The best ideas are not implemented due to the mental frameworks that we carry with us. Peter Senge (1990) in his book “The Fifth Discipline” points out: “we carry in our minds images, assumptions and stories” that block the application of proven experiments, big ideas and refined proposals.
Beliefs allied with the virus
In the face of COVID-19 there is scientific information disseminated by the World Health Organization (WHO), governments and social networks. But most people ignore it. Why? Our minds are full of beliefs that do not cede space to new information, like a bucket full of water, when we put more water in it, none of it goes in, it overflows. In the same way scientific recommendations do not get into our minds, they spill out.
What beliefs? A belief related to the destiny of individuals is probably the most damaging, which goes like this: “when it is your time, it is your time”, “everything has been written”. A drunk who drives a car, crashes and dies, then you hear people say, “it was his time”, and “God took him”; with this they justify his irresponsibility, along with his social background of getting drunk and having caused the accident. A second belief says ”there is no better doctor than God”, “chlorine bleach does not save, God does”. A third belief is “you go to the hospital to die”. These three beliefs fill human minds and control people; it is not God who controls them, and they are not the ones who are “sent.”
Consequently, people heard that one can be infected in crowds (meetings, demonstrations, religious celebrations, parties), but that information slips out of their minds. People get into crowds without protection, because their mind tells them, “when it is your time, it is your time”, “God protects me”. If someone tells them, “God protects you if you take care of yourself”, that person will say, “the devil is putting me to the test, for God nothing is impossible.” And if the person gets infected with COVID-19, they resist going to the health center because “you only leave there in a box”, the historic distrust in the State that has dispossessed them of their resources ends up condemning them.
The worst that these beliefs can do is that people get resigned and only watch the days and nights go by. If everything is already written, people are the puppets of some supernatural being, which is why there is no reason to improve or change, unless that change “is written from above.”
The first step to avoid the virus: free the mind from beliefs
We do not resign ourselves to the fact that these beliefs control us. How can we free ourselves from them? A first step is talking about them to understand them, and asking questions that allow us to reflect. The very act of reflecting is already a big contribution, because the biggest power of beliefs is preventing people from reflecting. “Believing is enough, thinking makes one sick”- beliefs whisper into the ears of people. How to reflect? Let us read this conversation:
-The best doctor is God – Juan tells us, while he cleans beans.
-If God protects those who believe in God, why are so many pastors, religious, and pious people dying of COVID-19? –we ask him
-Ahh, I am sure that they did not have faith in God, I do have faith–he responds, very sure of himself.
-I wonder. Is it not that God expects people to do their part, take care of themselves and save their loved one, improving their diet? –we insisted.
-Who knows… –he no longer seems so sure. He begins to question, reflect.
This step also requires people who work in the chain of aid organizations, or the chain of State institutions, to do self-study and discover their beliefs. One of their beliefs is “people are saved with donations and training.” Correspondingly, they want the “papers” (receipts, contracts) of those donations to be “supported”, that products like chlorine get to the leaders of an organization, or that there be a health center. It is a technocratic assumption, which assumes that THE leader is going to distribute the products, that families will pay attention to what they are told, and that whoever gets sick will go to the health center. Provoking reflection includes challenging our own beliefs.
The assumption in the first belief is that “The bibles says it.” The Bible does not say that. What it says is that people have “free will” (“everything that you can do, do it with all your strength”, Ecc 9:10) and that “he who sows inequity, will harvest inequity” (Prov 22:8). In other words, each person writes their own story according to the circumstances in which they find themselves, the group in which they move, and their values. The assumption in the beliefs of many organizations and institutions, including intellectuals, is that “they know” the problem and the solutions for people.
When beliefs get examined, they appear as the beliefs that they are, they lose their power and that aura of being “sacred truths”. Then they can be expelled, even though that be painful; that belief has nested itself in the mind of the individual, who on expelling it, will feel “orphaned” and “insecure.” Nevertheless, once we are able to challenge these and other beliefs, the mind will have space to process new information, ideas or proposals.
Second step: testing new ideas in horizontal spaces
Let us look at an example of how people, on freeing themselves from harmful beliefs, can apply new ideas with better results. Up until the end of the 1970s it was believed that “the more brutish the workers are, the better they perform”, so bosses and experts would direct the work from their offices, while a ton of workers implemented the ideas of the experts. This is how the Ford car industry worked in the United States. But the Japanese in the Toyota industry discovered that belief as the cause for making expensive and poor-quality vehicles, they expelled those beliefs and tested new ideas in a gradual way and produced better quality and cheaper vehicles. What ideas did they introduce? That the experts and the workers innovate together, as a team they were all experts; that the workers should propose how to improve each action that they carried out; decentralizing decisions. It was a revolutionary change that later was extended to other industries in the world, which was possible when people realized that they write their own history.
How can communities protect themselves? Reflection, we said, is the first step. Toyota teaches us that the environment (team, understanding that each person is an expert in their area, decentralization of decisions) favors the generation of new ideas, tells us to test and adjust changes gradually. A cooperative, association or a community store should facilitate these reflections and create these favorable conditions for producing ideas and applying them. The president, manager, donor, government or intellectual, should not act as if they were “gods” dominated by the fordist belief, that they already know the problems and the solutions for people, they should go to the homes of people and talk with them. How can we protect ourselves from COVID-19 and other viruses? The lowliest person can have responses, but a favorable environment is needed in their own homes and communities in order to produce and express them.
-the big producers increase their coffee areas, the small ones produce less, and we are all from the same cooperative–María observed in the assembly
-we are on different steps of the ladder –responded Claudio.
-The small producers should not hold offices, being “bit players” is their fault- adjudged their administrator.
– If we looked at one another and helped one another, maybe our cooperative would be a cooperative- María shot back, while the big producers smiled.
Claudio Hernandez, a peasant cooperative member, by saying that “we are on different steps” in the cooperative, referred to the social inequality in his cooperative. In this article we want to study the hierarchical side of this phrase, and how to move beyond it in the communities.
The force of structures
In the story the administrator presupposes a vertical structure, classifies the small producers as “bit players”, and puts them outside the range of officers. This image of the “ladder” is the structure of hierarchical power that comes from societies, families and absorbs any organization or institution. Figure 1 shows people going up the ladder, there is no other way up. On that ladder it is not possible for a group of people to be on the same rung; they would fall. Most aspire to go up the ladder, even though they are not able to get close to it. If someone makes a bid to go up, they alert the one on top, “ he is going to get ahead of you”. The one who reaches the top unseats him: “get down so I can get up.” Only the “one in charge” is on the top of the hill, “the more authoritarian he is, the more he does for us”, “I am nothing without him”. Even though those who generally reach the top are men, if a woman reaches the top, the ladder does not change.
This structure defines the position of big and small, of those who have, and do not have rights in a society. It names people to the offices of organizations or institutions, turns leaders into politicians or technocrats. Likewise, the age structure in families defines their members: those who “are good” for doing physical tasks, like “a load” for those who no longer can carry one because of their age; the spouse “discarded”, replaced by a young woman. It is a structure that is reinforced by animalizing human relations: “he is going to better you”, assumes that the person left below is an animal, which is worse if the person “bettered” is a woman. If someone praises a boy it is because “he is looking at his shoulders” – for carrying, labor, an object of exploitation. It is a language that defines, “she is female, I am male” – but using words in Spanish that generally are used to designate the sex of animals. A male, a macho is, as the writer Octavio Paz said, “awesome, the father who has abandoned his wife and children”, and who feels proud of it.
It is a structure that takes voice and agency away from people and reproduces rules contrary to good humanity. It says to the impoverished, “we will always need a patron”; to the abused woman, “he is my husband, he has the right to beat me”; to the Evangelical pastor, “I am the anointed one, I speak in the name of God”; to the priest, “only I can celebrate the Eucharist”; to people in communities and neighborhoods, “God has a plan for us”, “the leader has a plan for us”. As the Spanish saying goes, “no one goes to heaven without a ladder”.
There can be a peaceful or violent revolution in a country, church or any organization, be it school, sports club or communal organization, that revolution is basically “get rid of you to put in me”, “getting ahead”, and repeating “I am the anointed one”/”leader, direct us!”/ “spouse in pants or skirt, direct us!” They can sing that they are “new men” or dress in habits, the ladder is the same. Everything changes, so as not to change. We see cooperatives like this whose members, men and women, rebel against their presidents or managers, replace them with other people, and in a short period of time, the chosen person turns into the “top man” or “top woman”.
From within these structures the slogan of many international organizations “leave no one behind” can be understood as pulling the impoverished person to the “ladder”, so that they are not left behind, while the ladder continues being the “ladder”.
Change of structures
How can we change to really change? If we ignore the ladder, it will be like the sun, it will keep us from seeing the stars and will make us repeat the rule of elites: “without the leader, there is nothing”, “without legality and office in the town, there is no organization”. We need to distinguish between the ladder (structure; sun) from what is outside of it (stars). Identifying the ladder to reveal that it was made by human beings, that its reproduction is not automatic but mediated by human interpretation, which is why it can be undone or redone. Let us recall what Max Weber said, it is not the rule of courtesy that makes one tip the hat, but the interpretation by people of that rule. Understanding this helps us to create conditions to awaken and recreate our identities, to recognize those structures and then look for other paths.
María in the above story says, “If we looked at one another and helped one another, maybe our cooperative would be a cooperative.” There is a new interpretation there, which is the awareness of looking for alternative options to the ladder, seeing the stars. How?
From communitarian perspectives we can put on the shoes of different people, even though first we need to take off those we have on. From those “soles” it is not possible to put the “ladder” to one side, because in the end it is in our own minds and feet. Hmmmm! After identifying it, how can we proceed?
Following Figure 2, we propose three steps. First, forming organizations with membership in just one community, and limiting their size: that it not have more than 50 members, nor that it only grow economically. This will keep a leader from becoming the “big chief”, because his organization will be relatively small, and its membership will be more informed about their organization from living in the same community or micro-territory. This will reduce the size of the ladder and pull it toward the community.
Second, multiplying organizations in the same community: forming more cooperatives and facilitating the emergence of new forms of organization – stores, roasters, bee keepers, bakeries and poultry farms of groups of people. At the same time, recognize that there are organizations in the same community: water committees, parent teacher organizations, representatives of municipal government, road committees. This multiplication of organizations, in addition to their economic and social impact, also contribute to the democracy of the organizations in the same community. In this, there tend to be two or three people who control organizations in a community: e.g. a “chief” as mayor´s representative, and president of the water committee and the cooperative. If in a community a second and third cooperative are formed, that “chief” can only be the member of one cooperative. If in that community a community store and/or roaster emerges, their administration requires full time work, which means it would be difficult for that “chief” to be the administrator of a community store. The characteristic of the “chiefs” is that their two or three organizations tend to be long ladders, financed and controlled from outside; while the organizations that are multiplying are smaller, from the same micro-territory and move more with their own resources. Multiplying organizations is like opening more windows and doors for the community.
Third, expanding and generating connections between different organizations on the basis of already existing and emerging relationships of collaboration is a challenge. For example, the delegates of the word of the Catholic Church tend to be part of dense relationships. If a good part of that social base are also members of an organization, they contribute to trust, which is a basic asset for building connections; for that reason it is necessary to show those dense relationships. When a new organization emerges, it is like opening a new channel for previously dammed water to flow; and if that organization, in contrast to traditional ones, is composed of women and/or young people, fresher and cleaner water flows through that channel uniting more lives.
In these connections we are not talking about alliances. So far, we are not aware of interesting and lasting alliances. We see that when organizations multiply, collective and community actions also multiply; e.g. road repair, disease prevention actions, like the current COVID-19. We do envision the possibility of forming second tier organizations in the same micro-territory, which would be practically the opposite of the “big headed dwarf” model of the second-tier cooperatives that exist today – something to discuss in another article.
The change of structure that we are proposing is discovering the “ladder” which we ourselves are part of, and move beyond it by reducing its size, multiplying ladders, and expanding their connections in the same community or micro-territory. These perspectives in the long term can democratize our societies and offer better conditions where the voice of people is heard and listened to, shared leadership flourishes, and collective innovations are possible.
This process, no matter how praiseworthy it might be, requires hard work for hours beyond “the work day” on the part of some people in the communities and those who accompany them. Because that “ladder” is like the roots of a bad weed that lives in our minds, resists being discovered, and on being discovered fights to persist and intensifies its domination in old and new organizations.
From community perspectives, it is not a matter of “not leaving anyone behind.” It is a matter of each person getting closer to others, and on doing so, they draw closer to their own capacity and potential. Then the community will be more than the sum of its parts.
On one occasion I talked with a former director of a European aid agency.
-We are bringing in a donation of rice for Central America, so that people would let go of their native seed and end up buying rice seed from our business; we finance potatoes under the same condition …
-Do all aid agencies do this?
-Not all … What do you expect, that they would provide it for free? Nestle did this also in Africa, gave away free milk in the hospitals so that mothers would give it to their newborns, and after some days those mothers did not have breast milk, and had to buy Nestle´s milk.
-That is why some organizations in the south, the larger they are, the more deals they make for fewer people, they keep part of that aid; while ecological agriculture or peasant agriculture trips over every trap that they set for them.
-And when does this happen?
-All the time, but even more in times of crisis.
I bring up this conversation held 10 years ago. Under the shadow of COVID-19 multinational enterprises are moving their pieces like a game of chess, while the peasantry is groping about under the inclement sun of April. In many cases governments of developed countries act with both arms, with one arm they help, and with the other arm harvest what the first arm planted; it is their foreign policy where “nothing is free,” These practices of dispossession are intensified “more in times of crisis.”
In this article we show the urgency of producing food in the circumstances of COVID-19, the adversity that these circumstances represent, and the opportunity before our eyes. We identify the indigenous and peasant families who produce the food in the region, the basic grains, beans, rice and corn, even though in this article we emphasize more beans and corn. We expose the intentions of commercial mediation and the dispossession “traps” of capitalism with its “two arms.” And we make an effort to present proposals from grassroots organizations – we are referring to first tier cooperatives, but it extends to associations, associative enterprises, rural banks and peasant (or community) stores.
According to the IMF (https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WEO/Issues/2020/04/14/weo-april-2020), as an effect of COVID-19, the world economy is going to decline this year 2020 (-3%), particularly the economies of the so-called developed countries (-6%). This can be expressed in the fact that investment and consumer spending falls. For the countries of the south, that means that their export products are going to have less demand in Europe and the United States, which in fact is already happening; with drop in demand, prices fall for products like meat, coffee, bananas, apples…Will the same thing happen with basic commodities like beans, rice or corn? By way of hypothesis, for the case of Central America, if the supply of basic commodities falls more than demand, then their prices are going to rise, and low income consumer families will be affected. Let us remember, in Latin America there are hundreds of varieties of corn and beans, but in Central America some varieties are the ones that are produced and consumed, like red beans in Nicaragua, Costa Rica and El Salvador, or black beans in Guatemala. There can be corn like what is used for corn flour with varieties from Mexico, but the indigenous and peasant communities in Central America consume the corn that they produce.
The quarantine in the United States and Europe means that people are confined to their homes, which is why their consumption goes down. This means that the price of products, particularly the products that are not basic commodities, will fall. For example, if the price of meat in the United States drops, this affects prices down the line in the mediation chain in the meat industry, which reaches down to the farms and haciendas themselves in countries of Latin America. The graph of the FAO (see http://www.fao.org/worldfoodsituation/foodpricesindex/en/) reveals dramatic drops in the months of January to March in vegetable oils, sugar and meat, a drop that according to other reports, continues in this month of April.
Products like beans and corn also are dropping, but to a lesser extent (see yellow line for cereals on graph). In Mesoamerica, beans, corn and rice are basic commodities, they are the number 1 ingredient in the Mesoamerican family plate of food, which is why it would be difficult for their demand to drop. “As long as there are beans with tortilla and some corn, the rest is a treat”, people are heard saying in the communities.
Even though in Latin America those crops are produced by producers of different sizes (medium and large in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and northern Mexico), in Central America, particularly in the case of corn and beans, almost all is produced by small producers. In this region (see Table 1), even though the data is from 13 years ago, it tells us that there are a little more than two million basic grain producers, who, including their families, represent a little more than 10 million people, and they constitute 56% of the total rural population and 29% of the total population of the region.
Table 1. Number of basic grain (corn, beans, rice and sorghum) producers & rural population 2005-07
Basic grain producers (thousands)
Rural population basic grains (column 1 x aver. family size)
Total rural population
% Rural pop. BG / total rural population
Source: Baumeister (2010), Pequeños productores de granos básicos en América Central. Honduras: FAO-RUTA. http://www.fao.org/3/a-au202s.pdf%20 This is data based on standard of living surveys and agricultural census.
Table 2. Basic grain areas 2006 (hectares)
Source: Baumeister (2010)
This population produces 2,457,341 hectares of corn and beans: see Table 2. Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras have more production area. Both crops are cultivated at 3 times of the year: first planting (May), second (August) and third (December); plantings that coincide with the rainy seasons by edaphoclimatic zone.
Since the quarantine affects the entire region, the agro-chemical industry and banks are limited in the scope of their action, which means that the provision of credit, seed and agro-chemicals for planting basic grains is limited. The decree of a quarantine reduces the spread of COVID-19, and at the same time, limits farm production, not so much because families are confined to their homes, or because peasant and indigenous families are “confined” to their farms, but because the movement of producer families in the region, except for Nicaragua, to do their purchases of inputs and financial transactions is limited; for example, in Honduras, with the curfew people can only leave their homes one day per week as determined by their identity card.
As an effect, the supply of corn and beans tends to be less: by planting smaller areas in May, less smaller volumes will be harvested in July, which is why the second planting is going to be smaller…If this happens, the scarcity of basic grains in the entire region is going to cause an increase in prices and possible hoarding of large volumes to do price speculation; in fact, the price of beans already increased starting on April 21. Going back to Tables 1 and 2, we conclude that if other countries drop their production by 30%, Nicaragua should increase its production areas to contribute to the region.
How should this situation be addressed? After this introduction, we summarize the mediation practices that make bean supply and demand possible, but mediated by unfair institutions, that affect human population and nature. Then we involve the efforts of international aid and we warn of its risks. Then we describe a different path as a proposal. Finally, we lay out a decisive and unconfined accompaniment on the part of those of us who say we are accompanying rural families. In the conclusions we recall that we need to open ourselves to the people who are more underprivileged.
2. More of the same with businesses of mediation
In general, we are seeing an intensification of the old practices of mediation, more of the same. Meanwhile, part of the peasantry is preparing to grow basic grains with relative autonomy. There is no variation in the mediation technology and relationships, in spite of what is said in the world that after COVID-19 “nothing will be the same”.
The logic that traditional mediation intensifies is: dependency on agro-chemicals and certified seed, unfair weighing and disproportionate application of percentage of defects, disinformation, absence of incentives for product quality, and the power of ideas like “more inputs, more production”, “without glyphosate there are no beans and corn”, and “clearing land causes joy” -clearing land refers to deforestation or felling trees to plant basic grains or for ranching.
Within this logic there are three types of mediation. The first, businesses or intermediaries provide seed and agro-chemicals to be paid with beans or corn, under the condition that the entire harvest be sold to them. The second type is businesses or cooperatives that offer a package the includes seed, agro-chemicals and technical supervision, to be paid with beans, and on the condition that they be sold the entire harvest; the difference with the first type is that in this second version they offer them C$100/qq over the street (market) price. The third type of mediation is scattershot, there are people from the community itself who lend money under terms of usury to families who are not able to save to pay for the rental of land and to buy uncertified seed, they are families whose harvests are sold to local buyers, who collect the harvest for municipal mediators (“truckers”), who in turn sell the grains to provincial buyers. The first two types of mediation export beans to other countries in the region, particularly to Costa Rica and El Salvador, countries that produce less (see Table 2) and have a large population that demands grains; the third type also export to countries outside the region.
The effects of these 3 mediations are multiple: loss of soil fertility, increase in the resistance of insects to agro-chemicals, pressure to cut down patches of forest that still remain on peasant and indigenous farms, lack of water in the communities because the deforestation leaves the water sources and creeks unprotected, systematic reduction in the profit margins of grains for producer families (the nefarious “plier squeeze”: more expensive inputs, combined with lower prices for peasant produce), migration and sale of land, erosion of communities, hoarding and price speculation…
Those who escape from this network of mediation throughout the region are indigenous and peasant families with small areas of land. They are families who cultivate for their own consumption, who store native seed, use little or no agro-chemicals, and sell their surplus grains to the highest bidder. They are families who live in relatively stable communities. With or without quarantine, these families will continue producing. These families and communities, nevertheless, are ever fewer, the new generations are being de-peasantized, which is why it is easy to find communities that 30 years ago were owners of land, and now mostly are families who plant grains on rented land.
3. Efforts of international aid organizations
Before the crisis we heard different voices from international aid organizations, including the so- called fair-trade organizations. Their practice seems to be “more of the same” as well; this worldwide discourse that “everything will be different” after COVID-10 is beginning to be carried away in the wind.
Some organizations look to support NGOs whose staff are confined to their homes. Other organizations, and this is what we uncover in this section, remember rural families, but tend to fall into or brandish two old modalities of aid.
The first modality intensifies the first two types of mediation described in the previous section, and at the same time is distinct from them. It intensifies because it provides credit and induces them to make an arrangement with traditional mediation to sell them inputs and buy their harvests. It is distinct when they work with second tier cooperatives to collect the grains and sell them to international organizations, or some large buyer; in general they pay for and demand quality. In the context of COVID-19 this type of practice is intensified.
The second modality is being revived with COVID-19. It is an old form of aid that generally emerges “in times of crisis”. It goes well with the story that we described at the beginning of this article. There are organizations that donate in cash or food to “more vulnerable” families; it was a boom when Hurricane Mitch hit in 1998, or in 2001 when prices for coffee fell to $70/qq for export quality coffee. To do so, aid organizations use the cooperatives or NGOs to identify the families in a vulnerable situation, and to channel the donation. Let us magnify this type of aid to see its possible adverse effects on the explicit objectives that they pursue.
Aid organizations ask the administration (manager and technical team) of the cooperatives to prepare a list of families, not members of the cooperative. On these lists generally are a good number of people without land, or with little land; most of them are day laborers, and in the corresponding periods grow basic grains on rented land, or work in a sharecropping arrangement with the owner of the land, and pay the rent generally with their savings from harvesting coffee. When the donation gets to this sector, even though the good intentions of the aid organizations might be praiseworthy, it results in two risks that can be counterproductive to the spirit of help that motivates the aid organizations, and counterproductive to the reason for being of the cooperatives. What are those risks?
A first risk is that a good number of these families, on receiving the aid, might decide to not plant basic grains, or reduce the area that they are planning on planting. It can happen with peasant family owners of small areas of land. And it can happen with day laborers. A day laborer, on receiving an amount in cash or food that meets their needs that day, and the following days, their first reaction, coherent with this mentality of a day laborer, is “to not work”, in some cases even “look for beer” (alcoholism). In other words, the aid can result in less area planted, which means less food, which means more problems particularly for women concerned about putting three meals on the table. This type of aid, in the long term, can cause a bigger crisis in the family, even selling off the little land that they have or their yard. If the family does not plant, and prefers to consume the donation, without saving or investing it, in a matter of three months that family is going to be in a worse situation, because they are not going to harvest, and so will cry out for new aid. Since the cooperative was the channel for the first aid, they will expect the cooperative to resolve their problem.
A second risk is that the sustainability of the cooperative might be diminished, and crack the social cohesion of the community. The members, on realizing that they are not part of the list, and that instead are subsidizing aid to non-members, are going to have their idea that “the members are not in charge in the cooperative” be confirmed, and some with debts to the cooperative will say that “they are not going to pay.” The organs of the cooperatives also tend to be weakened in their functioning, because the aid organizations erroneously assume that the cooperative is equal to its management, they make arrangements with them, and pressure them to execute the donation; the administration tends to obey them under the rule of “you don´t look a gift horse in the mouth,” while the organs of the cooperative are placed to the side. In terms of the community, the non- members not benefitted by the donation, resent not being part of the aid, so possible long standing internal schisms revive. The population will feel that it turns their stomachs to understand the message of the donation: “you have to be impoverished to receive aid,” “the working person does not deserve aid”; which is contrary to the Law of Talents from Matthew 25, or certain values about one´s own effort that tends to be promoted in the communities.
Taking these risks into account, international aid organizations that make donations to impoverished families should be coherent with their own policy: accepting the effects of their actions. If they donate, they should do it every 3 months to those families for at least two years; delivering the donations directly to beneficiary families, so that the benefitting population might applaud or complain to the donor organization. The cooperative, one that is committed to its sustainability and that of its community, should not get wrapped up in unsustainable actions, and even less so, if these actions have the potential to erode the future of their organization and their communities.
National and international aid organizations are good for moving about in the aid market, grassroots cooperatives should recognize them for that skill. Grassroots cooperatives, those who are seeking their sustainability and that of their communities, know their families better, aid organizations should listen to them and learn from them.
4. An alternative path from those who are more impoverished
In the context of COVID-19, if traditional mediation intensifies their unjust mechanisms against the peasantry and the environment, and if international aid organizations impose their “aid that entraps”, in the short term, low supply and institutional situation of hoarding will be felt, famine could break out, as well as water scarcity in an agriculture which deforests and is dependent on agro-chemicals. Without the peasantry producing, and a change in the institutional arrangement that would respect the right of the population to access food, the region will be affected. In this section we sketch out a different path, not just donations, not just business, but contributing to the production of food in the short term, and through that “window” entering into long term change, local and global living communities with sustainable agriculture that restores their soil and water.
Table 3: Costs of production for beans (C$*)
With agro-chemicals (1 mz)
With sustainable agriculture (1 mz)
Financing (30% costs)
* To get cost in dollars divide by C$34 = US$1
Source: estimate with support of ing. Elix Meneces
In the last week of April people finish the arrangements for renting land and begin to prepare the soil for planting, awaiting the “rain showers of May” – the first rains of the year. Let´s remember, some families plant on their land, they need minimal support in credit for seed and other costs; some families rent land to plant basic grains, they have difficulties in coming up with the C$2500/mz that the land owner charges, maybe they need 50% of that amount; some families seek to plant by halves, they expect that the land owner would provide the land and seed, or between two people, they rent the land and work it 50-50. These families, growing their grains, on harvesting them need to save their seed to begin a life less dependent on mediation and aid, then they need to improve their soil and protect their water… They can do it if they organize into cooperatives, associations or associative enterprises that move on the basis of agreements in their assemblies.
In the face of this situation, international organizations and grassroots cooperatives can join forces. Both have a common, explicit objective: help the most vulnerable families, and that there be water for life. Correspondingly, they should agree on the fact that aid should help. How?
The cooperative can finance the amount that families need to rent land and obtain their inputs (see Table 3), and/or go into halves with families that desire to do so. The table shows that the area of sustainable agriculture is more expensive, that is because it requires more labor, which also should be read as greater creation of employment and environmental benefit. The cooperative can finance 30% of an area with agro-chemicals and an area with sustainable agriculture, supervise those plantings, and technically advise the family within the framework of community. The condition for this service would be that the families pay the loan with beans, commit to sell their harvest to the cooperative, that 50% of the area be cultivated without agro-chemicals and with organic inputs, and that they protect water sources throughout the farm. In the case of compliance by both parties, the cooperative would distribute their surplus in accordance with the norms of the cooperative, a distribution which is both social and individual: 10% legal reserves, 20% social fund, 20% capitalization of the cooperative and 50% individual distribution in accordance with the quantity that the producers have sold to the cooperative. In the long term, these sustainable products could be better remunerated. What would you prefer, reader, rice and beans with glyphosate or without glyphosate?
Under these agreements the cooperative can collect an estimated 25qq/mzs of beans and 35qq/mzs of corn; if a cooperative under the terms described would support 100mzs of beans and 100 mzs of corn, it would collect 2500qq of beans and 3500qq of corn; we can imagine what is possible with 20 or 100 cooperatives taking on these practices. 5% of this total could be saved as seed, to organize the second planting (August). The rest of the volume of grains can be sold in accordance with the health situation and the demand for food that we would have in the months of July, August and September; cooperatives can make more favorable decisions for society and social justice, while capital only sees merchandise, money and moves under the justice of the market.
Consistent with this perspective, a cooperative can commit to producing organic inputs in an ongoing way. It can do it by itself or in alliance with international enterprises that offer organic inputs to revitalize soils, and not like the chemical inputs that are directed only at the crop and are only short term. This would mean working with landowners who would revitalize their soil in the long term, and working with families who would rent land from landowners for a minimum of 10 years, because the revitalization of the soil happens over years and its benefits are lasting. Landowners will benefit from a stable agreement and from those practices that revitalize the soil, in addition to the financial benefits.
Through this short term “window” of organizing the production of food, the cooperative can enter to work on the in-depth issue: mitigating climate change with sustainable agriculture and energizing living communities.
There is a perspective here in which international organizations can redefine their forms of aid. It is a perspective that in the long term transforms traditional mediation and “aid that entraps”, leads them to respect and empower the rights of people to produce and have access to healthy food, and respect the rights of nature. It is a perspective that encourages mechanisms be directed to fair weighing, quality control with incentives, prices with redistribution, and the fact that communities can scale up by adding value to their products and their waste.
5. Accompaniment needed
Some people from NGOs confined to their homes are not going to move about; we respect their decision, even though they can help us studying the behavior of markets, and reflecting on the changes that the NGOs themselves should begin. Some of us who are accompanying the rural families who are organizing, we are “confined” to accompanying families in their communities. What does it mean to accompany?
The biblical passage of the Road to Emmaus (Lk 24: 13-25) can be a guide. The Puerto Rican theologian, Carmelo Álvarez, says: “This passage encourages us to walk in the midst of uncertainty, which is being transformed into certainty and confidence. Jesus approaches these hopeless, frustrated, and hurting travelers/disciples, and accompanies them without showing his identity. He establishes a dialogue of travelers. And he patiently provides elements that illuminate the faith! He is able to get the travelers to be receptive to his words and presence. So, an invitation emerges, “stay with us” (…) The Supper calls for sharing, revealing the Mystery …Today, more than ever, we need the Pilgrim of Emmaus, so that he might help us with this presence, to continue walking with the faith of open eyes…”
This accompaniment should include three elements: studying, training and innovating. Studying people to apprehend ways of expanding their relationships of cooperation. We can suggest something to people IF we know their situations, like the producer Rodrigo López from the community of Ocote Tuma (Waslala, Northern Atlantic Region, Nicaragua) was telling us, “if you do not understand, you do not see”; accompanying is the people themselves teaching us to advise them – “stay with us”. Training means creating conditions for awakening, taking on the consequences of our actions and decisions, awakening to the way of life that we are leading, the way of working and way of organizing ourselves, realizing that no matter had bad off we may be, we always have something good to hold on to. Innovating along with families forms of making the proposal just described a reality, innovating day by day in agriculture, commercialization, collective organization and learning. The people that we accompany, we need to understand that studying, training and innovating are interdependent, it is the holy trinity of accompaniment – understanding in order to see.
Each cooperative can be the Pilgrim of Emmaus. Each church, University and NGO could be the Pilgrim of Emmaus.
After COVID-19 “nothing will return to what it was before”. This phrase is hollow when we look at the current behavior of traditional mediation of capital, products and words. We must make that expression a reality to the extent to which we build different futures, futures more socially and environmentally just and equitable.
In this article we have started from the idea that basic commodities, like basic grains, could become scarce as an effect of COVID-19, that in the face of this possibility, it is urgent that indigenous and peasant families get involved in producing. But that they do so under different conditions from those imposed by traditional mediation and by the aid industry, whose actions do damage and create perverse incentives for producers as well as for their organizations. Let them produce in alliance with local organizations, with incentives in which landowners and producer families all gain in the short term, and as living communities gain in the long term.
This proposal is in relation to basic commodity foodstuffs that encompass the entire population of the region. It is about growing basic grains whose first planting season is about to begin (May 1). But if we still are not able to work at total strength in this season, we can begin, and prepare ourselves for the second planting (August). The same can be done with vegetables – squash, cucumbers, garlic, summer squash…
This proposal is even more important, because it involves families who are farther down, the most impoverished families who sustain humanity, they are 29% of the total population of the region. The mentalities of this 29% are even much lower from centuries of domination, but that with good accompaniment, like that of the Pilgrim of Emmaus, the good of that population can emerge as well as the good of their accompaniers.
This is a proposal for the grassroots organizations who maybe have embraced only export crops, so that they can include basic commodity crops. Not just because they are primary foodstuffs, but because getting involved in them will provide them roots in the communities and local markets. It will also feed into their environmental perspective, particularly the indigenous populations will make us understand that the land has life, is the mother, and therefore it is not conceivable to buy or sell “the mother” or mercilessly drown her with agro-chemicals. Or is it?
 Even though the fall in the prices of sugar and (palm) oil is due more to the fall in the price of petroleum, products that are used for the production of biofuels. We are grateful to Arturo Grigsby for this information.
 Even if the supply of basic grains were less, possibly it would be enough to feed the population. What might happen is hoarding that might cause famine. In this sense, it is worthwhile to dust off the study of A. Sen (1981) Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Clarendon Press, Oxford. In that study, Sen shows that there was no lack of food in the 1943 famine in Bengal (India) or the famine in Ethiopia in 1972, but social institutions that hoarded food and deprived people of their right to have access to food.
 50-50 is viable, while a radical change of cultivating 100% with ecological agriculture could be unreal. The advantage of the ecological area is that it is intensive work, generates Jobs, and makes use of resources existing in the community itself. The ecological agriculture area part implies a radical change: betting on the soil instead of betting on a crop.
Riding astride coffee yield and quality in Nicaragua
René Mendoza, Javier López, Ivania Rivera and Warren Armstrong
“Do you know why I invited you to this coffee shop?, a European buyer, who is also a grade Q coffee-cupper, asked me. “Because they told me that they serve quality coffee here”, he responded to his own question. With that the waiter came up, and he asked for an expresso – coffee with more flavor and texture. When we were served, he took the first sip and made a face, “this is garbage.” Why? I asked. “There is no coffee shop in this country with good coffee, and we are in a coffee growing country!” His words shook the floor under me, and I came back at him, “you buy coffee throughout Latin America, where have you tasted good coffee?” Taking another sip of coffee, he said, “In Colombia, in Bogotá, even in the poorest coffee shop you find good coffee.” “Well… we are a coffee growing country, but the culture of coffee shops is new,” I said to him, “like looking for a needle in a haystack.” Looking at me with a certain amount of compassion, he said, “That explains it, but it does not justify it.”
(Based on a conversation between René Mendoza and a coffee buyer in 2019)
Coffee quality is expressed through its aroma, fragrance and flavor, the fact that its beans are healthy and clean, that they are dried well, grew on good soil, and in the company of other crops…Behind these attributes and actions are dozens of human hands in several phases and moments. That quality is relatively stable over time, as the French proverb says, “Price is forgotten, quality remains.” Prices can be like milk when it is boiling, they go up and down, while quality is more stable. What is happening with coffee quality in Nicaragua? The cupper-buyer in the story gives us a troubling indication: it could be that we do not have a good taste for coffee, and even so produce good export beans. Maybe.
Responding to the question, in this article we describe the situation of coffee yield and quality, we explain reasons why, we propose a path for improvement, and in the end provide conclusions that summarize the findings and leave the reader with the approach that should guide us. Even though the story about “good coffee” refers to national markets, and specifically to that of coffee shops, in this article we work more on coffee exports, whose quality is also connected to the quality of the coffee offered in the coffee shops of the country. We do this in good measure from the experience of Aldea Global, an association that sells more than 150,000 qq of coffee a year, and from the space of the dry mill where we want to look at the coffee chain, including its production and commercialization.
1. Coffee Yield and Quality
The prices of goods and products in markets frequently vary, as do interest rates on money; in contrast, the productivity and quality of an agricultural or non-agricultural product are less unstable, change more slowly. In the last 40 years the productivity of several crops has been maintained with minimal variation: for example, coffee, the crop that this article addresses, varied from 9.23 to 12 qq export coffee per manzana over a 50-year period!
Prices for coffee vary every day in New York (international point of reference) and in local markets; while the demand for quality coffee is increasing in international markets. In the 1990s there were few brands, among which fair-trade brand stood out. In contrast, in the current millennium there are dozens of brands (rainforest, bird friendly, utz, 4C, Nespresso AAA, café practices, etc) and denominations of origin or geographic indication (Juan Valdez, Colombia; Marcala, Honduras; Blue Mountain, Jamaica; Volcán de Oro, Guatemala; Tarrazú, Costa Ríca) which illustrates the growing world demand for a quality product. Nevertheless, precisely when the demand for quality coffee is increasing, the yield and score that measures the quality of coffee in Nicaragua is dropping: see Graphs 1 and 2. The yield we refer to is the quantity of pounds of parchment coffee (with 50 % of humidity) that are needed to get 100 lbs of export quality coffee (with between 10-12 % of humidity) – subtracting a number of pounds of imperfect coffee (broken, black, severe insect damaged, withered beans). The quality score, for its part, measures fragrancy, aroma, taste, acidity, body, uniformity and sweetness of the coffee. This is expressed by cupping points: from 70-80 is “common or commercial coffee”, 80-83 are “specialty coffees”, 84-89 “regional exemplary plus +”, 90-95 is “Exemplary coffees” and 95 and above are “unique coffees”.
Graph 1 shows us that to get 100 lbs of export coffee in the middle of the 1990s 215 lbs of parchment coffee was needed, then 3 more pounds, and since 2010 it shot up requiring 232 lbs by 2020. In that same period the rate of imperfect coffee has increased from less than 5lbs/qq in the 1990s (and export quality coffee of 96-98%) to more than 10 lbs/qq in 2020 (and export quality coffee of 85-90%). The same thing is happening with coffee producer families, in the 1990s with 18 to 19 buckets of raw cherry coffee they were able to get a load of coffee (200 lbs of parchment coffee), and in 2020 that load required more than 22 buckets of raw cherry coffee, “My coffee weighs less and less” observe the small producers.
Graph 2 shows us that coffee quality, after jumping between 1990-2000 from 80 to 84 (range of “regional exemplary plus+”), thanks to the differentiating actions of cooperatives within the fair trade framework (Mendoza et al, 2012; Mendoza, 2012), has been systematically dropping, finding ourselves now in “specialty coffees” with scores of 82, 81 and 80. Organizations that are looking for quality coffee are going find it with difficulty: a score of 84 you will find in no more than 15% of total coffee, the rest is “commercial coffee” with scores below 82.
Table 1. Evolution of coffee production, Central American countries (in 1,000 sacks of 60 kg)
So while markets are increasing their demand for quality coffee, because the societies´ tastes are improving and differentiating, and countries like Colombia; and Costa Rica are out ahead responding to these international and national demands, and Honduras is taking huge steps in production volume, quality, organization and branding, Nicaragua is being overlooking and is losing terrain (See Table 1 that compares the production volume among Central American countries from 1990/1 to 2018/9: Costa Rica, El Salvador and Panama are going down; Guatemala is maintaining their levels; Nicaragua is growing and Honduras is unstoppable). Even though we are paying attention to volume, let us focus on our question: What is causing this systematic drop in coffee yield and quality in Nicaragua?
2. Elements that are affecting this quality and yield
These healthy or broken beans, with good favor or undrinkable, are determined by human actions in the space of farms, wet mills (pulper, washing and drying) and dry mills (drying, hulling reprocessing and selection). After looking at Graphs 1 and 2, what are their causes? The three responses commonly heard are: there is a scarcity of labor, and therefore the coffee ferments on the plant itself; that producer organizations increasingly are buying poor quality coffee from intermediaries and non-members, which is why their own members become disillusioned with their organizations, and have quit producing quality coffee; and that the State, in contrast to Colombia, Costa Rica and Honduras, is not investing in coffee growing, nor in positioning the country internationally.
These three responses have some basis. In this section we will focus on two elements of the context, climate change and lack of liquidity/resources, and within this framework, coffee growing culture and the dry milling process.
2.1 Climate variability
Climate variation, combined with farm neglect, affect coffee quality and yields. We provide three elements that illustrate this fact. The first, in 2012 this combination of factors contributed to the fact that coffee rust and anthracnose wiped out a good part of the coffee (Mendoza, 2013; Brenes et al, 2016), particularly the varieties of caturra, maragogipe and bourbon –varieties of the arabica species. Caturra constituted more than 60% of the coffee in the country, considered to be a high- quality variety. As a consequence, caturra coffee plants were replaced by catimor plants; catimor is more resistant to rust, has the potential for producing larger volumes, but has a modest contribution to coffee quality. Catimor today represents more than 60% of the total coffee in the country.
The second element, mold and coffee with phenol. One hears more frequently that coffee has “severe mold” and even “phenol”. The mold is from over fermentation, be that on the plant itself, or because the pulped and washed coffee was not immediately dried, which in turn is due to rain, heat, or lack of coffee pickers. The phenol is the change in the chemical composition within the bean as an effect of drought and heat in the coffee plants, as well as the storage of wet coffee; coffee in humid environments gets dampened, generating fungi that produce the taste of mold and phenol. Generally, when cupped these coffees are classified as “undrinkable”.
Finally, withered beans, beans that even though red, have a ripe side and another speckled side; small beans also are an effect of climate change. In the last 3 cycles coffee has been observed that had a good appearance, but had small hair or fuzz that was left on the bean, which is due to lack of water. These types of affected beans are on the increase, made worse in the 2019/20 cycle due to the fact that during 2019 there were droughts of up to 30º C, and very hot early mornings, which caused uneven and misshapen maturation. If between September and October it either rained a lot, or it did not rain at all, that affected the ripening of the coffee, which, no matter how good a job is done in the wet mill, will result in insect damaged and spoiled beans. All this has affected the coffee yield and quality. Table 2 summarizes the physical defects of the beans and their possible causes
Table 2. Coffee defects and their causes
Physical defects of coffee
Beans with brown or black coloring
Lack of water during the development of the fruit
Misshapen and wrinkled beans
Poor development of the plant due to drought or lack of nutrients
Beans with small and dark perforations
Attack by insects (coffee berry borer or weevil)
Scarcity of resources
Yellow colored bean
Problem of soil nutrients
Management of farm and wet mill
Over ripened raw cherries picked up from ground
Poorly calibrated pulper
Beans with changes in its normal coloration
Prolonged storage and poor storage conditions
Beans with intense yellow caramel or reddish coloring
Delay between picking and pulping
Silverskin, can tend toward reddish brown coloring
Dirty fermentation tank, use of contaminated water, overheating, storage of wet coffee.
Management of dry milling
Flat bean with partial fractures
Coffee walked on during drying process; hulling of wet coffee
Added to this adverse environment is the so called “suffocating embrace”, which is a harmful embrace that is asphyxiating the peasantry. With the “left arm”, coffee prices go up and down, like milk when boiled, but seen over a 100 year period producer prices are decreasing in terms of the final value of coffee (Mendoza y Bastiaensen, 2003; Mendoza 2013); and with the “right arm”, the prices of farm inputs are systematically rising. So, this “big embrace”, the price of coffee dropping and the prices of inputs and capital rising, is suffocating producer families. If costs of production surpass $100/quintal, and the price of coffee drop to close or equal to $100, it is difficult for coffee to receive its 3 fertilizations, 2 moments for shade management, weeding and 4 leaf sprays a year. If the application of inputs drops, that not only affects the volume of coffee, but also increases the rate of imperfect beans, and lowers the cupping score – for example, it is difficult for a bean with little fertilization to ripen properly. In addition, the catimor variety, that has more potential in terms of production volume, also is more demanding in terms of fertilizers – what has a greater yield, eats and drinks more.
This “embrace” was more suffocating in the last two years (2018 and 2019). In the 2018/19 cycle coffee prices dropped to $98 in September 2018, and to $100 in December 2018, while prices for agro-chemicals rose by 30%, as a result of the new tax policy in the country starting February 28, 2019. In addition, due to the political crisis of the country, financial institutions (formal banks and micro-finance organizations) decided not to provide credit, except for Aldea Global, that instead expanded their rural credit portfolio and geographic coverage; due to that same crisis, international coffee buyers signed fewer purchase contracts, contracts that tend to allow cooperatives to get loans from the social banking sector. In other words, producer families did not have resources, which is why they applied little or no chemical or organic inputs. The effects of this are expressed now in the 2019/20 cycle in higher rates of imperfections and lower coffee quality.
Organizations are also experiencing another type of “embrace”. With the “left arm” they feel international pressure for better coffee quality, and with the “right arm” the parchment coffee (APO) that they receive from the producers is of lower quality. Between 1996 and 2010 it was just the reverse, the demand for quality coffee was less, and the producer families were providing better quality coffee, which is why it was relatively simple to sell large volumes of coffee. They were the times when the international perception of the quality of coffee in Nicaragua was good; that perception changed over the last 8 years, the coffee quality of the country is in question, correspondingly buyers are diverting their paths to other countries.
2.3 Coffee management on the farm
Even though climate change and the scarcity of resources through the “suffocating embrace” are having an impact on coffee yield and quality, coffee growing families also are experiencing structural changes within themselves. Producer families who established their coffee farms and other crops starting in 1990, after the “big war”, are getting beyond 60 years of age, which is why part of their offspring are taking on farms now divided up through inheritance.
This transition from one generation to another is facing challenges. First, farming is less diversified, it is more specialized in coffee or cattle or vegetables. This means that, in the case of coffee, families receive income practically only once a year. Secondly, a good number of the generation that are taking over farms now, inherited that culture of “coffee growers”, with the difference that now they only have 2 or 4 manzanas of coffee, and many times those manzanas are affected by rust and anthracnose. Third, with the end to the agricultural frontier, crop rotation with uncultivated areas is reduced, and with that, land has lost fertility (“it is tired”); the low application of inputs is only able to maintain production volumes, which is why the farm is less profitable for them. Fourth, the work culture “from sunup to sundown” of the older generations has ended, the new generation that grew up under the belief that “a pencil weighs less than a machete” mostly works only in the morning; and many times, erroneously interpreting what it means to be “coffee growers”, only want to “be in charge”. With only 2 mzs of coffee!
Consequently, that generation in transition that feels itself to be “coffee growers”, lack income in the months from March to October, in a context of climate changes and under the “big embrace”, have not been careful with their farms: i.e. take care to regulate their pulpers, not pulp too early nor wash too late, but respect the fact that coffee needs 12 hours of fermentation, calibrate the pulper depending on the coffee variety, being watchful over the drying…In a parallel fashion, the communities where they live seem to have lost that social warmth that encouraged them to cooperate, now they have less or nothing in their gardens (“my Mom´s green thumb”), and nearly work only on coffee, so have less reasons to exchange…The absence of that social cushion seems to put a damper on their economic life.
2.4 Coffee management in the dry mill
The dry mills receive the coffee that is the fruit of the effort of those producer families who find themselves economically, socially and environmentally asphyxiated. That is why this coffee comes in the form of shell beans, broken beans, with strident flavors, insect damaged, moldy, or healthy, clean beans with acidity and great flavor and aroma…In the dry mill they can take some actions to improve that coffee, even though their possibilities for maneuvering are reduced.
They cannot reduce the imperfection rate, they measure it, and can reprocess the coffee to achieve a certain level of quality, and with a certain number of defects that the markets demand. Likewise with the mold, even severe mold can be removed in drying with the sun; in the case that they are not able to get rid of that mold, they separate that coffee so that it does not affect the rest of the coffee, and sell it separately. They can manage it in micro-lots and have more control over its defects, mix varieties and improve something of its quality; but nothing more. They can also keep the yield from dropping too much, if they avoid trails of coffee on broken plastic or loss of beans from moving coffee from one place to another.
They can do that, if the dry mill is managed honestly, transparently and with access to the right technology. It is common to hear workers of the dry mills say that “they switched out the coffee” of such and such cooperative, or such and such members, that “the coffee got mold in the truck because there was no patio space to unload it”; or hear managers say that “they reprocessed it twice” without the owners of the coffee being present to know if they really did “reprocess it”, and whether they did it because it was necessary, or only to earn $2 or 3 per quintal, or that the “yield was 235 lbs for 100lbs” without there being proof of the weight, and control over the movement of the coffee in the reception area to the patio, to the warehouse, to the huller, to the sack…In many cases, those rumors are unfounded, but as the saying goes, “where there is smoke there is fire.”
Also from an external perspective, it is heard that buyers are looking for scores of 84, and in the dry mill, on not finding coffee from anywhere with that score, and on not being able to improve coffee quality based on re-processing the coffee with less than 5 defects, “they send coffee with a score of 82 saying that it is 84”. This might work once, in the short term, but in the medium and long term these practices of deceit undermine good relationships with buyers.
Even when the dry mill is managed honestly and transparently, they can incur in deficient management and neglect the importance of being committed to coffee quality. They could order containers of coffee with 11 defects, and that in the end they are prepared with 10 defects. It could be that a lot of coffee is classified as second quality, because it has fermented beans or some other damage, but that it is recoverable as first quality coffee with timely cupping, preparing the coffee with a smaller number of defects and working on it with different preparations. These errors can be due to the fact that there was a change in personnel, and this new staff did not have enough training and coordination to be watchful over the coffee drying; or it could be due to inefficient organization, top-down with office managers, which limits the responsibility of each person and makes them dependent on doing work that only is directed from above. A form of vertical organization that takes agency away from the people doing the work digs its own grave. If dry mills only bet on volume, not quality, they mix coffee indiscriminately, not guided by the cupping scores, even worse if the container to be sold is commercial grade 79, 80 and 81. They even store coffee with different weights, without controlling the coffee yield [resulting from the milling process]
The management in the dry mills also has to do with technology. The drying is done by the sun and hundreds of people, mostly women, under an unforgiving sun. Given that workers´ pay is low, we assume that they are not thinking about coffee quality, but about that sun and the time when the day will end. The consequence of that type of drying is that the beans end up uneven and over-dried. Also, most of the dry mills work with old processing equipment (huller, densimeters, vibrating bean separators, elevators, mechanical driers and electronic bean selectors), or new equipment from cheap brands, instead of the latest generation in quality and technology.
Concluding this section, the causes of coffee yield and quality are found throughout the chain, from the farm to its roasting. A family can pick just the red beans, and even so lose quality for not drying it quickly enough, or because of lack of space in the dry mill, it is left wet for two days. Several actors can make the effort to achieve good coffee, but the increase in temperature and drought can affect the coffee plants. You can have quality coffee, and even so damage it when the appropriate technology is missing – the latest generation. The quality is changed, not from one month to another, but in terms of years and decades. Coffee, and farming itself, is a long- term art, and involves several hands and minds.
3. Governing coffee
In the years between 1990 to 2000, it was the cooperatives who took on the leadership in improving coffee quality in the country; they did it in a context of relative peace, slight impact of climate change, and more than anything inspired by the fair trade movement. Today the context is different, climate change has worsened, the generational transition has not found its way and the fair trade movement lost strength and became bureaucratized, even so, cooperatives and associations can promote the improvement of coffee quality again. How? Figure 1 shows the importance of combining a coffee farming culture with an alliance for a quality cup and principles of well-being, and processing that adds value. These three mechanisms, mediated through coordination in learning, can make a difference. These are not proposals that are pulled from the sleeve of some magician, nor just the result of data analysis and literature, they come from observing and experiencing in the field this combination that the figure expresses as the pathway.
The first pillar, differentiating action on the part of producer families. That they renovate and repopulate their coffee fields, and scale up in their treatment of coffee processing. They can recover varieties of arabica coffee with high quality potential, and grow them under agro-forestry systems, adapting their management in accordance with their variety. A problem with catimor, for example, is when the producer gives it the same treatment that he gives a native variety; catimor should be picked when it is red (not speckled nor green), providing it more fermentation time than the caturra variety. To feed the soil (fertilize it), the chemical or organic input should be based on the formula resulting from the soil analysis. For the producer family to get those inputs, it must have in-kind credit under arrangements with input companies that lower their prices by volume purchasing, which is what Aldea Global does, and it works. They can experiment with coffee processing (wet milling); for example, so as to not mix qualities in the pulping stage, they can have a water tank that serves as a separator of floater of green, empty or poorly formed beans; or manage the fermentation by coffee varieties.. This requires a new culture of being coffee producers, who are motivated by a spirit of studying their realities (farms, families and communities), observing them, investigating new information, recording data, analyzing it, being guided by soil analyses and climate forecasts to manage their farms; all this is more possible with the current generation, which has higher levels of formal education, and makes more use of the internet.
The second pillar, the construction of direct connections between buyers and groups of producer families, based on quality cupping scores and principles. In terms of quality, each producer turns in coffee individually, and the dry mill can manage it by group and lots, register the information and have the coffee cupped by farm, so that buyers are guided by the cupping score; a family receives payment/price based on the quality of their coffee. It is assumed that they will invest more to improve the quality of their coffee even more.
In terms of principles, Aldea Global has developed a procedure and mechanisms for providing incentives for good agricultural practices, which can inspire other organizations in the country. What does Aldea Global do? It provides awards for compliance with principles, like having an orderly farm, not using prohibited chemicals, paying laborers in compliance with the labor regulations in the country, management of honey waters, protection and conservation of nature, environmentally friendly practices, recycling containers. These awards depend on the score that each member achieves; producers with a score of 70% have access to “x” amount of award per quintal; those that achieve 80% a bigger award, those with 90% an even bigger award, and those who achieve 100% get the “big” prize.
There can be producers who might receive a good price because of their cupping score, and not receive an award, if they get less than 70% in terms of their compliance with the principles. Even though it is more probable that a producer family with more than 70% compliance with principles would have coffee with a cupping score higher than 82. The logic is that complying with the principles is taking care of the farm and the well-being of the family, which is also going to be expressed in coffee quality and in good yields. Consequently, if buyers (national and international) and certifiers visit these producer families, and help them to establish themselves, they will be betting on the quality of family life, which leads to quality coffees in a sustainable and lasting manner.
The third pillar, the organization of the dry mill guided by values of honesty and transparency. To add value to coffee quality, the administration of the dry mill must have a counterweight in an autonomous board of directors with the capacity for supervision, and the owners of the coffee (members, cooperatives or organized groups) must have access to see the patios where their coffee is found, review their labels, be there at the moment of hulling, and review the data registry on the weight of the coffee at reception, on the patio, in the warehouse, before hulling and after hulling. With this three-way relationship of counterweights (administration, board members and owners of the coffee), the dry mill can manage micro-lots of coffee that come from different geographies of the country, and using different types of drying (natural, with honey and washed). This implies coordinating along the entire chain; for example, natural coffee implies picking only the red beans (none green or speckled), raw cherry coffee is transported that same day to the patio for drying, thus keeping the coffee from fermenting. The micro-lots of more than 50qq export coffee can be treated with differentiated qualities and respond to the demand of small roasters in the world. It also implies making use of appropriate technology (latest generation), like an industrial plant that treats coffee from its raw cherry state, thus preventing coffee from losing weight (2-3% in the fermentation and another 2-3% for the 12-13 days of drying) and conserving its quality.
These three elements of improvement are possible if a culture of learning is developed among the different actors around coffee. This is cultivating a spirit of investigating, observing, asking questions, recording information, taking notes, analyzing information and making use of the technology that todays world offers, including technology for massifying soil analyses, so that information flows to producers. The producer family can manage catimor or maragogipe varieties if they learn how to do it in a differentiated way; coffee drying will add value if people know how their actions make a difference…Without awakening the worm of doubt that each one of us has inside us, any work will be boring, and any information will pass under our noses without us noticing; guided by questions and a procedure for organizing and analyzing information, every human person will be mobilized, taking on their task as a mission that is worthwhile carrying out.
Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time, more intelligently. Henry Ford
We began the article with the question about what is happening with coffee quality. That word quality is an aperture to agriculture and our society, it tells us on a small scale what is happening to us. And what is happening? Coffee yields and quality in the country are getting worse. What is the reason? Climate change, prices (of coffee and inputs), neglect of the farms and the not very transparent management of the dry mills, which are concentrated in few hands. The latter can be seen in light of the type of drying-hulling in countries like Guatemala and Colombia, where drying is done on the farms themselves and in grassroots organizations, without the drying and hulling being concentrated in few hands; or in countries like Costa Rica, where an industrial plant processes coffee from its raw cherry state to its hulling, with a positive effect on coffee quality.
In contrast to Colombia, Costa Rica and Honduras itself, Nicaragua has not had a State that invests in coffee growing with a long-term perspective. There has not existed an institute that studies each coffee variety, or that has laboratories for innovating varieties. The State does not regulate the weighing of coffee in commercial trading, and within the dry mills. There are no financial incentives nor human recognition for producing quality coffee. There is a need for a State that would work to position the brand of coffee of the country in the outside world, and that at the same time might work for the population to replace sugar with a good taste for coffee.
But at the same time Nicaragua has more than 30% of coffee producers organized into cooperatives and associations. Among those organizations is Aldea Global, which is committed to the use of technology and information, which it takes to the producers to manage their farms based on soil analysis and climate forecasts. Also, Aldea Global is committed in the long term to improving coffee quality and yields based on technology that would help o control the temperature and humidity of the beans, and based on automated systems with sensors. These elements will guide the technical assistance provided to producer families and in the dry mills.
The fact that yields and quality are dropping is an opportunity, to paraphrase Henry Ford. Of course, Ford himself was surpassed by the Toyota industry, in spite of that, his phrase continues to have value, particularly seen as a society. How can coffee quality be improved “more intelligently”? Organizations (cooperatives, associations and businesses) must join efforts to organize a space for learning around coffee farms in association with other crops. Without investigation-learning, the different actors will be walking in the dark, and the producers, like oxen, will prefer their old yoke and sell coffee to traditional intermediaries, without concern about yields and quality, which means that in the long run the entire country will lose, including the producers themselves. A producer family can fill itself with passion, learn and seek their own vision, if organizations become democratic, transparent, efficient, and if together they organize information supported by technological and informational innovations, like big data and artificial intelligence (machine learning). This type of organization, like Aldea Global, having this learning infrastructure, would be able to accompany the entire coffee chain and other crops.
The old Fordist model continues guiding a good part of the coffee in Latin America, also expressed in its political structure of exclusion and inequality; so it is that we hear that “more volume, more earnings”, which lead us to coffee shops that the story at the beginning of the article talks about. Nicaragua can recover ground and position its quality coffee based on adopting a culture of learning, supported by information management and the latest generation technology. It could be that money might be a limiting factor in this, but like the history of so many innovations teach us, more important is the vision of transforming the countryside, pursuing product quality, pushed by families who are improving their lives. In this way we could hear that “the better the quality, the better our lives” which could include improving our own taste for quality coffee. It is not a matter of “adding money” and having coffee quality, it is a matter of “thinking more and running around less”, as they say in “tiki-taka soccer”.
 Javier, Ivania and Warren are from Aldea Global (https://aglobal.org.ni/), president, vice manger and manager, respectively; René is a consultant to rural organizations and a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (https://peacewinds.org/). Even though most of the authors are from Aldea Global, we maintained objectivity in the analysis, and we added data and experiences of Aldea Global when they were needed.
 According to the 2017 Annual Statistics from the Central Bank of Nicaragua, the average coffee yield in 10 years between 2007 and 2017 was 11.97qq/mz; in the 2018 Annual report, a certain amount of improvement was noted between 2014/5 with 14.7qq/mz, and in the following two cycles 2015/16 and 2016/17 with 16.5qq/mz. We still do not have data for the last two cycles (2017/18 and 2018/19). For a study on the decade of the 1980s, see José L. Rocha, 2003, “Revolution in Nicaraguan Coffee Growing” in: Anuario de Estudios Centroamericanos. San José: Universidad de Costa Rica 29 (1-2).
 Both graphs are based on information from several coffee buyer organizations, and on data that we have followed since the 1990s, seer: R. Mendoza, 2003, La paradoja del café: el gran negocio mundial y la gran crisis campesina. Managua: Nitlapan-UCA; R. Mendoza, 2013, Gatekeeping and the struggle over development in the Nicaraguan Segovias, PhD thesis, University of Antwerp..
 According to the International Coffee Organization (ICO), in 2018 Honduras was the seventh largest coffee producer and exporter in the world. In the last 10 years it has become the largest producer in Central America; in Latin America it is behind Brazil and Colombia. While the weight of coffee in farm production value dropped in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Panama, in the case of Honduras it increased between 1980 and 2011 (G.C. Brenes, C. Soto, P. Ocampo, J. Rivera, A. Navarro, G.M. Guatemala y S. Villanueva, 2016, La situación y tendencias de la producción de café en América Latina y el Caribe. San José: IICA y CIATEJ).
 In terms of the effect of coffee rust and anthracnose in the region, Nicaragua was the country most affected; the neighboring country, Honduras was not much affected at all (See: Brenes et al, 2016).
 R. Mendoza y J. Bastiaensen, 2003, “Fair trade and the coffee crisis in the Nicaraguan Segovias. In: Small Enterprise Development, Vol. 14.2.
 If we add other costs to this, like labor, the situation is even more “asphyxiating.” Note that even though the price for a bucket of picked coffee is the lowest in Central America, the fact that a load of coffee (200 lbs of parchment coffee) that required 19 buckets prior to 2016, currently requires more than 22 buckets; this means that the producer families are paying for an additional 3 buckets, which increases the cost of production, which does not necessarily benefit the workers.
 Aldea Global supports agro-forestry systems: 1,320 of its members are implementing it in 1500 mzs. There are also other organizations in the country that support these system; what is unique about Aldea Global is that they do it with the purposeof producer families improving their coffee quality.
 These experiments include testing the form of management common in Costa Rica, of receiving raw cherry coffee, and in a mechanized way, separating ripe beans from speckled and green ones, and then passing the uniform ripe beans directly from the pulper to the mechanical drier, eliminating fermentation. Ivan Petrich (2018, “Fermentación: Qué es & Cómo Mejora la Calidad del Café”, https://www.perfectdailygrind.com/2018/07/fermentacion-que-es-como-mejora-la-calidad-del-cafe/) explains the advantages of aerobic and anaerobic fermentation for coffee quality.
 For people of any age, but particularly young women and men, we have a guide to help them become students of their realities. See: René Mendoza, 2019, Jovenes y la oportunidad de construir puentes hacia el futuro. Una Guía para investigar e innovar. Managua: Nitlapan-UCA. It is also available at: www.coserpross.org . Aldea Global has information on more than 12 members with whom it works, information that anyone can access.
 Aldea Global is the only organization in Nicaragua that, starting in March 2020 will have their own first version of their app, to pilot providing personalized technical assistance by cell phone to 150 producers. The biggest challenge in this will not be providing that information, but using it. The app is a software progran that those 150 people will Access through their cell phones.
 A 2019 film “Ford vs Ferrari”, directed by James Mangold and written by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, shows the change that Henry Ford II underwent in the competition with Ferrari. That precise moment of change: not just producing quantities of vehicles but winning competitions, illustrates the spirit we are seeking.
 Style of Barcelona where they pass between one another while opposing team wears itself out running after the ball, and when an opening appears, attack the goal.
René Mendoza, Fabiola Zeledón, Elix Meneces, Hulda and Eliseo Miranda
Up until 2010 we buyers who were looking for quality coffee, we first would come to Nicaragua. After 2010 we no longer did, first we go to Costa Rica, then Honduras … (Coffee buyer).
In the 60s and 70s tons of people came to Nicaragua from El Salvador and Honduras looking for work, now we are the ones who go to those countries, looking for work. (Flavio Cardoza, producer).
In the dry coffee mills imperfect coffee reached double digits in this 2019/20 cycle: 10%…15%; black beans, faded, chipped, full black beans, insect damaged beans…The fungus moved from “slight” to “severe” and smelled like fish. On the farms of producer families instead of doing “three passes” (three passes of picking red and almost ripe coffee during the coffee season within 2 months), they saw themselves forced to do only two, and even only one pass, because of lack of pickers (labor), while they neglected to regulate their coffee pulper which resulted in those broken and chipped beans. What makes the coffee quality and its production drop? In this brief article we list 4 basic elements on coffee farms in Madriz, Nueva Segovia and Matagalpa, and at the end we offer some suggestions.
What affects coffee production and quality
The literature is full of technical reasons. We list what we observed in this 2019/20 cycle, and what producer families commonly say, based on their own observations, as well as the staff in the dry mill.
Figure 1 shows two scarce resources and two limiting structures, which have a high impact on coffee volume and quality.
A first element is the reduction in nutrients for the coffee plants. In the 2018/19 cycle, the prices for coffee were low. In September 2018 it dropped to $98, and in December 2018 it was at $100, while the prices for agrochemicals rose, as a result of the new tax policy in the country. Not only that, but the financial institutions implemented a policy of loan restructuring without providing new loans. In other words, producer families saw their resources dry up, which is why they applied little or no agrochemical or organic inputs. This had a repercussion on coffee quality, which was seen in the current 2019/20 cycle, precisely when prices went up, reaching $123 on December 16, 2019. Consequently, producer families thinking was “I am going to receive now the same thousand córdobas as last year; this season money is tight, in spite of the fact that prices are better than in the last cycle.”
A second element refers to the scarcity of labor. Pickers are going to coffee fields in Costa Rica and Honduras. Their argument: “They pay us better there, in addition we pick more than we do here.” Isn´t it the same coffee? Yes and no. Most of the coffee of Costa Rica is sold as specialty coffee at better prices; while Honduras has passed Nicaragua in production volume. Both countries have greater productivity, even though in Honduras it is due more to increase in area. This means that the person who picks coffee on small farms in Nicaragua, picks less in a day because the farms have less production; in addition, the price paid “per lata” is low, and varies between 30 to 50 córdobas, plus food, per lata. “It doesn´t work for us,” the pickers complain. Producer families argue that they would prefer to pay all in cash (without food), but the pickers want food, and many of them pick very little, and by midday are already out of the fields and asking for their 3 meals. This situation means pickers are scarce, the consequence of this is that the coffee is not picked on time, with a corresponding loss in volume and quality.
A third element is the mentality of believing themselves to be coffee growers in mono-cropping systems. The producer families who established their farms with coffee and other crops, starting in 1990, after the “big war”, are now getting beyond 60 years of age, which is why their offspring have been taking over farms already “cut up into pieces” through inheritance. Given that in the last 15 years families have become dependent on coffee as a mono-crop, a good number of these offspring, as new family units, inherited also this culture of feeling themselves to be “coffee producers” with 2 to 4 mzs of coffee, which at the most produces 10qq export coffee per manzana, which is why they lost the culture of working “from sunup to sundown” in taking care of the farm, and no longer go out to pick coffee on other farms. Their problem is that they inherited coffee fields affected by coffee rust and anthracnose, which they have to replant now on land which is more worn out (low fertility). Consequently, that combination of feeling themselves to be “coffee producers” and at the same time not having income in the months between March and October has them “underwater” in financial and marriage crises, which is why the children are growing up without Fathers, while they neglect their farms, the regulation of their coffee pulpers, drying, diversification…
The last element is the variation in the climate. Rains were expected for December, which help the grain thicken and ripen; but it did not rain, rather the temperature increased, which is why a good part of the flowering period was lost and the coffee with little liquid did not thicken. The beans that were able to thicken did not reach their optimum level. Many beans, on being picked, pulped and washed, looked as if they had been dried for 6 days. The rains that started on January 10th were not expected, were unnecessary, their prolongation for more than 10 days damaged the roads, reduced the time for picking the coffee, and made it difficult to transport the coffee, and hindered the sun drying process.
The combination of these elements has the power of undermining plans and commitments, and above all, making the families depressed before the harvest ends.
Recovering coffee, the farm, the community
Figure 2 lists the ideas that lead us to confront the 4 elements that affect coffee volume and quality.
Some people from that generation that is now passing 60 years of age are still a good reference point. “My Dad gets up at 4am, drinks his coffee and goes out to work the farm; if in the morning he goes to town to do some task, and returns at 4pm, he still goes to the farm.” (Rebeca Espinoza, Samarkanda). If we add to that culture of dedication to work, youth dedicated to studying their realities and innovating, the families could save resources and invest them, doing their numbers, producing fertile land that would provide them product volume and quality.
If that combination responds to a long term perspective, one that avoids “cutting property into pieces” and children growing up without Fathers, and is committed to the diversification of the farm and processing what they produce, these families could mobilize their members for activities like coffee picking on their own and their neighbor´s farm, and would attract workers from other places.
If we cultivated that work and study culture under a long term perspective, in a space of renovated cooperatives, the members of both sexes and different ages from the same community could cooperate better, and improve their collective actions, like transporting, drying and milling their coffee in their own community, selling any of their products, producing their own farm inputs, protecting and saving water, or preventing domestic violence.
Recovering the coffee quality that we achieved between 1996 and 2005, which the buyer refers to at the beginning of this text, is a challenge. Getting our people to stay in the country picking coffee, which Flavio observed in hindsight, is another challenge.
Both challenges are not achieved with the hundred year old ideas of the elites: “More inputs, more production”, “better price, more quality”, “investing only in coffee to buy the food for the year”, “the more members there are, the better the cooperative”, “farming is something men do”. The consequences of this cookbook, sadly reproduced by most of the farm cooperatives today, are destroyed families and farms, degraded environment, and the advance of elites expelling the peasantry from their communities.
Addressing those two challenges is possible with families that change as people, as they build a new type of cooperative, one in which families cooperate with one another to generate new technologies, organize and analyze new information, and add value to the coffee and a dozen agricultural products.
 The authors are part of a network that facilitates the training of cooperatives governed by their members.
 Lata refers to old cooking oil cans that were used to measure picked coffee beans for paying workers. The term is still used, although the measuring is now mostly done with 5-gallon plastic buckets.
The height of injustice is to be deemed just when you are not. Plato
Even an honest man sins in the face of an open treasure. Saying.
The VII song of the Odyessy tells how the goddess Circe warned Ulysses that the sailors of those waters were so enchanted by the song of the sirens that they went mad, and lost control of their ships. To not succumb to that enchantment, Ulysses asked that he be tied to the mast of the ship, and that the oarsmen have wax put in their ears, and ordered that if he, because of the spell of their song, would ask that they free him, instead they should tighten the knots. So it was that Ulysses and his oarsmen were saved, and the sirens, failing in their objective, threw themselves off the cliff.
Facing unfair commercial relations, Fair Trade (FT) emerged as an alternative so that people who organized might improve their lives and be a space of solidarity among different actors beyond their countries´ borders. Nevertheless, in our case study in Nicaragua and Central America, we show that the institutional structure of power relationships under the market control of elites is like the sirens in the myth, capable of seducing the FT network, turning it against its own principles, and turning solidarity into just a bunch of words, numbers and papers. How can FT tie itself up so as to not succumb to the song of the sirens, and in this way, grow, enhancing its FT alternative principles? To respond to this question we take as a given that there are exceptional cooperatives, organizations, and people who confirm the importance of organizing and cultivating global solidarity, and that there are successful cooperatives, in countries in the south as well as in the north, in FT as well as outside of it. Nevertheless, in this article we study certain practices of the FT framework that seem to indicate its involution, and on that basis we suggest its reinvention. To do so we focus on coffee, which constitutes 70% of the volume of what is sold through FT.
Bias. It’s what we as human being use to see the world around us, whether we like to admit it or not. We see the world through the lens of our own experiences. Sometimes that comes from things that have happened to us. Sometimes it comes from things we’ve been told. Often our vision comes from the way we would like to see reality, for our own benefit. But we are born with the predilection toward bias. Is it also true about the way we view the poor?
I received the following article from the organization, “Progress Through Business,” a non-profit located at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was founded by an acquaintance of mine, John Hoffmire, whom I came to know through his advocacy in the ESOP world. I found the subject and the data of the article provocative, and decided to include it here:
How The Rich View The Poor
The discussion over rising inequality in the U.S. has captured headlines, been featured in the November election campaign, and incited heated debates analyzing and criticizing the relationships between the rich and the poor. “Out-of-touch” and “unsympathetic” have become buzzwords used to describe the attitude of the haves toward the have-nots.
Despite this narrative unfolding in the media, the question remains whether the headlines reflect reality.
The Associated Press recently cited research saying that 1 in 5 Americans reaches affluence at one point in their lives. This 20 percent block is a far cry from the critique offered by many who want change but still provides evidence of a large disparity between the wealthy and the poor.
Some might ask how this division affects the social aspects of our society. What is the best descriptor of the relationship between those on opposite ends of the economic spectrum? The prevailing story conveyed through the media would suggest that “out-of-touch” and “unsympathetic” do accurately portray the well-off portion of the U.S. society.
However, those who question this viewpoint might pose the following queries: What about the billions of dollars donated every year to poverty-focused charities? What about the wealthy investors who have recently turned their focus to social innovation and impact investing in order to address social ills through business? Doesn’t this demonstrate a stronger interest than we might otherwise think? Or does the philanthropist merely seek notoriety through his or her contributions, and is the socially minded investor motivated by the opportunity to gain new market share or attract new customers?
So the question remains, are the wealthy truly invested in the poor and do they care?
A New York Times blog by Daniel Goleman detailed research on social interactions between two groups of people on significantly different rungs of the social ladder. I’ll call this research “study one.”
Members of one group had a much higher income than the members of the other. Subjects of both social classes were instructed to share and communicate, with another individual, about hardships that they had experienced in their personal lives. Researchers then observed the interaction between the two individuals. The findings of the research show that the rich consistently demonstrate disinterest in the personal difficulties of the poor.
The wealthy showed less sympathy and concern as they listened to the poor recall personal trials, such as divorces and deaths in the family. Conversely, the poor tended to be as attentive to the difficulties of the rich as they were to the difficulties of their socio-economic equals.
The researchers concluded that we tend to be interested in those whom we value. Partly due to a void in material wealth, the poor tend to value social relationships. They develop “keenly attuned interpersonal attention, in all directions”. This is a trait that anyone — and everyone — could develop, regardless of financial wealth.
If the researchers are correct in their conclusions, and members of our society are only interested in those whom they value, then inattention would demonstrate that the rich undervalue the poor. Why is this? It may be that the rich judge the poor. The rich may assume the poor live a “substandard” life brought upon themselves through their own ignorant or incompetent decisions.
Wealthier members of society may assume that everyone has the same opportunities and that those whose cognitive abilities are less efficient should not receive certain advantages in society because they have not earned them. This attitude, if it exists, is undermined by research that says that many cognitive difficulties are environmentally induced. In other words, those who live in economic stress may be impaired cognitively as a result of the stress caused by consistently living in situations where their economic lives provide bitter choices.
The research, which I will label “study two,” includes an experiment performed at a New Jersey mall and is detailed in a 2013 article written by Anandi Mani, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir and Jiaying Zhao, all prominent university researchers. The subjects of the study were confronted with a scenario. They were told that they faced a common financial problem, such as paying for a car repair.
This problem was meant to activate real financial concerns that existed in the participants’ own lives. After thinking about how to come up with the money to make the payment, the subjects were asked to answer common IQ test questions. This research included a component that tested the respondents’ ability to answer questions correctly and quickly while under pressure. After providing a solution to paying for the auto repair, the subjects were asked to disclose their income.
The subjects were assigned either “hard” or “easy” financial situations, with an auto repair cost of $1,500 or $150 respectively.
When contemplating “easy” situations of $150 auto repairs, the poor and the rich answered the IQ test questions correctly at a very similar rate. When the auto repair cost was raised to a “hard” situation of $1,500, the rich performed about the same on the IQ test as they had during the “easy” situation. However, when faced with “hard” situations, the poor experienced a significant drop in the number of questions they answered correctly. This was in line with the researchers’ original hypothesis.
The experiment was then adjusted to include a financial reward of 25 cents for every correct response. Although the poor have a presumably greater need for the money, they still performed worse during “hard” situations than the rich, and earned roughly 18 percent less.
This seems relatively reflective of reality. The researchers go on to explain that the poor earn less not out of incompetency, but because they must allocate mental capacity to problems that are more pressing to them than to the rich.
Remember that the poor performed just as well as the rich when the stakes were low. The difficulty for the poor arose when the payment increased to $1,500, even when they had the ability to make money by answering correctly. Many expenses, which the rich consider minor, become major obstacles for the poor, requiring a significant amount of attention to address. This allocation of attention to pressing concerns may in turn prevent the poor from taking advantage of opportunities (such as earning extra cash in the above study).
Additionally, solving these problems comes at the expense of other basic needs. The researchers cite prior studies showing that the poor “use less preventative health care, fail to adhere to drug regimens, are tardier and less likely to keep appointments, are less productive workers, less attentive parents and worse managers of their finances.” According to the study, these troubling behaviors are caused neither by laziness nor incompetence but by decreased capacity brought on by the situations the poor face. This is due to the overwhelming nature of stressful situations, many of which are not nearly as difficult for the rich.
The study’s results provide key insights into the relationship between the rich and the poor. The occurrence of the types of problems discovered in study two should not elicit negative judgments from the rich but rather understanding. The wealthy could be much more interested in the poor, knowing that the personal difficulties in the lives of the poor may have more serious repercussions than situations in their own lives. The resources of the poor, financial and mental, are often already stretched to their limits.
If studies one and two are reflective of the reality of how the rich view poverty-stricken people, and I believe they are, it is a major misperception on the part of the rich to believe that the poor should always be able to recover from setbacks in the same ways as others. And if both of the above studies are true, then less-advantaged individuals’ traits of “keenly attuned interpersonal attention in all directions” are all the more impressive. Low-income individuals are able to allocate their attention to focus on other people, while the rich do not seem to have this same ability, often depriving the poor of sympathy and understanding.
The studies give us observations and a neurobehaviorialistic view of the relationships between rich and poor. But what else might motivate the lack of demonstrated concern of the wealthy for those less fortunate? Perhaps it is that the rich are so focused on gaining more wealth, status, and contact with other wealthy people that there is little incentive for them to get to know and care for the poor.
So the question arises, how can the rich turn their attention outward and toward those on the opposite end of the social ladder? One way would be for everyone to better understand the role of good fortune and the assistance they have received from others. Many have benefited from those who stand a few rungs up and a few rungs down.
We, of all social classes, could consistently be looking out for those who find upward mobility difficult and we could understand that trials and burdens are taxing, painful and often devastating for those at many points along the socio-economic spectrum, but are especially paralyzing for those at the bottom of the wealth pyramid. While those who are well off enjoy the comfort of ample financial resources, they could also strive to develop and use their own sense of a “keenly attuned interpersonal attention, in all directions.”
I say this not only on account of the poor. It seems that many in other social classes are missing out on a special opportunity. I notice at times in our society that many people lack a sense of purpose. Dedication to the poor and a willingness to act on their behalf can bring great value to the life of someone who is willing to serve.
One who certainly showed attention to those less fortunate was the late Nelson Mandela. Leading a nation out of apartheid also meant fighting a war against poverty. Partly due to his work, South Africa began a process leading toward greater development in Africa. Mandela understood that our social interactions are key tools in combating poverty. He described our duty to do our part to help those around us and across the globe when he said:
“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”
We could all benefit from allocating our own financial and mental resources in an outward way, paying special attention to those around us who are less fortunate than ourselves.
It’s an interesting study and a sobering one. I wonder what misconceptions others have about me….?
Son to his Father: old man, you are not making money on the blocks of sugar; you are just doing it to work.
Father: Yes, I was raised in this and I miss it.
Mom: And where do you think our clothes come from, this roof … and part of the food? From sweating over these blocks of sugar!
(Conversation with peasant family, Yoro, Honduras, 2017).
Sugar cane was domesticated 10,000 years ago on the island of New Guinea. It came to the New World based on slave labor and environmental degradation between 1425 and 1493. Slavery began to be stopped in 1807 when England prohibited the slave trade which happened through the purchase of slaves in Africa with sugar itself; at that time more than 11 million slaves had been brought in, more than half to sugar plantations (R. Cohen, “Passion for Sugar” in: National Geographic). These plantations were established at the cost of dispossessing the indigenous populations of their land. With sugar cane we see that “a lot of water has passed under the bridge” – more than water, human blood.
In Central America part of the elite continues in the sugar industry with enormous human and environmental costs (see case of Guatemala: Labrador, Villagrán, Sánchez y Alvarado, “El cartel del azúcar de Guatemala” in: El Faro 25-4-2017, https://elfaro.net/es/201704/centroamerica/20091/El-cartel-del-az%C3%BAcar-de-Guatemala.htm). In the face of this reality, peasant and indigenous families have included sugar cane in their family strategy for self sufficiency and income generation. Does sugar cane allow them to resist? Is this sugar cane, that has planted so much death, also an instrument for life? We argue that if families organize to add value to their sugar cane, they can resist dispossession, remain in their communities without being driven to migrate, and at the same time contribute to environmental sustainability. Consequently, in this article we describe the peasant perspective on sugar cane, the dispossession that they have suffered, their viability, and the challenges that accompanying these processes of repossession imply.
When peasant families see themselves forced to migrate, they tend to take with them some sugar cane plants, and other families even take the sugar mill. The families get to the mountains or places where they can buy less expensive land. There they start to produce corn and beans, they establish their banana plants and sugar cane, they preserve patches of forest for wood and firewood, and they raise small livestock (poultry and pigs) and 2 or 3 cows. Their strategy is to diversify and reduce risk: the forest for wood (home construction, fence posts) and firewood for the kitchen and the oven of the sugar mill; they plant corn, beans and bananas to ensure their food; they grow sugar cane that they turn into blocks of sugar for their own use (to sweeten coffee and natural juices, make honey, pastry, coconut squash, mangos with honey, fritters, corn bread, and liquor – and as young D. Mejía tells us “the recipes of my grandmother are the best with brown sugars”- and for selling it. The sale of the blocks of sugar during a good part of the year, and the sale of 2 to 3 cows a year, is cash to cover other needs (salt, soap, matches, etc) and to buy “new clothes.”
Due to their distance from the market, the idea of the peasant families is to depend as least as possible on outside products. That is why it is easier to take blocks of sugar out to sell in the towns to generate income, than bunches of bananas or corn. Taking 100 lbs of brown sugar blocks generates a little more than double the income of 100 lbs of corn. In addition, sugar is one of the crops that are least affected by diseases or insects, and once established, requires little work and can resprout year after year for more than 50 years. So it is that wooden mills and then iron mills emerged, along with the sugar cane, powered by a team of oxen, and in some communities by a motor. In some communities the blocks of sugar are the only way to connect to the market and get some cash.
Table 1. Transformation of brown sugar block (20 tons / mz)*
L / block
$ / block
Sale (load of blocks)
Weeding (1 mz)
Guide for oxen (load)
Team of oxen (load)
Cutting cane (mz)
Transporting cane (ton)
* 20 tons of sugar cane in 1 mz (0.6988 has) = 33.33 loads of blocks, 1 load = 48 blocks, 1 block= 3 lbs. ** L750/load of blocks; price varies between 700 and 1000/load. L = lempiras, currency of Honduras
Source: based on family producers of cane and with/without mill (Yoro, Honduras)
Table 1 shows its profitability. A family with sugar cane, a mill and a team of oxen could generate income of 13,533 lempiras (balance of 9,600 + 2000 transportation + 3,333 team of oxen – 1,400 for weeding). A family with sugar cane, but without a mill and oxen, that turns in their cane so that it gets processed and they get half the value in return, gets L10,500 (half of L25,000, minus 2,000 for the transportation of the cane). If that same family with a mill takes on the cost of the weeding, leading the oxen around the mill and the cooking, their income increases. Both families get more income as they produce more than 20 tons per manzana.
Pressure combined with dispossession
Living in these communities for 25 to 30 years, families now feel pressure on their economic strategy (income diversification and generation), social strategy (sharecropping relations and sharing labor – mutual support) and political strategy (decisions and autonomy). The “domino effect” of the so-called agricultural frontier is being felt (see: Maldidier, Ch., 2004, “agricultural pioneer fronts, the crest of a far-reaching wave”). The land is tired and its productivity is declining, it needs to be fed, which in turn creates pressure for financial resources to buy fertilizers. Because of world sugar demand and how lucrative it is for the oligopolies, large sugar cane, african palm, rice, and extensive ranching plantations require more land and more water, and that pressure is being felt in the communities whose families at times of greater economic fragility (e.g. sickness of a relative, indebtedness, lack of water), or when the pressure suffocates them (e.g. plantations that close off the road to a community), are left with no choice but to get rid of their land. The sons and daughters who form their own homes press for their inheritance, with the consequence being that the areas per family are getting ever smaller. And the milling of the sugar cane begins to suffer from a scarcity of labor: the work of the ox guides and the cook is hard, from midnight to 9am, because the workers, with the passage of time, take advantage of other opportunities like working in sawmills, coffee fields or migrate in search of other opportunities.
Slowly the sharecropping relationships get eroded and the capacity to decide gives way to the force of the market that comes in with different consumer products, with different labor relations, with credit that finances mono-cropping, with the “deadly embrace” of expensive farm inputs and low prices for peasant products; this is when the population murmurs, “our money doesn´t go very far”. Also state law imposes taxes and restricts the use of their forest areas, while the laws do protect the sugar industry. So human groups, like an ear of corn that shells itself when it loses one kernel, cede their places and go off to other land or become workers. That is why we do not find mills close to the cities; they get farther away tas the “domino effect” intensifies. That is when the profitability of Table 1 gets complicated, because it begins to operate less frequently.
In the last 15 years this practice of establishing oneself, and being forced to migrate to the mountains, appears to be facing drastic changes. Practically speaking there are no more mountains to go to, which is why that escape valve is now being shut down. So increasingly the population migrates to the cities and leaves the country. But at the same time countries like the United States are closing their doors to migrants. The paradox is that that “domino effect” that starts from the demand for sugar mediated by oligopolies, on the one hand expels the peasant families from their land, and on the other hand, they are rejected by the metropolis. This is the second “deadly embrace.”
Adding value to the product in an associative way
How can you resist for more than 25-30 years and stop the “deadly embraces?” The COMAL Network is trying one way, where the peasant families organize into associative enterprises to add value to the sugar cane, producing granulated brown sugar (See: “Eco comal, una marca campesina que cobra auge” in: Diario Tiempo, 4-8-2015).
Table 2. Transformation of granulated brown sugar (20 tons / mz)
Granulated brown sugar
Purchase sugar cane (ton)
Labor (hrs work)
* 1 ton sugar cane = 240 lbs (60% granulated brown sugar 40% crumbs). Exchange rate $1 = L23.3
Source: Records of the granulated brown sugar processing plant of APROCATY (Yoro, Honduras)
In the municipalities of Taulabé, Jocón and Yoro in the last 5 years 100 peasant families that have sugar cane on their diversified farms have organized into 3 associative enterprises. With the support of international aid, they have established 3 processing plants on their farms. Even though their yields vary between 60 to 72% of granulated brown sugar, the calculations in Table 2 are encouraging, even based on the lowest yield. Let´s take a look, a member family sells 20 tons of of sugar cane at L8,800; and then, depending on the policies of the organization, that member family has the possibility of accessing part of the remainder of L5,753 that their sugar cane generated in the organization. In only 3 years, on average in these experiences, the difference of the “value added” is noticeable.
The outlook that they offer us is even more interesting. According to the table the costs are 81.8% of total sales, and to the extent that they grow in volume and yield (let´s say from 60% to 70% of granulated brown sugar), those costs drop from 81.8% to 70%, then the remainder will go beyond L10,000 and also $0.10/lb. This is the commitment of the three organizations.
Going back to the communities, specifically Laguna de la Capa (Yoro) which was already on the outer limit of the 25-30 years, the impact of the processing plant made itself felt. When the APROCATY organization began, the prices for the blocks of sugar were falling below L500/load (48 blocks), the cane fields were being lost and all the symptoms described in section 2 began to appear. “The ear of corn was beginning to lose its kernels” . The entry of the production of granulated brown sugar helped raise the price of cane and blocks of sugar to L700, 800 and even L1,000/load of blocks, because a good part of the sugar cane was turned into granulated brown sugar, which put sugar blocks into short supply. This slowly began to re-energize the production of sugar cane as part of the diversification systems of the families, promoting the consumption of an alternative product to refined sugar, and a production alternative to the human and environmentally degrading practices of the sugar industry.
In spite of the short time line of these experiences, they teach us that it is not just a matter of adding value to the sugar cane and generating profits, but learning to cooperate under associative and business rules. For example, knowing the principle of accounting identity, where the expenses of a business are accounted for separately, understanding that the more effective the organs are (board of directors, committees, assembly) the more efficient the business is that transforms and sells the products, and regulating the use of the profits so that they contribute to the sense of ownership of the members of their organization, and that at the same time allows the equity of the organization to increase. They also teach us that there are risks in the future: that the aforementioned initiative might end up promoting monocropping of sugar cane and erode the peasant-indigenous resistance strategy; that a group might take over the business; that the administration might run the organization behind the backs of the members…
The challenge of accompanying these processes
To manage the risks and create conditions to make the expressed goal viable, it is important to start from the experience of the peasant-indigenous families themselves. They have learned that they are going to make the changes IF they have long term allies – in the good times and in the bad times. The COMAL Network is an expression of that commitment. That committed role, nevertheless, faces enormous challenges, three of which we will introduce here.
For centuries peasant families have counted on the organization and self sufficiency of their extended families. Getting this commitment to scale up organizationally for an effective resistance that would take them beyond the threshold of the 25-30 years implies overcoming centuries-old, deeply rooted institutions. “Yes, I was raised in this and I miss it”, the phrase from the Father quoted at the beginning of the article, means that the practices that he learned and the institutions (e.g. extended family, exclusion of women from the inheritance and from organizations) in which he was raised are going to persist, and even “will be missed.” In this dialogue, the son as well as the father ignored the fact that making blocks of sugar is profitable, as part of a diversification strategy, for 25-30 years. How to understand those perspectives in their contexts in order to accompany them is a monumental challenge for any external ally, because you have to study those realities and ask about alternatives, something difficult when we are accustomed to provide standardized solutions for any situation.
Peasant distrust toward outside actors, particularly merchants, is another institution deeply rooted because of centuries of plundering. Now that distrust is expressed as: “we will go to the meetings if they call us.” This assumes that the one calling the meeting is the external actor or a local person with the aura of being the representative of the external actor, and that they are not going to take the initiatives to call their own meeting and meet on their own. Getting the rules (statutes) and democratic mechanisms of an organization to be followed and used, as a way of “calling your own meeting”, is another challenge for any organization accustomed to going out to the communities and being “the big man” with resources in hand.
Member families in organizations with important physical investments tend to hunker down and prevent the entrance of new members. They do not allow even their sons to join the organization, much less their daughters. It will be difficult for organizations to respect their democratic mechanisms in their statutes if there are no changes in the heart of their families, changes in equity in terms of inheritances and in decision making where the mother and the offspring participate like the father. Without members that are experiencing changes in their families, it will be difficult for the organization to make progress. This is the third challenge for any ally organization.
In conclusion, sugar cane came into Latin America spurting human blood and subduing nature, a practice continued today under “modern clothing.” In the face of this, as the Mother at the beginning of this article would say, granulated brown sugar is more than the block of sugar, and the block of sugar is more than sugar cane, it is “sweat”: work and life. Behind it are peasant-indigenous families that are organized around blocks and the granulated brown sugar, while at the same time they are going deeper into their logic of “not putting all their eggs in the same basket.” Will it be possible that they might begin to express a path for transforming peasant-indigenous products as they transform their families and their organizations toward greater equity?
 René has a PhD in development studies, is an associate researcher of IOB-Universiity of Antwerp (Belgium), a collaborator with the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/) and member of the COSERPROSS cooperative; firstname.lastname@example.org. Hector is an agronomist, coordinator of the Technical Unit for Business Consultancy of the COMAL Network, and technician-expert in the transformation of granulated brown sugar; email@example.com