Category Archives: Ownership

Reinvention of social enterprises from Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala

Reinvention of social enterprises from Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala

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René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

Off the rails

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

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

María cried the entire night.

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

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

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

 

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

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

1.    Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

2.    Cooptation of social enterprises

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

3.    Social enterprises that go “off the rails”

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

3.1  Case studies

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

3.1.1       Nicaragua and organizations in synergy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.1.2       Honduras and community organizations

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.1.3       Guatemala and ecological agriculture which transcends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.2  Commonalities in these cases

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

 

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

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

-Alliance in international triangulation around coffee

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

-Contributing and distributing equitably

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

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

-Religious opening: they value themselves

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

-diversify crops, weaving and commerce.

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

-Community store and weaving group in the community

-Self governance: Member families in posts of organizations

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

-Rotation of leaders that also looks at the administration

-managers that implement decisions of the organs.

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

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

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

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

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

-Rotation of leaders directing actions of the cooperative

-Transnational alliance whose members have roles that they carry out

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.    Conceptualization of alternative processes

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

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

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

-diversified farm

-Women on water committee, school  boards …;

-They feed sons and daughters

-garden: my Mom´s green thumb

Growth with equity -Distribution of profits

-Diversified and agro-industrial farms; systems for saving

-Improve roads, clínic-health

-Sharecropping

-Share voluntary labor support, seed for grains

 

-processing and commercializing

-saving

-sharing oregano, lard, lemon … (food)

Ownership of your organization -Monthly cash-inventory audit;

-Oversight from within and without- with or without posts

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

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

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

-Equity in inheritances

Learning apparatuses -Diversification of services

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

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

-sharecropping and sharing voluntary labor

-Weaving, processing, commerce, garden

-family

-communities

 

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

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

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

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

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

5.    Conclusions

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

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

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

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

6.    Bibliography

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] René has a PhD in development studies and accompanies rural organizations in Central America. He is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/), associate researcher of IOB Antwerp University and member of Coserpross (http://coserpross.org/es/home/).

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

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

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

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

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

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

The force of structures

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

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

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

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

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

Change of structures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding

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

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

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

[1] René has a PhD in development studies and accompanies rural organizations in Central America. He is a member of Coserpross (http://coserpross.org/es/home/), an associate researcher of IOB-Antwerp University, and a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/).

Booklet 5: RSEs as catalysts of good changes

Booklet 5

RSEs[1] as catalysts of good changes

René Mendoza Vidaurre with Fabiola Zeledón and Esmelda Suazo

The drunkard´s curse

-Why are you selling your land?

-I have debts, I have no money…I no longer know what to do.

-Ahh, you have the drunkard´s curse.

-what?

-The drunk sells what he has and keeps the craving for alcohol, returns to look for what he can sell or steal, and it increases his urge to drink.

-I am not a drunk! What does this drunkard´s curse have to do with me?

There have been hundreds of innovations that, on the death of the “boss”, have fallen apart like a house of cards. In good measure due to the “drunkard´s curse”. The drunk who wakes up with a hangover, looks to see if he can find even a little bit of alcohol, and there is nothing that can stop him from getting that drink, he will get it by begging, selling what is within his reach or stealing it.

In terms of this article, those “cravings” are the social rules of families that push or pull people to get rid of any initiative with potential for success, on the condition of getting “a drink” (short term earnings). These families, nevertheless, are unaware of these social rules, those “cravings” as in the story: “I am not a drunk! What does this drunkard´s curse have to do with me?” It is like, literally, the initiative “got drunk”, whose owners end up selling “the cow that provides the milk” instead of selling “the milk”; or better still, instead of making cheese, cream and cream cheese with “the milk.”

RSEs analyze these realities. They are not isolated from them. They study them, they study themselves, correct and catalyze transformational actions. In fact, SREs emerged while analyzing these realities, looking at how to chart a different path and at the same time contribute to the community. How do the SREs catalyze good changes in communities? In this booklet we try to respond to this question, while we invite those who read it to reflect on their own responses. Here we describe some of those harmful social rules, we identify other rules with which initiatives can pave the way, we denote the role of these types of initiatives for generating good changes in communities, and we conclude that this path deserves being tested.

1.    The strength of social rules

While studying the commercialization of products, the way that families decide on inheritances, production systems, how women become single mothers, how sharecropping relationship work, being a day worker, or how cooperatives work, time and time again structural conditions appear that leave people or organizations like hobbled hens in terms of their growth, obstacles appear to trip the feet of those who are walking. What is this common pattern? Figure 1 shows three rules, individual opportunism, men as the law, and the big payoff culture; it is a triangle that like the “cravings” in the drunkard´s curse makes people end up selling “the cow.”

If a couple puts up a storefront, sew shop or makes rosquillas [corn cookies] to sell, their own relatives and friends trip them up. How? They buy on credit, buy on credit, and continue to buy on credit. It is the drunkard´s curse, they promise to pay, they pay and buy on credit again, and on and on. When the amount that they put on their tab surpasses their financial capacities, they get upset when they are asked to pay, and they are resentful if they are not given more credit on top of what they already owe, it is like they earned the right to buy on credit, or that they end up believing that the store belongs to them- this is what we call the opportunism of drunks. The consequence of these practices is that the initiative, on having more than 15% of their capital in the “on the tab” portfolio, begins to fall apart, and families get stressed on being charged and promising payments, and it is like a wound exposed to the sun, gets swollen and is difficult to heal. The rules that lead to failure are: being a relative gives me the right to buy on credit, not necessarily to pay – it is like “what is yours is mine, and what is mine is mine”; no one from the community, individually, should stand out (be successful). Both rules come from the indigenous-peasant family that emerged in a context of bartering (in kind exchanges) and on communal lands, if you do a favor, the other family at some time will return the favor; now, nevertheless, the context is practically the opposite, in addition to the fact that the element of time in a store is a matter of days, and the fact that a basis of common food does not exist.

There are families that, just as they grow quickly, also fall apart quickly. It could be that they buy and accumulate land, or as lenders, accumulate money. The drunkard´s curse is that, even though they try to improve their work, for example, intensifying the use of the soil, they go back to buying more land, and become extensive again in their use of the soil; in this way they have coffee farms where they get 8 loads per manzana, or grazing land where they have 1 cow on 2 manzanas[2]. Then their children trip them up: Dad divides up the land, one part he sells and the other part he divides up into an inheritance for his children. Once the land is received, most of the children begin to sell their part, or borrow money putting it up as collateral, prisoners of the drunkard´s curse. The rule that pulls them toward failure is: only the man (Father/husband) makes decisions and he is the law for the family. With this rule, the man wants to administer and make decisions about any initiative, decisions are made under the culture of “leave it to me”- “I will work it out, this is a man´s issue.”  This rule comes from patriarchy, it is a rule that prevents his daughters and sons from learning, which disempowers women (Mothers/wives) and it is a rule that ruins communities.

Raising coffee or sugar cane as a monocrop has meant that families receive payment only once with the harvest, on which income depends the food and clothing of the family. We call this custom the big payoff culture: wanting to receive payment in one bit hit, not getting smaller amounts throughout the year, nor cultivating food for each month. Correspondingly, when a family administers a new initiative, this initiative tends to naturally be trapped by this big payoff culture; they want to have earnings in a few days and in larger amounts, if they are not able to get that, they shout to the four winds for more product, their frustration traps them. They lose sight of the need to learn to administer the RSEs, build up clientele, study their environment, plan; what is important to them is to “win the lottery”; the big payoff, because they believe that there is nothing to learn, or that they already know it. The rule that pulls them to failure is: earn money right now however possible, that tomorrow may be too late. It is a rule that comes from capitalism – like usury or heartless commercial mediation – and that rule is like the sun during the daytime, it keeps you from seeing the stars.

2.    Collective actions that make a difference

A RSE can reduce – and avoid – the risk of following the fate of that ton of initiatives and organizations that tend to fall apart. For that purpose, we introduce a RSE as a new seed that grows between the land of the community and the winds that blow from outside the community. This RSE needs the virtuous triangle of figure 2. It is from this virtuous triangle that RSEs can catalyze small but good changes in the community. We use the word “catalyze” to indicate that SREs can cause unexpected changes, without generating or expanding them directly, allowing people in the community to observe, digest, reflect on their realities in the face of this mirror of the SRE, and be correcting, expanding and generating new practices and rules.

The first element is distinguishing collective assets from individual assets. For that purpose let us read about Blanca Victoria from El Cua, as told by her son, Juan Adams:

Rogelio worked for his aunt, Blanca Victoria. On pay day he would say, “Aunt, don´t pay me now, just give me this much.” His aunt saved his money. One day Blanca Victoria needed some money to buy something, and she went running to her nephew, “Rogelio, lend me some money.” “Sure, aunt, just use it,” responded Rogelio. The aunt returned home and took the money from Rogelio´s savings which she kept for him.

The family that administers a RSE is like Aunt Blanca Victoria, and the resources in the store, roaster or bakery are like the resources of Rogelio, and the two dozen shareholders who own the RSE are like Rogelio. The family has those resources in their hands, as the Aunt did, but they are the resources of others; even though they are in their hands, they cannot use them as if they were theirs. They are a collective asset.

Within this framework, a RSE can navigate better. If a relative or a family friend of the person who administers a RSE comes looking to start a tab, they cannot demand that they be given credit under the rule that “we are part of the family”, because the products or the roaster do not belong to the family, they belong to two dozen shareholders; the administrator will be able to say, “If it were mine I would start a tab for you, but this is not mine.” Not even the administrator herself can start her own tab, she cannot take products and “just write it down”, she has to buy them like any other customer.

The second element is that each RSE must be guided by written rules and the numbers. The rules will emerge based on studying and testing policies, which are later approved by all the shareholders. In the RSEs we tested them, and now we have written rules that we all recognize and must follow, which are in booklet 2. They are rules that can be changed in assemblies.

In terms of the numbers, each administrator records data in a timely and trustworthy manner. The payment of the administrator depends on the quality of this record. The improvement of a RSE depends on the quality of this data, analyzing the data and making improvements based on that analysis. For example, for the case of providing products on credit, the numbers and the rules are very indicative of good practice:

  • Products on credit in a story cannot surpass 5% of the working capital of the store. So, the administrator must register and add up each day the data recorded to apply this rule.
  • The amount on credit cannot surpass 50% of the monthly income of the person who gets credit. So, before putting it on the tab of the person, that person needs to be studied.
  • Only products that are shared in the family can be sold on credit. For example, cigarettes are not shared in the family, so do not make up part of the products that can be taken on credit.
  • Products considered “for pleasure” (e.g. chicken, soda pop…) cannot be given on credit. Only basic need products (oil, salt, sugar, rice, beans).

The third element is the culture of small and staggered payoffs. Grain by grain the hen fills her stomach, our grandmothers used to say. Each RSE is designed for families to generate and save income every day of the year. Each day that they sell or provide roasting services generates income; each day they record data and analyze that data; each day they communicate with customers and take the pulse of the community. A RSE is a university in the home and the community.

3.    How  RSEs catalyze change in the community

If an RSE operates based on the virtuous triangle, in itself it becomes an oil lamp in the community. It catalyzes change. How? The distinction between collective assets and individual assets will have an impact in the community. People will understand that the land is not an individual asset either, only belonging to the man (husband/father), it also belongs to the mother and the children; in other words, it is a family asset; this will help the family to democratize, be more equitable and the land be better used. The same thing will happen in cooperatives, churches…In this framework Dad and Mom will have a guide for raising their children in a different, better way.

Following rules approved by an assembly is, paradoxically, a new practice. This will have an impact in the community, more and more they will question rules that only the patron sets, only the man who believes he is the law, or rules that come from outside. The source of the rules will slowly be left exposed.

The culture of the small payoff will help people to remember the old practices, of first ensuring the food of the family for the year. Of maybe diversifying production. Processing food and saving it. Generating work in so many things that have to be done every day. Saving for lean times. Having patience.

 

In this way a RSE, in addition to energizing the economy of a community, buying products from one and selling products to others, becomes a lamp. It helps the community to move from moment 1 to moment 2. The figure of the pyramid captures this realistic aspiration, the community does not cease to be vertical, but it is more inclusive, it becomes wider.

4.    Conclusions

We have conceived of a RSE different from conventional businesses like storefronts, cheesemakers, farms, honey producers…that would be managed by families or associative organizations. Now we understand how RSEs, and any associative organization if it proposes and works as we have shown in these booklets, can avoid reproducing the drunkard´s curse, the big payoff, or “leave it to me” culture.

The role of RSEs seems to be getting clearer day by day, as when fog dissipates and allows us to see farms, houses and roads up ahead. A RSE is not just to get income, not limited just to finances or just for making money; nor is it to reproduce the culture of the big payoff nor the drunkard´s curse. RSEs can have a transformational role in rural societies, becoming an antidote to the drunkard´s curse and despotism, to the extent that it draw a distinction with collective assets, develops a written and number culture, and daily works on what is tangible (service of store and roasting), and what is intangible (social relations with customers, new knowledge for innovating).

Each person should work for RSEs to be a means that help us revive our communities, make it possible for a person to discover their drunkard´s curse (“I am not a drunk!”), and get back on track, and together we get the entire community back on track.

[1] Rural Social  Enterprises

[2] =3.4 acres

Booklet 4 Scaling up and circular movement in Rural Social Enterprises

Booklet 4

Scaling up and circular movement in Rural Social Enterprises

René Mendoza with Fabiola Zeledón and Esmelda Suazo

Jesús told his disciples a parable (Mt 25: 14-30). A farmer, before traveling, entrusted his farm to them: to one he gave 5 talents, to another 2 and another 1, according to their capacities. On his return he asked for an accounting. The ones who received 5 and 2 had doubled them, the farmer was happy and rewarded them. The third had saved the talent and gave it back to him, the farmer was upset, told him that at least he could have placed it with bankers so it would earn interest, so he took the talent away from him and gave it to the one who had 10. “Because to everyone who has, more will be given and he will have abundance; but the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away.”

This parable is not about avarice or despotism. It is about the fruit that comes from talents received. It is responding to the confidence received, deploying all capacities in order to bear fruit. The parable shows us that discouragement, fear or resentment should not keep us from feeling that confidence received, making us hide the talent. The fruit gives joy to the entire community.

So it is as well in Rural Social Enterprises (RSE)[1]. Two dozen people have placed their resources and entrusted a family to administer a community store or a coffee roaster, and another family to administer another store, and so on. The families received resources and trust in accordance with their abilities, they are left the challenge of responding with all their energy and multiplying their fruit. As an effect of those actions, the entire community will be happy.

On multiplying it, like the one who received 5 talents and doubled it to 10, they can receive more resources and trust. How? For the stores, Figure 1 shows us the path in the form of a staircase. But first let us recall that in the previous booklet Claudio Hernández warned us that we are “at different rungs of the ladder”. We address this challenge here: if we scale up collectively with clear rules, we move beyond the individual “ranking”. Even more, our vision is that they scaling up should not be indefinite, ever higher and higher, but it should be circular, that this is what figure 2 will show.

In figure 1, illustrated for a community store, we make a distinction between a conventional (or traditional) storefront, and the community stores that we are organizing. They scale up to the extent that they respond to the trust deposited in them, and in accordance with the energy and mindset that they apply to the talents received. How?

A community store starts on step 1 with a set amount of working capital. If it is managed well, keeping the amount on credit under 5% of total working capital, orders the inventory and orders, attracts customers and the administrator is able to get their earnings (30% of gross profits of the store) above 1500 córdobas, then that store can go up to the next step. As a consequence, SREs take 20% of the net earnings of the store to increase the initial working capital of the store. This step means moving from a conventional storefront to a community store, which means freeing itself from falling into the family rules of “give it to me on credit because we are family”, understanding that working capital is a collective asset, and cultivating an awareness that what benefits the family and the community is the fact that the stores continues to exist.

On step 2, in addition to meeting the challenges of step 1, they do a good job of recording the data, increase the clientele by 10%; process 1-2 products (e.g. popsicles, nacatamales) and form 1 to 2 local alliances (e.g. with bakers, seamstresses, people that make piñatas, raise chickens and have eggs, people who raise chickens, slaughter pigs or sell basic grains). It is a step where the administrator is able to get their gross profits of the store above 2,000 córdobas. If they are able to do all that, then they move to step 3 and they are assigned 20% of the social fund to work with.

On step 3, in addition to meeting the challenges of steps 1 & 2, and increasing clients by 10%, it processes more than 2 products and cultivates more than 2 alliances; lists products and necessary technology to be introduced into the community, such as rice cookers and thermoses, that have the potential of freeing up time for women depending on the conditions in the communities (e.g. if they have electric, water…). It is a step where the administrator can get their 30% of gross profits to be more than 3,000 córdobas. If the administrator is able to do all that, then the store moves to step 4, and their working capital is increased from between 5 to 20% from additional funds coming from new shareholders.

On step 4, in addition to meeting the challenges of steps 1, 2 and 3, and increasing customers by 10%, the store processes more than 3 products and weaves more than 3 alliances; the administrator gets their 30% of gross profits from sales to be more than 4,000 córdobas. As a consequence, this store is a candidate for the annual prize that the Assembly of shareholders grants to the best initiative. In a parallel fashion, the administrator can become initiative supervisor, after accompanying (organizing and advising) other stores, creating new initiatives.

In this way, the staircase (Figure 1) does not add more steps, it becomes a circle of synergy among several stores, roasters, bakers and other initiatives (Figure 2), while people continue being trained and taking on new responsibilities. It is trust which like pickled nancite becomes more dense and increases its flavor and energy.

So the wheel of community improvement turns, turns and turns. It does not go up. It does not go down. It revolves.

 

[1] This article is also for cooperatives and any other associative expression. The members contribute resources and ideas. They deposit them in the administration and organs of the cooperative. In doing so, they really are depositing their trust. In return, the administration and organs of the cooperative have the obligation that those resources and trust deposited in them bear fruit in accordance with the rules of their assemblies.

 

Booklet 3 May: The Power of Communities

Booklet 3

May: The Power of Communities

René Mendoza Vidaurre

 

We were waiting for you like the “rains of May”,

said the girls as they hugged their grandparents.

 

The fifth month of the year is called “May” in honor of Maya, one of the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione from Greek mythology; “Maia”, goddess of abundance. People who dig into history also tell us that it was a month for the elderly, the word “elderly” in Latin is “maiorum”. In Central America May means the first rains of the year, with which agriculture begins, and all the pallid landscape of April turns green and pulses with life; the popular expression is “the rain showers of May”, the month most anticipated. This article is about the force of community, that when we discover it, is like the month of May: abundant, alive, ever changing and very much anticipated. RSEs respond to their community, and have building that community as their reference point or horizon, it is their umbilical cord, their brand and love.

1.    What people in the communities see and think

Those who live in a village or hamlet watch the movement of people. They see buyers come in to buy coffee, beans, or agoutis; for the buyers the community is a place to buy things. They see people who have diplomas arrive, and board members of organizations, who greet them from the road, estimate the harvest, fill out paperwork, and leave promises behind; for them the community is a stone paved road. They see people arrive in cassocks, lab coats, or wearing glasses, who enter the church, school or health center; for them, the community is a bunch of cement blocks with tin roof sheeting, and “poor people.”

Among those people who are watching, Elder Lagos, from the community of San Antonio, observes, “The cooperatives collect the coffee harvest in the towns, while the buyers collect it here in the community”. The “town” is the municipal capital, and “the community” is a rural locality. The logical thing would be the reverse: that the cooperatives would collect the harvest in the community itself, but no, no. The upside down world.

From another community, Ocote Tuma, in the municipality of Waslala, Rodrigo López observes: “There are two cooperatives from town with members here, those cooperatives are in the town; they never meet here.” What? And what does it mean to be a cooperative member? “The two cooperatives only want cacao, no matter where it comes from, people are not of value to them.” As we said before, it seems like the world is upside down.

People also look at their own community. There were good times when by growing just coffee, cacao or cattle people bought their vehicles, took on positions of responsibility and went to live in town. Those who have stayed, see and feel that for having clung to just one crop their water sources have dried up, and the soil has become weary, while the prices of those products have dropped, and the prices of agro-chemicals have risen. But even though betting on only one crop is affecting them more and more, people are hanging onto that crop, like the Koala bear hugs the eucalyptus tree! But there are people who open their eyes: Daniel Meneces remembers the words of his uncle Toño, “A lot of people are like the dog who barks at the squirrel believing that it is in the tree, when the squirrel has already left.” Betting on only one crop is like barking at the tree, when “the squirrel has already left.”

Other people open their eyes to see more: they discover the inequality in the community itself, reproduced by the cooperative itself. “We are at different places on the staircase,” said Claudio Hernández from the community of Samarkanda. That expression assumes that everyone rises using that staircase, there is no other, some are higher up and others are lower, there is no way of changing where you are. But the mere fact of recognizing it makes you think differently.

2.    What people do when they discover their strengths

These observations awaken three, five, ten and thirty people. So, in this way, awakening, a group of people in the community of San Antonio formed a cooperative. They met to look for ways different from how traditional cooperatives operate; they decided to collect coffee and paid for it in the community itself. They did it. The result: families saved the cost of transporting the coffee to town. It is like they made a different “half staircase”.

Another cooperative was formed in Ocote Tuma, composed mostly of youth. In that cooperative, with their fingernails and the friendship of their neighbors, they bought cacao to dry it in the community itself, and pooled their earnings to invest in a chicken farm. They are beginning to crawl.

There are other people who turn their focus to the land, water, the farm and to processing foodstuffs. They got into making bread, honey…”The cents that it costs us make them more delicious”, concludes Doña Justina Meneces.

When the cooperatives are from the community itself, they help to repair the country road, they are members of the water committee, and look to protect water sources, and organize other committees so that each family might have access to water in their homes. Land and water are valuable and are worth more than money!

And they take more steps. In the face of the custom that has become law of “exporting the best and leaving the worst”, they roast coffee in the communities. In the face of the rule that “organization and projects come from outside”, they talk with one another so that there is water in the community. In the face of the wealthy who say that “only money moves people”, they visit one another, and the affection that they cultivate moves them even more. In the face of the storefronts which make people go into debt and then end up going broke themselves, new community stores emerge that when they let people make purchases on credit, they only allow it for “products that you share with your family” – products like beans or oil, but not cigarettes. This community spirit is like your first love, it has unimaginable flavors.

3.    Good changes are done in alliances

Marx, a century and a half ago, said that peasants were like “a sack of potatoes”, meaning that they were similar, and that they lived closed off from society. Some 20 years ago in the Nitlapan Institute, on finding communities that resisted mono-cropping, that generally expelled people and disappeared communities, we used to call them “peasant pockets”. Now we realize that they are neither a “sack of potatoes” nor “peasant pockets” they are people so united and face to face with one another, and with so many connections that their friendships and relatives cross over communities and countries.

So it is difficult for one community to organize itself on its own. It is difficult for outside aid agencies to be able to organize a community, whether they arrive with a sword, the Bible or dollars – they can build their church, company or military post as enclaves. With the RSEs we have learned a different path: a community can organize if people from inside and out connect with one another, not just link, but connect! When people connect, they do magical things. This is how community stores and roasters are emerging.

When this happens, when they connect, the force of communities is like “the rains of May”, which makes good changes sprout. This is the process in which we find ourselves.

 

Booklet 1: Rural Social Enterprises

Booklet 1

Rural Social Enterprises

René Mendoza with Fabiola Zeledón, Hulda Miranda and Elix Meneses

 

Violeta Parra (1917-1967)

“Who are you looking for?”, they asked Violeta when she was traveling from one rural community to another in Chile.
-“Someone I do not know, but who has something very important to give me,” she responded. Violeta was a songwriter and artist, she was looking for songs that people in the countryside composed and tended to be left isolated and forgotten. She looked for them for the folklore of her beloved Chile.

(More on Violeta, for a short biography see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6ZfavenS9A)

 

Who are we looking for? Someone we do not know but who has “something very important” for their community. It is on the basis of “something very important” that we build the means that can be written in stone, that give identity to their communities. In this booklet we recount how we started to get off the traditional path of cooperatives, as we found “something very important” in the people in the communities themselves.

1.    Genesis and brief evolution

In 2018 we concluded that the cooperative path needed other forms of organization. Like Violeta, we decided to go into the communities; since there is no better wedge than a stick, we went into the very communities where some cooperatives came from. We were looking to understand what was the “musical score” that made cooperatives, intermediaries, farmers, churches, storefronts, projects dance. To try to change the dance, we had to understand what the music was, because the dance depends on the music.

To the extent that we got inside and interpreted the “musical score”, we awoke to new realities and possibilities. So, in November 2018 with our own resources we decided to test it out with a new store, then with a roaster…From that combination, study and experimentation, in 2019 we were learning what worked, preparing the rules that would guide us. What most made us wake up? Understanding that, in contrast  to what is repeated in traditional cooperatives, that members do not want to make contributions nor do they have money, we found that people want to contribute resources if they know where their resources are going and how they are put to work, if they receive earnings for their resources, and if they feel part of that process-that they can roll along with planet earth, like the character Mafalda, created by that great Argentinian cartoonist Quino (Joaquín Salvador Lavado, 1932).

Table 1. Basic data
Shareholders (people) 18
Total amount (C$) 260,833
Initiatives 3 stores, 3 roasters, 1 wholesaler, coffee purchasers and sale of roasted coffee

In May 2020 we took another leap, we improved the rules, we added new shareholders, the amount in córdobas increased, more initiatives took off and were strengthened, we improved the organization of the initiatives, more investments were made…See Table 1.

2.    Idea

If a community organizes, nothing can take it off the good path; if it organizes, it does a “musical score”, it does it in alliance with people from outside the community. So the eggshell seems to break as a new life, the baby chick, pushes out.

One way of organizing is that we might have several initiatives in a group that are functioning, profitable and benefit the community. For that purpose, people can buy as a minimum 1 share which is worth 1,000 córdobas. With these shares stores, roasters and bakeries emerge and provide ever more better services. People from other places can also  buy shares, with this we increase our resources and are building another community. In this way the shareholders are the first people to go and make purchases in the stores and to seek roasting services, provide oversight over the initiatives, provide ideas…

Here we learned another lesson: if in order to organize Rural Social Enterprises (RSE), the shareholders are from the communities and from outside the communities, more than just contribute resources, both contribute ideas and legitimacy to the RSEs. Note: prior to 2020 we used to call them “initiatives”, we started to call them RSEs in 2020, in harmony with the Social and Solidarity Economy approach, but adding the word “rural” to it, to give it a distinctive touch.

3.    Organization of the RSEs

Figure 1 shows this network of initiatives. Money, products and services move in them like ocean waves; they are visible, we see them. Under the waves there is another current that we do not see, but we feel, they are the shareholders, interest in caring for one another, friendships that cross over walls, affection, community roots and a different path so that anyone can improve.

Store 2 appears in the figure, because we already have Store 1 and Store 3 in another two communities. The bakery, roaster, buying and selling of coffee, wholesaler and other initiatives are around this Store 2, in addition to other initiatives (e.g. buying and selling  basic grains). These initiatives are connected with one another, they are in the same place and in the same community- this is the key to our success. For example, if a person comes with their coffee to have it roasted, on their return they buy bread and other products in the store, the baker buys eggs in the community itself to make bread. In this way, nearly all of the community is part of the initiatives –“nearly”. The wholesaler is a reseller, because it buys products for the initiatives at wholesale prices, buys products in the communities themselves to sell them in town, transfers products from one store to another, buys products in one community for the other communities, and the profits benefit all of the shareholders.

How specifically are the RSEs organized?

  • Each person who runs a roaster, makes bread, administers a store, sells coffee or is responsible for a wholesaler, registers information about each economic transaction in an honest way.
  • The supervisor each month reviews that record of information in each initiative. Then visits a sampling of clients, studies the local market, and captures the needs of the population, as well as new opportunities.
  • The results of the supervision are sent to each shareholder on the 10th of every month; there is a mural in each initiative (roaster, bakery, store…) that has the prices of the services, the report of the supervision and data for the community. Honest information benefits all the communities.
  • Every 3 months there is an assembly of shareholders where, in addition to being informed about the finances of each initiative, they evaluate the quarter, review the goals for the next quarter, and the profits are redistributed. In the annual assemblies all the initiatives are studied, the investments for the year are planned, the most outstanding initiatives win awards for their order, registration of information, generation of profits and largest number of customers.
  • Each shareholder is committed to the success of each initiative, which is why they report to the community, oversee the initiatives, provide suggestions to improve it, and make their families have a better life.

The effects of these initiatives are seen in 4 distinctive elements of the RSEs: equitable distribution of earnings or surpluses, informational transparency, community democracy and gender and age equity (50% or more youth). In terms of the distribution (see Table 2): from net earnings, 10% is for equipment maintenance and assets that deteriorate; 20% goes to a social fund, a fund that we will save throughout 2020 and that in the annual assembly on May 8, 2021 we will define its use; 20% reinvestment is added to each share in favor of the shareholders, in other words their shares will increase with the reinvestments; and 50% will be provided as cash to each shareholder in accordance with the amount of their shares.

 

Table 2.Equitable distribution
From gross earnings From net earnings
30% is to pay the person who runs the RSE 10% equipment maintenance of the RSEs (refrigerators, roasters, grinders) 20% social fund 20% reinvestment fund 50% individual distribution

Informational transparency is the fact that each shareholder, customer and community in general has access to information about the initiatives. The shareholders have the right to know about the finances of the RSEs. The customers have a right to know the price composition, proper weighing and the elements to be good customers, The community has the right to know the rules under which the initiatives are functioning, as well as their financial results.

Democracy is the fact that most of the shareholders are from the community itself. Each administration of each RSE provides honest information. Good supervision. Quarterly assemblies. Each shareholder watches over the progress of each RSE.

Gender equity is that fact that 50% of the shareholders are women, that that is expressed in the amount of their shares. Then, going beyond that formality, we want the RSEs to contribute to freeing up women´s work time, in such a way that they can take on new responsibilities in other RSEs or other activities in their own homes. In age equity, even though we want people of all ages to participate, including children and the elderly, in particular we want the youth to feel themselves to be the motor of these RSEs, as Yader Meneces said, “The older ones do not detach themselves from the old cooperatives that do not value them, they do not believe in us; but we the youth we are asserting ourselves, this store and roaster belongs to us the youth.”

4.    Concluding

We are building a new culture based on the good that each person has within them. To the question about who she is looking for, Violeta Parra responded, “Someone that I do not know, but has something very important to give me.” In the communities where the RSEs are developing, the RSEs are like the songwriter Violeta, and each person has “something very important”. Each RSE wants to receive it, and at the same time wants each person to find inside themselves that “something very important.” For this purpose The RSEs are emerging for this reason, and need to “be cooked on a low fire.”

This booklet, and the next ones, are texts that accompany what the RSEs are experiencing in San Juan del Río Coco, Waslala and Matagalpa. We call them RSEs, which includes community stores, community roasters, collective bakeries, cooperatives and associations.

The time for communities

The time for communities

René Mendoza Vidaurre, Fabiola Zeledón and Esmelda Suazo[1]

Along the trails

-Cousin, you have traveled so much that I am sure that you earn and know a lot, help us to travel in that way as a cooperative.

-I have traveled along the highway, it is fast, and you only see money rolling on wheels.

                                                                                                                                     -That´s right…. We want to make money.

-When I get out of the car and walk on foot or on horseback, I see people, groups together, I hear that song of the cicadas.

-What do you mean to say?

-If the cooperative takes to the trails, it will touch hearts, dig into our roots, make people think and walk together.

-In other words, feel, walk and begin to cooperate, instead of taking the highway.

-That´s right, Ana, it is the first step…along the trails!

The hurry to make money makes us run and keeps us from seeing what is at our sides. When we reach the goal, we are like the dog in the countryside, who at the first sound of some car, takes off barking at full speed, and then when it reaches the car, nothing happens, it returns in silence. Organizations, aid agencies and institutions are desperately providing their resources and trainings under the discourse of stamping out hunger or poverty, and when they achieve these investment goals, they return in silence. The impoverished population are like the car that the dog reaches, increases its speed of adding more people. With COVID-19 that velocity is increasing dramatically. How can one get out of extreme poverty? The parable tells us that in order to begin to cooperate, let us take to the trails and delve into our origins. What does this mean? It is the time for communities!

1.     The reality is in full view

The march of COVID-19 lifts the covers, and realities appear that are difficult for us to recognize. The rural population migrates to the forests or outside the country under the pressure of mono-cropping agriculture or ranching, pushed in turn by the financial and commercial industries. This is not new, with or without cover, we have known it for decades and centuries.

With COVID-19 we were hoping that the internal assets of communities, which have been supported by hundreds of international aid projects, might be guiding preventive actions. That the churches, with so many centuries of preaching the Good Samaritan, might mobilize. That first- tier cooperatives, members of second tier organizations, might move in the face of the virus. Strangely they are still. “We are waiting for directions from above”, “without projects, there is no organization”, “donors are not sending aid to those who organized in cooperatives”, “everything is in the town (municipal capital), the meetings, the harvest collection”. What is left of the “anchor”, “articulations”, “networks”, “public-private alliances” and “empowerment”? The gaze of elderly women seem to tell us: “nothing”. Maybe that is what is new, in the sense that we are surprised.

It would seem that the projects, sermons, credit and commercial policies instead eroded communities. They pushed ideas about being individual, taking on mono-cropping agriculture and relying on aid; some argue that by supporting an individual they are supporting rural families, but a family as an institution is hierarchical and patriarchal, in addition to the fact that the notion of “nuclear family” is nearly non-existent in the rural world, where it is common to see a son or daughter grow up with their grandparents, aunt or uncle, and/or mother.   With COVID-19 that erosion is intensified, the quarantine and confinement accentuate the neoliberal idea of “save yourselves those who have”. Because a daily wage earner in farming or construction and most of the population who work in the so-called “informal economy” cannot stay home for more than a week, they begin to go into debt, buy on credit, make storefronts go broke, and affect their daily food intake, and this in the long term will mean loss of human life.

2.     Knowing how to get to communities

The idea of harmonic communities of Robert Redfield (1931, A Mexican Village: Tepoztlan), has been left far behind. Since the studies of Oscar Lewis (1951, Life in a Mexican Village: Tepoztlan Restudied) we understand communities as heterogeneous spaces with diversity, and even opposing interests. They are communities with which people identify, it is their utopia and mission – as Thomas More would say (1516, Utopia: The Happy Republic): They are not a “sack of potatoes”, as Marx suggested, nor “pockets of peasants” as certain agrarian literature categorized them for years from 1980 to 1990. They are disputed spaces where external policies and resources should know how to get there, facilitating the first lesson of humanity: cooperation. People who organize can bring their produce together and get better prices, free themselves from usury at the point of group savings, protect water sources in the high areas, and along the length of the creek, and coordinate to prevent natural and social viruses. Individually, they cannot change prices, free themselves from usury, protect water nor prevent viruses.

Let us illustrate how these community assets move from the few interesting experiences that exist in Central America. Rodrigo Pérez, a delegate of the Word from the community of San Antonio, said, “this community store saves me a day, and the bus fare of going to the town to buy what I now buy here.” If the crowding in town favors COVID-19, people like Rodrigo find what they are looking for in the community store. “It is the first cooperative that came to coordinate work with us,” they said in the school in Samarkanda, appreciating the support of the Reynerio Tijerino cooperative so that students and teachers might protect themselves from the virus. “Only our cooperative collects the harvest in the community, and right here does the payments and assemblies,” said Selenia Cornejo. “Buyers and financiers come to visit us in the community,” said Daniel Meneses, from the October 13th Cooperative. We find similar words about community coffee roasters, bread makers, groups of beekeepers…”The coffee that we produce and roast, we sell ourselves along with our relatives outside, isn´t that a network?” Each organization has a mural with information to prevent COVID-19, while at the same time together are weaving a support network for people who end up affected by the virus.

What is common for all of them? They are in the community itself. Their focus is on their origins. They function with their own resources and rules polished in their assemblies. They improve their oral tradition with writing. They represent a diversity of ages, where youth under the age of 40 are leading them. They distribute their profits. They organize and are transparent with their information. They compete for and rotate their leadership. They organize their solidarity. They fight against their old “demons”, the rules of elites that have nested in their minds: “in group, but for me”, opportunistic actions when internal and external control is weak, prejudice against women legitimized by the churches, prejudices against workers without land (“the cooperative is for those who have land”), and providentialism (“God has a plan to protect us”, “the big chief has a plan to take care of his people”). This type of grassroots organization no longer waits for direction from outside, they visit one another, discuss and, in the midst of their internal tensions and mutual distrust, resort to their social fund, while they look for external contacts that can reinforce their collective actions.

How are these community assets formed? Following a universal lesson: studying realities to innovate as a group and train ourselves. Combining efforts of people from the communities and from outside to organize social enterprises in the communities. Recording data, analyzing it and making decisions. Delving into histories to find values and rules with which to cooperate and recreate identities, because “the origins are in front of us, not behind”, as the Mapuche taught us, the indigenous people in Chile and Argentina. Bringing to light their old “demons” and ours as well as accompaniers (“providing information confuses people”, “donating food is the solution to hunger”, “we know your future because that future was our past”). Walking along the trails discerning what the processes themselves show us about how to accompany them.

3.     New veins that the effect of COVID-19 forces us to think about

COVID-19 raises the covers, and what appears are not just those realities that it is difficult for us to recognize, but also new veins to be worked on related to the social fund, the connection between organizations, the coherency between words and actions, and the decentralization of decisions.

Grassroots organizations, like those that we have described previously, have the practice of equitable distribution of what they have saved in a social fund. In the current context of COVID-19, that social fund gains importance, like the use of offerings and tithings on the part of churches. If the State provides curative health care, preventive health is an area where grassroots organizations and churches can invest resources and energies. This includes how to improve nutrition, prevent obesity and diabetes, invest in natural medicine and clean water, improve hand washing and introduce the use of masks in crowded spaces. How can this social fund be organized into areas of prevention?

If a person discovers the importance of combining efforts of several people, in the same way also organizations (collective groups) discover that coordinating among organizations to face COVID-19 is fundamental. Making connections among churches, schools, rural community Banks, community councils, businesses and the municipal government expresses the spirit of superimposed communities that exist in every territory. It is like the baby chick that breaks the eggshell, moves out of its comfort zone and connects with other organizations, it is something that we are not accustomed to do, but we need to do. For example, connecting with the church is not to sit down to discuss one or another form of religious faith, it is to rethink together the solidarity of the Good Samaritan, who did not rely on God sending his angels to save the wounded man, but simply acted, while other were in a hurry (“passed by on the other side”). Being connected is having the freedom to express these community cultures of each organization of which one is a member or participant. On their part, each organization should understand itself as a community, where their members or their staff identify with that organization, not so much for “what one gets”, but for “what one gives” the organization, where titles are opportunities to serve. How can churches, farms, community stores, schools, cooperatives and health centers be connected?

Governments, aid organizations, international enterprises should be coherent. Importing the best coffee, and leaving the worst for the producer families, feels bitter. Demanding meat that deforests, and at the same time being ecological, is disgusting. Supporting small scale production with credit for agrochemicals like glyphosate, that is damaging to natural and human health and increases rural unemployment, is repugnant. Donating certified seed to get rid of native seed and making them dependent on companies that sell that certified seed is shameful. Extracting minerals through strip mining and defending nature, seems like that Nazi who during the day sent children to the gas chambers and at night played with his children at home. How can coherency be obtained and also benefit rural communities? How can each organization and institution conceive itself and organize itself as a community?

Decentralizing decisions seem urgent, it is like letting the baby take its first step, this is in all spheres. That each delegate of the word celebrate the Eucharist (sharing bread and wine) in the rural communities would be a real institutional change in the Catholic church. If a grassroots organization understands their community better than an organization with an office in a city, why do aid organizations and international enterprises persist in believing that organization means having an office and manager in the city? Do grassroots organizations need accompaniment? They need it, like aid organizations need grassroots organizations to accompany them. If people organize in a cooperative or a community store to administer their loans, technology and commercialization, why doesn´t a second-tier organization support them in these purposes, instead of abducting those services and decisions? How much we need to reflect on that old and still good principle that “the stronger the children are, the stronger their parents will be”.

Concluding

The effects of COVID-19 tend to produce more extremely impoverished people, like the title of the novel of Victor Hugo published in 1862 (Les misérables). Along with extreme human impoverishment, the extreme impoverishment of nature, compiled in Laudato Si: “the cry of the poor and  the land.”

Between 2000 and 2014, according to ECLAC, 33 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean reduced people in a situation of hunger (extreme poverty) from 73 to 38 million. Julio Berdegué of the FAO stated that between 2015-2018, without the virus, those 38 million increased to 43 million people. ECLAC projects that if economic growth in 2020 falls by 6% we will have 73 million people hungry, the same amount that there were in 2000. And with hunger, probably, will come social and political rebellion. Playing with hunger is playing with fire.

The solution to hunger that aid organizations have practiced and continue suggesting is that States provide food, and that they rely on social and economic organizations; in fine print this means that governments, with the taxes paid by the entire society, buy from large corporations GMO food, coopting grassroots organizations and providing that food to hungry populations. This movie we have seen before, including the magic they tend to perform with the indicators of extreme poverty, its resulting erosion of community assets, and what is called family agriculture, the nullification of native seed, the fact that rural populations become docile masses dependent on aid and electoral patronage, and that aid organizations resist conceiving themselves and organizing themselves as communities, and of something bigger that would cover all of us.

In this article we showed that community efforts can be effective in the face of COVID-19 and the virus of hunger, and that these aid agencies, organizations and institutions of the world that talk about “providing food” as the panacea to evils, might rethink their modus operandi and that culture of believing that they already know the solution without previously knowing the people “in extreme poverty”. We should recognize that if communities organize and have accompaniers who also feel and function as communities, they can – and we can – face this and other viruses, eradicate hunger, producing and distributing food, mitigating climate change and contributing to social cohesion, which prevents violence and instead puts our societies on the path to their democratization.

It is the time for rural communities. It is time for organizations, aid agencies and institutions to feel and act as communities. It is time to feel and think that we are part of something much greater than ourselves.

 

[1] René accompanies rural organizations in Central America, is an associate researcher of IOB-Antwerp University, member of Coserpross (http://coserpross.org/es/home/) and a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/). Fabiola and Esmelda are advisors to rural organizations in Nicaragua.