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.
People dispossessed for so many years collected their savings and gave them to one of their sons, Solin, for him to pay for the coffee that was collected from their own group. Solin had never had so much money; he was like a deer in the headlights. He paid for the coffee. Some of the same people who had saved, behind the back of the rest, went to him to get him to lend them money. Solin first said no, but these people insisted, and he gave in. More people showed up, also from other parts of the country, and he ceded. Solin felt like a little patrón, “The people trust me”, his chest puffed out like a balloon. This path of giving out other people´s money, saying that it was his, led him to lie and believe his own lie. When other people showed him his mistake, Solin offered them money to shut them up, and if they did not accept it, he would slander them. One day he looked himself in the mirror and was frightened to find that he did not recognize himself.
When the owners of the money asked him to give it back, he had lent it all out. “And where is the money?”, they raised their voices. “You have already eaten it,” the theft reverberated like 10, 100 and 1000 years ago. Solin and several of the savers had betrayed their own path. Both took the path trodden for centuries by the old hacienda owners and fieldhands, by the comandante and those who died, by the manager and those who believed themselves to be cooperative members.
This story illustrates what happens frequently in cooperatives. A group of people save, define their purposes, agreed on their rules and then betray that path. The old path trodden by the patrón where the fieldhands follow for their pay, become indebted and to look for a favor, a path also taken by governments and churches (“Holy Patron Saint”), clouds and blocks any other path. In the story this group of people and Solin look at themselves in the mirror, or ask about their resources, and are surprised to be on the old path of dispossession, moving from being “servers” to “being served”. Their biggest tragedy is not so much the use of the money, but the fact that they have betrayed their path, this is the reason for the bad use of the money and the fact that their lives have taken a 360 degree turn, arriving at the same place. How can people who organize be able to follow their own path?
1. Individual-collective duality and the dilemma of betrayal
In organizations that face corrupt acts, there is finger pointing, accusations and complaints. “He is incorrigible”, “he is guilty of bad administration”, “she is not accountable”, “she uses our money for her benefit and that of her managers”, lash out the members. These
phrases in a cooperative belie an individual perspective, accentuated by the religious conservatism of “personal salvation”, and by the neoliberal doctrine where what is important is the individual and not society–there is no such thing as society, said the first female British Prime Minister M. Thatcher in 1987, during the full eruption of neoliberalism. Reproducing this perspective, nevertheless, is a way of “washing our hands”, of showing oneself to be innocent while pointing out others as the guilty parties.
These same expressions, nevertheless, can be read as “spitting against the wind” from the collective perspective. Because the member who is doing the accusing, with or without a title in some organ of their organization, on seeking a loan directly from the administrator, behind the back of his own cooperative, is not exercising his/her role, and/or violates the rules of their own organization; on the other hand, the corrupt administrator establishes himself reproducing the idea of the patrón;: “With 100 cordobas I keep them happy.” Many times even the State or aid organization officials who support the cooperatives borrow money from the managers, knowing that it is money that belongs to the cooperatives. “The spit” also falls on this member and this official who preaches cooperativism. A systematic act of corruption happens, above all, because of the lack of functioning of the respective organs, because of the lack of compliance with the rules of the organizations, and the accounting norms on the administrative side, as well as because of the acceptance of aid organizations*.
The members know the rules and procedures, but they see them as tedious, “paperwork”, “bureaucracy” – high transaction costs, they would say in economics. The members of the organs also see it in this way: “meeting is a waste of time.” While the patrón “from one big roll” decides to lend to them or not. In this process the members believe the administrator about any version about the source of the money, there is no culture of verifying their versions, because, they think, it would be distrusting and ungrateful; for that very reason, they do not ask for receipts either, the patrón does not do receipts – his word is enough! In addition to believing him, they fear him, “a person with other people´s money is capable of anything”, they whisper, so they keep quiet – do not speak in front of the patrón! This is a rule that is resurrected. From here the “vice” of playing with “other people´s money”, more than individual and exclusive of the manager or some president, is a collective “vice”; a collective act causes individual behavior – of corruption or honesty. See the upper part in Figure 1.
“The law is not being applied to him”, state the members and advisers of the organizations. With this they mean to say that organizations have laws, the State oversees compliance with the law; and that aid organizations have rules, and they do not apply them. This, however, continues to assume an individual perspective, believing that by “applying the law” “the patron is going to self correct”. It ignores what the history of any country tells us, “the patrón makes the laws”, be that with his right hand or his left. So we detect that this individual perspective, clothed in a collective and legal perspective, is moved by structures of dispossession; the “accusing”, the “abusing other people´s money” and “preaching laws” make the path of cooperativism disappear, and accentuate the path of dispossession – it is the dilemma of the betrayal. So we perceive that this structure is like rails for a train, it does not matter who the conductor is that is driving the train, nor how many years of schooling he might have, how many advisers and protectors of the law he has, that train will move along the rails; not matter who the administrators or presidents may be, these structures (“rails”) trap the conductors. In this way cooperatives can go broke, while these structures remain unmoved –“in an open treasure even the just will sin”, goes the saying.
At the same time this structure is being challenged. On the one hand, there are some members who cultivate a contingent awareness, that it is possible to make your own path and walk it; and on the other hand there are administrators who understand their role, respecting accounting rules and the collective perspective of organizations, shunning “inflating themselves” like balloons that run the risk of “bursting.” They do not “spit into the wind”, but recreate that collective perspective which finds itself supported by mechanisms that are coherent with more communitarian structures, and consultancies that study these rural underworlds – this is overcoming the dilemma of betrayal. See the lower part of Figure 1.
2. Innovative mechanisms for cooperatives as the vehicle for repossession
“They do not let us be peasants”, shot off a Costa Rican leader in 1991, recognizing the onslaught of neoliberalism in turning the peasantry into workers and “wetbacks”. The “be peasants” has been more coherent with community structures, in conflict with structures of dispossession. It goes with mechanisms that make an alternative path possible, mechanisms that we have been learning from the exceptional organizations in Central America: see figure 2.
They are mechanisms that “de-commodify” peasant life, they involve awakening and organizing, deepening their roots, improving the organization of the commons, and sharing the path in a glocal alliance- because every space is glocal (global and local).
Mechanism 1: Voluntary genesis of cooperativism congruent with community principles
Nearly two centuries ago a group of textile workers in England saved part of their salaries to start a store, and with that stabilize their income and defend their basic needs. In Germany peasants organized to free themselves from usury. In both cases, the people understood that individually they were not able to overcome structural problems, like the low buying power of their salary and the usury that indebted them for life; organized, they could do so. Thus they defined their path and walked it. Over time cooperativism has expanded throughout the entire world and has become a double edged sword, a means for repossession for its members and communities from whence they come, and a means for dispossession when small elites appropriate it for profit. Read the brief dialogue in the box.
From the angle of the genesis of cooperativism, this dialogue shows the incomprehension of the administrator about what a cooperative is, as well as the wisdom of the younger brother about the social rule of “respecting someone else´s assets”. “The need of the other affects me”, says the administrator; precisely the crude “need” of people led to the fact that cooperativism emerged standing under the principle of respecting collective assets. The error of the administrator in this dialogue is providing a loan from money that is not his, and doing it outside of the rules and organs of the cooperative that named him “administrator”; with that he dispossessed the members of their resources, and full of a short term vision condemned needy people to suffering. Being “proud” is abusing “another´s assets”. This deformation results from the individual perspective derived from structures of dispossession.
The cooperative that originated in the will of its members to overcome structural adversities, and does it with rules based on community principles, like those expressed by the “younger brother” in the dialogue of respect for collective goods, is a long term structural mechanism.
Mechanism 2: Rooted in diversified bases
The market demands a product and does not matter whether the one who produces it comes from one place or another; the State and aid agencies behave in a similar way, they legalize organizations or demand changes like “including women as members” without regard to where they come from. From working with cooperatives we learned that a cooperative that is rooted in its micro-territory has more possibilities of walking their walk, of being inclusive…
How to be rooted? Even though the members of a cooperative come from the same micro-territory, deciding that the administration –and therefore the financial transactions – are done in the territory itself, requires making explicit in a reflective way several beliefs written in stone for centuries: “Here they are going to steal from us, in the town there are Policemen and that is why it is safer there”, “no buyer or certifier is going to come out here to our place, we have to go out to civilization”, “here we are living in the brush, the patrón lives in the town”, “that little girl doesn´t know anything about administration, only men who ride on motorcycles know it.”
When the members of a cooperative come from the same micro-territory, and decide that their building and its administration are going to be in the same space, then we create favorable conditions for a good cooperative. The possibility that corruption might emerge and intensify is reduced. The mobility of the members to the cooperative´s building, as well as the attendance of women and men in the meetings is greater. We say that more women and men go to the meetings, because of the geographic proximity and because they do not have to travel to the municipal capital to attend meetings; the women can go to the meeting with their babies and/or children, something that is difficult if the meeting is in the municipal capital. This contributes to the cementing of trust among the members. Also the coordination between the administration and the organs of the cooperative can improve. The care of the members and board members over their administration increases, which is why the security of the resources of the cooperative in that place increases. Accessing information and asking their questions is also more possible.
The payments that are made in the territory itself to the members, be it for coffee, cacao, sugar cane or another crops, has an impact on the economy of the territory. The storefronts and small businesses sell more, new businesses tend to emerge. The interest of the partner of the member, and their children, in the receipts that their Father or Mother bring from the cooperative is greater. The possibility of having lovers under the argument that “I am going to town for a meeting” is reduced. It is like the butterfly effect in a world as interconnected as today´s world is, even more so is life interconnected in a micro-territory and in families.
Mechanism 3: the functioning of the cooperative organs and administration
The fact that a member might understand that organized they can overcome their structural problems is one step, the fact that they can facilitate that because their cooperative is rooted in their territory is a second big step. Nevertheless, there are cooperatives that in spite of having taken both steps, go broke or turn into a means for dispossession manipulated by small elites. The third mechanism is that each member, with or without a title, function in accordance with the rules and organs of their organization, without going “in secret” to the “real person in charge”, because the “real person in charge” in the cooperatives are its rules and organs.
It is easy to say that the organs of a cooperative function according to its rules. But it is difficult for it to happen. The phrase that is read in laws and management, that they are “management organs” illustrates that they are not “decision making organs”, that the power of making decisions was expropriated by the elites. How can the organs be “decision making” and the administration “management”, the former with a strategic role and the latter with an operational role? Apart from the fact that they know their statutes (rules), meet systematically and cultivate connections with their members and with external actors, the key is in the fact that they become learning organizations. How? First, each member is seen as a leader in their community, understanding that the biggest treasure is in their own social territory; consequently, their first task being multiplying their visits to other people, members or not of the cooperative, so that through conversations, they might understand the problems and opportunities that exist in their territory. Knowing them and sharing them is their fuel for pushing the cooperative to improve, and it is their source of ideas for enlightening cooperativism.
Second, the relationship between the administration and the organs is developed to the extent that they organize information, analyze it and on that basis define their policies and strategies to be followed. This provides work content for each organ. For example, information on loans and arrears is analyzed by each organ, particularly the credit committee; the Oversight Board finds one of its principle follow up tasks in this; the education committee, as a result of this analysis, proposes to work on financial education with the members about how to save, invest better and working with more autonomy, breaking with that old institution of “going into debt” and putting up with any exploitation for being “indebted”.
Third, making decisions based on the visits and the data analysis makes it possible for them to make better decisions. A particular area is diversification. A cooperative, even one with organs functioning acceptably, if it continues embracing mono-cropping, sooner rather than later will go broke; if it continues, it will work to dispossess. Promoting diversification, nevertheless, is difficult because of the atrocious structure of international power. Today to speak about agricultural cooperatives is nearly to talk about mono-cropping. So there are “successful” cooperatives that have credit, marketing and technology services just for one crop; the effect of mono-cropping on the peasant economy and the environment have been horrible for decades and centuries. The attached box illustrates the expansion of mono-cropping even through organic agriculture reduced to its dimension as a commodity, and the fact that people of good will from international organizations work against the peasantry while believing that they are “benefitting” them. Visiting and analyzing data leads us to question the origins of our policies and respond to the millennial strategy of peasant resistance: diversification and environmental sustainability. If the organs and the administration of a cooperative focus their tasks on diversification of the farm and agro-industry, their cooperative will democratize a little more, and will include more youth and women in general.
The geographical proximity facilitates organizational functioning, and this, focused on diversification, makes the cooperative be even more rooted, produces new innovative rules and starts the path of being an organization of repossession – of peasant viability with economic and social diversification, and environmental stability.
Mechanism 4: Glocal alliance for the cooperative path
These three mechanisms facilitate changes in the cooperative and in the economy of the member families and their territories, but they will achieve sustainability to the extent that they take on the attitude of a cooperative member. It is not just organizing voluntarily, looking at their territory, making decisions through their organs, it is feeling themselves to be, and being cooperative members. What does this mean?
For centuries indigenous and peasant families have cultivated a mentality of producing to eat. Then in the 1920s in Central America cash crops came in like coffee, sugar cane, cacao, and cattle. In that process they molded a mentality of being a “seller of coffee”, “seller of sugar cane”, or “seller of milk”. Consequently, they reasserted their territory (“country”) in their plot or farm: “My country ends with my agave fence”, they declared, which means that within this area there is a structure and a person in charge, that outside of that is not his world, that his world ends at the fence where the buyers come to buy his products. They do not even sell, they buy off of him. This mentality was intensified by the markets, “I will buy your coffee sun-dried or wet, the rest does not matter”, “I will buy your sugar cane”; likewise national and international aid organizations, allies of associative organizations, with people trained in universities that taught them that only “Inc.” companies produce profits, say to them: “work on the raw materials and the rest will we take care of”, “you are good for harvesting, industry and trade is our thing”.
What is the problem with this mentality? The peasant receives payment for their coffee or milk, that is their world; the other world is that of the patrón, where the profits are; the peasant never is interested in this other world, knowing what their patrón did with his profits; the very fact of asking him was showing ingratitude, insubordination and social suicide – their own people would treat them as someone trying to be his equal. This institutionality has been reproduced in associative organizations and their allies; a member looks for payment for their coffee, sugar cane or milk, they are not interested in knowing whether their organization generated profits or not; in Fair Trade the use of the premium of US$20/qq of coffee is previously defined in social investment, infrastructure… and $5 for the member family to invest in their farm; the premium for organic coffee of US$30 is perceived like this, “premium”, equal to a “roasted cow” that the patrón would provide for them at the end of the harvest, “premium” of a day of fiesta. In other words, the agave fence of the peasant member is “price of NY + premium” (see box); the member family understands that their profits and premiums are not an expression of their rights, but “a favor” (something “extra”, “charity”) of the local or global patrón, that is why they do not ask about it, do not ask for information, nor keep their receipts nor complain over the distribution of profits. Knowing this reality, the patrón (administrator or fair trade coffee buyer) repeats, “with 100 córdobas I keep them happy”, “with pig rinds and booze they leave happy”, “I buy from them at a good price and I give them a premium, whether that gets to the member´s family or not is their issue.”
Complaining over your profits is like being a “beggar with a club”. It is like a woman subjected by her husband, she feels “kept” and without the right to ask him about the “rest of his money”, and it is the mentality of the citizen who pays taxes and instead of complaining that his government reinvest in public works and provide him “good service”, see these works as the result of the goodness of the government (patrón).
The three mechanisms listed need to be complemented by this fourth one, with which we will move beyond this glocal mentality. How? First, building a mentality where the peasant family has awareness about the fact that their actions create value and have unexpected consequences, which is why they can refine their policies and carry out actions of even greater value and impact. This is possible if they observe and reflect on some details; for example, making sure that through the payment for the harvested coffee in that territory positive aggregate effects are generated in the economy of that territory, beyond their “agave fence”; observing the impact of their diversified organic agriculture on their farms as well as on the territory; reflecting on the effect of violating the agreements of their own cooperative, that leads them to lose resources as a cooperative and as a territory. On observing these positive and negative effects, the members can awaken their awareness of being coop members and of moving from their “agave fence” to understand that regardless of their purposes, their actions have a repercussion on the territory. In a parallel fashion, let also global actors awaken and understand that their actions have repercussions on the lives of the peasant people; if they look at a cooperative just as “coffee” or “cacao”, commodities, and believe that by providing a good price and premium they have already contributed to the families, they should ask themselves if they are sure that they have “contributed”; if one person turns into an elite capturing those premiums, are the buyers contributing to the well being of the peasant families?
Second, making relationships between different glocal actors (global and local) be living alliances that are committed to the formation of associativism, complementing the mechanisms mentioned here. This does not mean improving the prices of raw materials. It means that organizations add up all the income (value of sold product +premiums+incentives for quality and other bonuses), subtract their expenses and costs, and from the gross profits they agree to redistribute according to a certain percentage, let us say 50 or 60%. We repeat, it is not a matter of improving the price of the sugar cane or the coffee, it is not distributing the premiums; it is redistributing the gross profits of your organization.* The remaining 50 or 40%, or other percentage, goes to internal funds, social fund, legal reserves, investment fund in the organization…
Third, all the actors, cooperative, associative enterprises, aid agencies, Universities and State Institutions, we all should commit in an ongoing and systematic way to cooperative formation, based on the lessons and challenges of the organizations themselves. On emphasizing profits we are not reducing ourselves to the economic, we understand with Aristotle that quantity is an element of quality; consequently, the members will move from a mentality of “I am a seller of sugar cane” to “I am a seller of granulated sugar”, from “I am a seller of coffee” to “I am a cooperative member exporter of export quality coffee”. This will mean that each member pushes that their organization generates more profits and redistributes them, they will make an effort to be informed, to be trained, to diversify more. With these elements, the formation will help their cooperative and territory, the board and their members, the cooperatives in the north and the south, to maintain strong ties of collaboration and mutual learning.
3. “Muddy” accompaniment from the underworld of the member families
Most cooperatives have been accompanied, be it by the State, Churches, aid agencies or Universities. Standardized accompaniment has meant providing them trainings, legalizing them, buying products from them and /or providing them with donations; it is an accompaniment that does not cross over toward the communities and the underworld of the cooperatives, which is why it ends up legitimizing corruption, or that cooperatives get turned into a means for dispossession. A new type of accompaniment is required so that these four mechanisms emerge, are adapted and make a difference.
Owen and other associative people inspired the emergence of cooperativism in England, Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen accompanied the first cooperative in Germany. A distinctive accompaniment in Central America has been that of the Catholic Church in the years 1960-1970; that accompaniment helped them to reflect on a God living among them, and a Reign of God that began in those very communities – the “treasure” (God) was in the communities themselves. This accompaniment gave rise to dozens of cooperatives and peasant stores based on their own resources; a good part of them still persist after 40 and 50 years. Consistent with this type of accompaniment, even though not from a religious perspective, we describe here an accompaniment that enters into the cooperative underworld in interaction with the 4 described mechanisms.
What are the distinctive characteristics of this accompaniment? The first is that the accompanying people understand that only by entering the underworld of the cooperatives and their territory will they be able to understand the process in which the cooperative finds itself, awaken reflection and help create mechanisms like those worked on here. The fact that we intellectuals might have the “best” assessment is useless if the members are not reflecting on and walking their own cooperative path. For that reason the accompaniers need to pass beyond the control of the “patroncito”, be that the administrator, manager or president, and through the conversation be exposing the struggle between the path of the patrón and that of the cooperative, as well as the complexity of walking their own path.
Second, accompanying is discerning mindsets from the inside. Along with studying the cooperative underworld, where the old path is imposed based on betrayal and subordination, and where people wander between doubt and intuition, the accompaniers discern the mindsets in the cooperatives, and their own mindset as accompaniers. When the cooperative is trapped in acts of corruption, it is moving under the rules of “the clever one takes advantage of what he administers”, and “we always need a patrón”; these rules conceal actions against their own organization; then the members see the accompaniers as “intruders”, unfurl the banner of “autonomy” to keep the accompaniers from “crossing over the threshold” of the territory, and make up lies in the territory that these accompaniers “are taking advantage of the cooperative.” Discerning their mindsets implies “muddying ourselves” in their beliefs and lies, at the risk that this might erode the legitimacy of the accompanier and drive him/her out of the territory. What distinguishes good accompaniment is the persistent act of overcoming our own mentality that it is “enough to train, legalize and help them to export in order to live better”, “taking their pulse” and innovating with member families to the extent that destructive mentalities that prevent learning are dispelled.
Third, accompanying well is allowing member families to take their own steps, provided that we understand that our actions also have repercussions in the lives of the member families. The accompanier risks the fact that the members might perceive him or her also as a “little patrón”, impairing them from walking their own cooperative path. Let us illustrate this with one experience; in a cooperative, after the second mechanism took place, of rootedness, the results in terms of informational transparency, reduction of corruption and a motivating environment because of its economic and social impact in the territory were admirable. So the board members complained to the accompaniers: see attached box.
In the box the leader sees the accompanier as a “little patrón” with the capacity to stop the corruption and impose decentralized administration on the territory of the cooperative. The response of the accompanier to the first complaint is that having intervened as a “firefighter” to “put out the fire” of corruption, even though this act would have saved them financially, it would have constrained them from building their own cooperative path, which is structural and long term. The response to the second complaint reveals an accompaniment that helps to innovate mechanisms to the extent that it studies and learns from the cooperative itself and its underworld. Even now that we have innovated these four mechanisms they would not be recipes for any organization, they are mechanisms that need to be adapted to each situation, and that each cooperative should experience their processes. These two responses illustrate that accompanying is letting member families walk their path, provided that it studies them and provokes reflection.
Finally, in this process we are getting to know ourselves, re-knowing ourselves in our actions, and we are developing a sense of reasoned compassion. Not the “rational being” of homo economicus. On understanding the mentality of a group of members who “always need a patrón that steals from us”, we understand that for more than 100 years this institution has been deeply etched in their grandparents and parents, reproduced now by this group. At the same time we understand that this institution is not characterized by “being peasants”, but that it is the centuries old path of the patrón-fieldhand. This reflective reasoning envisions this reality for us, and awakens “being peasants” in the lives of cooperative member families and our lives, through respecting the collective good, the rules of the collective and mother earth, the horizon for which we produced the four mechanisms.
Accompaniment makes us remember that the change is in alliance between the peasant families and those of us who accompany them, while we walk together. It is not a stationary accompaniment, but along the road. It is a tense alliance, with stumbles and doubts, but embracing each other for the purpose of creating a vehicle for repossession to the benefit of peasant families.
By way of conclusion
We began this text with the following question: How can people who are organizing follow their own path? First we identified how the colonial patrón-fieldhand path intensified by capitalism that only values merchandise (commodities) erodes the cooperative path, and leads people to betray their own path. This teaches us that individual actions respond to certain perspectives (individual or collective), and they in turn come from structures in conflict, communitarian structures and structures of dispossession; and that this cooperative path is connected with community life, also in resistance for centuries. These two paths clash, for example, in “the good of others”: the colonial and capitalist path is nourished by dispossessing “the good of others” (land, financial resources, labor) from the peasantry, while the cooperative path is connected to community structures which precisely originate in repossessing “the good of others”, which in this case is the “collective good”, material assets (financial resources), as well as alliances and collectively decided arrangements. This “good of others” in the cooperative path is then a “social relationship”, as Federici would say.
Lining ourselves up with this cooperative path, we list four innovative mechanisms that, contrary to the saying that “in an open treasure even the most just sins”, make the cooperative into “a treasure with rules and associative governance where even the biggest sinner becomes just.” These four mechanisms are: voluntarily organizing, rooted in specific micro-territories, making the cooperative organs and administration function, and within a glocal alliance framework help the member families to cultivate an awareness of “being a cooperative member”, that their actions generate changes in their lives and the life of their territory, and making the cooperatives expand their profits and redistribute them with informational transparency and as an expression of respecting “the good of others” (common good, collective good, their own good), in contrast to capitalism that is nourished from dispossessing material assets from peasant families. Then we argued that cooperatives need an accompaniment that makes a difference, that crosses over formal and despotic structures and gets into the underworld of the territories, from which they innovate with the member families, like the mechanisms listed here, and accompany them through thick and thin.
Is this text important only for cooperatives and their allies in their social territories? What happens in the cooperatives and their social territories at the micro level is happening in countries at the macro level. Following the cooperative vision is overcoming the “commodity” vision, the colonial patrón-fieldhand path and the belief that “with money you can even make monkeys dance”, and it is creating a society that cooperates, makes rules and follows them, expands their profits and redistributes them, learns and democratizes. Will it happen?
 A case to illustrate this type of accompaniment is that of the Cooperativa La Esperanza de los Campesinas in Panama. See: R. Mendoza, 2017, “A priest, a cooperative and a peasantry that regulates the elites”, in: ENVIO 425. Managua: IHCA-UCA. http://www.envio.org.ni/articulo/5304
 Lucia Linsalata, 2015, “Three general ideas for thinking about the commons. Notes around the visit of Silvia Federici” in Bajo el Volcán, year 15, number 22. Federici talks about the commons in the community, she says “there is no commons if there is no community”. In this article we present the cooperative as an expression of people from a community who decide to organize, and for them “the commons” is within the cooperative, even though in relation to their communities or social territories.
You cannot direct the wind but you can change the direction of your sails.
Tell me something and I will forget it, teach me something and I will remember it, make me participate in something and I will learn it.
The paradox of the last thirty years is that the peasantry, in spite of having offspring with higher levels of formal education, is experiencing an economic and social crisis that threatens their very existence. Cooperativism could be its “ship” to resist and reach a safe port. To do so this cooperativism, coopted by economic and political elites, needs to “change the direction of its sails” and reorganize. This is possible if they youth are participants in this process. So, under what conditions can rural youth participate in this process of the reinvention of cooperatives to make family agriculture viable? This article wrestles with this question and arrives at a conclusion: when the peasantry in cooperative spaces studies the harsh rules, studies their own attitudes and mobilizes to innovate for the peasant families who are organizing, that crisis can become an opportunity to improve our societies.
Key words: rural youth, family agriculture, cooperative reorganization, innovation
In the last thirty years the peasantry have faced greater crises over climate change, systematic dispossession from elites, and because there is no more virgin land to “colonize.” A form of resistance has been organizing into cooperatives, but these tend to be coopted by the State, markets and international aid. Likewise, as never before in rural history, there are more rural youth with higher education, but they are distancing themselves from agriculture and are migrating to the cities and outside the country. If this situation continues, in addition to deepening the inequality and the democracy deficit in our societies, it will affect world food that depends in good measure on family agriculture, which according to ECLAC, FAO and IICA, represent more than 75% of the production units in nearly every country of Latin America. If the youth who graduated are participants in the change of “direction” of the “sails” of cooperativism, as never before in rural history they can make family agriculture – also called peasantry and small producers – viable. Under what conditions can rural youth participate in this process of the reinvention of cooperatives to make family agriculture viable? We respond to this question throughout five sections. In the first section I review historical experiences in Europe, the United States and Latin America to show that in spite of the heterogeneity of the rural situation in Latin America and the variety of historical contexts, certain common patterns have worked against family agriculture. After understanding these patterns, in the second section I discuss how this peasant (family agriculture) crisis has been faced. To do so I summarize the idea of “heroic voluntarism” which has generally prevailed with adverse results. I go back to look at the experience of productive youth in the United States during 1870 and 1910, and I summarize the path of how to innovate, based on Albert Einstein, a method that if used by the youth, could contribute to resolving the crisis of family agriculture. After recuperating historical responses to the crisis and a referential framework for innovating, in the third section I discuss the conditions under which the youth and their parents could build bridges in pursuit of this innovation. In the fourth section, I show concrete cases of the type of innovations that lead to the reinvention of cooperativism. And in the fifth section I list guidelines about how to generate a cooperative movement hand in hand with the youth.
Crisis in family agriculture
The waves of the sea and the current of water under the waves tend to go in opposing directions. So goes economic growth and representative democracy in Latin America, where the military dictatorships were left in the past, while family producers are pulled by the “current” of dispossession. Time and time again the peasantry (currently called family agriculture) in the world has been at the point of triumphing in the face of this dispossession. What has made the laws of the elites unassailable? What has kept the peasantry from charting their own farm and industrial path? In this section we briefly review the situation of the peasantry (or family agriculture) in Europe, the United States and Latin America. We do it to surprise ourselves about what concurs in the conditions that oppose the peasantry through the crop lien system, usury and trade mediation, which have been dispossessing them of their resources, turning them into proletarians and expelling them from their places.
1.1. In Europe and the United States
In Europe industrial capitalism was imposed, and dispossessed peasant families of their lands, which turned them into proletarians so that they might work in industry, which they opposed with thousands of forms of resistance. Part of this resistance was the emergence of cooperatives in England with textile workers, as well as cooperatives in Germany in the decade of 1840 with Hermann Schulze-Delitzch, in the decade of 1850 with Friedrich Raiffeisen, and in the decade of 1860 with Wilhelm Haas, cooperatives which in part were a reaction to the failed revolution of 1848-1849 in that country, and mostly to the suffocating economic laws. Raiffeisen, for example, found a relationship between poverty and dependency on usury and on commercial mediation, and argued that to overcome poverty that dependency had to be overcome, which is why he promoted cooperatives under triple S: self-help, self government and self responsibility.
A closer picture we have in the United States. After the Civil War there (1861-1865), the industrial and commercial elite – between 1870 and 1930 – destroyed the hopes of the peasantry organized into cooperatives. What happened there? Lawrence Goodwyn describes that the Civil War, accompanied by economic “prosperity”, was followed by a period of stress under the “new rules” of trade. In the face of these “hard times”, the peasantry had to “work even harder”. Since this did not turn out well, millions of families migrated to the western part of the country believing that with “hard work” on virgin lands they would generate more income than debt. That did not work out either. They realized that the rules of trade in Kansas and Texas were the same as those in Ohio, Virginia and Alabama. Rosa described what was happening in the United States:
Such are the characteristics of the domination of capital in the world. It expelled the peasantry from England (after having left them without land) to the Eastern part of the United States; from the East to the West on the ruins of the economy of the Indians, to turn them into small producers of merchandize; from the West it expelled them again, once again ruined, to the North; ahead of the peasantry went the railroads, and after it, ruin; capital always went before it, as guide, and capital followed behind it to finish them off. The general scarcity of farm products has followed the great drop in prices in the last decade of 1800, but the small North American farmer has obtained as few fruit from it as the European peasant.
Figure 1. Framework of the crop lien system in the United States. (1860-1930)
What rules? The crop lien system backed by laws and the economic power of the country. That is, a merchant manages two prices, one for cash and another on credit; a producer family is not able to buy with cash, which is why the merchant provides them with food, inputs and tools on credit, to be paid with the harvest of cotton at implicit interest rates between 100-200%. The harvest arrives, the merchant is paid with cotton, and the family generally is left in the red. In the case that the producer family lacks land and/or mules, the landowner rents them out to them and, in coordination with the merchant, are paid with the harvest. For the next harvest the merchant provides credit again, this time the family leaves their property mortgaged. In the second, third or fifth year, the merchant is paid with the property.
This system was part of the mediation and national industry structure. Industry provided the inputs and tools to the intermediaries, and they in turn to the producers on credit. Those red balances got worse, because the cotton buyers in England turned their purchases to Egypt and India, in other words, the producer family was suffocated by the nefarious “embrace”: cotton prices fell and prices of inputs and tools for growing cotton rose. If the family did not raise cotton, they were not given credit; if they planted cotton, they had to depend on agro-chemicals. This system, in addition, was backed by laws of the State and by the economic power of the elites behind industry and commerce.
With these mechanisms the concentration of land and industry increased, as well as corporate centralization and the policy of the United States under a cover of being “democratic.” Something similar had happened in Europe, on the one hand, they extracted wealth from the peasants and turned them from farmers into their workers, because they withstood better the harsh and long hours of work in the industries than the urban people did; and on the other hand, they created resigned behavior in the population, by making them believe that these situations were natural, that their luck was due to the fact that they were “lazy”, “insecure” and “backward” and that things could not be changed.
1.2. In Latin America
Even though the mechanisms of dispossession varied from region to region, and within each country, there are certain common patterns. “Peasants are like stones, we are bouncing downhill”, said Félix Meza, a peasant from the agricultural frontier in 1991 (Wiwilí, Nicaragua). Based on the harsh rules of trade, from the metropolis that demanded meat or sugar, to the mountains, the pressure of the “domino effect” was felt on the purchase of land, from the wealthiest to the least wealthy in cascade. This means that a peasant family would stay in a place for an average of twenty years; then they would leave the land to their children, who would sell it and go farther into the mountains to expand their land area. This history repeated from generation to generation has intensified in the last thirty years, because the amount of “virgin lands” has been dramatically reduced, which has expelled the rural youth toward the cities and outside the country.
Figure 2. Crop lien system framework in Latin America, XX and XXI Centuries
Source: Author´s elaboration based on field observations in countries in Central America
It seems like this anti-peasant system of Europe and the United States is pretty similar in Latin America, with the respective variations that each context brings to it. We will explain this in terms of products, labor and land. With products, the trader buys coffee futures during “times of silence” (months of scarcity) at half of the market price, to be paid with coffee when the harvest arrives. With labor, large estate owners and companies tend to get their permanent workers indebted and ensure themselves of temporary workers for the next harvest. For example, a family receives a loan during the “time of silence” for which the woman (single mother or wife of the peasant) will cook on the large estate serving the workers 16 hours a day for an average of $6 dollars a day during the coffee harvest; in contrast, without that debt she could make $6 working 8 hours a day in the harvest itself. With land, even though land purchasing continues, for some crops like peanuts, tobacco and sugar cane companies tend to have the peasant families rent them the land, which after a period of time is left useless because of the excessive use of intensive technology (mechanization and agro-chemicals). It is a system that provides resources for the short term and erosion in the long term, makes the payments evaporate quickly, and the families get indebted and are systematically dispossessed.
These rules are made more harsh by the nefarious “embrace” of peasant product prices that are going down, and the prices of agro-chemicals that are going up; and by the “pliers” effect, on the one side, the system of commerce and on the other side, the extractive system of natural resources that in many cases goes hand in hand with criminal organizations. This situation is taken advantage of by intermediaries to get them indebted around one crop, with increasingly mechanized technology and dependent on chemical inputs. It is a system that leads to mono-cropping. In fact, for centuries big businesses have moved on these rails, first with sugar cane, then with cotton, cattle, coffee, peanuts, sunflowers, soy beans, African palm… This system of mono-cropping has been permeating into peasant families because the financial and agro-chemical industries also condition them to that. What is noteworthy is that a good part of the cooperatives and the so-called “fair trade”has moved along these same rails.
Consequently, the concentration of land, natural resources, industry and commerce, like extractive concessions, are on the increase. They are doing it backed by the State, legitimized by the Church, and with universities that educate the children of peasants with their backs to peasant agriculture. In this way, hierarchical structures combined now with neoliberalism impress a resigned, providential attitude, and with an awareness of believing themselves to be free. This is the order from which orientations are issued for peasant families.
Heroic, deliberate and innovative voluntarism
How can these “harsh rules”, erected by the elites and internalized by families, be confronted and overcome? For the last thirty years Raul Zibechi has described several social and political movements that have emerged in Latin America with certain differentiating characteristics: assemblies, youth, communities and greater flow of people in their leadership, and in terms of the rural situation, they deal with movements against extractive and mono-cropping – colonial inheritances. Years later, nevertheless, Zibechi himself criticizes some of those who went on to assume Governments and turned against their origins, and argues for movements to be alternatives to the State. In retrospect, the history of humanity is full of rebellions and demonstrations, for example, the student movement of the 1960s where the students believed they were influencing the inherited structures of power and privilege, rural uprisings in past centuries in Europe, rebellions that were put down by institutionalized violence or coopted by elites.
Why did these rebellions fail? In the previous section, we delved into the system that opposed rural families. Now we will understand, from the side of the rural families, the structures that sustain their resignation and we will describe an outstanding cooperative peasant movement.
2.1. Heroic voluntarism
Andrés Pérez-Baltodano describes how the youth of the new millennium in Nicaragua are repeating the elders of the 1980s, and detected that, after two hundred years of wars and revolutions, Nicaragua continues being one of the most backward societies of the continent. This history of failures, according to the author, is explained by a trinity of ideas: Providential God the father, the resigned pragmatism offshoot, and the heroic voluntarist spirit (see figure 3).
Figure 3. Pillars of societal behavior
Source: Author´s based on ideas proposed by Pérez-Baltodano (2013).
The notion of providentialism offers a vision of history as a process controlled by a God who decides everything, where people deny the need for politics: i.e. human decisions that generate change. Pérez-Baltodano (2013) makes a distinction between general providentialism and meticulous providentialism. The former explains the history of Europe where what prevailed was the idea of a God as a force that did not block the exercise of freedom, and that “free will” existed. It is a process through which the absolutism of God in history was ended, and where the Enlightenment of the XVIII Century expressed the idea that people make their history and their destiny. Meticulous providentialism, in contrast, was a vision that prevailed in the Middle Ages, when it was believed that God decided everything and nothing escaped his control. The author concludes that this latter notion dominates Latin American society today.
The notion of resigned pragmatism comes from the providential culture and has history seen as a game of chance where the only thing left is to respond intuitively. It is a vision of politics as the ability to accommodate oneself to the circumstances defined by power, accept that reality, not be scandalized by the injustices, and abandon any willingness to transform that reality.
Finally, the notion of heroic voluntarism provides a vision of activism (action over reason) to transform reality. It is thought that events result from fortuitous causes and that will prevails over understanding. It is an impulsive, emotional voluntarism that depends on physical force to determine history, like mechanically copying European political ideologies without knowing the philosophies that they came from. This is what Edelberto Torres Rivas calls “activism without theory” in his review of the revolutions and democracies in Central America.
This trinity of notions explains the failed uprisings and movements. With a providentialist mentality, where we deny human decisions as motors of change, we adapt ourselves to the reality imposed by power, and we react spontaneously to events. The absence of reflection and study has taken our societies to not transforming their realities, and to the fact that the different expressions of resistance ended up failing. The consequence of this would be that the providential and resigned mentality is even more accentuated.
2.2. Challenge to the century old structure
Probably this trinity of notions also influenced what was described about the United States, particularly the resigned pragmatism and heroic voluntarism. In fact, Goodwyn notes that the first reaction of the producers was political insurgency: it did not work for them. They learned that lesson and organized a movement based on cooperativism. How did it go?
We said that after the Civil War (1861-1865), peasant migration to the west of the country was a victim of the harsh rules of trade prevailing throughout the country. In the face of this, in the decade of the 1870s some producers shared their problems, and several youth, with and without formal education, began to read books on the economy to explain for themselves why the “times were hard” when the entire country believed it was living a time of “economic progress”. So some youth began to speak strongly about their “right” to say that the things that were happening were “not right”. So they formed the Producers Alliance, and from there they formed self help economic organizations, cooperatives, and over the years even a political party.
This movement was noteworthy by the decade of 1880, even though their effects were not felt in the change of the crop lien system described above, rather the crisis continued to get worse. Nevertheless, producer families did not give up, their organizations multiplied and they grew into a massive and coordinated movement that spread throughout the country. Millions of people believed that the “new day” would come, that cooperativism would lead to the democratization of the economy. This is the movement that in the decade of 1890 was known as the “populist uprising.”
Knowing that the agrarian uprising had been aborted by industrialized societies, how were they able to achieve this massive and sustained character for nearly two decades? According to Goodwyn, it was a sequential process. First, the formation of the movement: they studied their situation and had interpretations contrary to the dominant narrative. Second, entry into the movement: ways were created so that people in a massive way could join the different forms of cooperative organization that they created. Third, the education of the movement: they did a social analysis of the process, which created collective self confidence and internal communication. The principal basis of education was the cooperative experiment in itself and its opposition to the commercial stores, distributors, banks, railroads, land companies, etc. The idea was to cooperate, not compete. Fourth, the politicization of the movement: the process of education led them to generate new ideas, share them massively, and organize independent political actions as a possible reality, that led them to propose the democratization of the national monetary system.
Training, gathering, educating and politicizing is how they formed that massive agrarian uprising. The gradual evolution of the cooperative was the basis of that uprising. Thus the Producers Alliance was able to buy and sell cotton, increase the number of itinerant speakers, form different cooperative expressions, acquire machinery and infrastructure to economically scale up, have newspapers and a political party. It was a factory of indignant leaders with the capacity of articulating their ideas and communicating with producers in their own language.
That massive movement, in spite of harvesting success and lasting more than twenty years, collapsed in the end. They failed above all for falling into the same liberal logic of their time, economies of scale, mono-cropping and for the tendency toward the hierarchicalization of the movement. They left us some lessons: a movement generated by youth and producer families themselves, and the political awakening of the youth to the extent that they studied their realities, experimenting with cooperative forms and reflecting on their processes, elements that allowed them to build a shared vision of democratizing the economy through cooperativism – without using violence.
2.3. Innovation possible from the youth
If we return to current Latin America, which is a witness to the boom of youth with more formal education, along with more intensification of the rules of the commercial-financial system opposed to family agriculture, how can the youth reinvent cooperativism which could transform agrarian realities?
We begin with the crisis of family agriculture in Latin America, and we include the migration of youth from rural areas. Then we identify the “hard commercial and extractive rules” in the history of Europe and the United States, as well as in current Latin America. We verify that these processes were resisted, but that in the end capitalism was imposed. To the question as to why the agrarian uprisings failed, in addition to the harshness of the opposing system, with the focus on Latin America, we argue that it is due to a providential and resigned mentality, and wanting to change the system through the force of pure will. Nevertheless, we find the agrarian revolt of the United States based on cooperatives, where they studied and self-studied (not just voluntarism), they envisioned democratizing the economy (overcame resignation) and built their own history (not providential). On this basis we now work on the innovative role of youth.
Figure 4. Innovative capacity
Source: Thorpe (2000).
We take this step supported by Scott Thorpe. He analyzes how the genius of the XX century, Albert Einstein, discovered the theory of relativity. Einstein was 23 years old when, while working as a washing machine electrician, observed that the speed of light and time seemed to be the same velocity relative to the observer. This problem had not be resolved because Isaac Newton, three centuries earlier, had decreed the rule of absolute time: time did not pass quickly or slowly, it was a constant of the universe – because God is behind the universe. Scientists never challenged that rule. Einstein, in contrast, broke it. Thorpe finds something more, after that innovation: Einstein spent his life establishing it and did not achieve another innovation, he fell into the rule of certainty. So the elderly Einstein said: “God does not roll dice with the universe”. The experience of Einstein is not an exception: the younger a person is, the less they know, and more capacity they have to solve problems (see Figure 4).
Far from voluntarism, Table 1 summarizes a methodology for innovating, which interests us for the youth. A “problem” is structural, whose presentation seeks to satisfy real, felt needs. From Einstein we learn that each detail can be a space for great ideas (for example, when a washing machine is repaired). If that problem was not resolved, it is because there are rules that keep it from being resolved, that is why, as Einstein said, that a problem cannot be solved with the same thinking that created it. While identifying those rules, we detect them in our own minds. We break them. Then the conditions are ripe for solutions to emerge.
Table 1. Methodology for innovating
-Constructing a problem to find solutions.
-It is a “Gordian knot”, diffícult to untie
-It is something cognitive: it causes problems, it creates crises.
-If there is a problem, there is a rule.
-The rule is like the rails on a train: if you go where they do, fine; some solutions are not found on those rails
-They seem right, but they are old rules that block the solutions that are outside of those rules
-They seem to be unbreakable rules, which they are if we believe then to be so.
-Behind the rules are ideas.
-On discovering the rule, you have to find those protected beliefs as “sacred” in the mind itself.
-“Common sense is the series of prejudices acquired by the age of 18” (Einstein).
-The secret of the genius is discovering those rules of common sense, see them as absurd and break them.
-On breaking the rule, solutions emerge.
-an idea appears different to the idea that started the problem.
Source: based on Thorpe (2000).
The challenge in Latin America is that the youth push for breaking the rules, and generate new thinking to find solutions to the viability of family agriculture. Let us go there (see table 2).
Table 2. The innovation that youth can work on
Cooperatives coopted by elites subject their members to mono-cropping and are submissive.
-“Change comes from above”: resources, laws, market salvation and directions.
-Thought: democracy functions if a minority directs it; belief that “we are nothing without a patron”.
-Providential, resigned thinking and actions based on voluntarism. A member awakens.
-New thought: the cooperative is a means of resistance to the dispossession when it responds to its members.
-Studying and self study
-Organizing the cooperatives as schools for learning and innovating.
Family agriculture is in crisis, more and more corralled by the economic system, fiscal policies, large estates and companies that rent and buy land to expand the mono-cropping system, and by extraction. Families can revert this corralling if they organize into cooperatives, but they have become functional for the system that opposes the peasantry; they are like private enterprise that responds to markets, while they neglect their associative side; they are committed to mono-cropping; they take on the logic of maximizing profits and neglect the redistribution of their earnings; they tend to concentrate physical investments and centralize decision making; they are guided by hierarchical structures of elites who manipulate markets and States. This type of cooperatives are given legitimacy by aid agencies, States, fair trade and the International Cooperative Alliance that emphasizes mega cooperatives. The rule that moves them: “Changes come from above”. Nevertheless, if these cooperatives reinvent themselves and recover the original meaning of opposing industrial capitalism (England) and usury (Germany), commit to democratizing the economy (United States between 1870 and 1910), to the extent that their members govern them through their organs, they could be the best means to make diversified family agriculture viable, and consequently a new society with less inequality. This is possible if the youth contribute to their reinvention. How? That is what the following sections are about.
If an increasing majority of youth have higher educational studies and the capacity to innovate, why are the youth still not participants in this process of reinventing cooperatives? There are three structural conditions in dispute that explain it.
The first refers to the current generation of parents and children. In Europe, they talk about the “neither nor” youth: they neither study nor work. Zygmunt Bauman, in his studies on inequality observes that the generations of Europe after the Second World War, supported by redistribution policies, looked forward to improve, while today the “neither nor” are the first generation that do not manage the successes of their parents as the start of their career, but rather ask themselves what their parents did to get ahead. These youth are not looking forward, but backward.
Up until some years ago in rural Latin America, parents received their inheritance and would go farther into the mountains to expand their area (buy cheaper land or clear virgin land) so that, later on, they could leave that land to their children, and these in turn to theirs. The inheritance was the starting point for each new generation. But now the agricultural frontier has reached its limit. So, on the one hand, parents are not expanding their areas to leave them, nor are they inculcating their children with farm culture. Because in contrast to the years prior to 1980 when the children grew up working on their farms and homes, their children now spend their childhood, adolescence and a good part of their youth studying, and on the other hand, this group of youth are not finding jobs in their majors, nor do they like the agriculture of their parents. And in those case where they do, they run up against a wall: “They are not leaving me an inheritance because they say that the “pig sheds its lard only after it has died”.
Table 3. Profitability of corn in dollars (Honduras, 2017)
Preparation (pd=person days)
Fungicide (lt herbicide)
2 fertilizing (pd)
2 fertilizing (sack fertilizer)
Bend and harvest (pd)
Source: Author based on cases of producers in Honduras de Honduras.
The second condition refers to the perspective of the knowledge acquired by the youth in higher education. In 2015 according to a report from UNESCO, 98% of the youth of Latin America study. When they return to their parents, many do economic calculations and conclude that what their parents are growing is not profitable (see table 3 for corn). Underlying this acquired knowledge is a perspective contrary to the peasant economy: they consider the crop as merchandise isolated from the production system where it grows, and outside the rationale of the family that produces it. The same thing happens with other crops, for example, they study coffee or cacao and ignore the citrus trees, plantains and forest trees that are in the same area as the coffee or the cacao. These assumptions are in line with the perspective of companies who embrace the mono-cropping system, they bet on volume based on intensive technology and maximizing their profits. In other words, in spite of the fact that 75% of the production units are family agriculture, universities are teaching the logic and technologies of this remaining 25% of modern agriculture, which is why the youth come out deaf and blind to that 75%. The paradox is that the peasantry pays for the studies of their children, and yet their children learn how to belittle the culture of their parents –“you raise crows and they take your eyes out”, as a popular expression goes.
These facts are contested in families. Children love their parents who are getting older, but no longer for their decisions and actions. Parents and children are trapped by an old belief that they themselves repeated. “Son, go to study so that you might not be like me, a peasant” and “a pen weighs less than a shovel” say the parents; “I did not study to go back into the weeds” say the children. By “weeds” they understand family agriculture as equivalent to backwardness, a seed that the university planted in their minds. By “shovel” they assume that agriculture is a thing of physical force, of muscles. When the children do not find jobs in the majors that they studied, the parents get frustrated on not being able to set them on their future, as their parents did for them when they inculcated them in how to think and work on the farm. Now the world of digital technology in which the youth swim is foreign to their parents: “The more they study the more complicated they talk to me.” The youth and their parents do not understand that in family agriculture today the most important muscle is the brain. Distrust builds a nest in their minds; “If I leave him an inheritance, he does not know how to work the land, so he will sell the land and leave, he is like the oxen, if we do not know how to manage them they get tangled up”, and “unoccupied mind is the devil´s workshop”, say the parents; “if I stay with my parents, I studied for nothing” and “old people don´t change” – say their children. The paradox is that the youth reject the vertical decisions (heroic voluntarism) of their parents, but in time reproduce them (resigned pragmatism) for their own children, as happened to their parents.
If the youth along with their parents loaded themselves up with patience, a dialogue could be helpful, like what we reproduce in what follows with a Honduran family. I asked them, “Why are you devoted to corn and beans?” With a millennial patience, the family stripped back the husk, “we plant corn, beans, chicory…because we learned it from our parents to feed our families, not to accumulate money”. Yes, the times have changed, and you have to plant what is profitable (I react). They respond: “planting corn we eat tamales, montucas, atol, corn on the cob, baby corn, tortillas, new corn tortillas. Could we eat all that if we quit planting corn?”, “the protein from recently harvested corn does not compare with that anemic imported corn”, “the tortillas that we eat, have nothing to do with those corn meal tortillas that look like ears”, “with the beans we make green beans, bean soup, cooked beans..” I hear, I like what they are telling me, I understand that corn is more than the tortilla, and the beans are more than ground beans. They continue: “When we now have corn and beans we feel relieved, then we look for plantains, eggs…we go from mouthful to mouthful”. And then “the beans that we are not going to eat we sell, like the other products, to buy other needs and to pay for the studies of our children.”
And profitability? I insist. With a cold stare and face tanned by the sun and the cold, he explained to me: “If we do not plant corn, we would have to buy tortillas. We are six in the house and I need thirty tortillas for each meal, that is 15 lempiras (L); if I plant we eat twenty tortillas because the tortillas we make are thick.” Time to do the numbers so that we convince our parents: 1) from 1 lb comes twenty tortillas, 3 lbs per day for the three meals, 90 lbs per month, in other words 10.8 qq per year, the remaining 13.2 qq from Table 3 are for seed, the chickens and the pigs, from the chickens come between 6-10 eggs every day and 2 piglets every 6 months; 2) if a family does not plant corn, then a family of six needs L16,425 ($714 dollars) to buy tortillas in the year, another amount for atol, eggs and pork. I begin to wake up. On looking at my notes, table 3 and the numbers they give me, I understand that table 3 does not explain that the corn is linked to smaller livestock and also leaves out the corn on the cob, baby corn, new corn tortillas…
To save what the universities have taught us, I ask: And if you only plant corn like the wealthy? “To buy tortillas and what I told you, more in months when money is scarce, I would have to go into debt. The wealthy want that in order to hire me as a peon and pay me the salary that they want. I would end up selling this land, and all the trees would disappear, as you see where there are sunflowers, soy beans, sugar cane…” They say that it does not produce, but it does” – the roar of the wind is heard because my “sails” have changed direction. Where did they learn that? “Listening and working on the farm with my parents.”
The third condition refers to the rural organizations that tend to express the excluding rules and mentality of the elites. It is common to find cooperatives whose members average 50 years of age. If the life expectancy of the countries of Latin America is around 75, the paradox is that the organizations are getting old while they are closing themselves from the young – particularly young women. They make a condition that you have to have land, they support them only in one crop and only in farming activities. A tacit rule is: “organize so that when you are old you can forestall the youth”. In addition, international aid agencies promote the idea of “generational replacement”, an approach that assumes “replacing the old people”, which clashes with the machista culture of organizations, where men “replace” their wives (discard culture), but as elites they do not accept being “replaced”. Explaining these rules can lead to the fact that the cooperative and the member families rethink themselves.
The three conditions are related and are being contested. Studying them is rethinking them in order to innovate in any area of the family, farm, home, cooperative, universities, organizations, etc (see table 4). The challenge is explaining those rules that underlie the problems, and realize that they respond to hierarchical and neoliberal thinking, identify them in our minds, and open a window toward new, more democratic ideas in families and organizations, and in this way glimpse solutions for a family agriculture that would not depend on land, be internally autonomous and consider the cooperatives as spaces for dialogue.
Table 4. The path for the youth
Breaking rules (underlying ideas in our minds)
Without land there is no farm nor are you a cooperative member.
“Pig sheds its lard after it dies”.
-Agriculture is done when one has land.
-If I give him land he will abandon me (discard).
-More than land, he inherits the hierarchical form of decision making.
Doing agriculture without depending on the land.
Modern agriculture is the future.
Private enterprise is development.
-being a peasant is being backward; family agriculture ia a matter of physical strength.
-Modern agriculture is capital, big companies, mono-cropping.
-Research, basis for autonomy in university and family.
-Dialogue with capacity to listen to one another.
Aging cooperative with a wall for the youth.
Cooperative is for people with land; cooperative, without having members, defends its assets.
-Cooperative reproduces who we are, rather than protects assets, we inherit the rule of discard: change her for someone younger, but without letting go of decisions (posts).
-Cooperative: space for dialogue between generations and people of different sexes
-Member family creates their future.
The strength of the youth and their importance for reinventing cooperativism
Our vision is democratizing the economy, which would expand family agriculture, and to do so, the strategy is the reinvention of cooperatives. This means building cooperatives that grapple with the economy to the extent that they are schools of learning for making rules and following them, for innovating and training themselves as a team. It is the path of autonomy and citizenship, possible if the youth are participants. Here we pinpoint ways for creating those spaces from the cooperatives to the youth, and viceversa.
4.1. From the cooperatives, spaces for the youth
Box 1. Conversation with the administrator
-How much is your salary?
-Administrator: I do not have a salary, nor do the board members. We rotate.
-I do not believe you. Why don´t you have a salary?
-Producing milk generates good income for us, more than charging for administrating the cooperative.
We start from a concrete experience. The Colega cooperative in Colombia, with members who are ranchers, collect and sell milk. “We are in second place in productivity, behind New Zealand”, they say. These words have backing: they are efficient members who innovate in the management of the livestock, they zealously care for the forest that surrounds them, and their board members administer the cooperative as a service.
Box 2. Conversation with a young member
-You were a little Colega, pre-Colega and now a member.
-Why did you stay here?
-My friends left for Bogotá to study and I took the risk of staying. There, they did not study and they tell me that they do not feel safe going out at night. In contrast, I, studied here and I feel completely safe visiting my friends at night.
This cooperative organizes two groups with the children of their members: the little Colegas who are under 14 years of age, and the pre-Colegas who are between 15 and 18 years of age. Each little Colega is given a calf to care for, the cooperative gives milk to the child as provision for the calf, and the family of the boy or girl provides the inputs for the calf. When the little Colegas become pre-Colegas, because they cared for and increased the number of their calves, the cooperative gives them scholarships to study and benefits as if they were members, because they already participated in production like their parents. When they reach 18 year of age they become members (see Box 2 on the experience of becoming a member, and the externality of security that it generates in the community).
The cooperative, in addition, seeks to create a sense of pride in being a member of the cooperative. In the school they teach a course on cooperation. Each year the cooperative organizes events to which they invite the little Colegas. So from an early age they are cultivating being a future “rancher-member”.
What do we learn from this experience? In contrast to the “generational replacement” a cooperative can form new members with the children of their members and conceive this process as an economic and social investment that energizes the cooperative and the community where it is located. In contrast to large companies where one learns to do a job, in small organizations, like cooperatives, youth learn to pursue their dreams with deep passion. From here, if a cooperative, without waiting on the members leaving land to their children, dedicates 1% of its earnings to provide them an asset (a calf, $1 a month of savings, a pig or a pair of chickens) as an incentive to a child so that, accompanied by the cooperative and the member families, they are trained as people committed to family agriculture and being cooperative members, that cooperative will be planting its own future. And if that policy is supported by universities that teach the perspective of the 75% of the producers of family agriculture and 25% of companies, we would be turning the direction of our “sails”.
4.2. Spaces are opened from the youth
Also the youth should open up spaces. They are the ones who, in spite of having less knowledge, possess more capacity for solving problems. Through what we learned, these steps should be taken to the extent that we discover our providential mentality of “it is not the lightening that kills us but the stingray”, adapting ourselves resignedly to the power of structures where “for money even the monkey dances” and the voluntarist impulse that pushes us to solve hard problems spontaneously “just pure man style” or “pure talk” (based on hearsay or threats of force). The peasant experience of the United States in the 19th Century gives us a guide. Their uprising for many years implied organizing into different forms of cooperatives. Youth started it who were looking for books to read and study their realities, on that basis they did not mobilize frontally against the State, but reflected strategically and organized cooperatives. According to Goodwyn, they almost achieved it. Probably the economy of scale logic, concentrating physical investments, competing with private enterprise on an equal basis, the hierarchical structure that permeated them and had roots in the families, ended up undermining their path. But it constituted a good starting point for the youth of today: studying their realities, reading, organizing and continue reflecting on their strategic prospects.
In what follows, we provide some more steps: recover the written culture for the cooperative movement, that the youth organize into different cooperative forms, innovate in the area where they find themselves, and disseminate their learnings to produce a real movement.
4.2.1. Bridges between oral and written cultures
Peasant families are based on oral traditions, transmitted from generation to generation, while the youth of today pass through the academic classrooms based on written culture. Combining both traditions, instead of one replacing the other, is a promising path.
Let us challenge this apparent duality: the oral tradition is not so oral, nor is the written tradition so written. The oral tradition is not just the transmission of cultural expressions from parents to children, but about why and how to produce the food and keep a family. This tradition is also expressed as living hierglyphs through a farm (diversified crops, agriculture-forests), garden (“the green thumb of my Mom”, referring to horticulture and medicinal plants), cornfield, diet, design of the home and idiomatic expressions that reveal perspectives. The written tradition does not seem to find a home in universities, because most of the universities in Latin America do not do research for the formation that they offer, and because, according to Torres Rivas, the “faith in reason” of the Enlightenment is replaced by the “postmodern and neoliberal logic” where “one walks from the academic to the role of the consultant”. Consequently, the youth who graduate have little written tradition and investigative spirit.
Table 3. Strategic Conversation between parents and children
-My parents taught me to plant corn and beans, and that will kill me!
-Dad, times have changed, why don´t you plant other crops?
-For you who have studied talk is easy. I am a peasant
-And how is it that my grandparents decided to plant corn and beans?
– Daughter, for food, if I have food I am not going to be a worker for a bad salary, I can decide to or not, that is how your grandparents were
-This is a very good reason. How did my grandparents plant corn? Why didn´t they plant cassava which also is food?
-We should never be without corn. My parents took a piece of land here and there, they looked where it was better for corn, plantains…they went around testing it
-They taught you to study the land and thus decide what to plant…
-I used to observe them. I would listen to them talk in their bed. They talked with the neighbors. At times they would tell me “I brought this seed, test it to see if it sprouts”. “You have to plant several things so that the soil gets fed”
To combine them requires unlearning. Table 3 is a dialogue from the peasant side. There are three moments to which we provide color to help understand it. In the first moment is the belief that being a peasant is to be a planter of corn and beans, believing that that is the inherited knowledge. When the daughter questions him, her father shuts her down, “I am a peasant”. That belief, reduced to “what” (crops), blocks the possible learning of both of them. In the second moment, the daughter does not give up, she asks again. There is when the family wakes up, is unblocked: they had learned how to cultivate autonomy, study the soil and experiment. In the third moment, the oral tradition is undressed: observation, conversation, curiosity, experimentation, relationship to the land. This type of strategic conversation is behind a variety of diversified farms or a stew of food. The best of the grandparents is capturing the “how” they taught and how their children learned. And that is reviving them.
Table 4. Strategic conversation between parents and children II
-Mom, I feel bad, I did not get a job as an engineer.
-Work here, son, we need arms on the farm.
-I am not a peasant, I am an agronomist!
-Don´t you think it would help you to practice being an “agronomist”?
-I studied modern agriculture to think big
-What is “big”
-Plant just one crop, mechanized, agrochemicals…
-And who works on that?
-Companies, large estates, businesses, corporations…
-Aren´t they the ones who divert rivers for their rice, they leave areas without trees and unusable land where ever they go?
–Noooo, yes, but …
-They won you over without having to pay for your studies, we being backward and paying for your studies, lost you…
-Ah Mom, I don´t know what to tell you
From the other side, the youth move about self secure for having studied in universities. The attached table expresses another three moments. In the first, Mom and son coincide in that the “agronomist” looks for work, while they need “arms” on the farm. This idea of agronomist blocks the possibility of seeing opposing realities like the peasantry versus large estate owners, production systems on farms versus mono-cropping. In the second moment, the Mother asks and makes the son strip down what he learned in the university. In the third moment, what modern agriculture consists in is explained, and the curtain falls dramatically: the “backward” ones paid for the studies so that the companies might have another engineer. The security of being an engineer at the beginning of the conversation is replaced by the doubt: “I don´t know what to tell you”. Mother and son are awakening.
This unlearning gives way to re-learning. Retrospectively, we started from the duality of the oral-written tradition, then we set out to hold strategic conversations between children and parents where both sides are awakening. Notice, the two tables are like the notes that we take in our notebooks, while the analysis is what we are writing alongside. This re-learning is the bridge between the written culture and the oral culture, which we argue is what the peasant way in Europe and the United States lacked, and what we can undertake in Latin America. This bridge implies: observing, questioning, conversing and analyzing attitudes in the other person and in oneself (for urban youth these steps are possible through immersion). To that we add what was learned from the agrarian uprising in the United States: reading, studying the realities of the harsh rules, reflecting massively with the peasantry, and organizing cooperatives as a result of those studies.
Writing is thinking, accumulating knowledge and sharing it. “Papers talk”. In this process the belief tends to appear that “studies are not done without money”, which assumes surveys, laboratories, and people with doctorates. If there is a will, there is a way. Youth and people of any age can buy a notebook and pen for 1 dollar to take notes, find the veins and follow them. Writing is combining pen and shovel with the greatest stubbornness in the world. From there, what is written are living hieroglyphs: published articles, farms, gardens, financial statements, communities, plates of food, webpages… Taking notes begins the circle of innovation.
4.2.2. Innovative role of the youth in the details
The fact that the youth can build bridges between oral and written traditions opens them to the field of innovating in any area – farm, garden, store, community, family, cooperative. Here we describe two groups of examples where it is important to innovate.
The first group is the farm. If organic agriculture saves us in chemical inputs and feeds the soil in a lasting manner for good production; if bee-keeping, in addition to producing honey, contributes to reordering the farm and increasing its productivity; if the combination of agriculture and ranching is one of the successful veins; if agro-industry in communities adds value to products, knowledge to families and expands social relations in the community; if poultry and pigs are a food source and generator of income; if the garden with horticulture and other plants are food and medicine for families; if stores generate daily income and provide a service to communities bringing them products and selling their products…What innovations can be worked on in these cases and under what conditions can they be expanded? If in the last 30 years Governments and international organizations have failed in their support for gardens, bee-keeping, poultry raising, organic agriculture, agro-industry and commerce, then innovating in these areas is a real challenge.
The second group is the family. The peasantry are made up of decentralized and extended families, while hierarchical at the same time. Elizabeth Dore talks about “patriarchy from below” and refers to the fact that the man in the house is the patriarch, who keeps their financial accounts and centralizes decision making. This patriarchal relationship from “below” is transferred to cooperatives where the president or the manager keep the financial accounts and centralizes decision making. This is true also in community and other organizations. If the family frees itself from the hierarchical institution that forms it, the entire family will review their receipts, and recognize that in that they have an instrument to demand their rights as members. This will have a positive repercussion on the family, cooperatives and other spaces where the members of the family participate: Church, sports, municipal government…It will contribute to social, economic and political equity. Thousands of trainings and sermons have not made a difference in families and organizations. How can this patriarchy from below be transformed which Jesus already challenged 2,000 years ago? What can be done so that in the family the financial accounts are managed by the entire family? I mention this issue of the receipts because it is a detail, so that, like Einstein, the youth might focus on the details and innovate.
4.3. Youth as counterbalance in the cooperatives
These innovations can be facilitated in cooperative spaces. There are some like the Colega Cooperative that systematically include the youth (4.1), while in most the youth lack the instruments to insert themselves in the cooperatives. By proposing to reinvent or create cooperatives with a new design, we are suggesting a role of counterbalance for the youth. This role is a concrete instrument to facilitate innovation.
Cooperatives can reinvent themselves if the youth take on the role of counterbalance from within. In Nicaragua, we work along this line. Between an accompanying organization, like that to which the author of this article belongs, and cooperatives, we agreed to collaborate. The cooperative recognizes that its business side absorbed the associative side, and that this has caused breakdowns, and accepts that its associative side be responsible for the strategic decisions, and its business side for making them operational, as the statutes and cooperative law indicate (see Figure 5).
Figure 5. Youth as counterbalance
Source: Author´s own.
First, there is a tripartite relationship of coordination between the cooperative, financial organizations and buyers, and the accompanying organization, to ensure that the cooperative be treated as a cooperative and not as a private entity by the organizations. Second, within the previous framework, the accompanying organization prepares instruments (guides) so that each organ might function effectively; it does so to the extent that it studies it and is part of the process of change. Third, one young person per cooperative has the role of studying the cooperative, accompanying each organ while using the instruments, and ensures that the information and its analysis flow from the business side of the cooperative to the associative side, and viceversa. Studying the operation of the cooperative allows the youth to detect attitudes in play, make them visible, and propose new innovative rules. Fourth, the accompanying organization creates spaces for workshops with the youth that work on these arrangements, where each one talks about their concerns and innovations, ideas are shared and methodologies worked on about how to hold conversations with member families, innovate, write and share their findings.
Some lessons from this experience. To the extent that the youth study the reason why an organ is not functioning and how it can function, instead of only sticking to the what (statutes and cooperative law), the members see that the cooperative is a different path from private enterprise. When the youth perceive that technical language is a wall in their communication, they understand that they are behaving as technocrats, believing that they have the solution without studying the realities, then, humility gains space, they study the details of the hierarchical structure and how they give way in the face of cooperativism. For example, they understand the tacit rule of the members that “loans are decided by the person at the top”, not the rules agreed upon in the assembly, which is why they study what makes this informal rule persist – there are always reasons! This path of making the organs function according to the rules agreed upon by the member assembly avoids the common result of the work of NGOs, who tend to train leaders and “replacement” youth, who, on assuming their posts, turn into the “person at the top” under the rule of “get rid of you to put me in”. To the extent that the youth devote themselves to this role of counterbalance, the belief that they are “useless slackers” gives way to greater trust.
Box 5. Learning cycle in cooperative reinvention
Harsh (adverse) rules and bases for resignation, strategic conversations.
Redesign existing cooperatives (role of internal counterbalance) and creation of new cooperatives with new design.
Dissemination of results and lessons.
Source: Author´s own.
There are also youth who prefer to create new cooperatives. The advantage is that they are not going to be “organized” by the State or some external organization, they are born with autonomy. The disadvantage is that they do not have external resources for their first steps. They can perdure over time if they start based on innovations that can only be carried out with the collaboration of several people. How can they be accompanied? Table 5 provides the steps, worked on here. Each one of them requires taking notes and analyzing them. It is circular: after the first cycle of study, self study, innovate, (re) organize and share, the next cycle returns to the study of the changing realities, this time self-study is about the operation of the cooperative, reflecting and looking at the world without letting it pass by, and so on successively. Rene Mendoza is developing instruments about how to observe, converse, analyze notes, analyze secondary data and how to innovate along with the youth, texts which, although they are drafts, can be downloaded by young people.
Sharing in the digital era
More than reinventing a cooperative, it is a matter of generating a movement for the reinvention of cooperativism. In this text we focused on the agrarian reality, but it is equally necessary to do it in other areas. How can a movement be generated? The steps of Table 5 are basic ones. Planning each innovation as Pep Guardiola teaches us, and sharing it through different media as Chef Acurio teaches us. In this effort the use of webpages and social media, in addition to other written media and videos, can be paths to explore.
Inti Mendoza finds that the use of webpages is still limited in organizations. The cooperatives who have a webpage are few, and of those that have them, few use them. Innovating in this area to use it as a means for learning is an pending task. In Nicaragua we are experimenting combining webpages with murals in the cooperatives: the same information (minutes of meetings, financial statements, loan portfolio, innovations) disseminated on the webpage month by month, are also presented on the mural of the cooperative. On that same webpage articles are published, databases, guides for the operation of the cooperative, learning guides for the youth, accounting software, stories about how cooperatives are organized, strategic conversations, and basic information is offered on the cooperatives with which they collaborate. We look for students from different universities in the world to study the cooperatives through the webpage, because of the information that is found there and because they can be in direct contact with the cooperatives.
Social networks are another means to discuss difficult topics of the cooperatives. If a cooperative is the captive of hierarchical structures, it can be discussed in social networks. Likewise, how a cooperative constructs its autonomy, or the conditions under which women organize or are excluded from the cooperative; why a cooperative embraces mono-cropping; whether the cooperatives has policies that are excluding youth (for example, having land) or policies against machismo (for example, expulsion of a member who physically mistreats his spouse); whether the international organizations treat cooperatives as cooperatives or only as businesses; whether cooperatives distribute their profits; whether second tier cooperatives concentrate investments and centralize decision making, or whether they facilitate first tier cooperatives scaling up. These topics can be debated on social networks under the question about what is it to be a cooperative and how does the cooperative support the well being of its members?
In the digital era the youth can innovate on ways of sharing their reflections and successes. The webpage is a means for analysis, and social networks a means for informing themselves and debating.
By way of conclusion
There are three ways in which the youth mobilize for social change. One is confronting the State in the streets in a violent way, generally in circumstantial reaction to policies, acts of corruption or acts of repression. Another way is where the peasantry studies the harsh rules (commercial and/or extractive), but forgets to study their own mentality, this is the case of the populist cooperative movement of the United States between 1870 and 1910. The third way is when the peasantry studies the harsh rules (commercial and/or extractive), self-studies their mentality, and mobilizes not to confront the State, but to innovate for the peasant families who are organizing.
Throughout this text we worked on the third modality of mobilization of youth who are moved to reinvent cooperativism as a means to make family agriculture viable. According to L. David Covey, “we are in the midst of one of the most profound changes in the history of humanity, where the principal work of humanity is moving from the industrial era of ‘control’ to that of the worker of knowledge”. The viability of family agriculture is possible today, based not on strength and virgin lands as in the past, but on knowledge and innovation, for which the youth can be the principal motor. The most important muscle in current family agriculture is the brain.
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 Doctor in Development Studies, associate researcher of IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium), collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research) and member of the COSERPROSS RL. Cooperative. Email: email@example.com.
 The lard is taken from the pig once it has died (been slaughtered). In rural areas of Central America this expression is used to indicate that the parents in the countryside wait until they die to leave their land to their sons and daughters.
 This saying relies on a play of words that does not exist in English: rayo=lightening, raya=stingray
 Edgar Fernández, a consultant to cooperatives, tells that he visited a member of a cooperative in crisis. Fernández asked if he had receipts. The member showed his receipts and began to tremble: “Please don´t tell the manager that I showed you the receipts”. The extreme in some cooperatives is that they have their members so subjected that they begin to believe that ceasing to cover up acts of corruption is “betraying” their cooperative, that “making demands is a thing of cowards”. A receipt is a detail. How important are the details!
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….
For the past several weeks I have struggled to come up with the right means of expression to describe how I feel about circumstances in Nicaragua. In the shadow of killings and abductions and fear, Nicaragua would seem to be quite unlike the country in which Winds of Peace has worked over the past 35 years. Pictures of massive protests in the places I know, photos of masked shooters in the neighborhoods where I’ve been, blood in the streets where I’ve walked: these are surreal images that choke the words I should say. I have not traveled to Nicaragua since February, and I feel as though I’ve been away even longer.
The development continues, nonetheless. Loans are being made: last week, two women’s cooperatives received small, initial funding for local agriculture. Grants are being given: despite the vastly reduced attendance in schools over recent months, elementary-age reading initiatives are being redirected through community sites and churches Repayments are being made: even where full repayment might be delayed, partners are reworking payment plans to honor their obligations as best they can. There may be few causes of great joy within the current turmoil of Nicaragua, but there are hopeful moments.
Of course, what matters in this crisis time is not the impact upon a small U.S. foundation; Winds of Peace is just fine. Of importance is the real-life upheaval being lived out daily by Nicaraguans who struggled for daily survival long before the first protests were launched, and who now find themselves threatened with even greater hardships than before. Most North Americans would have a difficult time fully comprehending Nicaraguan poverty prior to April 18 of this year. We have even less likelihood of understanding their realities given the way things are today. And my words are simply insufficient to the cause.
So I invite readers to shift their attentions to the “Nica Update” entries at this site. They are frequent updates on the status of the confrontation and the contain the observations and experiences of men and women caught up in current struggle. They are words of passion. They are expressions of the most deeply-held beliefs of Nicaraguan people yearning once again for peace and equity. They are the fluent articulations of a people’s soul, in a time of deep distress.
Over the din of bullets and bulldozers, emerge words of eloquence and meaning….
I’ve consumed a lot of pizza in my days. Maybe it’s because pizza came into its own as an entre′ while I was a teen, or the fact that it’s probably my favorite food indulgence. I’ve eaten more than my share of those pies. I’ve had them homemade in my grandmother’s kitchen when I was nine years old, I’ve eaten them across Italy and the rest of western Europe, I’ve consumed them in the Virgin Islands, Mexico, Canada, Hungary and even on board a sailing vessel on the ocean. I’m reasonably certain that I must hold some sort of unofficial pizza consumption record for my days in college. In short, I am an expert.
But one of the most unlikely and satisfying slices occurred just last month, during my most recent visit to Nicaragua. Yes, it was the first pizza I have consumed in that country. But more important than that was the group of young women with whom I shared the pizza. What might be the odds that on any given day in my life I would find myself having a Chefella’s pizza with 15 female cooperative members in Matagalpa, Nicaragua? On March 12th, the answer was 100%
I love pizza anywhere, and under nearly any circumstances. But when we arrived to join this mid-day meeting of entrepreneurs to the announcement that we would share pizza for lunch, I admit to being triply-excited: first, to talk again with these adventuresome women, most of whom were new to the idea of cooperative life; second, at the prospect of my first-ever Nicaraguan pizza; and third, to consider once more the collaborative symbolism of my favorite food.
You see, pizza in my experience has always been a cooperative meal. When our kids were young, pizza night was a time for all of us to be in the kitchen and contributing our own labors to the creation of something worthwhile, in this case, for dinner. Katie made the crust, I formed it in the pan, Megan and Molly spread the sauce, Ian added the meat and Nikki sprinkled the cheese. We collectively watched the baking and timing. And of course, we shared happily in the end result.
The entire process was one of great participation, involving every member of our family. The fear might have been that if you didn’t help out, you wouldn’t get any pizza. But the reality was more that this was something that we loved doing together, and that made the entire outcome- the pizza- even better. Of course, the process mandated complete transparency. Some of us couldn’t eat onions; indeed, a hidden agenda here would have resulted in stomach upset! Others didn’t care for green peppers. One in our family didn’t wish to eat meat. So we had to be very clear in drawing the lines of content in our pizzas. Those ingredient boundaries were our respective stakes in the outcome. And, of course, eventually we experienced the satisfaction and reward of shared effort: taking a piece of the pie. Collaboration made homemade pizzas tastier than frozen ones, and more cost-effective than pizzeria models.
A pizza with the 15 women did not involve our collective making and baking, but it did connect us in a shared result. Sitting around the tables which had been laid end-to-end created a loop of continuity, of solidarity, of oneness for at least that special lunch period. It will be up to the women members of the cooperatives to determine whether they can sustain that linkage to their ongoing mutual benefit.
Meanwhile, it made that unlikely pizza one of the best slices I’ve had, and I’ve had a lot….
The height of injustice is to be deemed just when you are not. Plato
Even an honest man sins in the face of an open treasure. Saying.
The VII song of the Odyessy tells how the goddess Circe warned Ulysses that the sailors of those waters were so enchanted by the song of the sirens that they went mad, and lost control of their ships. To not succumb to that enchantment, Ulysses asked that he be tied to the mast of the ship, and that the oarsmen have wax put in their ears, and ordered that if he, because of the spell of their song, would ask that they free him, instead they should tighten the knots. So it was that Ulysses and his oarsmen were saved, and the sirens, failing in their objective, threw themselves off the cliff.
Facing unfair commercial relations, Fair Trade (FT) emerged as an alternative so that people who organized might improve their lives and be a space of solidarity among different actors beyond their countries´ borders. Nevertheless, in our case study in Nicaragua and Central America, we show that the institutional structure of power relationships under the market control of elites is like the sirens in the myth, capable of seducing the FT network, turning it against its own principles, and turning solidarity into just a bunch of words, numbers and papers. How can FT tie itself up so as to not succumb to the song of the sirens, and in this way, grow, enhancing its FT alternative principles? To respond to this question we take as a given that there are exceptional cooperatives, organizations, and people who confirm the importance of organizing and cultivating global solidarity, and that there are successful cooperatives, in countries in the south as well as in the north, in FT as well as outside of it. Nevertheless, in this article we study certain practices of the FT framework that seem to indicate its involution, and on that basis we suggest its reinvention. To do so we focus on coffee, which constitutes 70% of the volume of what is sold through FT.
You have to look at coffee like the fingers on a hand; the first year we plant, the second year the coffee develops, The third year we harvest, the fourth we harvest more and the fifth year the coffee begins to decline R. Mairena, President
The cooperative works for me: it sells my coffee at a better price, it gives me credit. And it guides me in growing coffee. M.D. Gómez, Member
Plato in his book “The Republic” tells the story of the cave. A group of prisoners remained chained in a cave since their birth. They cannot turn their heads, they can only see the wall in the back. Behind them is a corridor and a bonfire. Men are passing through the corridor with different objects which project shadows on the wall because of the light. The prisoners believe that the shadows of the objects are real. One day one of the prisoners is freed and seeing the light from the fire, the people, trees, lakes and the sun, realizes the origin of the shadows and that they are only shadows. He returns to the cave to free his fellow prisoners, who on hearing that the shadows were only shadows, do not believe him, make fun of him and treat him as if he were crazy. This allegory reveals the strength of mindsets (tacit beliefs that rule the lives of people).
What is this kind of mindset in a cooperative? How can a cooperative free itself and build its own way? We explain this mindset, study it seeking to change it: we do it from the experience of the Solidaridad Cooperative in Nicaragua.
1. Mental frameworks and their origins
“The large estate provides, and the farm is a drain”, “we always need a patron”, “the patron knows and decides, the rest obey”, “only one crop, more inputs, more production”, “the dumber the fieldhand, the more hardworking they are”, “ the cheaper you pay the fieldhand, and the cheaper the land is, the more money can be made”. These beliefs sustain a hierarchical and discriminating framework, internalized by a good part of our society.
This mentality was refined over centuries all over. By 1880 Matagalpa had an indigenous population with more than 200,000 mzas of mountainous land, most of it was expropriated by the State for coffee; the mindset was in line with the myth of mestizo Nicaragua (J. Gould): “coffee, a civilized crop, indigenous an obstacle for civilization.” Thus between 1889 and 1895 there were more than 200 foreigners in Matagalpa. In time, in the zone of Arenal, Thomas, Manning, Crespi, Harrison and Vita formed large estates. Vita founded the Aranjuez estate (hacienda), later bought by Potter, then by De Savigny, later on turned into the first mountain hotel and later Somoza turned it into a Sanatarium for people with tuberculosis. From the start of the XX century up to now, temporarily interrupted by the war in the 1980s, the following haciendas were formed: El Quetzal, Marsellesa, Monimbo, La Aurora, El Paraíso, El Paraisito, Los Helechos, Santa Ana, La Esperanza and La Minita. The Solidaridad cooperative is in Aranjuez and El Arenal, has an indigenous past and is now surrounded by haciendas.
The hacienda system was imposed with State backing. Racism and dispossession mechanisms went hand in hand, which is the origin of that mentality that persists even in our times. In the 1990s a hacienda closed the road on 62 members of the Carlos Rodríguez cooperative, forcing them to sell their lands at the price that the hacienda had set. Currently the El Quetzal hacienda closes the road after 6pm, thus leaving the communities “closed in”, communities where its own workers live, as well as some families who are members of the cooperative. After 2010 several haciendas of the area have been facing a drop in the production of their coffee, the soils are exhausted, the exploited environment no longer produces: more inputs, more dead soil, the more coffee is exposed to full sunlight, the more the soil is washed away with the rainfall.
The very act of explaining the origin of that mentality awakens people. The hacienda has built itself by taking. More inputs and mono-cropping has led to greater soil deterioration. Closing roads no longer leads to cheaper land, nor does it force the hand of producer families. The “stupid” fieldhand, leaving the hacienda, has become a farmer.
2. A check on the hacienda: the cooperative
The 63 members of the cooperative have more than 300 mzs of land and produce about 7,000 qq of export coffee. The cooperative collects and exports 60% of the coffee of its members, 30% of that as quality coffee. 20 years ago most of these 63 members were fieldhands – some of them foremen – of the haciendas, they were families with little or no land, some of them producing some flowers and vegetables. Of the 63, some 25 members produce between 30-100qq export coffee per manzana, producing more than some haciendas. A small producer of Aranjuez, who is not a member of the cooperative, with 5 mzs of coffee, won the 2017 Cup of Excellence Award with 91.16 points. That is quality coffee! Diversified coffee farms with bananas and citrus, and not mono-cropping haciendas, produce quality coffee, not just standard coffee. All of this makes the land increase in value, puts a check on the hacienda, and in addition the hacienda sees its earnings decreasing.
It is easy to find examples to illustrate these results. There is a member who is a single mother who lives off her 2 mzs of coffee and bananas, that produces enough for her to support her mother and married daughters. Another member of the cooperative was able to intensify his coffee with bananas and citrus through the cooperative, and left his job as a fieldhand of the hacienda. There is a foreman who became a member of the cooperative and ended up being president of the cooperative.
What has generated this change? Well, the cooperative! Its strategy? First, it understood the importance of regularity in the application of inputs (urea and leaf sprayed fertilizer) that coffee needs in order to produce more, which is why the cooperative provides in-kind credit so that, under technical supervision, each member family applies it and pays for it with that same coffee, for which the cooperative finds markets. Secondly, they got past the biannual nature of coffee (one good year of production and the next year low production), pruning 25% of the coffee each year, and systematically renovating their old coffee plants. Third, the member families are concentrated in a microterritory and receive credit services, technical assistance and collect the harvest right there, which reduces their transaction costs and facilitates a close relationship between members-leaders and members-administration. Fourth, strong leadership pushing the cooperative in new challenges in a calm, gradual way; “directed credit”, “piloting direct exporting with a small amount”, and “getting into milling with low volume”; they do it as they establish relationships with the social banking sector, coffee buyers and chemical input companies.
Seen from the results, organized small scale production provides more and better farms, good for the people and good for the environment. Nevertheless, seen from the processes, following a different path from that of the hacienda, the response is two pronged: increasing family ownership over their production, but not over their organization. On the one hand, the discipline of applying inputs every 30-35 days on their coffee, and selectively pruning 25% of the plants has become a custom, and thereby a tacit law; as well as turning their coffee in to the cooperative, paying their loans and waiting for a better price. On the other hand, the mindset planted by the hacienda persists: “more inputs, more production”, “without the president we would fall”, “information is not up to date and does not get to the members”, “decisions about credit and who can have a better price for their coffee are not made in the organs of the cooperative”, “a buyer even chooses 10 members to buy their coffee”, “we members rely on the president, we only come in to get our loans and our payments”, “the members who do not increase their production will not increase it no matter what we give them”, “if we apply the rules of the cooperative we would be left without members”, “let the member with the most volume of coffee set the price”. A good part of the cooperative and some of its allies breathe in this mindset.
The benefits of the cooperative for the member families and the environment, for Aranjuez and el Arenal are visible, but their durability depends on changes in their mentality. As Saint-Exupéry said in his novel The Little Prince, what is most important is what is invisible. Taking your own path involves getting off the path of the hacienda.
3. Transformation of mental models
In addition to increasing production, the cooperative proposes increasing coffee quality, diversified farms with environmental sustainability, stronger relationships with the social banks and buyers, members who study their farms, and good relations between members, leaders and workers. And they are on that path. One member who studies and experiments: “I make a selective leaf spray, because I am watching over my plants, I recognize the coffee bore or rust, I observe it daily, if it progresses, I spray it, if it does not progress, I enclose it”; “I spray the entire coffee field, for prevention”; “ before putting a chemical on it I test it a little”, “what I learned when I had organic coffee I continue applying, I spend less and it goes further”, “I have coffee trees for repopulating and to sell”. The member/leader, the one that asks questions, accepts positions of responsibility and exercises them, complies with the rules of the cooperative and the decisions of its respective bodies, is still a subject under construction. Relationships with the workers, encouraged by a coffee buying organization, are making progress: “Coffee with a union aroma” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_SD3QBJ7r_U&feature=share)
For that the cooperative is refining its strategy. First, it is strengthening the observation and study that led them to determine the regularity in the application of inputs, this time to get beyond the belief of “more inputs, more production” to “more observation and management, more quality production”, including mixtures of coffee in micro-lots. Second, it is keeping its decision to have an office and services in the same territory, trying to get their sons and daughters to participate in the life of the cooperative – as members and personnel-staff. Third, it is making the policies and rules of the cooperative be applied, that decisions come from the organs of the cooperative, that members, board and administrative staff be subject to those agreements, and that the international allies respect and strengthen that institutionality. Fourth, the distribution of earnings based on updated information be posted on the wall- information on loans, financial statement, balance statement, volume of coffee collected, services of processing and exporting – so that the member families might come in to be informed, because informing is forming.
The Solidarity cooperative has taken a giant step: it stopped the hacienda. But even though it is at a standstill; it is still intact; the member families, even though are progressing in production and organization, are dividing up their land through inheritances, and their cooperative instrument continues being a challenge. The myth of the cave could change in the cooperative framework if the 4 elements of the strategy – observation, territory, institutionality and transparency – are carried out as the origin of its “light”, that would let them dismantle the mindset of the hacienda (“shadows”) and discern a new path. Their challenge is also the challenge of the entire world.
 René has a PhD in development studies, is an associate researcher of the IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium), collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/) and member of the COSERPROSS RL cooperative. firstname.lastname@example.org Edgar is also a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation.
 We talked with the member families, their leaders and staff and we facilitated workshops in Aranjuez. This article is the result of that collective learning with the member families that observed their farms and reflected on their cooperative. We are grateful to J. Koldegaard for his comments on the draft of this article.