past the church and the military caste dominated the world. 30 years ago the private sector dominated the world. Common interest, the State, education, the church, health care, the army are all read from the perspective of business; for example, each one of these areas or institutions are measured by their efficiency, costs, and their power relationships defined as technical things, that can be resolved through social engineering, through management. It is recognized that businesses create jobs, that they fight against racism, assume actions compatible with environmental sustainability and “social responsibility.” Business people who achieve financial success are admired as true heroes, and are named as directors of health care, education, churches or presidents of countries, like war heroes or religious martyrs used to be venerated, no matter what side they were on.
We identify two perspectives in these enterprises. In the first perspective are most of the large corporations, who prioritize their profits, dividends (% of profits) for their shareholders, while they are desperate to produce wealth today, and satisfy consumer society; this is short term thinking that produces short term results. There are few corporations in the second perspective, they are, for example, investors in pension and insurance funds, businesses that innovate, invest in the formation of their staff and get involved in profitable recycling actions instead of dumping it in spaces of poor countries; they look to develop long term thinking (MacNamara, 2004). Nevertheless, business organizations, like the churches and military structures in past centuries, intensify those millennial authoritarian, patriarchal and hierarchical structures that concentrate wealth and power. It changed so much in order to not change much at all.
Recognizing these hard institutions, and at the same time seeing the potential of companies, Block (2013) proposes the notion of stewardship as
An alternative to leadership. Stewardship asks us to be profoundly responsible for the results of an institution, without forcing the purpose of others to be defined, controlling them or overprotecting the rest. It can be defined more simply as ordering the dispersion of power.
Block defines stewardship as the change in the governance of businesses, that distribute power, privileges and wealth in favor of the people below and people marginalized in the businesses. Stewardship as “alternative to leadership” conceived as hierarchical and patriarchal, that does not subdue nor treat others as “minors” (“overprotected”); more than directing organizations, it is cultivating organizations, more than controlling and deciding for others, it is facilitating so that people might be empowered – controlling is accepting “the dispersion of power”; facilitating is democratizing (ordering) power. Stewardship is seen as an option of action at the service of those with little power and for the common good, it is long term thinking. This is taking care of the wellbeing of the next generation. How can this idea of stewardship be carried out? Block thinks that it is difficult to carry out with the dominant patriarchal leadership of our times, in the service of the short term and being operational with those few who have power.
Block provides the elements that characterize a real stewardship, whose notion we try to draw in Figure 3.
Stewardship has to do with a partnership of working together in democracy, which is opposed to the colonial belief that those above are the only ones responsible for the success of the organization and the wellbeing of the members. It is a matter of empowering each member of the enterprise, where it is assumed that their security and freedom is in their own hands, contrary to depending on those above, believing that they know what the rest of the people need, and contrary to the fact that they treat people as subordinated children. And it is a matter of service, that is committed to their organization and their community without expecting anything in exchange, cares for the common good and creates community, and distributes power and wealth, because it assumes a commitment for something beyond oneself, contrary to looking out for ones own interest at the cost of others.
In this notion of stewardship, of working together, in partnership, empowered and in service, underlies the idea that our life is brief, “we are on borrowed time”, as rural populations say, and our work in any organization or area is even briefer, which is why we want to turn over any task that we have taken on in the past in a more advanced stage. In this sense, let us remember the parable of the talents (Mt 25. 14-30), that we should multiply the talent received; this challenge becomes difficult in the case of peasant families, for whom if that talent was the land that they received from their parents as inheritance, after some 30-40 years that land would have to be more fertile and not “worn out” (less fertile, eroded soils) – something very difficult, while for enterprises, the land conceived as something that produces only based on agrochemicals, it is impossible for them to turn over land in 30 or 40 years with more fertile soils.
Bringing those questions about the seventh generation here, we would say: How can businesses be built in partnership, that empower and are of service to the seventh generation? How can the land be worked so that it might benefit the great-great grandchildren of our great-great grandchildren? If the land is the mother of any product and any life, can businesses be built of any size with long term thinking, which would be watchful over its social and environmental impact and the elements of stewardship that Block advocates? Paraphrasing Jesus of Nazareth, probably it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than C-Corporations to assume this role of stewardship that Block proposes. Nevertheless, from the world of corporations there are good attempts; B-corporations, founded in 2006 and by the end of 2018 totaled 2500 in 50 countries around the world, could meet what Block proposes; B-corporations are certified for having good governance, transparency and good social and environmental impact. Also businesses whose workers become owners, governed by the ESOP law in some countries, could be taking on Block´s stewardship, particularly those that function under the approach of “open book management”, because they cultivate a culture of ownership (of being owners) for long term success.
4. Stewardship in cooperatives
B- corporations and ESOP enterprises with “open book management” could be exercising a role of stewardship. But the most suitable seem to be cooperatives, and even more so, if they bring together people with few resources. The problems is that most cooperatives also are an expression of hierarchical structures, like C-corporations, and are more and more moved by the short term thinking of the god of the market. Recognizing this fact, we argue that a renovated cooperative, that “is born again”, can be a serious option. To assume this role of stewardship, the cooperative must take up the ideas of Block and impress on it their own historical essence, because it is with renovated cooperatives that the ideas of Block could have greater possibilities of being carried out. See Figure 4.
We reread Block from the perspective of a renovated cooperative: in partnership we understand that people from different ages (grandparents, offspring, grandchildren), sexes and social sectors (e.g. workers) participate in a cooperative; that the cooperative is a space where each person is empowered in horizontal and vertical agricultural and non-agricultural diversity, using the market and not subordinated to it; and that the members cultivate a sense of voluntary service coherent with the idea of co-creation in dialogue with nature. Given this interpretation, the type of renovated cooperative is one that walks with both of its “feet”, the associative and the business one, is distinguished by its democracy, transparency and for distributing its profits (wealth). With these elements the members, and also their allies, make their own values and cooperative values their own, more and more intensely illuminated by a long-term perspective, and deliberately seeking to have an impact on – and dialogue with – its seventh generation.
This is the perspective of stewardship which a reborn cooperative implements, which pushes it to reorganize itself systematically as an alternative to despotic, hierarchical and patriarchal leadership. This is the promise that each member makes to the other members and to themselves from the first day in which they join a cooperative, which in turn, bears the potential of significant self-realization, which frequently is lacking in our organizations.
Correspondingly, how can a cooperative be reorganized from a role of stewardship? How can a cooperative member be a steward? First, a member accepts an office conceiving it as a service, serving other people, it is not to serve oneself at the cost of the other people. The office responds to the mandate of the members, which is why this service implies willingness and availability, being a person who does not have time, and always has time to serve other people, who listens and helps them to connect events and ideas, so that the members resolve their problems and/or take advantage of opportunities. Coherently, a person who occupies the office of president fulfills their role of president, and respects the role of each member of the Administrative Council and respects the functions of organs of the cooperative (Administrative Council, Oversight Board, Education Committee, Credit Committee). The same does the vice president, treasurer, secretary. Likewise, each member of the Oversight Board, the credit committee, the education committee. In addition to taking on their own role and respecting the other roles, these member help other people to exercise their offices; if the secretary has difficulties in writing the minutes, or the treasurer doing their financial report, the people from other offices, or those who already had those offices, support them (facilitates or trains them), so that they might lean to do the minutes and the financial report, but without taking their place. The assembly does not name people to posts to just to fill a post, nor out of formality, but it is a real need.
Promoting the culture of stewardship is going against the current of the culture of most of our rural organizations, where a person tends to believe they are the patrón and God, it is like a person walked around with 10 hats on their head at the same time, the hat of president, secretary, treasurer, oversight board, assembly, education committee, credit committee…That is not possible, right? That is what generally happens. One of the consequences of this fact is that that person believes himself to be the owner of the cooperative, and treats the members as their “minors”, does not let them grow, wants them to serve him, be subject to him; he disempowers them. “My poor patron, he thinks that the poor person is me” goes the song of Cabral, that seems applicable to this type of person with multiple hats, and who does not obey the mandate of his assembly. A president or manager with the commitment of stewardship is completely different: he supports and celebrates the work of the oversight board, administrative council, credit committee, because those structures help him to fulfill the sacred responsibility of co-creating the cooperative to the benefit of their communities, to redistribute power and surpluses, to empower the members so that they might take their own steps.
Secondly, a cooperative member, with or without an office, administers in a responsible way – and generates – financial resources (money), physical resources (building, infrastructure, assets) and productive resources (coffee, cacao, beans, bananas…) for the members. There is an awareness that those resources will last beyond our present lives. No one individually appropriates them under the pretext that “it is my effort”. Everyone cultivates the relationships of their organization with other global and local actors (financiers, buyers, accompaniers), without centralizing those contacts for their own exclusive benefit. Each person is accountable to themselves, their families, the cooperative and their community. It makes them think about co-creating and benefiting their community and the seventh generation, a task for which they are guided by the virtuous rules from the time of the great great grandparents of their great great grandparents, and in accordance with agreements and rules of their cooperative in line with the cooperative principles defined 175 years ago, in 1844, by 28 working artesans in cotton factories in the city of Rochdale, England. Correspondingly, any loan of money to a member, for example, is done from the appropriate body, according to agreements, with a receipt and later accountability to the assembly; the board members understand that they cannot make and use the resources of other at their own discretion, that there are organs and rules under which the resources, information and power relations flow. This very specific exercise can be generalized to other levels, including the country, building citizens with rights and obligations, not so much consumer societies.
Third, support to people to exercise their offices, and the fact that there are rules and structures that guide being cooperative members, implies also that the members be committed to learning and changing. If there is no transformation inside each member, if there is no re-evaluation of our desires, yearnings and expectations as far as we are explicit about the harmful and virtuous rules that govern us, any structural change for the operations of our cooperatives will be like a stripped bolt. In fact, in Central America we have experienced dictatorships and revolutions, a boom of organizations and religions, and all those changes have been like stripped bolts, our lives continue being guided by century-old structures and harmful rules that reproduce social, environmental and gender inequalities, which make us see the cooperative as “a thing of men”, “mono-cropping services” and “hierarchical and authoritarian bodies.”
Joining a cooperative means that we have chosen and accepted that relationship of organizational and personal transformation to energize our communities. The choice and acceptance become our contract. Our desires for financial gain, participation, self-expression and the expectations that we have for being part of a community, are only possible if we are committed to the objectives, results, limitations and principles of the organization in general. The agreement on the elements of the contract is the basis for the association and the basis of the community. Stewardship offers more options and local control, in exchange for that promise of commitment on the part of its members, a promise that should be given from the very beginning (Block, 2013).
With these three elements the cooperative can “be born again” and assume its role of stewardship in light of its community, which is as local as it is global. Forming its own membership, generating collective innovations, working on equitable rules, adding value to the products of the community, producing good land…to benefit the seventh generation.
The Church dominated the world for centuries. The military as well. For half a century, businesses have dominated the world. Century after century the land and the relationships between human groups seem to have deteriorated, currently we find ourselves in an inflection point in terms of the future of the earth; the domination of the private sector – the god of the market – intensified it. Our bet is that the decade of 2020 the community might begin, through its forms of cooperative organization, not to dominate the world, but contribute to the democratization of the world, and that we rethink nature not as something subordinated to homo sapiens, not even in a relationship humans-nature, but homo sapiens as part of nature. This is possible if the communities, through their cooperatives, and other organizational expressions, take on the role of stewardship.
In this article we have reviewed the idea of stewardship from the indigenous tradition, religious tradition and from economic business sciences, in order to re-conceptualize cooperatives. From this review and re-conceptualization, we understand that stewardship can be applied to individuals, businesses, organizations, institutions and communities. Stewardship is the word that summarizes the vision of the cooperative, and any organization, for its members. That is so if the community is the starting point, while at the same time the horizon – that community as local as it is global. It makes us learn another way of understanding and organizing life. What is the idea of stewardship that we have been shaping in this article?
Figure 5 shows the perspective of the community that rereads the cooperative in its material expression (organizational) and its subjective expression (personal), from which originate 4 elements that make the meaning of stewardship visible.
The community of human beings and nature is something living, geographically concentrated and at the same time globally clustered through dense relationships around products. This utopia or horizon makes us reread the transformation of a cooperative in its material expression, organizational change, and in its subjective expression, individual change. In other words, a person awakens, for example, to the fact that only through collective actions can some problems be resolved, like hierarchical and authoritarian structures; it is that material-subjective combination that mobilizes the cooperative in its role of stewardship, expressed in its 4 elements. First element, thinking about the great-great grandchildren of our great-great grandchildren, in other words, more than 140 years, which is contrary to the short term thinking or the mining and push button culture, of wanting to earn money immediately believing that tomorrow everything could change. Second element, co-creating that world along with other people, with nature and with divine energies beyond our human comprehension, empowering particularly impoverished people, which is contrary to believing oneself to be the patrón (owners of this world), intensifying social and environmental inequality. Third element, cultivating a spirit of voluntary service, taking on offices and cultivating the cooperative, which in the long term benefits each individual, which is contrary to abusing the cooperatives for personal profit at the cost of coming generations. Fourth element, being guided by human values like humility, honesty and respect for the collective good, which is contrary to just betting on finances.
With this reconceptualization of stewardship, we can reorganize the cooperative in another way. We can even expand on the Iroquois law; that each person have “skin as thick as the bark of a pine tree” to confront not only “anger, offensive actions and criticisms”, but to exercise a stewardship that benefits “the future nation that has not yet been born.”
In the parable, “planting a cooperative, the daughter “reads” being a cooperative is about that collective force, values and sense of mission, while her mother recognizes that precisely is what it means to be a cooperative member, even though just “in part”. With the expansion of the framework that we have worked on, the reader can read this article again and contribute “30 times more” to the effectiveness of their decisions and actions. Even so, in light of the seventh generation, that contribution to the notion of stewardship, surely, will continue being “in part”.
 René has a PhD in development studies, is an associate researcher of the IOB-Antwerp University (Belgium), collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (WPF) and a member of the cooperative COSERPROSS RL. email@example.com I am grateful to Steve Sheppard and Mark Lester, president and director of WPF, respectively, for the inspiration and ideas that they have offered us in the work with cooperatives, and particularly in regards to a very brief first text on this topic, published at the end of 2019.
 We recount the experience of the Catholic Church, but the same happened with a good number of protestant churches, particularly the historic ones- Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans. Also, university students in those years, without necessarily professing any religious faith, also moved to the countryside and marginal neighborhoods. It is also the experience of many people who later on were connected to guerrilla movements.
 These questions we adapted from the questions that Oren Lyons, chief of the Onondaga nation, formulated and are quoted in “An Iroquois Perspective”, in: Vecsey, C. and Venables, RW (Eds), 1982, American Indian Environments: Ecological Issues in Native American History. Vol. 46.4. New York: Syracuse University Press. p. 173, 174. For a broader understanding of the indigenous culture in the United States and their lessons for today, see: Kathleen E. Allen, 2018, Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World, USA: Morgan James Publishing.
 “Touched” is when a person feels gratitude for something good that someone did for that person. In the context in which we are using it, by “touched” we mean when your great-great grandmother or grandfather made you look at your life in a different way, or something fundamental in your life, that marked you in your feelings or perspectives for the rest of your life. What is yours for the future, the possibility that you, on becoming a great-great grandfather, might influence (“touch”) the lives of your great-great grandchildren, which is possible because you had the possibility of learning about life for nearly a century.
 There have also been methodological proposals based on seventh generation thinking. One of them is the alternative proposal to the logical framework, a planning tool that organizations tend to use. See: Kathleen Allen, 2018, “Seventh Generation Thinking – A Replacement for SWOT”, https://kathleenallen.net/seventh-generation-thinking-a-replacement-for-swot/ It deals with locating ourselves in the fourth generation and from them gathering lessons from the three previous generations and using them as information for our future decisions that would include the next three generations. This can be done as an organization, particularly if there are people from 3 generations within its membership; they can be worked on in groups.
 Vargas, O.R., 1999, El Síndrome de Pedrarías. Managua: Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Nacional.
 Bendaña, A., 2019, Buenas al Pleito, Mujeres en la rebelión de Sandino. Managua: Anama ediciones.
 For example, Goodwyn (1978, The Populist Moment, New York: Oxford University Press) studied the rural populist movement that occurred between 1870 and 1910, about a peasantry that organized into cooperatives in such a way that they founded their own political party and came close to an electoral victory, but which the political and economic elites coopted and subsumed until crushing them. Goodwyn concludes that that democratic process in the United States was the last opportunity for the US nation to democratize.
 Owners can sell their businesses to their own workers, there is a law in the US and England to facilitate this. In the United States it is called Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), and in England there are two types, the incentive plan and the savings plan. There are also ESOPs in India.
 Jack Stack and a group of workers bought the business of Springfield ReManufacturing Corporation in the 1980s. More than being successful, they designed a transparent form to govern and work the business, which they called “open book management”. See: Stack, J and Burlingham, B., 2002, A Stake in the Outcome, New York: Doubleday.
René Mendoza Vidaurre, Mark Lester and Fabiola Zeledón
The unfaithful market
“Bring your coffee and I will pay you 100 córdobas more per quintal than that coyote that is circling you”, Carmelón the trader said by cell phone. Pedro weighed his coffee before leaving on the bus, it weighed 3 quintals. Now in town, Carmelón put the three sacks on the scale and it weighed 2.3 quintals! He paid him 2990 córdobas, at 1300 per quintal. Pedro left dazed: in his own village they were offering him 3600, at 1200/qq; and he would have saved the cost of the transportation and the lost day. He arrived home with a headache. “What is bothering you?”, asked his wife, Julita. “Carmelón cheated me,” he responded angrily. Ah Pedrín, you know very well that the market is like a lover, you cannot demand that it be faithful. Pedrín felt like the earth opened up in front of him, how right his beloved was!
The market is like a lover, you cannot demand that it be faithful“. If it does not cheat you with the price it does it through the weight, if not, it tells you that your sun-dried coffee is wet, and if not that, it tells you to “wait on me.” Price, weight, and quality are structural challenges that can be resolved if people organize into a cooperative. But it is not automatic, most cooperatives are taken over by elites who turn their backs on their members, and turn into traders dressed up as “cooperatives”. Ah, but when the members of a community organize and the organs of their cooperative function, in that community they reduce violence, generate more equality and peace – this is what Esterlina Talavera says, from the 13th of October Cooperative in San Antonio: “In these cooperatives where only one person is in charge, one is not worth anything; in this cooperative, where the assembly is in charge, there I feel like I do have value.” If importers, roasters and sellers of ground coffee in the United States and Europe work with those corrupt cooperatives, they instead sow violence in peasant communities, like what happens with traditional mediation connected to big corporations, but if they work with democratic cooperatives, they support peace with justice.
Under what conditions can small producers, women and men, and small roasters and coffee sellers build communities of peace between rural areas of Central America and consumers in the United States and Europe? Responding to this question in this article, we see that markets can become “faithful” to the challenge of making peace with justice.
1. Perspective and ways of riding the markets
With Mark Lester´s visit to 50 importers and roasters in the United States, we discovered similar perspectives on both sides of the ocean: buyers and producers. He met with roasters who buy from 6 sacks of coffee a year to those who bought containers of coffee; there are peasant families also who produce 4 quintals of export coffee to those who produce 100 or 150 quintals of export coffee. In the face of this situation, there are importers who connect these two worlds: they import coffee in lots in one containers for roasters who want lots of a smaller size than that of a container; they are lots that come from 3 or 5 producers with the same coffee profile, possible through the grassroots cooperatives (1st tier).
He learned that roasters ask for samples of coffee to be able to express their interest in buying; some cup and define their own cup profile, and others ask the importer to define their cup profile; generally they are looking for a score above 82, because they think that is the way that they can differentiate themselves and compete in the face of large corporations whose costs are less because of their economies of scale. The cooperative sends the sample, indicates the volume of coffee that it offers from that sample, and the roaster responds whether they are interested in that coffee or not; as a sign of loyalty, the cooperative does not sell the volume it offered with the sample until the roaster has responded, to do so would be behaving as an “occasional lover”; the roaster or importer responds as quickly as possible, to not do so would be to behave like a “lover”. The roasters prefer lasting connections, it does not work out to each year have a new seller of coffee, because they want to maintain their cup profile; the cooperative also wants to have lasting relationships, especially if the buyer pays them based on quality and there is good deal; this implies that the cooperative also is loyal to its members, only collects their coffee, and thus maintains the same cup profile that it agreed upon with its buyer. It is a loyalty among several actors who revolve around coffee.
Mark found roasters and importers concerned about the sustainability of their enterprises and that of the coffee growing peasant families. If the peasantry with less than 5 hectares of coffee goes broke, the coffee is left in the hands of large mono-cropping enterprises, thus the quality of the coffee would drop because they are committed to varieties that produce volume and they grow them in full sun. This is not helpful to the buyers nor to the peasants. So from both sides of the ocean they want peasant families to increase their productivity (more and better coffee per hectare), and importers and roasters process more coffee in the same physical space. Both sides of the ocean also want diversification and the commitment to coffee quality to lead them to increase their productivity, that diversification would also include sustainable practices with several crops and the agro-industrialization of products, roasters who diversify their markets; university communities that demand coffee from cooperatives…
2. Trust, the beginning of triangulation
Cultivating these described connections and commitments are not possible with conventional practices. Financial organizations provide credit requiring financial statements (indicating expenses and income) and balance statements (indicating assets of the cooperative versus its debts) from the cooperatives; but these in turn tend to hire accountants who “invent” their financial reports, while their members do not have access to that information, and if they do, the numerical chaos is incomprehensible to them. Financial organizations and buyers assume that on signing contracts with cooperatives, they actually are operating as cooperatives; at the same time it is seen that most of them do not redistribute their earnings, they treat their members as any intermediary would treat them; they are cooperatives whose members do not rotate in their posts, nor does their administrative staff rotate in accordance with their merits. So the aid organizations, on learning of these realities, turn a blind eye; thus, trust in people becomes trust in money on the part of a small global club.
Those connections and commitments can, nevertheless, be built based on trust if cooperatives function as cooperatives, if buyers and roasters treat them as cooperatives and not as if they were haciendas, connecting only with the manager or only with their president. How can trust be built? From the work of the Winds of Peace Foundation (WPF) with grassroots cooperatives and its contacts with buyers and roasters, we propose an inclusive triangulation.
Social banks, buyers and second tier cooperatives already practice triangulation, they sign contracts where the cooperative collects coffee with financing from the social banks, and the buyer pays the loan owed by the cooperative to the social bank. But it stays there, they are that club that turns a blind eye to the true functioning of the cooperative and its members. We take up that triangulation, buyers, financiers and cooperatives, but not with second tier cooperatives but with grassroots cooperatives (first tier); and we do not stay there, we do an inclusive triangulation, that implies that part of the contract stipulates the distribution of profits and information, that they be democratic and efficient organizations (that they lower costs), and work in sustainable agriculture. That this inclusive nature be verified by an accompaniment that helps the members govern their cooperatives, and that the transparency between buyers, roasters and cooperatives be reciprocal.
Being inclusive means that the member families coordinate among themselves to achieve a cup quality of 85, improving their soils, assuming the costs of sending coffee samples: not letting the market govern them, believing that it is only a matter of putting up money and moving coffee; it is that we work with members over the entire year and not just in the coffee harvest season, connecting small producers who organize into cooperatives with small roasters. If one actor acts as an opportunist, they damage the entirety of the coordination with the different actors, and they do damage to themselves. If the price in the market goes way up, the cooperatives prefer to stay in a lasting relationship; if the prices of the market go way down, the buyers prefer to stay in a lasting relationship. This is coordinating, trusting and being faithful.
3. Role of accompaniment
There are roasters aware of the fact that peasant families cannot improve their lives if they do not organize into cooperatives, and that is why they seek out healthy relationships with these cooperatives. There are importers who understand the importance of connecting small roasters with small producers who are organized into grassroots cooperatives. There are also foundations, like WPF, that accompany this process of triangulation.
In this role, WPF, in collaboration with a team from the COSERPROSS cooperative, accompanies the grassroots cooperatives, contacts importers and roasters, and because of its connections with Universities in the United States, works so that the triangulation reaches university communities.
Previously WPF did not play this role. It assumed that that role belonged to the cooperatives. But seeing that the cooperatives are being absorbed by structures that sow injustice, violence and environmental unsustainability, WPF took on new roles, of being a hinge in the relationships between cooperatives and buyers, helping to make transparent the agreements between the different actors. If previously WPF provided credit on the basis of bilateral trust with a cooperative, now it does it in the framework of an inclusive triangulation, precisely to build greater trust.
At the beginning of this article we asked ourselves about the conditions in which small producers and small roasters can build communities of peace. We provided three responses. First, small producers and roasters pursue common perspectives; perspectives that start from having similar size, committed to coffee quality, and social and environmental sustainability, innovating through diversification. Second, establishing relationships of an inclusive triangulation where the economic transaction goes along with the economic and organizational democratization of the cooperative and the other allied actors. Third, ongoing accompaniment of these perspectives and this inclusive triangulation.
Under these three conditions trust, mutual loyalty and lasting relationships can be built. This leads us to be concerned about the people. It is a perspective where Pedro and Julita, from the story at the beginning of the article, organized in a cooperative can collect their coffee harvest in their own communities. It is a path where markets can work to build communities of peace with justice, communities that plough the seas.
My head spent the days immersed in matters like employee ownership, organizational strengthening, empowerment, open book management, continuous improvement, transparency and the wisdom inherent in organizations.
My heart was in Nicaragua, at the foot of Peñas Blancas, with more than 50 peasant producers who are spending the week in another edition of the Certificate Program, an on-site immersion into holistic development of their farms, coops, families and futures. I have come to know many of these folks, having worked with them in previous settings, and I miss being with them.
My body was at home in Iowa, trying to figure out how to respond to a mysterious malady that inflames all of my joints and aches my body’s systems like a bad case of the flu. I need to learn what is wrong and how to make it right. I’m saddened not to be in Nicaragua and frustrated at the reasons for it.
So my time was divided among three states of being this week. And as I reflected on my uneasiness at this state of affairs, it dawned on me that what I was experiencing was not unlike the normal circumstances of our Certificate Program participants. Their lives are under the stresses of being torn in multiple directions, as a way of life.
The heads of many peasants are filled with trying to discern what’s happening within their country. Investment has all but vanished. Foreign aid organizations have pulled out long ago. There is enormous tension between the Ortega government and the Civic Alliance, giving ongoing potency to the anxious uncertainties of every day life, even in the countryside.
The peasants must have found it hard to concentrate on their organizations, with their heads already immersed in matters like: What is really happening in our country? What is true? What do I have to do to protect my family and myself? Can I trust my neighbor? How do I process all of it? Of course, all of this is context for the ongoing, every day questions about climate, weather, the cost of inputs, the income from harvest, the presence and absence of rain, maintaining the farm, worrying about kids. Oh yes, and the ever-present worry about health, of the family, of the spouse, of self.
Their hearts are firmly in Nicaragua, even if at times they cannot actually be there. Despite the warped perceptions of a U.S. president, under normal conditions Nicaraguans essentially have little desire to leave Nicaragua. It’s their home. It’s both their inheritance and their future assignment to their children. They treasure their history and culture no less than any U.S. citizen does about their North American homeland. But if conditions and opportunities diminish to the point of complete destitution, then alternatives become realities, and the idea of immigration emerges.
Their hearts know, deep inside, that only new ways of managing the coops will bring about greater success, despite the urges to cling to the old ways, the means by which survival has been possible for generations. There is heartbreak in leaving old ways, the comfortable ways, behind. It can even feel like betrayal. There is anguish in having to choose the unknown.
Their hearts remember that the land that once belonged to their elders, and that should be destined to belong to the youth, is a sacred trust, an honor-bound commitment to family. But their hearts also are fatigued from the consumption of energy and spirit by injustices that so often infect the poor. My acquaintances in Nicaragua are strong of heart, unflinching in the face of crushing poverty, but also realists who are willing to break their own hearts for survival.
Their bodies are the resilient homes for hopeful spirits. Their physical bodies are asked to endure and thrive in the face of limitations on healthcare, nutrition, clean water, education opportunities, healthy incomes and environmental health. In the face of huge physical demands, the rural farmers accept and adapt to such challenges as a matter of course, and largely fulfill the requirements of their days.
I cannot help but imagine the course of activities undertaken by such a farmer experiencing my current set of symptoms. With some embarrassment, I imagine perseverance that puts my days in these weeks to shame. In many ways, our Nica colleagues are far more adaptable to change than we might think.
Comparisons are a likely outcome, I suppose, when time is abundant, when my head is teeming with ideas, when my heart is restless and my body compromised. But there is substantial learning available despite it all, and I find that my Nica colleagues can teach me well, even from a long distance away….
in Nicaragua, working with peasant farmers on issues of cooperativism and continuous improvement.
As a result, I continue to receive newsletters and employee ownership-related materials, usually nodding in affirmation of the great performances that are featured therein. Shared ownership worked then as it does now. So I was not at all surprised to read the latest results of the annual Economic Performance Survey (EPS), summarized in the November 2018 issue of The ESOP Report. Once again, employee owned companies performed exceedingly well and, in many cases, significantly outperformed their non-employee-owned peer companies. Since the EPS was launched in 2000, the majority of responding companies have recorded increases in profits for every year but two (2002 and 2010) and increases in revenues for every year but one (2010). The exceptions noted above reflect the nationwide economic downturns of the prior years (2001 and 2009). Even in those challenging economic times, 29% or more of ESOP companies responding to the survey reported that profits and/or revenue increased. And there’s the lesson for our cooperative partners in Nicaragua.
We have chosen to work within the cooperative sector by design. For the essence of cooperativism- shared ownership- is the same motivator as in employee owned endeavors. We have always believed in the power of collective wisdom and work; the employee ownership model simply brought some new tools and direction to the coops with whom we work. Notions of shared benefits, transparency, broad participation, financial literacy and the importance of a cohesive cooperative culture are not natural outcomes with ownership: they each need understanding and practice. And maybe especially that last item, culture.
As is true in the most successful employee-owned companies, the participants of a coop have an essential need to fully understand the collaborative nature of their organization. It’s not enough to join a coop in hopes of benefitting from market presence or volume buyers. Every coop member must understand the machinery of the coop, and the cog that each represents to keep that machinery running. Without that individualized participation, it’s like trying to win a baseball game with a first baseman who won’t field the position, when every position is vital. It’s what makes up a team.
But an individual’s impact on organizational culture is more than just fielding a position. It’s the absolute knowledge that one is part of something bigger than self, that there is strength and security and a sense of “we can do anything together” that inspires and drives the group to thrive. The strength of collaborative work fashions a safety net that is nearly impossible to replicate individually. For organizational success, cooperative members must embrace the idea that “we are in this together.”
For Winds of Peace Foundation, that message has remained unchanged over the past dozen years of our focus on coops. It has been the mantra of the most successful employee-owned companies in the U.S. since ESOPs came into being in the 1970’s. If the collective efforts of a cooperative are truly in synch, and the rewards of the collective work are truly shared, stability ensues. Members begin to recognize the rhythm of success. Momentum builds. The mindset of the organization transforms to one of expected progress, rather than hoped-for survival.
Cooperatives are not the mirror image of employee-owned companies. Nicaragua is not the U.S. But the reality of ownership is universal. It engenders a characteristic that transcends most of the lines which separate us. That’s why the truth of shared ownership is as real in Nica as in Nebraska.
And that, in turn, is what makes cooperatives so exceedingly important in Nicaragua today. Challenging economic times? With threads in the fabric of the country literally unwinding every day, the nation is in desperate need of institutions that are grounded. Cooperatives have the ability to be just that. They can create economic hope. They can provide a shield of security against dangerous moments. They can maintain a strong sense of structure when other forms become distressed. The coops can represent deep roots against tides that threaten to wash away the groundwork of community. (For a deeper look into this truth, take a look at Rene Mendoza’s posting in his Articles and Research portion of our website.)
I loved the concept of employee-ownership from the first moment I heard of it. I was amazed at the power of its best tools, broad participation, open books and financial teaching. Thirteen years ago I became astonished to learn that the coops of Nicaragua were so similar to U.S. ESOPs in both their difficulties and their needs.
The universal nature of the power in ownership continues to this day. I never imagined, however, that its importance and potential might figure into stabilizing an entire nation. But a dream and a reality sometimes are one in the same….