People dispossessed for so many years collected their savings and gave them to one of their sons, Solin, for him to pay for the coffee that was collected from their own group. Solin had never had so much money; he was like a deer in the headlights. He paid for the coffee. Some of the same people who had saved, behind the back of the rest, went to him to get him to lend them money. Solin first said no, but these people insisted, and he gave in. More people showed up, also from other parts of the country, and he ceded. Solin felt like a little patrón, “The people trust me”, his chest puffed out like a balloon. This path of giving out other people´s money, saying that it was his, led him to lie and believe his own lie. When other people showed him his mistake, Solin offered them money to shut them up, and if they did not accept it, he would slander them. One day he looked himself in the mirror and was frightened to find that he did not recognize himself.
When the owners of the money asked him to give it back, he had lent it all out. “And where is the money?”, they raised their voices. “You have already eaten it,” the theft reverberated like 10, 100 and 1000 years ago. Solin and several of the savers had betrayed their own path. Both took the path trodden for centuries by the old hacienda owners and fieldhands, by the comandante and those who died, by the manager and those who believed themselves to be cooperative members.
This story illustrates what happens frequently in cooperatives. A group of people save, define their purposes, agreed on their rules and then betray that path. The old path trodden by the patrón where the fieldhands follow for their pay, become indebted and to look for a favor, a path also taken by governments and churches (“Holy Patron Saint”), clouds and blocks any other path. In the story this group of people and Solin look at themselves in the mirror, or ask about their resources, and are surprised to be on the old path of dispossession, moving from being “servers” to “being served”. Their biggest tragedy is not so much the use of the money, but the fact that they have betrayed their path, this is the reason for the bad use of the money and the fact that their lives have taken a 360 degree turn, arriving at the same place. How can people who organize be able to follow their own path?
1. Individual-collective duality and the dilemma of betrayal
In organizations that face corrupt acts, there is finger pointing, accusations and complaints. “He is incorrigible”, “he is guilty of bad administration”, “she is not accountable”, “she uses our money for her benefit and that of her managers”, lash out the members. These
phrases in a cooperative belie an individual perspective, accentuated by the religious conservatism of “personal salvation”, and by the neoliberal doctrine where what is important is the individual and not society–there is no such thing as society, said the first female British Prime Minister M. Thatcher in 1987, during the full eruption of neoliberalism. Reproducing this perspective, nevertheless, is a way of “washing our hands”, of showing oneself to be innocent while pointing out others as the guilty parties.
These same expressions, nevertheless, can be read as “spitting against the wind” from the collective perspective. Because the member who is doing the accusing, with or without a title in some organ of their organization, on seeking a loan directly from the administrator, behind the back of his own cooperative, is not exercising his/her role, and/or violates the rules of their own organization; on the other hand, the corrupt administrator establishes himself reproducing the idea of the patrón;: “With 100 cordobas I keep them happy.” Many times even the State or aid organization officials who support the cooperatives borrow money from the managers, knowing that it is money that belongs to the cooperatives. “The spit” also falls on this member and this official who preaches cooperativism. A systematic act of corruption happens, above all, because of the lack of functioning of the respective organs, because of the lack of compliance with the rules of the organizations, and the accounting norms on the administrative side, as well as because of the acceptance of aid organizations*.
The members know the rules and procedures, but they see them as tedious, “paperwork”, “bureaucracy” – high transaction costs, they would say in economics. The members of the organs also see it in this way: “meeting is a waste of time.” While the patrón “from one big roll” decides to lend to them or not. In this process the members believe the administrator about any version about the source of the money, there is no culture of verifying their versions, because, they think, it would be distrusting and ungrateful; for that very reason, they do not ask for receipts either, the patrón does not do receipts – his word is enough! In addition to believing him, they fear him, “a person with other people´s money is capable of anything”, they whisper, so they keep quiet – do not speak in front of the patrón! This is a rule that is resurrected. From here the “vice” of playing with “other people´s money”, more than individual and exclusive of the manager or some president, is a collective “vice”; a collective act causes individual behavior – of corruption or honesty. See the upper part in Figure 1.
“The law is not being applied to him”, state the members and advisers of the organizations. With this they mean to say that organizations have laws, the State oversees compliance with the law; and that aid organizations have rules, and they do not apply them. This, however, continues to assume an individual perspective, believing that by “applying the law” “the patron is going to self correct”. It ignores what the history of any country tells us, “the patrón makes the laws”, be that with his right hand or his left. So we detect that this individual perspective, clothed in a collective and legal perspective, is moved by structures of dispossession; the “accusing”, the “abusing other people´s money” and “preaching laws” make the path of cooperativism disappear, and accentuate the path of dispossession – it is the dilemma of the betrayal. So we perceive that this structure is like rails for a train, it does not matter who the conductor is that is driving the train, nor how many years of schooling he might have, how many advisers and protectors of the law he has, that train will move along the rails; not matter who the administrators or presidents may be, these structures (“rails”) trap the conductors. In this way cooperatives can go broke, while these structures remain unmoved –“in an open treasure even the just will sin”, goes the saying.
At the same time this structure is being challenged. On the one hand, there are some members who cultivate a contingent awareness, that it is possible to make your own path and walk it; and on the other hand there are administrators who understand their role, respecting accounting rules and the collective perspective of organizations, shunning “inflating themselves” like balloons that run the risk of “bursting.” They do not “spit into the wind”, but recreate that collective perspective which finds itself supported by mechanisms that are coherent with more communitarian structures, and consultancies that study these rural underworlds – this is overcoming the dilemma of betrayal. See the lower part of Figure 1.
2. Innovative mechanisms for cooperatives as the vehicle for repossession
“They do not let us be peasants”, shot off a Costa Rican leader in 1991, recognizing the onslaught of neoliberalism in turning the peasantry into workers and “wetbacks”. The “be peasants” has been more coherent with community structures, in conflict with structures of dispossession. It goes with mechanisms that make an alternative path possible, mechanisms that we have been learning from the exceptional organizations in Central America: see figure 2.
They are mechanisms that “de-commodify” peasant life, they involve awakening and organizing, deepening their roots, improving the organization of the commons, and sharing the path in a glocal alliance- because every space is glocal (global and local).
Mechanism 1: Voluntary genesis of cooperativism congruent with community principles
Nearly two centuries ago a group of textile workers in England saved part of their salaries to start a store, and with that stabilize their income and defend their basic needs. In Germany peasants organized to free themselves from usury. In both cases, the people understood that individually they were not able to overcome structural problems, like the low buying power of their salary and the usury that indebted them for life; organized, they could do so. Thus they defined their path and walked it. Over time cooperativism has expanded throughout the entire world and has become a double edged sword, a means for repossession for its members and communities from whence they come, and a means for dispossession when small elites appropriate it for profit. Read the brief dialogue in the box.
From the angle of the genesis of cooperativism, this dialogue shows the incomprehension of the administrator about what a cooperative is, as well as the wisdom of the younger brother about the social rule of “respecting someone else´s assets”. “The need of the other affects me”, says the administrator; precisely the crude “need” of people led to the fact that cooperativism emerged standing under the principle of respecting collective assets. The error of the administrator in this dialogue is providing a loan from money that is not his, and doing it outside of the rules and organs of the cooperative that named him “administrator”; with that he dispossessed the members of their resources, and full of a short term vision condemned needy people to suffering. Being “proud” is abusing “another´s assets”. This deformation results from the individual perspective derived from structures of dispossession.
The cooperative that originated in the will of its members to overcome structural adversities, and does it with rules based on community principles, like those expressed by the “younger brother” in the dialogue of respect for collective goods, is a long term structural mechanism.
Mechanism 2: Rooted in diversified bases
The market demands a product and does not matter whether the one who produces it comes from one place or another; the State and aid agencies behave in a similar way, they legalize organizations or demand changes like “including women as members” without regard to where they come from. From working with cooperatives we learned that a cooperative that is rooted in its micro-territory has more possibilities of walking their walk, of being inclusive…
How to be rooted? Even though the members of a cooperative come from the same micro-territory, deciding that the administration –and therefore the financial transactions – are done in the territory itself, requires making explicit in a reflective way several beliefs written in stone for centuries: “Here they are going to steal from us, in the town there are Policemen and that is why it is safer there”, “no buyer or certifier is going to come out here to our place, we have to go out to civilization”, “here we are living in the brush, the patrón lives in the town”, “that little girl doesn´t know anything about administration, only men who ride on motorcycles know it.”
When the members of a cooperative come from the same micro-territory, and decide that their building and its administration are going to be in the same space, then we create favorable conditions for a good cooperative. The possibility that corruption might emerge and intensify is reduced. The mobility of the members to the cooperative´s building, as well as the attendance of women and men in the meetings is greater. We say that more women and men go to the meetings, because of the geographic proximity and because they do not have to travel to the municipal capital to attend meetings; the women can go to the meeting with their babies and/or children, something that is difficult if the meeting is in the municipal capital. This contributes to the cementing of trust among the members. Also the coordination between the administration and the organs of the cooperative can improve. The care of the members and board members over their administration increases, which is why the security of the resources of the cooperative in that place increases. Accessing information and asking their questions is also more possible.
The payments that are made in the territory itself to the members, be it for coffee, cacao, sugar cane or another crops, has an impact on the economy of the territory. The storefronts and small businesses sell more, new businesses tend to emerge. The interest of the partner of the member, and their children, in the receipts that their Father or Mother bring from the cooperative is greater. The possibility of having lovers under the argument that “I am going to town for a meeting” is reduced. It is like the butterfly effect in a world as interconnected as today´s world is, even more so is life interconnected in a micro-territory and in families.
Mechanism 3: the functioning of the cooperative organs and administration
The fact that a member might understand that organized they can overcome their structural problems is one step, the fact that they can facilitate that because their cooperative is rooted in their territory is a second big step. Nevertheless, there are cooperatives that in spite of having taken both steps, go broke or turn into a means for dispossession manipulated by small elites. The third mechanism is that each member, with or without a title, function in accordance with the rules and organs of their organization, without going “in secret” to the “real person in charge”, because the “real person in charge” in the cooperatives are its rules and organs.
It is easy to say that the organs of a cooperative function according to its rules. But it is difficult for it to happen. The phrase that is read in laws and management, that they are “management organs” illustrates that they are not “decision making organs”, that the power of making decisions was expropriated by the elites. How can the organs be “decision making” and the administration “management”, the former with a strategic role and the latter with an operational role? Apart from the fact that they know their statutes (rules), meet systematically and cultivate connections with their members and with external actors, the key is in the fact that they become learning organizations. How? First, each member is seen as a leader in their community, understanding that the biggest treasure is in their own social territory; consequently, their first task being multiplying their visits to other people, members or not of the cooperative, so that through conversations, they might understand the problems and opportunities that exist in their territory. Knowing them and sharing them is their fuel for pushing the cooperative to improve, and it is their source of ideas for enlightening cooperativism.
Second, the relationship between the administration and the organs is developed to the extent that they organize information, analyze it and on that basis define their policies and strategies to be followed. This provides work content for each organ. For example, information on loans and arrears is analyzed by each organ, particularly the credit committee; the Oversight Board finds one of its principle follow up tasks in this; the education committee, as a result of this analysis, proposes to work on financial education with the members about how to save, invest better and working with more autonomy, breaking with that old institution of “going into debt” and putting up with any exploitation for being “indebted”.
Third, making decisions based on the visits and the data analysis makes it possible for them to make better decisions. A particular area is diversification. A cooperative, even one with organs functioning acceptably, if it continues embracing mono-cropping, sooner rather than later will go broke; if it continues, it will work to dispossess. Promoting diversification, nevertheless, is difficult because of the atrocious structure of international power. Today to speak about agricultural cooperatives is nearly to talk about mono-cropping. So there are “successful” cooperatives that have credit, marketing and technology services just for one crop; the effect of mono-cropping on the peasant economy and the environment have been horrible for decades and centuries. The attached box illustrates the expansion of mono-cropping even through organic agriculture reduced to its dimension as a commodity, and the fact that people of good will from international organizations work against the peasantry while believing that they are “benefitting” them. Visiting and analyzing data leads us to question the origins of our policies and respond to the millennial strategy of peasant resistance: diversification and environmental sustainability. If the organs and the administration of a cooperative focus their tasks on diversification of the farm and agro-industry, their cooperative will democratize a little more, and will include more youth and women in general.
The geographical proximity facilitates organizational functioning, and this, focused on diversification, makes the cooperative be even more rooted, produces new innovative rules and starts the path of being an organization of repossession – of peasant viability with economic and social diversification, and environmental stability.
Mechanism 4: Glocal alliance for the cooperative path
These three mechanisms facilitate changes in the cooperative and in the economy of the member families and their territories, but they will achieve sustainability to the extent that they take on the attitude of a cooperative member. It is not just organizing voluntarily, looking at their territory, making decisions through their organs, it is feeling themselves to be, and being cooperative members. What does this mean?
For centuries indigenous and peasant families have cultivated a mentality of producing to eat. Then in the 1920s in Central America cash crops came in like coffee, sugar cane, cacao, and cattle. In that process they molded a mentality of being a “seller of coffee”, “seller of sugar cane”, or “seller of milk”. Consequently, they reasserted their territory (“country”) in their plot or farm: “My country ends with my agave fence”, they declared, which means that within this area there is a structure and a person in charge, that outside of that is not his world, that his world ends at the fence where the buyers come to buy his products. They do not even sell, they buy off of him. This mentality was intensified by the markets, “I will buy your coffee sun-dried or wet, the rest does not matter”, “I will buy your sugar cane”; likewise national and international aid organizations, allies of associative organizations, with people trained in universities that taught them that only “Inc.” companies produce profits, say to them: “work on the raw materials and the rest will we take care of”, “you are good for harvesting, industry and trade is our thing”.
What is the problem with this mentality? The peasant receives payment for their coffee or milk, that is their world; the other world is that of the patrón, where the profits are; the peasant never is interested in this other world, knowing what their patrón did with his profits; the very fact of asking him was showing ingratitude, insubordination and social suicide – their own people would treat them as someone trying to be his equal. This institutionality has been reproduced in associative organizations and their allies; a member looks for payment for their coffee, sugar cane or milk, they are not interested in knowing whether their organization generated profits or not; in Fair Trade the use of the premium of US$20/qq of coffee is previously defined in social investment, infrastructure… and $5 for the member family to invest in their farm; the premium for organic coffee of US$30 is perceived like this, “premium”, equal to a “roasted cow” that the patrón would provide for them at the end of the harvest, “premium” of a day of fiesta. In other words, the agave fence of the peasant member is “price of NY + premium” (see box); the member family understands that their profits and premiums are not an expression of their rights, but “a favor” (something “extra”, “charity”) of the local or global patrón, that is why they do not ask about it, do not ask for information, nor keep their receipts nor complain over the distribution of profits. Knowing this reality, the patrón (administrator or fair trade coffee buyer) repeats, “with 100 córdobas I keep them happy”, “with pig rinds and booze they leave happy”, “I buy from them at a good price and I give them a premium, whether that gets to the member´s family or not is their issue.”
Complaining over your profits is like being a “beggar with a club”. It is like a woman subjected by her husband, she feels “kept” and without the right to ask him about the “rest of his money”, and it is the mentality of the citizen who pays taxes and instead of complaining that his government reinvest in public works and provide him “good service”, see these works as the result of the goodness of the government (patrón).
The three mechanisms listed need to be complemented by this fourth one, with which we will move beyond this glocal mentality. How? First, building a mentality where the peasant family has awareness about the fact that their actions create value and have unexpected consequences, which is why they can refine their policies and carry out actions of even greater value and impact. This is possible if they observe and reflect on some details; for example, making sure that through the payment for the harvested coffee in that territory positive aggregate effects are generated in the economy of that territory, beyond their “agave fence”; observing the impact of their diversified organic agriculture on their farms as well as on the territory; reflecting on the effect of violating the agreements of their own cooperative, that leads them to lose resources as a cooperative and as a territory. On observing these positive and negative effects, the members can awaken their awareness of being coop members and of moving from their “agave fence” to understand that regardless of their purposes, their actions have a repercussion on the territory. In a parallel fashion, let also global actors awaken and understand that their actions have repercussions on the lives of the peasant people; if they look at a cooperative just as “coffee” or “cacao”, commodities, and believe that by providing a good price and premium they have already contributed to the families, they should ask themselves if they are sure that they have “contributed”; if one person turns into an elite capturing those premiums, are the buyers contributing to the well being of the peasant families?
Second, making relationships between different glocal actors (global and local) be living alliances that are committed to the formation of associativism, complementing the mechanisms mentioned here. This does not mean improving the prices of raw materials. It means that organizations add up all the income (value of sold product +premiums+incentives for quality and other bonuses), subtract their expenses and costs, and from the gross profits they agree to redistribute according to a certain percentage, let us say 50 or 60%. We repeat, it is not a matter of improving the price of the sugar cane or the coffee, it is not distributing the premiums; it is redistributing the gross profits of your organization.* The remaining 50 or 40%, or other percentage, goes to internal funds, social fund, legal reserves, investment fund in the organization…
Third, all the actors, cooperative, associative enterprises, aid agencies, Universities and State Institutions, we all should commit in an ongoing and systematic way to cooperative formation, based on the lessons and challenges of the organizations themselves. On emphasizing profits we are not reducing ourselves to the economic, we understand with Aristotle that quantity is an element of quality; consequently, the members will move from a mentality of “I am a seller of sugar cane” to “I am a seller of granulated sugar”, from “I am a seller of coffee” to “I am a cooperative member exporter of export quality coffee”. This will mean that each member pushes that their organization generates more profits and redistributes them, they will make an effort to be informed, to be trained, to diversify more. With these elements, the formation will help their cooperative and territory, the board and their members, the cooperatives in the north and the south, to maintain strong ties of collaboration and mutual learning.
3. “Muddy” accompaniment from the underworld of the member families
Most cooperatives have been accompanied, be it by the State, Churches, aid agencies or Universities. Standardized accompaniment has meant providing them trainings, legalizing them, buying products from them and /or providing them with donations; it is an accompaniment that does not cross over toward the communities and the underworld of the cooperatives, which is why it ends up legitimizing corruption, or that cooperatives get turned into a means for dispossession. A new type of accompaniment is required so that these four mechanisms emerge, are adapted and make a difference.
Owen and other associative people inspired the emergence of cooperativism in England, Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen accompanied the first cooperative in Germany. A distinctive accompaniment in Central America has been that of the Catholic Church in the years 1960-1970; that accompaniment helped them to reflect on a God living among them, and a Reign of God that began in those very communities – the “treasure” (God) was in the communities themselves. This accompaniment gave rise to dozens of cooperatives and peasant stores based on their own resources; a good part of them still persist after 40 and 50 years. Consistent with this type of accompaniment, even though not from a religious perspective, we describe here an accompaniment that enters into the cooperative underworld in interaction with the 4 described mechanisms.
What are the distinctive characteristics of this accompaniment? The first is that the accompanying people understand that only by entering the underworld of the cooperatives and their territory will they be able to understand the process in which the cooperative finds itself, awaken reflection and help create mechanisms like those worked on here. The fact that we intellectuals might have the “best” assessment is useless if the members are not reflecting on and walking their own cooperative path. For that reason the accompaniers need to pass beyond the control of the “patroncito”, be that the administrator, manager or president, and through the conversation be exposing the struggle between the path of the patrón and that of the cooperative, as well as the complexity of walking their own path.
Second, accompanying is discerning mindsets from the inside. Along with studying the cooperative underworld, where the old path is imposed based on betrayal and subordination, and where people wander between doubt and intuition, the accompaniers discern the mindsets in the cooperatives, and their own mindset as accompaniers. When the cooperative is trapped in acts of corruption, it is moving under the rules of “the clever one takes advantage of what he administers”, and “we always need a patrón”; these rules conceal actions against their own organization; then the members see the accompaniers as “intruders”, unfurl the banner of “autonomy” to keep the accompaniers from “crossing over the threshold” of the territory, and make up lies in the territory that these accompaniers “are taking advantage of the cooperative.” Discerning their mindsets implies “muddying ourselves” in their beliefs and lies, at the risk that this might erode the legitimacy of the accompanier and drive him/her out of the territory. What distinguishes good accompaniment is the persistent act of overcoming our own mentality that it is “enough to train, legalize and help them to export in order to live better”, “taking their pulse” and innovating with member families to the extent that destructive mentalities that prevent learning are dispelled.
Third, accompanying well is allowing member families to take their own steps, provided that we understand that our actions also have repercussions in the lives of the member families. The accompanier risks the fact that the members might perceive him or her also as a “little patrón”, impairing them from walking their own cooperative path. Let us illustrate this with one experience; in a cooperative, after the second mechanism took place, of rootedness, the results in terms of informational transparency, reduction of corruption and a motivating environment because of its economic and social impact in the territory were admirable. So the board members complained to the accompaniers: see attached box.
In the box the leader sees the accompanier as a “little patrón” with the capacity to stop the corruption and impose decentralized administration on the territory of the cooperative. The response of the accompanier to the first complaint is that having intervened as a “firefighter” to “put out the fire” of corruption, even though this act would have saved them financially, it would have constrained them from building their own cooperative path, which is structural and long term. The response to the second complaint reveals an accompaniment that helps to innovate mechanisms to the extent that it studies and learns from the cooperative itself and its underworld. Even now that we have innovated these four mechanisms they would not be recipes for any organization, they are mechanisms that need to be adapted to each situation, and that each cooperative should experience their processes. These two responses illustrate that accompanying is letting member families walk their path, provided that it studies them and provokes reflection.
Finally, in this process we are getting to know ourselves, re-knowing ourselves in our actions, and we are developing a sense of reasoned compassion. Not the “rational being” of homo economicus. On understanding the mentality of a group of members who “always need a patrón that steals from us”, we understand that for more than 100 years this institution has been deeply etched in their grandparents and parents, reproduced now by this group. At the same time we understand that this institution is not characterized by “being peasants”, but that it is the centuries old path of the patrón-fieldhand. This reflective reasoning envisions this reality for us, and awakens “being peasants” in the lives of cooperative member families and our lives, through respecting the collective good, the rules of the collective and mother earth, the horizon for which we produced the four mechanisms.
Accompaniment makes us remember that the change is in alliance between the peasant families and those of us who accompany them, while we walk together. It is not a stationary accompaniment, but along the road. It is a tense alliance, with stumbles and doubts, but embracing each other for the purpose of creating a vehicle for repossession to the benefit of peasant families.
By way of conclusion
We began this text with the following question: How can people who are organizing follow their own path? First we identified how the colonial patrón-fieldhand path intensified by capitalism that only values merchandise (commodities) erodes the cooperative path, and leads people to betray their own path. This teaches us that individual actions respond to certain perspectives (individual or collective), and they in turn come from structures in conflict, communitarian structures and structures of dispossession; and that this cooperative path is connected with community life, also in resistance for centuries. These two paths clash, for example, in “the good of others”: the colonial and capitalist path is nourished by dispossessing “the good of others” (land, financial resources, labor) from the peasantry, while the cooperative path is connected to community structures which precisely originate in repossessing “the good of others”, which in this case is the “collective good”, material assets (financial resources), as well as alliances and collectively decided arrangements. This “good of others” in the cooperative path is then a “social relationship”, as Federici would say.
Lining ourselves up with this cooperative path, we list four innovative mechanisms that, contrary to the saying that “in an open treasure even the most just sins”, make the cooperative into “a treasure with rules and associative governance where even the biggest sinner becomes just.” These four mechanisms are: voluntarily organizing, rooted in specific micro-territories, making the cooperative organs and administration function, and within a glocal alliance framework help the member families to cultivate an awareness of “being a cooperative member”, that their actions generate changes in their lives and the life of their territory, and making the cooperatives expand their profits and redistribute them with informational transparency and as an expression of respecting “the good of others” (common good, collective good, their own good), in contrast to capitalism that is nourished from dispossessing material assets from peasant families. Then we argued that cooperatives need an accompaniment that makes a difference, that crosses over formal and despotic structures and gets into the underworld of the territories, from which they innovate with the member families, like the mechanisms listed here, and accompany them through thick and thin.
Is this text important only for cooperatives and their allies in their social territories? What happens in the cooperatives and their social territories at the micro level is happening in countries at the macro level. Following the cooperative vision is overcoming the “commodity” vision, the colonial patrón-fieldhand path and the belief that “with money you can even make monkeys dance”, and it is creating a society that cooperates, makes rules and follows them, expands their profits and redistributes them, learns and democratizes. Will it happen?
 A case to illustrate this type of accompaniment is that of the Cooperativa La Esperanza de los Campesinas in Panama. See: R. Mendoza, 2017, “A priest, a cooperative and a peasantry that regulates the elites”, in: ENVIO 425. Managua: IHCA-UCA. http://www.envio.org.ni/articulo/5304
 Lucia Linsalata, 2015, “Three general ideas for thinking about the commons. Notes around the visit of Silvia Federici” in Bajo el Volcán, year 15, number 22. Federici talks about the commons in the community, she says “there is no commons if there is no community”. In this article we present the cooperative as an expression of people from a community who decide to organize, and for them “the commons” is within the cooperative, even though in relation to their communities or social territories.
You cannot direct the wind but you can change the direction of your sails.
Tell me something and I will forget it, teach me something and I will remember it, make me participate in something and I will learn it.
The paradox of the last thirty years is that the peasantry, in spite of having offspring with higher levels of formal education, is experiencing an economic and social crisis that threatens their very existence. Cooperativism could be its “ship” to resist and reach a safe port. To do so this cooperativism, coopted by economic and political elites, needs to “change the direction of its sails” and reorganize. This is possible if they youth are participants in this process. So, under what conditions can rural youth participate in this process of the reinvention of cooperatives to make family agriculture viable? This article wrestles with this question and arrives at a conclusion: when the peasantry in cooperative spaces studies the harsh rules, studies their own attitudes and mobilizes to innovate for the peasant families who are organizing, that crisis can become an opportunity to improve our societies.
Key words: rural youth, family agriculture, cooperative reorganization, innovation
In the last thirty years the peasantry have faced greater crises over climate change, systematic dispossession from elites, and because there is no more virgin land to “colonize.” A form of resistance has been organizing into cooperatives, but these tend to be coopted by the State, markets and international aid. Likewise, as never before in rural history, there are more rural youth with higher education, but they are distancing themselves from agriculture and are migrating to the cities and outside the country. If this situation continues, in addition to deepening the inequality and the democracy deficit in our societies, it will affect world food that depends in good measure on family agriculture, which according to ECLAC, FAO and IICA, represent more than 75% of the production units in nearly every country of Latin America. If the youth who graduated are participants in the change of “direction” of the “sails” of cooperativism, as never before in rural history they can make family agriculture – also called peasantry and small producers – viable. Under what conditions can rural youth participate in this process of the reinvention of cooperatives to make family agriculture viable? We respond to this question throughout five sections. In the first section I review historical experiences in Europe, the United States and Latin America to show that in spite of the heterogeneity of the rural situation in Latin America and the variety of historical contexts, certain common patterns have worked against family agriculture. After understanding these patterns, in the second section I discuss how this peasant (family agriculture) crisis has been faced. To do so I summarize the idea of “heroic voluntarism” which has generally prevailed with adverse results. I go back to look at the experience of productive youth in the United States during 1870 and 1910, and I summarize the path of how to innovate, based on Albert Einstein, a method that if used by the youth, could contribute to resolving the crisis of family agriculture. After recuperating historical responses to the crisis and a referential framework for innovating, in the third section I discuss the conditions under which the youth and their parents could build bridges in pursuit of this innovation. In the fourth section, I show concrete cases of the type of innovations that lead to the reinvention of cooperativism. And in the fifth section I list guidelines about how to generate a cooperative movement hand in hand with the youth.
Crisis in family agriculture
The waves of the sea and the current of water under the waves tend to go in opposing directions. So goes economic growth and representative democracy in Latin America, where the military dictatorships were left in the past, while family producers are pulled by the “current” of dispossession. Time and time again the peasantry (currently called family agriculture) in the world has been at the point of triumphing in the face of this dispossession. What has made the laws of the elites unassailable? What has kept the peasantry from charting their own farm and industrial path? In this section we briefly review the situation of the peasantry (or family agriculture) in Europe, the United States and Latin America. We do it to surprise ourselves about what concurs in the conditions that oppose the peasantry through the crop lien system, usury and trade mediation, which have been dispossessing them of their resources, turning them into proletarians and expelling them from their places.
1.1. In Europe and the United States
In Europe industrial capitalism was imposed, and dispossessed peasant families of their lands, which turned them into proletarians so that they might work in industry, which they opposed with thousands of forms of resistance. Part of this resistance was the emergence of cooperatives in England with textile workers, as well as cooperatives in Germany in the decade of 1840 with Hermann Schulze-Delitzch, in the decade of 1850 with Friedrich Raiffeisen, and in the decade of 1860 with Wilhelm Haas, cooperatives which in part were a reaction to the failed revolution of 1848-1849 in that country, and mostly to the suffocating economic laws. Raiffeisen, for example, found a relationship between poverty and dependency on usury and on commercial mediation, and argued that to overcome poverty that dependency had to be overcome, which is why he promoted cooperatives under triple S: self-help, self government and self responsibility.
A closer picture we have in the United States. After the Civil War there (1861-1865), the industrial and commercial elite – between 1870 and 1930 – destroyed the hopes of the peasantry organized into cooperatives. What happened there? Lawrence Goodwyn describes that the Civil War, accompanied by economic “prosperity”, was followed by a period of stress under the “new rules” of trade. In the face of these “hard times”, the peasantry had to “work even harder”. Since this did not turn out well, millions of families migrated to the western part of the country believing that with “hard work” on virgin lands they would generate more income than debt. That did not work out either. They realized that the rules of trade in Kansas and Texas were the same as those in Ohio, Virginia and Alabama. Rosa described what was happening in the United States:
Such are the characteristics of the domination of capital in the world. It expelled the peasantry from England (after having left them without land) to the Eastern part of the United States; from the East to the West on the ruins of the economy of the Indians, to turn them into small producers of merchandize; from the West it expelled them again, once again ruined, to the North; ahead of the peasantry went the railroads, and after it, ruin; capital always went before it, as guide, and capital followed behind it to finish them off. The general scarcity of farm products has followed the great drop in prices in the last decade of 1800, but the small North American farmer has obtained as few fruit from it as the European peasant.
Figure 1. Framework of the crop lien system in the United States. (1860-1930)
What rules? The crop lien system backed by laws and the economic power of the country. That is, a merchant manages two prices, one for cash and another on credit; a producer family is not able to buy with cash, which is why the merchant provides them with food, inputs and tools on credit, to be paid with the harvest of cotton at implicit interest rates between 100-200%. The harvest arrives, the merchant is paid with cotton, and the family generally is left in the red. In the case that the producer family lacks land and/or mules, the landowner rents them out to them and, in coordination with the merchant, are paid with the harvest. For the next harvest the merchant provides credit again, this time the family leaves their property mortgaged. In the second, third or fifth year, the merchant is paid with the property.
This system was part of the mediation and national industry structure. Industry provided the inputs and tools to the intermediaries, and they in turn to the producers on credit. Those red balances got worse, because the cotton buyers in England turned their purchases to Egypt and India, in other words, the producer family was suffocated by the nefarious “embrace”: cotton prices fell and prices of inputs and tools for growing cotton rose. If the family did not raise cotton, they were not given credit; if they planted cotton, they had to depend on agro-chemicals. This system, in addition, was backed by laws of the State and by the economic power of the elites behind industry and commerce.
With these mechanisms the concentration of land and industry increased, as well as corporate centralization and the policy of the United States under a cover of being “democratic.” Something similar had happened in Europe, on the one hand, they extracted wealth from the peasants and turned them from farmers into their workers, because they withstood better the harsh and long hours of work in the industries than the urban people did; and on the other hand, they created resigned behavior in the population, by making them believe that these situations were natural, that their luck was due to the fact that they were “lazy”, “insecure” and “backward” and that things could not be changed.
1.2. In Latin America
Even though the mechanisms of dispossession varied from region to region, and within each country, there are certain common patterns. “Peasants are like stones, we are bouncing downhill”, said Félix Meza, a peasant from the agricultural frontier in 1991 (Wiwilí, Nicaragua). Based on the harsh rules of trade, from the metropolis that demanded meat or sugar, to the mountains, the pressure of the “domino effect” was felt on the purchase of land, from the wealthiest to the least wealthy in cascade. This means that a peasant family would stay in a place for an average of twenty years; then they would leave the land to their children, who would sell it and go farther into the mountains to expand their land area. This history repeated from generation to generation has intensified in the last thirty years, because the amount of “virgin lands” has been dramatically reduced, which has expelled the rural youth toward the cities and outside the country.
Figure 2. Crop lien system framework in Latin America, XX and XXI Centuries
Source: Author´s elaboration based on field observations in countries in Central America
It seems like this anti-peasant system of Europe and the United States is pretty similar in Latin America, with the respective variations that each context brings to it. We will explain this in terms of products, labor and land. With products, the trader buys coffee futures during “times of silence” (months of scarcity) at half of the market price, to be paid with coffee when the harvest arrives. With labor, large estate owners and companies tend to get their permanent workers indebted and ensure themselves of temporary workers for the next harvest. For example, a family receives a loan during the “time of silence” for which the woman (single mother or wife of the peasant) will cook on the large estate serving the workers 16 hours a day for an average of $6 dollars a day during the coffee harvest; in contrast, without that debt she could make $6 working 8 hours a day in the harvest itself. With land, even though land purchasing continues, for some crops like peanuts, tobacco and sugar cane companies tend to have the peasant families rent them the land, which after a period of time is left useless because of the excessive use of intensive technology (mechanization and agro-chemicals). It is a system that provides resources for the short term and erosion in the long term, makes the payments evaporate quickly, and the families get indebted and are systematically dispossessed.
These rules are made more harsh by the nefarious “embrace” of peasant product prices that are going down, and the prices of agro-chemicals that are going up; and by the “pliers” effect, on the one side, the system of commerce and on the other side, the extractive system of natural resources that in many cases goes hand in hand with criminal organizations. This situation is taken advantage of by intermediaries to get them indebted around one crop, with increasingly mechanized technology and dependent on chemical inputs. It is a system that leads to mono-cropping. In fact, for centuries big businesses have moved on these rails, first with sugar cane, then with cotton, cattle, coffee, peanuts, sunflowers, soy beans, African palm… This system of mono-cropping has been permeating into peasant families because the financial and agro-chemical industries also condition them to that. What is noteworthy is that a good part of the cooperatives and the so-called “fair trade”has moved along these same rails.
Consequently, the concentration of land, natural resources, industry and commerce, like extractive concessions, are on the increase. They are doing it backed by the State, legitimized by the Church, and with universities that educate the children of peasants with their backs to peasant agriculture. In this way, hierarchical structures combined now with neoliberalism impress a resigned, providential attitude, and with an awareness of believing themselves to be free. This is the order from which orientations are issued for peasant families.
Heroic, deliberate and innovative voluntarism
How can these “harsh rules”, erected by the elites and internalized by families, be confronted and overcome? For the last thirty years Raul Zibechi has described several social and political movements that have emerged in Latin America with certain differentiating characteristics: assemblies, youth, communities and greater flow of people in their leadership, and in terms of the rural situation, they deal with movements against extractive and mono-cropping – colonial inheritances. Years later, nevertheless, Zibechi himself criticizes some of those who went on to assume Governments and turned against their origins, and argues for movements to be alternatives to the State. In retrospect, the history of humanity is full of rebellions and demonstrations, for example, the student movement of the 1960s where the students believed they were influencing the inherited structures of power and privilege, rural uprisings in past centuries in Europe, rebellions that were put down by institutionalized violence or coopted by elites.
Why did these rebellions fail? In the previous section, we delved into the system that opposed rural families. Now we will understand, from the side of the rural families, the structures that sustain their resignation and we will describe an outstanding cooperative peasant movement.
2.1. Heroic voluntarism
Andrés Pérez-Baltodano describes how the youth of the new millennium in Nicaragua are repeating the elders of the 1980s, and detected that, after two hundred years of wars and revolutions, Nicaragua continues being one of the most backward societies of the continent. This history of failures, according to the author, is explained by a trinity of ideas: Providential God the father, the resigned pragmatism offshoot, and the heroic voluntarist spirit (see figure 3).
Figure 3. Pillars of societal behavior
Source: Author´s based on ideas proposed by Pérez-Baltodano (2013).
The notion of providentialism offers a vision of history as a process controlled by a God who decides everything, where people deny the need for politics: i.e. human decisions that generate change. Pérez-Baltodano (2013) makes a distinction between general providentialism and meticulous providentialism. The former explains the history of Europe where what prevailed was the idea of a God as a force that did not block the exercise of freedom, and that “free will” existed. It is a process through which the absolutism of God in history was ended, and where the Enlightenment of the XVIII Century expressed the idea that people make their history and their destiny. Meticulous providentialism, in contrast, was a vision that prevailed in the Middle Ages, when it was believed that God decided everything and nothing escaped his control. The author concludes that this latter notion dominates Latin American society today.
The notion of resigned pragmatism comes from the providential culture and has history seen as a game of chance where the only thing left is to respond intuitively. It is a vision of politics as the ability to accommodate oneself to the circumstances defined by power, accept that reality, not be scandalized by the injustices, and abandon any willingness to transform that reality.
Finally, the notion of heroic voluntarism provides a vision of activism (action over reason) to transform reality. It is thought that events result from fortuitous causes and that will prevails over understanding. It is an impulsive, emotional voluntarism that depends on physical force to determine history, like mechanically copying European political ideologies without knowing the philosophies that they came from. This is what Edelberto Torres Rivas calls “activism without theory” in his review of the revolutions and democracies in Central America.
This trinity of notions explains the failed uprisings and movements. With a providentialist mentality, where we deny human decisions as motors of change, we adapt ourselves to the reality imposed by power, and we react spontaneously to events. The absence of reflection and study has taken our societies to not transforming their realities, and to the fact that the different expressions of resistance ended up failing. The consequence of this would be that the providential and resigned mentality is even more accentuated.
2.2. Challenge to the century old structure
Probably this trinity of notions also influenced what was described about the United States, particularly the resigned pragmatism and heroic voluntarism. In fact, Goodwyn notes that the first reaction of the producers was political insurgency: it did not work for them. They learned that lesson and organized a movement based on cooperativism. How did it go?
We said that after the Civil War (1861-1865), peasant migration to the west of the country was a victim of the harsh rules of trade prevailing throughout the country. In the face of this, in the decade of the 1870s some producers shared their problems, and several youth, with and without formal education, began to read books on the economy to explain for themselves why the “times were hard” when the entire country believed it was living a time of “economic progress”. So some youth began to speak strongly about their “right” to say that the things that were happening were “not right”. So they formed the Producers Alliance, and from there they formed self help economic organizations, cooperatives, and over the years even a political party.
This movement was noteworthy by the decade of 1880, even though their effects were not felt in the change of the crop lien system described above, rather the crisis continued to get worse. Nevertheless, producer families did not give up, their organizations multiplied and they grew into a massive and coordinated movement that spread throughout the country. Millions of people believed that the “new day” would come, that cooperativism would lead to the democratization of the economy. This is the movement that in the decade of 1890 was known as the “populist uprising.”
Knowing that the agrarian uprising had been aborted by industrialized societies, how were they able to achieve this massive and sustained character for nearly two decades? According to Goodwyn, it was a sequential process. First, the formation of the movement: they studied their situation and had interpretations contrary to the dominant narrative. Second, entry into the movement: ways were created so that people in a massive way could join the different forms of cooperative organization that they created. Third, the education of the movement: they did a social analysis of the process, which created collective self confidence and internal communication. The principal basis of education was the cooperative experiment in itself and its opposition to the commercial stores, distributors, banks, railroads, land companies, etc. The idea was to cooperate, not compete. Fourth, the politicization of the movement: the process of education led them to generate new ideas, share them massively, and organize independent political actions as a possible reality, that led them to propose the democratization of the national monetary system.
Training, gathering, educating and politicizing is how they formed that massive agrarian uprising. The gradual evolution of the cooperative was the basis of that uprising. Thus the Producers Alliance was able to buy and sell cotton, increase the number of itinerant speakers, form different cooperative expressions, acquire machinery and infrastructure to economically scale up, have newspapers and a political party. It was a factory of indignant leaders with the capacity of articulating their ideas and communicating with producers in their own language.
That massive movement, in spite of harvesting success and lasting more than twenty years, collapsed in the end. They failed above all for falling into the same liberal logic of their time, economies of scale, mono-cropping and for the tendency toward the hierarchicalization of the movement. They left us some lessons: a movement generated by youth and producer families themselves, and the political awakening of the youth to the extent that they studied their realities, experimenting with cooperative forms and reflecting on their processes, elements that allowed them to build a shared vision of democratizing the economy through cooperativism – without using violence.
2.3. Innovation possible from the youth
If we return to current Latin America, which is a witness to the boom of youth with more formal education, along with more intensification of the rules of the commercial-financial system opposed to family agriculture, how can the youth reinvent cooperativism which could transform agrarian realities?
We begin with the crisis of family agriculture in Latin America, and we include the migration of youth from rural areas. Then we identify the “hard commercial and extractive rules” in the history of Europe and the United States, as well as in current Latin America. We verify that these processes were resisted, but that in the end capitalism was imposed. To the question as to why the agrarian uprisings failed, in addition to the harshness of the opposing system, with the focus on Latin America, we argue that it is due to a providential and resigned mentality, and wanting to change the system through the force of pure will. Nevertheless, we find the agrarian revolt of the United States based on cooperatives, where they studied and self-studied (not just voluntarism), they envisioned democratizing the economy (overcame resignation) and built their own history (not providential). On this basis we now work on the innovative role of youth.
Figure 4. Innovative capacity
Source: Thorpe (2000).
We take this step supported by Scott Thorpe. He analyzes how the genius of the XX century, Albert Einstein, discovered the theory of relativity. Einstein was 23 years old when, while working as a washing machine electrician, observed that the speed of light and time seemed to be the same velocity relative to the observer. This problem had not be resolved because Isaac Newton, three centuries earlier, had decreed the rule of absolute time: time did not pass quickly or slowly, it was a constant of the universe – because God is behind the universe. Scientists never challenged that rule. Einstein, in contrast, broke it. Thorpe finds something more, after that innovation: Einstein spent his life establishing it and did not achieve another innovation, he fell into the rule of certainty. So the elderly Einstein said: “God does not roll dice with the universe”. The experience of Einstein is not an exception: the younger a person is, the less they know, and more capacity they have to solve problems (see Figure 4).
Far from voluntarism, Table 1 summarizes a methodology for innovating, which interests us for the youth. A “problem” is structural, whose presentation seeks to satisfy real, felt needs. From Einstein we learn that each detail can be a space for great ideas (for example, when a washing machine is repaired). If that problem was not resolved, it is because there are rules that keep it from being resolved, that is why, as Einstein said, that a problem cannot be solved with the same thinking that created it. While identifying those rules, we detect them in our own minds. We break them. Then the conditions are ripe for solutions to emerge.
Table 1. Methodology for innovating
-Constructing a problem to find solutions.
-It is a “Gordian knot”, diffícult to untie
-It is something cognitive: it causes problems, it creates crises.
-If there is a problem, there is a rule.
-The rule is like the rails on a train: if you go where they do, fine; some solutions are not found on those rails
-They seem right, but they are old rules that block the solutions that are outside of those rules
-They seem to be unbreakable rules, which they are if we believe then to be so.
-Behind the rules are ideas.
-On discovering the rule, you have to find those protected beliefs as “sacred” in the mind itself.
-“Common sense is the series of prejudices acquired by the age of 18” (Einstein).
-The secret of the genius is discovering those rules of common sense, see them as absurd and break them.
-On breaking the rule, solutions emerge.
-an idea appears different to the idea that started the problem.
Source: based on Thorpe (2000).
The challenge in Latin America is that the youth push for breaking the rules, and generate new thinking to find solutions to the viability of family agriculture. Let us go there (see table 2).
Table 2. The innovation that youth can work on
Cooperatives coopted by elites subject their members to mono-cropping and are submissive.
-“Change comes from above”: resources, laws, market salvation and directions.
-Thought: democracy functions if a minority directs it; belief that “we are nothing without a patron”.
-Providential, resigned thinking and actions based on voluntarism. A member awakens.
-New thought: the cooperative is a means of resistance to the dispossession when it responds to its members.
-Studying and self study
-Organizing the cooperatives as schools for learning and innovating.
Family agriculture is in crisis, more and more corralled by the economic system, fiscal policies, large estates and companies that rent and buy land to expand the mono-cropping system, and by extraction. Families can revert this corralling if they organize into cooperatives, but they have become functional for the system that opposes the peasantry; they are like private enterprise that responds to markets, while they neglect their associative side; they are committed to mono-cropping; they take on the logic of maximizing profits and neglect the redistribution of their earnings; they tend to concentrate physical investments and centralize decision making; they are guided by hierarchical structures of elites who manipulate markets and States. This type of cooperatives are given legitimacy by aid agencies, States, fair trade and the International Cooperative Alliance that emphasizes mega cooperatives. The rule that moves them: “Changes come from above”. Nevertheless, if these cooperatives reinvent themselves and recover the original meaning of opposing industrial capitalism (England) and usury (Germany), commit to democratizing the economy (United States between 1870 and 1910), to the extent that their members govern them through their organs, they could be the best means to make diversified family agriculture viable, and consequently a new society with less inequality. This is possible if the youth contribute to their reinvention. How? That is what the following sections are about.
If an increasing majority of youth have higher educational studies and the capacity to innovate, why are the youth still not participants in this process of reinventing cooperatives? There are three structural conditions in dispute that explain it.
The first refers to the current generation of parents and children. In Europe, they talk about the “neither nor” youth: they neither study nor work. Zygmunt Bauman, in his studies on inequality observes that the generations of Europe after the Second World War, supported by redistribution policies, looked forward to improve, while today the “neither nor” are the first generation that do not manage the successes of their parents as the start of their career, but rather ask themselves what their parents did to get ahead. These youth are not looking forward, but backward.
Up until some years ago in rural Latin America, parents received their inheritance and would go farther into the mountains to expand their area (buy cheaper land or clear virgin land) so that, later on, they could leave that land to their children, and these in turn to theirs. The inheritance was the starting point for each new generation. But now the agricultural frontier has reached its limit. So, on the one hand, parents are not expanding their areas to leave them, nor are they inculcating their children with farm culture. Because in contrast to the years prior to 1980 when the children grew up working on their farms and homes, their children now spend their childhood, adolescence and a good part of their youth studying, and on the other hand, this group of youth are not finding jobs in their majors, nor do they like the agriculture of their parents. And in those case where they do, they run up against a wall: “They are not leaving me an inheritance because they say that the “pig sheds its lard only after it has died”.
Table 3. Profitability of corn in dollars (Honduras, 2017)
Preparation (pd=person days)
Fungicide (lt herbicide)
2 fertilizing (pd)
2 fertilizing (sack fertilizer)
Bend and harvest (pd)
Source: Author based on cases of producers in Honduras de Honduras.
The second condition refers to the perspective of the knowledge acquired by the youth in higher education. In 2015 according to a report from UNESCO, 98% of the youth of Latin America study. When they return to their parents, many do economic calculations and conclude that what their parents are growing is not profitable (see table 3 for corn). Underlying this acquired knowledge is a perspective contrary to the peasant economy: they consider the crop as merchandise isolated from the production system where it grows, and outside the rationale of the family that produces it. The same thing happens with other crops, for example, they study coffee or cacao and ignore the citrus trees, plantains and forest trees that are in the same area as the coffee or the cacao. These assumptions are in line with the perspective of companies who embrace the mono-cropping system, they bet on volume based on intensive technology and maximizing their profits. In other words, in spite of the fact that 75% of the production units are family agriculture, universities are teaching the logic and technologies of this remaining 25% of modern agriculture, which is why the youth come out deaf and blind to that 75%. The paradox is that the peasantry pays for the studies of their children, and yet their children learn how to belittle the culture of their parents –“you raise crows and they take your eyes out”, as a popular expression goes.
These facts are contested in families. Children love their parents who are getting older, but no longer for their decisions and actions. Parents and children are trapped by an old belief that they themselves repeated. “Son, go to study so that you might not be like me, a peasant” and “a pen weighs less than a shovel” say the parents; “I did not study to go back into the weeds” say the children. By “weeds” they understand family agriculture as equivalent to backwardness, a seed that the university planted in their minds. By “shovel” they assume that agriculture is a thing of physical force, of muscles. When the children do not find jobs in the majors that they studied, the parents get frustrated on not being able to set them on their future, as their parents did for them when they inculcated them in how to think and work on the farm. Now the world of digital technology in which the youth swim is foreign to their parents: “The more they study the more complicated they talk to me.” The youth and their parents do not understand that in family agriculture today the most important muscle is the brain. Distrust builds a nest in their minds; “If I leave him an inheritance, he does not know how to work the land, so he will sell the land and leave, he is like the oxen, if we do not know how to manage them they get tangled up”, and “unoccupied mind is the devil´s workshop”, say the parents; “if I stay with my parents, I studied for nothing” and “old people don´t change” – say their children. The paradox is that the youth reject the vertical decisions (heroic voluntarism) of their parents, but in time reproduce them (resigned pragmatism) for their own children, as happened to their parents.
If the youth along with their parents loaded themselves up with patience, a dialogue could be helpful, like what we reproduce in what follows with a Honduran family. I asked them, “Why are you devoted to corn and beans?” With a millennial patience, the family stripped back the husk, “we plant corn, beans, chicory…because we learned it from our parents to feed our families, not to accumulate money”. Yes, the times have changed, and you have to plant what is profitable (I react). They respond: “planting corn we eat tamales, montucas, atol, corn on the cob, baby corn, tortillas, new corn tortillas. Could we eat all that if we quit planting corn?”, “the protein from recently harvested corn does not compare with that anemic imported corn”, “the tortillas that we eat, have nothing to do with those corn meal tortillas that look like ears”, “with the beans we make green beans, bean soup, cooked beans..” I hear, I like what they are telling me, I understand that corn is more than the tortilla, and the beans are more than ground beans. They continue: “When we now have corn and beans we feel relieved, then we look for plantains, eggs…we go from mouthful to mouthful”. And then “the beans that we are not going to eat we sell, like the other products, to buy other needs and to pay for the studies of our children.”
And profitability? I insist. With a cold stare and face tanned by the sun and the cold, he explained to me: “If we do not plant corn, we would have to buy tortillas. We are six in the house and I need thirty tortillas for each meal, that is 15 lempiras (L); if I plant we eat twenty tortillas because the tortillas we make are thick.” Time to do the numbers so that we convince our parents: 1) from 1 lb comes twenty tortillas, 3 lbs per day for the three meals, 90 lbs per month, in other words 10.8 qq per year, the remaining 13.2 qq from Table 3 are for seed, the chickens and the pigs, from the chickens come between 6-10 eggs every day and 2 piglets every 6 months; 2) if a family does not plant corn, then a family of six needs L16,425 ($714 dollars) to buy tortillas in the year, another amount for atol, eggs and pork. I begin to wake up. On looking at my notes, table 3 and the numbers they give me, I understand that table 3 does not explain that the corn is linked to smaller livestock and also leaves out the corn on the cob, baby corn, new corn tortillas…
To save what the universities have taught us, I ask: And if you only plant corn like the wealthy? “To buy tortillas and what I told you, more in months when money is scarce, I would have to go into debt. The wealthy want that in order to hire me as a peon and pay me the salary that they want. I would end up selling this land, and all the trees would disappear, as you see where there are sunflowers, soy beans, sugar cane…” They say that it does not produce, but it does” – the roar of the wind is heard because my “sails” have changed direction. Where did they learn that? “Listening and working on the farm with my parents.”
The third condition refers to the rural organizations that tend to express the excluding rules and mentality of the elites. It is common to find cooperatives whose members average 50 years of age. If the life expectancy of the countries of Latin America is around 75, the paradox is that the organizations are getting old while they are closing themselves from the young – particularly young women. They make a condition that you have to have land, they support them only in one crop and only in farming activities. A tacit rule is: “organize so that when you are old you can forestall the youth”. In addition, international aid agencies promote the idea of “generational replacement”, an approach that assumes “replacing the old people”, which clashes with the machista culture of organizations, where men “replace” their wives (discard culture), but as elites they do not accept being “replaced”. Explaining these rules can lead to the fact that the cooperative and the member families rethink themselves.
The three conditions are related and are being contested. Studying them is rethinking them in order to innovate in any area of the family, farm, home, cooperative, universities, organizations, etc (see table 4). The challenge is explaining those rules that underlie the problems, and realize that they respond to hierarchical and neoliberal thinking, identify them in our minds, and open a window toward new, more democratic ideas in families and organizations, and in this way glimpse solutions for a family agriculture that would not depend on land, be internally autonomous and consider the cooperatives as spaces for dialogue.
Table 4. The path for the youth
Breaking rules (underlying ideas in our minds)
Without land there is no farm nor are you a cooperative member.
“Pig sheds its lard after it dies”.
-Agriculture is done when one has land.
-If I give him land he will abandon me (discard).
-More than land, he inherits the hierarchical form of decision making.
Doing agriculture without depending on the land.
Modern agriculture is the future.
Private enterprise is development.
-being a peasant is being backward; family agriculture ia a matter of physical strength.
-Modern agriculture is capital, big companies, mono-cropping.
-Research, basis for autonomy in university and family.
-Dialogue with capacity to listen to one another.
Aging cooperative with a wall for the youth.
Cooperative is for people with land; cooperative, without having members, defends its assets.
-Cooperative reproduces who we are, rather than protects assets, we inherit the rule of discard: change her for someone younger, but without letting go of decisions (posts).
-Cooperative: space for dialogue between generations and people of different sexes
-Member family creates their future.
The strength of the youth and their importance for reinventing cooperativism
Our vision is democratizing the economy, which would expand family agriculture, and to do so, the strategy is the reinvention of cooperatives. This means building cooperatives that grapple with the economy to the extent that they are schools of learning for making rules and following them, for innovating and training themselves as a team. It is the path of autonomy and citizenship, possible if the youth are participants. Here we pinpoint ways for creating those spaces from the cooperatives to the youth, and viceversa.
4.1. From the cooperatives, spaces for the youth
Box 1. Conversation with the administrator
-How much is your salary?
-Administrator: I do not have a salary, nor do the board members. We rotate.
-I do not believe you. Why don´t you have a salary?
-Producing milk generates good income for us, more than charging for administrating the cooperative.
We start from a concrete experience. The Colega cooperative in Colombia, with members who are ranchers, collect and sell milk. “We are in second place in productivity, behind New Zealand”, they say. These words have backing: they are efficient members who innovate in the management of the livestock, they zealously care for the forest that surrounds them, and their board members administer the cooperative as a service.
Box 2. Conversation with a young member
-You were a little Colega, pre-Colega and now a member.
-Why did you stay here?
-My friends left for Bogotá to study and I took the risk of staying. There, they did not study and they tell me that they do not feel safe going out at night. In contrast, I, studied here and I feel completely safe visiting my friends at night.
This cooperative organizes two groups with the children of their members: the little Colegas who are under 14 years of age, and the pre-Colegas who are between 15 and 18 years of age. Each little Colega is given a calf to care for, the cooperative gives milk to the child as provision for the calf, and the family of the boy or girl provides the inputs for the calf. When the little Colegas become pre-Colegas, because they cared for and increased the number of their calves, the cooperative gives them scholarships to study and benefits as if they were members, because they already participated in production like their parents. When they reach 18 year of age they become members (see Box 2 on the experience of becoming a member, and the externality of security that it generates in the community).
The cooperative, in addition, seeks to create a sense of pride in being a member of the cooperative. In the school they teach a course on cooperation. Each year the cooperative organizes events to which they invite the little Colegas. So from an early age they are cultivating being a future “rancher-member”.
What do we learn from this experience? In contrast to the “generational replacement” a cooperative can form new members with the children of their members and conceive this process as an economic and social investment that energizes the cooperative and the community where it is located. In contrast to large companies where one learns to do a job, in small organizations, like cooperatives, youth learn to pursue their dreams with deep passion. From here, if a cooperative, without waiting on the members leaving land to their children, dedicates 1% of its earnings to provide them an asset (a calf, $1 a month of savings, a pig or a pair of chickens) as an incentive to a child so that, accompanied by the cooperative and the member families, they are trained as people committed to family agriculture and being cooperative members, that cooperative will be planting its own future. And if that policy is supported by universities that teach the perspective of the 75% of the producers of family agriculture and 25% of companies, we would be turning the direction of our “sails”.
4.2. Spaces are opened from the youth
Also the youth should open up spaces. They are the ones who, in spite of having less knowledge, possess more capacity for solving problems. Through what we learned, these steps should be taken to the extent that we discover our providential mentality of “it is not the lightening that kills us but the stingray”, adapting ourselves resignedly to the power of structures where “for money even the monkey dances” and the voluntarist impulse that pushes us to solve hard problems spontaneously “just pure man style” or “pure talk” (based on hearsay or threats of force). The peasant experience of the United States in the 19th Century gives us a guide. Their uprising for many years implied organizing into different forms of cooperatives. Youth started it who were looking for books to read and study their realities, on that basis they did not mobilize frontally against the State, but reflected strategically and organized cooperatives. According to Goodwyn, they almost achieved it. Probably the economy of scale logic, concentrating physical investments, competing with private enterprise on an equal basis, the hierarchical structure that permeated them and had roots in the families, ended up undermining their path. But it constituted a good starting point for the youth of today: studying their realities, reading, organizing and continue reflecting on their strategic prospects.
In what follows, we provide some more steps: recover the written culture for the cooperative movement, that the youth organize into different cooperative forms, innovate in the area where they find themselves, and disseminate their learnings to produce a real movement.
4.2.1. Bridges between oral and written cultures
Peasant families are based on oral traditions, transmitted from generation to generation, while the youth of today pass through the academic classrooms based on written culture. Combining both traditions, instead of one replacing the other, is a promising path.
Let us challenge this apparent duality: the oral tradition is not so oral, nor is the written tradition so written. The oral tradition is not just the transmission of cultural expressions from parents to children, but about why and how to produce the food and keep a family. This tradition is also expressed as living hierglyphs through a farm (diversified crops, agriculture-forests), garden (“the green thumb of my Mom”, referring to horticulture and medicinal plants), cornfield, diet, design of the home and idiomatic expressions that reveal perspectives. The written tradition does not seem to find a home in universities, because most of the universities in Latin America do not do research for the formation that they offer, and because, according to Torres Rivas, the “faith in reason” of the Enlightenment is replaced by the “postmodern and neoliberal logic” where “one walks from the academic to the role of the consultant”. Consequently, the youth who graduate have little written tradition and investigative spirit.
Table 3. Strategic Conversation between parents and children
-My parents taught me to plant corn and beans, and that will kill me!
-Dad, times have changed, why don´t you plant other crops?
-For you who have studied talk is easy. I am a peasant
-And how is it that my grandparents decided to plant corn and beans?
– Daughter, for food, if I have food I am not going to be a worker for a bad salary, I can decide to or not, that is how your grandparents were
-This is a very good reason. How did my grandparents plant corn? Why didn´t they plant cassava which also is food?
-We should never be without corn. My parents took a piece of land here and there, they looked where it was better for corn, plantains…they went around testing it
-They taught you to study the land and thus decide what to plant…
-I used to observe them. I would listen to them talk in their bed. They talked with the neighbors. At times they would tell me “I brought this seed, test it to see if it sprouts”. “You have to plant several things so that the soil gets fed”
To combine them requires unlearning. Table 3 is a dialogue from the peasant side. There are three moments to which we provide color to help understand it. In the first moment is the belief that being a peasant is to be a planter of corn and beans, believing that that is the inherited knowledge. When the daughter questions him, her father shuts her down, “I am a peasant”. That belief, reduced to “what” (crops), blocks the possible learning of both of them. In the second moment, the daughter does not give up, she asks again. There is when the family wakes up, is unblocked: they had learned how to cultivate autonomy, study the soil and experiment. In the third moment, the oral tradition is undressed: observation, conversation, curiosity, experimentation, relationship to the land. This type of strategic conversation is behind a variety of diversified farms or a stew of food. The best of the grandparents is capturing the “how” they taught and how their children learned. And that is reviving them.
Table 4. Strategic conversation between parents and children II
-Mom, I feel bad, I did not get a job as an engineer.
-Work here, son, we need arms on the farm.
-I am not a peasant, I am an agronomist!
-Don´t you think it would help you to practice being an “agronomist”?
-I studied modern agriculture to think big
-What is “big”
-Plant just one crop, mechanized, agrochemicals…
-And who works on that?
-Companies, large estates, businesses, corporations…
-Aren´t they the ones who divert rivers for their rice, they leave areas without trees and unusable land where ever they go?
–Noooo, yes, but …
-They won you over without having to pay for your studies, we being backward and paying for your studies, lost you…
-Ah Mom, I don´t know what to tell you
From the other side, the youth move about self secure for having studied in universities. The attached table expresses another three moments. In the first, Mom and son coincide in that the “agronomist” looks for work, while they need “arms” on the farm. This idea of agronomist blocks the possibility of seeing opposing realities like the peasantry versus large estate owners, production systems on farms versus mono-cropping. In the second moment, the Mother asks and makes the son strip down what he learned in the university. In the third moment, what modern agriculture consists in is explained, and the curtain falls dramatically: the “backward” ones paid for the studies so that the companies might have another engineer. The security of being an engineer at the beginning of the conversation is replaced by the doubt: “I don´t know what to tell you”. Mother and son are awakening.
This unlearning gives way to re-learning. Retrospectively, we started from the duality of the oral-written tradition, then we set out to hold strategic conversations between children and parents where both sides are awakening. Notice, the two tables are like the notes that we take in our notebooks, while the analysis is what we are writing alongside. This re-learning is the bridge between the written culture and the oral culture, which we argue is what the peasant way in Europe and the United States lacked, and what we can undertake in Latin America. This bridge implies: observing, questioning, conversing and analyzing attitudes in the other person and in oneself (for urban youth these steps are possible through immersion). To that we add what was learned from the agrarian uprising in the United States: reading, studying the realities of the harsh rules, reflecting massively with the peasantry, and organizing cooperatives as a result of those studies.
Writing is thinking, accumulating knowledge and sharing it. “Papers talk”. In this process the belief tends to appear that “studies are not done without money”, which assumes surveys, laboratories, and people with doctorates. If there is a will, there is a way. Youth and people of any age can buy a notebook and pen for 1 dollar to take notes, find the veins and follow them. Writing is combining pen and shovel with the greatest stubbornness in the world. From there, what is written are living hieroglyphs: published articles, farms, gardens, financial statements, communities, plates of food, webpages… Taking notes begins the circle of innovation.
4.2.2. Innovative role of the youth in the details
The fact that the youth can build bridges between oral and written traditions opens them to the field of innovating in any area – farm, garden, store, community, family, cooperative. Here we describe two groups of examples where it is important to innovate.
The first group is the farm. If organic agriculture saves us in chemical inputs and feeds the soil in a lasting manner for good production; if bee-keeping, in addition to producing honey, contributes to reordering the farm and increasing its productivity; if the combination of agriculture and ranching is one of the successful veins; if agro-industry in communities adds value to products, knowledge to families and expands social relations in the community; if poultry and pigs are a food source and generator of income; if the garden with horticulture and other plants are food and medicine for families; if stores generate daily income and provide a service to communities bringing them products and selling their products…What innovations can be worked on in these cases and under what conditions can they be expanded? If in the last 30 years Governments and international organizations have failed in their support for gardens, bee-keeping, poultry raising, organic agriculture, agro-industry and commerce, then innovating in these areas is a real challenge.
The second group is the family. The peasantry are made up of decentralized and extended families, while hierarchical at the same time. Elizabeth Dore talks about “patriarchy from below” and refers to the fact that the man in the house is the patriarch, who keeps their financial accounts and centralizes decision making. This patriarchal relationship from “below” is transferred to cooperatives where the president or the manager keep the financial accounts and centralizes decision making. This is true also in community and other organizations. If the family frees itself from the hierarchical institution that forms it, the entire family will review their receipts, and recognize that in that they have an instrument to demand their rights as members. This will have a positive repercussion on the family, cooperatives and other spaces where the members of the family participate: Church, sports, municipal government…It will contribute to social, economic and political equity. Thousands of trainings and sermons have not made a difference in families and organizations. How can this patriarchy from below be transformed which Jesus already challenged 2,000 years ago? What can be done so that in the family the financial accounts are managed by the entire family? I mention this issue of the receipts because it is a detail, so that, like Einstein, the youth might focus on the details and innovate.
4.3. Youth as counterbalance in the cooperatives
These innovations can be facilitated in cooperative spaces. There are some like the Colega Cooperative that systematically include the youth (4.1), while in most the youth lack the instruments to insert themselves in the cooperatives. By proposing to reinvent or create cooperatives with a new design, we are suggesting a role of counterbalance for the youth. This role is a concrete instrument to facilitate innovation.
Cooperatives can reinvent themselves if the youth take on the role of counterbalance from within. In Nicaragua, we work along this line. Between an accompanying organization, like that to which the author of this article belongs, and cooperatives, we agreed to collaborate. The cooperative recognizes that its business side absorbed the associative side, and that this has caused breakdowns, and accepts that its associative side be responsible for the strategic decisions, and its business side for making them operational, as the statutes and cooperative law indicate (see Figure 5).
Figure 5. Youth as counterbalance
Source: Author´s own.
First, there is a tripartite relationship of coordination between the cooperative, financial organizations and buyers, and the accompanying organization, to ensure that the cooperative be treated as a cooperative and not as a private entity by the organizations. Second, within the previous framework, the accompanying organization prepares instruments (guides) so that each organ might function effectively; it does so to the extent that it studies it and is part of the process of change. Third, one young person per cooperative has the role of studying the cooperative, accompanying each organ while using the instruments, and ensures that the information and its analysis flow from the business side of the cooperative to the associative side, and viceversa. Studying the operation of the cooperative allows the youth to detect attitudes in play, make them visible, and propose new innovative rules. Fourth, the accompanying organization creates spaces for workshops with the youth that work on these arrangements, where each one talks about their concerns and innovations, ideas are shared and methodologies worked on about how to hold conversations with member families, innovate, write and share their findings.
Some lessons from this experience. To the extent that the youth study the reason why an organ is not functioning and how it can function, instead of only sticking to the what (statutes and cooperative law), the members see that the cooperative is a different path from private enterprise. When the youth perceive that technical language is a wall in their communication, they understand that they are behaving as technocrats, believing that they have the solution without studying the realities, then, humility gains space, they study the details of the hierarchical structure and how they give way in the face of cooperativism. For example, they understand the tacit rule of the members that “loans are decided by the person at the top”, not the rules agreed upon in the assembly, which is why they study what makes this informal rule persist – there are always reasons! This path of making the organs function according to the rules agreed upon by the member assembly avoids the common result of the work of NGOs, who tend to train leaders and “replacement” youth, who, on assuming their posts, turn into the “person at the top” under the rule of “get rid of you to put me in”. To the extent that the youth devote themselves to this role of counterbalance, the belief that they are “useless slackers” gives way to greater trust.
Box 5. Learning cycle in cooperative reinvention
Harsh (adverse) rules and bases for resignation, strategic conversations.
Redesign existing cooperatives (role of internal counterbalance) and creation of new cooperatives with new design.
Dissemination of results and lessons.
Source: Author´s own.
There are also youth who prefer to create new cooperatives. The advantage is that they are not going to be “organized” by the State or some external organization, they are born with autonomy. The disadvantage is that they do not have external resources for their first steps. They can perdure over time if they start based on innovations that can only be carried out with the collaboration of several people. How can they be accompanied? Table 5 provides the steps, worked on here. Each one of them requires taking notes and analyzing them. It is circular: after the first cycle of study, self study, innovate, (re) organize and share, the next cycle returns to the study of the changing realities, this time self-study is about the operation of the cooperative, reflecting and looking at the world without letting it pass by, and so on successively. Rene Mendoza is developing instruments about how to observe, converse, analyze notes, analyze secondary data and how to innovate along with the youth, texts which, although they are drafts, can be downloaded by young people.
Sharing in the digital era
More than reinventing a cooperative, it is a matter of generating a movement for the reinvention of cooperativism. In this text we focused on the agrarian reality, but it is equally necessary to do it in other areas. How can a movement be generated? The steps of Table 5 are basic ones. Planning each innovation as Pep Guardiola teaches us, and sharing it through different media as Chef Acurio teaches us. In this effort the use of webpages and social media, in addition to other written media and videos, can be paths to explore.
Inti Mendoza finds that the use of webpages is still limited in organizations. The cooperatives who have a webpage are few, and of those that have them, few use them. Innovating in this area to use it as a means for learning is an pending task. In Nicaragua we are experimenting combining webpages with murals in the cooperatives: the same information (minutes of meetings, financial statements, loan portfolio, innovations) disseminated on the webpage month by month, are also presented on the mural of the cooperative. On that same webpage articles are published, databases, guides for the operation of the cooperative, learning guides for the youth, accounting software, stories about how cooperatives are organized, strategic conversations, and basic information is offered on the cooperatives with which they collaborate. We look for students from different universities in the world to study the cooperatives through the webpage, because of the information that is found there and because they can be in direct contact with the cooperatives.
Social networks are another means to discuss difficult topics of the cooperatives. If a cooperative is the captive of hierarchical structures, it can be discussed in social networks. Likewise, how a cooperative constructs its autonomy, or the conditions under which women organize or are excluded from the cooperative; why a cooperative embraces mono-cropping; whether the cooperatives has policies that are excluding youth (for example, having land) or policies against machismo (for example, expulsion of a member who physically mistreats his spouse); whether the international organizations treat cooperatives as cooperatives or only as businesses; whether cooperatives distribute their profits; whether second tier cooperatives concentrate investments and centralize decision making, or whether they facilitate first tier cooperatives scaling up. These topics can be debated on social networks under the question about what is it to be a cooperative and how does the cooperative support the well being of its members?
In the digital era the youth can innovate on ways of sharing their reflections and successes. The webpage is a means for analysis, and social networks a means for informing themselves and debating.
By way of conclusion
There are three ways in which the youth mobilize for social change. One is confronting the State in the streets in a violent way, generally in circumstantial reaction to policies, acts of corruption or acts of repression. Another way is where the peasantry studies the harsh rules (commercial and/or extractive), but forgets to study their own mentality, this is the case of the populist cooperative movement of the United States between 1870 and 1910. The third way is when the peasantry studies the harsh rules (commercial and/or extractive), self-studies their mentality, and mobilizes not to confront the State, but to innovate for the peasant families who are organizing.
Throughout this text we worked on the third modality of mobilization of youth who are moved to reinvent cooperativism as a means to make family agriculture viable. According to L. David Covey, “we are in the midst of one of the most profound changes in the history of humanity, where the principal work of humanity is moving from the industrial era of ‘control’ to that of the worker of knowledge”. The viability of family agriculture is possible today, based not on strength and virgin lands as in the past, but on knowledge and innovation, for which the youth can be the principal motor. The most important muscle in current family agriculture is the brain.
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 Doctor in Development Studies, associate researcher of IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium), collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research) and member of the COSERPROSS RL. Cooperative. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
 The lard is taken from the pig once it has died (been slaughtered). In rural areas of Central America this expression is used to indicate that the parents in the countryside wait until they die to leave their land to their sons and daughters.
 This saying relies on a play of words that does not exist in English: rayo=lightening, raya=stingray
 Edgar Fernández, a consultant to cooperatives, tells that he visited a member of a cooperative in crisis. Fernández asked if he had receipts. The member showed his receipts and began to tremble: “Please don´t tell the manager that I showed you the receipts”. The extreme in some cooperatives is that they have their members so subjected that they begin to believe that ceasing to cover up acts of corruption is “betraying” their cooperative, that “making demands is a thing of cowards”. A receipt is a detail. How important are the details!
As a result, I continue to receive newsletters and employee ownership-related materials, usually nodding in affirmation of the great performances that are featured therein. Shared ownership worked then as it does now. So I was not at all surprised to read the latest results of the annual Economic Performance Survey (EPS), summarized in the November 2018 issue of The ESOP Report. Once again, employee owned companies performed exceedingly well and, in many cases, significantly outperformed their non-employee-owned peer companies. Since the EPS was launched in 2000, the majority of responding companies have recorded increases in profits for every year but two (2002 and 2010) and increases in revenues for every year but one (2010). The exceptions noted above reflect the nationwide economic downturns of the prior years (2001 and 2009). Even in those challenging economic times, 29% or more of ESOP companies responding to the survey reported that profits and/or revenue increased. And there’s the lesson for our cooperative partners in Nicaragua.
We have chosen to work within the cooperative sector by design. For the essence of cooperativism- shared ownership- is the same motivator as in employee owned endeavors. We have always believed in the power of collective wisdom and work; the employee ownership model simply brought some new tools and direction to the coops with whom we work. Notions of shared benefits, transparency, broad participation, financial literacy and the importance of a cohesive cooperative culture are not natural outcomes with ownership: they each need understanding and practice. And maybe especially that last item, culture.
As is true in the most successful employee-owned companies, the participants of a coop have an essential need to fully understand the collaborative nature of their organization. It’s not enough to join a coop in hopes of benefitting from market presence or volume buyers. Every coop member must understand the machinery of the coop, and the cog that each represents to keep that machinery running. Without that individualized participation, it’s like trying to win a baseball game with a first baseman who won’t field the position, when every position is vital. It’s what makes up a team.
But an individual’s impact on organizational culture is more than just fielding a position. It’s the absolute knowledge that one is part of something bigger than self, that there is strength and security and a sense of “we can do anything together” that inspires and drives the group to thrive. The strength of collaborative work fashions a safety net that is nearly impossible to replicate individually. For organizational success, cooperative members must embrace the idea that “we are in this together.”
For Winds of Peace Foundation, that message has remained unchanged over the past dozen years of our focus on coops. It has been the mantra of the most successful employee-owned companies in the U.S. since ESOPs came into being in the 1970’s. If the collective efforts of a cooperative are truly in synch, and the rewards of the collective work are truly shared, stability ensues. Members begin to recognize the rhythm of success. Momentum builds. The mindset of the organization transforms to one of expected progress, rather than hoped-for survival.
Cooperatives are not the mirror image of employee-owned companies. Nicaragua is not the U.S. But the reality of ownership is universal. It engenders a characteristic that transcends most of the lines which separate us. That’s why the truth of shared ownership is as real in Nica as in Nebraska.
And that, in turn, is what makes cooperatives so exceedingly important in Nicaragua today. Challenging economic times? With threads in the fabric of the country literally unwinding every day, the nation is in desperate need of institutions that are grounded. Cooperatives have the ability to be just that. They can create economic hope. They can provide a shield of security against dangerous moments. They can maintain a strong sense of structure when other forms become distressed. The coops can represent deep roots against tides that threaten to wash away the groundwork of community. (For a deeper look into this truth, take a look at Rene Mendoza’s posting in his Articles and Research portion of our website.)
I loved the concept of employee-ownership from the first moment I heard of it. I was amazed at the power of its best tools, broad participation, open books and financial teaching. Thirteen years ago I became astonished to learn that the coops of Nicaragua were so similar to U.S. ESOPs in both their difficulties and their needs.
The universal nature of the power in ownership continues to this day. I never imagined, however, that its importance and potential might figure into stabilizing an entire nation. But a dream and a reality sometimes are one in the same….
In the film “Spartacus” on the slave rebellion in 71 BC we recognize the strength of a shared vision. After twice defeating the Roman legions, the gladiators/slaves fell before the legion of Marcus Crassus, who says to thousands of survivors: “you were slaves and you will be slaves again, but you can save yourself from crucifixion if you turn Spartacus over to me.” So Spartacus takes a step forward and shouts, “I am Spartacus”. The man by his side also steps forward, “I am Spartacus”. Within a minute all shout that they are Spartacus. Each gladiator/slave choses death. Why? Following Peter Senge (1990, the Fifth Disciplne) they are not expressing loyalty to Sparacus, but to a shared vision of being free in such a profound way that they prefer dying to being slaves again. “A shared vision – says Senge – is not a idea, not even an important idea like freedom. It is a force in the hearts of people.” In this article we lay out some long term visions, show their importance for lasting change, and we take note of the role of organizations related to the peasantry of our millennium.
That vision of being free emerged as a profound human aspiration in the face of the slavery system, a fire that neither the cross nor death were able to extinguish. In the movie the lover of Spartacus comes up to him and reveals to him that his vision will be realized, “Your son will be born free!” 2089 years later that powerful vision continues present in the foundation of our societies.
Another vision, one of democracy, emerged even before in the years of 500 BC. Even though it excluded 75% of the population (slaves, women and foreigners), that vision arose based on assemblies, building institutions under the power (cracia) of the people (demo). 2500 years later, in spite of the fact that the elites flipped that vision to where democracy exists only under the control of a minority, that Greek vision based on assemblies continues moving millions of hearts.
The vision of the reign of God was sketched out by Jesus of Nazareth, son of a peasant woman and a carpenter, in 30 AD. In a hierarchical and despotic patriarchal world, Jesus envisions the possibility of a “kingdom” for those who are looked down upon – who might be like children, destitute and who would build peace, a reign that is small and becomes big like the mustard seed. Since then, that vision of the kingdom, in spite of being androcentric (king-dom), has mobilized millions of people. It is a vision that made Luther in the 1500s challenge the institutional church and translate the Bible into vernacular languages so that people might have access to God without religious intermediaries.
In the XVIII century the encyclopedists (1751-1772), living at a time with a minority of educated people, envisioned “putting up a wall against barbarism.” That vision of making “papers speak” has moved humanity with revolutions and fights against racism and extreme poverty. It is enough to see the movie “The Power of One” filmed in 1992, based on Africa in the 1930s, to recognize the vision of the encyclopedists, that learning to read made a difference. It is also the advice that we heard from our grandmothers in the countryside, “study, a pencil weighs less than a shovel.”
Even though the idea of organization and the construction of the State emerged with capitalism in the XVI century, societies envisioned alternative forms of organization to the control and rule of capitalism and the State. Thus the cooperative emerged in England against the textile industry and in Germany against usury, under the conviction of joining forces in line with the ideas of associativity of Saint-Simon, Fourier, Cabet and Owen. Along these lines the agrarian cooperative movement in the United States from 1870-1910 made explicit the cooperative vision of democratizing the economy (L.Goodwin, 1978, The Populist Movement). This alternative vision, of joining forces –“elbow to elbow we are much more than two”, as Mario Benedetti would say – to democratize the economy continues moving millions of people who are organizing.
Finally the non violent vision of M. Gandhi (1869-1948) in order to achieve the independence of India from the British empire, and improve the well being of both. That pacifist movement saw that “humanity cannot free itself from violence except through non violence”, that “eye for an eye will leave everyone blind” and that “there is no path for peace, peace is the way”. His methods in accordance with that vision were the use of hunger strikes, the “salt march” (salt satia graha) that affected the principal source of taxes for England, and being coherent in his actions and ideas (he made his own clothes and was a vegetarian). That movement inspired Martin Luther King in the United States and his vision of a society where people were treated equally, regardless of their race. And Domitila Barrios of Bolivia walked the same route in 1978 with a vision of a country without fear overthrowing the dictatorship of Banzer peacefully, in the words of Eduard Galeano:
I was seated in the principal plaza with 4 other women and a poster that said: “We come from the mines, we are on a hunger strike until the military dictatorship falls.” People made fun of them as they went by. “So just like that 5 women are going to overthrow a military dictatorship! Hahaha, what a great joke!” And the women, unmoved, in solemn silence…After the 5 women they were 50, then 500, then 5,000, then 50,000 and then half a million Bolivians that came together and overthrew the military dictatorship. Why? Because those women were not wrong, fear was what was mistaken.
All these shared visions connect hearts by common aspirations. Yuval Noah Harari (2011, Sapiens: A brief History of humankind) tells that in human evolution homo sapiens differentiated themselves from other species like chimpanzees by their ability to invent myths capable of mobilizing millions of people to cooperate. Visions belong to that genre, they are real, palpable and move incredible forces born from human hearts.
Peasant and indigenous visions
In our days we hear visions that, like those quoted, are mobilizing a good part of humanity. Scrutinizing them, we understand that they are both new and connected to millennial flames. Let us start with the oldest. Our ancestors that lived close to 2 million years ago as hunters and gatherers envisioned human survival based on agriculture, which led them to domesticate plants and animals between 9500 and 3500 BC. Since those years in our DNA is that tense vision of humans subjugating nature or plants like soy beans, wheat, sugar cane and sunflowers multiplying at the cost of “domesticating” humans (Yuval Noah Harari).
Following that vein, the vision of peasant families has been to have land. In the 1970s in Honduras (Azomada, Lempira), the peasants saw idle land taken away from their ancestors and recognizing that fire that came from their grandparents to “recover a piece of land to produce on it”, took those lands as thousands of peasants have done on the face of the earth. In 1985 when the war was raging in Nicaragua, the State moved 74 indigenous families from Cusmapa and San Lucas to Samarcanda (San Juan del Rio Coco), organized them into cooperatives to confront the Nicaraguan Resistance, as had happened in so many places in the country; one of the leaders, Claudio Hernández recalls, “to get land with coffee we risked our lives, and we accepted being treated as fieldhands and soldiers”; the paradox was that many of those involved in the Nicaraguan Resistance also were fighting for land.
In the 1980s Ricardo Falla S.J. put that vision into words: “a peasant without land is like a being without a soul.” In 1993 I went to La Primavera in Ixcan, Guatemala where hundreds of families that returned from Mexico with the signing of the peace agreements were working the land collectively; at one dinner that a woman shared with me, she whispered: “help us, my husband was killed by the military, I want a piece of land to leave to my children, that his death not be in vain!”; it was a vision shared by families of Mesoamerica and beyond.
Being a farmer is more than having land. In Nicaragua Marchetti and Maldidier (1996, El campesino-Finquero y el Potencial Económico del Campesinado Nicaraguense) detected that peasant vision: “I dream of that day in which my friends visit me and say, what a beautiful farm you have!” The land would not just be a plot with annual crops on it, but a diversified farm with permanent crops. In Honduras, Carlos Cantoral from Terreritos (Nueva Frontera) in the 2000s, sketched out what food sovereignty and peasant autonomy is, echoing our ancestors thousands of years ago:”being a peasant is producing what my family eats, without depending on anyone” – without a debt with the usurer, without giving in to the intermediary, and without lowering your head in the presence of the politician and religious leader. And again in Honduras Porfirio Hernández de Trascerros (Nueva Frontera) in 2018 describes those who lose that vision: “even having cattle they walk around money in hand looking for their corn grinder,” unfortunate is that family that does not first ensure their food. These are the families that resist being a clone of mono-cropping, families that grow their corn and produce their food on more and more diversified farms, which gives them the freedom to generate their own thinking and experiments.
Being a farmer and processing what is produced to ensure food “in green and mature times” has been a vision for thousands of years. Humanity learned to dry meat under the sun in its era of hunting and gathering, and in the years of 3000 BC made bread, and the Incas stored potatoes as starch, exposing potatoes to the sun during the day and to the cold at night. In this vein we find the peasantry of the XVII and XVIII centuries envisioning agro industrializing raw material in their communities. That vision, in spite of being squashed by capitalist industry and later by the socialism of Preobrazhensky and Stalin, persisted within Europe itself. That is why there are around 1100 flavors (brands) of beer in Belgium today, or vineyards and wine in Trentino, Italy. And it persists in Latin America. In Honduras in 2008 (Laguna de La Capa, Yoro), in the face of the “vocation” of the agricultural frontier to receive a peasantry whose grandchildren migrated with sugar cane and sugar mills defeated by the slavish rule that “only the rich make sugar”, the COMAL Network and peasant families started to process granulated sugar in the community itself. Cirilo George from the APROCATY Associative Enterprise put that fire into words, “we will not go back”, referring to the fact that individually they fell with their sugar cane into that destiny and that slavish rule, but organizing themselves, they made that vision of agro-industrialization palpable, as the Manduvirá Cooperative of Paraguay has done.
Having land, being a farmer, processing food…and selling! What a chain of visions! Even though the peasantry sees itself at odds with commerce, their aspirations include commercializing in order to cooperate. Within this perspective, in Honduras (Encinos, Intibucá) in the midst of intimidating polices under the Alliance for Progress of the 1960s and 1970s, women and men who would walk for days through mud to buy what they were not producing, envisioned “bringing in a store managed by us the Lenca peasant ourselves, right here.” That community, like the members of the La Unión Store (Taulabé, Honduras), Maquita Cosunchej of Ecuador, or the Hope of the Peasants Cooperative in Panama, overcame the old rule that “peasants and indigenous are no good at selling, only at planting.” Maybe individually it is difficult for a peasant family to sell, they say that it is a “betrayal of a promise” (buying oneself in order to later sell), but organized, it is another story, because “the market is really relationships of people coming together, getting to know one another and trusting one another”– Peter Druckers would say to Peter Schwartz (1996, The Art of the Long View). In the 1990s again in Honduras a dozen leaders of several organizations, among them Auristela Argueta, saw a vision that continues to light up deep Mesoamerica: “we now have land, we are producing our food and something more, a market for selling and exchanging our products.” That aspiration that markets can connect organized people to one another, was the seed that gave rise to the Comal Network of Honduras.
What is distinctive about these visions and the imperative to see them
These visions, far from the current ones that businesses tend to express to generate capital or the blueprint of organizations to find donations and “to put a patch on the problem”, move human determination through time and are like flames that do not go out, in search of a greater good. What distinguishes them? They are born out of crises, when that which should die, does not, and what should sprout, does not, as A. Einstein used to say: “creativity is born from anguish as day from night.” Adversity is overcome by “swimming against the current” and connecting oneself with centennial and millennial human aspirations that, like tectonic plates, shake even the most solid land, like that outrageous belief that a divine being or the market writes your destiny. They are understood by people discontent with the status quo, that question their worlds, see other possible realities, expand their mental horizons and really believe in their capacity to create the future because they experience it daily. They are shared visions that emerge from personal visions, and not from adhering to visions prepared by managers or consultants; they derive their energy and commitment precisely from the fact that they come from personal visions.
These shared visions reorder life. If your vision is that your family eats what you produce, that makes you reorder your farm, the work of your family and your relationships with your neighbors, and if that vision is shared by other people of an organization, this reorients the organization toward that vision. They are concrete visions, here and now, visions that make them encounter the stranger and discover themselves. They are visions that cause changes day to day, brick to brick, seed after seed, the drop of water that breaks stone.
In the face of these visions of future frameworks that we want to create, the challenge for peasant and indigenous organizations is to encourage their members to express their visions, understand them, and embody them in agreements and new rules to support the peasantry, the basis for food and assurance of environmental sustainability for humanity. For that purpose, the more an organization opens itself to learning, the more it tunes its ear to hear the visions, the more it takes out a pencil to take notes and ruminate on them, the more it reinvents itself, breaking rules like “the older one gets, the less one changes”, “the more one studies, the more one forgets about where they came from”, and “the more power one gets, the more farther they get from the people”. A peasantry that organizes itself and awakens to the fact that they can create their future, is more connected to the vision of Jesus, feels more the vision of the gladiators/slaves, seeks to have more democratic assemblies, aspires more the path of non-violence, makes agriculture an art, and weaves more of their own thinking. Shared visions, in the midst of the tensions and adversities of all times, move human mountains and help us to be generators of long term changes that started just yesterday.
The height of injustice is to be deemed just when you are not. Plato
Even an honest man sins in the face of an open treasure. Saying.
The VII song of the Odyessy tells how the goddess Circe warned Ulysses that the sailors of those waters were so enchanted by the song of the sirens that they went mad, and lost control of their ships. To not succumb to that enchantment, Ulysses asked that he be tied to the mast of the ship, and that the oarsmen have wax put in their ears, and ordered that if he, because of the spell of their song, would ask that they free him, instead they should tighten the knots. So it was that Ulysses and his oarsmen were saved, and the sirens, failing in their objective, threw themselves off the cliff.
Facing unfair commercial relations, Fair Trade (FT) emerged as an alternative so that people who organized might improve their lives and be a space of solidarity among different actors beyond their countries´ borders. Nevertheless, in our case study in Nicaragua and Central America, we show that the institutional structure of power relationships under the market control of elites is like the sirens in the myth, capable of seducing the FT network, turning it against its own principles, and turning solidarity into just a bunch of words, numbers and papers. How can FT tie itself up so as to not succumb to the song of the sirens, and in this way, grow, enhancing its FT alternative principles? To respond to this question we take as a given that there are exceptional cooperatives, organizations, and people who confirm the importance of organizing and cultivating global solidarity, and that there are successful cooperatives, in countries in the south as well as in the north, in FT as well as outside of it. Nevertheless, in this article we study certain practices of the FT framework that seem to indicate its involution, and on that basis we suggest its reinvention. To do so we focus on coffee, which constitutes 70% of the volume of what is sold through FT.
You have to look at coffee like the fingers on a hand; the first year we plant, the second year the coffee develops, The third year we harvest, the fourth we harvest more and the fifth year the coffee begins to decline R. Mairena, President
The cooperative works for me: it sells my coffee at a better price, it gives me credit. And it guides me in growing coffee. M.D. Gómez, Member
Plato in his book “The Republic” tells the story of the cave. A group of prisoners remained chained in a cave since their birth. They cannot turn their heads, they can only see the wall in the back. Behind them is a corridor and a bonfire. Men are passing through the corridor with different objects which project shadows on the wall because of the light. The prisoners believe that the shadows of the objects are real. One day one of the prisoners is freed and seeing the light from the fire, the people, trees, lakes and the sun, realizes the origin of the shadows and that they are only shadows. He returns to the cave to free his fellow prisoners, who on hearing that the shadows were only shadows, do not believe him, make fun of him and treat him as if he were crazy. This allegory reveals the strength of mindsets (tacit beliefs that rule the lives of people).
What is this kind of mindset in a cooperative? How can a cooperative free itself and build its own way? We explain this mindset, study it seeking to change it: we do it from the experience of the Solidaridad Cooperative in Nicaragua.
1. Mental frameworks and their origins
“The large estate provides, and the farm is a drain”, “we always need a patron”, “the patron knows and decides, the rest obey”, “only one crop, more inputs, more production”, “the dumber the fieldhand, the more hardworking they are”, “ the cheaper you pay the fieldhand, and the cheaper the land is, the more money can be made”. These beliefs sustain a hierarchical and discriminating framework, internalized by a good part of our society.
This mentality was refined over centuries all over. By 1880 Matagalpa had an indigenous population with more than 200,000 mzas of mountainous land, most of it was expropriated by the State for coffee; the mindset was in line with the myth of mestizo Nicaragua (J. Gould): “coffee, a civilized crop, indigenous an obstacle for civilization.” Thus between 1889 and 1895 there were more than 200 foreigners in Matagalpa. In time, in the zone of Arenal, Thomas, Manning, Crespi, Harrison and Vita formed large estates. Vita founded the Aranjuez estate (hacienda), later bought by Potter, then by De Savigny, later on turned into the first mountain hotel and later Somoza turned it into a Sanatarium for people with tuberculosis. From the start of the XX century up to now, temporarily interrupted by the war in the 1980s, the following haciendas were formed: El Quetzal, Marsellesa, Monimbo, La Aurora, El Paraíso, El Paraisito, Los Helechos, Santa Ana, La Esperanza and La Minita. The Solidaridad cooperative is in Aranjuez and El Arenal, has an indigenous past and is now surrounded by haciendas.
The hacienda system was imposed with State backing. Racism and dispossession mechanisms went hand in hand, which is the origin of that mentality that persists even in our times. In the 1990s a hacienda closed the road on 62 members of the Carlos Rodríguez cooperative, forcing them to sell their lands at the price that the hacienda had set. Currently the El Quetzal hacienda closes the road after 6pm, thus leaving the communities “closed in”, communities where its own workers live, as well as some families who are members of the cooperative. After 2010 several haciendas of the area have been facing a drop in the production of their coffee, the soils are exhausted, the exploited environment no longer produces: more inputs, more dead soil, the more coffee is exposed to full sunlight, the more the soil is washed away with the rainfall.
The very act of explaining the origin of that mentality awakens people. The hacienda has built itself by taking. More inputs and mono-cropping has led to greater soil deterioration. Closing roads no longer leads to cheaper land, nor does it force the hand of producer families. The “stupid” fieldhand, leaving the hacienda, has become a farmer.
2. A check on the hacienda: the cooperative
The 63 members of the cooperative have more than 300 mzs of land and produce about 7,000 qq of export coffee. The cooperative collects and exports 60% of the coffee of its members, 30% of that as quality coffee. 20 years ago most of these 63 members were fieldhands – some of them foremen – of the haciendas, they were families with little or no land, some of them producing some flowers and vegetables. Of the 63, some 25 members produce between 30-100qq export coffee per manzana, producing more than some haciendas. A small producer of Aranjuez, who is not a member of the cooperative, with 5 mzs of coffee, won the 2017 Cup of Excellence Award with 91.16 points. That is quality coffee! Diversified coffee farms with bananas and citrus, and not mono-cropping haciendas, produce quality coffee, not just standard coffee. All of this makes the land increase in value, puts a check on the hacienda, and in addition the hacienda sees its earnings decreasing.
It is easy to find examples to illustrate these results. There is a member who is a single mother who lives off her 2 mzs of coffee and bananas, that produces enough for her to support her mother and married daughters. Another member of the cooperative was able to intensify his coffee with bananas and citrus through the cooperative, and left his job as a fieldhand of the hacienda. There is a foreman who became a member of the cooperative and ended up being president of the cooperative.
What has generated this change? Well, the cooperative! Its strategy? First, it understood the importance of regularity in the application of inputs (urea and leaf sprayed fertilizer) that coffee needs in order to produce more, which is why the cooperative provides in-kind credit so that, under technical supervision, each member family applies it and pays for it with that same coffee, for which the cooperative finds markets. Secondly, they got past the biannual nature of coffee (one good year of production and the next year low production), pruning 25% of the coffee each year, and systematically renovating their old coffee plants. Third, the member families are concentrated in a microterritory and receive credit services, technical assistance and collect the harvest right there, which reduces their transaction costs and facilitates a close relationship between members-leaders and members-administration. Fourth, strong leadership pushing the cooperative in new challenges in a calm, gradual way; “directed credit”, “piloting direct exporting with a small amount”, and “getting into milling with low volume”; they do it as they establish relationships with the social banking sector, coffee buyers and chemical input companies.
Seen from the results, organized small scale production provides more and better farms, good for the people and good for the environment. Nevertheless, seen from the processes, following a different path from that of the hacienda, the response is two pronged: increasing family ownership over their production, but not over their organization. On the one hand, the discipline of applying inputs every 30-35 days on their coffee, and selectively pruning 25% of the plants has become a custom, and thereby a tacit law; as well as turning their coffee in to the cooperative, paying their loans and waiting for a better price. On the other hand, the mindset planted by the hacienda persists: “more inputs, more production”, “without the president we would fall”, “information is not up to date and does not get to the members”, “decisions about credit and who can have a better price for their coffee are not made in the organs of the cooperative”, “a buyer even chooses 10 members to buy their coffee”, “we members rely on the president, we only come in to get our loans and our payments”, “the members who do not increase their production will not increase it no matter what we give them”, “if we apply the rules of the cooperative we would be left without members”, “let the member with the most volume of coffee set the price”. A good part of the cooperative and some of its allies breathe in this mindset.
The benefits of the cooperative for the member families and the environment, for Aranjuez and el Arenal are visible, but their durability depends on changes in their mentality. As Saint-Exupéry said in his novel The Little Prince, what is most important is what is invisible. Taking your own path involves getting off the path of the hacienda.
3. Transformation of mental models
In addition to increasing production, the cooperative proposes increasing coffee quality, diversified farms with environmental sustainability, stronger relationships with the social banks and buyers, members who study their farms, and good relations between members, leaders and workers. And they are on that path. One member who studies and experiments: “I make a selective leaf spray, because I am watching over my plants, I recognize the coffee bore or rust, I observe it daily, if it progresses, I spray it, if it does not progress, I enclose it”; “I spray the entire coffee field, for prevention”; “ before putting a chemical on it I test it a little”, “what I learned when I had organic coffee I continue applying, I spend less and it goes further”, “I have coffee trees for repopulating and to sell”. The member/leader, the one that asks questions, accepts positions of responsibility and exercises them, complies with the rules of the cooperative and the decisions of its respective bodies, is still a subject under construction. Relationships with the workers, encouraged by a coffee buying organization, are making progress: “Coffee with a union aroma” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_SD3QBJ7r_U&feature=share)
For that the cooperative is refining its strategy. First, it is strengthening the observation and study that led them to determine the regularity in the application of inputs, this time to get beyond the belief of “more inputs, more production” to “more observation and management, more quality production”, including mixtures of coffee in micro-lots. Second, it is keeping its decision to have an office and services in the same territory, trying to get their sons and daughters to participate in the life of the cooperative – as members and personnel-staff. Third, it is making the policies and rules of the cooperative be applied, that decisions come from the organs of the cooperative, that members, board and administrative staff be subject to those agreements, and that the international allies respect and strengthen that institutionality. Fourth, the distribution of earnings based on updated information be posted on the wall- information on loans, financial statement, balance statement, volume of coffee collected, services of processing and exporting – so that the member families might come in to be informed, because informing is forming.
The Solidarity cooperative has taken a giant step: it stopped the hacienda. But even though it is at a standstill; it is still intact; the member families, even though are progressing in production and organization, are dividing up their land through inheritances, and their cooperative instrument continues being a challenge. The myth of the cave could change in the cooperative framework if the 4 elements of the strategy – observation, territory, institutionality and transparency – are carried out as the origin of its “light”, that would let them dismantle the mindset of the hacienda (“shadows”) and discern a new path. Their challenge is also the challenge of the entire world.
 René has a PhD in development studies, is an associate researcher of the IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium), collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/) and member of the COSERPROSS RL cooperative. email@example.com Edgar is also a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation.
 We talked with the member families, their leaders and staff and we facilitated workshops in Aranjuez. This article is the result of that collective learning with the member families that observed their farms and reflected on their cooperative. We are grateful to J. Koldegaard for his comments on the draft of this article.
Colombians, weapons have given you independence, but only the law will give you freedom.
Francisco de Paula Santander (1792-1840), Colombian leader
The law of the jungle should not be the law that our children follow
Seanna Wolf, ex Irish prisioner.
The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong
Colombia is the country with the highest level of inequality, the oldest democracy and the longest armed conflict in Latin America. It is a country that now has the opportunity for peace, strengthen its democracy and reduce its inequality, particularly the agrarian inequality. Will it be able to take advantage of this opportunity? Far from showing majority support, and improving laws so that they be given freedom, as Santander would suggest, the peace process appears to polarize society even more, making the “law of the jungle” bleed their social leaders, and contrary to the words of Gandhi, making forgiveness a sign of weakness. How can changes be generated that would lead toward peace with justice and shared prosperity? That question concerns us in this article.
The signing of the Peace Accords in November 2016 marked a before and after in Colombia. Society is involved in a broad debate. The most repeated words are: peace accords, reincorporation, reinsertion, demobilization, ex-combatants, reconciliation, normalization, forgiveness, illicit crop, territory, guerrilla, comrade, partner…They are disputed words: “worthy reincorporation into the legal system” versus “reincorporation of the communities against the system of injustice”; “normalization” versus “Who is normal?”; “peace accords of the government and the FARC” versus “rural communities do not know these accords and the governors of the regions are opposed to these accords” and “we already disarmed them, now let´s do what is in our interests, let´s ensure that they do not return to dissidence”; “Colombian democracy is the oldest democracy in Latin America” versus “it is a mafia-like, oligarchial and corrupt democracy”. They explain the meanings: “partner, in the war we would hunt some animal and the family would give us rice, or we protected them and they gave us food, that is why we would call them partner”; “demobilized from weapons, but mobilized by the ideals of justice and democracy”. And solutions for attracting excombatants abound: solidarity economics, inclusive business, cooperativism, corporations, Jesus Christ Savior, production projects…
After 52 years of war between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government, and even in the process of negotiation with the National Liberation Army (ELN), society seems more polarized about the peace process. The October 2016 plebiscite revealed this reality: half of the country said it should be ratified, the other half said no. What explains this polarization that is capable of undermining the peace process? There are at least two attitudes (see Figure 1), one that is cultivated by a society at war, manipulated by elites and resting on a brutal, even though resisted, inequality; and the other that sees the peace process as the opportunity to economically, socially, and politically democratize the country.
Inequality is the key element for explaining the realities of Colombia, be those the armed conflicts or the successes that the peace accords might have. Consequently, following the words of Stiglitz in Bogotá in February 2017, “there can be no sustainable economic prosperity unless that prosperity is shared”. How can changes be generated that in the long term might lead toward a peace with justice and shared prosperity?
In this article we reflect on this question taking inspiration from some experiences in Central America, having shared with different actors in the framework of international events in Bogotá, and listened to friends in Colombian academia who are working so that this peace opportunity might help democratize the country. Our motivation is the conviction that if the most unequal country in Latin America deepens its democracy, all of Latin America will feel those winds of inclusion and democratic aspiration.
2. Perspectives on peace and democracy
Here I identify two models of interpretation of the conflicts and democracy. The first model is “top down”, from war to peace and from authoritarianism to democracy; or polyarchy, a system for containing the pressure of the masses for social change, where decisions and mass participation are reduced to choosing leaders in elections controlled by elites (Robinson, 1996, 2002, 2014). In this perspective the conception is that the armed struggle is an obstacle for democracy, that democracy generates a society without conflicts, that society resolves its contradictions competing for votes, and is modernized based on free trade competing efficiently. Correspondingly, judicial and electoral reforms are done so that laws guide the masses, and the (neoliberal) economic model is fine-tuned, understanding that peace is established on the basis of development; and development means economic growth and the extraction of natural resources to the benefit of an elite (traditional extractivism), or neoextractivism that, as Escobar observed (2012), is also to improve social infrastructure (education and health) and reduce poverty – in other words, the extractivist model is invariable- what varies is whether it is only for an elite or for more, and whether the State plays an active role (iun the neo-extractivism).
The second model is the “bottom up” one, where the idea is that armed conflicts were, and now the social movements are, the basic conditions for resolving historical contradictions and promoting a sustainable democracy (Robinson, 1996, 2002, 2014). Correspondingly, the participation of the population is promoted with their respective life paths, that peace is established with alternatives to development where economic growth and markets, as Gudymas and Acosta argue (2011), are subordinated to the model of wellbeing understood holistically, with social, economic and environmental sustainability. In this framework, peace is achieved to the extent that inequality cedes and the (neoliberal) economic model changes to one of collective well being.
Figure 1 and the words within which the entire country moves can be reread in the light of these two models. From the first model the peace accords express the victory of democracy over the armed struggle, which is why those who are demobilized should submit to the law, ask forgiveness for their fighting and integrate themselves into the neoliberal economy and formal democracy, while the government provides material and legal benefits to the disarmed groups and ensures order. From the second model the idea is that the armed struggle opened an opportunity for democracy to deepen, disrupting State institutions and markets within a perspective not of intensifying development, but of providing space for development alternatives, because it is precisely the reigning development model that produces the inequality and armed conflicts.
Making these perspectives explicit can be reflected in the role of the State, the FARC, social movements, academia, the churches, cooperatives and international aid agencies. Let us give two examples. The first example, academia, following the example of model 1, it is seen armed with categories and methodologies that have sustained the model of development that has generated the inequality and that is opposed to peace; or, following model 2, it can be seen proposing new categories and methodologies coherent with the development alternatives model. The second example, international aid, following model 1, believes it knows the realities of the rural communities and it knows the solutions, which is why it aligned up project writers to hunt for profitable “production projects”, or that at least in the short term would keep ex-combatants from taking up arms again; or, following model 2, democratizes their decisions and opens itself up to understanding the multiple realities of the peasant, indigenous, and afro-descendent communities, and takes the risk of listening to and responding to solutions that maybe do not fit in the neoliberal economic model in which it tended to locate itself. Being part of the solutions and contributing to peace begins disrupting our own attitudes and comforts, that maybe are as authoritarian and centralizing as those of any institution or organization that we are happy to criticize.
3. What is concealed and what is sought to change
Having this broad perspective, we notice that the armed conflict with the FARC began with two key concepts, the agrarian reality and democracy. The Historical Commission on the Conflict and its Victims (2014) published 12 essays of authors who studied the causes and effects of the conflict in Colombia. Even with different perspectives, all of them agree on the fact that the agrarian issue and the fragile liberal democracy were determining causes, which is why in their recommendations they highlight the fact that changes should happen in land use and access, and that work be done on an economic model where equity would prevail. If Colombia is the most unequal country in its income (CEPAL, 2017), the inequality is worse in the agrarian reality: the gini coefficient for income, where 1 is equal to complete inequality and 0 is equal to complete equality, was 0.530 and the gini coefficient in rural property was 0.897 in 2015; while that coefficient for income improved, because it dropped from 0.564 in 2009, the coefficient for property went up from 0.885 in 2009.
The agrarian question refers to landownership, its use, technology and markets. The key in that is access to ownership of the land. The graph and table 1 show that in the same period of the armed conflict inequality for access to property in Colombia has gotten worse: the Gini Coefficient from 1960 to 2014 went from 0.868 to 0.897. In the same period 0.5% of total owners with more than 500 Hectares of land went from having 29.2% of total land to having 68.2%; while around 88% of total owmers with less than 20 hectares went from having 17.3% to only having 8% of total land.
Table 1. Comparison of number of APUs and land used by range of size
5 to 20
20 to 50
50 to 200
200 to 500
Source: IGAC (2012) Atlas of rural property distribution in Colombia; 2014 Agricultural Census
The cause that generated the armed conflict intensified. This is even worse if we take note of the increasing use of mono-cropping and extraction of natural resources, as well as the financial barriers (e.g. credit in accordance with “capacity to pay”) and commercial barriers (free trade treaties) that affected around 80% of the property owners of the country. The impact of that reality on the country is alarming; socially, Colombia is the country with the largest number of internally displaced people in the world, and “violation of human rights has become a habitual practice” (Oxfam Internacional, 2017); politically, it is fragile democracy because of its liberal institutions where the connection between arms and politics prevails (Gutiérrez, 2014). Peasant, indigenous and Afro-descendent communities have suffered the dispossession of their means of life and culture, creating uprootedness and extreme poverty, which has contributed to the armed conflict. Behind that inequality and its impact are hundreds of years of distrust between peasant, indigenous and Afro-descendent families and the families of that group of less than 1% backed by the State and the ideas of “development”; this reminds us of the historian Wolf, who says that the French peasantry at the end of the XVII century had included a phrase at the end of the Our Father that they would pray every night before going to bed: “ and from justice, free us Lord” – that “justice” (State) that dispossessed them from their land and territories, and which the agrarian scholar Machado (2009:54, confirms: “the facts show that State action continues breaking up medium size rural property, while large traditional property is not transformed, and small ownership gets even poorer; in other words, the State and society are supporting a bimodal rural structure in ownership as well as in their forms of controversial and not very efficient exploitation, that does not help promote economic growth; in addition, it is a structure that destroys natural resources, undervalues the rural reality and creates conflict between rural society and national society.”
At the same time, that agrarian reality should be qualified. In 1940 the urban population was 30% and in 2012 it was 74%, which is why obviously the weight of the agrarian reality and the notion of what is rural has changed drastically. We do not know the reliability of the Censuses for making distinctions about those changes; but given the large extensions of land that the war included, and the typical problems of legality and forms of land acquisition that our countries of Latin America have tended to suffer, it could be that the table on land ownership would vary, that that bimodal structure might be less and that therefore that structure might express more potential than it now expresses.
The peace accords happened within that context of the incease in inequality and the awakening in society that another economics subordinated to life and democracy is possible. In spite of the fact that after a year there may have been no land distribution yet, while the political opposition defending that 0.5% of large property owners is growing, the peace accords do provide an opportunity for the country to democratize. The question is: will it? Following the mentality of model 1, the problem and its solutions are understood as something technical-administrative, like a “lack of”, precisely to conceal that inequality produced by the fragile formal democracy and the conventional economic model – and to that we would add a perspective closed to the bimodal structure that only sees land and crops. Following the mentality of model 2, the problem and the solutions are understood within the framework of power relationships, change in the power structure (questioning land ownership) and in the people through a different model of improvement – and with that we would add an agrarian perspective that includes land, crops, crafts and recreation of identity). Consistent with the historical perspective and the data presented, we understand that the inequality is above all a problem of the assymmetry in the power relationships, not a technical or administrative problem.
4. Danger of using peace to heighten the inequality
The bigger risk is that in the name of peace that oligarchic belief is imposed that peace needs more development: economic growth with (neo)extractivism of the natural resources and mono-cropping. It is like saying, the regions of the country are impoverished because of lack of “development”, when it could be the opposite, they are impoverished because of too much “development”.
It is probable that this 0.5% of owners, maybe connected to the finance industry, agroindustry, commerce and the communications media, might see the peace accords as the opportunity to increase their wealth, in addition to legalizing the land that perhaps they obtained through illegal means. That is, far from ceding an inch of land and understanding its importance for peace, they see it as an opportunity for the expansion of the agricultural frontier (in addition to being able to use 70% of the arable land which is unused), new areas free for extraction and mono-cropping, repurchase of land that eventually the State might give out, cheap labor and members of private security bodies among the disarmed, zones free from the FARC in order to control them with armed criminal groups and drug trafficking networks that respond to the demand of the US market, expansion of the financial and agro-chemical industries, “controlable” cooperatives that collect their harvested products and intermediate inputs to them…To take advantage of these opportunities they make use of trade rules, commercial treaties, usury, credit rules and the rules of making policy; and they see the opening of roads, schools and health centers as support.
In a parallel fashion, the avalanche of more-of-the-same solutions makes the disarmed and the rural communities – peasants, indigenous and Afrodescendents –confused. “Inclusive businesses” where the anchor are private enterprises under the principles of “more volume, more profits” and “economies of scale”; cooperatives that discipline their members in mono-cropping, aid organizations responding with projects to “the lack of” technology, knowledge, capital and markets; bilateral aid agencies that with one hand support their own extractive companies and with the other finance actions that would mitigate the effects of climate change; religions (Catholic and Protestant) that win over individuals who would recognize their sins and find forgiveness and glory in the beyond. It is institutionalized technocratic conceit: elites believe they know the realities of the communities, they believe they have the solutions (money, knowledge and decisions) and they believe that change comes from above, while they are moved by a mentality of seeing the agrarian reality as in the past, only land, crops, technology and markets; the worst that can happen is to see the disarmed as agricultural producers and that agriculture is a matter of having land, equipment, inputs and buyers for what is produced.
These solutions also express centenarian and even millennial hierarchical structures. The mono-cropping structure is sustained by a transnational hierarchical structure – be they enterprises, aid industry, Churches, States or academia. The guerrillas also come from a hierarchical Leninist structure of “democratic centralism”. What is common among them is the centralization of decisions in an elite based on informal rules located in the mentality of model 1, not on rules like the Constitution of a country, that statutes of an organization, the agreements of assemblies or the rules of Afro-descendent communities. What is also common in them is the belief that there is nothing good in those “from far below”, and that is why the technician, priest and politician work on persuading. This institutionality, in good measure, tends to be reciprocated by those who are “from far below”, who have internalized that without the boss, commandante or patron, life has no direction; in addition, it becomes a social code: an ex-combatant that shows up to work on a mono-cropping hacienda is familiar with their “order-obey” structure; it seems normal to an activist of a social movement, turned into the director of an aid agency, to have the power to approve projects.
How can this danger be confronted where some good local institutions and communities with strong social and economic networks are being battered? “Everyone for themselves” is a common reaction, ex-combatants and ex chiefs who will seek their own paths in different areas and spaces; others will insist on the promised tangibles goods; many will organize to depend on external resources; in this dynamic, those who persist in their struggle for equality and justice, beyond individual benefits, will be described as terrorists, considered rebels and candidates to be excluded from external benefits and to be part of those leaders physically assassinated and then “assassinated by neoliberalism”. “Everyone help one another” would be more strategic; that is committed to the viability of family agriculture (small scale production or peasant economy) and crafts that would generate autonomy and energize the communal level; a peasant family that diversifies in agricultural and non agricultural activities, uses markets to scale up their income and ensure their food. Within this framework, if that family organizes in a cooperative to resolve collective problems and negotiate resources that inject energy into their production systems and endogenous institutions, they will be contributing to mobilizing their communities and with that, the resurgence of a more just and peaceful society. This does not deny the existence of monocropping and large transnational enterprise, but restrains it, makes visible what is at play in society and shows that it is not a matter of “persuading” and of responding to “the lack of”, but of creating the appropriate conditions in which changes happen in the mentality of society and its institutions
5. Imperative to focus the direction and the prospects for building an arduous peace
This step requires that the different actors (State, academia, aid organizations, Churches, popular organizations, unions, FARC) rethink their actions. Not only should they support mono-cropping and “the lack of”, but above all families in their agricultural and non agricultural activities, forms of organization and logic in territories of indigenous and Afro-descendent communities, and communities that as Arjona (2016) shows have diverse social institutions, which would have to be understood before prescribing “development” for them. Here we deal with the how.
Figure 2 illustrates the form of relationship between the aid organizations and the communities –populations, disarmed groups, small scale producers or family economy (agriculture, home made products, non agricultural activities). There we see that there is a certain amount of dispersion between the organizations and institutions and they have different discourses with the different rural communities – peasant, indigenous and Afro-descendent. But they coincide in relating to the communities through the “intermediate stratum of development”, who are the technicians, promoters, religious and aid workers. This “stratum” connects two worlds, that of the aid agencies and institutions, and that of the communities; even though in practice the “intermediate stratum” might be more a prolongation of world 1, it tends to turn into world 3, interpreting world 1 and 2 from its perspective. For example, the State through the Reincorporation and Normalization Agency (RNA), has hundreds of technicians going to the communities, as do the aid agencies, churches or the FARC through their structures and technicians responsible for writing projects, encouraging and facilitating organizational processes. We predict that the peace process will be consolidated in its version of responding to “the lack of” with goods and services coherent with the perspectives of model 1, or its version of responding to the democratization of the country coherent with the perspective of model 2, or combining both versions, to a large extent depending on the work of this “intermediate stratum.”
What is common in this “intermediate stratum” molded by world 1? It tends to avoid the fact that the root of the problem is the inequality, underlying a mentality of the rural reality as equivalent to agricultural area and families in need of equipment and infrastructure, and assumes as a mandate the clamor of the aid agencies (“we want production projects”) and that of the government (“we are going to finance viable projects in market economies”). They assume that the work is persuading – be that about tangible goods like replacing illicit crops, the gospel, rules of associativity, productivity, commerce, democracy or gender equity. Each one has their reference in something external to the community: the religious, in the Bible; lawyers, in the laws of the country; agronomists, in the manuals for monocrops, the promoters of cooperativism, in the Statutes…All of them march to evangelize the communities in order to hear what they want to hear, and then returning to their offices they can also make the aid organizations hear what they want them to hear: number of technicians trained, people empowered, projects approved, people benefitted, cooperatives…
John P. Lederach, a Peace Accord advisor, said: “peace is achieved when each Colombian has respect for differences and establishes constructive relationships with the other, with that other that it has not wanted to, or not been able to listen to, for more than a half century.” Specifically the challenge is that this group from the “intermediate stratum of development” would overcome their logic of persuading and be capable of listening and observing, processing what is heard and observed, and learning from their conversations under the principle that “light comes from striking stones” – that light can be an idea about a project, awakening to alienating processes and their profound traumas, or paths for collective action. And that then, that “intermediate stratum of alternative development models” can talk with the organizations of world 1 and contribute to their change.
Let´s illustrate this perspective with the formation of a cooperative. According to the logic of persuading, a cooperative is organized with 40 hours of training in cooperativism, they name their manager, and it is provided resources and markets for their products; as a result, the criteria of success is forming hundreds of cooperatives without considering that this type of cooperatives fail quickly or end up being run as private enterprises in “cooperative” clothing. With a logic of learning, the cooperative is organized when its members wake up in the face of an adversity, and because they realize that there are obstacles that they cannot solve on their own, discover the value of their own resources, and that there is another way of organizing outside of the hierarchical structures of mono-cropping and the boss-followers – or as José M. Navarro would say, a member of the La Fábrica cooperative in Barcelona, “a cooperative enterprise opposed to capitalism”. Along this path the member families, studying their realities and experimenting with changes, discover their capacity to innovate, their citizenship (rotating leaders, complying with their rules and agreements, supervising that compliance), administering and investing their collective resources and strengthening their connections with the rest of the community, and recreating new identities within the framework of new realities that look beyond the agrarian reality seen as equivalent to crops. Table 2 shows some elements of this type of cooperative that responds to its members, and that it is possible to produce within a framework of mutual learning and in alliance with the three worlds in accordance with each specific context, and thanks to the creative and catalyzing role of the “intermediate stratum”.
Table 2. Keys for successful cooperatives
· Interaction between the associative side (organs) and the business side (administrative-technical)
· Effective functioning of the holy cooperative trinity: oversight board, administrative council and assembly
· Organization around differentiated products (e.g. specialty coffees, organic products) because it requires coordination among several families, geographic concentration
· Distribution of earnings and definition of goals in the assembly
· Based above all on their own resources and on endogenous institutions (of aid)
· Accounting system that generates updated information to be used by the administration and the cooperative´s organs
· Organizing 1st tier cooperativen on the basis of their members, and organizing 2nd and 3rd tier on the basis of the 1st tier cooperatives, and not the reverse.
This way of working, illustrated with the formation of a cooperative, requires accompaniment with a mentality of going to learn from the communities, from the disarmed groups. Said figuratively, the families in the communities know 50% of their problems, risks and opportunities, and their accompaniers (the restructured “intermediate stratum”) know the other 50%. The innovations emerge from among both sides (“from the striking of the stones”). Correspondingly, this group of accompaniers needs to unlearn in order to learn, increase their capacity to observe and dialogue so that together with the families they detect innovative practices and rules. In this way technicians and promoters will get ideas that they can turn into projects, experiments or initiatives; religious discern that God is in the people who seek justice and organize; administrators learn that the accounting information is not a tool for domination but formation (“informing is forming”)…The best guide that this type of work is on the right path is that both, the families and the accompaniers, awaken to the extent that they are learning.
For this purpose it is fundamental that all the actors from the different worlds rethink their role, in particular academia and international aid agencies. Academia, in order to contribute to the formation of that “intermediate stratum”, should produce appropriate categories coherent with model 1 as well as model 2. For that purpose it should organize basic research (e.g. sector analysis of agro and non agro) along with specific research combined with experimentation in specific territories, whose results would be the basis for organizing training. This, nevertheless, requires that academia understand that the source of knowledge is not just imported theories, but different communities with their multiple realities, all of them in need of being conceptualized within a framework of alliance and not just applying theories; and that requires that they include in their gamut of methodologies the organization of thoughtful immersion processes on the part of professors and students in those very territories. The best critiques and policies of conventional theories, and rereadings of the land ownership table, will come from seeing the realities from the multiple perspectives of the countryside.
This strategic change from the “intermediate stratum” and the work of decolonialized academia, requires an active and renewed role of international aid. For this role, international aid should review their own practices in the last 3 decades, practices questioned in the entire world (see for example, Anderson et al, 2012) because their aid has generally helped the type of “development” that has contributed to the inequality and have “ngo-ized” organizations (unions, cooperative and associative organizations) and social movements, dispossessing the families of their own organizations. This revision implies that the aid organizations in Colombia quit waiting for “production projects” from the “intermediate stratum of development”, and influencing the type of projects and centralizing decisions about those projects. This implies that they contribute to creating institutional environments in the territories where the different actors of each territory and the “restructured intermediate stratum” study those realities and produce ideas that really matter to them, and that the decisions about the projects that emerge be decentralized. It implies that the international aid agencies be conceived as allies of the peasant, indigenous and Afro-descendent communities, in favor of democracy and the reduction of inequality in those very territories – allying is like falling in love, and this requires that the “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” (aid agency) moves to the territories where their partner is.
If the communities feel that they have allies in academia and in aid agencies, who join their voices to those of the communities so that their leaders do not continue to be murdered and that they value the fact that they organize on the basis of their own good – and correcting the bad – institutions, then the peasant, indigenous and Afro-descendent communities with different degrees of connections with the FARC and other actors, will take their steps for improvement, will mobilize, will make their decisions more democratically and will understand that the reduction of inequality from the territory itself – with geographic variations – is possible, necessary and just.
The agrarian and (neo) extractivism realities continue to weigh economically, socially and politically on the country, which is why peace should be built on the basis of reducing inequality. The greatest obstacle to the peace process is the institutionality that sustains that inequality. This institutionality has to do with elite economic groups that want to consolidate the peace process with the same mechanisms that caused the armed conflict, and with an agrarian mentality from when the rural population were the majority in Colombia. These mechanisms are expressed in the extractivist and mono-cropping neoliberal economic model moved by the law of the jungle, even though clothed in democracy, a model that has been called “development” or “motors of the economy”. The paradox is that an attempt is made to consolidate peace with the same measures that led to the armed conflict.
This “development” model is clear, seen as the economic model of the elites; but it is not so clear to us that the actors who declared themselves in favor of peace had a functional modus operandi for this model. Because it would seem that there is not much difference between centralizing the decisions of approving “profitable productive projects” and the decisions of the political and economic elites concentrating land, between academia that believes it has solutions in imported theories and the aid organizations that believe they know the future of the peasantry without studying it, or businesses that think that the market knows more than any human being, between the hierarchically organized FARC and the Church and families also organized hierarchically…This shakes up our minds and wakes us up!
If waking up matters a lot, we identify the most important point of change is the “intermediate stratum of development” (administrators, technicians, aid workers, religious) who have served to convince the world of indigenous, peasant and Afro-descendent communities about the world of “development”. We suggest investing in retraining this “intermediate stratum”: that they move from a logic of “persuading” and writing projects for “the lack of”, toward a logic of “learning” and identifying along with the communities ideas in accordance with the different routes and rural institutions in which they move; from prescribing to knowing how to negotiate in the midst of uncertainty. To do so, we argue, the work of the university research centers and international aid agencies is needed; the former with alternative categories to the “development” model, and the latter constituting itself as serious allies of the different communities, recognizing that they are sources of knowledge and seeds for a more democratic and just society.
The peace process in Colombia is a global challenge that generates optimism. In Japanese culture we find two meanings for the word “optimism”: rakutenteki, the feeling of the future that a young person has about their adult life, and rakkanteki, when people accept their problems as challenges to be faced. This optimism (rakkanteki) encourages us to review our own mentality and to recognize that peasant, indigenous and Afro-descendent resistance is also our resistance to inequality and the mechanisms that sustain it. Peace is possible, in spite of “development”, under the spirit of Santander, and as the “effect of justice” (Isaiah, 32:17).
 I am grateful to the comments of A. Bendaña, E. Baumeister and J. Bastiaensen for their commentaries on a previous version. The text is a draft to be improved and commented on by each person who reads it.
 CEPAL, 2017, Social Panorama of America Latina 2016, Table I.A1.2, shows the gini coeficiente for income for 14 countries in Latin America. In 2008 or 2009 Colombia is the country with the greatest inequality (0.564) and for 2015, even though it improved, continues being the most unequal country in Latin America (0.530). See: http://repositorio.cepal.org/bitstream/handle/11362/41598/4/S1700567_es.pdf
 Robinson, W., 1996, “Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, U.S.,” in: Intervention and Hegemony. Robinson, W., 2002. Remapping development in light of globalization: From a territorial to a social cartography, in: Third World Quaterly, No. 23.6. Robinson, W., 2014, “Democracy or polyarchy?” in: NACLA. https://nacla.org/article/democracy-or-polyarchy
 This duality of “development” / alternatives can also be seen in the duality between contemplation (leisure) and work (business) from the ancient times of Greece up to our times. It has moved from favoring contemplation to giving the highest moral value to work (business), passing though the religious thought of Calvin where leisure (contemplation) became sin and business like the glory of God (see: Rul·lán Buades, G., 1997, Del ocio al neg-ocio… y otra vez al ocio. Papers 53, 171-193. https://ddd.uab.cat/pub/papers/02102862n53/02102862n53p171.pdf). It is a duality that model 2 would seek to connect to one another.
 Using indexes like THEIL, instead of Gini, the inequality is even worse. A more detailed study probably can demonstrate the weight of the medium strata, more than a bimodal structure, which would be important in light of more appropriate rural policies.
 Arjona (2016), contrary to the idea that war zones are chaotic, lawless zone, finds communities with social institutions where the armed structures becomes de facto governments and communities with strong justice institutions capable of negotiating with the armed groups. See: Arjona, A., 2016, Rebelocracy: Social Order in the Colombian Civil War. Cambridge University Press.
 The norms for providing credit include “lending money to people with the capacity to pay.” This supposes that those who are not in monocroipping and do not have large areas, are outside of the credit system. This type of mentality was turned upside down in Bangladesh by Yunus and his team, in the 1970s they proved that everyone is capable of paying and that the bank needs to adapt to their realities. If more than 50% of the food comes from peasant families, why doesn´t the financial system respond to that reality?
 Hale (2002) observed in Guatemala how international organizations make distinctions of the indigenous organizations between the “permitted” ones, those who drop their agendas to take on the agenda and rules of international aidm and the “rebels”, those that resist and respond to the agenda of their members-communities. The former are given financial support and the latter are not. See: Hale, Ch., 2002, “Does Multiculturalism Menace? Governance, Cultural Rights and the Politics of Identity in Guatemala” in: Journal of Latin American Studies 34.3 Cambridge University Press.
 Academia (Universities and research centers) also are part of the block of aid organizations, but their relationship with the communities tends to be sporadic, which is why we have not included them in the figure, while their relationship with the “intermediate stratum” is strong because that “stratum” was trained in the universities and they also organize training courses in solidarity economics and other topics directly for that “stratum”.
 Honesty is not lacking in the organizations of world 1 (figure 2): “it does not matter that these cooperatives or projects are not sustainable years later, the important thing is gaining time so that the ex-combatants do not go back to war”.
 The adversity is the inequality in land access, the commercial mediation that steals from them in the weighing of their produce, quality control and in prices, or in usury. A savings and loan cooperative that organizes in the face of usury, for example, begins on a good step, because having awareness of the adversity means having recognized (studied) and having realized that bringing their own resources together they can avoid the usury.
 For example, for the business actor, the persepective of Kaiser is interesting (2012, La fatal ignorancia La anorexia cultural de la derecha frente al avance ideológico progresista, http://ciudadanoaustral.org/biblioteca/23.-Axel-Kaiser-La-fatal-ignorancia.-La-anorexia-cultural-de-la-derecha-chilena-frente-al-avance-ideolo%23U0301gico-progresista.pdf). He observed that the business class and the right in Chile “do not understand nor believe in the power of ideas and culture as decisive factors of the political, economic and social evolution”, and that they only focus on productivity, technology and financial incentives, forgetting that human beings are moved by beliefs, values and ideas transmitted by the family, schools, books…Kaiser thinks that that bourgeoise and that right fell into a mental anorexia that opened the door to the left. From our perspective, that mental anorexia also is shared by the left and most of the organizations and international aid organizations today.
 Mendoza (2015) describes this methodology, precisely based on an experience of a Research and Development Institute in Nicaragua, that for some years was capable of based a good part of their proactive innovation on that methodology of immersion. See: Mendoza, R., 2015, “Inmersión, inserción, escritura y diálogo: Mecanismos de aprendizaje para el desarrollo territorial”, en: Bastiaensen, J., Merlet, P. y Flores, S. (eds), Rutas de desarrollo en territorios humanos. Las dinámicas de la vía láctea en Nicaragua. Managua: UCA Publicaciones. http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/AGRO_Noticias/smart_territories/docs/RUTAS%20DE%20DESARROLLO_VERSION%20FINAL_LIGERA.pdf
 This notion of optimism was expressed by Kishida Junnosuke, chief editor of the Asahi Shinbun newspaper, to the question of Peter Schwartz in 1984. See: Schwartz, P., 1991, The Art of the Long View. New York: Doubleday.
The Fair Trade Movement (FT) emerged in the face of unfair trade mediation as an alternative so that people that organize might improve their lives, and to be a space of solidarity among different actors beyond national borders. Nevertheless, in our case study on Nicaragua and Central America we show that the institutionality of the power relationships under elite market governance has been capable of setting FT against its own principles and turning solidarity into a mere formality. How can FT resist this market force and at the same time deepen its alternative FT principles? Taken as given that there are cooperatives, organizations and people that prove the importance of organizing and cultivating global solidarity, in this article we study certain practices of this FT network that seem to point to its involution, and on that basis we suggest that FT needs to reinvent itself. To do so we focus on coffee, which constitutes 70% of what is sold as FT.
The FT movement began in 1964 within the framework of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). In 1973 trade in FT coffee began with Guatemalan cooperatives under the brand of “Indio Solidarity Coffee”. In the decade of 1980s the volume of products increased, and their design improved: solidarity stores sold combinations of coffee, tea, honey, sugar, cacao, nuts, bananas, flowers and more. In 1988 the “Max Havelaar” seal began operating. In 1997 the Fair Trade Labelling Organization was created (FLO) so that producer families could confront their adversities and vulnerabilities and improve their organizational skills (MacDonald, 2007). But, according to Taylor et al (2005:204), after having an ATO (Alternative Trade Organization) governance structure with strong roots linking consumers and producers, it shifted toward an impersonal brand and the search for market niches under a conventional strategy. In 2011 FT-USA and FLO divided, the former preached “fair trade for all” increasing even more the volume of coffee traded from producers without regard to whether they were members of cooperatives or not (Valkila, 2014).
Parallel to this division, the FT seal faced even more challenges – more competition from other seals with attributes similar to FT. Many coffee buyers and roasters opt for the direct-trade approach instead of fair trade. Many cooperatives face a mixture of governance and “privatization” crises with their resulting turn toward less democratic governance structures. This is an expression of a context of the all absorbing neoliberal market, in which FT increases its volume getting into the conventional market, while it neglects a good part of its principles of transforming unjust trade relations.
This all absorbing context is shaping the actors, and at the same time is shaped by them. This directs our attention to the relationship between the structure and the actors (Long 2001). The structural perspective by itself runs the risk of determinism, while just looking at the actors and their actions runs the risk of voluntarism. Structures are expressed in rules and regularities, collective and persistant phenomena, while social actors produce and reproduce the structures, interpreting them in their actions. The structures, like conventional or FT mediation, limit and facilitate the action of the social actors without 100% determining them.
Within this structure-actors framework, we propose that FT resolve this paradox of growth with involution by going back to being “alternative” as it increases its current growth, deepens its democratic structures and improves its capacity of governing those markets. To do so, we work with a foundation of information and analysis from various sources. First, we reviewed studies on FT, analyzed secondary data and tested the process of weighing coffee from its cherry to export state, including cupping parallel to what the organizations did. Second, we talked with managers of companies, individual merchants and producers, coffee buyers and roasters from FT and direct trade, inspectors of the certifiers, cooperatives in Europe, social bank officials and directors of international aid agencies; within this framework we studied outstanding cooperatives and associative enterprises in each country in Central America (see Mendoza, 2016a, 2016b, 2016c, 2016d and 2017a). Third, since 2010 we have worked with 35 first tier cooperatives in Nicaragua (20% of the total first tier coffee) and with various organizations from other Central American countries, accompanying them in their actions and reflections, an immersion that has given us an understanding from inside the cooperatives. Finally, we organized spaces for reflection where we triangulated information and analysis with the members, staff and board members of the cooperatives.
After this introduction, we present the innovative character of FT. The second section describes the context of the neoliberal market that is absorbing what is innovative of FT. The third and fourth sections discuss the involution processes. The conclusions summarize the principal findings and suggest a path for the re-invention of FT.
1. The novelty of fair trade
From our experience, there are at least two obstacles keeping small producer families from getting out of poverty: the extended family, and their position in the network that mediates their access to markets. The institution of the extended family is a protective network that keeps their members from getting poorer and enables them to survive, but at the same time it keeps them from organizing into other spaces to improve their lives. It is an example of what Woolcock and Narayan (2000:232) have called ‘bonding social capital’: protective social and solidarity networks useful for the survival of poor people, but with the risk of limiting the creation of connections and initiatives that go beyond the close circle with limited opportunities for growth. The latter refers to the mediation network that combines usury, low prices for their products, and cheating on the weighing and the quality control of their products, mediated by relationships of subordination where “the height of poverty is not having anyone to exploit you.” Because in moments of extreme urgency (e.g. illness of some family member) that network provides a certain amount of protection. The institution of the extended family keeps its members from falling into extreme poverty, and at the same time keeps them from getting out of poverty; and the commercial-financial mediation is a mechanism for dispossession combined with palliative help.
the face of both institutions, FT responded with an alternative perspective and path. Figure 1 shows the FT framework: cooperatives, certifiers, social banks and buyers who operate under the FT seal. On the right side is the chain of actors what revolves around coffee, and on the left are the organizations that support that chain. In principle it is social justice and not the power of the market that moves these product chains, actors and social relations. Consequently, first, for the producers to avoid usury and ensure the supply of the product, they receive loans through their cooperatives on the part of social banks and coffee buyers (companies, stores and cooperatives from countries in the North); a good part of that credit is pre-financing worth 50% of the value of the product that they are going to buy at an interest rate of zero.
Box 1. Purposes of FT according to Cafedirect
We reinvest the profits of your purchases in the producers and their communities. This is in addition to the FT premium that we pay the producers. As a minimum we reinvest a third of our profits, and so far we have reinvested more than 50% of our earnings. We believe that the producers are the best ones to decide how these earnings should be invested in their communities, and so since 2009 the development projects have been managed by Cafédirect Producers’ Foundation (CPF), an aid organization led by producers for producers.
Second, to keep the producers from falling into extreme poverty because of the price paid for coffee, and to incentivize sustainable agriculture, FT sets a minimum price of $1.40/lb, provides $0.20/lb as FT-premium, $0.30/lb as organic premium and a quality bonus for an additional amount that varies by buyer. (See Figure 2 for the historic comparative evolution between market prices and FT prices).
The FT premium is tied to a plan that the cooperative establishes (Fairtrade, 2009) where $0.05/lb is for families to improve the productivity of their coffee (FT-FLO, 2011. The organic premium goes directly to the producers.
Third, in order that the product be traceable and trust be built up over long term relationships, there are organizations that certify compliance with agreements and policies; for organic coffee international certifiers do it, for the FT premium and practices FLO CERT does it; the buyers stick to what the certifiers say, and the social banks to their financial analysis procedures and commercial contracts.
Fourth, a direct relationship is established between consumers and producers where the FT earnings the producers themselves manage in their communities, families and farms (see box).
FT, in addition to its economic face, is also social, political, environmental and cultural, as its eleven principles indicate: opportunities for economically disfavored producers, transparency, trade relationships, payment of fair prices and salaries, no child exploitation, gender equity, decent working conditions, skill strengthening, promotion of fair trade, environmental protection, and the preservation and defense of identity.
Here we highlight the combination of trade, finance and production in a transnational structure of north-south counterparts, with a pluralistic framework of principles of equality and equity. This leads to the families organizing, improving their production, their lives and their identity in family and in the community, and cultivating a direct relationship with consumers. FT is a space for transnational learning and social, economic and environmental transformation, with a commitment of the countries of the north to those of the south, and of consumers to producer families.
2. All absorbing market and international aid structure
This novel FT network has become involuted. Here we describe the market and international aid conditions that – in our judgement – have slowly absorbed FT.
2.1 Tendencies in the dictatorship of the market
Stiglitz (2016) reminds us that the restructuring of market policies increased the inequality and slowed the growth of the economy. Milanovic (2016), studying 20 years under neoliberal policies between 1998 and 2008, found that 1% of the population (the plutocrats of the world) and the middle class of emerging economies of Asia were the winners. Neoliberalism presents us a “natural market” without social and institutional roots, while it promotes markets rooted in the interests of international capital with manipulated regulation. In contrast to this myth of the biased market, we understand markets along the lines of Polanyi (2001), as socially and institutionally rooted. The FT movement constituted a type of market rooted in producer families and consumers under the idea that an “alternative” market is possible and necessary to reduce the inequality. How is that market relationship expressed around coffee, the crop which we are using to look into FT?
Considering the formation of the price of coffee in the last 80 yrs, the historical tendency is that the producer families have been losing over time. In the decade of the 1930s, the price to the producer was 33% of the final value of the roasted and ground coffee (Wickizer, 1943), it dropped to 27% in the decade of the 1970s (Clairmonte & Cavanagh, 1988), 15-20% in the decade of the 1990s (Pelupessy, 1999), 10% in 2001 (Mendoza & Bastiaensen, 2002) and 11.67% in 2009 (Mendoza, 2012b); in other words, it went from 33% to 12% in eight decades. The gap between the consumer price and the amount the producer gets has widened; the FT idea that the consumer would pay a higher price to redistribute more to producer families apparently has not happened even within FT itself – producer families do not get more advantages from being part of FT (see Valkilia, 2014; Ranjan, 2017). A second idea of FT was avoiding the intermediary sector to benefit producer families, but it seems that this intermediating sector is the one that has most benefitted, grown and made even more difficult the ideal of communication between producers and consumers. Stiglitz (2002) argued that the problem was not globalization, but its management; 15 years later, Stiglitz (2016) recognizes that its management did not change at all. The case of coffee seems to also be an expression of that reality.
On looking into the increase in the value of coffee, we find that the final product has more and more inputs that have increased its aggregate value. This is part of what is called the “supermarket revolution” managed by the demand side, where the wholesale distributor defines the rules and governs the entire product chain (See Reardon et al, 2007). Consequently, if the market demands a certain type of coffee, all the actors rush to respond with the quantity and quality of the coffee defined by the moment. The market has been demanding differentiated and quality products. Countries like Colombia and Costa Rica have conquered the markets for speciality coffees (e.g. close to 50% of the coffee of Colombia is sold as specialty coffee).
In contrast FT, it seems, grew in volume and not so much in terms of product differentiation. The FT seal, in addition to being expensive, nearly the same as the FT premium (Valkila, 2014), has lost its attraction to consumers; several seals have emerged proclaiming different environmental and social attributes; buyers like Green Mountain and Starbucks have dispensed with the FT seal; other buyers and roasters have opted for the direct trade approach, because in addition to ecological and quality coffee they want the additional price paid to reach the producers, and not be left in the administrative structures of the organizations. Other models have also emerged, be they in response to the market or as alternatives to it; the Starbucks model, revolutionizing the coffee shops of the world with its own seal; the Capeltic coffee shop in Mexico that emerged from an alliance between a cooperative in Chiapas and the Iberoamerican University, connecting consumers with producers (see Colsa, 2013); a cooperative in Panama that organized the coffee chain from production to roasting (see Mendoza, 2017a). These last two break the elite market model and show that the relationship between producers and consumers, a FT ideal from the 1980s and 1990s, can be achieved by another path different from that of FT.
2.2 International aid within FT
In the same period in which market power rooted in elite interests was growing and FT grew in volume, international aid was increasing. Based on the experiences that we know in Central America, we argue that a good part of that aid helped to “inflate” the cooperatives around the demands of the market, and made the arrival of projects be translated, in the eyes of the members, into FT benefits, contributing to the fact that the organizations neglected efficiency and effectiveness, which accelerated the FT involution process.
A good part of investments in dry and wet milling, offices and laboratories were the product of external donations. Generally the technical assistance staff of the cooperatives, many times including the management/administrative areas, were paid by international aid. So the cooperatives, without yet having an economy of scale and the profitability that would have allowed them to have management structures, joined that existing practice of having managers and technicians. That staff, in turn, responded more to those who were paying them, and less and less to the families who were the owners of the cooperatives. These structures, given the boom of projects and fair trade and organic premiums and extra payments, did not have a problem of providing benefits to the members, who believed that those benefits were for being efficient cooperatives and for selling their coffee through FT. In other words, international aid subsidized FT, particularly the growth of the intermediary sector, “inflated” the costs of the certifiers, who charged more because the cooperatives “were receiving donations”, and unloaded tasks of the certifiers onto the technicians of the cooperatives, and contributed to the fact that the cooperatives took on salary structures and investments that were not in accord with their organizational capacity and level of economic growth.
The distorted situation that FT imprinted on the cooperatives became a problem when international aid reduced its donations to Latin America beginning in 2008. Then something of the real world appeared: member families who had not improved the productivity of their farms in spite of years of good coffee prices and international aid projects; empty first tier cooperatives, some not even collecting coffee; cooperative structures with administrative-management staff with high salaries unrelated to the economic capacity of the cooperatives. In other words, while the dictatorship of the market rooted in large capital intensified, the drop in international aid “deflated” the supposed capacity of the cooperatives, they began to feel the problems, some sold their assets, others went broke or resigned themselves to having cooperatives privatized by the new elites, and some re-emerged as efficient organizations responding to their members.
3. Mechanisms that involuted FT
So far we have seen how the force of the market rooted in the elites and the international aid industry gave shape to the FT network and the cooperatives; they subjected it to the demand for undifferentiated products (commodities) turning the cooperatives into simple companies and “ngo-ized” them, making them dependent on external subsidies. In the last 8 years those forces intensified, reducing FT to just its economic part, and so FT divided, its seal lost competitiveness, its product became more standardized, another approach and organization, like direct trade gained ground and another model appeared that was able to link producers and consumers. Meanwhile trade inequality and injustice intensified; just like the global inequality that Milanovic made evident.
Figure 3 summarizes the mechanisms that led the cooperatives to involute, and the FT structure that produces that involution and the glocal (global and local) power that sustains it. As a cooperative takes on each one of the four mechanisms, it is legitimated in its fall by the FT network and is pushed along by the glocal power structures. In this fall, the cooperative gets privatized and governed by ideas commonly known as “neoliberal.”
3.1 Mechanisms that entrap the cooperatives
How do these mechanisms work? Once an organization is trapped by one mechanism, it pushes it on to the next and so on. Many organizations, even when they fall into the third mechanism, can maintain the formality of their organization – meetings of its bodies, minutes and financial statements – while its insides get eroded, but when they fall into the fourth mechanism, the cooperatives end up as privatized entities.
3.1.1 Mediation and the “lottery culture”
When we compare the conventional chain with the FT chain, the price to the producer, in relative terms (% of total aggregate value), is smaller in the FT chain than in the conventional one, even though in absolute terms it varies: sometimes it is a little bit bigger. There are two reasons for this: the consumer price of FT coffee is higher but its distribution through the chain (roasters, buyers, importers, exporters) is relatively detrimental to the producers; the FT premium and the organic premium for coffee get to the members (producers) in an unequal way: some have not gotten anything for many years.
For greater rigor on this data, we triangulated information starting from the members themselves, a process in which we saw the manipulation that is done of the members. In the house of the member we reviewed their receipts where the amount of coffee that was sold was noted, and the prices that their cooperative paid them. We saw that there are cooperatives where the members have not benefitted from initiatives financed by the FT premium, nor have they received the premium for organic coffee for 4 to 6 consecutive years; there are cooperatives where the members have received an organic premium of US$29/qq and even US$15/qq in FT premium in cash and physical investments; and there are cooperatives whose members have received the two premiums between both of those extremes.
Table 1. Intermediation Costs (cyclo 2016/17) (in US$)
1st tier cooperative (exporter)
Successful 2nd tier cooperative
Failed 2nd tier cooperative
Havest collection and processing
Taxes: income and municipal
Source: based on interviews of cooperative managers and administrators.
We saw that the intermediary part of FT has grown. This is where the structure of the cooperatives, certifiers, social banks, roasters, distributors and FLO organizations is found. This structure that has grown would also be limiting producers, consumers, FT cooperatives from having a more fluid relationship. In the national intermediate sector of coffee exporting countries, what is noteworthy is the fact that the difference in costs (exporting, administration, processing, taxes and financial expenses) between the FOB price (export value) and the price paid to the producer is enormous. They go from US$30 up to US$45 from cooperative to cooperative. The tendency seen is paradoxical: if the cooperative is a second tier one and has high volume, the gap is larger; if the cooperative is a first tier one, with less volume and members, the gap tends to be smaller. This is paradoxical, because it should be the reverse, more volume of coffee exported, the smaller the per/qq costs, and therefore the price paid to the producer should be greater.
If the cooperative belongs to its members, why are the fair trade and organic premiums and the profits in many cooperative getting stuck? First, the intermediate sector has grown by the force of the neoliberal market and the predominant type of international aid, as well as because key actors of this intermediate sector manipulate the rules of the entire FT system. Secondly, the FT certification and organic product costs in terms of their fixed amounts as well as the burden of technical work on the cooperatives are considerable. Third, coffee productivity is not increasing, and some cooperatives are trapped by the “lottery culture” mechanism, of storing in the warehouses coffee that was purchased in hopes that the price would rise and thus “win the lottery”, and many times they do not get those expected prices.
When the cooperative loses in a cycle then – as happens in slot machines – they try to “make up for it” in the next cycle; in this process they do not follow the decision making processes of the associative side of the cooperative, as the members lose confidence in their organization and the FT network. These loses, added to the complaints or rumors of the members about what is happening in the cooperative, exasperate the management and some leaders, who see themselves under pressure to consider other options, like the one that follows.
3.1.2 Purchasing coffee from third parties
Before the 2006-07 cycle 100% of the coffee that the cooperatives exported came from its members. In that cycle international coffee prices began to increase, and the entire FT system grew in volume; for example, cooperatives in Nicaragua went from 10% of total exports of the country in 2006-07 to 28% in the 2011-12 cycle, a great increase normally channeled through FT (Mendoza et al, 2012; Mendoza 2012a). Also in that 2006-07 cycle the purchase of third party (non member) coffee began on the part of the cooperatives, under the argument that they needed coffee to fulfill the contracts with the buyers; and it was with the 2011-12 cycle that purchasing coffee from third parties took off, in some cooperatives comprising up to 70% of their total exports.
What is the problem of buying coffee from third parties? Conventional coffee bought from buyers, against whom the cooperatives emerged, is exported as if it were the coffee of the cooperatives. In some cases, that conventional coffee is exported as if it were organic coffee, due to the deficient control on the part of the certifiers, and because of the increasing independence of the business side of the cooperatives which circumvents the associative side of the cooperatives. Given that coffee purchases from third parties (coffee buyers and non member producers) lacks any quality control of that coffee, mixing it with the coffee collected from the members affects the yield (conversion rate of APO coffee to APS coffee), and thus the quality of the coffee of the members. So the cooperatives that most buy third party coffee prioritize their resources for those purchases, which is why the members do not get zero interest loans, some get loans at interest rates of between 12-20%, and the rest do not get any credit at all. The more a cooperative buys coffee from third parties the less it responds to its members.
In a parallel fashion, there has been a drop in the amount of their coffee that the members have been turning in to their cooperatives since the 2006-2007 cycle. In a study of 33 cooperatives in Nicaragua, we found (Mendoza et al., 2011) that only 32% of the coffee production of the members was turned into their cooperatives. In other words, the members sell their products to other markets, and many times end up falling once again into the historic practice of the “sale of future coffee”, an institution that is a producer of poverty (Mendoza et al., 2013). Others show the resistance strategy that the producer families call “for one dirty deed another”, whose logic runs like this: “if they are buying coffee from all over and are passing chemical coffee off as if it were organic coffee, then if I get some money I will put chemicals on my coffee and not say anything;” “I will only sell the cooperative a little, in case it gets some project funds.”
Under this mechanism, the business side of the cooperatives responds less to its members and does not listen to their complaints, because it can buy coffee from third parties with having them demand transparency, reports, loans or technical assistance. For the administrative structures of cooperatives like this, it is cheaper to buy coffee from third parties (without providing credit, technical assistance nor reports), and in addition it allows them to take advantage of the quality of the coffee of the cooperatives for themselves (lower the yield of the members which means paying them less); while the members and their cooperatives are being cleaned out.
3.1.3 Coffee yield in the dry milling process
In the beginning of the 1990s the cooperatives criticized the private owners of the dry mills for cheating them in the weighing (measuring the degree of moisture) and in the quality control of the coffee in the dry mill. In the face of the market demand for better quality coffee, the cooperatives and the FT network understood that the quality of the coffee could be improved, cheating in the weighing could be avoided, being fairer in the yield (from APO to APS), lowering the costs of the dry milling and getting better prices for the coffee. So they invested in the construction of dry mills and laboratories. In the first decade of this century the quality of the coffee in the cooperatives was felt in the country and around the world, as well as the importance of the cooperatives, and with that the importance of the small producer families (Mendoza et al, 2012; Mendoza, 2012a). In the second decade of this century, within the context of the intensification of the control of the market structures, because of the withdrawal of international aid and the damage the coffee rust caused on the plantations, and the fact that the members did not feel that they were being reimbursed for the improvement in their coffee quality, in large numbers they changed from the caturra variety to catimor, a variety that is productive but of low quality. So a good part of the members began to complain again, this time against their cooperatives, about the fact that they were being cheated in the weighing (measurement of degrees of moisture), the measurement of the imperfect coffee and in the determination of the quality of their coffee.
How does this happen? A first dispute is over the weighing: if the scales are calibrated in the different harvest collection centers that a second tier cooperative tends to have, there would be no problems. Nevertheless, in many cooperatives the scales in the harvest collection centers are not calibrated to the central scale in the dry mill, so that is where the complaint comes from that “it weighed so much here, but there (in the mill) they said it weighed something else,” at a loss higher than what tends to be lost in transporting the coffee.
The second dispute is about the moisture content of the coffee, that also has to do with weight – table 2 shows data with pretty fair percentages, above which question would be raised. The institutionalized rule for 6 decades now is that there is nothing intermediate: it is either wet coffee or sun dried. If the coffee is wet, 56% is discounted and if it is sundried or moist 42% is discounted. An experience of a first tier cooperative that exports coffee is revealing: “The coffee from my cooperative has a 49% yield; one day I took 100 lbs of wet coffee and I dried it on the patio of the dry mill until it gave me a reading of 12% moisture content, then I put it through their mill and it gave me a yield of 76%; the manager of the mill did not believe me. I did it in their mill! (Leader of a first tier cooperative). This case is exceptional, it is worthwhile to think about what is in play with the yields (conversion APO to APS). One of the achievements of the cooperatives in the decade of the 1990s was that their members got accustomed to turning in sun dried coffee (42%); while in recent years the complaint is that that sundried at 42% is being considered more and more as if it were wet coffee.
Table 2. Nicaragua: Calculus of coffee yield (lbs)
The dispute is over the procedure for determining those percentages, and particularly on the rule of sun dried or wet. There is a technology called Moisture Determinator that has a screen to measure the moisture in the coffee to be exported, which should have between 10-12% moisture content. But generally that tool is not used in the harvest collection centers, and in some cases where they use it they come back with ranges that respond to “sun-dried” (42% means 0 lbs discounted), “moist” (42.46% which means a discount of 6 lbs) or “wet” (46-56%) which is a discount of 14lbs.
The third dispute is over the percentage of the hulling. Table 2 it appears as 16%, but in many organizations it tends to get up to 18%. The variation depends on the variety (e.g. the hull of catuaí coffee weighs more) and the quality of the coffee, and also on the treatment it is given. Table 3 shows the manipulation of the APO coffee conversion to APS coffee. The accepted conversion ratio is between 2.02 and 2.06 qq APO to 1qq of APS (gross export). Nevertheless, in the last six years that conversion ratio in many cooperatives, and historically in the businesses that own dry mills, has increased from 2.06 to 2.10 and even 2.20, and in some cases higher than 2.30. In the table we see that 100qq APO in a 2.6 ratio is equal to 48.5 qq, and those 100 qq in a ratio of 2.20 ends up being 45.45qq APS, a difference of 3.09qq APS, which at a price of US$160 qq (minimum price+premium) is US$490. A small producer with 1.5 mz of coffee that produces 10 qq APO loses just in the dry milling close to C$14,000 (US$490), much
Table 3. Coffee yield in the dry mill (assumption: 42% moisture content)
Price (U$ 140 + 20)
Ratio of 2.06 to 2.20
(4854.37 – 4545.45)
Source: based on a series of interviews of owners of coffee mills, buyers and supervisors of harvest collection and processing areas.
more than the value of the FT premium itself. If his second tier cooperative exported 50,000 qq at a 2.20 ratio, using 2.06 as a reference point, its members lost 1,544.5 qq (US$247,131).
Table 4. Defect equivalency table
Total defects (equivalents)
Total defects (equivalents)
Full Black beans
Full Sour bean
Severe coffee bore damage
Dry hull or pulp
Light coffee bore damage
A fourth dispute is over the percentage of imperfect coffee (see Table 2, dark columns). In the decade of the 1990s the cooperatives also improved the quality of their coffee, and the members got accustomed to delivering clean coffee, and in times of low prices the coffee buyers demanded quality and the coffees traded by FT became known for their good quality (Valkila and Nygren, 2009). This is where the alarm over reports of high percentages of imperfect or second quality coffee comes from. How does imperfect coffee get calculated? 350 grams of coffee are taken and from that amount the number of defects are identified (see Table 4). Then they are weighed and the percentage of imperfect beans is obtained. For example, 4 primary defects are added up and 3 secondary defects, each one of them is weighed (let´s say 5 black beans = 2 grams, , that 2×100/350 grams = 0.57%); likewise with the other defects. Then the imperfection rates are added up and let´s suppose there is a 2.5% imperfection rate in the sample. That is what is then applied to the total coffee through the simple 3 rule. Strictly Higher Grown coffee is specialty grade coffee with 8-10 defects, among which there can be no primary defects.
Coffee buyers define the limit of defects for the coffee that they acquire: the smaller the percentage of defects, the more the coffee is worth; and if the buyers ask for coffee with less defects, the more the dry mill works in response. The possibility for manipulation in the imperfect coffee consists in the following: “if the buyer asks for 12 defects as a limit for such and such a price, and the managers ask whether they can accept 15 defects, and if the buyer accepts, the managers report the required 12; the difference of three, weighed in grams and expressed as a percentage of exportable coffee is the managers´earnings” (cupper of a dry mill). This happens because there is no control nor supervision on the part of the owners (members) of the dry mill.
Finally, the control over the sieves (size of the beans) and the quality of the cup. There are sieves from sizes 10,11,12…up to 20. Exportable coffee is from size 15 on up. The buyers propose the price of the coffee depending on the size of the sieve. If they want coffee from 17-18 size screen, they pay more than for coffee from 15-16 screen, and if in addition they want coffee that score 85 or higher in quality, the price goes up. The quality of the cup of coffee is calculated on its aroma, acidity, body, flavor and residual flavor, the points are added up and 50 additional points are added (Chemonics International Inc., & Star Cuppers de Centroamérica, 2005). The larger the sieve and the better the cup, the more the coffee is worth, and more work is required to choose the coffee that meets these requirements. The possibility for manipulation consists in that the coffee from the cooperatives has good size and cups well, and therefore would get a good price and require less work, but the members do not know that, so the members are paid as if their coffee did not have such high quality and good size.
If the cooperatives progresses to the point that their members turned in sundried coffee (42% moisture content) and better quality coffee, why did the conversion ratio reach and surpass 2.10 and the rate of imperfections go up? It has to do with the increasing purchase of coffee from third parties – which generally is of lesser quality and has more moisture content – with the manipulations described that respond to the interests of the administrative staff responsible for the negotiation and management within the dry mills, and with the reaction of the members that neglect the moisture content and quality of their coffee under the tactic of “one dirty trick deserves another.”
3.1.4 “NY price + 10”
Some cooperatives that have been trapped by the mechanisms described above end up going broke, others survive because the management structure accepts proposals from some export companies without their members knowing about them: “NY price + 10”. In this case the export company proposes exporting their coffee (the coffee of the company) under the name of the cooperative, which means using the export license and FT certificate of the cooperative. For that operation the cooperative receives US$10/qq for the FT premium, and the company gets the NY price + US$10/qq of the premium. If the transactions are for 20,000qq, for example, the cooperative, without having collected coffee, “only providing their documentation”, earns US$200,000, like the private company. If the cooperative has organic certification, an additional $15/qq is added on.
These transactions, that according to our sources are increasing year by year, generally are done by the management structure of the company and that of the cooperative. In most cases, given the confidentiality of those transactions and the huge gap between the management structure and the members, there are enormous personal earnings at the cost of the cooperative and the FT system. This reveals two governance structures, that of the companies with their managers, where they have control mechanisms under the oversight of their “operational owners”, and that of the cooperatives with their management structure, where the control mechanisms on the part of their “owner-members” (members through their bodies) are deficient. This phase means that the cooperatives have gotten to the extreme of being practically privatized, even though they present themselves as cooperatives.
Summarizing, the payments get stuck (FT premium, organic coffee premium, quality differential, cooperative premium, additional payment or adjustment), there are losses through weighing and moisture content, the purchase of third party coffee to the detriment of the entire FT chain, manipulations around the percentage of imperfect coffee and the quality of the coffee, and renting out the FT seal and the organic coffee certificates to private companies. This shows the dominance of disastrous mechanisms and the absence of cooperative control mechanisms from its associative side, which leads to the business side of the cooperatives privatizing the cooperatives.
3.2 Institutionality that facilitates the fall of the cooperatives into the disastrous mechanisms
It would be difficult for a cooperative to fall into these mechanisms if the FT system, in addition to the role of the members and the bodies of the cooperatives, were fulfilling their functions rigorously, transparently and in accordance with the objectives of FT. How does the FT system facilitate the cooperatives falling into these mechanisms? We note down four modalities: the primacy of formality and form, the idea of the cooperative as an economic individual, the depoliticized perspective of organizations, and the modern asymmetrical relationship of infidelity.
3.2.1 Formality and form
Formality refers to the requirements to be met to access credit or a specific certification. Form is the way in which an organization operates. Certification and the analysis of the cooperatives tends to be reduced to the formality of aspects prepared by the management structure of the cooperatives, mediated by a relationship of trial-exam. This includes signed minutes of the monthly meetings of the administrative council, records of activities on organic farms, organic certification forms, the legal documentation of the cooperatives, financial statements and data on production areas and volumes.
For example, the record of information on each organic farm is not analyzed by the certifying organizations nor by the cooperative, it is just a formal requirement; likewise the data format on each member and their farm kept by the cooperative. Formality indicates that the organizations are the ones that request the inspection of the organic certifiers, so they make the request at the end of the harvest, when they are now ready to export, which conditions the certifier to have to stick to the formality of reviewing the product in the context of the dry mill, and have to rely on the data received. The certifiers are not accustomed to corroborating the origin of the coffee noted in the report prepared by the administrative staff of the cooperatives, according to which X quantity of coffee is from such and such a cooperative and from such and such a member.
The financial statements and the audits are difficult for the members to learn about; even if the members would hear about the report, they are left overwhelmed by the sea of numbers. The audits are a simple formality to say that everything is going well and that “you should correct these receipts and add up those items in X table.” It is thought that that financial report is for the bank or any aid agency. The same thing happens with the information on yields, quality and prices paid.
Added to this formality is the way aid organizations operate, mediated by an asymmetrical relationship between the person giving the test and the one being tested, which makes the administrative staff of a cooperative cultivate the logic of complying with what the aid agencies ask for, and makes the aid agencies cultivate the logic of being like a judge who issues rulings (approves, punishes, suspends and cancels certifications, approves or rejects loans). This same relationship happens when the organizations visit a member to “verify”; in the face of this, the member prepares to “pass the test”, in other words, sticks to the orientation of the technical/administrative staff. In other words, the conditions of the formality and form create a favorable atmosphere for the administrative staff to de facto govern the cooperatives.
This modus operandi of the organizations is mediated by market relationships. Some organic coffee certifiers charge by volume of organic coffee exported and/or by the producer size, which incentivizes the certifiers to work with organizations that have more volume and that have producers that produce larger volumes, which in turn conditions them to comply only with the formality, not “going to the countryside”, because that would require more time, and in addition any attempt to investigate more about where the coffee came from could lead the cooperative (the management structure of the business side of the cooperative) to prefer to hire another less demanding certifier, which would be a reduction in the income of the certifier.
How did things get to this point? FT emerged as a movement. Still in the decade of the 1990s the cooperatives in Central America felt proud to be exporters and cooperative members. They would receive visits from FT organizations in an environment of social commitment and learning under the spirit of being an alternative path. This process of FT became professionalized. Certifiers drew up their procedures, controls and ways of working, while the cooperatives turned into businesses that would sell coffee and NGOs that would execute projects turning in reports to the agencies. Slowly alongside that the movement nature disappeared, which at one time emphasized personalized relationships.
These institutionalized practices limited the FT organizations from detecting when conventional coffee from third parties was passed off as organic coffee and as if it were a product of the cooperative, because their way of verification ended with the table of information prepared by the administrative staff themselves, and because their own interest was reduced to the financial return. They did not detect when the minutes to the non-existent meetings were fabricated; and if they fulfilled their role, the person signing the notes would say that he/she were in the meeting, because that person takes on the attitude of someone passing a test, saying what the organizations want to hear. Even though they might know that there are leaders that are in those posts forever, outside organizations stick to the legal documents that provide evidence that the leaders were just named to their posts. So in the organic coffee certification, it does not matter whether the product is organic or not, what matters is fulfilling the formality; the buyers are content to receive the “certification”. The entire chain operates this way.
3.2.2 Perception of associative organizations as homogenous entities
This institutionalization and professionalization entails two ideas. The idea of homo economicus, a rational individual who maximizes his/her earnings and erodes the “alternative” procedural and movement character, moved by the idea of homo reciprocans, the idea of human beings who seek collaboration. We distinguish between “individual interests” where the interests of certain individuals prevail, and that of the cooperative, where the individual interests of its members would have to prevail – which is coherent with that Sen advocates for in “ethical individualism” and not “methodological individualism” (see Bastiaensen et al 2015). The problem is that the organizations that form part of the FT system perceive the cooperatives as if they were something homogeneous, as if the cooperative was an expression of only the business side, only in the figure of the manager, and as if the cooperative was just something economic. So they deal with the manager believing that with that they are automatically contributing to the cooperative.
If the perception is that a cooperative is like an individual, the formality and form developed by the organizations to certify and make decisions on loans and purchases end up being optimal. If it is an “individual” before an organization, it assumes that it only has to be based on the formality, and stick to its form; if all the information is centralized, this type of relationship is reinforced. On making a cooperative equivalent to the management, outside organizations legitimize their permanence in that post, while at the same time getting around the entire organizational apparatus that cooperativism entails.
In light of this perspective, that individual is not obstructing the functioning of the organs and rules of the cooperative. On the contrary, that person is a hero who is sacrificing for the cooperative, something that the managers themselves end up believing: “Without me, the cooperative would go broke in a matter of months.” And if the cooperative buys coffee from third parties and becomes a type of intermediary, and if those practices are questioned by the members, the first to defend the decisions of the leadership of the business part of the cooperative tend to be the actors of the FT apparatus: “it is to fulfill the contracts and benefit the cooperative.”
3.2.3 The assumption of de-politization
If institutionalization (and professionalization) killed the movement nature of FT, and the idea of homo economicus made the alternative perspective of FT disappear, the third element of organizations is their conception of the cooperatives – and all the FT network organizations – as depoliticized organizations where the political is reduced to administrative procedures. Under this idea, the asymmetries and the injustice that we have described in the FT chain are left invisible, concealed a formality, e.g. to confirm that the organic coffee from a cooperative is really organic a lab test is required that costs US$300 according to the certifiers, something that could be part of the formality, but it is something that the certifiers do not tend to do, “because that test the cooperative itself would have to pay for, and the cooperative does not want to do that.” Does it sound reasonable that a certifier would pay US$300 when it earns $3,000, 10,000 or 20,000? Our hypothesis is that the certifiers that were founded to ensure that the organic products were organic, end up being prisoners of the idea that business is business. The same thing happened with the banks and coffee roasters and buyers.
The cooperative is seen as only economic – also by critics of FT like Griffiths (2012) who sees the political as something that disrupts the economy. The actors of the chain appear to be focused on the business of producing, processing and selling coffee and on credit services. This is consistent with the conventional approach of the economy, of increasing production by just adding inputs, a slogan that is also repeated by the producers who think that with credit (or more projects) they could improve their production Trapped in this perspective, the prominence of the management and administrative and technical staff increases. This separation of the economic from the political and social, like the separation of the visible (input and output) from the invisible (power relationships, human capacities) makes the focus of the role of any committee to be economic. It is not perceived that the lack of committee functioning, the mutual “lack of oversight” and the formality of the general assembly are expressions of political decisions. The marginal role of the leaders linked to the associative side (the social aspect), and the role of the administrative/technical staff linked to the economic aspect, is the result of that separation and negation of the political aspect in their own actions, which precisely is an expression of the political aspect, concealed by the administrative aspect.
3.2.4 Modern infidelity
The logic of “the justice of the market” is imposed. The social banking sector is built on the purpose of generating earnings; so, if before they worked only with the cooperatives, now they also work with private enterprises. In the case of FLO, their excision can be seen also as an expression of a double standard: it emerged to work only with small producers, now FLO divided into its FT-USA expression also works with large coffee plantations (large business owners), in the face of (or against) precisely those from whom FT emerged. Among the buyers, for example, Green Mountain established itself in good measure within the FT brand, and now can do without the FT seal to dedicate themselves to generating profits, because the FT seal has lost weight in terms of consumer demand – “Business is business.” So the FT seal, which was a means for the small producers to sell their production, was turned into a means for large companies to expand their markets.
This disloyal practice toward those “from below” is reproduced along the chain. “From above” the idea is that those “from below” should be loyal, without protesting and leaving, integrated into the logic of the market; if a cooperative has difficulties in honoring its debts with the social banks, the buyers are in solidarity with the social banks; if the certifiers or social banks certify or provide credit to a cooperative without investigating the organizational functioning of the cooperative, or without verifying if the organic coffee really is organic, no one complains, no one sees that those actions are damaging for the cooperative: there is no loyalty to the producers families, the members of the cooperatives.
3.3 Power structures and the hollowing out of the cooperatives
Cooperatives would not fall into these mechanisms if their members really acted as members, if their organs really functioned, and if their staff and organs responded to the principles of cooperativism. The involution of FT also happens due to the action of a small elite who, behind the backs of the cooperatives and the FT system, have been taking over the cooperatives and FT.
Seen from the region, the second tier cooperatives concentrate investments thanks in good part to the premiums, quality differentials, cooperative premiums and profits. They are the door to certifications, banks, markets and FT organizations; to information and external relations; and they are the ones who have what the organizations want: reports, records, meeting minutes, information. Seen from the perspective of the entire FT chain, an iron circle exists among the second tier cooperative, the buyers, certifiers, and social banking sectors.
Historically the patron and the foreman used to live in the same area as the peasants; that proximity created more vertical control (from patron to the foreman, and from the foreman to the peasant) and kept the peasant families from taking advantage, like paying with less product or working less than planned. The patron kept control over the foreman through informal rules and through the knowledge of what was happening in the terrain; thus he was able to keep the foreman from taking advantage in his favor. Since the decade of the 1980s this structure became globalized: in FT the equivalent of the foreman is the administrative structure. They manipulate the chain because the “new patron” of FT is geographically far away, and because the chain is infested with formalities and does not know the local reality. A constant in the new structure has been the fact that the peasants (members of the cooperatives) continue to be excluded from this structure, and at the same time reproduce this structure.
This structure is a historical institutionality of patron client relations which says: “the peasant has no right to ask for information; the patron is the owner and it is his right to not share information.” The FT structure intensifies this institutionality: to the eyes of the member families, the management structure, and behind that structure the FT organizations, appear to be the patrons that have the right to not provide information. And in the light of these patrons, the members appear to be ignorant or incapable of improving the quality and productivity of their coffee.
This reminds us that historically peasant families have lacked strategic allies. Organizations have come in to use them: some came to form communal banks and ended up creating their own banks and financing large producers who have been dispossessing small producers of their resources. Other organizations arrived to sell products with the peasant families, and then consolidated that intermediation, left the peasant families as providers of products. And others came in to swell the rants of guerrillas and soldiers, who, after toppling dictators, left them abandoned to their own fate.
Under these conditions the first tier cooperative were not able to have an influence on the second tier cooperatives. If they tried, they faced a wall: “FT and the social banks say that you cannot replace me, because my signature is on the contracts”; if there a manager who is a favorite of FT is changed, they say, “if you change the manager, we are not going to buy your coffee” – FT “encourages the buyers to commit for the long term, which tends to prioritize the role of the technical staff, because they stay longer than the elected leaders” (Taylor et al, 2005: 203). If committed scholars seek information from the FT organizations, the response is, “we only provide information to the cooperatives” – understood as the small group that manipulates the mechanisms and keeps the leaders and members from knowing the financial and commercial reports.
This type of transnational collusion is what has emptied most of the first tier agricultural cooperatives of their content. Most of them no longer provide savings and loan services, some are not even collectors of the coffee harvest. Their boards do not meet monthly, even though “minutes” of monthly meetings do appear. Their members do not know what decisions are made in their cooperatives. The notion has become internalized that the motivation for being a member of a cooperative is only financial and that you have to depend on the patron to receive favors (loans, projects).
The FT movement and cooperativism are public goods of humanity and their role should be contributing to equity and democracy in our societies. Both emerged as alternative movements, but slowly have tended to be an expression of the “iron law of oligarchy” (Michels, 1915). The difficulty then was mediation as a producer of inequality, and the challenge has been doing away with usury and accessing markets through a transnational alliance. Nevertheless, if we calculate the injustice through costs, weighing, dry mill yields, not getting premiums for fair trade, organic, nor quality, donated projects… The large amount of producer families who are impoverished does not surprise us, nor the small amount of families who get out of poverty. The system of injustice is like a spider´s web, it traps the weakest and leaves them at the mercy of the large spider of capitalism. The paradox is that this FT structure would be reinforcing that mediation that dispossesses the peasant families of their cooperatives and worsening the inequality.
Taylor et al (200) identified the problem of FT in its governance structure, tensions between the democratically elected bodies with leadership rotation, and the continuity of the technical staff in the organizations, and therefore suggest monitoring and auditing from FT. Valkila (200) argues, in the case of organic coffee, that the most marginalized producers with low productivity are trapped in poverty under the organic FT system. In this article we follow the direction of Taylor et al (2005) about governance in the FT structure, which in the last 7 years has become a challenge; we coincide with the findings of Valkila (2009) and we believe that it is explained in the whole FT network. So we find that FT is an expression of an organizational problem in the whole FT network, a governance structure absorbed by the conventional market. Within this framework quality coffee and organic coffee do not receive differentiated prices for the producer families, nor do they make a difference in terms of the unjust conventional market, the benefits of FT have been captured by glocal mediation, and that FT structure tends to worsen the most despotic power relations of rural society.
How has this happened? A small group has been becoming aware of FT and has been capable of manipulating it to their own benefit. From the member, to the president, manager, inspector, sellers of coffee, up to the consumer of coffee, all act in good will. It is the system expressed in mechanisms that make the inequality and poverty worse, and that institutionality is embedded in informal rules that respond to a social order of exclusion and controls tons of formal rules. That institutionality operates in accordance with the ideas of the “rational individual”, fordism, the hacienda and has a hierarchical organizational character, from which they reduce the political to an administrative formality, make the business side wipe out the associative side in the cooperatives, and erase the “fair” in FT. This system for two decades now has been globalized, capable of producing an involution of FT. When that system operates, it is an expression of the saying: “in open treasure, even the just sin.” Under these conditions, whatever model, even direct-trade which has emerged in recent years is – and will be – absorbed.
Why recover fair trade? We are coming to understand the problems and the consequences of FT and commercial mediation. We are living a phase of scarcity of external resources that makes it difficult to continue covering the injustices in FT, and makes the members ask about the FT and organic premiums, the premium for quality coffee, the weighing, APO-APS conversion rates, the cost of certification… Consumers are also beginning to ask. The involution of FT can be a “door” that closes, and at the same time it can be a “window” that opens.
Why rescue fair trade? The more differentiated a product is, the more the cooperative movement is needed (with transparency and effective bodies) and the whole FT network (with transparency, combining institutionality and movement, results and processes) and the more families can improve their lives (generating more income, learning more, cooperating more and contributing more to their cooperative). The more democratic the FT network is, the more possibilities there are for transforming rural societies, reducing poverty and inequality.
How can FT be rescued? Donovan et al (2017), using the value chain approach, and interviews of leaders in the coffee, vegetable and milk chains, suggests that this approach be broadly applied for greater collaboration among the actors outside and inside the chain. Nelson (2017), summarizing studies on the impact of FT, states that FT needs “to learn about its effectiveness in different contexts and places of the value chain to find ways of responding in a flexible way and adapted to local conditions and their assumptions.” Meyer (2017), studying community banks in Brazil, conceives them as community social enterprises that create and govern the commons as response to the deficiencies of market and state institutions, from where we could understand the FT chain as a chain of community social enterprises.
Based on these authors and taking more concrete steps, we talk about two modalities, and within this framework we list some changes. First, attracting groups of people that would build connections between rural society and the FT system, making the first tier cooperatives really be cooperatives. Mendoza (2016), studying the contribution of cooperatives to peace in Central America, found that there were hundreds of religious and lay people between 1950 and 1980 who, inspired by the changes happening in the church back then, connected with rural societies and built bridges between a good part of that society and organizations in favor of change. Observing that a good part of that rural society, expelled to the highest mountains of Central America, currently has the better quality coffee in the region, it is important that groups of people like those religious and lay people mentioned above return to the countryside, this time to decisively contribute to the reinvention of FT. This is possible if we build connections with the movement side of the Church that is now starting to open up, and with universities so that the students might be trained with a missionary sense to build those bridges – between the FT system and that part of rural society that historically has been destitute.
Secondly, building bridges with immersions organized in the south and in the north (Mendoza, 2015). So that the generation of professionals that work in the FT system, who did not live the experience of the first generation in dealing with unfair trade and families that organized into cooperatives, might have immersion opportunities (living three weeks with member families) to become aware of the reality. Immersion does not automatically awaken awareness, but it does provide the conditions for it to happen. Or, just as religious mediation made it possible for the religious to leave their chapels and look for God among the poorest, thus transforming religious mediation itself, so also the mediation of FT can make it possible for its members to seek and build justice among the poorest, actions through which they might transform FT mediation itself.
Under these two practices we list some possible changes. That the members turn in more than 32% of their production to the cooperatives: 40, 60% or more. That the certifiers, buyers, social banks and cooperatives might put their audits, data on organic certification, sale prices as stipulated in the contracts, costs of processing the coffee, yields in the dry mill (degree of moisture, hullingm imperfect coffee and quality of the cup), amounts of loans made to clients on a webpage. That the first tier cooperatives might develop savings and loan services, increase their own equity, be responsible for collecting the coffee harvest and measuring its moisture content with appropriate technology and decide on 100% of the use of the FT and organic premiums. That rotation of leaders and managers in their posts be a reality. That the second tier cooperatives specialize in coffee processing to the extent that their income and costs allow them. That the FT and organic certification be done directly with the first tier cooperatives.
With this model, producers will recover trust and improve the quality of their coffee, and consumers will appreciate drinking quality and organic coffee, knowing that they are contributing to peasant families and the mitigation of climate change. Corruption will be limited. The dignity and importance that managers, technicians and cooperative leaders have will be recovered. The social banks will recover their loans with less cost.
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 Collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (US) and associate researcher of the Institute for Development Policies and Management (IOB) and member of the COSERPROSS RL Cooperative.
 Professor of the Institute for Development Policies and Management (IOB), University of Antwerp, Belgium and associate researcher of the Nitlapan Institute, Central American University (UCA), Nicaragua.
 Multatuli (pseudonym of the Dutch novelist and ex colonial administrator, Eduard Douwes Dekker) wrote a novel in 1860 with that title (Max Havelaar) where the protagonist with that name resigns from his position as colonial administrator in Java (Indonesia) over colonial abuse, forcing the producers to plant coffee and sugar cane instead of basic products, and imposing a tax system on them that produced famine. The book created awareness about the fact that the wealth that was enjoyed in Europe was the product of the suffering of the population in other parts of the world. This in turn gave rise to an ethical policy that consisted in returning that wealth, by educating some native groups loyal to the colonial government.
 We have followed the issue of coffee since desde 1996 (see: Mendoza 1996, 2003, 2012a and 2012b; Mendoza & Bastiaensen, 2002).
 If the calculation was done on a cup of coffee, the producers get relatively less than 1%. This is due in good measure to the costs of the other ingredients and processes involved in getting a cup of coffee in coffee shops
 Subsidies covering costs of organizations is a generalized practice in Latin America: See the Ceibo case in Bolivia (Bebbington, et al 1996) and that of Soppexcca in Nicaragua (Donovan & Poole, 2017).
 Hirschman (1970) proposes the concept of exit, voice and loyalty. If there is a possibility or protesting (having a voice) there is a possibility of loyalty and the risks of abandoning the organization can be reduced.