Category Archives: Reconciliation

Losing the Language

I haven’t been back to Nicaragua since last February.  Circumstances there just haven’t warranted a trip.  Ten months seems like a long time when I look at the calendar, but it’s more like a lifetime when I consider how much Spanish language ability I’ve lost during that time.  (It’s loss that I could ill afford; I have referenced my Spanish language frustrations here in past entries.)  It’s true what they say: if you don’t use it, you lose it.   Over the years, I struggled  to understand everything that was being said in conversations taking place around me; now I seem to be pretty well lost.  The loss of ability to converse, to understand, to explain, to empathize, is a disappointing loss of hope on my part to ever be able to speak with Nicaraguans in their own language.

It strikes me that I may not be the only one.

The U.S. government finds itself in shutdown mode once more.  This particular episode seems destined to be of longer duration than the 3- day closing earlier this year or the 16 days experienced in 2013, with the President alternatively claiming “the mantle of responsibility” for himself and blaming Democrats for obstructionism.  The Democrats in return have folded their arms and claimed “no money for a wall.”  On this, the ninth day of the current closure, the sides are not speaking.  They seem to have lost their ability to speak with one another in a common language of compromise.  (Something that members of government are charged with doing, by the way.)

Meanwhile, as I bemoan the shrinking opportunity for me to hear and understand  Nicaraguans, it’s clear that Nicaraguans are suffering from a similar sort of loss.   Theirs is not the loss of words- there have been plenty from both sides of the current impasse- but rather the loss of peace, security, and, in some cases, livelihoods.  In a country which already faces immense difficulties of poverty, natural disasters, economic limitations and a history of international intrusions, the loss of meaningful national dialogue is nothing short of tragedy.  It’s as though the two sides are speaking different languages.

To complicate matters, we live in an age of technology-centered communication, one which seductively encourages the impersonal use of digits in lieu of voices.  Tweets attempt to tell us what to believe as true.  E-mails provide shelter to type things we might never consider saying in person.   Social media permits the replication and amplification of sometimes false or misleading information.  We are told that the digital age should be an assist to language and communications everywhere, yet the modern-day record tells a different story of alienation, mistrust and a growing distance between ourselves and “others,” in locales all over the world.

As a result, perhaps truth and understanding have become qualities that we can only know for personally.  Maybe I can come to know Nicaraguan partners only on the basis of shared conversation, face-to-face, Spanish-to-Spanish (if I ever get good enough).  Perhaps in this country, the tweets of a compulsive prevaricator have to be disregarded and we must  access ideas of substance  from more reliable sources.  And the claims of either an autocrat or a protestor  require affirmation by sources we know and trust and with whom we have spoken.  In short, what we know to be true has to come from  discourse and discernment through common language  If our words have no meaning, then they are no more than empty sounds.

The quality of my Spanish non-fluency diminishes even further with lack of use.  Likewise, the quality of our language- our ability to communicate effectively with fellow human beings- diminishes when not exercised regularly.  Contrary to some modernists, language does matter, whether it’s the diction, the context or the grammar that make up our best efforts to let another human being know our truth.

It’s a new year.  In what is surely a great irony, I pray for the opportunity to return to Nicaragua and to display my utter lack of Spanish language skills. It may be painful but it places me face-to-face with others who also deeply wish to share what they have to teach, what they know as their reality.  Here in the U.S., I hope that the men and women entrusted with bipartisan and compromise governance of our country belatedly recognize the damage that their lack of common language is doing to this nation.  In Nicaragua, I long for a peaceful resolution to the tensions which have ripped apart that country in ways too terrible to imagine even a year ago.

In every case, hope for healing begins in the expression and meaning of our words, and whether they are shared with  any measure of both honesty and compassion….







Can Bishops Avoid A Stalemate?

In the game of chess that is being lived out within Nicaragua right now, the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church has been visible and active as a mediator between the demonstrators and President Daniel Ortega.  That role has persisted this week, even as the violence continues and, with time, both sides seem to have become even more intractable.

The country at large has become less navigable as increasing numbers of roadblocks have cut off nearly all travel, even through the most roundabout means.  (You can see the map of blockades as of June 7 here.)  Aside from the inconvenience created within a country where travel between points A and B is already a challenge, the roadblocks hinder the delivery of harvests to markets.  That’s a significant economic threat to rural producers and to commerce in general.  Of course, if the harvests cannot be sold at market, borrowers will face defaults on loans they may have taken to plant and grow the crop.  Default with an organization like WPF may result in a renovation of terms; default with a commercial lender may result in the loss of property or other pledged assets, the country-in-crisis notwithstanding.  So any thoughts about the demonstrations and disruptions being limited in impact to Managua or the universities are simply incorrect: this is a dangerous national matter.

The Bishops have sought to be intermediaries, to neutralize the rhetoric and to seek common ground as a starting point for discussion and resolution.  But that has proven to be far more difficult than simply occupying a referee’s chair.  The initial national dialogue which has sought traction under their guidance featured an angry interruption of Daniel Ortega’s opening comments by student leaders.  Mr. Ortega himself has been absent from subsequent efforts at dialogue.  The violence around the country has continued and grieving is once again a national pastime.

Most recently, the Bishops have sought to meet with President Ortega to formally make request on the most pressing matters fueling the demonstrations, as follows:

We the Bishops of the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua, as mediators and witnesses to the National Dialogue, inform the Nicaraguan people that after listening to several sectors of national and international society, we are asking the President of the Republic of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega Savaadrea, for a meeting to deal with the issues so indispensable and essential for our country, concerning justice and democracy, on which peace always depends,  with the purpose of assessing in the plenary session of the Dialogue the helpfulness of carrying it forward.

This meeting has been accepted by the President, it will be tomorrow Thursday June 7 at 3:00pm in la Casa de los Pueblos.

After that meeting, we will be reporting to the national and international community about the dialogue. For that reason we are inviting the press to a conference at 7:00pm on that same day in the Our Lady of Fatima seminary.

We ask our faithful to intensify their prayers for the success of that conversation.

In our office, Wednesday June 6, 2018, Year of the Lord.


The meeting was held, and a second communique from the Bishops was issued yesterday:

We the Bishops of the Bishop´s Conference of Nicaragua communicate to the Nicaraguan people, that we have finished our conversation with the President of the Republic.

We have done it as pastors of the people of God who have entrusted this to us seeking new horizons for our Country.

The dialogue with the President happened in an environment of serenity, frankness and sincerity, where we set out to the President the pain and anguish of the people in the face of the violence suffered in recent weeks, and the agenda agreed upon in the Plenary of the National Dialogue on the democratization of the country.

We have handed him the proposal that brings together the sentiments of many sectors of Nicaraguan society, and expresses the longing of the immense majority of the population. We are awaiting his response in writing as soon as possible.

Once the President of the Republic has responded to us formally, we will call for a meeting of the Plenary of the National Dialogue to assess that response and therefore the feasibility of continuing the National Dialogue.

In the Seminary of Our Lady of Fatima, on the 7th day of June of 2018, Year of the Lord.

[Bishops signatures follow]

What the Bishops have succeeded in doing is to have tried again to formally focus the issues requiring address.  Amidst the chaos and the shouting and the allegations and realties of the past weeks, at some point the process of address must begin.  The Bishops have presented the President with the issues and an opportunity.   The chessboard presents a lot of moves by both sides.  The Bishops hope not to be used as mere pawns….

The construction of a just peace in Colombia

The construction of a just peace in Colombia

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

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

M. Gandhi

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.[2]

1.     Introduction

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[3]; 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[4], “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[5]). 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)[6], 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,[7] 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[8]), 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.[9]

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[10]. 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.[11] 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[12].

Table 1. Comparison of number of APUs and land used by range of size
1960 2014
<5 66.7 5.4 70.5 2.7
5 to 20 20.4 11.9 18 5.3
20 to 50 6.7 12.4 6.2 5.8
50 to 200 4.7 24.2 4 11
200 to 500 1 16.9 0.8 6.9
>500 0.4 29.2 0.5 68.2
100 100 100 100
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)[13]; politically, it is fragile democracy because of its liberal institutions where the connection between arms and politics prevails (Gutiérrez, 2014)[14]. 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,[15] and which the agrarian scholar Machado (2009:54[16], 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[17] 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[18] 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[19] and candidates to be excluded from external benefits and to be part of those leaders physically assassinated[20] 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[21]; 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[22].” 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[23]. With a logic of learning, the cooperative is organized when its members wake up in the face of an adversity,[24] 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[25], 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[26]. 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)[27] 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.

6.     Conclusions

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[28]. 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).

[1] René has a PhD in development studies, is an associate researcher for IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium), a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation ( and member of the COSERPROSS RL. Cooperative.

[2] 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.

[3] 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:

[4] Stiglitz, J., 2017, “Challenges    and       Opportunities      for         Colombia’s        Social    Justice   and Economy”, power point presentation, see: I am grateful to A. Grigsby for suggesting this text.

[5] 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.

[6] Escobar, A., 2012, “Alternatives to development”, in: Transition Culture. Dave Chapman´s interview of Escobar, See:

[7] It is thought that neoextractivism is generally the case of Bolivia and Ecuador, but more and more used in several Latin American countries.

[8] Gudynas, E. y Acosta, A., 2011, “El buen vivir o la disolución de la idea del progreso” in Rojas, M. (Coord.), La Medición del Progreso y del Bienestar. México: Foro Consultivo Científico y Técnico, in:

[9] 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. It is a duality that model 2 would seek to connect to one another.

[10] The 12 essays of the Historical Commission of the Conflict are in:

[11] 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.

[12] For a more detailed study of the Agricultural Census in Colombia, see: Oxfam International, 2017, Radiografía de la Desigualdad.

[13] See Oxfam International in Colombia:

[14] Gutiérrez, F., 2014, “¿una historia simple?” en los 12 ensayos de la Comisión Histórica del Conflicto y sus Víctimas.

[15] Wolf, E., 1982, Europe and the People Without History. University of California Press.

[16] Machado, A., 2009, La reforma rural, una deuda social y política. See also UNDP, 2011, Colombia Rural, razones para la esperanza. Informe Nacional de Desarrollo Humano 2011,

[17] 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.

[18] 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?

[19] 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.

[20] See the newspaper el Tiempo (17-Octubre-2017), “Líderes asesinados, la mayoría en zonas claves para la paz”:

[21] 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”.

[22] Interview of John Paul Lederach, “La paz lo construye cada Colombiano”, El Espectador, June 8 2016. See:

[23] 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”.

[24] 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.

[25] 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, 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.

[26] 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.

[27] Anderson et al, 2012, Time to Listen: hearing people on the receiving end of international aid.

[28] 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.

Cooperativism, a means for an arduous peace in a space of ‘conflict’

Cooperativism, a means for an arduous peace in a space of ‘conflict

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

War is the continuation of politics by other means.  Clausewitz (1780-1831)

My husband and son were killed in the war. I was left with a little bit of land. The cooperative was like my husband. I supported myself in it to raise my children. E. Terceros, producer, cooperative member, Nicaragua.

The stronger the sons and daughters are, the stronger the parents will be. Proverb in Rural Central America

War and peace are the continuation of politics by other means, we would say, hoping that Clausewitz would agree with the addition “and peace”. Countries with wars that sign peace agreements experience a period that De Sousa (2015) called “post peace accords.” It is a period of the continuation of conflict where different development paths clash with one another, and where associative organizations are an expression of that, and have the potential to make a difference. Under what conditions do associative organizations contribute to peace? What alliances are needed to make a difference? This text responds to both questions from the reality of war and peace that Central America experienced over the last 50 years.

[pull down full article here]

[1] The author has a PhD in development studies, is an associate researcher of IOB-University of Amtwerp (Belgium) and a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation ( and member of the COSERPROSS Cooperative R.L. This article, for now a draft, will be the basis for our presentation in the Peace Prize Forum to be held in Minnesota (September 2017).



Except For…

We’re finally into flat-out, full-bore, blossom-laden Spring in my part of the world!  We haven’t had any freezing temperatures for weeks now, the sun is high enough to quickly warm even the coolest mornings and every living thing is in motion.  I took a long run along the river over the weekend, just to listen and smell and hear the magnificence of Spring in northeastern Iowa.

The water is flowing freely right now, the beneficiary of snow melt and early rains.  The water is clear at the moment- no chemicals in the mix as yet-and not yet affected by the farm field runoff which still carries too much valuable soil and nutrient to the south.  The bubbling rapids are pristine and there is joy in the sight and sound of them; clean water is not only an essential, but a wonder for which to be grateful.  I am delighted by its language, except for the realization that its abundance is shrinking everywhere in the world.

Already, fields have been plowed and crops are being planted for a hoped-for bounty by Fall.  All around the area, the smell of lilac and pine are at their intoxicating peaks, crabapple and black locust permeate entire neighborhoods.  The essence is nearly transformative, lifting me on my run.  I am saturated with gratitude at the sweet scents of the earth, except for my memory of the smells of urban decay, both in the U.S. and abroad, which can quickly overpower the natural beauty of a Spring day.

I encountered five other runners and walkers on this day, each showing elation at the emergence from hibernation with smiles and greetings.  We are all in moments of leisure, blessed in a communion with the beauty of a Spring idyll.  I am glad, not only for myself, but for the experiences of my fellows, except for a sadness that so many others may never know this kind of moment.  Maybe their days will be filled with other joys, but I selfishly want them to feel this moment the way that I do.

I am amazed at my running.  For fifty years I have traversed wilderness and  street, winter freeze and summer swelters, from the Superior Trail to Budapest, Managua to Kyongju.  I have run for my own good, for a sense of accomplishment, to be healthy, and to spark creativity.  I’ve been blessed with good knees and strength, and I recognize every day what such activities have meant to my well-being.  And I find myself full of joy, except for the nagging realization that elsewhere, people conserve their energies for more practical tasks, such as survival.  The thought most often slows me down, even if my step remains light.  Wherever the journey leads, the contrasts are the same.

“Whether you are writing about anger, love, jealousy, desire, hate, it does not make a great difference whether you use a plowed field or a city alley, a garbage can or a rural dump, a city park or Quabbin Watershed Wilderness Area.  The great central human considerations may be found everywhere.”                                                                             -Joseph Langland, Poet

So I run on, in a delicate balance between the sublime and the disquiet, knowing that what I hear is not always heard, what I feel is not always felt, and the others I see are but a fortunate few of the many unseen.  Wherever I am, I run between the conflict of beauty and decay, health and hurt, confidence and despair, for we are whole except for where we hurt, helpless except for when we choose otherwise….






We have to expand our thinking to understand the conflicts on the Coast

We have to expand our thinking to understand the conflicts on the Coast

 René Mendoza Vidaurre

 This researcher into the rural—and particularly indigenous—world
shares his unique perspective on the cultural aspects of the
North Caribbean Coast’s indigenous and mestizo populations
that underlie the land and other conflicts heating up there.

 I have visited the Caribbean Coast region many times during the 1980s and 90s and more recently through my work with a research team from the Central American University’s Nitlapan Institute, which has been in Bilwi, capital of the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region, since 2007. A few months ago we spent a number of days in the Mayangna community of Awas Tingni, talking to the people there, then crossed the Río Coco, which forms Nicaragua’s eastern border with Honduras, to talk to the mestizo peasant communities on the other side of that river. We also visited the Miskitu community of Saupuka on Nicaragua’s side of the same river, again crossing into Honduras to talk to the mestizos in Olancho.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on the Caribbean coast, but I’ve learned things in all these trips. My goal here is to contribute my grain of sand to the understanding of the situation there, particularly in the north, and to the search for long-term solutions to the current conflict over land.

Some pertinent background

First let’s look at some relevant dates in recent coast history starting with 1987, when the autonomy law was approved for the region. It was the best law that had ever been passed for indigenous peoples in Latin America and was an inspiration for many of them.

Then between 1991 and 1995, during the Violeta Chamorro government, lumber companies began coming in to exploit forests in various parts of the coast. Among them was Solcarsa, a Korean company that had been given a 60,000-hectare concession to extract lumber in territory that the Mayangna indigenous community of Awas Tingni considered its own, causing the community to file suit against the State of Nicaragua with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). On August 31, 2001, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of Awas Tingni and ordered the State to delimit, demarcate and title that community’s lands and adopt legislative, administrative and any other measures necessary to create an effective mechanism for delimiting, demarcating and titling the property of the other indigenous communities, in accordance with their customary law, values, customs and mores. That decision set an important juridical precedent favoring the territorial demands of indigenous peoples throughout Latin America.

The next important date, then, was December of the following year, when Nicaragua’s National Assembly bowed to that decision by approving Law 445 on the Communal Property Regime of the Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Communities of the Atlantic Coast Autonomous Communities of Nicaragua and the Rivers Bocay, Coco, Indio and Maíz, setting another juridical precedent for the continent’s indigenous peoples. But while the law went into effect in January 2003, it was effectively ignored. February of the following year saw the firstviolent conflict between Miskitu community of Layasiksa and mestizos who had settled in their territory in the 1990s. Forty mestizo families were forcibly expelled, their houses burned down, their crops razed and people even wounded and killed.

The titling of indigenous lands finally got underway in 2005, with the first title covering five Mayangna territories within the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve. Finally, between 2008 and 2015, 37,252 square kilometers of indigenous lands were demarcated and titled in what is now legally and more accurately called the Caribbean coast. That vast expanse of land, larger than El Salvador’s total area of 20,742 square kilometers, covers 31% of Nicaragua’s national territory. In those same years many of those same territories were being declared “protected areas.”

Then came the hard part

After the demarcation and titling came the final phase, which the law terms saneamiento, or title clearance. This is the most complex part because it involves assuring that the titled territory ends up fully in the hands of its indigenous owners. The law establishes that some agreement must be reached with “third parties,” defined in four categories: those who have titles, never “possessed” their property but have “intended” to live on it since 1987; those holding an agrarian title—largely army and contra veterans demobilized after the war ended in 1990; those with titles of any kind that have some defect and are thus illegal; and those who simply settled on land with no title whatever. The law briefly laid out the parameters of the agreement for each category.

Parallel to the prolonged legal demarcation process, new mestizo peasant families continued to move into the indigenous territories, pushing the agricultural frontier further and further into the coast region. Some came over the northern mountain passes of Mulukukú and El Naranjo in the north of the country, then through what is known as the Mining Triangle (the three old mining towns of Bonanza, Rosita and Siuna), while others came through El Ayote and Nueva Guinea in the south. Each individual case must be resolved in line with the law’s guidelines in order for the indigenous people to effectively be the owners of their territories. And if those multitudinous individual cases weren’t enough, over the years more lumber companies have also come in with their machinery as have international cooperation agencies with their projects. In this tense situation, there has been no shortage of violent conflicts between indigenous people and mestizos.

Mestizos now outnumber indigenous people

Two devastating results of this complex dynamic are enormous deforestation of indigenous lands and the fact that the majority of indigenous territories are today occupied by mestizo families. Just one example of this is the emblematic community of Awas Tingni, whose successful case with the IACHR kicked off this whole titling process and whose 733 square kilometers makes it the largest community of what is now known as the Amasau Territory. In 2001, when it won its case and the right to demarcation, 95% of that territory was in Mayangna hands. But by last year, according to declarations to La Prensa by Awas Tingni leader Larry Salomón Pedro on July 25, the situation was reversed, with 92% now settled by mestizo families. When we visited there we could see the figure was only slightly exaggerated. We calculated a more realistic 80%-85%, still a very alarming and complex situation.

There are various explanations for the recent acts of violence on the coast, particularly in the north, as well as others that have been occurring for a very long time. I would like to discuss three, not to throw more fuel on the fire, but rather in the hope of contributing to the thinking on this issue, to open our minds to the search for long-term solutions since it’s very difficult to see any in the near future. We need to look to the future, but naturally understanding that it necessarily begins now…

The local explanation

The first explanation for the conflictiveness between indigenous people and mestizo settlers in the coast region is the one we hear constantly from the media, state officials, religious authorities and members of civil city. It reduces the causes to the local setting and attributes responsibility for the conflict exclusively to the two sides involved. It’s an interpretation very similar to the ones heard in Bolivia, Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico… in fact in all countries with indigenous populations. It’s also found in academia and in Robert Kaplan’s book The Ends of the Earth.

It’s commonly said that the settlers are looking for land to work and are fighting over it with indigenous families defined as lazy and unable and unwilling to work. The conflicts are equally commonly blamed on the determinism of historically warring groups trapped in their past, unable to shake it off without outside intervention that can ”save them” from themselves. This explanation flirts with racism, assuming that both the indigenous people and the peasant settlers are born violent, genetically predisposed to violence. Reducing the conflict to the local territory and the culture that defines them condemns them to be conflictive.

The land trade

Everything in this interpretation suggests that the immediate detonator of the conflict has been and is the land trade. Those who hold to this simplistic view insist that the solution is to punish the “sellers”—those who gave out the agrarian land titles for indigenous land or the lawyers who drew up illegal deeds for coast lands clearly defined in the laws as communal and inalienable—then proceed withthe title clearance process, understood as ordering the mestizo families to pack their bags and agree to be relocated elsewhere, with due compensation if they were swindled by unscrupulous lawyers. All those who interpret the situation from this legalistic perspective believe it’s the State’s responsibility to resolve it, and if it doesn’t then it’s simply part of the problem, not the solution.

Is this a correct perspective? It certainly seems neat enough. The indigenous peoples are the owners and the rest have to leave. But it’s not remotely that simple. It’s not even clear that the settlers’ departure will benefit the indigenous peoples.

A lot of third parties to expel…

A study called “Estudio Especial Sector Agropecuario en la Costa del Caribe Nicaragua” (Special Study of the Agricultural Sector in the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast), done in 2013 by the very respected Caribbean Coast brothers Dennis and Marcos Williamson together with Edwin Taylor, notes that the total estimated coast population as of June 31, 2010, was 759,383 people, 77% of them mestizo. Of the remaining 23%, they list 17.8% as Miskito and 1.1% as Mayangna, mainly residing in the North Caribbean, and 3% Creole in the South Caribbean. The other 1.1% is made up of two other small groups, exclusively in the south: the Afro-Caribbean Garífunas, whose population is mainly concentrated in Honduras and Belize, and the Ramas, the coast’s third indigenous people. Can you imagine ridding such extensive territories of even a good part of the mestizo population, which is close to 585,000 people?

I say a “good part” because Article 36 of Law 445 says: “Third parties holding an Agrarian Title on Indigenous Lands who have occupied and possessed the land protected under this title have the right to continue possessing it as a matter of law. In case they intend to alienate the property, they shall sell the improvements to the community.” Okay then, a new mental exercise: is it possible to evict even the 50% of the mestizo population that doesn’t fall within that category defined in the law? To throw some 300,000 people off their lands? It might have been possible to move this number of people to new “national lands” 70, 50, perhaps even 40 years ago, but not anymore, because Nicaragua doesn’t have the land to keep extending the agricultural frontier. Those who have been continuing to push it in recent years have now reached the sea. There’s no more land for them to go to that isn’t already owned.

…and a lot of compensation to pay

And what about all those who received defective or illegal titles? The law says ”they will be compensated in order for them to return the lands to the affected indigenous communities.” Is it possible to compensate so many people? Let’s suppose that half of the 37,000 square kilometers—some 16,000—that have been demarcated and titled have to be indemnified. That amounts to 1.6 million hectares. If those who paid lawyers for bum titles are compensated at a conservative $200 per hectare, the operation would cost the State $320 million. Is that manageable? And if it were, would all the evicted families accept that amount and leave their farms with a smile on their face, giving up the houses they built, the improvements they made in pasture land and crops, leaving their churches, their friends, their lives?

And even if all that were viable, can we reasonably assume that so many other landless families “in line” for some place to settle wouldn’t move in to fill those “empty” territories?

The transnational explanation

A second interpretation of the conflicts taking place on the coast is that the problem is as global as it is local and that its causes are transnational, transcending borders. We are in fact currently seeing similar problems of conflict and violence all over Latin America because transnational corporations want to extract the resources in indigenous territories and the governments are granting them permits to do so.

The coast’s early taste of transnationalism

Nicaragua’s “Mosquitia,” as the region was known during colonial times, was historically autonomous. It wasn’t conquered by Spain and was a protectorate of Great Britain under its indirect rule until the British government and the recently independent Nicaraguan government signed a treaty in 1860 in which the former recognized Nicaragua’s sovereignty over the coast. It renounced its protectorate in exchange for the autonomy of the Mosquitia territory (drawn much smaller and redefined as a Reserve) and respect for the Mosquito monarchy Britain had created nearly two centuries earlier. In 1894 that Reserve was invaded by troops from Managua and officially annexed. Its days of autonomy were over. Great Britain relinquished its last claims there in the 1905 Harrison Altamirano Treaty, which guaranteed the native populations exemption from taxes and military service and the right to live in their ancestral territories and villages according to their own customs.

The British and then US interest in maintaining economic enclaves in the coast had a geopolitical aspect. Of course, all world powers still have geopolitical, geostrategic and geo-economic interests in all territories where natural resources abound. The megaprojects and huge mining or lumbering investments we’re seeing all over Latin America today are a continuation of what Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast experienced from the late 1700s until the revolution, first with British mahogany operations and later with North American mining, pine lumbering and shellfish exporting…

Colonizing is an informal means of conquest…

So if the coast conflict isn’t only local or even national, but also transnational, the solution isn’t limited to the use of formal diplomatic means or even of wars between States, because there are also informal paths of conquest. When the United States conquered a good part of Mexican territory in what is today southwest USA, it first sent many settlers to slowly take over lands and make life difficult for the Mexicans for years. Not until 1846 did the US government initiate war with Mexico as the formal means of conquest. In the case of Nicaragua’s Caribbean region, mestizos began migrating after 1894 to take the job posts opened up by the ”incorporation” of the coast into the national structures.

…and so are market mechanisms

Today we know that another informal route of conquest is via market mechanisms.   And this raises the question of why so many mestizos from the Pacific and central parts of Nicaragua have been migrating toward the Coast in such massive numbers in recent decades…

Starting in 1990, Nicaragua experienced harsh structural adjustment policies, like the rest of our continent’s countries: the State’s role was reduced, public services were privatized and the role of social movements was annulled. There was no credit for small-scale production, technical assistance to the rural population was privatized, and even today the bulk of the agricultural credit portfolio, be it of the private commercial banks or micro-financing institutions, goes mainly to develop extensive cattle ranching, a model still based on multiplying the herd not with more efficient practices but rather through “second farms”: buying land from small farmers or pushing them off their lands and cutting down one forest after another. The logic has been the same all over Latin America, whether for growing crops or for raising cattle: increase production by increasing the areas exploited.

With credit canceled for small farmers, the structural adjustment programs caused our poorest rural population to experience what Pope Francis denounced in his UN speech as the “abuse or usury” applied to the poor countries. The pope explained that the international financing institutions (IFIs) have credit systems that punish countries with “oppressive lending systems which, far from promoting progress, subject people to mechanisms which generate greater poverty, exclusion and dependence.” But it’s not only the IFIs; the policies of the private commercial banks asphyxiate the poor as well. We’ve seen it in Nicaragua and we’re still seeing it.

Beef for export, not grains to eat

The structural adjustment programs didn’t stimulate the production of basic foods. To the contrary, they made export products the motor of the economy, with a special focus on cattle. In all Central American countries, cattle became the privileged category for credits by both the IFIs and the private national banks to increase beef exports to the north.

This was analyzed as early as 1981 by environmental researcher Norman Myers in his study “The Hamburger Connection: How Central America’s Forests Became North America’s Hamburgers.” With fast food the answer to the quick lunch imposed in the United States to increase workers’ productivity and performance, the hamburger was the ideal meal. Myers documented a 50% increase in the annual average consumption of beef in the United States between 1960 and 1976, at a time when Central America began to export cheaper beef to the north. Caribbean forests were converted into pasture land to raise cattle for hamburgers… From this transnational vision it’s only a small leap to thinking we all have something to do with the conflict in the coast.

IFIs such as the World Bank financed the development of extensive cattle ranching in Central America, which benefited from an estimated 60% of the credit granted to the region’s governments between 1960 and 1983. The market set the demand and Central America provided the supply. It’s curious that only a few years later these same IFIs have appeared defending the titling of indigenous territories and the conservation of the forests… Are we to believe they changed?

Cattle pushed peasants off their land

These structural adjustment policies led half a million impoverished Nicaraguans to leave their lands and emigrate to Costa Rica while an important number of families preferred to push Nicaragua’s agricultural frontier ever further eastward, occupying or “buying” lands from other peasant families or settling in indigenous territories.

The global market’s trends expel not only families, but also entire communities. Seeing how profitable cattle can be, ranchers decide to multiply the lands dedicated to them. They push into new areas, buying second and third farms that will later be first farms for their sons (hardly ever their daughters), who will in turn seek their own second farms. This global market dynamic provokes situations like the one I describe below.

The bankrupting dynamic of big business

With the market demand for beef, the market for dairy products also develops, and when it opens new roads so the big dairy companies’ trucks can reach the communities of small farmers to collect their milk, those communities paradoxically end up going broke. Here’s a typical dynamic: the community’s cheesemaker, who gets her milk from locals who raise a few cows as well as pigs and also plant maize and beans and other crops, goes broke because the large companies coming in on the new road pay more for the milk than she can, so of course the small farmers no longer sell to her. But with the cheesemaker out of business they no longer get whey from her to feed their pigs and when they have an emergency they can’t turn to her for a loan because she no longer has any money. It’s a dynamic that has repeated itself in rural district after rural district.

Little by little the community economy erodes and finally they all start selling their land, going further and further into the mountains to start again on different land. They fell all the trees to create pastureland so they can raise cattle because they know that will make them money, unlike the forest, and they also know they can get immediate credit for cattle, again unlike for the forest or for cacao… It’s a domino effect that starts with cattle and ends with the hamburger connection and beyond…

So goes this world. In the 1970s Muy Muy was a major mountain pass and therefore a center of commerce. In the 90s that commerce moved to Matiguás, and Muy Muy began to decline. The next decade Río Blanco was the up-and-coming trade center, and since 2010 Mulukukú and Siuna have been emerging as the important mountain passes for trade with those living deep in the hills. That dynamic has also been seen on the eastern side of the northern mountain range: in the 1970s El Tuma was a power, in the 90s it was La Dahlia, in the first decade of the new century it was Waslala and now we’re seeing growth in El Naranjo, on the route to the Mining Triangle.

The same thing happens to families

What happens to places also happens to families. The peasant families from the center of the country called settlers, many of them also of indigenous heritage, explain that they are “like rocks tumbling downhill.” And it’s true: they bounce from farm to farm, each one on less fertile land. One told me: “My grandfather had a little farm in Matiguás, my parents had one in Mulukukú, I have one in Rosita and now my children are in Awas Tingni.”

What can stop those rocks tumbling one after another in an avalanche on a downward slope—not only in Nicaragua but in all countries—because of the market mechanisms accompanied by technology, publicity, research… And these market mechanisms aren’t just pushing cattle-raising; they’re also pushing the cultivation of coca in the TIPNIS territory in Bolivia and soybeans in Brazil’s Amazonia, the extraction of petroleum in Ecuador’s Amazonia… And behind the coca, the soy, the petroleum, the gold and the lumber are actors who are as local as they are global and policies that are as national as they are transnational.

Each locality is a globality

What can stop this? Does anybody really think that getting a good part of the settlers out of the coast will halt that avalanche on its way to the bottom? We’ve already begun to see that the way this world is going now, no actors are acting alone; we’re all interlinked and each locality is a globality.

Cattle ranching interweaves actors from Waspám in the Caribbean Coast to Guatemala, Mexico and the United States. Much of the cacao cultivated in Rama for the German chocolate company Ritter Sport is interwoven with local and global actors. And the same can be said of the gold being extracted in Bonanza or the lumber again coming out of Awas Tingni.

Forests up for grabs?

I can still hear the words of one of those who in the early 1990s were promoting the declaring of ”protected areas” in Nicaragua: “After declaring Bosawás a reserve, we realized there were indigenous populations living inside it that we’d forgotten all about.” But since those were the years of greater consciousness of the value of Latin American’s indigenous people due to the quincentennial celebration/commemoration of the Conquest, had the indigenous people really been forgotten? I don’t think so. The dominant conservationist ideology assumes the forest is the natural result of self-regulation, the same concept conventional economists have about the market. And consonant with that rationale, there’s no reason whatever to consult the indigenous people, since it assumes that indigenous people didn’t produce the forest and don’t belong to it. If that mentality were to recognize that the forests have owners, the market would have problems patenting medicines based on the plants found in them, for example.

Very similar forestry and environmental laws started popping up from Latin America to Africa. Sheer coincidence? Hardly. These laws obey policies that are both national and transnational, allowing the global and national markets to appropriate vast extensions of land and natural resources. With these laws, rivers and forests, even protected areas with already-titled lands are being privatized. These same laws, however, make it very difficult for either indigenous people or peasant families to request permits to exploit lumber. Those who get the permits are the big lumber companies from developed countries that extract quantities of timber with one hand while supporting “development,” “governance,” “gender equity” and “sustainability” projects with the other… So goes the world, provoking an undetainable avalanche of ”rocks.”

The heterogeneous interpretation

Now let’s look at the third interpretation of the causes of the conflicts in the Caribbean Coast. This one takes into account the heterogeneity of the indigenous populations inhabiting that area of the country and their world visions, which are incompatible with market logic. It is very simplistic to see indigenous peoples as a mass, quoting Marx’s reference to the great mass of the French nation, one “formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes,” all equal, all alike.

It’s very important to take into account that there have historically been tensions among the different indigenous peoples living in the Caribbean coast. The relations between certain Mayangna and Miskitu groups, for example, have traditionally been tense and charged with suffering, with the Mayangnas generally getting the worst of it, expelled by British-armed Miskitus from their original territories over the centuries and pushed to distant places. While that inter-indigenous tension has been ongoing, it doesn’t involve all Miskitus or all Mayangnas.

Miskitu-Mayangna-Solcarsa conflict

When the community of Awas Tingni sued the State of Nicaragua for having let Solcarsa into its territory, it did so after a Miskitu group from a neighboring community made a deal with that lumber company, allowing it to enter a territory that wasn’t Miskitu. Seeing their territory in danger, the Mayangnas filed suit with support from international cooperation. Then in 2009, a year after the titling of the Mayangna territory named Amasau, a group of Miskitus tried to take over part of it. Awas Tingni responded by seeking support from the mestizo families settled there to act as “human boundary markers” and impede the Miskitu advance. Thus the Mayangnas defended their territory with mestizo help. When the following year the MPINICSA lumber company began to extract lumber from Awas Tingni through an agreement with Miskitu groups, the Mayangnas again resisted.

According to one Mayangna leader, all those tensions have created a feeling in the community that “the land isn’t worth it”; that “sooner or later they’re going to take it away from us.” That has accelerated the sale of Mayangna lands to mestizos. As we can see, the recent tensions have their antecedents in tensions experienced both recently and centuries ago that still carry weight today.

The churches undervalued cultural practices

The relations between the Creole and Miskitu populations have also been difficult and explain many of the existing tensions, including in the universities and the churches. Because they speak a brand of English, the Creoles have had an advantage over the Miskitus by relating more easily to the companies and churches that came to the coast in the last century and have now linked up better with the international cooperation projects.

The Moravian Church in Bilwi was originally for both Creoles and Miskitus, but their different cultural identities grew stronger and further apart until they went their separate ways and now there are separate Moravian churches for the two groups. Reynaldo Figueroa, vice rector of the Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University admits that the churches and their authorities didn’t know how to accompany and take into account these two different cultures. It was as if being Christian meant ceasing to be Miskitu or Creole. Given the recent conflicts it’s important that the religious sectors call for dialogue and do it well. No one knows better than they how difficult dialogue is, as they have at times ended up divided themselves.

The churches have had to learn to take the indigenous peoples’ cultures into consideration. One example is the sukias, the wise traditional healers who are very deeply rooted in the culture and organization of the indigenous peoples. Considering them diabolic “sorcerers,” the churches, particularly the Moravian Church, opposed them to such a degree that they drove them underground and today it is debated whether sukias even exist in the communities anymore. The churches censured many of the most cherished celebrations in the Miskitu culture, and took a long time to come around to valuing those traditions. Can you imagine a foreign religion coming in, obliging you to renounce your religion, maligning your symbols and spiritual practices? Again, though, we need to remember that nothing is ever black and white. As recently as 30-40 years ago, when the coast was still mainly occupied by its traditional indigenous peoples and Afro-descendant groups, they considered the Moravian Church the coast’s “national church” due to its steadfast defense of the inhabitants against assimilation efforts by the succession of central governments.

Interplay between groups and individuals

But just as the situation on the coast shouldn’t be seen as a single and simple problem with an easy situation, neither should we see each human group living there as a separate sack of potatoes. Not all Miskitus are homogenous, nor are all Mayangnas, Creoles, mestizos, Ramas or Garífunas. There are Miskitu cattle ranchers as well as mestizo cattle ranchers; some Mayangnas are involved in the trade in wild animals as are some mestizo families; there are Mayangna and Miskitu families that live separately on their little farms just as mestizo families do, and there are Miskitus and Mayangnas who live in communities. Independent of their cultural origin, cattle ranchers respond to the logic of the market, where what matters is money. The cattle rancher doesn’t see trees, he sees cows, and he wants as many “as there are stars in the sky,” as the famous hacendado Señorito Malta was fond of saying in the Brazilian TV serial play “Roque Santeiro.”

Cultural self-identities

That, however, is not to say that cultural self-identities and perspectives don’t distinguish the groups that cohabit the Caribbean coast. While the different cosmovisions and cultural patterns on the coast are ever more permeated, they are still strong.

The mestizo culture is agri-culture

The logic of a mestizo family that has come from communities in the center of the country, albeit not necessarily in a single bound, and has claimed less than 50 hectares of land, is to make improvements on that land, which it sees as its own possession. This newly arrived family starts by planting maize and beans then within three or four years turns that land, once covered in forests and not very apt for crops, into natural grassland and begins to graze cattle on it, clearing still more land for basic grains or plantains. Its mentality is to diversify its crops for self-subsistence and have a few large and small livestock, so it’s never without its pigs and hens. Its dream is to turn that plot into a farm and its strategy is to live there and improve it with the sweat of the family labor. For mestizos, the value of the land resides in how many improvements and investments they can make in it. Their culture is agri-culture.

The Mayangna culture is forest-culture

In general Mayangna families live in communities and value the forest, water and land as the space that gives them everything in life: food, medicines and material for their houses and canoes. Many of their communities are located in the mountainous mining triangle, near rivers, which are for fishing, recreation, bathing and washing their clothes. Inside the forest they have areas where they plant beans, cassava and other root crops, plantains, etc. They also diversify crops and move from one place to another to cultivate, but without affecting either the forest or the water. Their sense of land ownership isn’t the same as that of the mestizos. Their culture is forest-culture.

The Miskitu culture is freshwater-, saltwater- and plains-culture

The culture of the Miskitus, who occupy a much larger area in the northern Caribbean coast, is more nuanced than that of the Mayangnas, influenced by the lifestyle evolved over time where they live. Although like the Ramas and Mayangnas they understand land as communal territory, not an individual plot, they themselves define three distinct sub-cultures: those who live in fishing communities along the seacoast (“saltwater”) or the rivers (“freshwater”) or in agricultural communities in the largely treeless plains north of Bilwi and south of Waspam.

The Afro-Caribbean culture is water-culture

The Creole and Garífuna populations came to the Caribbean coast in ships as slaves. They came by sea and still today find economic and cultural solutions in the sea. The rural Garífuna and Creole communities in the south Caribbean region have always been tied to fishing in the sea or lagoons, which is ever harder now given the voracious globalization of fishing and its wasteful techniques. Urban Creoles have always forged relations with transnational fishing companies or cruise ships, facilitated by their English skills, be it Creole or “standard” English, depending on their schooling. Many young Creoles, both men and women, dream of “shipping out” for months at a time, doing whatever job they can get. Those from Bluefields and the Corn Islands have always felt very close to the population of the Caribbean islands, and communication between them has always been very fluid. Their culture is water-culture.

Different values for different peoples

Figuratively, we can see the Creoles moving in ships by sea, the coast’s three indigenous peoples in canoes by river through the forests, and the mestizos on horseback over their farms. Creoles without water, indigenous peoples without forests and peasants without land are beings without a soul. What has value for the coast’s indigenous peoples is the forest and what it contains; while for the cattle ranchers it’s their herd roaming the cleared land; for the peasants, the improvements they’ve made on their plot; and for Afro-Caribbeans the seas and lagoons teeming with fish. In short, very different visions of the same region and its uses.

You are what you eat

The mestizo peasants are children of corn. The Miskitus and Mayangnas are children of wabul, a sort of porridge made of mashed plantain or peach palm with fish or coconut oil. And the Afro-descendants are children of rondon or rundown, a fish soup with root vegetables cooked in coconut milk.

The superstructure is getting top-heavy while community organization gets weaker

Something that needs to be kept very much in mind when interpreting what’s happening in the Caribbean Coast and visualizing the difficulties of a short-term solution is the erosion suffered by the organization of all the peoples on the coast, be they indigenous, Afro-descendant or mestizo peasant. In formal terms, there are more laws, more regulations and more authorities for the indigenous peoples, layers upon layers of power: at the community level there are the wihtas (judges) and the síndicos (in charge of dealing with local resource and environmental issues); then moving upward are the municipal governments, the new territorial governments, the two regional governments, and of course the powerful national government. With respect to political or socio-cultural representation, there are also the Council of Elders, the regional indigenous party Yatama and the churches.

Many of these structures came in with the autonomy, while the traditional local organizations and authorities in the communities have eroded and their functions have changed. The Councils of Elders, síndicos and wihtas must now respond more outside of their communities and territories, while the control mechanisms of their own communities have been weakened.

Among other things this weakening presupposes that the communities can’t pressure as strongly for transparent accountability over the income entering from agreements on their resources. Sadly, the families seem to have made their peace with that by rotating síndicos in many communities: “We change them each year so others can grab something too.” Over time the reason for organizing has shifted from the need to resolve shared difficulties to having posts to benefit from, giving people the vision that even community organization has more to do with money than anything else.

Their own traditional forms of organization, including the sukias and other local authorities, and the standards ruling the communities over the past two centuries have all suffered the same erosion. Many cultures in the world have taken advantage of ideas and resources from national and international organizations to strengthen their own culture and organization, but in the coast, money; the imposition of the cross, particularly with the new churches that have come in; the caciquismo of the past 70 years; and the decade-long war of the eighties, displacing whole communities, dividing families and causing tens of thousands of refugees in neighboring countries have all weakened and unbalanced these populations, shattering their traditional sense of cultural, physical and communal harmony. We shouldn’t find it strange that indigenous leaders are currently being charged with selling legally unsaleable indigenous lands, or with participating in lumber businesses that are devastating the forests. They aren’t just individual crimes; we need to understand that their roots extend backwards beyond the present and are linked to both national and transnational social irresponsibility.

Obstacles to civilization… or is “civilization” an obstacle?

If we don’t take all this into account, we’ll continue reading the conflict in erroneous ways. Centuries ago it was thought that indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples were not very civilized, to say the least, and were enemies of progress. Many of those on Nicaragua’s Pacific side, for example, still see the Caribbean coast populations as “backward,” still in pre-development phases far from modernity, a view frequently found throughout Latin America. Peru’s Nobel Prize winner Vargas Llosa, a modern liberal intellectual, takes that thinking to another level when he says indigenous peoples aren’t only “backward” but actually an “obstacle” to civilization, harking back to the 19th-century thinking of Argentina’s Sarmiento, who believed the indigenous population of his country would have to be eliminated if Argentina was to develop.

There’s a theory in the academic literature called “path dependence.” It holds that once a path is decided upon there’s no turning back and that any claims, demands or protests strengthen rather than change the initial decision… until at some moment another crossroads is reached that opens new options, and a new decision has to be made.

We could apply this theory to our old and deeply rooted ideas to understand the coast’s indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant populations.   But people criticizing and questioning that outmoded viewpoint only reinforced it. Laws were passed all over Central America to promote coffee and cattle that involved expropriating indigenous lands and obliging its historical owners to work for free, otherwise they were considered shirkers and jailed. As this viewpoint persists even today, we continue hearing what the market currently tells us: “The indigenous peoples will disappear, as will the peasantry; history cannot be stopped” …unless, that is, we are now coming up to another crossroads and are capable of breaking that thinking, expanding our view and changing mentalities.

Let’s try putting ourselves in their shoes

Those of us who like to call ourselves friends of indigenous peoples must revise our thinking. Academics and consultants acting in solidarity with indigenous peoples are doing studies with them full of ideas about “gender,” “payment for environmental services,” “governance,” “resilience,” “sustainable livelihoods,” “land tenure” or “empowerment,” all of which are theories invented outside their reality, although backed with resources. We’re studying their reality on the go, without ever stopping to listen to them.

To decide what has to be done to start resolving the tensions on the Caribbean coast, let’s put ourselves for a moment in the place of its indigenous families. They’ve seen their forest areas shrunk, the animals in the forest disappear, the water levels in the rivers fluctuate, the fish and shellfish catches dwindle, and more and more international cooperation projects depart. They know the lumber business has dropped somewhat and the soil fertility isn’t what it used to be or doesn’t yield what it used to, yet they’re seeing ever more people living in their territory. In short, they have less food, less money and less land with which to make ends meet. Obviously their desperation is mounting. But on the other hand, if all the mestizo communities leave the territory, where will they get the cash to buy salt, sugar, clothes…?

Now let’s try to think like them. We, for example, are comfortable with the concept of “land tenure,” but it doesn’t even exist in the indigenous vocabulary; they don’t conceive of someone “owning” a piece of land… The concept means nothing to them because it assumes that land equals individual ownership, with marking posts and deeds, even if written on wrinkled paper with a few signatures. They can understand owning a piece of paper, but not the land.

Do the majority of the indigenous communities have individual plots of land? Of what I’ve understood from being among them, land is at the same time communal and individual, tangible and intangible. The concept of land isn’t just the ground, but includes forest and water. It’s not just a place; it’s life itself. In Managua we talk about “my property” whereas indigenous families say “our territory,” and in so doing their sense of possession is different than ours, which is very influenced by market logic. Our way of seeing separates land from forest, land from life, communities from their surroundings. Certainly for the indigenous communities, also for the rural-based Afro-descendants, and I’d even go so far as to say for peasant families, market logic doesn’t explain everything, nor is it what most moves them.

Understanding the indigenous peoples requires expanding our view. It means submerging ourselves. It means putting ourselves in the shoes of a Mayangna or Miskitu community. With few exceptions they’ve never experienced individual property enclosed with barbed wire or cord fences. As families they’ve always worked on a little area for three or four years then moved to another so the first one can regenerate, always back and forth within the same territory, to plant, to exist. They’ve heard the words “manzana” or “hectare” of land and know they refer to land measurements, but they’ve never used them because they’ve never needed them. Nor do they use the words “buy” and “sell” in relation to land, because they’ve never bought land nor has it entered their heads to sell what they have. When the mestizo families came and told them they wanted to buy land and the indigenous people agreed to sell them some, they didn’t believe it meant “take over ownership” of that land. They thought it meant the peasants were paying to be able to plant there for two or three years, like they do. And they didn’t know that 20 or 50 hectares was something quite so big or that the mestizos were going to pound in border markers and not allow them into that big area anymore to hunt or look for medicinal herbs… So now what are they supposed to do? As you can see, a lot of misunderstandings underlie these conflicts.

Build bridges of dialogue

What’s the way out of the coast conflict? In my view, the first thing we have to do is recognize the complexity of that reality. It isn’t any one of the three interpretations I described above; it’s some of all of them and more. A dialogue needs to be proposed, one that starts at home, in the hope we’ll know how to listen to each other and that the universities and churches will be self-critical. The universities need to review their curricula and the churches need to recognize the existence of multiple spiritualties and surmount their own divisions. Only by accepting the complexity and being self-critical can they help build bridges of dialogue.

Speaking to the US Congress, Pope Francis pointed out to the legislators that “your duty is to build bridges.” We have to build some to understand what’s happening in the Caribbean coast. I think one bridge has to be built that reduces both the economic and cultural inequalities among all in Nicaragua. Despite the deforestation and the advance of the cane or peanut haciendas, immense spaces where there are no trees, there are trees on peasant farms. I believe we have to build a bridge between peasant families and indigenous communities based on environmental care in order to address climate change.

Land rental?

Building bridges to complete the title clearance stage established in Law 445 could involve a land rental project. If it were established that non-indigenous people cannot have more than 50 hectares of land in indigenous territories, we might just find the beginning of a solution, because the big cattle ranchers who want 500, 1,000 or even 3,000 hectares won’t want to be there. If a maximum of 50 hectares could be agreed on and the peasant families had to pay an annual rent per hectare, this could be a bridge; it would give land to the mestizos and money to the indigenous communities. But for this to provide a solution, the indigenous organizations would have to strengthen themselves so the rent money they receive from the mestizos would be transparently administered and there would be at least minimum social auditing by the community. Unless the indigenous organizations improve, any resource coming in would only endanger the communities.

A land rental project, which is contemplated in Law 445, would be compatible with the peasant families diversifying their crops and combining annuals with perennials large and small livestock with patches of forest. By the same token, if some indigenous families want to diversify their own productive activities, they shouldn’t need more than 50 hectares per family in addition to the communal patches of forest and receiving incentives for maintaining them, being paid for their “environmental services” in line with the Sustainable Development Objectives the United Nations just approved as the 2030 Agenda. That would produce a bridge, an alliance of indigenous peoples, peasants and Afro-descendants.

Adversity can bring opportunity

There are conflicts in the coast, but the word conflict has two sides: confrontation and cooperation. Bridges are built looking at the cooperation side. There are always opportunities behind adversities and I believe the current conflict on the coast is an opportunity to learn and to change.

The solutions to the coast’s problems can’t be black and white. We have to find creative ways to get out from under this tension. There have to be social arrangements that allow some bridges. Only societies that organize themselves manage to advance and get laws that really improve their lives. But in the 1980s the revolution taught us that without communities that claim and demand their rights, without women and men who help build their own destiny, the approval of the best laws and application of the fairest measures mean nothing. Bringing in resources will serve for naught. The history of struggle of so many peoples has taught us that there’s no point fighting for good laws if afterwards we don’t participate in their application. The current dynamic on the coast is an opportunity to learn. And the more we learn, the more we’ll be able to change.

It helps to recall the old idea of stewardship: of being aware that we have a short life in this world and therefore have to work for our society and our planet in those few years; we have to give the best of ourselves to sow more and better life. And to do that well, the most urgent thing is to learn. Metanoia is the translation of the Greek word for both learn and change. It’s also a word that appears in the Gospel as a synonym for conversion, for change of heart.

Time to learn; time to change

To learn is to change. And to learn something you have to get to the bottom of it, to investigate, scrutinize, analyze, discern it. The market and its power today is a human project and that means we can change it. Uruguay has succeeded in increasing its production of dairy products by more than 50% without deforesting. How did they do it? By changing with the knowledge that makes us change.

We will only change with human communities and organizations that learn. It isn’t right to defend “indigenous culture” blindly against the market, nor is it honest to defend “the market” at the cost of indigenous cultures. Something combined and creative has to emerge. We must produce something new as a fruit of this conflict and so many others happening all over the world. It’s time to learn; time to change.

René Mendoza Vidaurre ( is a research associate of IOB-Antwerp University (Belgium) and of the Nitlapan-UCA Research and Development Institute, (Nicaragua) and works with the Wind of Peace Foundation ( He specializes in facilitating organizational innovation and development processes.

From: vol. 34. No. 411

Bridging A Gap

It’s an exciting time for many in this country, with the first visit of Pope Francis to the U.S.  Some 70 million U.S. Catholics notwithstanding, it’s remarkable to see and to feel the excitement generated by this pope.  Catholics and non-Catholics alike have been mesmerized by the rock star quality of this man and, more notably, of his message about taking care of each other and the planet.  It’s a moment to savor, this feel-good visit from someone who has the capacity to generate an upbeat and hopeful message; not many could do it.  But it also creates a disconnect for us, as we cheer the messenger while simultaneously spurning the message.

Like many, I have watched copious news coverage of the papal visit, out of interest and curiosity.  I’m both interested in hearing the topics that Francis has chosen to highlight and curious about our collective and positive reaction to him and “the higher Chief” to whom Francis reports.  But I wonder about the gap that exists there, one that Francis has referenced on several occasions in his talks here.  That distance between the emotional uplift of this man’s visit and  the reality of our daily actions is wide, and I am confounded by that space.

How is it possible that we can be so emotionally and spiritually attuned to the lessons Francis brings, while at the same time living our lives deaf to our own opportunities to respond?  Matters of climate and environment, poverty and hunger, stewardship and servanthood have seemingly captivated the pope’s audiences around the world- now including the U.S.- at a time when the debate rhetoric around such issues has never been more polarized and heated.  And we are all the same in this spiritual conundrum that afflicts us between our feeling and our doing.

Catholics from Latin America are especially in love with Francis, for he is “of them” and speaks to Latin Americans in their own language, a connection which is treasured.  From country to country Francis is welcomed by heads of state who cherish the moments of being in the presence of the pope and his hopeful message, only to return all-too-frequently to their autocratic regimes of favoritism, exclusion and oppression.  Even in the rural reaches, professors of the faith who hold a very proprietary view of Francis and his humble servanthood will too often seek to take advantage of opportunities for gain over good character.  We are seemingly infected with the virus of selfhood.

In Europe, the pontiff is received upon red carpets and with gifts of expressive love by leaders who, in some cases, have slammed shut the doors of receptive love on the very homeless about whom the pope continually reminds us.  Particularly on the European continent, we are afflicted with the disease of short memory about dispossession and relocation.

In the U.S., political leaders have clamored to be among those in audience with the pope; few were absent as Francis addressed Congress.  Yet some of these eager faces will reflect a far different countenance in the days to come as the country weighs national interests of short-term corporate health against interests of long-term personal, national and global well-being, of political postures versus strength of character, of support for military revolutions in contrast to Francis’ “revolution of tenderness and love.”  Here, we are seemingly diseased through our affluence and power.

The observations and questions posed here are not intended to be accusatory or pejorative to anyone other than perhaps myself.  To be sure, we are complex beings with internally competing motives that shape us day by day, even hour-by-hour.  We are human, imperfect by definition.  We cannot be perfectly consistent because we live in dynamic surroundings, some physical, some emotional, some spiritual.  We are subject to awesome and unexpected changes to our lives, alterations which can be both unanticipated and unexplainable.    Our world is transforming every day, in ways seen and unseen to most of us.

But almost despite those realities, Pope Francis has been able to reach out to the world with a message that has caught us off-guard but which is full of possibilities.  The receptivity to that message does not depend entirely in the voice of the deliverer, but in the hearts and minds of the rest of us.  Francis has asked us to be our best selves. Consistency between that ideal and our daily actions is entirely within our command.  Deep down, that’s why we’re so glad the pope is here, sharing his universal words of humility and hope, and why we long to embrace both him and his message….

All I Really Need to Know About Immigration I Learned in Kindergarten

With apologies to author Robert Fulgham, I couldn’t help but recall his enormously successful book as I’ve listened to the heating debate about immigration among Republican presidential candidates.  Insofar as every one of those leaders is a product of immigration to this country, I thought it might be of some value to recall at least some of the admonitions for wisdom that Fulgham offered in his classic book.

Share Everything-  We’re taught at an early age that it’s important to ensure everyone has enough: toys, cookies, rewards, being loved and respected.  By and large, we haven’t done very well with this as adults, especially with basic life necessities.  We’ve heard many times how something like 80 individuals in the world own as many resources as half (or more) of the rest of the people on the planet. That’s not a very convincing example of sharing, particularly when so many of the have-not’s are living day-to-day in sub-human conditions.   History and reality both suggest that a primary motivation for many immigrants is the need to improve their economic status.  Most don’t wish to leave their homeland for another spot in the world; they simply must go to where the opportunity is.  Sometimes it’s good to give up our place in the lunch line for somebody else.

Play Fair-  A corollary to the above, playing fair suggests that in a competitive world where people should expect to be rewarded according to their efforts, a rigged game signals to the players that there are no rules anymore, that everyone is subject only to what he/she can gain for him/herself and that creative sidestepping of the rules is not only permissible but oftentimes heavily rewarded.   If CEOs and investment bankers and even nations are immune from penalty for violating rules, the signal is clear for someone considering a cross of the nation’s border.  What is there to lose?  If the teacher is a cheater, the lesson to be learned is that fairness is for fools.

Don’t Hit People-  Especially not with clubs or tasers or fists or bullets. Regardless of where any candidate might stand on the immigration issue, the matter resides at a level of importance somewhere far below the sanctity of human life.  As complex and persistent as the immigration problem has become, its solutions won’t be found in the  box of punitive punishment.  Not even death itself has proven to be a deterrent for the desperate.  Hitting just hurts, and not only the victims.

Clean Up Your Own Mess-  A push in kindergarten is almost always preceded by an instigating act by someone else, whether seen or not.  The push is merely the response that happens to be observed. Illegal immigration is most often motivated by untenable economic circumstances.  And those circumstances have been magnified by treaties, agreements and accords that favored our country and its own economic interests in exaggerated ways.  As a result, the option of remaining in Mexico or Nicaragua or Honduras evaporates in the wake of the social and economic consequences of messy agreements.  Our political candidates claim that illegal immigrants cross the U.S. borders knowing what the consequences are likely to be.  But those same candidates must also recognize the likely consequences of economic repression, one of which is desperation-fueled immigration.  It’s easier to serve as a model for international behavior if our own cubbyhole is clean.

Don’t Take Things That Aren’t Yours-  For every crayon pilfered in kindergarten, there are at least an equal number of excuses for the theft offered up by the filching felon: “it’s my turn, he doesn’t need it, she’s had it long enough,” or “I need it to finish my own work.” While any of them may be true, none excuse the behavior.  It’s no different in the competition for resources across the globe.  Whether oil, agriculture resources, water, geographic access or any other motive, taking what belongs to someone else is wrong, even when we’re the ones doing the taking.

Keep Your Hands (and arms) to Yourself-  If economic desperation is one of the prime motivations for immigration, then flight from the ravages of war is the other.  When physical danger from bombs and gunfire threatens life, then there is nothing to lose in trying to flee to a safer zone, even when such flight violates law.  Too often, the manufacturer’s label on those ammunitions contains the words “Made in U.S.A.”  Even when our nation is not engaged in confrontation with one of our national neighbors, our fingerprints are curiously omnipresent in the horrors of many homelands.

Say You’re Sorry When You Hurt Somebody-  Apology and forgiveness. They are the cornerstones of any relationship, because we live in an imperfect world with fellow humans who are as imperfect as we ourselves.  No individual, no nation, is without fault.  But the offering of forgiveness is a response to apology; it works best when the apology comes first.  The immigration conundrum might be less divisive, less of a political “cause celebre” and even less complex when our nation acknowledges a system that is misleading and unfair to all the kids on the playground.

Well, Fulgham’s treatise on living life well has been panned by many as being too simplistic for the sophisticated and complicated world of today.  It might be too simpleminded for immigration analysis, as well.   Perhaps.  But it also offers an alternative to the process in which we find ourselves today, where political rhetoric includes demonizing an entire ethnic class, building higher walls between nations, and minimizing the desperate realities of other human beings.  Maybe there’s one more Fulgham idea worth contemplating: hold hands and stick together….