Category Archives: Ownership

Cultivating the golden bean: Volume and quality

Cultivating the golden bean: Volume and quality

René Mendoza, Fabiola Zeledón, Elix Meneces, Hulda and Eliseo Miranda[1]

Up until 2010 we buyers who were looking for quality coffee, we first would come to Nicaragua. After 2010 we no longer did, first we go to Costa Rica, then Honduras … (Coffee buyer).

In the 60s and 70s tons of people came to Nicaragua from El Salvador and Honduras looking for work, now we are the ones who go to those countries, looking for work. (Flavio Cardoza, producer).

In the dry coffee mills imperfect coffee reached double digits in this 2019/20 cycle: 10%…15%; black beans, faded, chipped, full black beans, insect damaged beans…The fungus moved from “slight” to “severe” and smelled like fish. On the farms of producer families instead of doing “three passes” (three passes of picking red and almost ripe coffee during the coffee season within 2 months), they saw themselves forced to do only two, and even only one pass, because of lack of pickers (labor), while they neglected to regulate their coffee pulper which resulted in those broken and chipped beans. What makes the coffee quality and its production drop? In this brief article we list 4 basic elements on coffee farms in Madriz, Nueva Segovia and Matagalpa, and at the end we offer some suggestions.

What affects coffee production and quality

The literature is full of technical reasons. We list what we observed in this 2019/20 cycle, and what producer families commonly say, based on their own observations, as well as the staff in the dry mill.

Figure 1 shows two scarce resources and two limiting structures, which have a high impact on coffee volume and quality.

A first element is the reduction in nutrients for the coffee plants. In the 2018/19 cycle, the prices for coffee were low. In September 2018 it dropped to $98, and in December 2018 it was at $100, while the prices for agrochemicals rose, as a result of the new tax policy in the country. Not only that, but the financial institutions implemented a policy of loan restructuring without providing new loans. In other words, producer families saw their resources dry up, which is why they applied little or no agrochemical or organic inputs. This had a repercussion on coffee quality, which was seen in the current 2019/20 cycle, precisely when prices went up, reaching $123 on December 16, 2019. Consequently, producer families thinking was “I am going to receive now  the same thousand córdobas as last year; this season money is tight, in spite of the fact that prices are better than in the last cycle.”

A second element refers to the scarcity of labor. Pickers are going to coffee fields in Costa Rica and Honduras. Their argument: “They pay us better there, in addition we pick more than we do here.” Isn´t it the same coffee? Yes and no. Most of the coffee of Costa Rica is sold as specialty coffee at better prices; while Honduras has passed Nicaragua in production volume. Both countries have greater productivity, even though in Honduras it is due more to increase in area. This means that the person who picks coffee on small farms in Nicaragua, picks less in a day because the farms have less production; in addition, the price paid “per lata”[2] is low, and varies between 30 to 50 córdobas, plus food, per lata. “It doesn´t work for us,” the pickers complain. Producer families argue that they would prefer to pay all in cash (without food), but the pickers want food, and many of them pick very little, and by midday are already out of the fields and asking for their 3 meals. This situation means pickers are scarce, the consequence of this is that the coffee is not picked on time, with a corresponding loss in volume and quality.

A third element is the mentality of believing themselves to be coffee growers in mono-cropping systems. The producer families who established their farms with coffee and other crops, starting in 1990, after the “big war”, are now getting beyond 60 years of age, which is why their offspring have been taking over farms already “cut up into pieces” through inheritance. Given that in the last 15 years families have become dependent on coffee as a mono-crop, a good number of these offspring, as new family units, inherited also this culture of feeling themselves to be “coffee producers” with 2 to 4 mzs of coffee, which at the most produces 10qq export coffee per manzana, which is why they lost the culture of working “from sunup to sundown” in taking care of the farm, and no longer go out to pick coffee on other farms. Their problem is that they inherited coffee fields affected by coffee rust and anthracnose, which they have to replant now on land which is more worn out (low fertility). Consequently, that combination of feeling themselves to be “coffee producers” and at the same time not having income in the months between March and October has them “underwater” in financial and marriage crises, which is why the children are growing up without Fathers, while they neglect their farms, the regulation of their coffee pulpers, drying, diversification…

The last element is the variation in the climate. Rains were expected for December, which help the grain thicken and ripen; but it did not rain, rather the temperature increased, which is why a good part of the flowering period was lost and the coffee with little liquid did not thicken. The beans that were able to thicken did not reach their optimum level. Many beans, on being picked, pulped and washed, looked as if they had been dried for 6 days. The rains that started on January 10th were not expected, were unnecessary, their prolongation for more than 10 days damaged the roads, reduced the time for picking the coffee, and made it difficult to transport the coffee, and hindered the sun drying process.

The combination of these elements has the power of undermining plans and commitments, and above all, making the families depressed before the harvest ends.

Recovering coffee, the farm, the community

Figure 2 lists the ideas that lead us to confront the 4 elements that affect coffee volume and quality.

Some people from that generation that is now passing 60 years of age are still a good reference point. “My Dad gets up at 4am, drinks his coffee and goes out to work the farm; if in the morning he goes to town to do some task, and returns at 4pm, he still goes to the farm.” (Rebeca Espinoza, Samarkanda). If we add to that culture of dedication to work, youth dedicated to studying their realities and innovating, the families could save resources and invest them, doing their numbers, producing fertile land that would provide them product volume and quality.

If that combination responds to a long term perspective, one that avoids “cutting property into pieces” and children growing up without Fathers, and is committed to the diversification of the farm and  processing what they produce, these families could mobilize their members for activities like coffee picking on their own and their neighbor´s farm, and would attract workers from other places.

If we cultivated that work and study culture under a long term perspective, in a space of renovated cooperatives, the members of both sexes and different ages from the same community could cooperate better, and improve their collective actions, like transporting, drying and milling their coffee in their own community, selling any of their products, producing their own farm inputs, protecting and saving water, or preventing domestic violence.

Conclusion

Recovering the coffee quality that we achieved between 1996 and 2005, which the buyer refers to at the beginning of this text, is a challenge. Getting our people to stay in the country picking coffee, which Flavio observed in hindsight, is another challenge.

Both challenges are not achieved with the hundred year old ideas of the elites: “More inputs, more production”, “better price, more quality”, “investing only in coffee to buy the food for the year”, “the more members there are, the better the cooperative”, “farming is something men do”. The consequences of this cookbook, sadly reproduced by most of the farm cooperatives today, are destroyed families and farms, degraded environment, and the advance of elites expelling the peasantry from their communities.

Addressing those two challenges is possible with families that change as people, as they build a new type of cooperative, one in which families cooperate with one another to generate new technologies, organize and analyze new information, and add value to the coffee and a dozen agricultural products.

[1] The authors are part of a network that facilitates the training of cooperatives governed by their members.

[2] Lata refers to old cooking oil cans that were used to measure picked coffee beans for paying workers. The term is still used, although the measuring is now mostly done with 5-gallon plastic buckets.

Equitable distribution of surplus in cooperatives

Equitable distribution of surplus in cooperatives

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

Paying back is improving

The revolution and the agrarian reform came, people knew the word and their eyes were opened, many organized into cooperatives and received land, seed and technology, and they said “we are in power.” Within years they sold the land and forgot even the word. They received it, and lost it.

A woman received a cow and in months paid for it with a calf, which was given to another family. She understood that the cow pays for itself, she felt that she paid back, and made an effort along with other families. Paying back is improving.

(Based on a conversation with Gregorio Solórzano, Municipality of Cinco Pinos, Chinandega, Nicaragua)

This parable recalls the historic rules of indigenous and peasant communities. If the action of “giving” is connected with “paying back”, like the woman with the cow and the calf, their lives improve. While “receiving” unilaterally, without “paying back” to the community, creates a false world (“we are in power”) where people are left worse off (“without land and power”). The paradox is that “paying back” is not losing, it is gaining: it makes the person “make an effort” within a collective framework and community space.

That collective framework constitutes the paradoxical difference. In the case of the woman who received a cow and paid back with a calf, an arrangement (agreement, rule) underlies which she fulfills, an arrangement that is connected to a virtuous millennial indigenous institution, “giving-receiving-paying back”[2]. In the case of the beneficiaries of land on the part of the government, a damaging arrangement  underlies it, subordinating oneself and depending on the government, something that leads them to be connected to another historical institution, this time a counterproductive institution, “easy come, easy go”; people lose and the government loses. The gaze of the woman is toward the community, while the gaze of the people in the cooperative is directed outside the community.

Giving-receiving-paying back is growing in collective spaces mediated by rules that are connected with virtuous endogenous institutions of the people themselves. Within this framework, how can distributing (“paying back”) in the cooperatives be the key for growing with equity? Perhaps diminishing is growing?

In this article we study these questions in light of the cooperatives, even though it can be generalized to associations, associative enterprises or NGOS with initiatives under the framework of the social and solidarity economy. We start conceptualizing distribution as a different idea from the neoliberal economy, where the market is the great distributer. Then we look at five ways for the distribution of surpluses: legal reserve, cooperative reinvestment, social-educational fund, direct resources to members, and retribution by way of a member´s rights.  Then we work on how to carry them out. We conclude reconceptualizing equitable distribution as a cooperative concept and one from the social and solidarity economy, that goes along with the democratization of cooperatives, and connected to endogenous institutions of the peasantry.

1.    Distribution rules and policies

In capitalism “the invisible hand” attracts resources and distributes them with inequality, in dependence on the financial power of the actors, their connections, the support of the State for elites (e.g the policy of low taxes for mono-cropping enterprises), and guided by the rule “even the monkey dances for money”. The mediation network captures the resources and returns them as money that buys new products (and labor), mediated by institutions that worsen that inequality: usury, future purchases (crop lien system) and indebtedness. The capitalist, be it merchant, banker or industrialist, is the absolute owner of the surplus.

Polanyi (1976)[3], in an anthropological study, worked on the idea of reciprocity, distribution and interchange. For the topic that concerns us he says: “distribution designates the movements of ownership toward a center and then toward the exterior”, and added, “distribution depends on the presence to some extent of centrality in the grouping”” (1976:7). Santana (2014: 91)[4], rereading Polanyi, indicates that “what is unique here is that there must be trust and loyalty to be able to group the assets in that centrality, knowing that later it is going to be returned in an equitable way.” Let us reread both authors: resources come toward a center, let us say toward a cooperative (like taxes to the State), from there is “goes outside” of the cooperative, to the members in an equitable way. For those “movements of ownership” to happen, there has to be “centrality in the grouping”, which is possible if there is “trust and loyalty”. Without trust and loyalty, there is no “movement.” When is there trust and loyalty that takes resources to the cooperatives and makes them be  “paid back”? Our argument: there is trust and loyalty when the rules of the cooperative, connected to endogenous virtuous institutions, guide the cooperative from its beginnings with a societal and communitarian perspective. In other words, the cooperative, from and for the communities, is responsible for the distribution with equity.

Cooperatives currently, nevertheless, are formed and achieve a partial “movement”: they attract resources from dozens of their members, but it is difficult for them to “pay back” the surplus and pay them back in an equitable way. There is the challenge. For that reason, there are written rules. What are they?

Cooperatives include in their statutes, following the laws of each country, the distribution of profits[5]. Cooperatives include a percentage (%) for legal reserve, % for the social or educational fund, % for distribution among the members according to their contributions or economic transactions in the cooperative – note that improvement in the price of the raw materials is not mentioned as “distribution of surplus”, because it is not, the surplus is calculated after the annual financial year. This is consistent with the principles of historic cooperativism: among the Rochdale principles of 1844 is the “payback of surplus”, then  in 1966 the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) reformed those principles and replaced it with “the surplus belong to the members”, and finally in another reform in 1995 the ICA said “the economic participation of the members”; in all of them the spirit of the distribution of surplus is maintained. These rules can be connected to the virtuous institutions of agrarian societies, giving-receiving-paying back, the gift that Mauss (1979) described.

Consistent with this cooperative and communitarian principle, the International Fair Trade Movement (FLO), begun in the 1980s and 1990s, in their policy of offering better prices to products coming from families that are organized, included a “fair trade premium”, which in the case of coffee, for example, is US$0.20/lb., a fund so that the members of a cooperative might decide to use it in educational, health projects, and farm improvements or investment in processing installations. Other buyers tend to include also a “cooperative premium”, a fund that the members might decide to use for collective investments that would benefit everyone.

In addition to rules, cooperatives have mechanisms for complying with them. They have their oversight board, the assembly, the education committee, there is also the administration with accounting that issues financial reports. In some countries the State has a role of comptroller of the cooperatives. The international fair trade organizations include their FLO certifier that audits the use of the Fair Trade premium and the democratic processes of the cooperative; social banks require financial statements and balance statements; aid agencies ask for audited reports and evaluate the projects that they finance, and in some exceptional cases withdraw their support when the cooperative fails to fulfill their rules for equitable distribution[6]; likewise some companies that buy coffee or cacao[7].

Having gotten to this point, what do we observe? In spite of having rules and mechanisms for distribution, it is rare the cooperative whose members participate in the decisions on the use of the social fund, reinvestment fund, or on the cooperative premium; it is rare the cooperative that is transparent with its members on the use of these funds; and it is rate the international aid agency or buyer who ensures this transparency, and that the surplus be distributed. In other words, the rules of the cooperative and the organizations are systematically not met; consequently, there is no confidence nor loyalty, which is why the “movement” is in only one direction: the resources from the members go to the cooperative and then to the companies (fair trade, direct trade, or independents), who do not “pay back” the surplus to the members. The rules of the cooperative and the organizations do not end up connecting to the virtuous endogenous rules.

2.    What opposes the distribution of the surplus

Even having rules and mechanisms, why do  cooperatives not distribute their surplus? It seems a matter of adding and subtracting, of knowing rules, signing and complying with agreements; it is not a technocratic matter, that a “scholarly” person might resolve; it implies adding and subtracting, showing the strength of the old anti-cooperative model, and of perceiving their own attitudes. Here we start with three interconnected responses, of the several that exist. See Figure 1.

First, the “business foot” of the cooperative, and organizations-international enterprises coincide in the fact that the business (sale-purchase of the product, disbursement-payment of the loan and execution of the project) works, not so much that the cooperative works.

They are content with the protocol, written and legal proof about the functioning of the cooperatives, proof that the elites of the cooperative learn to quickly fabricate: minutes that prove that the organs meet, audits with authorized signatures, financial and narrative reports including registry of data, and even members “trained” to repeat what the organizations want to hear, when some organizations visit. This practice, in turn, is read by the members as something that confirms their ideas that the cooperative does not change at all their way of working and selling their products: “If the organizations says that it is fine, surely it is fine, as we have always worked.” This is the formal structure that covers over the fact that the cooperative does not distribute its surpluses in accordance with its own rules, and the millennial aspiration of indigenous and peasant families.

“The peasant is interested in selling his product, he is not interested in whether there are surpluses”. This phrase presidents and managers of cooperatives repeat, along with buyers and international aid agencies, as well as technicians and boards of NGOs. This phrase underlies century old institutional practices. What are they? It is the institutionalized idea in the hacienda owner or the capitalist, that they have the exclusive rights to surpluses, that the peasantry were born to sell their labor and/or their raw materials. It is the same idea that the peasantry reproduces: “My country ends with my fence of piñuelas”, says the peasant family; “they pay my wage, that is all I ask”, says the working person (field-hand or peon); they never ask themselves about the surplus that their work or their product generates, they take it as given that it is not theirs. That institutionality absorbed the cooperatives and made them forget about the reason for their origins and their rules for distribution, and with that buried even more that indigenous-peasant right to the value that their work creates. So it is that the members demand that they increase the price of their sun-dried coffee, cacao pulp or their sugar cane; in some cases they demand an “adjustment”; “if we got credit as a cooperative so that you pay us a certain price for coffee, and if you paid us as the market price a little less than that set price, then pay us the adjustment”; no one demands their surplus; the presidents and managers behave like the hacienda owner or capitalist.  Figure 2 illustrates this institutionality: the worker reaches the wall of their days wage, the peasant their fence of piñuelas, the “business foot” of the cooperative goes as far as the “wall” of the port, and the buyers-roasters-distributors to the sale or even the cafeteria. Each one, and in each wall, seem to follow the rule of “I don´t touch you, and you don´t touch me.”

Second, the organs of the cooperatives are left bound up, because their rules are replaced by others that respond to what Polanyi (2001)[8] called the “market society”, and respond to colonial and patriarchal structures. One of those rules is: “To distribute, first you have to grow.” This rule comes from neoliberalism, that “economic growth is development”, from trickle-down economics: capturing the wealth of the members so that the cooperative might invest and accumulate in the short term, and benefit the members in the long term. This “development” and that “long term” with “benefits”, nevertheless, tends not to arrive; in other words, “they do not pay back”. Consistent with neoliberalism, the cooperatives assume that “distributing decapitalizes the organization” and they embark on the path of the “big headed dwarf”, whose head is large and is made of steel (concentration of physical investments and resources), and whose feet are clay (impoverished members who do not participate in the decisions of their organizations nor rotate offices). In this logic the managerial staff or the president tend to end up feeling themselves to be the true owners of the resources of the cooperative, that it is “their effort”, while the board members tend to abandon the volunteer nature that their offices imply, and seek any gap to take advantage individually, be it through travel allowances, loans on top of loans, or benefitting themselves from the donations that the cooperatives eventually might receive. Also consistent with neoliberalism, the fair trade and direct trade bodies reduce their relations with the cooperatives to just the financial aspect, and treat the cooperatives as just “businesses”.

Distribution, expressed in colonial rules, says to the members: “We always need a patron.” The field-hand depends on the patron, who “provides” for him (future purchase of his labor), like the peasant depends on the trader who “provides” for him (future purchase of his product). For them, this “providing for” is the best “distribution”; they know no other. This is what penetrates into the cooperative where the members confirm naturally that they never had rights to the surplus.

Distribution is also expressed in the heart of the family. There, the patriarchal rule says, “The father decides to leave the inheritance to the eldest son, and that will be carried out when he dies.” That will is conceived as something sacred. The family is an institution that attracts resources because of the family labor of its members, and in the end “pays back” (inherits) in an unequal way, leaving tacit that that older son is going to distribute the inheritance among his brothers and sisters, and what happens? Not always, but generally, that older son takes over the inheritance, or sells it and squanders it. That family institution also penetrates into the cooperative, where many times the person who occupies the presidency or management is seen like that “eldest son”, while the rest of the members are submitted to his will, in spite of the fact that they are the “parents” (owners of the cooperative) of that “eldest son.”

The cooperative, guided under this capitalist, colonial and patriarchal spell, tends to start with enthusiasm and when it capitalizes, the board members or the administrative staff turn into elites, exclude those who question them, and privatize the cooperatives. Thus, W. Berrios, from the CAFOD aid agency, observes, “In my years of work in Central America I have seen that it is in the maturation curve that the cooperatives go broke.” Infrequently they restructure the cooperative into a private enterprise, but many times they make it function as a private enterprise sheltered under the legal status of a cooperative, or under the discursive mantle of the social and solidarity economy.  In both cases the members are treated as simple sellers of raw materials.

Finally, there is dovetailing between the mentality of international organizations (buyers, banking institutions, certifiers and aid agencies) and that of the members. The international organizations turn a blind eye to the lack of compliance with the rule of distribution, because, following Streeck (2019), “the policy of distribution only function in nations; in world society there are donations,” global governance “is not democratic”, because “above the nation-state there is only the “international free market”, which consists in large enterprises that are free to do whatever they want.” That mentality leads them to have a mentality of turning a blind eye to distribution, which coincides with the mentality of the members, who have never had access to surpluses, they always saw them as something that belonged to the patron or intermediary, from there it is that the members also turn a blind eye to their right that they be “paid back” (distribute) the surplus. This is what Figure 2 expresses with the walls, “I don´t touch you and you don´t touch me.”

3.    Distribution of the surplus (“paying back”)

How can cooperatives unbind this adverse triangle and distribute the surplus? By distribution people tend to fall into two beliefs: that it is “distributing financial surpluses” and that it is “distributing all the surplus to the members.” From here comes the idea that “distributing is decapitalizing.” In this section we break down what equitable distribution of surplus is, expanding the content of the distribution already described in the rules of cooperatives.

Let us start with the attached graph. This illustrates the components of this “paying back” that include collective forms (legal reserve, reinvestment fund and social fund), and the individual forms that the members receive directly (distribution to members and payments when they leave the cooperative). The percentages in the graph are arbitrary estimates, they vary depending on the laws in each country, and the decisions of the cooperatives agreed upon in their statutes.

Note that this graph breaks with the belief that “distributing decapitalizes”: the reinvestment fund refers to the fact that their own fund or their own “capital” grows in accordance with the percentage approved in the cooperative. The assumption in the graph is that exercising distribution in the five ways, combination of collective-community and individual distribution, builds trust and loyalty, which makes the members turn in their products to their organizations in larger amounts and with better quality; from here distribution instead allows the economic transactions of the cooperative to increase, and therefore the entirety of their funds grow; in other words, ”decreasing” (paying back or distributing) is “growing” in resources. The graph also shows the underlying reason for cooperativism, that it is not to accumulate just to accumulate capital, the cooperative is a means, and the members and their communities are the end (final objective). We break down these funds in what follows, including some important remarks.

3.1  Components of collective distribution

Let us describe those funds that are in the statutes, let us clarify and add what they can have which is unique. “Legal reserves” is to cover losses that eventually the cooperative might have during the year in the economic fiscal year; it is a financial cushion that prevents the cooperatives from going broke. In the case that there are no losses, that reserve could swell the investment fund, or, for example, cover legal paperwork expenses, the opening or updating of bank accounts, the legal defense of the cooperative in the face of lawsuits from third parties, the legal defense of the members in cases that affect the cooperative, or to have legal counsel in the face of certain situations or issues.

“Cooperative fund” or “reinvestment fund”, belongs to the cooperative. In addition, some buyers tend to increase the price of the product that they buy with a “cooperative premium” or with an “infrastructure fund”, resources that are added to the funds of the cooperative. These funds are to buy equipment that the cooperative might need, repair or enlarge the infrastructure (building, harvest collection center) of the cooperative, and/or to increase the funds of the cooperative itself, which would increase the loan portfolio, or would pre-finance the payment that the members make on receiving products, while they process and sell them – avoiding the need to seek outside credit.

“Social or educational fund”. It is a fund from the rules of the cooperative itself, and is a fund that increases if the cooperative sells its product through fair trade organizations or buyers that condition a certain amount for a social fund. In general, cooperatives use it to finance some demand of the community school, provide backpacks to the children, provide support to the local sports team, or for trainings that their education committee might organize. Even though these initiatives are praiseworthy, physical investment in the school is the obligation of the State for which society pays taxes. The sports teams are going to function with or without the support of the cooperative, the children will go to school with an old or new backpack. Some innovative cooperatives use that fund under the following criteria: invest in something that generates value for the community, that is not the role of another institution, and doing so as a long-term investment. An example of this is the fact that two or three cooperatives from the same community might invest in libraries for children under 7 years of age, story books that their families might borrow to read to them before going to sleep, promoting reading in the family itself, and that the cooperative might organize reading circles with the support of people who promote reading; the long-term impact of this initiative in the creativity and cooperative spirit of the community can be significant.

3.2  Components of individual distributions

Following graph 1, 50% of the surplus of the cooperative is distributed to its members directly. The criteria for that varies from cooperative to cooperative, and depends on the services that they offer. In some cases, it is in accordance with the contributions of each member. In other cases, it is in accordance with the volume of product transacted with the cooperatives that collect the harvest and sell the product of its members. In other cases, it is in accordance with the quantity of products bought in their cooperative. And in other cases, it depends on the amount saved in their cooperative. There are cooperatives with similar services, and that “pay back” under different criteria; for example, the peasant store Los Encinos in Honduras “pays back” 100% of the amount of the agreed upon contribution, while the Esperanza of the Campesinos Cooperative with several supermarkets, “pays back” based on the amount that each member buys from those supermarkets.

These criteria promote the capacity of each member, and increase their trust in the collectivity that the cooperative is. There are members with more financial capacity and do not necessarily have larger contributions in the cooperative; it depends on the trust that the members have in their cooperative, and on the opportunity cost that each member thinks their resources have. In this sense, the biblical parable of the talents (Mt 25: 14-30) illustrates part of what the cooperative looks to incentivize with direct distribution; in that parable three people receive talents, one 5, another 2 and another 1, “in accordance with their capacity”. After a time, the person who received 5 and the one who received 2 double theirs, and the one who received 1 maintained it. In light of this, the person who gave them the talents rewarded the first two, and took away the only talent from the third, “because he who has, will be given more, and they will have an abundance, but he who does not have, even what they have will be taken away from them.”

From the religious context, this indicates that God gives people talents in order to develop them, which reveals an individual vision, where each person is responsible for duplicating their talents. From the cooperative context, one is “paid back” in proportion to the trust and loyalty of that member, demonstrated by contributions, savings, delivery of product or amount purchased; that “payback” is not taken away from them in the cooperative, in contrast with what happens in the parable of the talents, where each individual responds individually with the talents received; instead, there is cooperation among the members mediated by commonly agreed upon rules, compliance mechanisms and there is accompaniment so that each member might increase their capacities; there is individual responsibility within the framework of collective responsibility.

3.3  Compensating by rights those who resign from the cooperative

Following cooperative statutes, the member who resigns from the cooperative has the right to the return of their extraordinary contributions, and the “reimbursement of social assets” (shareable surplus) within a term generally of 90 days. This “departure” arrangement should be thought of and agreed upon from the beginning when the cooperative is founded, even though it is clear that in the beginning, being immersed in making the cooperative survive, no one thinks about this; it should be done, because it is thinking about the future, and because each member should be clear about their rights from the very beginning[9].

In our societies the member who resigns from the cooperative tends to leave without recovering, many times, not even their contributions; likewise, those who die, their relatives do not tend to receive any benefit that by rights the family members are due. For some members, having joined a cooperative is even a financial loss. In the case that there are voices that are raised about this, some board members pull out the ghost that “distributing is decapitalizing”.

If the cooperative does not pay the member who resigns, or the relatives of those who die, in accordance with their rules and the rights of each member, the cooperative signals distrust in its own future, and sends an erroneous message that they are not members, that the “cooperative does not belong to its members”, which undermines any sense of ownership of those who stay in the cooperative, and those in the community who observe it. If in contrast, the members fulfill the rights that each members has on leaving the cooperative, that they be paid the part that corresponds to them that the cooperative has at that moment, probably that person will leave with a good amount of resources, and happy for having been a member of a coop. In the short term, this is a hard moment for the cooperative, because it is going to disburse in cash resources what it surely needs; at the same time, each member will see themselves in the person who resigns: in the same way that they treat the person who leaves, they will treat me. If the member joined the cooperative with little, and leaves with a good amount of resources, those who remain will ask themselves: if after the cooperative fails, will we be the most unlucky ones? The doubts will keep them up at night. But in the long term, those who are left are less, which means that they will receive more from the future resources that the cooperative accumulates; more than that, each member, seeing that the one who left took what corresponded to him, will confirm that in truth he is a member of the cooperative, that the cooperative really does belong to him.

Let us talk about numbers to estimate the amount that could be due to a person who resigns. What is the arrangement with the member who leaves? A member who leaves or dies, that person or their relatives have the right to part of the assets or resources that the cooperative has generated. Let us help ourselves with an example. If through the use of the “cooperative fund” or the “reinvestment fund”, extraordinary contributions of $100 per member, and donations that the cooperative received, a cooperative has assets valued at $200,000; if that cooperative had 20 members at its founding 10 years ago; then if one of them resigns from the cooperative, they are due $10,000 (200,000/20 = 10,000). This amount could be paid over a term that the statutes indicate, or, if the cooperative does not have the $10,000 available, they can arrive at friendly arrangements for the time frame for the payment.

The biggest impact of this fact, nevertheless, is not in the financial “payback”, but in the fact that the 19 remaining members, and the rest of the community, confirm that effectively the cooperative does belong to its members. This is the seed of incomparable ownership. This implies greater trust, loyalty and the deployment of individual and collective capacities.

Concluding this section, distribution in the cooperative generates equity, and incentivizes the development of each member. An estimate of 40% of the surplus protect the cooperative from losses, increases their investments or their own capital fund, and contributes to the community with unique investment in education. With an estimated 50% of the surplus, the cooperative incentivizes the development of the capacities of each member, their trust and mutual loyalty. And with an estimated 10% of the surplus, the cooperative ensures the recognition of members who leave the cooperative, far from seeing it as a “financial loss”, they recognize the rights of the cooperative member and with that plant the seed of ownership. This collective and individual outcome is the way in which the cooperative distributes its surplus with equity, which is connected to the virtuous peasant institutions of giving-receiving-paying back, expressed in shared labor, sharecropping, and shared harvesting, among other institutions.

Now that distribution with equity appears obvious, along with its importance. How can it be carried out?

4.    How to implement equitable distribution

Inequitable pay back… breaks down the organization

The Spanish, Mexicans and US tried to dominate the Apaches; they failed. The Apaches had the nant’an as their leaders, they were decentralized, operated in circles. Their adversaries, as they did with the Aztecs and the Incas, did away with the

nant’an, but the Apaches did not fall apart, immediately another nant’an would emerge. But one day the North Americans donated cattle to the nant’an; since cattle were scarce, the nant’an had the power to distribute them, so everyone wanted to be nant’an, the egalitarian power structure became hierarchical. The Apaches were defeated.

(Based in Brafman, O. and Beckstrom, R.A., 2007, The spider and the starfish. Barcelona: Empresa Activa).

This historical passage shows us that distribution is more than distribution of surplus. It is important to have holistic egalitarian structures that include equitable rules and mechanisms for carrying them out. Before continuing, we cannot avoid comparing this event of the Apaches with the action of the government in the parable at the beginning of this article; the government in the parable, and the North Americans in this other one, seek to subordinate the cooperative or the Apaches, the first donates land to them, and the second donates cattle, in both cases without “payback”, thus they undermine them before their members, leave them not looking toward their community, which causes the cooperative and the Apaches to fall apart. Militarily the Apaches were indomitable, but a simple donation eroded their entire organization, like termites on wood. How did this happen?

The Apaches lacked equitable rules for the distribution of assets donated to their leaders. The North Americans took advantage of that gap, and donated the asset that was the scarcest, cattle, directly to the nant’an and not to the Apache tribe that surely had their own organization. This practice internally stirred up the Apaches, who fought over being nant’an, for having that connection to the North Americans and accessing the cattle; surely, like the managers or presidents in conventional cooperatives, the nant’an said to their tribe that the “cattle had cost them”, that they should be content with what “trickled down”, that they were their “connections”, and that without them they would all die of hunger -or in other words, the evil of the “big headed dwarf” began to corrode the minds of the nant’an and sow distrust in the rest of the tribe. This process led them to become hierarchical structures, and consequently to collective failure; it is what has also happened to most of the conventional cooperatives.

Cooperatives, in contrast to the Apaches, have rules and mechanisms for equitably distributing the surplus (including donations), but they lack democratic processes in their functioning, which is why they do not comply with their rules for equitable distribution. In many cases the cooperatives were started by the State with donations in land or other assets, undermining them from their own beginnings. International organizations (buyers, financiers and donors) have continued on this same path. Like the North Americans with the Apaches, they only connect with the nant’an of the cooperatives (managers or presidents), and they are not interested in knowing the consequences that their actions provoke. How can cooperatives fulfill their rules and make distribution their most valuable attribute for growing equitably?

This point about the Apaches leads us to understand that a cooperative that distributes its surplus with equity is that which, in addition to having rules for it, is democratic and transparent: See Figure 3.

If the organs, in democratic exercise, ensure the fulfillment of the agreements about equitable distribution, that cooperative will embark at a good port. In the case of the Apaches, their organs operated around resisting militarily, including their food, but they lacked the rules for donations and relationships with external actors. We can imagine that the Apaches, in decentralized groups, hunted animals for food; for which they had their rules and they applied them, but not so that some nant’an individually might receive 10 head of cattle as a gift behind the backs of the tribe, even precisely for their tribe.

This combination (rules-democracy) requires, nevertheless, a third foot: transparency. It is depressing to find members who after contributing for 5, 10 or 15 years do not know how to add up their contributions, and that do not recognize their rights over the surplus. It is not just having democratic economic management coherent with the rules themselves and the rotation of members in the different offices and decision making in the corresponding organs, but informational transparency with the members and with the allies. The idea of transparency or accountability in the cooperative is not being subject to trial, measured and humiliated by “the magic of the numbers”. It is sharing information that in turn forms and commits the members. A member can understand that their surplus might be $30 per qq of coffee that they have delivered to the cooperative, if he is informed about how that surplus was produced; otherwise that person will see that surplus as “an award” or a “favor” of the patron, as his historical rules make him see it. Distributing surplus implies distributing responsibilities (democracy) and information; the way “the legal reserve”, “investment fund” and “social fund”; the expenses and income… were produced and used. This information forms people and commits them: the member, based on transparent information, will want to participate in the definition of the goals for the year for their cooperative, and will want to be part of the implementation of those goals, because he recognize that his individual surplus will increase, that the benefits to his community will improve, that if the cooperative increases its reinvestment, any member who leaves will be able to go with more resources. In addition, if the first tier cooperative is a member of a second tier cooperative, the member also needs to be informed about the second tier cooperative, know how surplus is generated in that organization, and how much is due his cooperative, and how much of that amount is due each member. That explanation can happen in an assembly, in visits to each member family, on whiteboards or through brochures, and on the day of the distribution of surplus, combine festivities and information.

Correspondingly, transparency implies being accountable; for example, it is commendable that the credit record include columns for the amount of credit, amount past due and contributions; it is also commendable that the record include the amount that the member is leaving for “legal reserves”, “social fund” and for the “reinvestment fund”; the first format for the record contains control information for the member, and the second format has the accounting of the cooperative to its members. Being accountable in the assembly about their resources expresses the rights of each member, and it is an obligation of the cooperative that each member know that. From here, if the members are informed about each step of their cooperative, they will be committed to their cooperative, if their cooperative faces difficulties, they will sweat the fear of failing and will row the canoe together even in the midst of the biggest waves.

Equitable distribution is possible within a framework of democracy and transparency. There, being a cooperative member is thinking beyond salary, beyond raw materials and beyond exported product; it is thinking about the entirety of the cooperative, and the entirety of the chain of actors where value is created. In other words, it is breaking down the walls of Figure 2 and understanding that what creates value is the human work of the working person, producer, processer, importer, roaster and seller of the coffee in the stores and coffee shops. It is “I touch you and you touch me”, entering into different worlds. This implies including the international organizations and companies, which goes in the direction of global triangulation that we worked on in several other articles, about an alliance of actors that work for equitable distribution.

5.    Conclusions

You read a book from beginning to end. You lead a business just the opposite way. You start with the end, then you do what you have to in order to achieve it.

Harold Geneen, 1984, Managing. New York: Double-day

At the beginning of the article we asked ourselves how cooperatives can distribute (“pay back”) in order to grow with equity. Equitable distribution in a renovated cooperative is very different from the distribution of the market in the neoliberal economy, which is one unilateral way, from society to businesses and institutions, from which there is no “pay back” beyond what “trickles down”.

In the renovated cooperative, and in alliance with global actors, equitable distribution is illustrated in Figure 4.

It is the distribution of surplus combining the collective (social fund, reinvestment fund, and legal reserves) and the individual (direct distribution to the member for their differentiating actions and payment of what by right is due the member who leaves); it is financial and social distribution. Then, equitable distribution implies that the organization be democratic (rotation of officers, collegial decisions and compliance with the rules). Then equitable distribution implies distributing information under the maxim that the more informed the members are, the better their decisions will be.

This notion of equitable financial, social and political distribution (democratic and transparent), mobilize energies and hearts when it is connected to the endogenous institutions of the members, in our case, the peasantry. Consequently, each member feels part of the cooperative, seeks to know its goals, have an impact on them and commit themselves to fulfilling them.

Finally, when the members and their global allies follow equitable distribution connected to endogenous institutions, that is when they see the entirety of the cooperative and the entirety of the value-added chain with equity. Far away are left the “walls” that separated the worlds. Paraphrasing Harold Geneen, we organize a cooperative from its end, from its equitable distribution to the benefit of the members and their local and global communities. The more that is distributed, the more that it grows.

[1] René has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation, member of the COSERPROSS cooperative, and associate researcher of the IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium). rmvidaurre@gmail.com

[2] Mauss (1979: 204-211), based on a type of distribution known as potlach, practiced in Eskimo societies in the Northwest of the US, finds the triple obligation of the gift culture: giving, receiving and paying back. “You do not have the rights to reject a gift, a potlack, because acting in this way makes clear that you are afraid to have to pay back and be left diminished, it is losing the “importance” of your name, it is declaring oneself beaten in advance, or in some cases proclaiming oneself victor or invincible” (p. 208). Marcel Mauss, 1979, Ensayo sobre los Dones. Motivo y forma de cambio en las sociedades primitivas, en: Sociología y Antropología, Madrid. Note that this identified institution is pretty similar to institutions of indigenous communities in Latin America.

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

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

[5] Surpluses result from deducting costs and expenses of the cooperative, amortization (value for deterioration of fixed assets). In associative organizations the term “profits” is used more, which is pretty similar to “surpluses”. The term “earnings” is different, there could be earnings through a discount if a product is sold above its acquisition price.

[6] W. Berrios, from the CAFOD aid agency, refers to the fact that some aid agencies linked to churches in Europe tend to withdraw their support for organizations that in theory assume the social and solidarity economy approach, but in practice do not follow it, and that instead become part of conventional mediation.

[7] Several buyer companies left Fair Trade on realizing that their premium payments were not getting to the member families, so they formed another movement called direct trade, to get around “cooperative mediation”. There are also European enterprises and cooperatives that buy coffee or cacao in Central America and want the cooperative that they work with to distribute their surpluses; correspondingly, some of them avoid the second-tier cooperatives and prefer buying directly from the first-tier cooperatives.

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

[9] See: Jack Stack, 2002, A Stake in the Outcome, New York: Doubleday. Stack, along with other workers, founded an innovative enterprise in the United States. In this book he recounts how they struggled with this issue from the beginning of their company. If they did it as a company, how much more should a cooperative!

The Principle of Stewardship in Cooperatives

The Principle of Stewardship in Cooperatives

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

I dedicate this article to my daughter Itza Irene and my sons Jaren and Inti Gabriel.

 

Planting a cooperative

A cooperative was attacked from outside and inside; it went broke. Its administrative council called the last assembly where they provided an accounting of each cent of the cooperative, the motorcycle, the computer, the desks, the portfolio of debts…

Given that their own sons and daughters and other youth from the community formed a new cooperative, the assembly agreed to donate all their resources to them: “We started with 10,000 córdobas and we worked 20 years, receive these 300,000 córdobas and let them serve our community at least 30 times more than us”, they said. Along the paths and creeks the rumor of the people was left etched in the stones: “The president, the Vice President, all left with a clean slate”, “humble and honest they started, humble and honest they left”. And more helpful”, shouted an elderly woman.

The 10,000 or 200,000 was not as important as the humility, honesty and service.

Is this what it means to be a cooperative member? Asked the granddaughter of the president. “In part, daughter, in part”, responded her mother as she gave her a hug.

The graveyard for cooperatives is sizable, larger in some countries than in others, generally because their members forget that the cooperative is a mean for a larger objective, their community. They do not follow their own agreements. Some of their board members “get big heads”, stay in their posts under “death do they part”, and others take over the resources that belong to all the members of the cooperative. In this way the collective effort turns into “damned money” that is served mouth to mouth in bars, and this type of cooperative, like a vine that climbs into the branches of lemon, tangerine and orange trees, choking them off and preventing them from bearing fruit, chokes off the communities where their members come from.

The parable reveals a different prospect, where even death, a good death, can generate life. Sporadically we know how to find some cooperatives that, even going broke, plant the future: they leave good footprints in women and men who were their members. This footprint is like the collective effort of 300,000 córdobas that the cooperative did not split up into pieces, nor let some few appropriate them, as happens with most peasant families who are always dividing up their land into pieces. Those members, in assembly, agreed to give it to the new cooperative that was starting, and committed it to return to the community “30 times more”. Behind this collective effort are values like humility and honesty that guide their steps, and what the cooperative cultivated and the elderly woman observed: service. Behind these values and that sense of service is the vision of a cooperative as a means (instrument) of living communities, that is the horizon in which that inheritance of values and resources become very important, but let us notice, just “partly”, as the mother points out to her daughter.

Those of us who also share these perspectives and support these processes in rural communities tend to be asked by rural families, with some incredulity, why do you come in to support us? What interest do you have in us when not even presidents of cooperatives nor mayors visit us? Even though in our mind it is that “part” of being cooperatives that the stones whisper “along the paths and creeks”, sometimes we have responded recounting the experience of the Catholic Church between 1958 and 1978, within the framework of its social doctrine, that opened the doors of their churches and monasteries and allowed for decades of religious and laity to accompany impoverished families in their communities; that experience allowed believing that God was living in these impoverished families, a seed of service and commitment that has germinated in hundreds of people.[2]. Other times we have responded alluding to the fact that each person has a sense of service, and that each person deploys that service in a thousand ways in the places where they live.

In this article we show the idea of stewardship as a more thought out response to the questions that they tend to ask us. Stewardship is a perspective that gives more meaning to cooperativism and that adds another additional “part” about what the mother saw and the daughter heard in the parable. We do so basing ourselves on something from the indigenous, religious and business traditions, to then conceive of the cooperative as a rooted organization that could take on stewardship in their communities. At the end of the article we re-conceptualize this idea of stewardship as the greatest motor and the most intense light of humanity.

1.     Seventh generation thinking

 “Now we crown you with the sacred emblem of buck antlers, the emblem of your lordship. Now you will become a mentor of the people of the Five Nations. The thickness of your skin will be seven tranches, in other words you will be a test against anger, offensive actions and criticism. […] Look and listen to the wellbeing of all the people, and always have present in mind not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are still below the surface of the earth, the future nation that has not yet been born.”

(Law of the Iroquois nation written between 1142 and 1500)

A Confederation of five Iroquois nations in the United States wrote their law between the years 1141 and 1500, that started seventh generation thinking. It is a principle of innovative stewardship, conceived and taken on prior to the Spanish colonization in Latin America, and before the British colonization in the United States. The principle suggests that in each deliberation its impact up to the seventh coming generation should be taken into account, that is, thinking about the great-great grandchildren of our great-great grandchildren. In other words, when we deliberate, make decisions and take actions we should ask ourselves: “Where is the seventh generation in these decisions? Where are we going to take that generation? What are they going to have?”[3] Imagine if you were an Iroquois, let us say  centuries ago, when the climate was relatively stable, your people were connected to nature, living certainly with conflicts between nations, you had that thought to the seventh generation. Meanwhile now, in the current conditions of climate and degraded nature, we realize clearly that we have abandoned that thinking. In spite of that, this thought challenges and guides us. Correspondingly, the decisions that we make today on the environment, water, energy, social relations between indigenous and non-indigenous people, the relations between women and men, or about the life of the communities, are going to have an impact on the lives of coming generations, up to the seventh, which is a nation of people who have yet to be born. It is a matter of living and working for the benefit of that future seventh generation; that really is thinking long term!

There are two ways of understanding this principle. The first way, if each generation differs from the previous one by 20 years, the seventh generation is in 140 years, which is why we should think about 140 years in our deliberations and decisions: see Figure 1.

The second way is varying the thinking about the seventh generation, and expanding the period in years in which a person is touched (influenced, awoken[4]) in their lives by their great-great grandfather/grandmother, who in turn was touched by their great-great grandfather/grandmother[5]. In other words, we place ourselves in a 360 year period and from there, looking 180 years backward (7 generations) and 180 years forward (7 generations), we can understand our roots and plant our future: see Figure 2[6].

When from our peasant realities we look at the questions asked within the framework of the seventh generation, they seem very hard. Following the first perspective, most peasant families are reducing their land area by inheritance and the sale of land, this means that the seventh generation will be left without land, and with a relationship divorced from nature, for example. Given the graveyard for cooperatives and those cooperatives taken over by elites, what cooperative are we leaving for the seventh generation?

Following the second perspective, this very reality of the division of land is demonstrated by looking at the 180 years since our mothers/fathers and grandmothers/grandfathers, and so we question ourselves looking at the the next 180 years: How can we stop this dividing up? What are we leaving the great-great grandchildren of our great-great grandchildren? We can respond to these questions in each family and community, or we can respond to them alluding to current issues like climate change, water…we can also see them from the history of our countries with a historical perspective, issues or challenges like peace and indigenous and non-indigenous social relations. For the case of Nicaragua, Oscar René Várgas (1999)[7] argues, based on an event that happened in the XVI Century, more than 400 years ago, that Nicaragua is a prisoner of the syndrome of authoritarianism and disregard for law; Alejandro Bendaña (2019)[8] presents to us the invisibility and margination of women by historians and the guerrilla leaders themselves in the war of Sandino between 1926 and 1934, something that in light of our current realities appears not to have changed. In that 400-year view and 100-year view, it frightens us to confirm that authoritarianism (hierarchical structures) and gender inequality, both accompanied by violence, changed so much as to not change “even a little”. We find the same thing in each country[9]. It would seem that each generation that has gone by has not been able to leave not even a little change that might benefit the seventh generation, it would seem that each generation intensifies those old and harmful institutions.

The notion of stewardship, from the Iroquois indigenous tradition, begins to move us. It makes us think about the change of any “syndrome”.

2.     Stewardship in the biblical tradition

The Catholic and Evangelical religions, professed by most of the population in Latin America, have the notion of stewardship in the Bible, which can be understood in two ways. The first way is God as the creator of the earth, where people are his administrators (stewards). Paul explains it this way: “Because we are collaborators with God, and you are the work of God, God´s edifice” (1 Cor 3:9). Stewardship is oikonomos: the person who administers. The second perspective is that people, women and men, are co-creators with God: if previously they had to multiply as the creation of God, in the new testament women and men are co-creators: “Go and make disciples of all peoples” (Mt 28:19).

The first perspective assumes that the patrón (owner) of all is God, and that tends to justify “each one of the verticalisms on earth”, warns the ex-Jesuit priest, Peter Marchetti. Correspondingly, Marchetti continues, “at the level of subjectivity, it is up to the grassroots to begin to work on the concept of God”. The second perspective as “co-creators” is a more horizontal perspective, even though the subordinated relationship of nature to human being persists. Marchetti counsels us: “The challenge is recovering traditional ecological knowledge that existed prior to the idea of God the patrón; the path is emulating traditional knowledge to be able to dismantle the idea of God the patrón.” Correspondingly, the Iroquois seventh generation thinking, for example, is very useful for us, because it comes precisely from prior to the Spanish and English colonization, where we could say that the “patrón” is the seventh generation.

From both sections, our challenge is “working on the subjectivity at the same time as the materiality”. The latter is, for example, the democratization of organizations and their economies, while the subjectivity is working on attitudes. Among these attitudes is dialoguing with the biblical perspectives of God as “creator” (patrón) of everything and humans as co-creators, as well as dialoguing with our great-great grandfathers and grandmothers, and at the same time thinking about the impact of our actions on – or dialoguing with – the great-great grandchildren of our great -great grandchildren. Here are the first brushstrokes about what stewardship is, which combines subjectivity and materiality, begins to dialogue with other perspectives, generations and with the attitude itself to free ourselves from the “patróns”, not matter what they may be. Now let us look at how businesses address and take on stewardship, to later focus on cooperatives.

3.     Stewardship in businesses

In the past the church and the military caste dominated the world. 30 years ago the private sector dominated the world. Common interest, the State, education, the church, health care, the army are all read from the perspective of business; for example, each one of these areas or institutions are measured by their efficiency, costs, and their power relationships defined as technical things, that can be resolved through social engineering, through management. It is recognized that businesses create jobs, that they fight against racism, assume actions compatible with environmental sustainability and “social responsibility.” Business people who achieve financial success are admired as true heroes, and are named as directors of health care, education, churches or presidents of countries, like war heroes or religious martyrs used to be venerated, no matter what side they were on.

We identify two perspectives in these enterprises. In the first perspective are most of the large corporations, who prioritize their profits, dividends (% of profits) for their shareholders, while they are desperate to produce wealth today, and satisfy consumer society; this is short term thinking that produces short term results. There are few corporations in the second perspective, they are, for example, investors in pension and insurance funds, businesses that innovate, invest in the formation of their staff and get involved in profitable recycling actions instead of dumping it in spaces of poor countries; they look to develop long term thinking (MacNamara, 2004[10]). Nevertheless, business organizations, like the churches and military structures in past centuries, intensify those millennial authoritarian, patriarchal and hierarchical structures that concentrate wealth and power. It changed so much in order to not change much at all.

Recognizing these hard institutions, and at the same time seeing the potential of companies, Block (2013)[11] proposes the notion of stewardship as

An alternative to leadership. Stewardship asks us to be profoundly responsible for the results of an institution, without forcing the purpose of others to be defined, controlling them or overprotecting the rest. It can be defined more simply as ordering the dispersion of power.

Block defines stewardship as the change in the governance of businesses, that distribute power, privileges and wealth in favor of the people below and people marginalized in the businesses. Stewardship as “alternative to leadership” conceived as hierarchical and patriarchal, that does not subdue nor treat others as “minors” (“overprotected”); more than directing organizations, it is cultivating organizations, more than controlling and deciding for others, it is facilitating so that people might be empowered – controlling is accepting “the dispersion of power”; facilitating is democratizing (ordering) power. Stewardship is seen as an option of action at the service of those with little power and for the common good, it is long term thinking. This is taking care of the wellbeing of the next generation. How can this idea of stewardship be carried out? Block thinks that it is difficult to carry out with the dominant patriarchal leadership of our times, in the service of the short term and being operational with those few who have power.

Block provides the elements that characterize a real stewardship, whose notion we try to draw in Figure 3.

Stewardship has to do with a partnership of working together in democracy, which is opposed to the colonial belief that those above are the only ones responsible for the success of the organization and the wellbeing of the members. It is a matter of empowering each member of the enterprise, where it is assumed that their security and freedom is in their own hands, contrary to depending on those above, believing that they know what the rest of the people need, and contrary to the fact that they treat people as subordinated children. And it is a matter of service, that is committed to their organization and their community without expecting anything in exchange, cares for the common good and creates community, and distributes power and wealth, because it assumes a commitment for something beyond oneself, contrary to looking out for ones own interest at the cost of others.

In this notion of stewardship, of working together, in partnership, empowered and in service, underlies the idea that our life is brief, “we are on borrowed time”, as rural populations say, and our work in any organization or area is even briefer, which is why we want to turn over any task that we have taken on in the past in a more advanced stage. In this sense, let us remember the parable of the talents (Mt 25. 14-30), that we should multiply the talent received; this challenge becomes difficult in the case of peasant families, for whom if that talent was the land that they received from their parents as inheritance, after some 30-40 years that land would have to be more fertile and not “worn out” (less fertile, eroded soils) – something very difficult, while for enterprises, the land conceived as something that produces only based on agrochemicals, it is impossible for them to turn over land in 30 or 40 years with more fertile soils.

Bringing  those questions about the seventh generation here, we would say: How can businesses be built in partnership, that empower and are of service to the seventh generation? How can the land be worked so that it might benefit the great-great grandchildren of our great-great grandchildren? If the land is the mother of any product and any life, can businesses be built of any size with long term thinking, which would be watchful over its social and environmental impact and the elements of stewardship that Block advocates? Paraphrasing Jesus of Nazareth, probably it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than C-Corporations to assume this role of stewardship that Block proposes. Nevertheless, from the world of corporations there are good attempts; B-corporations[12], founded in 2006 and by the end of 2018 totaled 2500 in 50 countries around the world, could meet what Block proposes; B-corporations are certified for having good governance, transparency and good social and environmental impact. Also businesses whose workers become owners, governed by the ESOP law in some countries[13], could be taking on Block´s stewardship, particularly those that function under the approach of “open book management”[14], because they cultivate a culture of ownership (of being owners) for long term success.

4.     Stewardship in cooperatives

B- corporations and ESOP enterprises with “open book management” could be exercising a role of stewardship. But the most suitable seem to be cooperatives, and even more so, if they bring together people with few resources. The problems is that most cooperatives also are an expression of hierarchical structures, like C-corporations, and are more and more moved by the short term thinking of the god of the market. Recognizing this fact, we argue that a renovated cooperative, that “is born again”, can be a serious option. To assume this role of stewardship, the cooperative must take up the ideas of Block and impress on it their own historical essence, because it is with renovated cooperatives that the ideas of Block could have greater possibilities of being carried out. See Figure 4.

We reread Block from the perspective of a renovated cooperative: in partnership we understand that people from different ages (grandparents, offspring, grandchildren), sexes and social sectors (e.g. workers) participate in a cooperative; that the cooperative is a space where each person is empowered in horizontal and vertical agricultural and non-agricultural diversity, using the market and not subordinated to it; and that the members cultivate a sense of voluntary service coherent with the idea of co-creation in dialogue with nature. Given this interpretation, the type of renovated cooperative is one that walks with both of its “feet”, the associative and the business one, is distinguished by its democracy, transparency and for distributing its profits (wealth). With these elements the members, and also their allies, make their own values and cooperative values their own, more and more intensely illuminated by a long-term perspective, and deliberately seeking to have an impact on – and dialogue with – its seventh generation.

This is the perspective of stewardship which a reborn cooperative implements, which pushes it to reorganize itself systematically as an alternative to despotic, hierarchical and patriarchal leadership. This is the promise that each member makes to the other members and to themselves from the first day in which they join a cooperative, which in turn, bears the potential of significant self-realization, which frequently is lacking in our organizations.

Correspondingly, how can a cooperative be reorganized from a role of stewardship? How can a cooperative member be a steward? First, a member accepts an office conceiving it as a service, serving other people, it is not to serve oneself at the cost of the other people. The office responds to the mandate of the members, which is why this service implies willingness and availability, being a person who does not have time, and always has time to serve other people, who listens and helps them to connect events and ideas, so that the members resolve their problems and/or take advantage of opportunities. Coherently, a person who occupies the office of president fulfills their role of president, and respects the role of each member of the Administrative Council and respects the functions of organs of the cooperative (Administrative Council, Oversight Board, Education Committee, Credit Committee). The same does the vice president, treasurer, secretary. Likewise, each member of the Oversight Board, the credit committee, the education committee. In addition to taking on their own role and respecting the other roles, these member help other people to exercise their offices; if the secretary has difficulties in writing the minutes, or the treasurer doing their financial report, the people from other offices, or those who already had those offices, support them (facilitates or trains them), so that they might lean to do the minutes and the financial report, but without taking their place. The assembly does not name people to posts to just to fill a post, nor out of formality, but it is a real need.

Promoting the culture of stewardship is going against the current of the culture of most of our rural organizations, where a person tends to believe they are the patrón and God, it is like a person walked around with 10 hats on their head at the same time, the hat of president, secretary, treasurer, oversight board, assembly, education committee, credit committee…That is not possible, right? That is what generally happens. One of the consequences of this fact is that that person believes himself to be the owner of the cooperative, and treats the members as their “minors”, does not let them grow, wants them to serve him, be subject to him; he disempowers them. “My poor patron, he thinks that the poor person is me” goes the song of Cabral, that seems applicable to this type of person with multiple hats, and who does not obey the mandate of his assembly. A president or manager with the commitment of stewardship is completely different: he supports and celebrates the work of the oversight board, administrative council, credit committee, because those structures help him to fulfill the sacred responsibility of co-creating the cooperative to the benefit of their communities, to redistribute power and surpluses, to empower the members so that they might take their own steps.

Secondly, a cooperative member, with or without an office, administers in a responsible way – and generates – financial resources (money), physical resources (building, infrastructure, assets) and productive resources (coffee, cacao, beans, bananas…) for the members. There is an awareness that those resources will last beyond our present lives. No one individually appropriates them under the pretext that “it is my effort”. Everyone cultivates the relationships of their organization with other global and local actors (financiers, buyers, accompaniers), without centralizing those contacts for their own exclusive benefit. Each person is accountable to themselves, their families, the cooperative and their community. It makes them think about co-creating and benefiting their community and the seventh generation, a task for which they are guided by the virtuous rules from the time of the great great grandparents of their great great grandparents, and in accordance with agreements and rules of their cooperative in line with the cooperative principles defined 175 years ago, in 1844, by 28 working artesans in cotton factories in the city of Rochdale, England. Correspondingly, any loan of money to a member, for example, is done from the appropriate body, according to agreements, with a receipt and later accountability  to the assembly; the board members understand that they cannot make and use the resources of other at their own discretion, that there are organs and rules under which the resources, information and power relations flow. This very specific exercise can be generalized to other levels, including the country, building citizens with rights and obligations, not so much consumer societies.

Third, support to people to exercise their offices, and the fact that there are rules and structures that guide being cooperative members, implies also that the members be committed to learning and changing. If there is no transformation inside each member, if there is no re-evaluation of our desires, yearnings and expectations as far as we are explicit about the harmful and virtuous rules that govern us, any structural change for the operations of our cooperatives will be like a stripped bolt. In fact, in Central America we have experienced dictatorships and revolutions, a boom of organizations and religions, and all those changes have been like stripped bolts, our lives continue being guided by century-old structures and harmful rules that reproduce social, environmental and gender inequalities, which make us see the cooperative as “a thing of men”, “mono-cropping services” and “hierarchical and authoritarian bodies.”

Joining a cooperative means that we have chosen and accepted that relationship of organizational and personal transformation to energize our communities. The choice and acceptance become our contract. Our desires for financial gain, participation, self-expression and the expectations that we have for being part of a community, are only possible if we are committed to the objectives, results, limitations and principles of the organization in general. The agreement on the elements of the contract is the basis for the association and the basis of the community. Stewardship offers more options and local control, in exchange for that promise of commitment on the part of its members, a promise that should be given from the very beginning (Block, 2013).

With these three elements the cooperative can “be born again” and assume its role of stewardship in light of its community, which is as local as it is global. Forming its own membership, generating collective innovations, working on equitable rules, adding value to the products of the community, producing good land…to benefit the seventh generation.

5.     Conclusion

The Church dominated the world for centuries. The military as well. For half a century, businesses have dominated the world. Century after century the land and the relationships between human groups seem to have deteriorated, currently we find ourselves in an inflection point in terms of the future of the earth; the domination of the private sector – the god of the market – intensified it. Our bet is that the decade of 2020 the community might begin, through its forms of cooperative organization, not to dominate the world, but contribute to the democratization of the world, and that we rethink nature not as something subordinated to homo sapiens, not even in a relationship humans-nature, but homo sapiens as part of nature. This is possible if the communities, through their cooperatives, and other organizational expressions, take on the role of stewardship.

In this article we have reviewed the idea of stewardship from the indigenous tradition, religious tradition and from economic business sciences, in order to re-conceptualize cooperatives. From this review and re-conceptualization, we understand that stewardship can be applied to individuals, businesses, organizations, institutions and communities. Stewardship is the word that summarizes the vision of the cooperative, and any organization, for its members. That is so if the community is the starting point, while at the same time the horizon – that community as local as it is global. It makes us learn another way of understanding and organizing life. What is the idea of stewardship that we have been shaping in this article?

Figure 5 shows the perspective of the community that rereads the cooperative in its material expression (organizational) and its subjective expression (personal), from which originate 4 elements that make the meaning of stewardship visible.

The community of human beings and nature is something living, geographically concentrated and at the same time globally clustered through dense relationships around products. This utopia or horizon makes us reread the transformation of a cooperative in its material expression, organizational change, and in its subjective expression, individual change. In other words, a person awakens, for example, to the fact that only through collective actions can some problems be resolved, like hierarchical and authoritarian structures; it is that material-subjective combination that mobilizes the cooperative in its role of stewardship, expressed in its 4 elements. First element, thinking about the great-great grandchildren of our great-great grandchildren, in other words, more than 140 years, which is contrary to the short term thinking or the mining and push button culture, of wanting to earn money immediately believing that tomorrow everything could change. Second element, co-creating that world along with other people, with nature and with divine energies beyond our human comprehension, empowering particularly impoverished people, which is contrary to believing oneself to be the patrón (owners of this world), intensifying social and environmental inequality. Third element, cultivating a spirit of voluntary service, taking on offices and cultivating the cooperative, which in the long term benefits each individual, which is contrary to abusing the cooperatives for personal profit at the cost of coming generations. Fourth element, being guided by human values like humility, honesty and respect for the collective good, which is contrary to just betting on finances.

With this reconceptualization of stewardship, we can reorganize the cooperative in another way. We can even expand on the Iroquois law; that each person have “skin as thick as the bark of a pine tree” to confront not only “anger, offensive actions and criticisms”, but to exercise a stewardship that benefits “the future nation that has not yet been born.”

In the parable, “planting a cooperative, the daughter “reads” being a cooperative is about that collective force, values and sense of mission, while her mother recognizes that precisely is what it means to be a cooperative member, even though just “in part”. With the expansion of the framework that we have worked on, the reader can read this article again and contribute “30 times more” to the effectiveness of their decisions and actions. Even so, in light of the seventh generation, that contribution to the notion of stewardship, surely, will continue being “in part”.

[1] René has a PhD in development studies, is an associate researcher of the IOB-Antwerp University (Belgium), collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (WPF) and a member of the cooperative COSERPROSS RL. rmvidaurre@gmail.com  I am grateful to Steve Sheppard and Mark Lester, president and director of  WPF, respectively, for the inspiration and ideas that they have offered us in the work with cooperatives, and particularly in regards to a very brief first text on this topic, published at the end of 2019.

[2] We recount the experience of the Catholic Church, but the same happened with a good number of protestant churches, particularly the historic ones- Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans. Also, university students in those years, without necessarily professing any religious faith, also moved to the countryside and marginal neighborhoods. It is also the experience of many people who later on were connected to guerrilla movements.

[3] These questions we adapted from the questions that Oren Lyons, chief of the Onondaga nation, formulated and are quoted in “An Iroquois Perspective”, in: Vecsey, C. and Venables, RW (Eds), 1982, American Indian Environments: Ecological Issues in Native American History. Vol. 46.4. New York: Syracuse University Press. p. 173, 174. For a broader understanding of the indigenous culture in the United States and their lessons for today, see: Kathleen E. Allen, 2018, Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World, USA: Morgan James Publishing.

[4] “Touched” is when a person feels gratitude for something good that someone did for that person. In the context in which we are using it, by “touched” we mean when your great-great grandmother or grandfather made you look at your life in a different way, or something fundamental in your life, that marked you in your feelings or perspectives for the rest of your life. What is yours for the future, the possibility that you, on becoming a great-great grandfather, might influence (“touch”) the lives of your great-great grandchildren, which is possible because you had the possibility of learning about life for nearly a century.

[5] This variation in interpretation is found in “seven generation sustainability” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_generation_sustainability)

[6] There have also been methodological proposals based on seventh generation thinking. One of them is the alternative proposal to the logical framework, a planning tool that organizations tend to use. See: Kathleen Allen, 2018, “Seventh Generation Thinking – A Replacement for SWOT”, https://kathleenallen.net/seventh-generation-thinking-a-replacement-for-swot/ It deals with locating ourselves in the fourth generation and from them gathering lessons from the three previous generations and using them as information for our future decisions that would include the next three generations. This can be done as an organization, particularly if there are people from 3 generations within its membership; they can be worked on in groups.

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

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

[9] For example, Goodwyn (1978,  The Populist Moment,  New York: Oxford University Press) studied the rural populist movement that occurred between 1870 and 1910, about a peasantry that organized into cooperatives in such a way that they founded their own political party and came close to an electoral victory, but which the political and economic elites coopted and subsumed until crushing them. Goodwyn concludes that that democratic process in the United States was the last opportunity for the US nation to democratize.

[10]Doug MacNamara, 2004, Stewardship, in: Leadership Acumen http://www.banffexeclead.com/iitl/PDF/LeadershipAcumenStewardship.pdf

[11] Block, P., 2013, Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-interest. California: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. 2da edición https://www.bkconnection.com/static/Stewardship_2nd_EXCERPT.pdf

[12] See: Yale Center for Business and the Environment, Just Good Business: An Investor’s Guide to B Corps https://cbey.yale.edu/sites/default/files/2019-09/Just_Good_Business_An_Investors_Guide_to_B_Corps_March_2018_0.pdf

[13] Owners can sell their businesses to their own workers, there is a law in the US and England to facilitate this. In the United States it is called Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), and in England there are two types, the incentive plan and the savings plan. There are also ESOPs in India.

[14] Jack Stack and a group of workers bought the business of Springfield ReManufacturing Corporation in the 1980s. More than being successful, they designed a transparent form to govern and work the business, which they called “open book management”. See: Stack, J and Burlingham, B., 2002, A Stake in the Outcome, New York: Doubleday.

Cooperatives embedded in a differentiated and diversified economy

Cooperatives embedded in a differentiated and diversified economy

René Mendoza Vidaurre with Elix Meneces, Fabiola Zeledón, Hulda Miranda, Esmelda Suazo and Luis Daniel Meneces[1]

Coffee is more than coffee

-Honey, you seem pensive, what is going on?

Tasting this coffee, I ask myself, what am I drinking?

-Why?

-The coffee is produced from the water that exists in the coffee plant. A good plant adapts to the soil where the water comes from … Over the years the coffee tastes like that soil and the other plants that permeate it through the pollination of bees.

-You are profound, what is soil?

-It is particles produced in an infinite variety of soils for millions of years, particles that through human action become a particular terrain–that is why we hear people talk about “my land”.

-What?

These terrains are produced in multiple stages. The coffee plant (from the Turkish word kahve, and in Arabic is qahwa) appeared between the IX and XIII centuries in Ethiopia, and in Yemen in the XV century, then in the Middle East, Europe, northern Africa and Latin America … The coffee plant adapts to different soils and altitudes. The workers interact with the plants and the soil, some even meditate on them. If there is no diversity of insects on a coffee farm with citrus trees, plantains, avocados, and cedar trees, pesticides have barged in. The laws of governments and certifiers come into play. The markets make coffee dry, washed, natural or honey coffee, and it ends up being espresso, capuccino, moca, latte…, it is cupped and packaged…

-Wow!, in other words, this coffee is more than just coffee!

This parable shows us how while sitting down to drink coffee we are really savoring millions of years of natural and human life. It is not just coffee, wine, potatoes, carrots…it is more than that. Behind a farm with coffee and several crops there is a history of thousands and millions of years, where nature interacted with human actions, organizations and institutions. Coffee is water, soil and land, it is a diversified farm and it is the human energy of many generations. It represents rights, policies, economic transactions and spirituality.

Fabiola Zeledón, an advisor of rural cooperatives, tends to say that “the farm expressed the mood of the family”, because the farm is the result of the energies of those who work it. This reminds us of Jesus of Nazareth, his response to the Pharisees two thousand years ago (Lk. 19:39-40):

39 Some of the Pharisees who were among the people complained to Jesus:—Teacher, reprimand your disciples!

40 But he responded:—I tell you that if they keep silent, the stones themselves will shout”.

Jesus was referring to the stones of the temple, in the construction of which enslaved people shed their sweat and blood. The temple of stones could shout. The farm also could shout, as Pope Francis said in Laudato Si, “the cry of the por is the cry of the earth”.

Even though there are a variety of agricultural systems, in this article we focus on a diversified agriculture that resists the pounding of the mono-cropping system, which is the cause of the cry of the poor and the earth. From this point, if a diversified farm is an expression of social and environmental equity, how can cooperatives embrace it, instead of eroding it, surrendering to mono-cropping systems?

1.     Introduction

“Put your eggs in different baskets” and “staggering income and food throughout the year”. Historical diversification strategy of the peasantry

Talking about diversification is nothing new. Historically, the indigenous and peasant strategy precisely has been diversification, expressed in “putting your eggs in different baskets” (if the eggs in one basket break, there will be the other baskets- products), and “staggering income and food” throughout the year. This strategy has happened generally on the horizontal level of diversification, something like the poly-cropping system on farms, and it has functioned in agricultural frontier areas and in communities relatively isolated from towns and markets. Why? Any family that lives a day or two days travel from town cannot go every week or two to town to buy products to meet their needs; they will go to town two or three times a year with “corn that can walk” (pigs or turkeys), or blocks of raw sugar, to supply clothing; they will look to grow corn, beans, a bit of sugar cane, raise poultry and pigs, process their lard, water their garden or oregano, cilantro, mint, and chili, being as self-sufficient as possible. The members of each family participate there, in the raising of poultry and pigs, and also the processing of lard and the tasks of harvesting and cleaning basic grains.

The problem in the new millennium is that, practically speaking, there are no more agricultural frontier areas, the population and their proximity to markets have increased, and the harassment on the part of the elites over their lands, products and labor has intensified, while the soil has lost fertility, water is getting scarce, and the instability of the climate is on the increase. This problem is made worse when peasant agriculture tends to give way to the mono-cropping system, and to its logic of “more agro-chemicals, more production.” This, in turn, has meant that mothers are outside the farm, because the effect of their gardens and raising of chickens and pigs has been reduced, and young women and men are migrating from the countryside, because they look on the farming of their parents as something boring, and that experiences more months of “dead time” when food for the table gets scarce.

Within this context these strategies of poly-cropping, in addition to falling into the peasant curse of remaining a producer or raw materials, inexorably is on the wane, while the mono-cropping system speeds up their impoverishment and environmental degradation. What can be done then? One response has been that peasant families organize into cooperatives and empower their communities. Nevertheless, in most cases the cooperatives are absorbed by elites, who “wed them” to mono-cropping systems. How can cooperatives be recovered on the basis of diversification systems? A first response we have provided in other articles, that when the members of a cooperative come from the same community, and their services are located in that same community, that tends to strengthen the peasant economy of their communities. This is a basic condition, for the cooperative to be embedded in a community economy that gains ground in the face of the mono-cropping system.

To take advantage of this condition, the challenge is transitioning from a type of anti-peasant embeddedness (mono-cropping agriculture and a cooperative with only the business “foot”), which is what Polanyi would call “a market society”, to combining what is differentiated and diversified – horizontally and vertically – of embedded peasant agriculture with the two “feet” of the cooperative (associative and business feet), which Polanyi would call “societies with markets” (see Figure 1). How can that step be taken from one agricultural system to another, when it also implies transitioning from a market society to a society WITH markets? In the section that follows we study this first harmful embeddedness, and then in the other two sections we work on virtuous embeddedness.

2.     Mono-cropping and the business “foot” of the cooperative

Comparative advantage: producing a good at lower costs than others; buying the rest of the products in which you are not competitive (David Ricardo, classical economist, 1772-1823).

Strategy of mono-cropping companies.

The elites subject societies through markets, and promote the disappearance of the peasantry through mono-cropping agriculture. That is, plantations of just one crop, be it sugar cane, peanuts, sunflower seeds, palm, soy, pineapple, large livestock, coffee or cacao, they are imposed with technological patterns (intensive use of agro-chemicals and mechanized labor), in extensive and increasingly larger areas, decreasing the demand for labor, and committing to ever larger production volume – it is the logic of comparative advantages. That market force uses the cooperative itself to promote this mono-cropping agriculture, to such an extent that today to speak about an agricultural cooperative is practically the same as saying a mono-cropping cooperative.

Some organizations, to soften that reality of mono-cropping cooperatives or to camouflage them, call them “specialized cooperatives”, and they conceive of the members as farmers who have several crops for consumption, and a commercial crop to generate income (“cash crop”) that could be coffee, cacao, bananas or block of unprocessed sugar. Hence there are financially successful cooperatives that have credit services, markets and technology for just one crop, or, in the case of serving several crops, they respond with a mono-cropping logic – per crop and not to diversified systems. This mono-cropping agriculture for decades and centuries has done damage to the peasant economy and the environment, something well documented by hundreds of studies.[2] Part of those effects is expanding the area for coffee, peanuts, cacao, pineapple, soy beans, sunflower seeds, or sugar cane, accompanied by environmental degradation (soil erosion, dried up rivers, deforestation and loss of biodiversity), the proliferation of pests that become more resistant to insecticides, and molding peasant behavior toward strategies of “putting all the meat on the spit” (one crop, one market), of the culture of receiving payment once a year, of “the season” (one harvest in the year that pays for debts, food and goods) and that depends increasingly on agro-chemicals, like glyphosate, which replaces workers, affects human and natural health, and wipes out the gardens of peasant homes. The result of these effects is that slowly the peasantry is dispossessed of their land and their organizations, while their curse of being producers of raw materials intensifies.

There are sugar cane cooperatives in countries like Bolivia, for example, that only administer the sending of the sugar cane of their members to the sugar mill, and are the vehicle for the companies to do the mechanized labor and application of agrochemicals in the cane fields. They are cooperatives whose members, previously peasant families who diversified their crops, work on just one crop, and they are left practically as spectators of that crop, because the companies are the ones who plant the sugar cane, do the weeding, apply the agrochemicals, harvest and transport the sugar cane; the member is watchful that those tasks are done at the appropriate time, and in the end receive 2 or 3 dollars per ton of cane. The large sugar companies do not even need to buy land to take it over, instead counting on the cooperatives and governments to establish their control.

The expansion of mono-cropping happens even through organic agriculture, a commercial farming system that emerged in the 1960s in Europe and Japan, countries whose populations demanded organic products in opposition to the companies that recycled used chemicals in the Second World War in “pest control” farming practices. But in time these organic products, regulated with norms and certification programs, were inserted into capitalism as a simple substitution for agrochemical inputs.  Box 1 illustrates the prohibitions for a crop to be certified as organic: there they assume that the members apply agrochemicals to basic grains and gardens, which is why they prohibit them.

Fundamentally it is a rejection of diversification. The paradox is that this organic agriculture is promoted by organizations and companies concerned about the environment, but precisely this mono-cropping character is the opposite of environmental sustainability. A cooperative, even one organizationally rooted in its community, that continues to embrace an agriculture of mono-cropping, be it organic or not, divorces itself from nature, separates people from one another, and undermines the productive bases of peasant families.

The most dramatic effect of elites through the mono-cropping system is their influence over a type of despotic leadership, and their appropriation of peasant organizations, proletarianizing them with or without land. How do they do this? The trader grows their business through one crop, no matter what the product is, believes himself to be indispensable for having money, coming in from outside the community, and having contacts outside the community where he can go to sell it, which is why they focus on the product, not the person, they respond to the market. For that trader the community is just a place where there are products. This is the model that permeates the cooperative. This is what we illustrated above with the sugar cane cooperatives in Bolivia. Let us look at other cases, now referring to coffee and cacao cooperatives in Central America.

On molding the cooperative around one crop, the coffee or cacao cooperative administers their harvest collection, processing and exporting from the town (municipal or provincial capital), and it makes the member family stay only within their farm, tied to a raw material. The rule is: (manager of the cooperative), “give us your product, we will take care of the rest”/ (member producer) “I am a producer of raw materials, the rest does not matter to me”. This institutional setup has made the “business foot” of the cooperative set itself up as the foreman (administrator) of the market, the trader, who pushes the farming of the mono-crop, takes charge of “the rest” of the product outside of the farm. For those activities of harvest collection, processing and commercialization, the only things needed are money, manager, technicians and a president who is one more signature for the checks – from this comes the rule: “money makes even a monkey dance.” Within this structure, and for the business to function, the member does not count, is not needed, even if he does not turn in raw material, that structure (the “business foot”) can resort to traditional traders and buy it in that arena, and then pass it off as a product of the cooperative. This logic has been supported by financial and state institutions, as well as buyers, who are only committed to mono-crop farming; for example, a private or social bank does not finance diversified systems, they finance mono-cropping agriculture – cattle, coffee, sugar cane or soy beans.

As we can see, this embeddedness of the mono-cropping system and the business foot of the cooperative, supported internationally, is anti-peasant and makes the social and environmental inequality worse. The challenge of getting beyond this path is clear. Consequently, assuming that we already have rooted cooperatives, with members who come from the same community, how can a new path of embeddedness be built between a differentiated and diversified agriculture in the community itself, and a cooperative organization with two feet, the business and the associative feet (di2 +  2 feet /community)?

3.     Differentiated and the two “feet” of the cooperative

We said that the indigenous peasant diversification strategy worked under certain circumstances, conditions that now are different in the new millennium. In this and the following section we start from the strategy, and we re-conceptualize it in a way that responds to the circumstances of the current millennium. Peasant farms and economies need to develop a production that is differentiated and a diversification that implies innovating horizontally (on the farm) and vertically (agro-industrialization), which requires a level of coordination made possible with the active participation of each member of the peasant family organized into cooperatives, which operate with their business as well as their associative feet. Let us begin with the differentiation of products, not betting on the volume per crop, maybe not even volume per area, but quality of life – because the farm is more than just a farm.

Let us look at products as differentiated from both focused and multiple perspectives. Seeing differentiated products from a focused perspective means that there are certain activities and products that require cooperative forms of organization, and others that do not. Organizations which are formed around products known as commodities, standard products, tend to fail; for example, a family that produces corn for their consumption and to sell it through mediation, does not need to join a cooperative to repeat the same process, because individually and as a family they already store their corn for 6 months (corncobs above their stove and cured corn in the storeroom). This family does not need a cooperative to store their corn; unless the family needs financial liquidity at the time of the harvest, and then after 3 or 4 months needs corn, just when the price of corn is double or triple the price when they sold it. In that case a cooperative is needed which, covering its costs of storage, can resell them their own corn.

Producing and selling corn in the former case is not a differentiating activity, which is why it does not need to be part of a cooperative. While the latter operation of buying and reselling the corn, saving them 100% of their resources, is a differentiating activity, which requires collective actions, which is why a cooperative is needed. That same is true in the case of beans or other products.

There are products that require a group of producers to coordinate among themselves to do certain practices in a standardized way in order to access certain markets. Then a cooperative is needed. For example, producing quality coffee requires a certain amount of coordination in the organoleptic management of high value varieties, picking red cherries, pulping, drying and hulling by lots; the collection of milk requires a certain amount of synchronization in volume, hygienic practices, delivery of product on time and a place with refrigeration, be that to be sold as milk or processed as cheese; cacao for chocolate requires uniform fermentation and drying; organic agriculture requires learning and making organic fertilizers and natural insecticides, as well as markets that channel the products toward consumers committed to healthy foods; selling vegetables to demanding markets requires homogeneity in size, quality and packaging of the product, in addition to synchronicity in volume and time.

This industrialization and commercialization require coordination and synchronization among several families, which is more possible within the framework of rooted cooperatives; an individual peasant only goes as far as their fence of piñuelas, they do not sell their raw materials, but can sell them through their cooperative. A leader of a cooperative in Honduras said, “the beautiful thing about our sales network of the cooperatives is that the products of other organizations come into our Multiple Services Business (distributor), and then are sold to our peasant stores”.

Now let us get into the differentiation of product with cooperative coordination from a multiple perspective, which refers to the fact that, regardless of the products, the cooperative cultivates a long-term vision to the extent that it can see the “big picture” – different determining factors coming from their own history, the global and local power structure, the challenges of all of humanity and/or glimpsing promising visions of the future. The members see, for example, the benefits of ecological or agroecological agriculture in the long term, and get the big picture of climate change; consequently, the peasantry rethinks their autonomy, conceiving an agroecology that “Incorporates ideas on an agricultural approach more connected to the environment and more socially sensitive; focused not only on production but also on the ecological sustainability of the production system” (Altieri, 1999:17). A leader of the La Voz de Atitlan Cooperative in Guatemala said (Mendoza, 2016d):

After more than 20 years working in organic agriculture, now the changes can be seen. Our lands produce more coffee, and any other crop that we put in the plot produces more and better harvests. This coffee has a good market. We only had to realize that we needed to improve our production and we needed to save our cooperative.

The members understood that small actions mobilize communities, they see their farms as small laboratories, they  see their cooperatives as a schools of collective entrepreneurship, and the community as pluri-versity. The members understand that coordinating among themselves for differentiated products makes their cooperative a different organization. Note: in the following section we will see vertical differentiation, as another form of the multiple perspective and structural empowerment of the peasantry that organizes itself.

Clothed in this focused and multiple perspective of embedded products and cooperatives, it follows that the cooperative makes the different actors coordinate among themselves, from one member to another, and follow up committees are organized for the technological, agroecological, transportation or processing coordination in the territory itself. For example, if the coffee drying would once again become a role of the producer family itself, and the hulling was a function done by the cooperative, the reports of theft of weight in the harvest collection centers and the dry mill in the town, or claims that their sacks of coffee were replaced by other sacks in the dry mill warehouse, would come to an end, because a good part of those tasks would be done on the farm and in the homes of the member families themselves, and in cooperatives rooted in their territories. In this way, the more agroecological or differentiated production practices the peasantry takes on, the greater autonomy it gains, while at the same time it makes the cooperative operate in agroecological systems that make any action more distinctive.

4.     Diversified and the two “feet” of the cooperative

This differentiated production should also be accompanied by diversified production; agroecology, for instance, cannot be understood without diversification. Diversification implies resolving the dilemma of increasing production and generating added value to peasant production. Here the cooperative comes into play, through it we deepen the horizontal diversification (crop association and rotation, and the combination of crops with small and large livestock on the farm) and we enter into vertical diversification (processing of farm and forest products – e.g. pine needles for crafts, wood for rustic furniture).

How can we innovate in agriculture? Let us look at some examples along those lines. Innovating in agriculture is thinking about it as “floors in a building”: crops that spread like watermelon, pipian squash, pumpkin or chayote, are like the first floor; plants like vegetables are the second floor; plants like cassava, beans or corn are the third floor; bananas or papaya are the fourth floor; citrus and avocados are the fifth floor; finally wood and energy trees are the sixth floor; all them in accordance with the energy flow coming from solar light and wind.

Another example is varying the form, while at the same time having common spaces for fostering friendship. This is the case of trellises of grapes, passion fruit or chayote, that can be established horizontally, under which families place seats for moments of friendship and conversation. Or these trellises can be set up vertically, “trellises stood in a line”, that increase the amount of productivity in the same space, and also function as wind breaks. Another case of form with enormous productive, organizational and philosophical meaning is mandala agriculture (in Sanskrit “sacred circle of energy” from the Maya and other cultures like Buddism[3]), producing in circles, combining sizes and the demand for energy coming from solar light and wind, organizational movement in circles (e.g. Apaches), and as a philosophy of life where energy is channeled under the premise that energy is what moves change.

Farming combined with smaller livestock is another open vein in innovation. Poultry in open fields (on diversified farms) that fertilize the crops, capture insects and clear weeds, and at the same time product eggs and meat. Innovating also in the garden (“My Mom´s green thumb”) and natural medicines.

This horizontal diversification should be thought of as linked to vertical diversification: agro-industrialization. This is a way of beating the peasant curse of not moving beyond “your piñuela fence”, condemned to only producing raw materials. How can this be done? For example, collecting, hulling, roasting and grinding coffee in the community itself for different markets; this implies learning how to use the pulp, honey water and coffee hulls as ecological inputs, which generates more jobs and energizes the economy of the community where the cooperative is located. The same can be said about sugar cane for processing granulated sugar blocks, which at the same time are an input for different products like granola, bread, natural medicines and some twenty traditional products; while its wastes are used for alcohol and making molasses (cattle feed) and organic fertilizer.

This vertical diversification is possible when the entire system is carried out in the same territory and is led by a cooperative that functions with both of its “feet”: its business and associative feet. Both feet are needed because high levels of coordination are required between people to respond to the diversity of value creation activities, the diversity of crops directed at different markets, and their degrees of agro-industrialization. With these practices, the dependency and veneration of the members toward the manager, who is located outside of their community, gets diluted, because it is within the community that most of the economic, social and cultural value is generated. The dependency on mono-cropping agriculture of just having activities in the months of the “season”, is replaced by ongoing tasks throughout the entire year on the farm and in the home. The dependency on the work of just the men is replaced by the mobilization of family labor for an endless number of activities that differentiated, diversified and agro-industrialized agriculture requires. Because it is difficult for us to imagine a cooperative of just men growing crops, raising pigs and chickens, and at the same time making marmalade and pine needle baskets, which is why the active participation of women and men, as well as youth, is strategic. In addition, a horizontally and vertically differentiated and diversified agriculture has more possibility of no longer being boring and unpleasant.

This embeddedness of differentiated and diversified agriculture within the “two footed” cooperative, when it happens, breaks up three anti-peasant models. The model of a type of strong man leader who, for just having one crop, turns into a trader of the only crop of the cooperative; the model of the masculine cooperative that for just having one crop and only being a producer of raw materials (e.g. just the sale of wet coffee, cacao pulp, standing sugar cane on the farm itself), lives closed off in just one phase of mono-cropping, while excluding women from the economic activities; and that of a cooperative composed of people over 50 years of age, that combined with the institution of inheritances of “the sow does not shed its lard until it dies” and the rule that “you have to have land to join a cooperative”, closes the door to new members, administering little by little the death of its members, their assets, and their own history. When these models are broken up, women and youth burst in with their different ideas and abilities, while those over 50 have their energies and perspectives renewed, promoting that diversified and agro-industrialized economy, a change that reaches the table itself with a varied and nutritional diet: flavored soups, marmalade, roasted coffee, chicory…

How might this process be seen from the side of the community? If the community diversifies, it builds a new form of commercialization. The land would not be prostituted for just one crop, nor would they depend on agrochemicals, nor would they bet only on volume for only international markets. They would produce land for that differentiation and diversification just begun. The community would demand greater variety of fresh and processed products, they would protect their forests, water and biodiversity, because it would become part of their circle of life. Families would generate income throughout the year, while at the same time their costs would be reduced, because they would produce their own organic inputs…The community would be fun, happy. People from outside would feel an attraction for that community, and it would become even more energized.

5.     Conclusions

It is time to see what we have learned with this article. Having a framework that “coffee is more than coffee” we formulated the question about how the cooperative can embrace diversified agriculture. Throughout the article we made a distinction between two marriages, one damaging and the other virtuous. The former is the mono-cropping system married to a type of cooperative that only functions with its business foot, a marriage that de-peasantizes, degrades the environment, while it rubs the wound of the peasant curse of being condemned to a raw material logic, The virtuous one is a differentiated and diversified agriculture wedded to a type of cooperative that functions with its business and its associative feet, and that breaks down the peasant curse.

We respond to that question along the lines of the virtuous marriage. First, the context in the new millennium requires an institutional change to prevent the de-peasantization underway. Second, the historic peasant strategy of diversification to overcome the peasant curse of being left to embracing raw materials, we re-conceptualize as differentiated products and diversified and agro-industrialized agriculture based on more innovation and collective coordination concentrated in their communities. Third, this virtuous marriage is possible only if women and men of all ages participate actively in this transformative process.

This institutional change means that the image of cooperative as equivalent to one crop, raw materials, and older men collapses, gives way to an inclusive cooperative that looks inward, to their community, diversifies and agro-industrializes in order to consume and sell better. In this type of cooperative there are not many reasons for the board members to leave their communities, they earn their legitimacy in their communities.

In the introduction we made it clear that a cooperative rooted in its community is a basic condition for taking the step of carrying out a differentiated and diversified agriculture. Now that we are getting to the end of the article, we conclude: to develop differentiated products and a horizontally and vertically diversified agriculture is to sustain that deep-rooted cooperative and consolidate that community autonomy, which is building societies WITH markets. All of this is inscribed within the material institutional change, even though the farm is more than something material, does it mean that the participation of women (mothers and spouses) and youth from both sexes also produces changes in the people´s subjectivity? Surely these changes are not an automatic outcome, as if the structure determines the superstructure (ideological sphere) or that they change by the mere fact of joining the cooperative, or vice versa, but rather something more complex, something very important that should be studied and innovated on, and then written about in coming articles.

[1] René is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (WPF), a member of the COSERPROSS cooperative and an associate researcher of the IOB -University of Antwerp (Belgium), Fabiola, Hulda and Esmelda are cooperative advisors,  and Elix and Daniel are leaders of a new model of cooperativism.

[2]For recent studies, see: Gudynas, E. (2013). Extracciones, extractivismos y extrahecciones: un marco conceptual sobre la apropiación de recursos naturales. Observatorio del Desarrollo, CLAES, 18, pp. 1-18. Also: Seoane, J., Taddei, E. y Algranati, C. (Eds.), 2013, Extractivismo, despojo y crisis climática. Buenos Aires: Editorial El Colectivo. For a case in Central America and another in South America, see: Silvetti, F. and Cáceres, D.M., 2015, “La expansión de monocultivos de exportación en Argentina y Costa Rica. Conflictos socioambientales y lucha campesina por la justicia ambiental”, in: Mundo Agrario, 16.32

[3] For the Mayan mandala system, see: Tucci, G., 2001, The theory and practice of the mandala. New York: Dover Publications Inc. For the Tibetian mandala system, see: Tsering, M., 2015, El Mandala en el arte y filosofía de la cultura tibetana. Doctoral thesis. Spain: Universitas Miguel Hernández de Elche

Communities ploughing the seas

Communities ploughing the seas

René Mendoza Vidaurre, Mark Lester and Fabiola Zeledón

The unfaithful market

“Bring your coffee and I will pay you 100 córdobas more per quintal than that coyote that is circling you”, Carmelón the trader said by cell phone. Pedro weighed his coffee before leaving on the bus, it weighed 3 quintals. Now in town, Carmelón put the three sacks on the scale and it weighed 2.3 quintals! He paid him 2990 córdobas, at 1300 per quintal. Pedro left dazed: in his own village they were offering him 3600, at 1200/qq; and he would have saved the cost of the transportation and the lost day. He arrived home with a headache. “What is bothering you?”, asked his wife, Julita. “Carmelón cheated me,” he responded angrily. Ah Pedrín, you know very well that the market is like a lover, you cannot demand that it be faithful. Pedrín felt like the earth opened up in front of him, how right his beloved was!

The market is like a lover, you cannot demand that it be faithful“. If it does not cheat you with the price it does it through the weight, if not, it tells you that your sun-dried coffee is wet, and if not that, it tells you to “wait on me.” Price, weight, and quality are structural challenges that can be resolved if people organize into a cooperative. But it is not automatic, most cooperatives are taken over by elites who turn their backs on their members, and turn into traders dressed up as “cooperatives”. Ah, but when the members of a community organize and the organs of their cooperative function, in that community they reduce violence, generate more equality and peace – this is what Esterlina Talavera says, from the 13th of October Cooperative in San Antonio: “In these cooperatives where only one person is in charge, one is not worth anything; in this cooperative, where the assembly is in charge, there I feel like I do have value.” If importers, roasters and sellers of ground coffee in the United States and Europe work with those corrupt cooperatives, they instead sow violence in peasant communities, like what happens with traditional mediation connected to big corporations, but if they work with democratic cooperatives, they support peace with justice.

 Under what conditions can small producers, women and men, and small roasters and coffee sellers build communities of peace between rural areas of Central America and consumers in the United States and Europe?  Responding to this question in this article, we see that markets can become “faithful” to the challenge of making peace with justice.

1.     Perspective and ways of riding the markets

With Mark Lester´s visit to 50 importers and roasters in the United States, we discovered similar perspectives on both sides of the ocean: buyers and producers. He met with roasters who buy from 6 sacks of coffee a year to those who bought containers of coffee; there are peasant families also who produce 4 quintals of export coffee to those who produce 100 or 150 quintals of export coffee. In the face of this situation, there are importers who connect these two worlds: they import coffee in lots in one containers for roasters who want lots of a smaller size than that of a container; they are lots that come from 3 or 5 producers with the same coffee profile, possible through the grassroots cooperatives (1st tier).

He learned that roasters ask for samples of coffee to be able to express their interest in buying; some cup and define their own cup profile, and others ask the importer to define their cup profile; generally they are looking for a score above 82, because they think that is the way that they can differentiate themselves and compete in the face of large corporations whose costs are less because of their economies of scale. The cooperative sends the sample, indicates the volume of coffee that it offers from that sample, and the roaster responds whether they are interested in that coffee or not; as a sign of loyalty, the cooperative does not sell the volume it offered with the sample until the roaster has responded, to do so would be behaving as an “occasional lover”; the roaster or importer responds as quickly as possible, to not do so would be to behave like a “lover”. The roasters prefer lasting connections, it does not work out to each year have a new seller of coffee, because they want to maintain their cup profile; the cooperative also wants to have lasting relationships, especially if the buyer pays them based on quality and there is good deal; this implies that the cooperative also is loyal to its members, only collects their coffee, and thus maintains the same cup profile that it agreed upon with its buyer. It is a loyalty among several actors who revolve around coffee.

Mark found roasters and importers concerned about the sustainability of their enterprises and that of the coffee growing peasant families. If the peasantry with less than 5 hectares of coffee goes broke, the coffee is left in the hands of large mono-cropping enterprises, thus the quality of the coffee would drop because they are committed to varieties that produce volume and they grow them in full sun. This is not helpful to the buyers nor to the peasants. So from both sides of the ocean they want peasant families to increase their productivity (more and better coffee per hectare), and importers and roasters process more coffee in the same physical space. Both sides of the ocean also want diversification and the commitment to coffee quality to lead them to increase their productivity, that diversification would also include sustainable practices with several crops and the agro-industrialization of products, roasters who diversify their markets; university communities that demand coffee from cooperatives…

2.     Trust, the beginning of triangulation

Cultivating these described connections and commitments are not possible with conventional practices. Financial organizations provide credit requiring financial statements (indicating expenses and income) and balance statements (indicating assets of the cooperative versus its debts) from the cooperatives; but these in turn tend to hire accountants who “invent” their financial reports, while their members do not have access to that information, and if they do, the numerical chaos is incomprehensible to them. Financial organizations and buyers assume that on signing contracts with cooperatives, they actually are operating as cooperatives; at the same time it is seen that most of them do not redistribute their earnings, they treat their members as any intermediary would treat them; they are cooperatives whose members do not rotate in their posts, nor does their administrative staff rotate in accordance with their merits. So the aid organizations, on learning of these realities, turn a blind eye; thus, trust in people becomes trust in money on the part of a small global club.

Those connections and commitments can, nevertheless, be built based on trust if cooperatives function as cooperatives, if buyers and roasters treat them as cooperatives and not as if they were haciendas, connecting only with the manager or only with their president. How can trust be built? From the work of the Winds of Peace Foundation (WPF) with grassroots cooperatives and its contacts with buyers and roasters, we propose an inclusive triangulation.

Social banks, buyers and second tier cooperatives already practice triangulation, they sign contracts where the cooperative collects coffee with financing from the social banks, and the buyer pays the loan owed by the cooperative to the social bank. But it stays there, they are that club that turns a blind eye to the true functioning of the cooperative and its members. We take up that triangulation, buyers, financiers and cooperatives, but not with second tier cooperatives but with grassroots cooperatives (first tier); and we do not stay there, we do an inclusive triangulation, that implies that part of the contract stipulates the distribution of profits and information, that they be democratic and efficient organizations (that they lower costs), and work in sustainable agriculture. That this inclusive nature be verified by an accompaniment that helps the members govern their cooperatives, and that the transparency between buyers, roasters and cooperatives be reciprocal.

Being inclusive means that the member families coordinate among themselves to achieve a cup quality of 85, improving their soils, assuming the costs of sending coffee samples: not letting the market govern them, believing that it is only a matter of putting up money and moving coffee; it is that we work with members over the entire year and not just in the coffee harvest season, connecting small producers who organize into cooperatives with small roasters. If one actor acts as an opportunist, they damage the entirety of the coordination with the different actors, and they do damage to themselves. If the price in the market goes way up, the cooperatives prefer to stay in a lasting relationship; if the prices of the market go way down, the buyers prefer to stay in a lasting relationship. This is coordinating, trusting and being faithful.

3.     Role of accompaniment

There are roasters aware of the fact that peasant families cannot improve their lives if they do not organize into cooperatives, and that is why they seek out healthy relationships with these cooperatives. There are importers who understand the importance of connecting small roasters with small producers who are organized into grassroots cooperatives. There are also foundations, like WPF, that accompany this process of triangulation.

In this role, WPF, in collaboration with a team from the COSERPROSS cooperative, accompanies the grassroots cooperatives, contacts importers and roasters, and because of its connections with Universities in the United States, works so that the triangulation reaches university communities.

Previously WPF did not play this role. It assumed that that role belonged to the cooperatives. But seeing that the cooperatives are being absorbed by structures that sow injustice, violence and environmental unsustainability, WPF took on new roles, of being a hinge in the relationships between cooperatives and buyers, helping to make transparent the agreements between the different actors. If previously WPF provided credit on the basis of bilateral trust with a cooperative, now it does it in the framework of an inclusive triangulation, precisely to build greater trust.

4.     Conclusion

At the beginning of this article we asked ourselves about the conditions in which small producers and small roasters can build communities of peace. We provided three responses. First, small producers and roasters pursue common perspectives; perspectives that start from having similar size, committed to coffee quality, and social and environmental sustainability, innovating through diversification. Second, establishing relationships of an inclusive triangulation where the economic transaction goes along with the economic and organizational democratization of the cooperative and the other allied actors. Third, ongoing accompaniment of these perspectives and this inclusive triangulation.

Under these three conditions trust, mutual loyalty and lasting relationships can be built. This leads us to be concerned about the people. It is a perspective where Pedro and Julita, from the story at the beginning of the article, organized in a cooperative can collect their coffee harvest in their own communities. It is a path where markets can work to build communities of peace with justice, communities that plough the seas.

The Principle of Stewardship in Cooperatives

The Principle of Stewardship in Cooperatives

René Mendoza, Steve Sheppard and Mark Lester

Stewardship is a biblical idea. God is the creator of the earth, and people are his administrators. Paul explained it, “Because we are co-workers of God, and you are the God´s field, God´s building.” (1 Cor 3:19). Stewardship is oikonomos: a person who administers. In business the idea of stewardship evolved, from a servant to being the administrator of assets, and from there comes the word stewardship: the responsible administration of the resources of others. From here we can understand stewardship in the cooperatives as meaning that each member of the organs, and each member of the cooperative, should be a responsible administrator of the resources that belong to the members, resources that will last beyond our present lifetimes. It is a serious pledge that each member makes to the other members and to himself/herself. And it carries with it the potential for a significant self-fulfillment that is all-too-often missing in our organizations.

If a board member administers responsibly the resources of the members, resources that in the end belong to God, how can a cooperative follow this principle of stewardship? First, a title is a service, for serving other people, it is not to serve oneself at the cost of other people. Second, that service implies a willingness and availability, of being a person who does not have time, yet always has time to serve others. Third, being watchful over the resources of the members, resources that in the end belong also to the community, to humanity, to God. Fourth, it is a voluntary and watchful service in coordination with other members of the cooperative, and allies from other global and local organizations.

What do these four elements mean for the actions of a cooperative? If a post is a service, then a president fulfills his role as president, and respects the role of each member of the Administrative Council, and respects the functions of each organ of the cooperative (Administrative Council, Oversight Board, Education Committee, Credit Committee). The same with the vice president, treasurer, secretary, and each member of the Oversight Board.

When we practice biblical stewardship in the cooperative, we do not make loans without receipts, and without the approval of the credit committee, we are accountable to the members who are the owners of the resources, the board members understand that they cannot make use of the resources according to their own whims. Their sacred responsibility is to care for them.

A president or manager with a commitment to stewardship does not act on their own, but support and welcome the work of the oversight board, the administrative council, the credit committee, because these structures help them fulfill the sacred responsibility of caring for the resources of the cooperative. If the secretary has difficulties in writing up the minutes, it is up to us to support that person learn to write the minutes, but not to replace that person. If a treasurer has problems doing the financial report, it is up to us to help them, but not to replace them. People are not named to a post just to fill a vacancy.

Promoting the biblical culture of stewardship means going against the current of the culture of most of our rural organizations, where one person believes themselves to be the patron and treats the other members as fieldhands. “My poor patron, he thinks that the poor person is me” – goes the song of Cabral.

But this support also means commitment in return. If there is no transformation inside each member, if there is no re-evaluation of our wants, longings and expectations, then all of the structural change in the world will have no impact on the functioning of our cooperatives. Membership in a cooperative means we have CHOSEN and ACCEPTED this relationship. The choice and acceptance become our contract. Our desires for financial gain, participation, self-expression- whatever we may want from being part of a community- are possible only so long as we can commit to the objectives, the results, constraints, principles and difficulties of the larger organization. If we cannot support these requirements, then we should leave. If our colleagues cannot commit to this contract, they should leave or we should separate them, even if it takes time and discomfort.  Agreement on the elements of the stewardship contract is the foundation for partnership and the basis for community.  Stewardship offers more choice and LOCAL CONTROL in exchange for a promise from its members. The promise the larger organization requires needs to be clear and agreed to right at the beginning. (Stewardship by Peter Block)

Stewardship is administering the sacred resources of the cooperative in accordance with collective rules and with transparency and justice. These resources are financial (money), physical (building, infrastructure, assets), productive (coffee, cacao, beans, bananas…), human (people with different capacities). The rules are the statutes and agreements that the cooperative approved in their Assembly. Transparent and just action is that each organ and each member be accountable to themselves, their family, the cooperative, the community and to God.

The practice of stewardship is a different way of organizing a cooperative. But it is a better way of strengthening and sustaining its success and long life.

 

Not tripping over the same stone

Not tripping over the same stone

by Fabiola Zeledón, Freddy Pérez, Claudio Hernández, Hulda Miranda, Rebeca Espinoza and René Mendoza

Juan, president of the cooperative, got off the bus, and walked like a rooster, with his chest held high.

-Greetings, young lady. I am the president of the cooperative

-Good day, Juan.

-Call me “Mr Juan”. I was born a leader. I am the way, the truth and the money, hahaha.

-Ahh… Who said that…?

Didn´t you hear me…? Tell your Dad to send his contributions. I will give him a loan.

A sparrow that was flying around the area, seeing that was happening, crashed against a tree. The bird couldn´t believe what it was hearing!

When at last there was a restructuring of the organs and administration of a cooperative, winds of change were felt. Among other reasons, the cooperative was founded to be a democratic space and a place for learning for the members. Nevertheless, a short time after the changes, the cooperative tends to return to its old course: hierarchical structure, absence of information, disillusioned members, lack of ownership… How things change so as to not change. Why do we trip over the same stone time and time again? Here, in contrast to the sparrow, we reflect on what is happening. Then we add a second question: How can we avoid this stone and walk along the cooperative path without “crashing” into the first tree? In this article we reflect on these questions based on our own experience of recovering a cooperative.

1.     That tripping stone

In Chapter 12 to 16 of the Book of Revelation in the Bible, John, from the island of Patmos, warns about the first beast that shows itself to be powerful. But he warns us that its power comes from another beast, that we should not get confused. That second beast also is powerful, but its power is not its own either, but comes from a third beast. Something similar happens in a good number of cooperatives. See Figure 1.

The manager or president personified in a person tends to appear as the patron. He says: “Aid organizations only write to me”; “I am going to give the members directions because you are like children”; “I give you loans”; “You owe me”. The members resign themselves: “to whatever he says”; “we are small producers”; “I go to him for loans”. The leader or patron who centralizes decisions and concentrates resources, ends up believing that there is no need for assemblies, that he was born a leader and that is sacred. If some institution sees that that cooperative is like a hacienda, the patron shouts to the four winds about “autonomy” and against “third party [outside] actors”. He believes himself to be the general assembly, oversight board, administrative council and manager all rolled into one. The members dream of one day becoming that patron; Fanon said that then in Algeria: “The oppressed dream about being the oppressor”.

But his power is not his own. He or she is the face, generally, of a group that is as global as it is local, who live off the control of the resources that revolve around the cooperative. These include buyers, certifiers, agro-industry, State institutions, financial organizations…Behind these acronyms are individuals who manipulate their own organizations. They say: “information confuses the members”; “Buy coffee or cacao in the street and pass it off organic”. The patron senses that he lacks power, that his power comes from that group, so he goes to church and there whispers to himself: “I am not a bad person, I was tempted by money”.

The power of this group is not its own either. It comes from the patron-fieldhand structure, wedded to capitalism. This structure says: “everything is possible with money”; “more volume, more earnings”; “everything has already been studied”; “even God does not like stupid people”. Any natural force or wealth, economic wealth and friends of the member families remain diluted in the face of this structure.

Now we are able to understand how it is that we trip over the same stone. The saying goes: “human beings are the only animal that trips twice over the same stone”. We started a cooperative, and it is trapped by this harmful group, and this group responds to that hacienda and capitalist structure. If our patron is removed from his post, the new president or administrator takes his place, they make him repeat [his term] and keep him as an errand boy, while they make him believe that he is the top honcho! What happened? That structure awaits the new president or administrator as the “spare tire”, once he arrives, they exchange him for the “flat tire”, while the “vehicle” keeps rolling on. So it is that time and time again we trip over the same stone.

2.     Walking on the cooperative path

There were elections in the Reynerio Tijerino cooperative. The members were happy.

-Luis Javier Vargas, a member, quoting the Bible, exclaimed: “When the just rule, the people are happy”

-the recently named president, Justo Rufino Espinoza, responded: “Let´s not be overconfident”.

It was a moment of joy, heart, reason and consciousness.

A hummingbird that was flying by, began to sing of joy.

When we began to get tired of tripping, discovering those three “beasts” woke us up. We refused to be that patron, that “spare tire”. The brief conversation between Luis Javier and Justo Rufino reveals that individual and collective combination, between emotion and reason, between hope and reality. A person makes themselves just, they are not born just. “In an open treasure, even the most just sins”, says an old saying, that is why the new president warned: “Let´s not be overconfident”. In other words, the cooperative has to create mechanisms to build trust and produce justice. How can it do so? Here we list some mechanisms.

The first is preparing for each activity. This means studying each situation and reflecting on the notes that we have taken of past conversations and meetings. Claudio Hernández says: “I have been taking notes for years, I can lose anything in my house, but not my notes”. Freddy Pérez adds: “If I would have known that my notes were important for learning, I would have taken notes sooner”. On the basis of notes and other information, we prepare ourselves for each meeting, negotiation and activity – imagining each detail before doing things. In this way we overcome the old practice of the patron, of doing things impulsively, because you feel safe under the shadow of the second beast, we overcome relying on the patron who says “leave it to me, I will solve it”. The more we prepare ourselves and coordinate as a group, the more our confidence increases and the more we help the cooperative.

The second mechanism is realizing that in the cooperative people have the power that comes from interpreting and applying the rules of the cooperative. These rules are the result of the decisions of the Assembly, wedded to the values of our communities. Our patron are the legitimate rules and processes. We guide ourselves by these rules, and we apply them through the corresponding organs. Our loyalty is not to money, but to the general assembly composed of the members, who produce these rules and who every three years elect other members for the different posts. Money is a means; the end are the members.

So if a member is looking for a loan, he goes to the credit committee, and follows the rules that the assembly of the cooperative approved. No one should take the place of the credit committee in a cooperative; it is not like in the haciendas, where the patron is at the same time the credit committee, general assembly, oversight board and manager. Our statutes tell us that profits are redistributed in the cooperative, therefore we must redistribute the profits of the cooperative. In a cooperative each member has rights, voice and vote, without regard to whether they produce a little or a lot, each member has the right to become president, to their part of the profits, and to have a copy of the statutes of their cooperative. In a cooperative the directions do not come down from above, they are made in the Assembly, and in the other organs of the cooperative. “Oh”, said Freddy Pérez, “I thought that being a board member was solving the problems of the members, rather it is the members who solve their problems through the cooperative”. “It pains me what I experienced, I know that I should not lend the money of the cooperative to the members, but I did it again”, expressed Claudio Hernández, recognizing that those “3 beasts” have formed a nest in our minds, but that our consciousness wrestles with them, and that being a cooperative is gaining more and more terrain. “We do not need credit, we need our profits”, insists Josué Moisés Ruíz.

The third mechanism is connecting the inside forces with the outside ones. Figure 2 shows the harmful leadership style, the patron who believes himself to be the door to the cooperative and to outside the cooperative; while Figure 3 shows the style of leadership that a real cooperative practices. If the cooperative is guided by its statutes, the State will legalize its path. If this process happens making its organs function, external institutions and aid agencies will respect the cooperative; they will treat it as a cooperative, and not as a hacienda arranging everything only with the patron. For example, the credit committee will meet with the institutions or organizations that might provide credit to the cooperative. The commercialization committee will meet with commercial enterprises and organizations that provide processing services for their products.

Internally, the members of the organs visit the members, and encourage them to visit one another as members. Members of the commercialization committee visit a member family, see their product and their wet mill, and at the same time come to understand the family in their multiple interests – most deeply felt needs and dreams; it is on this basis that the committee advances in their work strategies. The members of the oversight board, credit committee, education committee and the Administrative Council all do the same. A visit is a blessing that makes friendship and trust, loyalty and truth blossom. The more informed a member family is, the more it contributes with their ideas and oversight to the cooperative; the more connections are cemented in visits that generate friendship, the more the cooperatives become instruments for the majority of their members.

The fourth mechanism is that organizational improvement must improve our farms and homes. The cooperative is not there to apply agrochemical inputs and then lie, saying that we have organic production. Nor is producing an organic crop leaving it “without applying anything”. If we visit the member families, each family should visit their plants every day as well. The cooperative is not there so that our members might consume the coffee dregs, but to consume the best of their coffee, honey, grains, vegetables, bread and the best of their enchiladas…

3.     In conclusion

This article is the product of 5 months of tension, and the pursuit of a cooperative to defend its rights, speak the truth and have the strength to change. This process taught us that a small group, in alliance, is capable of making cooperativism contagious. The biggest changes start in our own minds. The rule that “we will always need a patron” or that “leaders are born” comes from the hacienda institution and capitalism, and has built a nest in our minds. How can we get that idea out of our heads? To the extent that we reflect, demonstrating it, trying mechanisms out and being persistent, we can free ourselves from that idea.

At the beginning of the article we asked ourselves why we were tripping over the same stone. Throughout the article we have discovered the “three beasts”, who have trapped most of the cooperatives in our countries. These “beasts” make us trip time and time again.

The second question was how to avoid tripping again. We listed 4 mechanism that we have experimented with: preparing oneself for each meeting and not moving impulsively, following the rules of the cooperative, being a leader who connects with the members and the external actors, and making organizational improvement go hand in hand with the improvement of our production. Our aspiration is that these four mechanisms might help us to get those harmful norms out of our minds that come from the “3 beasts”. Being a cooperative is path that we peasant families need to hone. If we do it, the hummingbirds will be joyful as well, and the sparrows will not longer crash against any trees!

Let us end this article recalling another rule of the patron: “you should not help members, because they are ungrateful”, the patrons repeat. When Sandino decided to not surrender, General José María Moncada said to him, “The people are ungrateful; what is important is living well”. Sandino did not crack. There is no better gratitude than the members recovering their cooperative and closing the door on the thief, the patron, and the three beasts, and follow their own path.

 

Getting off the old path and getting on the cooperative path

Getting off the old path and getting on the cooperative path

[for pdf version]

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

I was a fieldhand. I was a foreman. I knew how to become a patron. That is what I wanted. That is what I was doing when one day in 1968, on returning home, I ran into an unknown person on a mule. He extended his hand to me, greeting me:

  • I am the priest of Santa Fe- he told me.
  • I do not believe you, priests only greet the rich – I responded.
  • There is always a first time for everything, I invite you to a meeting this Thursday – he surprised me.
  • I do not have time for meetings- I reacted, turning my head back to the path.
  • No? Those are the people I am looking for, people who do not have time – he said good-by and left me without a foot to stand on.

I went to the meeting. I saw him greeting people, even the children, that shook me. We sat in a circle. What I saw that day, what I heard that day, made me think differently. That day changed me forever”.

Jacinto Peña, founder of the Esperanza de los Campesinos Cooperative, Santa Fé, Panamá

In this story there are three moments. In the first, Jacinto knows the patron-fieldhand path and dreams about becoming a patron, who priests greet. In the second, the encounter happens on a muddy path, a moment of awakening between the clash of events and words; the priest goes to people and shakes the sweaty and calloused hands of peasants, exchanging words, where two mentalities confront one another and at the same time coincide in “people who do not have time” (people involved in initiatives), and the possibility of change appears: “there is always a first time for everything”. In the third moment, the meeting takes place, and a new path takes shape in which what stands out is what happened before and during the meeting: greeting people, including the littlest, time to reflect in a circle and listening to one another, causes “thinking differently”. A year later they would organize their cooperative, and with that they would channel this awakening and new path in a sustainable way.

In this article we describe that old path, its reproduction in coopted cooperatives, and the appropriate path of the cooperative that, connected to peasant and indigenous roots, guides the centenary dreams of people. In the wrap up we leave open ended conclusions.

1.    The old path

The old path is a dominant perspective and seen as the only one; it is a structure defined with rules honed over centuries. See figure 1.

It is a relationship of power over the labor force, peasant products, female bodies and nature. The perspective is that what is important is what comes from above; if someone has a pressing need or emergency, they look upward, and go to the person considered to be the “top honcho”. In this structure each person knows their place. This is where the expression “know your place”, fieldhands or peasants understand “their place” and consider themselves “brutes” and “powerless”, that is why the cook on a farm or hacienda works twice the amount of time than the men, and earn less than one day of work of a man, and in addition is sexually harassed as her daughters are – “whatever moves in my hacienda is mine”. The patron believes he owns the land, the cattle and the truth: while the fieldhand or peasant dreams about becoming a patron (see in the story of Jacinto Peña how he dreams of becoming a patron) on the basis of impoverishing the most vulnerable and nature, or resigns himself to his current condition under the belief that “the corncob, even though there is a good rainy season, will always be a just a corncob” (if you are born mediocre you will always be mediocre), ashamed of being “small” and believing that his current position is by “the will – or punishment – from above (God).”

Fear and subordination are generated on this path, while “going to the top honcho” is glorified: being “close to a tree with shade”.

“By your side I am safe”, repeats the woman. The foreman moves about safely because he answers to the patron and walks under his “shade”, he protects that door and is afraid that others might go pass through it. Fieldhands and peasants, including technicians from the haciendas or farms and the State itself, do not ask about the origins of the profits, it is considered that the economic distribution (wages for work, payment for product and earnings for the patron) is natural and divinely fair. Asking about these topics is considered a sin. Only technical and de-politicized questions are asked: where to weed or whether to use more agrochemicals. Meanwhile, whoever dares to ask about the accumulation of capital or its redistribution, do so because they “have lost their mind”, are drunk or are not controlling their anger, and when that happens, that person is accused of “equalizing himself” by his fellow workers and the “shade” of the patron fails to cover him. There are people, nevertheless, who awaken up to how unjust this path is, but since they cannot see another path, express their disagreement by cutting down a plant, stealing bananas, using more agrochemicals, or putting stones in the bag of coffee that he has sold. There is no absolute power of the patron (or trader-broker) over the peasantry, there are always cracks for rebellion, but they are channeled–even armed rebellions– without moving outside this path or structure.

From several rules that exist along this path, in addition to “profits belong to the patron”, and “profits organize the economy”, let us highlight the rule that “without money there is no work” or better said “if I am not in debt I do not work”. As they say in Brazil “the pig squeals for its crossbar[2]”, if you take the crossbar off of the pig, after a while the pig will squeal. Peasants reproduce this same rule: “I will provide product based on what you lend me”; peasants await the “crop lien loan” in the “months of silence” to commit their coffee for the next cycle; they harvest a product that “is already paid for”. In this way they are not able to get out of the cycle of dispossession, because the crop lien loan means that they sell their product or work at less than half its price several months before the harvest (see Mendoza et al, 2012[3]); they do not work without being “lent to”; and the distribution of the wealth is the decision of the patron. This circle of iron squeezes the peasant or fieldhand, who see that their only way out is sticking to this structure, and it squeezes the patron or merchant who understands it as their only way to accumulate wealth. See Figure 2, the iron circles under which the economy is organized (see green arrow showing where value is pulled upwards), inequality moves and people and nature are impoverished.

This patrón-foreman-fieldhand or peasant unit is so durable and has become so natural that, following the history of different countries, we see them together even in war itself, some fighting as soldiers and others as captains and generals.

This millennial path crushes any possibility of a different path or rules that oppose it from the family, the farm (diversified) or the community. These perspectives of virtuous rules and a different path, nevertheless, still persist –“there are still embers where there was fire”, we would say with a phrase used about people in love.

2.    Cooperatives that reproduce the old path

The boss and his hen house

Maria was making tortillas when Reymundo arrived upset. “They tell me that you are organizing a cooperative. Why do you want another hen house? Shot off Reymundo, the eternal president of a cooperative.

“Ahh we were talking…”, stammered Maria.

“Cooperatives are made with money, and there is no money”, he interrupted her.

“For that very reason, a cooperative is for thinking and helping one another; in your hen house the members do not think nor is their vote respected”, Maria responded more strongly.

Reymundo raised his index finger: “you are deluded, leaders are born, not made …”

“Do you think you were born from the Virgin Mary?”, María laughed heartily.

“Chicken brain! –shouted Reymundo– a leader is sacred, the people at the grassroots get confused …”

“Do you see a hen´s beak on me?” –Maria laughed again.

“You can´t talk to women!” Reymundo left in a huff.

María, flipping the tortilla, ruefully watched him leave: “He thinks he is the little boss, king of the world! He treats people like chickens, he never understood what a cooperative is”.[4]

In this story the president of a cooperative is a captive of the old path. He understands the cooperative as a “hen house”, and the members as chickens without agency (decision and vote) who follow the rooster each time he crows when he finds some worms. He understands that “nothing is done without money”. In contrast to a cooperative where leaders are made, he believes that “leaders are born”, that he “is sacred”, that those who are “confused” are the members, and that insubordinate women have “chicken brains”; he thinks exactly like the traditional patron.

2.1  Ceremonial glocal cooptation

The presidents are products of structures where the coopted cooperatives reproduce the old path[5].

Following figure 3, compared with figure 1 and how it is described, essentially it is the same structure with two differences. It is more glocal (global and local) which includes international actors, and it is more ceremonial in that hundreds of rules appear (e.g. fair trade rules and those of several types of certifications), and documents signed (buy and sell contracts, financing contracts, forms filled out, written reports and minutes). These two elements contribute to the fact that the role of the management/administration becomes more important (“professional”), becomes the hinge or the entity that has the key to the inside and  outside of organizations. By outside we are referring to international market actors (buyers, financiers, certifiers, aid organizations) and the State. This ceremonial and glocal differences, in addition, expressed in more bureaucratized ways, shape the entire structure with impersonalized relationships.

In this structure the buyers are interested in making money, and therefore are interested in the coffee, cacao or sesame seed product; the private banks and social banks are interested in recovering their capital; the aid organizations want financial reports; and the certifiers want their formats filled out; all of them are interested in arranging things with one person in the cooperative. On the side of the cooperative, the manager or president understands those interests, and respond with product, payment of loans and reports –“whatever the papers can stand”. If the buyers want to hear the song about the “poor producers”, “women members” and “democratic cooperative”, that intermediate layer learns to satisfy them, sings that song for them. Thus business is done in that small “club” of external actors (buyers, financiers and/or aid organizations), and the manager or president of the cooperative. It is a deal around goods – coffee or cacao – based on formal agreements. The role of the State there is to legally provide legitimacy to the existence of the cooperative; this involves confirming that the documents (official minutes) of the cooperative are done well as the state wants them, regardless of whether those documents are pure inventions of the manager or president of the cooperative.

A common characteristic is that, apart from speeches with good intentions, none of them are interested in the origins of the product, nor how the cooperative is functioning, much less whether the members have access to the profits of their organization, whether they received the loan, whether the members benefitted from the project, whether the members meet and there is rotation in the leadership, or whether the organic product really is organic. It is assumed that the fieldhands or peasants have nothing to do with that product, because any product “is made with money” that comes from outside. They are interested in the papers that conceal the expropriation of profits.

This structure makes the associative side of the cooperative disappear (see Figure 4). The external actors connect only with the business foot. The cooperative moves only on that foot. The manager and/or president is seen to be on the old path, with the difference that the control of the “patron” (external actors) is not ongoing, but ceremonial. This structure pulls them from their roots: the president “becomes independent” from the members who elected him, they put the statutes in a drawer; the staff on the business side “become independent” from the associative side which gave birth to it. From that business foot where the old glocalized and bureaucratized path takes over, the manager and/or president present themselves as indispensable to the members: “Those above only receive and send messages to me, only I can negotiate resources – not even God loves you”, “without me, the cooperative would fall apart”; in other words, they mention the external actors as their backing (“their patron”) and their work is rather a favor so that the cooperative does not go broke. They (manager or president) centralize relationships with the actors, they see them as their connections, instead of contacts and/or alliances of the cooperative. In this way the manager or president remain in their posts eternally and deadlock the cooperative; so, when a person enters the cooperative, they understand that there is no possibility to scale up on the associative foot, nor on the business foot, because the president or manager change “on the death of a bishop”.

2.2  The subsumption of the members

Under this framework of cooptation, the cooperative subsumes the members. The notion of subsumption we take ¡from Dussel (1990: 353)[6] who, rereading Marx in the context of industrial capitalism, understood that the worker (living work) and the machine (objectified work) are subsumed by capital; it is a secret way of creating surplus value for the capitalist. Here the member loses control over their product beyond their “picket fence,” and loses their organization while breaking away from their associative foot (figure 4), left as a producer of raw materials and encapsulated as a “member”, while the global chain appropriates the surplus value. How does this happen?

Figure 5 shows the same logic of figure 2 of the old path. The three rules that move the members are the abduction of the profits (surplus value), the fact that the cooperative is to “provide credit” and that the business foot might “manage the yield of the product and buy wherever what is needed to meet the market demand”. These three rules make the members turn in (“sell”) their coffee, and resign themselves to letting the business side run them.

The global chain pulls up the value of the product, those who do not produce the coffee capture 88% or more of the total value of the coffee, while the members get less than 12% (Mendoza, 2012: 159)[7]. From this global chain framework, the cooperative assumes the role of “not distributing the profits of the cooperative” and the mentality of the member is that of being a producer of raw materials – and nothing more. How does this work? The cooperatives that sell organic coffee or cacao turn over the “organic premium” as an effort of the manager and the technicians, as a “favor”, and not as the effort and right of the members. It is like some political parties who when they get to power in a country, redistribute something of the wealth without changing the capitalist path nor model; it is the trickle down economics of neoliberalism, of the assumption that ‘the more the capitalist accumulates wealth, the more it spills over´. They redistribute as a good patron would, who instead of providing grilled meat once a year, gives it to them three times a year, reinforcing that old path even more. The managers who run these cooperatives, tacitly assuming that the cooperatives are like “their properties”, justify it: “we do not redistribute the profits because we are consolidating the future of the cooperative by investing in assets”; they are cooperatives that are more than 20 years old, that continue investing in assets vetoing the redistribution of profits. The paradox is that the redistribution of profits is in the statutes of the cooperatives, something that the State tends to ignore.

The members do not ask about the profits (or earnings), because they believe that it is not their right nor the fruit of their effort as members. By not conceiving the cooperative and its efforts as their own, they do not do the calculations for the conversion of coffee in cherry to export coffee, nor cacao in pulp to dry cacao, nor the value formation of their product, nor do they calculate to the amount to be paid from the loan received, nor the expenses and income of the cooperative. Many producers do the calculations of their farms: ”I calculate how much I am going to harvest, what I am going to sell it at; and from there I go down, what I am going to pay the workers, the food, and I spend accordingly” (Rufino Espinoza); but they do not do the same with their cooperative, because they see it as “someone else´s”. The mentality of the members is: “I am a seller of raw materials, the rest is not of my interest”; “they lent me money and they said how much I am going to pay, the rest is up to them”. It is like borrowing money from the patron, whose earnings are unquestionable because he is “doing you a favor”. In the cooperative the money of the members is read from the lens of the old path, they say “it is money from the cooperative, not our money, the money of the members”; and even worse, “the manager lent me the money, I owe him” – the paradox is that it is a resource of the members themselves.

Now let us look at the second rule: “I do not work if they do not give me credit (crop lien loan)” (Figure 3). The members appear to doubt that their farm is theirs and disengage from it; correspondingly, it is common to find ourselves in coffee fields in bad shape, particularly in the case of organic crops. The members have the idea that the cooperative (manager and/or president) is there to “bring them credit” and to “buy their production”, which is why they do not work their farm if there is no credit. It would seem that to become a member is to neglect your own farm, because the “foreman” (manager or president) does not come in to supervise them. If the manager or the president shows up to visit them, they do not see it as a visit, but as “credit”, that he is coming to “provide credit”, “to collect”, or to “supervise”. The board members behave like “foremen”. “If we redistribute the profits, the members are going to feel free, without a commitment to the cooperative; if we give out earnings as credit, they are going to assure coffee for the cooperative” (a president of a coffee cooperative); “If we are going to visit the members they are going to believe that we already are bringing loans, and then they are only going to want to talk about that” (Idem).

The third rule refers to the yield of the product, and the fact that products from non-members comes in as if it were from the members. The yield refers to the processing of the product and its production on the farm. The former happens from the harvest collection to its sale (be it exported or sent to the national market): from sun dried coffee to dried, warehoused, hulled, selected and bagged; from cacao pulp to fermented, dried, bagged and warehoused; from sugar cane to the extraction of juice, boiled in cauldrons, granulated and bagged. This phase is carried out under the leadership of the business foot of the cooperatives, which is interpreted by the members as “not my job”, which is why they do not demand the earnings referred to in the first rule, and do not access information about that yield. This is what leads them to say, “I am a seller of sun-dried coffee, of cacao pulp, of sugar cane…” and not of “export coffee, or granulated sugar”.

Another rule emerges for the yield of the organic produce on the farm: “an organic farm is not applying anything”. It means zero agrochemicals. It has been extended from there to “zero organic inputs”. A good number of the members, except those who apply agrochemicals in secret, let their coffee field produce what natures provides it, that organic fertilizer “is nature itself”, as if they were in the agricultural frontier areas where the virgin soils are fertile. Behind this is the idea that growing coffee or sugar cane is applying agrochemicals under the order of the patron, and that nature “just responds to the mandate of the patron”. In other words, the cooperative reproduces the old path, but in a feeble way: the “foreman” does not supervise the production nor determines how to manage nature. This gets worse when the organic certifiers  prohibit them from planting other crops in the same area as the organic crop, pushing them towards monocropping, intensifying this feeling that these organic areas are “someone else´s”, that they belong to the technicians and the buyers who give them the “organic premium”. It is probable that the reaction by some members to not work these organic areas is also a form of protest, “well they manage that part, so I am not going to apply anything”; or that the rule of “if there is no credit I do not work” is even more true in the case of organic producers, because they work less, when they would have to work triple the amount of time in organics, because if a conventional coffee area requires 10qq of urea, a similar area of organic coffee requires 30qq of organic fertilizer, which implies more family labor. Consequently, production drops, families get more impoverished[8] and managers or presidents, responding to the market (global chain of actors), buy conventional products from non-members, and pass them off as organic coffee from the members, without the members realizing it.

Some members and leaders hear rumors about these practices, and are tempted to ask about them. But the business foot reacts strongly: “You owe me”, says the manager or the president to the member, as if the cooperative were the manager or president, or as if the resources of the members belonged to the manager and/or president. “The cooperative spends more on you who only turns in 500 lbs”, they accuse the smaller producers of coffee or cacao, reproducing the ideas of the old path, where the one who has more materials resources rules the rest. The accusations escalate: they throw in their face that they are small producers, that they had to buy produce from outside to cover administrative costs. On one hand, the members are afraid of the manager, president or technical trainer; they do not demand their rights out of fear that they will not give them loans, exclude them from some project, collect what they owe in front of the other members; the women are doubly afraid, afraid of their husbands and the manager or president. In this way the members end up believing that they are “small” and that is something to be ashamed of (“we do not make demands because we are small producers”), that the cooperative “is someone else´s”, and therefore their actions are not connected to the results of the cooperative. In other words, the members also are disengaged from their cooperative.

In this process there are people who wake up, but they are not able to get beyond this structure, they thought that by joining a cooperative they would leave that old path. They discover this reality, awaken, when they realize that the rules that they are following are not their own, nor do they come from their community nor from the cooperative, but from those who exploit and oppress them, that they do so clothed as cooperatives, democracy, revolution or fair trade. They understand what is happening, they abhor it, and see their relatives moving under these pernicious “exogenous” rules, believing that they are “their own”. It is when they feel disgusted, that their mind is conflicted, they do not know whether to believe in what woke them up, they become schizophrenic, wander on paths like sleepwalkers, while dragging along pieces of humanity. If they share their meditations, they are accused of being crazy, so with the look of someone lost, they murmur “I am disoriented” or “I am confused”. This happens to them because they have awoken to their condition, but the cooperative through which they thought they could leave that situation, ends up being the same structure, more global, more formal and offering more training, but it is the same structure. Of course, there is no absolute power over the members, they divert their coffee or their cacao, avoid paying their debts, wait…

2.3  Advice or assistance to, and from, the business foot

In these cooperatives the accompaniment on the part of allied organizations, or on the part of the technical area of the second-tier cooperatives, is linked to the logic of the business foot of the cooperative. Consequently the trainings and consultancies do not cover the entire glocal chain of actors, nor deal with the redistribution of profits, analysis of the financial information, nor the real traceability of the product – about whether it comes from the members, about whether it really is organic, whether it really comes from women members, whether it is or not a cooperative.

Let us look at two examples. The first, seeing the depressing situation of the coffee field, the aid organizations easily deduce – along the lines of monocropping .- that the members need to be trained, which is convincing or evangelizing the peasant about something that it is assumed he does not know, and that the trainer assumes he/she does, something like “not putting anything on organic cacao”, or pruning, or crop varieties. Nevertheless, in previous pages we have seen that the low production has to do with technical aspects connected to the rules of the old path, something that the accompaniment does not tend to include. The second element is about training in gender, it tends to be about the habits of the couple, that the husband cooks as a favor to his wife, that women work in agriculture, that the cooperative incorporate women to make it look like they are more equitable (husband signs over a piece of his property so it be in the name of his wife); they are trainings that reduce patriarchal relationships to technical responses.

It is a consultancy that does not start from studying the pernicious and virtuous rules on gender or production. They are consultancies that assume that they know them already, because everything has already been “studied”. How can women join cooperatives when their own rules (“having land”) excludes them, in addition to the fact that they tend toward monocropping? Other consultancies insist that the members not be afraid of criticizing their board members and managers, but that can be an act of suicide, if the members themselves do not move beyond the patron-fieldhand structure, and if they are not accompanied by their advisers in that effort. Understanding the problems and opportunities of the member families is also understanding that these problems are also the problems of consultants.

3.    The cooperative path

Is it possible to wake up and take another path? The fact that most of the cooperatives reproduce the old path makes this possibility more difficult, like what happens when a political revolution reproduces the same hierarchical structure that it apparently fought. We say “apparently” because in reality it was “get rid of you to install me”. But of course another path is possible! Here we present the conditions that create a cooperative path, its results in terms of the 3 rules, and the appropriate accompaniment.

3.1  Mechanisms needed for an associative path

We begin with the first mechanism, awakening and envisioning an alternative path.

Louise convinced her husband, Harold, to take a vacation. In 1983 they went to Mexico, El Salvador and Nicaragua, the last two countries in civil wars in those years. One night Harold awoke with a start, sat up in bed, and began to sob. “This is crazy” – he said to himself – “I have not cried as an adult, and now I am crying.” Why was he crying? The previous day while walking through the streets of Managua, a naked child ran up to him and hugged his legs. He looked down at the child, and the child looked up at him. He never saw that child again. That event stayed in his mind. So talking with Louise they decided to make more money with his business, Foldcraft, in the United States to organize a foundation that would provide support in Nicaragua. In 1986 they established the foundation. The couple has since died, and that Foundation continues supporting dozens of peasant families through their rural organizations in Nicaragua.

Harold and Louise as a young couple began to make furniture in the garage of Harold´s mother´s house, a business that over the years became a million-dollar enterprise. That daily effort made the couple believe that the rules under which they moved were the rules of the rest of the world. Nevertheless, that night when Harold woke up crying, he realized that it is NOT true; that his rules in his business were not the same rules in countries like Nicaragua. According to what people close to the family tell us, Harold was a very conservative member of the Republican party, and Louise was from the Democratic party. Being so conservative, how did they realize that the rules were not the same? The couple were mentally open to understanding that their rules and the rules in Nicaragua were not the same, that so there was injustice. That small, naked boy had shaken their hearts and their minds. Harold and Louise did not become cooperative members, but they found a path to make their awakening effective. They sold their business to their own workers, and they understood that the biggest challenge was that the workers would become owners, and that that also was the challenge of the members of cooperatives. So they left behind their resources for this new path of justice.

Now let us consider the awakening of Jacinto Peñas, described at the beginning of this text. He awoke and envisioned another path based on “thinking differently”. That path took shape in a matter of months. He and other founders remembered it.

We awoke to the injustice of the wages, the cheating that the stores did to us through the weighing, and the prices for what we produced, and what we bought from them. We decided to form a cooperative. But how could we do that if we had no money nor anything? So Fr. Hector threw a nickel in the middle of where we were sitting and asked, “How many pieces of candy can we buy with this coin?” “Five!” we responded. Another person among us looked then for a nickel in his pocket. And others threw in more coins. Father picked up ten coins and told us that it was enough to buy 50 pieces of candy. He asked a boy to go out and buy them. It was noon and we were hungry.

The boy shared the candy with the fifty of us peasants who were there, and Father asked us again. “What does it taste like”” Someone said, “It tastes like glory!” We laughed. “This is how cooperativism is done”, concluded the priest.

The next week a group from Pantanal bought a hundred-pound sack of salt to resell as retail, and in El Carmen each person began to save 10 cents per week. In this way la esperanza de los campesinos [the hope of the peasants] was started, that is how our cooperative got started.

So started the Esperanza de los Campesinos[9] [Hope of the Peasants] Cooperative. Surely after several visits and group reflections they were awoken. They realized that the old path produced injustice, that money was made by lowering salaries and on the basis of cheating in the weight and the price. They understood that together they could solve these structural problems, like the weighing and pricing, that that was possible with the accompaniment of the priest Gallego, taking another path. Hope begins for them, and they propose forming a cooperative. At the very beginning a rule of the old path, and a belief about themselves, pop up: “without money nothing can be done”; (we have) “nothing”. They have a collective awakening there about the cooperative path, where they discover their own capacities: their own resources to contribute, initiatives for generating resources (in El Pantanal with a “hundred-pound bag of salt”); it is a collective awakening that frees up their energies to start their cooperative path in their own territory; and a reflective process, accompanied by the priest Gallego, who in our language “throws the ball back to them” – it is a type of accompaniment that we espouse in each one of these mechanisms.

Figure 6 shows the second mechanism, cooperative functioning in a circular path. Instead of elites sending directions down from above, like in figure 3, reproducing the old path expressed in figure 1, now the international actors are part of a triangulated relationship, where buyers and financiers are interested in the product and in their capital in so far as the cooperative improves as a resource for the members, and in so far as the international organizations themselves are freed from the NY price for different products. On this path the most important product is not the coffee, cacao or granulated sugar, but the organization itself, and the chain of organizations with the allies.

The third mechanism is that the cooperative walk on two feet, the associative foot and the business foot (see Figure 7). It is the interaction of both feet that makes it move forward, as the song days “there is no path, you make the path by walking”. The associative foot defends redistribution, democratic exercise, and informational transparency; the society side. And the business foot defends the increase in wealth, efficiency (more income and less expenses) and effectiveness in economic transactions; it is the market side. One foot dominating the other is the termination of this cooperative path. An organization that only walks on the associative foot shares its wealth and is left with unsustainable democratic methods. Likewise, an organization only with the business foot is left as a means of dispossession subject to the market.

Within this framework a cacao buyer wants to negotiate, talk and reflect with people from both feet of the cooperative; the same with a financial or academic institution. There are no followers there, but leaders, there are no small nor large producers; one person, one vote; all the members have the right to elect and be elected, which is why the rotation of leadership is a principle on the associative side as well as on the business side. New members or a new worker in the cooperative will see from the beginning that, regardless of their level of schooling, they can scale up in title and learning.

The fourth mechanism is about values. On the old path values are talked about, but those values are turned into fetishes – words (values) that hide their commodification, and separate human actions from their economic, social and political results. The cooperatives that reproduce those old values repeat the laws, cooperation and solidarity, but their meaning comes from the old path, it means subjecting themselves and using the law for individual interest at the cost of the collective and its processes. In cooperatives that depart from the old path, values like honesty, solidarity or cooperation are connected to the origins of cooperativism, the roots of their members, and communities where they come from – see Figure 8. These values are connected with our childhood and with fair norms and equity in our families and communities: “equal inheritance”, “respecting collective assets”, sharecropping”, “shared labor”. These values, said figuratively, we have buried under layers of soil and we have to dig them up; on this path doubts about whether we are on the right path assail us. Swimming against the current is rare and difficult; the question guides us.

The fifth mechanism is the rootedness of the organization in its communities and in the diversified nature of its production. The old path makes society subject itself to the market, and with that promotes the extinction of the peasantry through monocropping, a colonial strategy for dispossession, now intensified by capitalism. This old path expressed through cooperatives coopted by the market follow that same strategy, even promoting organic production, just as we saw previously. This path leads us to serve the market, adopt monocropping, turns us into enemies of nature, disconnects us from other people and from ourselves. On the cooperative path, we deepen the horizontal and vertical diversification, it connects us to nature and our roots. The more diversified we are, the more we energize our communities, the more we connect ourselves to different markets. The more agroecological practices we adopt, the greater autonomy that we attain, and the more we pull our cooperatives to function in our own territories. It is in this context that we talk about improving production, the quality of what we produce, to the extent that we improve the land.

Finally the mechanism that reinforces a contingent awareness. The old path makes the worker disconnect from the wealth that is produced on the farm, hacienda or factory, makes the producer family believe that their country ends at their own hedgerow, makes the member believe that it only means calling yourself a member, while always being a “seller of raw materials”. This old path makes the accompanying NGO or technician believe that their advice does not have to do with the results of the cooperative or the family. This act of believing that our actions have nothing to do with the situation of a country, the environmental situation, and the democratic system or not of our countries, is an act of alienation that intensifies climate change and social inequality. The cooperative path is precisely reconnecting our actions and their aggregated effects of unintended consequences.

On throwing in 10 nickels, 50 members saw how that act was turned into candy, into their redistribution, in a collective act that started a cooperative, a space for learning and created a living community. In the story “the little boss and his henhouse”, contrary to the mentality of the president Reymundo, Maria connects the actions of people, that “a cooperative is for thinking and helping one another.” The mental openness of Harold and Louise led them to think that there were unjust rules that generated results like that “naked boy”. It is Jacinto in the story at the beginning of this article that connects processes and “thinking differently”. The redistribution of profits is one of greatest expressions for members to connect their actions with the results of their organization.  It is the connection between individual ideas and actions, and their collective aggregated effects (results), that gives us the possibility of awakening, and consequently of changing. This is the basis for cultivating a contingent awareness, that there is nothing that is given, that we humans transform realities; that there is no “above”, only the circle of Figure 6.

3.2  Elements of repossession

Ownership is the biggest result of the mechanisms just mentioned. This ownership is expressed in three rules: redistributing profits, providing credit that breaks with the crop lien system, and horizontally and vertically diversifying in a way connected to nature. The three rules are interdependent on one another. See Figure 9.

Redistributing is the first rule. On the old path, the member summarizes their identity as “I am a seller of sugar cane”, “seller of sun-dried coffee”, “seller of cacao pulp”, or “seller of my labor”. On this old path, reproduced by the coopted cooperatives, that mentality of treating the members as “hens” is intensified, giving them “the organic premium”, or improving the price for their sugar cane, coffee or cacao. These cooperatives do not allow discussing the profits of the cooperative, nor do their global actor allies bring up these topics. In contrast, on the cooperative path that notion of redistribution* is inherent to being a cooperative.

In the story about the emergence of the “Esperanza de los Campesinos” cooperative, 10 peasants contributed 5 cents, and 50 candies were redistributed among 50 peasants; the object of that meeting was not to buy candy and distribute them, but that act of re-distributing them (“multiplication of the loaves”) gave them the sense of ownership of being a cooperative from the very beginning. This is what Harold and Louise experienced after that night of tears, that ownership was the biggest challenge for the workers to become the owners of the business, and likewise in the case of members with their cooperatives. Redistribution is a means of ownership over your organization, which makes profits, information and rotation in leadership be shared. This is what wakes up the member, generates in the member interest in being informed, occupying positions of leadership, and keeping watch over their organization. In this way, Rufino Espinoza who calculates his income and costs for his farm, could ask for information and calculate the income and expenses of the cooperative; the members can calculate the yield of their coffee from cherry form to export coffee, and even roasted and ground coffee. Because “where your treasure is, there your heart will be” (Mt 6:21); a (economic, social, political and environmental) treasure that is the result of collective effort.

Contrary to “giving credit to go into debt” or “providing credit as payment for your produce at less than half its market price”, the second rule of change is: credit that frees the members from indebtedness and the crop lien system. This is possible coupled to the rule of redistribution of the cooperative´s profits, as well as receiving part of the loan in kind (farm inputs), making the relationships and information transparent in the heart of the family, that leads them to savings in times of  “fat cows” for the lean times, and stagger income throughout the year.

This takes us to a third rule: diversifying connected to nature. It is not possible to stagger income without breaking with colonial mono-cropping; nor to save if a family and their cooperative are not promoting diversification in its various expressions. Staggering income comes from horizontally diversifying on the farm and vertically in forms of forward agro-industrialization (e.g. roasting coffee, making chocolate, making marmalade from fruit on the farm) and backward industrialization (making organic fertilizer and natural fungicide, protecting water sources). This rule fights that pernicious rule of “not putting anything on it”, connected to the lack of ownership over their own farm and cooperative; let us recall the old Spanish proverb “what nature does not bestow, Salamanca cannot provide[10]. That relationship between production and nature must be rethought from the idea of holistic ecology, proposed in Laudato Si. There Pope Francis urges recognizing one common cry from the most impoverished people and degraded nature; not seeing nature are something isolated nor much less as a thing, but connected, people with the environment, with God, with oneself and with other people; it is a notion that starts from the fact that there is an interconnection between society and nature, politics, economics and the environment, personal dignity and the common good, generational justice, culture and lifestyles. In other words, diversifying linked to nature is something that you connect with multiple and different areas.

These three rules are interconnected within a glocal framework. Composting is not done, in spite of hundreds of trainings received, because doing composting is a technical matter connected to policy, ownership of the farm and the cooperative. Credit can be a means for freeing the members from their debts and keeping the business foot from subjecting the cooperative to its interests, if that loan is connected to the redistribution of surpluses, if the financial organizations support this purpose, and if the member families improve their capacity for savings in so far as they diversify their activities.

3.3  Transformational accompaniment

This glocal cooperative path requires an accompaniment coherent with, and in the interest of, the aforementioned mechanisms (3.1) and results (3.2). It requires that we be in the home of the member family, and at the same time connected to the entire chain of global actors, in other words, working in networks, in teams, moving as part of the circle in figure 6. “Staying on top of the pulse”, and “being in the game”.

The priest Gallego is a source of inspiration in this. He had his religious network for working with the peasantry, he moved in the communities themselves, reflected in a circle with the peasant families, and contributed to the fact that the peasant families organized; his idea of church went beyond the temple in the municipal capitals. Pope Francis would add: listening to the cry of those most impoverished and the cry of nature as one cry. And we add the compelling need to conceptualize what we learn from the cooperative and from ourselves as accompaniers. We are not looking to do the impossible, but to break down our limits.

Open ended conclusions

Few rules move the world, even though below that “bridge” there might be a lot of running water. What this article dealt with should not be seen as a prescription. It is only a small door to multiple realities in which it must be reinterpreted, corrected, expanded and added to. How to wake up and build cooperatives that would channel the dreams of peasant and indigenous families? How to accompany them breaking through our limits which the traditional academy imposed on us?

In this article we showed that sustained changes are possible if a specific cooperative in a certain community decides to do it. Even more so, if the global actors awaken and join the circle of change. Will global actors have the courage to awaken and change?

What is seen here is not exclusive to cooperatives and the chain of actors linked to them. We find the same structures in any organization or institution, be it grassroots, on the national or international level, the academy or the church. Nevertheless, the hope for change is present even in the most pernicious and inhumane organization or institution that has existed on the face of the earth. Can these organizations dig into their history and that of humanity to re-encounter their real mission in our common home?

[1] Collaborator of Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/), associate researcher of IOB- University of Antwerp (Belgium) and member of Coserpross (http://coserpross.org). rmvidaurre@gmail.com

[2] Crossbar refers to two stick tied to its neck to keep it from digging under a fence.

[3] R. Mendoza, E. Fernandez y K. Kuhnekath, 2012, “¿Institución patrón-dependiente o indeterminación social? Genealogía crítica del sistema de habilitación en el café”, en: Revista ENCUENTRO, No. 92. Managua: UCA

http://www.lamjol.info/index.php/ENCUENTRO/article/view/787  In English at: https://peacewinds.org/patron-dependent-institution-or-social-indetermination-critical-geneology-of-the-crop-lien-system-in-coffee/

[4] This parable is inspired by a visit that a colleague had. I changed the names to protect them.

[5]The old path exists in an infinity of types of organizations: political parties, NGOs, Universities, Churches or sports organizations. “If a teacher misses a class, he does not let us know that he is going to miss, and later decides when to make up that class without consulting the students; that is the order in the University”. I was told this by a student in the fourth year of Oriental medicine studies.

[6] Enrique Dussel, 1990, La producción teórica de Marx, un comentario a los Grundrisse. México: s. XXI.

[7] R. Mendoza, 2012, Gatekeeping and the struggle over development in the Nicaraguan Segovias. PhD tesis. Belgium: University of Antwerp.

[8] Several studies have now found this correlation between organic production for markets and poverty. See: Joni Valkila, 2009, “Fair Trade organic coffee production in Nicaragua — Sustainable development or a poverty trap?” in: Ecological Economics.

[9] In an article we pulled together the genesis of this cooperative, see: R. Mendoza, 2017, “A priest, a coop and a peasantry that regulates the elites”, in: ENVIO 425. Managua: IHCA-UCA. This year the cooperative celebrates its 50th anniversary, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5v9aKUIecuw

[10] This expression probably refers to the fact that one of the most prestigious universities of Europe is in Salamanca, and the first to receive the title of university. It is a saying that indicates nothing is a given, your genes do not ensure your success, rather it is sustained effort that is required.