René Mendoza Vidaurre, Mark Lester and Fabiola Zeledón
The unfaithful market
“Bring your coffee and I will pay you 100 córdobas more per quintal than that coyote that is circling you”, Carmelón the trader said by cell phone. Pedro weighed his coffee before leaving on the bus, it weighed 3 quintals. Now in town, Carmelón put the three sacks on the scale and it weighed 2.3 quintals! He paid him 2990 córdobas, at 1300 per quintal. Pedro left dazed: in his own village they were offering him 3600, at 1200/qq; and he would have saved the cost of the transportation and the lost day. He arrived home with a headache. “What is bothering you?”, asked his wife, Julita. “Carmelón cheated me,” he responded angrily. Ah Pedrín, you know very well that the market is like a lover, you cannot demand that it be faithful. Pedrín felt like the earth opened up in front of him, how right his beloved was!
The market is like a lover, you cannot demand that it be faithful“. If it does not cheat you with the price it does it through the weight, if not, it tells you that your sun-dried coffee is wet, and if not that, it tells you to “wait on me.” Price, weight, and quality are structural challenges that can be resolved if people organize into a cooperative. But it is not automatic, most cooperatives are taken over by elites who turn their backs on their members, and turn into traders dressed up as “cooperatives”. Ah, but when the members of a community organize and the organs of their cooperative function, in that community they reduce violence, generate more equality and peace – this is what Esterlina Talavera says, from the 13th of October Cooperative in San Antonio: “In these cooperatives where only one person is in charge, one is not worth anything; in this cooperative, where the assembly is in charge, there I feel like I do have value.” If importers, roasters and sellers of ground coffee in the United States and Europe work with those corrupt cooperatives, they instead sow violence in peasant communities, like what happens with traditional mediation connected to big corporations, but if they work with democratic cooperatives, they support peace with justice.
Under what conditions can small producers, women and men, and small roasters and coffee sellers build communities of peace between rural areas of Central America and consumers in the United States and Europe? Responding to this question in this article, we see that markets can become “faithful” to the challenge of making peace with justice.
1. Perspective and ways of riding the markets
With Mark Lester´s visit to 50 importers and roasters in the United States, we discovered similar perspectives on both sides of the ocean: buyers and producers. He met with roasters who buy from 6 sacks of coffee a year to those who bought containers of coffee; there are peasant families also who produce 4 quintals of export coffee to those who produce 100 or 150 quintals of export coffee. In the face of this situation, there are importers who connect these two worlds: they import coffee in lots in one containers for roasters who want lots of a smaller size than that of a container; they are lots that come from 3 or 5 producers with the same coffee profile, possible through the grassroots cooperatives (1st tier).
He learned that roasters ask for samples of coffee to be able to express their interest in buying; some cup and define their own cup profile, and others ask the importer to define their cup profile; generally they are looking for a score above 82, because they think that is the way that they can differentiate themselves and compete in the face of large corporations whose costs are less because of their economies of scale. The cooperative sends the sample, indicates the volume of coffee that it offers from that sample, and the roaster responds whether they are interested in that coffee or not; as a sign of loyalty, the cooperative does not sell the volume it offered with the sample until the roaster has responded, to do so would be behaving as an “occasional lover”; the roaster or importer responds as quickly as possible, to not do so would be to behave like a “lover”. The roasters prefer lasting connections, it does not work out to each year have a new seller of coffee, because they want to maintain their cup profile; the cooperative also wants to have lasting relationships, especially if the buyer pays them based on quality and there is good deal; this implies that the cooperative also is loyal to its members, only collects their coffee, and thus maintains the same cup profile that it agreed upon with its buyer. It is a loyalty among several actors who revolve around coffee.
Mark found roasters and importers concerned about the sustainability of their enterprises and that of the coffee growing peasant families. If the peasantry with less than 5 hectares of coffee goes broke, the coffee is left in the hands of large mono-cropping enterprises, thus the quality of the coffee would drop because they are committed to varieties that produce volume and they grow them in full sun. This is not helpful to the buyers nor to the peasants. So from both sides of the ocean they want peasant families to increase their productivity (more and better coffee per hectare), and importers and roasters process more coffee in the same physical space. Both sides of the ocean also want diversification and the commitment to coffee quality to lead them to increase their productivity, that diversification would also include sustainable practices with several crops and the agro-industrialization of products, roasters who diversify their markets; university communities that demand coffee from cooperatives…
2. Trust, the beginning of triangulation
Cultivating these described connections and commitments are not possible with conventional practices. Financial organizations provide credit requiring financial statements (indicating expenses and income) and balance statements (indicating assets of the cooperative versus its debts) from the cooperatives; but these in turn tend to hire accountants who “invent” their financial reports, while their members do not have access to that information, and if they do, the numerical chaos is incomprehensible to them. Financial organizations and buyers assume that on signing contracts with cooperatives, they actually are operating as cooperatives; at the same time it is seen that most of them do not redistribute their earnings, they treat their members as any intermediary would treat them; they are cooperatives whose members do not rotate in their posts, nor does their administrative staff rotate in accordance with their merits. So the aid organizations, on learning of these realities, turn a blind eye; thus, trust in people becomes trust in money on the part of a small global club.
Those connections and commitments can, nevertheless, be built based on trust if cooperatives function as cooperatives, if buyers and roasters treat them as cooperatives and not as if they were haciendas, connecting only with the manager or only with their president. How can trust be built? From the work of the Winds of Peace Foundation (WPF) with grassroots cooperatives and its contacts with buyers and roasters, we propose an inclusive triangulation.
Social banks, buyers and second tier cooperatives already practice triangulation, they sign contracts where the cooperative collects coffee with financing from the social banks, and the buyer pays the loan owed by the cooperative to the social bank. But it stays there, they are that club that turns a blind eye to the true functioning of the cooperative and its members. We take up that triangulation, buyers, financiers and cooperatives, but not with second tier cooperatives but with grassroots cooperatives (first tier); and we do not stay there, we do an inclusive triangulation, that implies that part of the contract stipulates the distribution of profits and information, that they be democratic and efficient organizations (that they lower costs), and work in sustainable agriculture. That this inclusive nature be verified by an accompaniment that helps the members govern their cooperatives, and that the transparency between buyers, roasters and cooperatives be reciprocal.
Being inclusive means that the member families coordinate among themselves to achieve a cup quality of 85, improving their soils, assuming the costs of sending coffee samples: not letting the market govern them, believing that it is only a matter of putting up money and moving coffee; it is that we work with members over the entire year and not just in the coffee harvest season, connecting small producers who organize into cooperatives with small roasters. If one actor acts as an opportunist, they damage the entirety of the coordination with the different actors, and they do damage to themselves. If the price in the market goes way up, the cooperatives prefer to stay in a lasting relationship; if the prices of the market go way down, the buyers prefer to stay in a lasting relationship. This is coordinating, trusting and being faithful.
3. Role of accompaniment
There are roasters aware of the fact that peasant families cannot improve their lives if they do not organize into cooperatives, and that is why they seek out healthy relationships with these cooperatives. There are importers who understand the importance of connecting small roasters with small producers who are organized into grassroots cooperatives. There are also foundations, like WPF, that accompany this process of triangulation.
In this role, WPF, in collaboration with a team from the COSERPROSS cooperative, accompanies the grassroots cooperatives, contacts importers and roasters, and because of its connections with Universities in the United States, works so that the triangulation reaches university communities.
Previously WPF did not play this role. It assumed that that role belonged to the cooperatives. But seeing that the cooperatives are being absorbed by structures that sow injustice, violence and environmental unsustainability, WPF took on new roles, of being a hinge in the relationships between cooperatives and buyers, helping to make transparent the agreements between the different actors. If previously WPF provided credit on the basis of bilateral trust with a cooperative, now it does it in the framework of an inclusive triangulation, precisely to build greater trust.
At the beginning of this article we asked ourselves about the conditions in which small producers and small roasters can build communities of peace. We provided three responses. First, small producers and roasters pursue common perspectives; perspectives that start from having similar size, committed to coffee quality, and social and environmental sustainability, innovating through diversification. Second, establishing relationships of an inclusive triangulation where the economic transaction goes along with the economic and organizational democratization of the cooperative and the other allied actors. Third, ongoing accompaniment of these perspectives and this inclusive triangulation.
Under these three conditions trust, mutual loyalty and lasting relationships can be built. This leads us to be concerned about the people. It is a perspective where Pedro and Julita, from the story at the beginning of the article, organized in a cooperative can collect their coffee harvest in their own communities. It is a path where markets can work to build communities of peace with justice, communities that plough the seas.
Stewardship is a biblical idea. God is the creator of the earth, and people are his administrators. Paul explained it, “Because we are co-workers of God, and you are the God´s field, God´s building.” (1 Cor 3:19). Stewardship is oikonomos: a person who administers. In business the idea of stewardship evolved, from a servant to being the administrator of assets, and from there comes the word stewardship: the responsible administration of the resources of others. From here we can understand stewardship in the cooperatives as meaning that each member of the organs, and each member of the cooperative, should be a responsible administrator of the resources that belong to the members, resources that will last beyond our present lifetimes. It is a serious pledge that each member makes to the other members and to himself/herself. And it carries with it the potential for a significant self-fulfillment that is all-too-often missing in our organizations.
If a board member administers responsibly the resources of the members, resources that in the end belong to God, how can a cooperative follow this principle of stewardship? First, a title is a service, for serving other people, it is not to serve oneself at the cost of other people. Second, that service implies a willingness and availability, of being a person who does not have time, yet always has time to serve others. Third, being watchful over the resources of the members, resources that in the end belong also to the community, to humanity, to God. Fourth, it is a voluntary and watchful service in coordination with other members of the cooperative, and allies from other global and local organizations.
What do these four elements mean for the actions of a cooperative? If a post is a service, then a president fulfills his role as president, and respects the role of each member of the Administrative Council, and respects the functions of each organ of the cooperative (Administrative Council, Oversight Board, Education Committee, Credit Committee). The same with the vice president, treasurer, secretary, and each member of the Oversight Board.
When we practice biblical stewardship in the cooperative, we do not make loans without receipts, and without the approval of the credit committee, we are accountable to the members who are the owners of the resources, the board members understand that they cannot make use of the resources according to their own whims. Their sacred responsibility is to care for them.
A president or manager with a commitment to stewardship does not act on their own, but support and welcome the work of the oversight board, the administrative council, the credit committee, because these structures help them fulfill the sacred responsibility of caring for the resources of the cooperative. If the secretary has difficulties in writing up the minutes, it is up to us to support that person learn to write the minutes, but not to replace that person. If a treasurer has problems doing the financial report, it is up to us to help them, but not to replace them. People are not named to a post just to fill a vacancy.
Promoting the biblical culture of stewardship means going against the current of the culture of most of our rural organizations, where one person believes themselves to be the patron and treats the other members as fieldhands. “My poor patron, he thinks that the poor person is me” – goes the song of Cabral.
But this support also means commitment in return. If there is no transformation inside each member, if there is no re-evaluation of our wants, longings and expectations, then all of the structural change in the world will have no impact on the functioning of our cooperatives. Membership in a cooperative means we have CHOSEN and ACCEPTED this relationship. The choice and acceptance become our contract. Our desires for financial gain, participation, self-expression- whatever we may want from being part of a community- are possible only so long as we can commit to the objectives, the results, constraints, principles and difficulties of the larger organization. If we cannot support these requirements, then we should leave. If our colleagues cannot commit to this contract, they should leave or we should separate them, even if it takes time and discomfort. Agreement on the elements of the stewardship contract is the foundation for partnership and the basis for community. Stewardship offers more choice and LOCAL CONTROL in exchange for a promise from its members. The promise the larger organization requires needs to be clear and agreed to right at the beginning. (Stewardship by Peter Block)
Stewardship is administering the sacred resources of the cooperative in accordance with collective rules and with transparency and justice. These resources are financial (money), physical (building, infrastructure, assets), productive (coffee, cacao, beans, bananas…), human (people with different capacities). The rules are the statutes and agreements that the cooperative approved in their Assembly. Transparent and just action is that each organ and each member be accountable to themselves, their family, the cooperative, the community and to God.
The practice of stewardship is a different way of organizing a cooperative. But it is a better way of strengthening and sustaining its success and long life.
by Fabiola Zeledón, Freddy Pérez, Claudio Hernández, Hulda Miranda, Rebeca Espinoza and René Mendoza
Juan, president of the cooperative, got off the bus, and walked like a rooster, with his chest held high.
-Greetings, young lady. I am the president of the cooperative
-Good day, Juan.
-Call me “Mr Juan”. I was born a leader. I am the way, the truth and the money, hahaha.
-Ahh… Who said that…?
Didn´t you hear me…? Tell your Dad to send his contributions. I will give him a loan.
A sparrow that was flying around the area, seeing that was happening, crashed against a tree. The bird couldn´t believe what it was hearing!
When at last there was a restructuring of the organs and administration of a cooperative, winds of change were felt. Among other reasons, the cooperative was founded to be a democratic space and a place for learning for the members. Nevertheless, a short time after the changes, the cooperative tends to return to its old course: hierarchical structure, absence of information, disillusioned members, lack of ownership… How things change so as to not change. Why do we trip over the same stone time and time again? Here, in contrast to the sparrow, we reflect on what is happening. Then we add a second question: How can we avoid this stone and walk along the cooperative path without “crashing” into the first tree? In this article we reflect on these questions based on our own experience of recovering a cooperative.
1. That tripping stone
In Chapter 12 to 16 of the Book of Revelation in the Bible, John, from the island of Patmos, warns about the first beast that shows itself to be powerful. But he warns us that its power comes from another beast, that we should not get confused. That second beast also is powerful, but its power is not its own either, but comes from a third beast. Something similar happens in a good number of cooperatives. See Figure 1.
The manager or president personified in a person tends to appear as the patron. He says: “Aid organizations only write to me”; “I am going to give the members directions because you are like children”; “I give you loans”; “You owe me”. The members resign themselves: “to whatever he says”; “we are small producers”; “I go to him for loans”. The leader or patron who centralizes decisions and concentrates resources, ends up believing that there is no need for assemblies, that he was born a leader and that is sacred. If some institution sees that that cooperative is like a hacienda, the patron shouts to the four winds about “autonomy” and against “third party [outside] actors”. He believes himself to be the general assembly, oversight board, administrative council and manager all rolled into one. The members dream of one day becoming that patron; Fanon said that then in Algeria: “The oppressed dream about being the oppressor”.
But his power is not his own. He or she is the face, generally, of a group that is as global as it is local, who live off the control of the resources that revolve around the cooperative. These include buyers, certifiers, agro-industry, State institutions, financial organizations…Behind these acronyms are individuals who manipulate their own organizations. They say: “information confuses the members”; “Buy coffee or cacao in the street and pass it off organic”. The patron senses that he lacks power, that his power comes from that group, so he goes to church and there whispers to himself: “I am not a bad person, I was tempted by money”.
The power of this group is not its own either. It comes from the patron-fieldhand structure, wedded to capitalism. This structure says: “everything is possible with money”; “more volume, more earnings”; “everything has already been studied”; “even God does not like stupid people”. Any natural force or wealth, economic wealth and friends of the member families remain diluted in the face of this structure.
Now we are able to understand how it is that we trip over the same stone. The saying goes: “human beings are the only animal that trips twice over the same stone”. We started a cooperative, and it is trapped by this harmful group, and this group responds to that hacienda and capitalist structure. If our patron is removed from his post, the new president or administrator takes his place, they make him repeat [his term] and keep him as an errand boy, while they make him believe that he is the top honcho! What happened? That structure awaits the new president or administrator as the “spare tire”, once he arrives, they exchange him for the “flat tire”, while the “vehicle” keeps rolling on. So it is that time and time again we trip over the same stone.
2. Walking on the cooperative path
There were elections in the Reynerio Tijerino cooperative. The members were happy.
-Luis Javier Vargas, a member, quoting the Bible, exclaimed: “When the just rule, the people are happy”
-the recently named president, Justo Rufino Espinoza, responded: “Let´s not be overconfident”.
It was a moment of joy, heart, reason and consciousness.
A hummingbird that was flying by, began to sing of joy.
When we began to get tired of tripping, discovering those three “beasts” woke us up. We refused to be that patron, that “spare tire”. The brief conversation between Luis Javier and Justo Rufino reveals that individual and collective combination, between emotion and reason, between hope and reality. A person makes themselves just, they are not born just. “In an open treasure, even the most just sins”, says an old saying, that is why the new president warned: “Let´s not be overconfident”. In other words, the cooperative has to create mechanisms to build trust and produce justice. How can it do so? Here we list some mechanisms.
The first is preparing for each activity. This means studying each situation and reflecting on the notes that we have taken of past conversations and meetings. Claudio Hernández says: “I have been taking notes for years, I can lose anything in my house, but not my notes”. Freddy Pérez adds: “If I would have known that my notes were important for learning, I would have taken notes sooner”. On the basis of notes and other information, we prepare ourselves for each meeting, negotiation and activity – imagining each detail before doing things. In this way we overcome the old practice of the patron, of doing things impulsively, because you feel safe under the shadow of the second beast, we overcome relying on the patron who says “leave it to me, I will solve it”. The more we prepare ourselves and coordinate as a group, the more our confidence increases and the more we help the cooperative.
The second mechanism is realizing that in the cooperative people have the power that comes from interpreting and applying the rules of the cooperative. These rules are the result of the decisions of the Assembly, wedded to the values of our communities. Our patron are the legitimate rules and processes. We guide ourselves by these rules, and we apply them through the corresponding organs. Our loyalty is not to money, but to the general assembly composed of the members, who produce these rules and who every three years elect other members for the different posts. Money is a means; the end are the members.
So if a member is looking for a loan, he goes to the credit committee, and follows the rules that the assembly of the cooperative approved. No one should take the place of the credit committee in a cooperative; it is not like in the haciendas, where the patron is at the same time the credit committee, general assembly, oversight board and manager. Our statutes tell us that profits are redistributed in the cooperative, therefore we must redistribute the profits of the cooperative. In a cooperative each member has rights, voice and vote, without regard to whether they produce a little or a lot, each member has the right to become president, to their part of the profits, and to have a copy of the statutes of their cooperative. In a cooperative the directions do not come down from above, they are made in the Assembly, and in the other organs of the cooperative. “Oh”, said Freddy Pérez, “I thought that being a board member was solving the problems of the members, rather it is the members who solve their problems through the cooperative”. “It pains me what I experienced, I know that I should not lend the money of the cooperative to the members, but I did it again”, expressed Claudio Hernández, recognizing that those “3 beasts” have formed a nest in our minds, but that our consciousness wrestles with them, and that being a cooperative is gaining more and more terrain. “We do not need credit, we need our profits”, insists Josué Moisés Ruíz.
The third mechanism is connecting the inside forces with the outside ones. Figure 2 shows the harmful leadership style, the patron who believes himself to be the door to the cooperative and to outside the cooperative; while Figure 3 shows the style of leadership that a real cooperative practices. If the cooperative is guided by its statutes, the State will legalize its path. If this process happens making its organs function, external institutions and aid agencies will respect the cooperative; they will treat it as a cooperative, and not as a hacienda arranging everything only with the patron. For example, the credit committee will meet with the institutions or organizations that might provide credit to the cooperative. The commercialization committee will meet with commercial enterprises and organizations that provide processing services for their products.
Internally, the members of the organs visit the members, and encourage them to visit one another as members. Members of the commercialization committee visit a member family, see their product and their wet mill, and at the same time come to understand the family in their multiple interests – most deeply felt needs and dreams; it is on this basis that the committee advances in their work strategies. The members of the oversight board, credit committee, education committee and the Administrative Council all do the same. A visit is a blessing that makes friendship and trust, loyalty and truth blossom. The more informed a member family is, the more it contributes with their ideas and oversight to the cooperative; the more connections are cemented in visits that generate friendship, the more the cooperatives become instruments for the majority of their members.
The fourth mechanism is that organizational improvement must improve our farms and homes. The cooperative is not there to apply agrochemical inputs and then lie, saying that we have organic production. Nor is producing an organic crop leaving it “without applying anything”. If we visit the member families, each family should visit their plants every day as well. The cooperative is not there so that our members might consume the coffee dregs, but to consume the best of their coffee, honey, grains, vegetables, bread and the best of their enchiladas…
3. In conclusion
This article is the product of 5 months of tension, and the pursuit of a cooperative to defend its rights, speak the truth and have the strength to change. This process taught us that a small group, in alliance, is capable of making cooperativism contagious. The biggest changes start in our own minds. The rule that “we will always need a patron” or that “leaders are born” comes from the hacienda institution and capitalism, and has built a nest in our minds. How can we get that idea out of our heads? To the extent that we reflect, demonstrating it, trying mechanisms out and being persistent, we can free ourselves from that idea.
At the beginning of the article we asked ourselves why we were tripping over the same stone. Throughout the article we have discovered the “three beasts”, who have trapped most of the cooperatives in our countries. These “beasts” make us trip time and time again.
The second question was how to avoid tripping again. We listed 4 mechanism that we have experimented with: preparing oneself for each meeting and not moving impulsively, following the rules of the cooperative, being a leader who connects with the members and the external actors, and making organizational improvement go hand in hand with the improvement of our production. Our aspiration is that these four mechanisms might help us to get those harmful norms out of our minds that come from the “3 beasts”. Being a cooperative is path that we peasant families need to hone. If we do it, the hummingbirds will be joyful as well, and the sparrows will not longer crash against any trees!
Let us end this article recalling another rule of the patron: “you should not help members, because they are ungrateful”, the patrons repeat. When Sandino decided to not surrender, General José María Moncada said to him, “The people are ungrateful; what is important is living well”. Sandino did not crack. There is no better gratitude than the members recovering their cooperative and closing the door on the thief, the patron, and the three beasts, and follow their own path.
I was a fieldhand. I was a foreman. I knew how to become a patron. That is what I wanted. That is what I was doing when one day in 1968, on returning home, I ran into an unknown person on a mule. He extended his hand to me, greeting me:
I am the priest of Santa Fe- he told me.
I do not believe you, priests only greet the rich – I responded.
There is always a first time for everything, I invite you to a meeting this Thursday – he surprised me.
I do not have time for meetings- I reacted, turning my head back to the path.
No? Those are the people I am looking for, people who do not have time – he said good-by and left me without a foot to stand on.
I went to the meeting. I saw him greeting people, even the children, that shook me. We sat in a circle. What I saw that day, what I heard that day, made me think differently. That day changed me forever”.
Jacinto Peña, founder of the Esperanza de los Campesinos Cooperative, Santa Fé, Panamá
In this story there are three moments. In the first, Jacinto knows the patron-fieldhand path and dreams about becoming a patron, who priests greet. In the second, the encounter happens on a muddy path, a moment of awakening between the clash of events and words; the priest goes to people and shakes the sweaty and calloused hands of peasants, exchanging words, where two mentalities confront one another and at the same time coincide in “people who do not have time” (people involved in initiatives), and the possibility of change appears: “there is always a first time for everything”. In the third moment, the meeting takes place, and a new path takes shape in which what stands out is what happened before and during the meeting: greeting people, including the littlest, time to reflect in a circle and listening to one another, causes “thinking differently”. A year later they would organize their cooperative, and with that they would channel this awakening and new path in a sustainable way.
In this article we describe that old path, its reproduction in coopted cooperatives, and the appropriate path of the cooperative that, connected to peasant and indigenous roots, guides the centenary dreams of people. In the wrap up we leave open ended conclusions.
1. The old path
The old path is a dominant perspective and seen as the only one; it is a structure defined with rules honed over centuries. See figure 1.
It is a relationship of power over the labor force, peasant products, female bodies and nature. The perspective is that what is important is what comes from above; if someone has a pressing need or emergency, they look upward, and go to the person considered to be the “top honcho”. In this structure each person knows their place. This is where the expression “know your place”, fieldhands or peasants understand “their place” and consider themselves “brutes” and “powerless”, that is why the cook on a farm or hacienda works twice the amount of time than the men, and earn less than one day of work of a man, and in addition is sexually harassed as her daughters are – “whatever moves in my hacienda is mine”. The patron believes he owns the land, the cattle and the truth: while the fieldhand or peasant dreams about becoming a patron (see in the story of Jacinto Peña how he dreams of becoming a patron) on the basis of impoverishing the most vulnerable and nature, or resigns himself to his current condition under the belief that “the corncob, even though there is a good rainy season, will always be a just a corncob” (if you are born mediocre you will always be mediocre), ashamed of being “small” and believing that his current position is by “the will – or punishment – from above (God).”
Fear and subordination are generated on this path, while “going to the top honcho” is glorified: being “close to a tree with shade”.
“By your side I am safe”, repeats the woman. The foreman moves about safely because he answers to the patron and walks under his “shade”, he protects that door and is afraid that others might go pass through it. Fieldhands and peasants, including technicians from the haciendas or farms and the State itself, do not ask about the origins of the profits, it is considered that the economic distribution (wages for work, payment for product and earnings for the patron) is natural and divinely fair. Asking about these topics is considered a sin. Only technical and de-politicized questions are asked: where to weed or whether to use more agrochemicals. Meanwhile, whoever dares to ask about the accumulation of capital or its redistribution, do so because they “have lost their mind”, are drunk or are not controlling their anger, and when that happens, that person is accused of “equalizing himself” by his fellow workers and the “shade” of the patron fails to cover him. There are people, nevertheless, who awaken up to how unjust this path is, but since they cannot see another path, express their disagreement by cutting down a plant, stealing bananas, using more agrochemicals, or putting stones in the bag of coffee that he has sold. There is no absolute power of the patron (or trader-broker) over the peasantry, there are always cracks for rebellion, but they are channeled–even armed rebellions– without moving outside this path or structure.
From several rules that exist along this path, in addition to “profits belong to the patron”, and “profits organize the economy”, let us highlight the rule that “without money there is no work” or better said “if I am not in debt I do not work”. As they say in Brazil “the pig squeals for its crossbar”, if you take the crossbar off of the pig, after a while the pig will squeal. Peasants reproduce this same rule: “I will provide product based on what you lend me”; peasants await the “crop lien loan” in the “months of silence” to commit their coffee for the next cycle; they harvest a product that “is already paid for”. In this way they are not able to get out of the cycle of dispossession, because the crop lien loan means that they sell their product or work at less than half its price several months before the harvest (see Mendoza et al, 2012); they do not work without being “lent to”; and the distribution of the wealth is the decision of the patron. This circle of iron squeezes the peasant or fieldhand, who see that their only way out is sticking to this structure, and it squeezes the patron or merchant who understands it as their only way to accumulate wealth. See Figure 2, the iron circles under which the economy is organized (see green arrow showing where value is pulled upwards), inequality moves and people and nature are impoverished.
This patrón-foreman-fieldhand or peasant unit is so durable and has become so natural that, following the history of different countries, we see them together even in war itself, some fighting as soldiers and others as captains and generals.
This millennial path crushes any possibility of a different path or rules that oppose it from the family, the farm (diversified) or the community. These perspectives of virtuous rules and a different path, nevertheless, still persist –“there are still embers where there was fire”, we would say with a phrase used about people in love.
2. Cooperatives that reproduce the old path
The boss and his hen house
Maria was making tortillas when Reymundo arrived upset. “They tell me that you are organizing a cooperative. Why do you want another hen house? Shot off Reymundo, the eternal president of a cooperative.
“Ahh we were talking…”, stammered Maria.
“Cooperatives are made with money, and there is no money”, he interrupted her.
“For that very reason, a cooperative is for thinking and helping one another; in your hen house the members do not think nor is their vote respected”, Maria responded more strongly.
Reymundo raised his index finger: “you are deluded, leaders are born, not made …”
“Do you think you were born from the Virgin Mary?”, María laughed heartily.
“Chicken brain! –shouted Reymundo– a leader is sacred, the people at the grassroots get confused …”
“Do you see a hen´s beak on me?” –Maria laughed again.
“You can´t talk to women!” Reymundo left in a huff.
María, flipping the tortilla, ruefully watched him leave: “He thinks he is the little boss, king of the world! He treats people like chickens, he never understood what a cooperative is”.
In this story the president of a cooperative is a captive of the old path. He understands the cooperative as a “hen house”, and the members as chickens without agency (decision and vote) who follow the rooster each time he crows when he finds some worms. He understands that “nothing is done without money”. In contrast to a cooperative where leaders are made, he believes that “leaders are born”, that he “is sacred”, that those who are “confused” are the members, and that insubordinate women have “chicken brains”; he thinks exactly like the traditional patron.
2.1 Ceremonial glocal cooptation
The presidents are products of structures where the coopted cooperatives reproduce the old path.
Following figure 3, compared with figure 1 and how it is described, essentially it is the same structure with two differences. It is more glocal (global and local) which includes international actors, and it is more ceremonial in that hundreds of rules appear (e.g. fair trade rules and those of several types of certifications), and documents signed (buy and sell contracts, financing contracts, forms filled out, written reports and minutes). These two elements contribute to the fact that the role of the management/administration becomes more important (“professional”), becomes the hinge or the entity that has the key to the inside and outside of organizations. By outside we are referring to international market actors (buyers, financiers, certifiers, aid organizations) and the State. This ceremonial and glocal differences, in addition, expressed in more bureaucratized ways, shape the entire structure with impersonalized relationships.
In this structure the buyers are interested in making money, and therefore are interested in the coffee, cacao or sesame seed product; the private banks and social banks are interested in recovering their capital; the aid organizations want financial reports; and the certifiers want their formats filled out; all of them are interested in arranging things with one person in the cooperative. On the side of the cooperative, the manager or president understands those interests, and respond with product, payment of loans and reports –“whatever the papers can stand”. If the buyers want to hear the song about the “poor producers”, “women members” and “democratic cooperative”, that intermediate layer learns to satisfy them, sings that song for them. Thus business is done in that small “club” of external actors (buyers, financiers and/or aid organizations), and the manager or president of the cooperative. It is a deal around goods – coffee or cacao – based on formal agreements. The role of the State there is to legally provide legitimacy to the existence of the cooperative; this involves confirming that the documents (official minutes) of the cooperative are done well as the state wants them, regardless of whether those documents are pure inventions of the manager or president of the cooperative.
A common characteristic is that, apart from speeches with good intentions, none of them are interested in the origins of the product, nor how the cooperative is functioning, much less whether the members have access to the profits of their organization, whether they received the loan, whether the members benefitted from the project, whether the members meet and there is rotation in the leadership, or whether the organic product really is organic. It is assumed that the fieldhands or peasants have nothing to do with that product, because any product “is made with money” that comes from outside. They are interested in the papers that conceal the expropriation of profits.
This structure makes the associative side of the cooperative disappear (see Figure 4). The external actors connect only with the business foot. The cooperative moves only on that foot. The manager and/or president is seen to be on the old path, with the difference that the control of the “patron” (external actors) is not ongoing, but ceremonial. This structure pulls them from their roots: the president “becomes independent” from the members who elected him, they put the statutes in a drawer; the staff on the business side “become independent” from the associative side which gave birth to it. From that business foot where the old glocalized and bureaucratized path takes over, the manager and/or president present themselves as indispensable to the members: “Those above only receive and send messages to me, only I can negotiate resources – not even God loves you”, “without me, the cooperative would fall apart”; in other words, they mention the external actors as their backing (“their patron”) and their work is rather a favor so that the cooperative does not go broke. They (manager or president) centralize relationships with the actors, they see them as their connections, instead of contacts and/or alliances of the cooperative. In this way the manager or president remain in their posts eternally and deadlock the cooperative; so, when a person enters the cooperative, they understand that there is no possibility to scale up on the associative foot, nor on the business foot, because the president or manager change “on the death of a bishop”.
2.2 The subsumption of the members
Under this framework of cooptation, the cooperative subsumes the members. The notion of subsumption we take ¡from Dussel (1990: 353) who, rereading Marx in the context of industrial capitalism, understood that the worker (living work) and the machine (objectified work) are subsumed by capital; it is a secret way of creating surplus value for the capitalist. Here the member loses control over their product beyond their “picket fence,” and loses their organization while breaking away from their associative foot (figure 4), left as a producer of raw materials and encapsulated as a “member”, while the global chain appropriates the surplus value. How does this happen?
Figure 5 shows the same logic of figure 2 of the old path. The three rules that move the members are the abduction of the profits (surplus value), the fact that the cooperative is to “provide credit” and that the business foot might “manage the yield of the product and buy wherever what is needed to meet the market demand”. These three rules make the members turn in (“sell”) their coffee, and resign themselves to letting the business side run them.
The global chain pulls up the value of the product, those who do not produce the coffee capture 88% or more of the total value of the coffee, while the members get less than 12% (Mendoza, 2012: 159). From this global chain framework, the cooperative assumes the role of “not distributing the profits of the cooperative” and the mentality of the member is that of being a producer of raw materials – and nothing more. How does this work? The cooperatives that sell organic coffee or cacao turn over the “organic premium” as an effort of the manager and the technicians, as a “favor”, and not as the effort and right of the members. It is like some political parties who when they get to power in a country, redistribute something of the wealth without changing the capitalist path nor model; it is the trickle down economics of neoliberalism, of the assumption that ‘the more the capitalist accumulates wealth, the more it spills over´. They redistribute as a good patron would, who instead of providing grilled meat once a year, gives it to them three times a year, reinforcing that old path even more. The managers who run these cooperatives, tacitly assuming that the cooperatives are like “their properties”, justify it: “we do not redistribute the profits because we are consolidating the future of the cooperative by investing in assets”; they are cooperatives that are more than 20 years old, that continue investing in assets vetoing the redistribution of profits. The paradox is that the redistribution of profits is in the statutes of the cooperatives, something that the State tends to ignore.
The members do not ask about the profits (or earnings), because they believe that it is not their right nor the fruit of their effort as members. By not conceiving the cooperative and its efforts as their own, they do not do the calculations for the conversion of coffee in cherry to export coffee, nor cacao in pulp to dry cacao, nor the value formation of their product, nor do they calculate to the amount to be paid from the loan received, nor the expenses and income of the cooperative. Many producers do the calculations of their farms: ”I calculate how much I am going to harvest, what I am going to sell it at; and from there I go down, what I am going to pay the workers, the food, and I spend accordingly” (Rufino Espinoza); but they do not do the same with their cooperative, because they see it as “someone else´s”. The mentality of the members is: “I am a seller of raw materials, the rest is not of my interest”; “they lent me money and they said how much I am going to pay, the rest is up to them”. It is like borrowing money from the patron, whose earnings are unquestionable because he is “doing you a favor”. In the cooperative the money of the members is read from the lens of the old path, they say “it is money from the cooperative, not our money, the money of the members”; and even worse, “the manager lent me the money, I owe him” – the paradox is that it is a resource of the members themselves.
Now let us look at the second rule: “I do not work if they do not give me credit (crop lien loan)” (Figure 3). The members appear to doubt that their farm is theirs and disengage from it; correspondingly, it is common to find ourselves in coffee fields in bad shape, particularly in the case of organic crops. The members have the idea that the cooperative (manager and/or president) is there to “bring them credit” and to “buy their production”, which is why they do not work their farm if there is no credit. It would seem that to become a member is to neglect your own farm, because the “foreman” (manager or president) does not come in to supervise them. If the manager or the president shows up to visit them, they do not see it as a visit, but as “credit”, that he is coming to “provide credit”, “to collect”, or to “supervise”. The board members behave like “foremen”. “If we redistribute the profits, the members are going to feel free, without a commitment to the cooperative; if we give out earnings as credit, they are going to assure coffee for the cooperative” (a president of a coffee cooperative); “If we are going to visit the members they are going to believe that we already are bringing loans, and then they are only going to want to talk about that” (Idem).
The third rule refers to the yield of the product, and the fact that products from non-members comes in as if it were from the members. The yield refers to the processing of the product and its production on the farm. The former happens from the harvest collection to its sale (be it exported or sent to the national market): from sun dried coffee to dried, warehoused, hulled, selected and bagged; from cacao pulp to fermented, dried, bagged and warehoused; from sugar cane to the extraction of juice, boiled in cauldrons, granulated and bagged. This phase is carried out under the leadership of the business foot of the cooperatives, which is interpreted by the members as “not my job”, which is why they do not demand the earnings referred to in the first rule, and do not access information about that yield. This is what leads them to say, “I am a seller of sun-dried coffee, of cacao pulp, of sugar cane…” and not of “export coffee, or granulated sugar”.
Another rule emerges for the yield of the organic produce on the farm: “an organic farm is not applying anything”. It means zero agrochemicals. It has been extended from there to “zero organic inputs”. A good number of the members, except those who apply agrochemicals in secret, let their coffee field produce what natures provides it, that organic fertilizer “is nature itself”, as if they were in the agricultural frontier areas where the virgin soils are fertile. Behind this is the idea that growing coffee or sugar cane is applying agrochemicals under the order of the patron, and that nature “just responds to the mandate of the patron”. In other words, the cooperative reproduces the old path, but in a feeble way: the “foreman” does not supervise the production nor determines how to manage nature. This gets worse when the organic certifiers prohibit them from planting other crops in the same area as the organic crop, pushing them towards monocropping, intensifying this feeling that these organic areas are “someone else´s”, that they belong to the technicians and the buyers who give them the “organic premium”. It is probable that the reaction by some members to not work these organic areas is also a form of protest, “well they manage that part, so I am not going to apply anything”; or that the rule of “if there is no credit I do not work” is even more true in the case of organic producers, because they work less, when they would have to work triple the amount of time in organics, because if a conventional coffee area requires 10qq of urea, a similar area of organic coffee requires 30qq of organic fertilizer, which implies more family labor. Consequently, production drops, families get more impoverished and managers or presidents, responding to the market (global chain of actors), buy conventional products from non-members, and pass them off as organic coffee from the members, without the members realizing it.
Some members and leaders hear rumors about these practices, and are tempted to ask about them. But the business foot reacts strongly: “You owe me”, says the manager or the president to the member, as if the cooperative were the manager or president, or as if the resources of the members belonged to the manager and/or president. “The cooperative spends more on you who only turns in 500 lbs”, they accuse the smaller producers of coffee or cacao, reproducing the ideas of the old path, where the one who has more materials resources rules the rest. The accusations escalate: they throw in their face that they are small producers, that they had to buy produce from outside to cover administrative costs. On one hand, the members are afraid of the manager, president or technical trainer; they do not demand their rights out of fear that they will not give them loans, exclude them from some project, collect what they owe in front of the other members; the women are doubly afraid, afraid of their husbands and the manager or president. In this way the members end up believing that they are “small” and that is something to be ashamed of (“we do not make demands because we are small producers”), that the cooperative “is someone else´s”, and therefore their actions are not connected to the results of the cooperative. In other words, the members also are disengaged from their cooperative.
In this process there are people who wake up, but they are not able to get beyond this structure, they thought that by joining a cooperative they would leave that old path. They discover this reality, awaken, when they realize that the rules that they are following are not their own, nor do they come from their community nor from the cooperative, but from those who exploit and oppress them, that they do so clothed as cooperatives, democracy, revolution or fair trade. They understand what is happening, they abhor it, and see their relatives moving under these pernicious “exogenous” rules, believing that they are “their own”. It is when they feel disgusted, that their mind is conflicted, they do not know whether to believe in what woke them up, they become schizophrenic, wander on paths like sleepwalkers, while dragging along pieces of humanity. If they share their meditations, they are accused of being crazy, so with the look of someone lost, they murmur “I am disoriented” or “I am confused”. This happens to them because they have awoken to their condition, but the cooperative through which they thought they could leave that situation, ends up being the same structure, more global, more formal and offering more training, but it is the same structure. Of course, there is no absolute power over the members, they divert their coffee or their cacao, avoid paying their debts, wait…
2.3 Advice or assistance to, and from, the business foot
In these cooperatives the accompaniment on the part of allied organizations, or on the part of the technical area of the second-tier cooperatives, is linked to the logic of the business foot of the cooperative. Consequently the trainings and consultancies do not cover the entire glocal chain of actors, nor deal with the redistribution of profits, analysis of the financial information, nor the real traceability of the product – about whether it comes from the members, about whether it really is organic, whether it really comes from women members, whether it is or not a cooperative.
Let us look at two examples. The first, seeing the depressing situation of the coffee field, the aid organizations easily deduce – along the lines of monocropping .- that the members need to be trained, which is convincing or evangelizing the peasant about something that it is assumed he does not know, and that the trainer assumes he/she does, something like “not putting anything on organic cacao”, or pruning, or crop varieties. Nevertheless, in previous pages we have seen that the low production has to do with technical aspects connected to the rules of the old path, something that the accompaniment does not tend to include. The second element is about training in gender, it tends to be about the habits of the couple, that the husband cooks as a favor to his wife, that women work in agriculture, that the cooperative incorporate women to make it look like they are more equitable (husband signs over a piece of his property so it be in the name of his wife); they are trainings that reduce patriarchal relationships to technical responses.
It is a consultancy that does not start from studying the pernicious and virtuous rules on gender or production. They are consultancies that assume that they know them already, because everything has already been “studied”. How can women join cooperatives when their own rules (“having land”) excludes them, in addition to the fact that they tend toward monocropping? Other consultancies insist that the members not be afraid of criticizing their board members and managers, but that can be an act of suicide, if the members themselves do not move beyond the patron-fieldhand structure, and if they are not accompanied by their advisers in that effort. Understanding the problems and opportunities of the member families is also understanding that these problems are also the problems of consultants.
3. The cooperative path
Is it possible to wake up and take another path? The fact that most of the cooperatives reproduce the old path makes this possibility more difficult, like what happens when a political revolution reproduces the same hierarchical structure that it apparently fought. We say “apparently” because in reality it was “get rid of you to install me”. But of course another path is possible! Here we present the conditions that create a cooperative path, its results in terms of the 3 rules, and the appropriate accompaniment.
3.1 Mechanisms needed for an associative path
We begin with the first mechanism, awakening and envisioning an alternative path.
Louise convinced her husband, Harold, to take a vacation. In 1983 they went to Mexico, El Salvador and Nicaragua, the last two countries in civil wars in those years. One night Harold awoke with a start, sat up in bed, and began to sob. “This is crazy” – he said to himself – “I have not cried as an adult, and now I am crying.” Why was he crying? The previous day while walking through the streets of Managua, a naked child ran up to him and hugged his legs. He looked down at the child, and the child looked up at him. He never saw that child again. That event stayed in his mind. So talking with Louise they decided to make more money with his business, Foldcraft, in the United States to organize a foundation that would provide support in Nicaragua. In 1986 they established the foundation. The couple has since died, and that Foundation continues supporting dozens of peasant families through their rural organizations in Nicaragua.
Harold and Louise as a young couple began to make furniture in the garage of Harold´s mother´s house, a business that over the years became a million-dollar enterprise. That daily effort made the couple believe that the rules under which they moved were the rules of the rest of the world. Nevertheless, that night when Harold woke up crying, he realized that it is NOT true; that his rules in his business were not the same rules in countries like Nicaragua. According to what people close to the family tell us, Harold was a very conservative member of the Republican party, and Louise was from the Democratic party. Being so conservative, how did they realize that the rules were not the same? The couple were mentally open to understanding that their rules and the rules in Nicaragua were not the same, that so there was injustice. That small, naked boy had shaken their hearts and their minds. Harold and Louise did not become cooperative members, but they found a path to make their awakening effective. They sold their business to their own workers, and they understood that the biggest challenge was that the workers would become owners, and that that also was the challenge of the members of cooperatives. So they left behind their resources for this new path of justice.
Now let us consider the awakening of Jacinto Peñas, described at the beginning of this text. He awoke and envisioned another path based on “thinking differently”. That path took shape in a matter of months. He and other founders remembered it.
We awoke to the injustice of the wages, the cheating that the stores did to us through the weighing, and the prices for what we produced, and what we bought from them. We decided to form a cooperative. But how could we do that if we had no money nor anything? So Fr. Hector threw a nickel in the middle of where we were sitting and asked, “How many pieces of candy can we buy with this coin?” “Five!” we responded. Another person among us looked then for a nickel in his pocket. And others threw in more coins. Father picked up ten coins and told us that it was enough to buy 50 pieces of candy. He asked a boy to go out and buy them. It was noon and we were hungry.
The boy shared the candy with the fifty of us peasants who were there, and Father asked us again. “What does it taste like”” Someone said, “It tastes like glory!” We laughed. “This is how cooperativism is done”, concluded the priest.
The next week a group from Pantanal bought a hundred-pound sack of salt to resell as retail, and in El Carmen each person began to save 10 cents per week. In this way la esperanza de los campesinos [the hope of the peasants] was started, that is how our cooperative got started.
So started the Esperanza de los Campesinos [Hope of the Peasants] Cooperative. Surely after several visits and group reflections they were awoken. They realized that the old path produced injustice, that money was made by lowering salaries and on the basis of cheating in the weight and the price. They understood that together they could solve these structural problems, like the weighing and pricing, that that was possible with the accompaniment of the priest Gallego, taking another path. Hope begins for them, and they propose forming a cooperative. At the very beginning a rule of the old path, and a belief about themselves, pop up: “without money nothing can be done”; (we have) “nothing”. They have a collective awakening there about the cooperative path, where they discover their own capacities: their own resources to contribute, initiatives for generating resources (in El Pantanal with a “hundred-pound bag of salt”); it is a collective awakening that frees up their energies to start their cooperative path in their own territory; and a reflective process, accompanied by the priest Gallego, who in our language “throws the ball back to them” – it is a type of accompaniment that we espouse in each one of these mechanisms.
Figure 6 shows the second mechanism, cooperative functioning in a circular path. Instead of elites sending directions down from above, like in figure 3, reproducing the old path expressed in figure 1, now the international actors are part of a triangulated relationship, where buyers and financiers are interested in the product and in their capital in so far as the cooperative improves as a resource for the members, and in so far as the international organizations themselves are freed from the NY price for different products. On this path the most important product is not the coffee, cacao or granulated sugar, but the organization itself, and the chain of organizations with the allies.
The third mechanism is that the cooperative walk on two feet, the associative foot and the business foot (see Figure 7). It is the interaction of both feet that makes it move forward, as the song days “there is no path, you make the path by walking”. The associative foot defends redistribution, democratic exercise, and informational transparency; the society side. And the business foot defends the increase in wealth, efficiency (more income and less expenses) and effectiveness in economic transactions; it is the market side. One foot dominating the other is the termination of this cooperative path. An organization that only walks on the associative foot shares its wealth and is left with unsustainable democratic methods. Likewise, an organization only with the business foot is left as a means of dispossession subject to the market.
Within this framework a cacao buyer wants to negotiate, talk and reflect with people from both feet of the cooperative; the same with a financial or academic institution. There are no followers there, but leaders, there are no small nor large producers; one person, one vote; all the members have the right to elect and be elected, which is why the rotation of leadership is a principle on the associative side as well as on the business side. New members or a new worker in the cooperative will see from the beginning that, regardless of their level of schooling, they can scale up in title and learning.
The fourth mechanism is about values. On the old path values are talked about, but those values are turned into fetishes – words (values) that hide their commodification, and separate human actions from their economic, social and political results. The cooperatives that reproduce those old values repeat the laws, cooperation and solidarity, but their meaning comes from the old path, it means subjecting themselves and using the law for individual interest at the cost of the collective and its processes. In cooperatives that depart from the old path, values like honesty, solidarity or cooperation are connected to the origins of cooperativism, the roots of their members, and communities where they come from – see Figure 8. These values are connected with our childhood and with fair norms and equity in our families and communities: “equal inheritance”, “respecting collective assets”, sharecropping”, “shared labor”. These values, said figuratively, we have buried under layers of soil and we have to dig them up; on this path doubts about whether we are on the right path assail us. Swimming against the current is rare and difficult; the question guides us.
The fifth mechanism is the rootedness of the organization in its communities and in the diversified nature of its production. The old path makes society subject itself to the market, and with that promotes the extinction of the peasantry through monocropping, a colonial strategy for dispossession, now intensified by capitalism. This old path expressed through cooperatives coopted by the market follow that same strategy, even promoting organic production, just as we saw previously. This path leads us to serve the market, adopt monocropping, turns us into enemies of nature, disconnects us from other people and from ourselves. On the cooperative path, we deepen the horizontal and vertical diversification, it connects us to nature and our roots. The more diversified we are, the more we energize our communities, the more we connect ourselves to different markets. The more agroecological practices we adopt, the greater autonomy that we attain, and the more we pull our cooperatives to function in our own territories. It is in this context that we talk about improving production, the quality of what we produce, to the extent that we improve the land.
Finally the mechanism that reinforces a contingent awareness. The old path makes the worker disconnect from the wealth that is produced on the farm, hacienda or factory, makes the producer family believe that their country ends at their own hedgerow, makes the member believe that it only means calling yourself a member, while always being a “seller of raw materials”. This old path makes the accompanying NGO or technician believe that their advice does not have to do with the results of the cooperative or the family. This act of believing that our actions have nothing to do with the situation of a country, the environmental situation, and the democratic system or not of our countries, is an act of alienation that intensifies climate change and social inequality. The cooperative path is precisely reconnecting our actions and their aggregated effects of unintended consequences.
On throwing in 10 nickels, 50 members saw how that act was turned into candy, into their redistribution, in a collective act that started a cooperative, a space for learning and created a living community. In the story “the little boss and his henhouse”, contrary to the mentality of the president Reymundo, Maria connects the actions of people, that “a cooperative is for thinking and helping one another.” The mental openness of Harold and Louise led them to think that there were unjust rules that generated results like that “naked boy”. It is Jacinto in the story at the beginning of this article that connects processes and “thinking differently”. The redistribution of profits is one of greatest expressions for members to connect their actions with the results of their organization. It is the connection between individual ideas and actions, and their collective aggregated effects (results), that gives us the possibility of awakening, and consequently of changing. This is the basis for cultivating a contingent awareness, that there is nothing that is given, that we humans transform realities; that there is no “above”, only the circle of Figure 6.
3.2 Elements of repossession
Ownership is the biggest result of the mechanisms just mentioned. This ownership is expressed in three rules: redistributing profits, providing credit that breaks with the crop lien system, and horizontally and vertically diversifying in a way connected to nature. The three rules are interdependent on one another. See Figure 9.
Redistributing is the first rule. On the old path, the member summarizes their identity as “I am a seller of sugar cane”, “seller of sun-dried coffee”, “seller of cacao pulp”, or “seller of my labor”. On this old path, reproduced by the coopted cooperatives, that mentality of treating the members as “hens” is intensified, giving them “the organic premium”, or improving the price for their sugar cane, coffee or cacao. These cooperatives do not allow discussing the profits of the cooperative, nor do their global actor allies bring up these topics. In contrast, on the cooperative path that notion of redistribution* is inherent to being a cooperative.
In the story about the emergence of the “Esperanza de los Campesinos” cooperative, 10 peasants contributed 5 cents, and 50 candies were redistributed among 50 peasants; the object of that meeting was not to buy candy and distribute them, but that act of re-distributing them (“multiplication of the loaves”) gave them the sense of ownership of being a cooperative from the very beginning. This is what Harold and Louise experienced after that night of tears, that ownership was the biggest challenge for the workers to become the owners of the business, and likewise in the case of members with their cooperatives. Redistribution is a means of ownership over your organization, which makes profits, information and rotation in leadership be shared. This is what wakes up the member, generates in the member interest in being informed, occupying positions of leadership, and keeping watch over their organization. In this way, Rufino Espinoza who calculates his income and costs for his farm, could ask for information and calculate the income and expenses of the cooperative; the members can calculate the yield of their coffee from cherry form to export coffee, and even roasted and ground coffee. Because “where your treasure is, there your heart will be” (Mt 6:21); a (economic, social, political and environmental) treasure that is the result of collective effort.
Contrary to “giving credit to go into debt” or “providing credit as payment for your produce at less than half its market price”, the second rule of change is: credit that frees the members from indebtedness and the crop lien system. This is possible coupled to the rule of redistribution of the cooperative´s profits, as well as receiving part of the loan in kind (farm inputs), making the relationships and information transparent in the heart of the family, that leads them to savings in times of “fat cows” for the lean times, and stagger income throughout the year.
This takes us to a third rule: diversifying connected to nature. It is not possible to stagger income without breaking with colonial mono-cropping; nor to save if a family and their cooperative are not promoting diversification in its various expressions. Staggering income comes from horizontally diversifying on the farm and vertically in forms of forward agro-industrialization (e.g. roasting coffee, making chocolate, making marmalade from fruit on the farm) and backward industrialization (making organic fertilizer and natural fungicide, protecting water sources). This rule fights that pernicious rule of “not putting anything on it”, connected to the lack of ownership over their own farm and cooperative; let us recall the old Spanish proverb “what nature does not bestow, Salamanca cannot provide”. That relationship between production and nature must be rethought from the idea of holistic ecology, proposed in Laudato Si. There Pope Francis urges recognizing one common cry from the most impoverished people and degraded nature; not seeing nature are something isolated nor much less as a thing, but connected, people with the environment, with God, with oneself and with other people; it is a notion that starts from the fact that there is an interconnection between society and nature, politics, economics and the environment, personal dignity and the common good, generational justice, culture and lifestyles. In other words, diversifying linked to nature is something that you connect with multiple and different areas.
These three rules are interconnected within a glocal framework. Composting is not done, in spite of hundreds of trainings received, because doing composting is a technical matter connected to policy, ownership of the farm and the cooperative. Credit can be a means for freeing the members from their debts and keeping the business foot from subjecting the cooperative to its interests, if that loan is connected to the redistribution of surpluses, if the financial organizations support this purpose, and if the member families improve their capacity for savings in so far as they diversify their activities.
3.3 Transformational accompaniment
This glocal cooperative path requires an accompaniment coherent with, and in the interest of, the aforementioned mechanisms (3.1) and results (3.2). It requires that we be in the home of the member family, and at the same time connected to the entire chain of global actors, in other words, working in networks, in teams, moving as part of the circle in figure 6. “Staying on top of the pulse”, and “being in the game”.
The priest Gallego is a source of inspiration in this. He had his religious network for working with the peasantry, he moved in the communities themselves, reflected in a circle with the peasant families, and contributed to the fact that the peasant families organized; his idea of church went beyond the temple in the municipal capitals. Pope Francis would add: listening to the cry of those most impoverished and the cry of nature as one cry. And we add the compelling need to conceptualize what we learn from the cooperative and from ourselves as accompaniers. We are not looking to do the impossible, but to break down our limits.
Open ended conclusions
Few rules move the world, even though below that “bridge” there might be a lot of running water. What this article dealt with should not be seen as a prescription. It is only a small door to multiple realities in which it must be reinterpreted, corrected, expanded and added to. How to wake up and build cooperatives that would channel the dreams of peasant and indigenous families? How to accompany them breaking through our limits which the traditional academy imposed on us?
In this article we showed that sustained changes are possible if a specific cooperative in a certain community decides to do it. Even more so, if the global actors awaken and join the circle of change. Will global actors have the courage to awaken and change?
What is seen here is not exclusive to cooperatives and the chain of actors linked to them. We find the same structures in any organization or institution, be it grassroots, on the national or international level, the academy or the church. Nevertheless, the hope for change is present even in the most pernicious and inhumane organization or institution that has existed on the face of the earth. Can these organizations dig into their history and that of humanity to re-encounter their real mission in our common home?
 Crossbar refers to two stick tied to its neck to keep it from digging under a fence.
 R. Mendoza, E. Fernandez y K. Kuhnekath, 2012, “¿Institución patrón-dependiente o indeterminación social? Genealogía crítica del sistema de habilitación en el café”, en: Revista ENCUENTRO, No. 92. Managua: UCA
 This parable is inspired by a visit that a colleague had. I changed the names to protect them.
The old path exists in an infinity of types of organizations: political parties, NGOs, Universities, Churches or sports organizations. “If a teacher misses a class, he does not let us know that he is going to miss, and later decides when to make up that class without consulting the students; that is the order in the University”. I was told this by a student in the fourth year of Oriental medicine studies.
 Enrique Dussel, 1990, La producción teórica de Marx, un comentario a los Grundrisse. México: s. XXI.
 R. Mendoza, 2012, Gatekeeping and the struggle over development in the Nicaraguan Segovias. PhD tesis. Belgium: University of Antwerp.
 Several studies have now found this correlation between organic production for markets and poverty. See: Joni Valkila, 2009, “Fair Trade organic coffee production in Nicaragua — Sustainable development or a poverty trap?” in: Ecological Economics.
 In an article we pulled together the genesis of this cooperative, see: R. Mendoza, 2017, “A priest, a coop and a peasantry that regulates the elites”, in: ENVIO 425. Managua: IHCA-UCA. This year the cooperative celebrates its 50th anniversary, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5v9aKUIecuw
 This expression probably refers to the fact that one of the most prestigious universities of Europe is in Salamanca, and the first to receive the title of university. It is a saying that indicates nothing is a given, your genes do not ensure your success, rather it is sustained effort that is required.
Raúl Zibechi is an Uruguayan activist-journalist and researcher of social movements in Latin America. His reputation – well known and respected especially by the left- makes this article on the 40th anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution so significant.
40 Years of the Sandinista Revolution: Debating is Important
by Raúl Zibechi August 3, 2019 in the online magazine Rebelión
Those who believe that criticism and self criticism are useless, or dangerous, can read the speeches and interventions of Lenin after 1917 to his colleagues in the congresses and plenaries of the party and the soviets. You will observe the rigor of his analyses, merciless with mistakes and deviations, uncompromising with his closest comrades.
He was always like that, but once taking power he improved in density and precision, always exploring new issues. The bureaucracy and traps that his colleagues would make to shirk the problems that they created, or were not capable of solving, exasperated him. All revolutionaries, at all times, are implacable in the field where they militate, because they risk their lives and disparage titles.
When the 40th anniversary of the triumph of the Sandinista revolution happened, deep analyses of the hegemonic left were not heard, in spite of the fact that the process led by Daniel Ortega foundered in corruption and repression, leaving in its wake people murdered, tortured, imprisoned and in exile. A noted academic said, days before, that the massacre of April showed exemplary restraint (…) an example of nerve and a capacity for a constructive, generous and patriotic response.
The most serious analyses these days come from ex combatants who at different moments have abandoned the FSLN. Mónica Baltodano, Dora María Téllez, Luis Carrión, Henry Ruíz and Óscar René Vargas, among the most well known. For reasons of space I will focus on only two of them.
Baltodano considers the regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo a dictatorship, in an article published in Brecha. She states that the great majority of the “commandantes of the revolution, guerrillas, popular combatants and common people who massively joined the final offensive disavow Orteguism, its atrocities and the repression unleashed, which includes – according to the conclusions of the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights – crimes against humanity.”
She denounces the military-police repression unleashed by Ortega against students and peasants, which she does not hesitate to describe as a massacre, perpetrated starting with the popular mobilizations of April 2018 against the cuts in the pension system.
Allied with bankers, big business and the United States, starting in 2007, according to the ex commandante, Ortega turned into a crusader for capitalism and the free market, for concessions to multinationals, brutal extractivism, the exploitation of natural resources and the privatization of all public wealth. She is outraged that some leftist parties and intellectuals would support the regime, even after the massacre that left hundreds of dead, thousands of wounded and mutilated, as well as more than 70,000 political refugees.
Carrión focuses on self criticism, but after recognizing that he was part of what he is denouncing, in an extensive article in the magazine Envio. He dwells on the achievements of the revolution in health and education, the empowerment of popular sectors and the agrarian reform. The criticism begins with the fact that the Sandinistas assumed absolute power, that led them even to place society and the social movements under their control, following the logic of the single political party.
The conversion of the social organizations into the transmission belt of the leadership of the FSLN, in the worst Stalinist tradition, went hand in hand with the accusation of the contras (counterrevolutionaries) who did not fall into line with the decisions from above. Plurality was not accepted on any terrain, not even in organizations of women, peasants or urban populations. Carrión recognizes that everything had to be painted red and black.
With the passage of time, we can understand the policy toward the Mískitos of the Caribbean Coast, on whom they tried to impose Sandinista logic, which they took to be a new colonization. It was an issue of the traditional mistakes of a State centered policy, in spite of the fact that the Sandinistas themselves tried to correct them with the declaration of autonomy, which he considers a virtue of the revolutionary government.
The treatment that the peasantry received was different, which Carrión assesses as key for the derailment of the revolution. He maintains that the war between the Sandinistas and the contras, supported by the United States, would not have become generalized if a massive uprising against the revolution had not been produced by peasants from the center of the country, from north to south.
In this respect, he thinks that there was abuse with the confiscation of lands that initially affected only the Somocistas, but later was applied to people who were not supporting the revolution. An additional problem was that the confiscations “were carried out by officials and political leaders who came from the cities with an ideological vision of the countryside, without knowing the identity of peasant society.”
Sandinism reproduced the colonial/patriarchal attitude of leftist parties toward the peasants and original peoples. According to Carrión, “an incapacity to relate to the peasantry, who spoke a different language, different from the one that those who arrived in the countryside representing the revolution.”
Lastly, the commandantes addressed the problem of a revolutionary power that reproduced the already existing political cultures in pre-revolutionary societies. Thus like Stalin (and the entire Bolshevik party) reproduced the legacy of the Zarist power, Ortega inserted himself into the authoritarian tradition of Nicaragua, where the Somoza dictatorship lasted for a half century and was preceded by other similar dictatorships.
How can one not reproduce and [instead] transform hegemonic political cultures? This is the nucleus of the debate that we owe one another and that, for now, only the women´s movement and the original people´s movement are beginning to address.
(The approach of the article is reminiscent of the central theme of the historical novel “The man who loved dogs” written in 2009 by Leonardo Padura, who paints an intricate and detailed picture of the type of mindset that ends up betraying revolutionary idealism. The novel is experiencing renewed interest in Nicaragua today).
My head spent the days immersed in matters like employee ownership, organizational strengthening, empowerment, open book management, continuous improvement, transparency and the wisdom inherent in organizations.
My heart was in Nicaragua, at the foot of Peñas Blancas, with more than 50 peasant producers who are spending the week in another edition of the Certificate Program, an on-site immersion into holistic development of their farms, coops, families and futures. I have come to know many of these folks, having worked with them in previous settings, and I miss being with them.
My body was at home in Iowa, trying to figure out how to respond to a mysterious malady that inflames all of my joints and aches my body’s systems like a bad case of the flu. I need to learn what is wrong and how to make it right. I’m saddened not to be in Nicaragua and frustrated at the reasons for it.
So my time was divided among three states of being this week. And as I reflected on my uneasiness at this state of affairs, it dawned on me that what I was experiencing was not unlike the normal circumstances of our Certificate Program participants. Their lives are under the stresses of being torn in multiple directions, as a way of life.
The heads of many peasants are filled with trying to discern what’s happening within their country. Investment has all but vanished. Foreign aid organizations have pulled out long ago. There is enormous tension between the Ortega government and the Civic Alliance, giving ongoing potency to the anxious uncertainties of every day life, even in the countryside.
The peasants must have found it hard to concentrate on their organizations, with their heads already immersed in matters like: What is really happening in our country? What is true? What do I have to do to protect my family and myself? Can I trust my neighbor? How do I process all of it? Of course, all of this is context for the ongoing, every day questions about climate, weather, the cost of inputs, the income from harvest, the presence and absence of rain, maintaining the farm, worrying about kids. Oh yes, and the ever-present worry about health, of the family, of the spouse, of self.
Their hearts are firmly in Nicaragua, even if at times they cannot actually be there. Despite the warped perceptions of a U.S. president, under normal conditions Nicaraguans essentially have little desire to leave Nicaragua. It’s their home. It’s both their inheritance and their future assignment to their children. They treasure their history and culture no less than any U.S. citizen does about their North American homeland. But if conditions and opportunities diminish to the point of complete destitution, then alternatives become realities, and the idea of immigration emerges.
Their hearts know, deep inside, that only new ways of managing the coops will bring about greater success, despite the urges to cling to the old ways, the means by which survival has been possible for generations. There is heartbreak in leaving old ways, the comfortable ways, behind. It can even feel like betrayal. There is anguish in having to choose the unknown.
Their hearts remember that the land that once belonged to their elders, and that should be destined to belong to the youth, is a sacred trust, an honor-bound commitment to family. But their hearts also are fatigued from the consumption of energy and spirit by injustices that so often infect the poor. My acquaintances in Nicaragua are strong of heart, unflinching in the face of crushing poverty, but also realists who are willing to break their own hearts for survival.
Their bodies are the resilient homes for hopeful spirits. Their physical bodies are asked to endure and thrive in the face of limitations on healthcare, nutrition, clean water, education opportunities, healthy incomes and environmental health. In the face of huge physical demands, the rural farmers accept and adapt to such challenges as a matter of course, and largely fulfill the requirements of their days.
I cannot help but imagine the course of activities undertaken by such a farmer experiencing my current set of symptoms. With some embarrassment, I imagine perseverance that puts my days in these weeks to shame. In many ways, our Nica colleagues are far more adaptable to change than we might think.
Comparisons are a likely outcome, I suppose, when time is abundant, when my head is teeming with ideas, when my heart is restless and my body compromised. But there is substantial learning available despite it all, and I find that my Nica colleagues can teach me well, even from a long distance away….
in Nicaragua, working with peasant farmers on issues of cooperativism and continuous improvement.
People dispossessed for so many years collected their savings and gave them to one of their sons, Solin, for him to pay for the coffee that was collected from their own group. Solin had never had so much money; he was like a deer in the headlights. He paid for the coffee. Some of the same people who had saved, behind the back of the rest, went to him to get him to lend them money. Solin first said no, but these people insisted, and he gave in. More people showed up, also from other parts of the country, and he ceded. Solin felt like a little patrón, “The people trust me”, his chest puffed out like a balloon. This path of giving out other people´s money, saying that it was his, led him to lie and believe his own lie. When other people showed him his mistake, Solin offered them money to shut them up, and if they did not accept it, he would slander them. One day he looked himself in the mirror and was frightened to find that he did not recognize himself.
When the owners of the money asked him to give it back, he had lent it all out. “And where is the money?”, they raised their voices. “You have already eaten it,” the theft reverberated like 10, 100 and 1000 years ago. Solin and several of the savers had betrayed their own path. Both took the path trodden for centuries by the old hacienda owners and fieldhands, by the comandante and those who died, by the manager and those who believed themselves to be cooperative members.
This story illustrates what happens frequently in cooperatives. A group of people save, define their purposes, agreed on their rules and then betray that path. The old path trodden by the patrón where the fieldhands follow for their pay, become indebted and to look for a favor, a path also taken by governments and churches (“Holy Patron Saint”), clouds and blocks any other path. In the story this group of people and Solin look at themselves in the mirror, or ask about their resources, and are surprised to be on the old path of dispossession, moving from being “servers” to “being served”. Their biggest tragedy is not so much the use of the money, but the fact that they have betrayed their path, this is the reason for the bad use of the money and the fact that their lives have taken a 360 degree turn, arriving at the same place. How can people who organize be able to follow their own path?
1. Individual-collective duality and the dilemma of betrayal
In organizations that face corrupt acts, there is finger pointing, accusations and complaints. “He is incorrigible”, “he is guilty of bad administration”, “she is not accountable”, “she uses our money for her benefit and that of her managers”, lash out the members. These
phrases in a cooperative belie an individual perspective, accentuated by the religious conservatism of “personal salvation”, and by the neoliberal doctrine where what is important is the individual and not society–there is no such thing as society, said the first female British Prime Minister M. Thatcher in 1987, during the full eruption of neoliberalism. Reproducing this perspective, nevertheless, is a way of “washing our hands”, of showing oneself to be innocent while pointing out others as the guilty parties.
These same expressions, nevertheless, can be read as “spitting against the wind” from the collective perspective. Because the member who is doing the accusing, with or without a title in some organ of their organization, on seeking a loan directly from the administrator, behind the back of his own cooperative, is not exercising his/her role, and/or violates the rules of their own organization; on the other hand, the corrupt administrator establishes himself reproducing the idea of the patrón;: “With 100 cordobas I keep them happy.” Many times even the State or aid organization officials who support the cooperatives borrow money from the managers, knowing that it is money that belongs to the cooperatives. “The spit” also falls on this member and this official who preaches cooperativism. A systematic act of corruption happens, above all, because of the lack of functioning of the respective organs, because of the lack of compliance with the rules of the organizations, and the accounting norms on the administrative side, as well as because of the acceptance of aid organizations*.
The members know the rules and procedures, but they see them as tedious, “paperwork”, “bureaucracy” – high transaction costs, they would say in economics. The members of the organs also see it in this way: “meeting is a waste of time.” While the patrón “from one big roll” decides to lend to them or not. In this process the members believe the administrator about any version about the source of the money, there is no culture of verifying their versions, because, they think, it would be distrusting and ungrateful; for that very reason, they do not ask for receipts either, the patrón does not do receipts – his word is enough! In addition to believing him, they fear him, “a person with other people´s money is capable of anything”, they whisper, so they keep quiet – do not speak in front of the patrón! This is a rule that is resurrected. From here the “vice” of playing with “other people´s money”, more than individual and exclusive of the manager or some president, is a collective “vice”; a collective act causes individual behavior – of corruption or honesty. See the upper part in Figure 1.
“The law is not being applied to him”, state the members and advisers of the organizations. With this they mean to say that organizations have laws, the State oversees compliance with the law; and that aid organizations have rules, and they do not apply them. This, however, continues to assume an individual perspective, believing that by “applying the law” “the patron is going to self correct”. It ignores what the history of any country tells us, “the patrón makes the laws”, be that with his right hand or his left. So we detect that this individual perspective, clothed in a collective and legal perspective, is moved by structures of dispossession; the “accusing”, the “abusing other people´s money” and “preaching laws” make the path of cooperativism disappear, and accentuate the path of dispossession – it is the dilemma of the betrayal. So we perceive that this structure is like rails for a train, it does not matter who the conductor is that is driving the train, nor how many years of schooling he might have, how many advisers and protectors of the law he has, that train will move along the rails; not matter who the administrators or presidents may be, these structures (“rails”) trap the conductors. In this way cooperatives can go broke, while these structures remain unmoved –“in an open treasure even the just will sin”, goes the saying.
At the same time this structure is being challenged. On the one hand, there are some members who cultivate a contingent awareness, that it is possible to make your own path and walk it; and on the other hand there are administrators who understand their role, respecting accounting rules and the collective perspective of organizations, shunning “inflating themselves” like balloons that run the risk of “bursting.” They do not “spit into the wind”, but recreate that collective perspective which finds itself supported by mechanisms that are coherent with more communitarian structures, and consultancies that study these rural underworlds – this is overcoming the dilemma of betrayal. See the lower part of Figure 1.
2. Innovative mechanisms for cooperatives as the vehicle for repossession
“They do not let us be peasants”, shot off a Costa Rican leader in 1991, recognizing the onslaught of neoliberalism in turning the peasantry into workers and “wetbacks”. The “be peasants” has been more coherent with community structures, in conflict with structures of dispossession. It goes with mechanisms that make an alternative path possible, mechanisms that we have been learning from the exceptional organizations in Central America: see figure 2.
They are mechanisms that “de-commodify” peasant life, they involve awakening and organizing, deepening their roots, improving the organization of the commons, and sharing the path in a glocal alliance- because every space is glocal (global and local).
Mechanism 1: Voluntary genesis of cooperativism congruent with community principles
Nearly two centuries ago a group of textile workers in England saved part of their salaries to start a store, and with that stabilize their income and defend their basic needs. In Germany peasants organized to free themselves from usury. In both cases, the people understood that individually they were not able to overcome structural problems, like the low buying power of their salary and the usury that indebted them for life; organized, they could do so. Thus they defined their path and walked it. Over time cooperativism has expanded throughout the entire world and has become a double edged sword, a means for repossession for its members and communities from whence they come, and a means for dispossession when small elites appropriate it for profit. Read the brief dialogue in the box.
From the angle of the genesis of cooperativism, this dialogue shows the incomprehension of the administrator about what a cooperative is, as well as the wisdom of the younger brother about the social rule of “respecting someone else´s assets”. “The need of the other affects me”, says the administrator; precisely the crude “need” of people led to the fact that cooperativism emerged standing under the principle of respecting collective assets. The error of the administrator in this dialogue is providing a loan from money that is not his, and doing it outside of the rules and organs of the cooperative that named him “administrator”; with that he dispossessed the members of their resources, and full of a short term vision condemned needy people to suffering. Being “proud” is abusing “another´s assets”. This deformation results from the individual perspective derived from structures of dispossession.
The cooperative that originated in the will of its members to overcome structural adversities, and does it with rules based on community principles, like those expressed by the “younger brother” in the dialogue of respect for collective goods, is a long term structural mechanism.
Mechanism 2: Rooted in diversified bases
The market demands a product and does not matter whether the one who produces it comes from one place or another; the State and aid agencies behave in a similar way, they legalize organizations or demand changes like “including women as members” without regard to where they come from. From working with cooperatives we learned that a cooperative that is rooted in its micro-territory has more possibilities of walking their walk, of being inclusive…
How to be rooted? Even though the members of a cooperative come from the same micro-territory, deciding that the administration –and therefore the financial transactions – are done in the territory itself, requires making explicit in a reflective way several beliefs written in stone for centuries: “Here they are going to steal from us, in the town there are Policemen and that is why it is safer there”, “no buyer or certifier is going to come out here to our place, we have to go out to civilization”, “here we are living in the brush, the patrón lives in the town”, “that little girl doesn´t know anything about administration, only men who ride on motorcycles know it.”
When the members of a cooperative come from the same micro-territory, and decide that their building and its administration are going to be in the same space, then we create favorable conditions for a good cooperative. The possibility that corruption might emerge and intensify is reduced. The mobility of the members to the cooperative´s building, as well as the attendance of women and men in the meetings is greater. We say that more women and men go to the meetings, because of the geographic proximity and because they do not have to travel to the municipal capital to attend meetings; the women can go to the meeting with their babies and/or children, something that is difficult if the meeting is in the municipal capital. This contributes to the cementing of trust among the members. Also the coordination between the administration and the organs of the cooperative can improve. The care of the members and board members over their administration increases, which is why the security of the resources of the cooperative in that place increases. Accessing information and asking their questions is also more possible.
The payments that are made in the territory itself to the members, be it for coffee, cacao, sugar cane or another crops, has an impact on the economy of the territory. The storefronts and small businesses sell more, new businesses tend to emerge. The interest of the partner of the member, and their children, in the receipts that their Father or Mother bring from the cooperative is greater. The possibility of having lovers under the argument that “I am going to town for a meeting” is reduced. It is like the butterfly effect in a world as interconnected as today´s world is, even more so is life interconnected in a micro-territory and in families.
Mechanism 3: the functioning of the cooperative organs and administration
The fact that a member might understand that organized they can overcome their structural problems is one step, the fact that they can facilitate that because their cooperative is rooted in their territory is a second big step. Nevertheless, there are cooperatives that in spite of having taken both steps, go broke or turn into a means for dispossession manipulated by small elites. The third mechanism is that each member, with or without a title, function in accordance with the rules and organs of their organization, without going “in secret” to the “real person in charge”, because the “real person in charge” in the cooperatives are its rules and organs.
It is easy to say that the organs of a cooperative function according to its rules. But it is difficult for it to happen. The phrase that is read in laws and management, that they are “management organs” illustrates that they are not “decision making organs”, that the power of making decisions was expropriated by the elites. How can the organs be “decision making” and the administration “management”, the former with a strategic role and the latter with an operational role? Apart from the fact that they know their statutes (rules), meet systematically and cultivate connections with their members and with external actors, the key is in the fact that they become learning organizations. How? First, each member is seen as a leader in their community, understanding that the biggest treasure is in their own social territory; consequently, their first task being multiplying their visits to other people, members or not of the cooperative, so that through conversations, they might understand the problems and opportunities that exist in their territory. Knowing them and sharing them is their fuel for pushing the cooperative to improve, and it is their source of ideas for enlightening cooperativism.
Second, the relationship between the administration and the organs is developed to the extent that they organize information, analyze it and on that basis define their policies and strategies to be followed. This provides work content for each organ. For example, information on loans and arrears is analyzed by each organ, particularly the credit committee; the Oversight Board finds one of its principle follow up tasks in this; the education committee, as a result of this analysis, proposes to work on financial education with the members about how to save, invest better and working with more autonomy, breaking with that old institution of “going into debt” and putting up with any exploitation for being “indebted”.
Third, making decisions based on the visits and the data analysis makes it possible for them to make better decisions. A particular area is diversification. A cooperative, even one with organs functioning acceptably, if it continues embracing mono-cropping, sooner rather than later will go broke; if it continues, it will work to dispossess. Promoting diversification, nevertheless, is difficult because of the atrocious structure of international power. Today to speak about agricultural cooperatives is nearly to talk about mono-cropping. So there are “successful” cooperatives that have credit, marketing and technology services just for one crop; the effect of mono-cropping on the peasant economy and the environment have been horrible for decades and centuries. The attached box illustrates the expansion of mono-cropping even through organic agriculture reduced to its dimension as a commodity, and the fact that people of good will from international organizations work against the peasantry while believing that they are “benefitting” them. Visiting and analyzing data leads us to question the origins of our policies and respond to the millennial strategy of peasant resistance: diversification and environmental sustainability. If the organs and the administration of a cooperative focus their tasks on diversification of the farm and agro-industry, their cooperative will democratize a little more, and will include more youth and women in general.
The geographical proximity facilitates organizational functioning, and this, focused on diversification, makes the cooperative be even more rooted, produces new innovative rules and starts the path of being an organization of repossession – of peasant viability with economic and social diversification, and environmental stability.
Mechanism 4: Glocal alliance for the cooperative path
These three mechanisms facilitate changes in the cooperative and in the economy of the member families and their territories, but they will achieve sustainability to the extent that they take on the attitude of a cooperative member. It is not just organizing voluntarily, looking at their territory, making decisions through their organs, it is feeling themselves to be, and being cooperative members. What does this mean?
For centuries indigenous and peasant families have cultivated a mentality of producing to eat. Then in the 1920s in Central America cash crops came in like coffee, sugar cane, cacao, and cattle. In that process they molded a mentality of being a “seller of coffee”, “seller of sugar cane”, or “seller of milk”. Consequently, they reasserted their territory (“country”) in their plot or farm: “My country ends with my agave fence”, they declared, which means that within this area there is a structure and a person in charge, that outside of that is not his world, that his world ends at the fence where the buyers come to buy his products. They do not even sell, they buy off of him. This mentality was intensified by the markets, “I will buy your coffee sun-dried or wet, the rest does not matter”, “I will buy your sugar cane”; likewise national and international aid organizations, allies of associative organizations, with people trained in universities that taught them that only “Inc.” companies produce profits, say to them: “work on the raw materials and the rest will we take care of”, “you are good for harvesting, industry and trade is our thing”.
What is the problem with this mentality? The peasant receives payment for their coffee or milk, that is their world; the other world is that of the patrón, where the profits are; the peasant never is interested in this other world, knowing what their patrón did with his profits; the very fact of asking him was showing ingratitude, insubordination and social suicide – their own people would treat them as someone trying to be his equal. This institutionality has been reproduced in associative organizations and their allies; a member looks for payment for their coffee, sugar cane or milk, they are not interested in knowing whether their organization generated profits or not; in Fair Trade the use of the premium of US$20/qq of coffee is previously defined in social investment, infrastructure… and $5 for the member family to invest in their farm; the premium for organic coffee of US$30 is perceived like this, “premium”, equal to a “roasted cow” that the patrón would provide for them at the end of the harvest, “premium” of a day of fiesta. In other words, the agave fence of the peasant member is “price of NY + premium” (see box); the member family understands that their profits and premiums are not an expression of their rights, but “a favor” (something “extra”, “charity”) of the local or global patrón, that is why they do not ask about it, do not ask for information, nor keep their receipts nor complain over the distribution of profits. Knowing this reality, the patrón (administrator or fair trade coffee buyer) repeats, “with 100 córdobas I keep them happy”, “with pig rinds and booze they leave happy”, “I buy from them at a good price and I give them a premium, whether that gets to the member´s family or not is their issue.”
Complaining over your profits is like being a “beggar with a club”. It is like a woman subjected by her husband, she feels “kept” and without the right to ask him about the “rest of his money”, and it is the mentality of the citizen who pays taxes and instead of complaining that his government reinvest in public works and provide him “good service”, see these works as the result of the goodness of the government (patrón).
The three mechanisms listed need to be complemented by this fourth one, with which we will move beyond this glocal mentality. How? First, building a mentality where the peasant family has awareness about the fact that their actions create value and have unexpected consequences, which is why they can refine their policies and carry out actions of even greater value and impact. This is possible if they observe and reflect on some details; for example, making sure that through the payment for the harvested coffee in that territory positive aggregate effects are generated in the economy of that territory, beyond their “agave fence”; observing the impact of their diversified organic agriculture on their farms as well as on the territory; reflecting on the effect of violating the agreements of their own cooperative, that leads them to lose resources as a cooperative and as a territory. On observing these positive and negative effects, the members can awaken their awareness of being coop members and of moving from their “agave fence” to understand that regardless of their purposes, their actions have a repercussion on the territory. In a parallel fashion, let also global actors awaken and understand that their actions have repercussions on the lives of the peasant people; if they look at a cooperative just as “coffee” or “cacao”, commodities, and believe that by providing a good price and premium they have already contributed to the families, they should ask themselves if they are sure that they have “contributed”; if one person turns into an elite capturing those premiums, are the buyers contributing to the well being of the peasant families?
Second, making relationships between different glocal actors (global and local) be living alliances that are committed to the formation of associativism, complementing the mechanisms mentioned here. This does not mean improving the prices of raw materials. It means that organizations add up all the income (value of sold product +premiums+incentives for quality and other bonuses), subtract their expenses and costs, and from the gross profits they agree to redistribute according to a certain percentage, let us say 50 or 60%. We repeat, it is not a matter of improving the price of the sugar cane or the coffee, it is not distributing the premiums; it is redistributing the gross profits of your organization.* The remaining 50 or 40%, or other percentage, goes to internal funds, social fund, legal reserves, investment fund in the organization…
Third, all the actors, cooperative, associative enterprises, aid agencies, Universities and State Institutions, we all should commit in an ongoing and systematic way to cooperative formation, based on the lessons and challenges of the organizations themselves. On emphasizing profits we are not reducing ourselves to the economic, we understand with Aristotle that quantity is an element of quality; consequently, the members will move from a mentality of “I am a seller of sugar cane” to “I am a seller of granulated sugar”, from “I am a seller of coffee” to “I am a cooperative member exporter of export quality coffee”. This will mean that each member pushes that their organization generates more profits and redistributes them, they will make an effort to be informed, to be trained, to diversify more. With these elements, the formation will help their cooperative and territory, the board and their members, the cooperatives in the north and the south, to maintain strong ties of collaboration and mutual learning.
3. “Muddy” accompaniment from the underworld of the member families
Most cooperatives have been accompanied, be it by the State, Churches, aid agencies or Universities. Standardized accompaniment has meant providing them trainings, legalizing them, buying products from them and /or providing them with donations; it is an accompaniment that does not cross over toward the communities and the underworld of the cooperatives, which is why it ends up legitimizing corruption, or that cooperatives get turned into a means for dispossession. A new type of accompaniment is required so that these four mechanisms emerge, are adapted and make a difference.
Owen and other associative people inspired the emergence of cooperativism in England, Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen accompanied the first cooperative in Germany. A distinctive accompaniment in Central America has been that of the Catholic Church in the years 1960-1970; that accompaniment helped them to reflect on a God living among them, and a Reign of God that began in those very communities – the “treasure” (God) was in the communities themselves. This accompaniment gave rise to dozens of cooperatives and peasant stores based on their own resources; a good part of them still persist after 40 and 50 years. Consistent with this type of accompaniment, even though not from a religious perspective, we describe here an accompaniment that enters into the cooperative underworld in interaction with the 4 described mechanisms.
What are the distinctive characteristics of this accompaniment? The first is that the accompanying people understand that only by entering the underworld of the cooperatives and their territory will they be able to understand the process in which the cooperative finds itself, awaken reflection and help create mechanisms like those worked on here. The fact that we intellectuals might have the “best” assessment is useless if the members are not reflecting on and walking their own cooperative path. For that reason the accompaniers need to pass beyond the control of the “patroncito”, be that the administrator, manager or president, and through the conversation be exposing the struggle between the path of the patrón and that of the cooperative, as well as the complexity of walking their own path.
Second, accompanying is discerning mindsets from the inside. Along with studying the cooperative underworld, where the old path is imposed based on betrayal and subordination, and where people wander between doubt and intuition, the accompaniers discern the mindsets in the cooperatives, and their own mindset as accompaniers. When the cooperative is trapped in acts of corruption, it is moving under the rules of “the clever one takes advantage of what he administers”, and “we always need a patrón”; these rules conceal actions against their own organization; then the members see the accompaniers as “intruders”, unfurl the banner of “autonomy” to keep the accompaniers from “crossing over the threshold” of the territory, and make up lies in the territory that these accompaniers “are taking advantage of the cooperative.” Discerning their mindsets implies “muddying ourselves” in their beliefs and lies, at the risk that this might erode the legitimacy of the accompanier and drive him/her out of the territory. What distinguishes good accompaniment is the persistent act of overcoming our own mentality that it is “enough to train, legalize and help them to export in order to live better”, “taking their pulse” and innovating with member families to the extent that destructive mentalities that prevent learning are dispelled.
Third, accompanying well is allowing member families to take their own steps, provided that we understand that our actions also have repercussions in the lives of the member families. The accompanier risks the fact that the members might perceive him or her also as a “little patrón”, impairing them from walking their own cooperative path. Let us illustrate this with one experience; in a cooperative, after the second mechanism took place, of rootedness, the results in terms of informational transparency, reduction of corruption and a motivating environment because of its economic and social impact in the territory were admirable. So the board members complained to the accompaniers: see attached box.
In the box the leader sees the accompanier as a “little patrón” with the capacity to stop the corruption and impose decentralized administration on the territory of the cooperative. The response of the accompanier to the first complaint is that having intervened as a “firefighter” to “put out the fire” of corruption, even though this act would have saved them financially, it would have constrained them from building their own cooperative path, which is structural and long term. The response to the second complaint reveals an accompaniment that helps to innovate mechanisms to the extent that it studies and learns from the cooperative itself and its underworld. Even now that we have innovated these four mechanisms they would not be recipes for any organization, they are mechanisms that need to be adapted to each situation, and that each cooperative should experience their processes. These two responses illustrate that accompanying is letting member families walk their path, provided that it studies them and provokes reflection.
Finally, in this process we are getting to know ourselves, re-knowing ourselves in our actions, and we are developing a sense of reasoned compassion. Not the “rational being” of homo economicus. On understanding the mentality of a group of members who “always need a patrón that steals from us”, we understand that for more than 100 years this institution has been deeply etched in their grandparents and parents, reproduced now by this group. At the same time we understand that this institution is not characterized by “being peasants”, but that it is the centuries old path of the patrón-fieldhand. This reflective reasoning envisions this reality for us, and awakens “being peasants” in the lives of cooperative member families and our lives, through respecting the collective good, the rules of the collective and mother earth, the horizon for which we produced the four mechanisms.
Accompaniment makes us remember that the change is in alliance between the peasant families and those of us who accompany them, while we walk together. It is not a stationary accompaniment, but along the road. It is a tense alliance, with stumbles and doubts, but embracing each other for the purpose of creating a vehicle for repossession to the benefit of peasant families.
By way of conclusion
We began this text with the following question: How can people who are organizing follow their own path? First we identified how the colonial patrón-fieldhand path intensified by capitalism that only values merchandise (commodities) erodes the cooperative path, and leads people to betray their own path. This teaches us that individual actions respond to certain perspectives (individual or collective), and they in turn come from structures in conflict, communitarian structures and structures of dispossession; and that this cooperative path is connected with community life, also in resistance for centuries. These two paths clash, for example, in “the good of others”: the colonial and capitalist path is nourished by dispossessing “the good of others” (land, financial resources, labor) from the peasantry, while the cooperative path is connected to community structures which precisely originate in repossessing “the good of others”, which in this case is the “collective good”, material assets (financial resources), as well as alliances and collectively decided arrangements. This “good of others” in the cooperative path is then a “social relationship”, as Federici would say.
Lining ourselves up with this cooperative path, we list four innovative mechanisms that, contrary to the saying that “in an open treasure even the most just sins”, make the cooperative into “a treasure with rules and associative governance where even the biggest sinner becomes just.” These four mechanisms are: voluntarily organizing, rooted in specific micro-territories, making the cooperative organs and administration function, and within a glocal alliance framework help the member families to cultivate an awareness of “being a cooperative member”, that their actions generate changes in their lives and the life of their territory, and making the cooperatives expand their profits and redistribute them with informational transparency and as an expression of respecting “the good of others” (common good, collective good, their own good), in contrast to capitalism that is nourished from dispossessing material assets from peasant families. Then we argued that cooperatives need an accompaniment that makes a difference, that crosses over formal and despotic structures and gets into the underworld of the territories, from which they innovate with the member families, like the mechanisms listed here, and accompany them through thick and thin.
Is this text important only for cooperatives and their allies in their social territories? What happens in the cooperatives and their social territories at the micro level is happening in countries at the macro level. Following the cooperative vision is overcoming the “commodity” vision, the colonial patrón-fieldhand path and the belief that “with money you can even make monkeys dance”, and it is creating a society that cooperates, makes rules and follows them, expands their profits and redistributes them, learns and democratizes. Will it happen?
 A case to illustrate this type of accompaniment is that of the Cooperativa La Esperanza de los Campesinas in Panama. See: R. Mendoza, 2017, “A priest, a cooperative and a peasantry that regulates the elites”, in: ENVIO 425. Managua: IHCA-UCA. http://www.envio.org.ni/articulo/5304
 Lucia Linsalata, 2015, “Three general ideas for thinking about the commons. Notes around the visit of Silvia Federici” in Bajo el Volcán, year 15, number 22. Federici talks about the commons in the community, she says “there is no commons if there is no community”. In this article we present the cooperative as an expression of people from a community who decide to organize, and for them “the commons” is within the cooperative, even though in relation to their communities or social territories.
Drinking coffee as an act for peace in times of polarization
Nicaragua is once again extremely polarized. It is enough to compare different posts on our nica-update to see diametrically opposed views of the ongoing crisis. We post them not to imply that each perspective is equally true, but rather to recognize that important segments of the population hold contradictory views of what is happening and its underlying causes. Even more important are its implications for the future governability of Nicaragua –for any government to be sustainable, it will need to find a way to incorporate the interests of those holding the opposing viewpoint, no matter how “mistaken” they may be judged to be. We certainly learned this lesson at the end of the “contra war” in the early 1990s.
For our part, given that our major focus for the last few years has been accompanying Nicaraguan cooperatives, we have redoubled our efforts to support their economic and social enterprises in spite of the risks in these times of crisis, because we see them as potential oases of peace. Cooperatives generally have members of different political and religious perspectives who come together to achieve economic and social benefits for their members. By nature, they have to negotiate the accomplishment of common goals with members from different viewpoints.
Furthermore, the history of Nicaragua is full of examples where political violence starting in urban areas ends up claiming many more rural lives, as both sides recruit peasants by offering to meet their historic demands when they come to power. But consistently, after the conflicts end, while a few might end up benefitting, the effective political power of the peasantry remains largely unchanged, in spite of the many promises.
We see our contribution in this context to be helping cooperatives be successful economic and social enterprises in these difficult times. Because when successful, they contribute to the sustainability and stability of their territories, and thus lessen the attractiveness of purveyors of violence.
The problem is that because of increased country risk, credit to the countryside from both banks and microcredit organizations has largely dried up. No access to credit severely cripples the ability of cooperatives to play this role in their communities.
Since 1997, WPF has lent $3.7 million dollars directly to cooperatives and grassroots rural organizations, and has lent another $7.5 million to national microcredit institutions founded to support the rural sector. Even though these numbers show we are a small overall player, we intentionally set out to lend to groups that had never before managed a loan, precisely to help them establish a credit history, and thus open up other sources of credit to them. As a result, a number of cooperatives, and one now very large rural microcredit organization, have “graduated” to the point where they have “outgrown” the amounts we can provide, and now receive much larger amounts from a variety of lenders.
But as a small, private foundation (i.e. one that does not receive donations from the public), we cannot survive very long if those loans are not repaid. Correspondingly we have an overall loan loss rate of only 3.59% in this same period.
Even in this time of crisis, WPF has made loans to grassroots cooperatives worth just under $168,000 in this 2018-19 coffee cycle. But the risks only increase with this next coffee cycle, as economists point out Nicaragua now faces macroeconomic instability. Economic actors continue to send dollars outside the country, and international reserves continue falling. Specifically, this raises the specter that even though we make loans to grassroots coffee cooperatives, and they are able to export their coffee, once the payment for their coffee enters the country, the government may not allow those dollars to leave, thus making payment impossible.
The only way around this problem is to “triangulate” the loans, i.e. include the international buyers in the loan contract, where the buyers, once they have received the coffee, agree to transfer the amount of the loan and interest directly to WPF´s account in the US, sending the remainder to the account of the cooperative. That way the cooperative does not lose access to an international lender for not being able to make a transfer of dollars to the US.
We have already used this mechanism with a number of cooperatives. But given the new risks, we realize it has to be required for all our loans. The problem is in this last coffee cycle the number of contracts between cooperatives and international buyers actually dropped precipitously, while the number of contracts with “local buyers” increased to a similar degree. This strategy would not work with local buyers, because their payment to us would still have to overcome the hurdle of sending dollars outside the country during a possible ban.
Yet our research has shown that these local buyers are actually exporting all the coffee they buy. Given the uncertainty, it appears that previous direct international buyers are working through these intermediaries to source their coffee. This means that in this time of crisis, cooperatives are getting even less value for their coffee, as these intermediaries take a chunk of the money that previously went directly to them. Just when cooperatives need to be supported to promote local stability, they are even more hobbled by the new buying methodology.
WPF for some time now has been working with a team that accompanies some 50 cooperatives. Even before the crisis our team had been working with the cooperatives on issues of internal organizational effectiveness, equity, transparency, and effective member participation.
Now as a contribution to peace, we are willing to continue lending to these cooperatives, in spite of the risks. We want to form an alliance with coffee and cacao buyers interested in making a concrete and real contribution to peace in the countryside by buying directly from grassroots producer cooperatives. This is particularly important for this next coffee cycle.
We would not expect buyers to buy anything less than quality coffee, and the cooperatives we work with, in addition to providing the normal samples required by buyers, could also provide them with abundant information about their members, as many of them have done internal surveys, and even facilitated their member families developing their own “Family Investment Plans”.
Such an alliance would provide quality coffee to buyers, and would provide important income to coffee producers, thus enabling them to be oases for peace in their territory. In this sense, drinking coffee coming from such an alliance would effectively be an act for peace in Nicaragua.
Buyers and roasters interested in contributing to peace in this way in Nicaragua can contact us at email@example.com. We would also appreciate support from any readers in helping us make contacts with coffee buyers and roasters.