Each organization and institution has “rules of the game”. In a family, church, soccer, baseball, school, in a cooperative…there are rules. For example, in soccer 3 rules mean that it ca be played anywhere, in a field, on the street or a soccer stadium; these three rules are: only the goalie can touch the ball with his hands, out of bounds and foul (pushing or kicking another player). Generally, organizations that follow their rules run better.
RSEs also have a few rules: 21. Pretty well tested. Subject to being changed partially by the assembly of shareholders. They are applicable to any RSE. We list these rules in what follows:
The investors can be from inside or outside the community. The family that operates the initiative can also be a shareholder (be it a store, roaster or other initiative)
1 share = C$ 1000 (1,000 Córdobas)
A person becomes a “shareholder” with 1 share or more, and with that share or shares becomes an investor in all the initiatives.
In the case that the family that runs it invests, they will have a dual role, investor and at the same time the family that operates the initiative.
If the shareholder dies, automatically that person´s spouse and children are left as the owners of those shares. In case the shareholder does not have a spouse or children, then the closest relative is left as owner of the shares.
No shareholder will have more than 35% of total shares.
On the work of the family that runs an RSE
Each family that operates it is creative and responsible for making the initiative more successful, so that they can include any other way of buying new products or adding new services, always in function of the “company.”
If the family that operates an initiative decides to no longer continue with the initiative, they will completely withdraw all the products or assets, without those products or assets being provided on credit.
The shareholder group can close an initiative and recover the products and assets if that initiative ceases to be profitable.
On earnings, reinvestment and expenses
From gross profits (sale or service price minus costs and expenses), 30% is for the family that runs it (store, roaster or other initiative).
From net profits (gross profits minus 30%), 20% is for reinvestment, 20% is for a social fund, 10% for equipment repair and 50% is to be distributed among the shareholders in accordance with their number of shares.
In the distribution of shares, for the person who has more than100 shares, each share over that 100 will have the right to 50% of the amount of each share held by those who have 100 or less shares.
The reinvestment done (that 20%) will be added as part of the shares of all the shareholders. In other words, if that 20% comes in as additional products for sale or as a piece of equipment for the roaster, the value of that 20% is added as part of the shares of all the shareholders. Operation: the amount of the reinvestment divided by the total number of shares; that amount is added in accordance with the number of shares held by each shareholder.
If a shareholder decides to withdraw or recover part of their shares, those shares will be bought by any person or shareholder.
On losses or damaged products or assets
If products or assets are lost through theft, it is the responsibility of the family that runs it. The value lost is deducted from their 30%.
If some product is damaged in the store, it must be reported in the monthly audit. The corresponding measure will be taken from a mutual agreement. In any case, the value of the loss will be assumed equally, 50% by the family operating the initiative and 50% by the investors.
On Follow up/ audit/ transparency
The family that operates the initiative will register each operation and have all information up to date.
The supervisor and the operating family will provide followup/audit every 30 days. In doing so, they will audit the numbers, together analyze the month by its results and, taking into account the results from the previous month, will make decisions guided by the rules.
The 30% of gross profit that goes to the family operating the initiative will be paid at the end of each month.
The distribution of surplus based on net profits will be done every 3 months.
On the 10th of each month each shareholder will receive information on the financial results of the previous month from all the initiatives.
René Mendoza with Fabiola Zeledón, Hulda Miranda and Elix Meneses
Violeta Parra (1917-1967)
“Who are you looking for?”, they asked Violeta when she was traveling from one rural community to another in Chile.
-“Someone I do not know, but who has something very important to give me,” she responded. Violeta was a songwriter and artist, she was looking for songs that people in the countryside composed and tended to be left isolated and forgotten. She looked for them for the folklore of her beloved Chile.
Who are we looking for? Someone we do not know but who has “something very important” for their community. It is on the basis of “something very important” that we build the means that can be written in stone, that give identity to their communities. In this booklet we recount how we started to get off the traditional path of cooperatives, as we found “something very important” in the people in the communities themselves.
1. Genesis and brief evolution
In 2018 we concluded that the cooperative path needed other forms of organization. Like Violeta, we decided to go into the communities; since there is no better wedge than a stick, we went into the very communities where some cooperatives came from. We were looking to understand what was the “musical score” that made cooperatives, intermediaries, farmers, churches, storefronts, projects dance. To try to change the dance, we had to understand what the music was, because the dance depends on the music.
To the extent that we got inside and interpreted the “musical score”, we awoke to new realities and possibilities. So, in November 2018 with our own resources we decided to test it out with a new store, then with a roaster…From that combination, study and experimentation, in 2019 we were learning what worked, preparing the rules that would guide us. What most made us wake up? Understanding that, in contrast to what is repeated in traditional cooperatives, that members do not want to make contributions nor do they have money, we found that people want to contribute resources if they know where their resources are going and how they are put to work, if they receive earnings for their resources, and if they feel part of that process-that they can roll along with planet earth, like the character Mafalda, created by that great Argentinian cartoonist Quino (Joaquín Salvador Lavado, 1932).
Table 1. Basic data
Total amount (C$)
3 stores, 3 roasters, 1 wholesaler, coffee purchasers and sale of roasted coffee
In May 2020 we took another leap, we improved the rules, we added new shareholders, the amount in córdobas increased, more initiatives took off and were strengthened, we improved the organization of the initiatives, more investments were made…See Table 1.
If a community organizes, nothing can take it off the good path; if it organizes, it does a “musical score”, it does it in alliance with people from outside the community. So the eggshell seems to break as a new life, the baby chick, pushes out.
One way of organizing is that we might have several initiatives in a group that are functioning, profitable and benefit the community. For that purpose, people can buy as a minimum 1 share which is worth 1,000 córdobas. With these shares stores, roasters and bakeries emerge and provide ever more better services. People from other places can also buy shares, with this we increase our resources and are building another community. In this way the shareholders are the first people to go and make purchases in the stores and to seek roasting services, provide oversight over the initiatives, provide ideas…
Here we learned another lesson: if in order to organize Rural Social Enterprises (RSE), the shareholders are from the communities and from outside the communities, more than just contribute resources, both contribute ideas and legitimacy to the RSEs. Note: prior to 2020 we used to call them “initiatives”, we started to call them RSEs in 2020, in harmony with the Social and Solidarity Economy approach, but adding the word “rural” to it, to give it a distinctive touch.
3. Organization of the RSEs
Figure 1 shows this network of initiatives. Money, products and services move in them like ocean waves; they are visible, we see them. Under the waves there is another current that we do not see, but we feel, they are the shareholders, interest in caring for one another, friendships that cross over walls, affection, community roots and a different path so that anyone can improve.
Store 2 appears in the figure, because we already have Store 1 and Store 3 in another two communities. The bakery, roaster, buying and selling of coffee, wholesaler and other initiatives are around this Store 2, in addition to other initiatives (e.g. buying and selling basic grains). These initiatives are connected with one another, they are in the same place and in the same community- this is the key to our success. For example, if a person comes with their coffee to have it roasted, on their return they buy bread and other products in the store, the baker buys eggs in the community itself to make bread. In this way, nearly all of the community is part of the initiatives –“nearly”. The wholesaler is a reseller, because it buys products for the initiatives at wholesale prices, buys products in the communities themselves to sell them in town, transfers products from one store to another, buys products in one community for the other communities, and the profits benefit all of the shareholders.
How specifically are the RSEs organized?
Each person who runs a roaster, makes bread, administers a store, sells coffee or is responsible for a wholesaler, registers information about each economic transaction in an honest way.
The supervisor each month reviews that record of information in each initiative. Then visits a sampling of clients, studies the local market, and captures the needs of the population, as well as new opportunities.
The results of the supervision are sent to each shareholder on the 10th of every month; there is a mural in each initiative (roaster, bakery, store…) that has the prices of the services, the report of the supervision and data for the community. Honest information benefits all the communities.
Every 3 months there is an assembly of shareholders where, in addition to being informed about the finances of each initiative, they evaluate the quarter, review the goals for the next quarter, and the profits are redistributed. In the annual assemblies all the initiatives are studied, the investments for the year are planned, the most outstanding initiatives win awards for their order, registration of information, generation of profits and largest number of customers.
Each shareholder is committed to the success of each initiative, which is why they report to the community, oversee the initiatives, provide suggestions to improve it, and make their families have a better life.
The effects of these initiatives are seen in 4 distinctive elements of the RSEs: equitable distribution of earnings or surpluses, informational transparency, community democracy and gender and age equity (50% or more youth). In terms of the distribution (see Table 2): from net earnings, 10% is for equipment maintenance and assets that deteriorate; 20% goes to a social fund, a fund that we will save throughout 2020 and that in the annual assembly on May 8, 2021 we will define its use; 20% reinvestment is added to each share in favor of the shareholders, in other words their shares will increase with the reinvestments; and 50% will be provided as cash to each shareholder in accordance with the amount of their shares.
Table 2.Equitable distribution
From gross earnings
From net earnings
30% is to pay the person who runs the RSE
10% equipment maintenance of the RSEs (refrigerators, roasters, grinders)
20% social fund
20% reinvestment fund
50% individual distribution
Informational transparency is the fact that each shareholder, customer and community in general has access to information about the initiatives. The shareholders have the right to know about the finances of the RSEs. The customers have a right to know the price composition, proper weighing and the elements to be good customers, The community has the right to know the rules under which the initiatives are functioning, as well as their financial results.
Democracy is the fact that most of the shareholders are from the community itself. Each administration of each RSE provides honest information. Good supervision. Quarterly assemblies. Each shareholder watches over the progress of each RSE.
Gender equity is that fact that 50% of the shareholders are women, that that is expressed in the amount of their shares. Then, going beyond that formality, we want the RSEs to contribute to freeing up women´s work time, in such a way that they can take on new responsibilities in other RSEs or other activities in their own homes. In age equity, even though we want people of all ages to participate, including children and the elderly, in particular we want the youth to feel themselves to be the motor of these RSEs, as Yader Meneces said, “The older ones do not detach themselves from the old cooperatives that do not value them, they do not believe in us; but we the youth we are asserting ourselves, this store and roaster belongs to us the youth.”
We are building a new culture based on the good that each person has within them. To the question about who she is looking for, Violeta Parra responded, “Someone that I do not know, but has something very important to give me.” In the communities where the RSEs are developing, the RSEs are like the songwriter Violeta, and each person has “something very important”. Each RSE wants to receive it, and at the same time wants each person to find inside themselves that “something very important.” For this purpose The RSEs are emerging for this reason, and need to “be cooked on a low fire.”
This booklet, and the next ones, are texts that accompany what the RSEs are experiencing in San Juan del Río Coco, Waslala and Matagalpa. We call them RSEs, which includes community stores, community roasters, collective bakeries, cooperatives and associations.
René Mendoza Vidaurre, Fabiola Zeledón and Esmelda Suazo
Along the trails
-Cousin, you have traveled so much that I am sure that you earn and know a lot, help us to travel in that way as a cooperative.
-I have traveled along the highway, it is fast, and you only see money rolling on wheels.
-That´s right…. We want to make money.
-When I get out of the car and walk on foot or on horseback, I see people, groups together, I hear that song of the cicadas.
-What do you mean to say?
-If the cooperative takes to the trails, it will touch hearts, dig into our roots, make people think and walk together.
-In other words, feel, walk and begin to cooperate, instead of taking the highway.
-That´s right, Ana, it is the first step…along the trails!
The hurry to make money makes us run and keeps us from seeing what is at our sides. When we reach the goal, we are like the dog in the countryside, who at the first sound of some car, takes off barking at full speed, and then when it reaches the car, nothing happens, it returns in silence. Organizations, aid agencies and institutions are desperately providing their resources and trainings under the discourse of stamping out hunger or poverty, and when they achieve these investment goals, they return in silence. The impoverished population are like the car that the dog reaches, increases its speed of adding more people. With COVID-19 that velocity is increasing dramatically. How can one get out of extreme poverty? The parable tells us that in order to begin to cooperate, let us take to the trails and delve into our origins. What does this mean? It is the time for communities!
1. The reality is in full view
The march of COVID-19 lifts the covers, and realities appear that are difficult for us to recognize. The rural population migrates to the forests or outside the country under the pressure of mono-cropping agriculture or ranching, pushed in turn by the financial and commercial industries. This is not new, with or without cover, we have known it for decades and centuries.
With COVID-19 we were hoping that the internal assets of communities, which have been supported by hundreds of international aid projects, might be guiding preventive actions. That the churches, with so many centuries of preaching the Good Samaritan, might mobilize. That first- tier cooperatives, members of second tier organizations, might move in the face of the virus. Strangely they are still. “We are waiting for directions from above”, “without projects, there is no organization”, “donors are not sending aid to those who organized in cooperatives”, “everything is in the town (municipal capital), the meetings, the harvest collection”. What is left of the “anchor”, “articulations”, “networks”, “public-private alliances” and “empowerment”? The gaze of elderly women seem to tell us: “nothing”. Maybe that is what is new, in the sense that we are surprised.
It would seem that the projects, sermons, credit and commercial policies instead eroded communities. They pushed ideas about being individual, taking on mono-cropping agriculture and relying on aid; some argue that by supporting an individual they are supporting rural families, but a family as an institution is hierarchical and patriarchal, in addition to the fact that the notion of “nuclear family” is nearly non-existent in the rural world, where it is common to see a son or daughter grow up with their grandparents, aunt or uncle, and/or mother. With COVID-19 that erosion is intensified, the quarantine and confinement accentuate the neoliberal idea of “save yourselves those who have”. Because a daily wage earner in farming or construction and most of the population who work in the so-called “informal economy” cannot stay home for more than a week, they begin to go into debt, buy on credit, make storefronts go broke, and affect their daily food intake, and this in the long term will mean loss of human life.
2. Knowing how to get to communities
The idea of harmonic communities of Robert Redfield (1931, A Mexican Village: Tepoztlan), has been left far behind. Since the studies of Oscar Lewis (1951, Life in a Mexican Village: Tepoztlan Restudied) we understand communities as heterogeneous spaces with diversity, and even opposing interests. They are communities with which people identify, it is their utopia and mission – as Thomas More would say (1516, Utopia: The Happy Republic): They are not a “sack of potatoes”, as Marx suggested, nor “pockets of peasants” as certain agrarian literature categorized them for years from 1980 to 1990. They are disputed spaces where external policies and resources should know how to get there, facilitating the first lesson of humanity: cooperation. People who organize can bring their produce together and get better prices, free themselves from usury at the point of group savings, protect water sources in the high areas, and along the length of the creek, and coordinate to prevent natural and social viruses. Individually, they cannot change prices, free themselves from usury, protect water nor prevent viruses.
Let us illustrate how these community assets move from the few interesting experiences that exist in Central America. Rodrigo Pérez, a delegate of the Word from the community of San Antonio, said, “this community store saves me a day, and the bus fare of going to the town to buy what I now buy here.” If the crowding in town favors COVID-19, people like Rodrigo find what they are looking for in the community store. “It is the first cooperative that came to coordinate work with us,” they said in the school in Samarkanda, appreciating the support of the Reynerio Tijerino cooperative so that students and teachers might protect themselves from the virus. “Only our cooperative collects the harvest in the community, and right here does the payments and assemblies,” said Selenia Cornejo. “Buyers and financiers come to visit us in the community,” said Daniel Meneses, from the October 13th Cooperative. We find similar words about community coffee roasters, bread makers, groups of beekeepers…”The coffee that we produce and roast, we sell ourselves along with our relatives outside, isn´t that a network?” Each organization has a mural with information to prevent COVID-19, while at the same time together are weaving a support network for people who end up affected by the virus.
What is common for all of them? They are in the community itself. Their focus is on their origins. They function with their own resources and rules polished in their assemblies. They improve their oral tradition with writing. They represent a diversity of ages, where youth under the age of 40 are leading them. They distribute their profits. They organize and are transparent with their information. They compete for and rotate their leadership. They organize their solidarity. They fight against their old “demons”, the rules of elites that have nested in their minds: “in group, but for me”, opportunistic actions when internal and external control is weak, prejudice against women legitimized by the churches, prejudices against workers without land (“the cooperative is for those who have land”), and providentialism (“God has a plan to protect us”, “the big chief has a plan to take care of his people”). This type of grassroots organization no longer waits for direction from outside, they visit one another, discuss and, in the midst of their internal tensions and mutual distrust, resort to their social fund, while they look for external contacts that can reinforce their collective actions.
How are these community assets formed? Following a universal lesson: studying realities to innovate as a group and train ourselves. Combining efforts of people from the communities and from outside to organize social enterprises in the communities. Recording data, analyzing it and making decisions. Delving into histories to find values and rules with which to cooperate and recreate identities, because “the origins are in front of us, not behind”, as the Mapuche taught us, the indigenous people in Chile and Argentina. Bringing to light their old “demons” and ours as well as accompaniers (“providing information confuses people”, “donating food is the solution to hunger”, “we know your future because that future was our past”). Walking along the trails discerning what the processes themselves show us about how to accompany them.
3. New veins that the effect of COVID-19 forces us to think about
COVID-19 raises the covers, and what appears are not just those realities that it is difficult for us to recognize, but also new veins to be worked on related to the social fund, the connection between organizations, the coherency between words and actions, and the decentralization of decisions.
Grassroots organizations, like those that we have described previously, have the practice of equitable distribution of what they have saved in a social fund. In the current context of COVID-19, that social fund gains importance, like the use of offerings and tithings on the part of churches. If the State provides curative health care, preventive health is an area where grassroots organizations and churches can invest resources and energies. This includes how to improve nutrition, prevent obesity and diabetes, invest in natural medicine and clean water, improve hand washing and introduce the use of masks in crowded spaces. How can this social fund be organized into areas of prevention?
If a person discovers the importance of combining efforts of several people, in the same way also organizations (collective groups) discover that coordinating among organizations to face COVID-19 is fundamental. Making connections among churches, schools, rural community Banks, community councils, businesses and the municipal government expresses the spirit of superimposed communities that exist in every territory. It is like the baby chick that breaks the eggshell, moves out of its comfort zone and connects with other organizations, it is something that we are not accustomed to do, but we need to do. For example, connecting with the church is not to sit down to discuss one or another form of religious faith, it is to rethink together the solidarity of the Good Samaritan, who did not rely on God sending his angels to save the wounded man, but simply acted, while other were in a hurry (“passed by on the other side”). Being connected is having the freedom to express these community cultures of each organization of which one is a member or participant. On their part, each organization should understand itself as a community, where their members or their staff identify with that organization, not so much for “what one gets”, but for “what one gives” the organization, where titles are opportunities to serve. How can churches, farms, community stores, schools, cooperatives and health centers be connected?
Governments, aid organizations, international enterprises should be coherent. Importing the best coffee, and leaving the worst for the producer families, feels bitter. Demanding meat that deforests, and at the same time being ecological, is disgusting. Supporting small scale production with credit for agrochemicals like glyphosate, that is damaging to natural and human health and increases rural unemployment, is repugnant. Donating certified seed to get rid of native seed and making them dependent on companies that sell that certified seed is shameful. Extracting minerals through strip mining and defending nature, seems like that Nazi who during the day sent children to the gas chambers and at night played with his children at home. How can coherency be obtained and also benefit rural communities? How can each organization and institution conceive itself and organize itself as a community?
Decentralizing decisions seem urgent, it is like letting the baby take its first step, this is in all spheres. That each delegate of the word celebrate the Eucharist (sharing bread and wine) in the rural communities would be a real institutional change in the Catholic church. If a grassroots organization understands their community better than an organization with an office in a city, why do aid organizations and international enterprises persist in believing that organization means having an office and manager in the city? Do grassroots organizations need accompaniment? They need it, like aid organizations need grassroots organizations to accompany them. If people organize in a cooperative or a community store to administer their loans, technology and commercialization, why doesn´t a second-tier organization support them in these purposes, instead of abducting those services and decisions? How much we need to reflect on that old and still good principle that “the stronger the children are, the stronger their parents will be”.
The effects of COVID-19 tend to produce more extremely impoverished people, like the title of the novel of Victor Hugo published in 1862 (Les misérables). Along with extreme human impoverishment, the extreme impoverishment of nature, compiled in Laudato Si: “the cry of the poor and the land.”
Between 2000 and 2014, according to ECLAC, 33 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean reduced people in a situation of hunger (extreme poverty) from 73 to 38 million. Julio Berdegué of the FAO stated that between 2015-2018, without the virus, those 38 million increased to 43 million people. ECLAC projects that if economic growth in 2020 falls by 6% we will have 73 million people hungry, the same amount that there were in 2000. And with hunger, probably, will come social and political rebellion. Playing with hunger is playing with fire.
The solution to hunger that aid organizations have practiced and continue suggesting is that States provide food, and that they rely on social and economic organizations; in fine print this means that governments, with the taxes paid by the entire society, buy from large corporations GMO food, coopting grassroots organizations and providing that food to hungry populations. This movie we have seen before, including the magic they tend to perform with the indicators of extreme poverty, its resulting erosion of community assets, and what is called family agriculture, the nullification of native seed, the fact that rural populations become docile masses dependent on aid and electoral patronage, and that aid organizations resist conceiving themselves and organizing themselves as communities, and of something bigger that would cover all of us.
In this article we showed that community efforts can be effective in the face of COVID-19 and the virus of hunger, and that these aid agencies, organizations and institutions of the world that talk about “providing food” as the panacea to evils, might rethink their modus operandi and that culture of believing that they already know the solution without previously knowing the people “in extreme poverty”. We should recognize that if communities organize and have accompaniers who also feel and function as communities, they can – and we can – face this and other viruses, eradicate hunger, producing and distributing food, mitigating climate change and contributing to social cohesion, which prevents violence and instead puts our societies on the path to their democratization.
It is the time for rural communities. It is time for organizations, aid agencies and institutions to feel and act as communities. It is time to feel and think that we are part of something much greater than ourselves.
 René accompanies rural organizations in Central America, is an associate researcher of IOB-Antwerp University, member of Coserpross (http://coserpross.org/es/home/) and a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/). Fabiola and Esmelda are advisors to rural organizations in Nicaragua.
-Who isn´t afraid? Fear is the biggest enemy of reason. Think, Pipita, your love for others is stronger than anything…Besides, the rain is coming now!
The entire world is experiencing difficult days. People feel fear, impotence, the desire to cry. The only thing certain is uncertainty. Every person would like to support themselves with something, protect themselves under the shade of a tree. But there are almost no natural, supernatural nor social “trees” anymore. It is when that Nicaraguan phrase becomes even truer, “if you have your health, the rest doesn´t matter.” And health is like the rain, it does not fall from the sky with some prayers, it is something that is provided and strengthened with human actions. And who provides it? And how is it provided? Maybe “the love” that one feels for others provides it, maybe the love with which we were made in a passionate morning helps provide it. Maybe it is time to look farther ahead, because “the rain is coming now.”
In this article we reflect on this rural world, that thin strand between hygiene and the economy, between home, church, health center, and between individual and collective actions. To do this we list the facts or risks, we start to explain this “strand”, we look at how scientific recommendations help these different cultures revive – like plants which dry up become green again when the clouds release the first drops of water, and we point out the role of accompanying organizations. The importance of grassroots organizations in protecting their communities runs throughout the article, while the notion of community matures with the turning of each page.
1. Conditions that work for and against COVID-19
The situation with COVID-19 seems to be getting worse. The gap between the official information in any country and what is in the social networks is large, with which anxiety buzzes like a mosquito at night. In rural communities this concern is connected to the continuity of classes in school, religious celebrations in churches, and festive crowds, with or without quarantine. People think that through that “door” of the school, church or public transportation, the virus can get into their homes and pass through the community. What are the rural conditions that work for or against COVID-19?
Rural families have some advantages and some disadvantages in the face of the virus. The advantages are: the physical distance between people to avoid COVID-19 is facilitated by the low population density, and because a good number of families live on their own farms; the average age of the population is relatively young, which limits the effect of COVID-19, even though this advantage is evaporating because of poverty; living in areas with little air pollution; communities that have grassroots organizations with members and offices in the community itself, through which they access some information and some collective actions. The disadvantages are: if people are infected, it will be difficult for them to go to the health centers with the first symptoms and it will be difficult for them to stay at home, or prevent visits when rumors buzz along the footpaths of neighboring houses, all of which have the potential to infect more people; the quality of the health centers, in any country in Latin America, is less in the rural municipal capitals and is inexistent in rural communities.
Gatherings of people in schools and churches is the greatest risk; let us remember that in a church in Washington one member infected from between 52 to 60 members of the choir, 65 were infected in a Zumba class in South Korea, 80 people in a concert. Rural gatherings tend to happen in groups separated by the lack of connection between organizations. Cooperatives, schools, churches and party or governmental organizations (e.g. councils, mayor representatives) move in a “walled off” manner; each person in their own world, and under their own leadership. Churches move in their religious world and with their own leadership structure. Schools with their educational programs and with their own institutional leadership. Cooperatives focus on the economy with their own leadership structure. And so on. This separation means that the gatherings move separately, isolated, which is why people tend to behave in an opportunistic way: “let others spend on hygiene to prevent COVID-19”, “I don´t care, I don´t have children in school”, “I am going to church because God is protecting me, what better doctor than God?”
This separation is worse with external institutions. Markets are reduced to offering hygiene products, raising their prices because of increasing demand, and move by means of intermediation; States limit themselves to making an effort in health centers; aid organizations provide resources within the circles in which they move; and second tier organizations and NGOs expect to mediate resources. None of them tend to cross over “to the other side of the river”, in the sense of understanding how rural societies move, lack experience working at the community level with grassroots organizations. This limits our ability to understand rural population from their own perspectives, and limits the communities from understanding external organizations. We live in a world of one-eyed people that is attractive for any virus.
This separation or “fortress-effect” feeds the prevalence of beliefs. It is a universal truth that when there is less information and less articulate comprehension about certain habits, beliefs prevail. What beliefs? In peasant families: “If I believe in God, nothing is going to happen to me”, “lightening is not what kills you, it is just your time has come”; “long suffering people will resist any virus”; “I am not washing my hands because my hands are hot because of work”, “chloroquine and azithromycin get rid of the virus” (self-prescribing without evidence that it cures and without investigating its damaging effect on the heart; and according to the WHO seem to increase the risks and consequences of the disease). Beliefs in external institutions: “information confuses people”; “money makes the monkey dance”; “if the economy improves, all improves”; “give them alcohol and with that COVID-19 will not affect them”; “boil eucalyptus and cypress leaves”; “read the bible where it announces the end of the world”, “everyman for himself”. Doña Coronavirus laughs and is attracted by these beliefs!
We resist learning. We read about the 15 countries of the Asia-Pacific region, China, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the 10 member countries of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations), Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, as the region that has best dealt with COVID-19, a region that has 2 billion people of the 7.7 billion that exist in the world. How did they do it? With good public health: they closely observe the symptoms people have, if there are symptoms, they test them, if they are positive, they isolate them in their homes or in hospitals, and they do contact tracing. In other words, the more they diagnose, they more they know what to do, and thus save more lives. In contrast, national and international organizations tend not to do diagnoses to formulate and implement policies, except to appear to formally comply; our mentality of providentialism and resignation resists learning from rural populations, we do not seek to understand them, we believe that we already know them, that “the market knows more”. We are societies that seem to live like in the middle ages under the church with the inquisition, in those times “there was no reason to think, it was enough to believe”, when thinking was a sin and punished by death.
2. Hygiene in rural societies
What is it that we need to understand? We begin with some history, to then paint something about the rural reality and show the vein that we have to continue exploring.
There are several studies on diseases and the architecture of cities and homes, not much on rural spaces. Public health has contributed to the fact that the population lives longer, architecture has also done that. So closets were imposed instead of armoires, because they were anti-hygienic because they accumulated dust. In the last 150 years we know of great changes in the cities of London, Barcelona or Paris; in 1866 they cleaned up most of the river Thames in London, and that clean up saved most of the people of the city from the threat of cholera; in 1844 they redesigned the city of Barcelona, knocking down walls that contributed to the overcrowding, which made lack of hygiene worse and supported epidemics; also Paris was redesigned for health purposes. Other smaller changes also had large impacts: clean water and management of sewage to prevent malaria or yellow fever; in the face of the bubonic plague, that killed 12 million people between 1855 and 1959, they rebuilt homes with more concrete and metal to keep out the rats who carried that pestilence. In other words, the design of homes and cities for health purposes lengthened the lives of people.
Now with COVID-19 architecture is challenged to redesign homes. Even though architecture has not been able to respond to respiratory illnesses, COVID-19 can cause the redesign of the home, where the idea of what is private is reconceptualized, giving way to the home as a space for school, work, reflection and gymnasium.
Unfortunately, there are no studies about that same relationship between architecture and health for rural areas, at least none that I am aware of. In rural areas, hygiene has been in deficit for centuries, a situation that has been made even worse by the discrimination toward the rural world. This situation of hygiene is due in part to the fact that rural families every day are grappling with land, farming, agro-chemicals, small livestock, slaughtering or the fire in the kitchen, and they do it without having protective measures like gloves, boots or masks, partly because they are living with limited water or means of catching water, on large haciendas the patrons customarily do not provide protective equipment to their workers, and partly because they do not have access to information while beliefs lead them to not protect themselves.
This daily work of women with fire, or men with the land leads them to bathe less frequently. This is not necessarily, however, a lack of hygiene; in fact, many people during the winter in Europe and the Andean altiplano do not bathe very frequently. The difference is that peasant families think that after work a person should not touch water, it is an understanding about the combination of temperatures; so it is that after making tortillas they do not wash their hands, after weeding they do not bathe “because the body is hot”. Also the lack of water and minimal infrastructure has conditioned them to carry out certain practices; women gather dirty clothes to go to the river to wash them, they spend little water to wash dishes. Likewise, little access to information has an impact on daily life, for example, dishes are not washed with Clorox that could contain the salmonella bacteria, which tends to be found in food contaminated with animal feces. We mention these points to illustrate how difficult it could be the fact that, now with COVID-19, they have to wash their hands frequently and with soap, when customs and their natural (water) and economic conditions weigh in.
Most rural homes, particularly those of low-income people, have dirt floors and are closed structures with little ventilation. For example, it is known that Chagas disease, that “forgotten illness” because the pharmaceutical industries do not see it as profitable, mostly happens in homes with grass roofs and cracks in the clay walls where the insects that cause this disease tend to live. Peasant homes are a prolongation of the farm, or the reverse, for example corn is stored inside the home or above the hearth, while the cats deal with stalking the rats who are after the corn…
These rural practices became customs, and those customs, laws, which tend not to be seen by the eyes of State institutions, markets and international aid agencies. External actors, instead, tend to see agriculture or ecology as separate from hygiene in the home and family, and the economy as separate from health, education and religion. External actors, when they touch on the issue of hygiene, do so viewing the rural reality from the urban experience, and so any weed seems dirty to them, any home for them should be in towns or villages, any farm should be mono-cropped, and any insect should be fought with agro-chemicals. From the urban perspective it is hard to understand that a home on a farm probably is healthier than a city with an over-populated cattle industry, or chicken or turkey industry, which are true virus factories.
We need to scrutinize the relationship between hygiene and agriculture, home and farm and school and church to understand the culture of hygiene in rural populations, to then look at improvements and changes to be made. Without understanding, one cannot see, Rodrigo López told us, a peasant from Waslala. How true that is! Otherwise, how can we imagine that just using chlorox and alcohol is going to prevent COVID-19? Without understanding, how they can reflect on and change their habits coming from their own cultures and farming systems, any chlorox or alcohol that they are given runs the risk of ending up in the municipal markets, as has happened with the donation of tin roofing sheets, pure bred hogs, coffee roasters or grain silos. The community, that heterogeneous amalgam of disputed realities, is like a book, inside of which dance letters, pages and imagination, opened up only by the reading of those who love it, a reading which is like a person who shells a corncob sensing a hot tortilla with “”cuajada.
Our challenge is to rethink community spaces from a perspective in which health and economics are embedded in each other. Homes on farms with materials that protect them from rats and the insects that carry Chagas disease, and at the same time are ventilated spaces, and agro-forestry farms, in communities with spaces for food, reflection, social interaction, entertainment, open field school and collective actions. Communities with fresh air, revived, which end up being the “tree” to protect oneself from the virus. This is the vein to dig into.
3. It is the moment for organized rural societies
While we study, let us not lose the pulse on COVID-19. What should we do? If classes and/or religious celebrations continue, and if markets and States do not show they are effective, grassroots organizations (cooperatives, associations, parent-teacher committees, water committees…), located in the communities, must act to protect their communities. The effectiveness of these organized rural societies can be better if supported by organized global societies (international aid organizations).
How? These grassroots organizations must turn themselves into entities that inform, connect with schools and churches to accompany them to understand the problem and their prevention practices in the face of COVID-19, and look up while they deepen their roots.
3.1 Informing yourself and analyzing the information
Dry cough + sneezing + body aches + weakness + high fever + difficulty breathing = coronavirus
Source: Pathology Department, UCH London
In the first box are the elements to tell whether a person has coronavirus, flu, a cold or just air pollution. The scientific community reveals that a person with COVID-19 can show mild symptoms, and days later have other more serious symptoms. In other words, a person could have a cough and sneezing, and not have a high fever, which does not mean that they do not have COVID-19, in the days following the other symptoms may appear. Box 1 is a simple aid to differentiate, it does not assure you that you do not have COVID-19 with the first symptoms, but at the same time helps you to not get alarmed with the first symptoms, helps you to stay calm and discern; this is a big help in rural areas where it is difficult to go to a hospital.
COVID-19 is not just a new virus, but the scientific community still does not know much about it. Current evidence reveals that a little more than 40% of people with the virus were infected by people who did not have symptoms of COVID-19. This obviously makes prevention difficult, at the same time, knowing this helps us to get a grip on the problem and respond in the best way possible.
Box 2. Recommendations
1. Do not touch your face–because the virus enters through the mouth, nose and eyes
2. Wash your hands with soap – the virus is dissolved with 20 seconds of hand washing.
3. Maintain physical distancing (1.5 mts) from another person; avoid groups of people
4. If you do not feel well, stay home. The family can help you determine whether it is coronavirus (see box 1)
5. Avoid meetings in closed spaces without ventilation
6. Above all, think, think, and think–it is the most vital thing that we should practice.
Box 2 has information also based on studies. Grassroots organizations can disseminate it in their communities, but first they should read and analyze it: why shouldn´t you touch your face? Why should you wash your hands with soap? Why maintain a distance of 1.5 meters with other people? Why should you stay home when you have a cough, mucus and sneezing? The more we think about it, the more we understand it, the more we are going to put it into practice and tell other people. Talking through information allows us to think about reorganizing activities, for example, the measure of maintaining a physical distance of 1.5 meters can help so that in a religious celebration, a meeting in the cooperative, or a class in the school people take their seats maintaining that distancing, so that the meetings be for shorter periods of time or with frequent recesses, or so that the meetings might be better prepared in advance so that, like chickens, you go straight to the “grain.” Information that is thought through can save lives.
Grassroots organizations also should reflect on other contributions from scientists. Let us look at 3 contributions. The first, studies show that children under the age of 12 do not get infected much, compared to adults; in the cases when they are infected, they almost never get seriously sick, nor are they great transmitters of the virus, like they were in the case of the flu, because the amount of receptors that COVID-19 needs are less in children under the age of 12, and consequently the viral charge (in other words, the amount of the virus that they can gather) is much smaller. Statistics confirm this statement, minors under 12 are less than 0.2% of COVID-19 deaths.
Second, statistics how that men become more infected by COVID-19 than women, and they tend to suffer more from the virus than women who are affected. This is due to the fact that “the blood of men has higher concentrations of the converter enzyme of angiotensin II (ACE2) than the blood of women (…). This receptor is found on the surface of healthy cells, and helps coronavirus infect them” (see: https://www.iprofesional.com/actualidad/315900-coronavirus-por-que-hombres-se-contagian-mas-que-mujeres ). Active genes linked to the X chromosome provide women (XX) greater protection against coronavirus than men”. In addition, be it for the type work in which rural women are more involved, in general they have more hygienic habits than men, for example, they wash their hands more frequently, be it because they are washing dishes, clothing or for personal care. This indicate the importance of hand washing.
Third, studies also tell us that the use of masks is preventive, but they also warn us of the risk of reusing them, because they can become a means of infection, because the virus can remain for hours and even days in the masks. The masks are more for infected people, with or without symptoms, so they do not infect other people. Why the masks? Because they reduce the particles that come out of the mouth when a person breathes or talks. When should masks be used? They can use them in school during classes in closed classrooms with little ventilation, in relatively closed churches during celebrations, when it is not possible to maintain physical distancing, when the interaction lasts a certain length of time, in places with human crowding (banks, markets…). They should also be used when you travel to town, on returning home you should wash it, in this way the mask will be ready for a new outing or meeting. Countries that have overcome COVID-19 have used the masks as part of their strategies, which is why rural communities probably will have to introduce the use of masks as part of their culture of care, particularly for the moments we just pointed out.
3.2 Linking to and contacting schools and churches
It seems easy to connect to and assume that any organization or institution will be happy to be contacted. Nevertheless, churches, schools and party structures are not accustomed to coordinate with community organizations, except to “orient them” about what to do, and treat them as their dependents. Their worlds and leadership which we mentioned previously really carry weight, they are true walls to community coordination. How is a grassroots cooperative going to react if the pastor of a church tells them, “God is our doctor, we trust in God?” What is it going to say and do if the principal of a school tells them, “we can only receive support if it comes through the ministry of education”? What are they doing to do if a committee of a political party, the councils or mayor deputies say that “directions and projects only come from above?”. What can you say to the parent of a family who only believes in the patron of their hacienda? How difficult it is to be community and work for the community! There, where things get complicated, money will not even make monkeys dance.
In the midst of these worlds we have learned the following steps. First, discussing the information in figures 1 and 2 really empowers people, it is in-forming, and informing is forming. Information can be an antidote to despotic religious, political and economic leaders. Second, the cooperative or association should start from what it is and has; what do they have and who are they? Each member has, at least, a family member who is a student, believer of some religion and/or is member of a political party; they should talk with them, discuss the COVID-19 situation, and the information provided here. Third, members of the organs of the cooperatives, having now conversed at the grassroots level, visit the parent/teachers committee of the school, people with positions in the churches, (e.g. deacons, delegates of the word) and party members or government authorities, reflect with them and discuss the information. Finally, the board members of cooperatives communicate with the parent/teacher committee of the school and with deacons and delegates of the word. In other words, connect with the grassroots of different organizations and institutions, their intermediate leaders, to then connect with the leadership of the organizations and institutions. In these steps, it is not a matter of convincing anyone, but of listening, bringing together elements that help to understand, and once each person understands, they will be able to see and then act – it is like preparing the soil and planting a seed, then you have to let the seed germinate and struggle to grow.
Table. Cost of kit for 90 people (1 month; in US dollars)
Chlorox (cleaning equipment) (liters)
Hand towel (units)
Bar of soap (units)
Re-usable masks (units)
With these steps, each organization can supply itself with a kit of hygiene products to prevent COVID-19 (see table). Cooperatives have a social fund that they can use to acquire the kit, unless they have used it for other social agendas that they tend to have. Schools can, through the parent/teachers committees, gather resources to acquire the kit. If the cooperatives, with or without international support, can gather resources to support the schools and churches, it could make a difference, strengthening the bonds in the community, and the entire community would benefit. The more bonds there are, the more autonomous the community will be.
3.3 Looking forward
The sixth recommendation in Figure 2 is the most important reason for a grassroots organization rooted in the community to exist: think, think and think. Thinking is the most important element to resisting COVID-19. Thinking is looking forward and seeing beyond our noses. A cooperative is not a church nor a political party, its members are there voluntarily, they are not subordinated to anyone, they discuss and reach agreements in their assemblies, which is why they must examine their beliefs and fight with and against them. Individually they can believe or not in God, but they should not expect God to send them angels or saints to wash their hands for them, or put their masks on, just as they would not expect that he plant beans for them or remove botflies from their cattle; they can believe in their political leaders, but it is shameful to subordinate themselves to anyone. As cooperative members they have free will, their source of power is the assembly composed of the members themselves, and their reason for being is thinking, thinking and thinking in favor of their communities.
Part of this thinking is reflecting about COVID-19: How to protect their own community? If the State does not show up in a community, the cooperative must also take on that role. If the health system capacity is overcome, grassroots organizations should discuss how to help prevent the outbreak in their communities, and how to help people who might be affected by the virus. If in any country COVID-19 is being controlled, in all countries there are waves of outbreaks of the disease, so the cooperative should keep looking for those possible outbreaks. In Central America the urban waves of COVID-19 are still ongoing, which is why the rural waves that come later, can be lethal, not just for the reasons mentioned in this article, but because we are in the midst of the rainy season, which will make it more difficult for infected people to get to a health center or any support. If a community receives external support, the cooperative must be careful that that support not be counterproductive, because there can be support that displaces grassroots organizations, and when that donation ends the community´s own autonomy and their own efforts can be left eroded.
Cooperatives need to organize how a network of women can sew masks, how to make soap with lard, how to recover old ways of making alcohol in order to use on hands, how to recover natural medicine… Cooperatives need to think about connecting hygiene, economics, social and environmental elements, thinking about the food in the community beyond COVID-19, thinking about environmental sustainability with pure air and water, thinking, thinking, thinking.
4. Role of international organizations in living communities
Even though for multiple reasons most of the international aid organizations have withdrawn from Central America, there are still international organization that are supporting the region. There also is the fair-trade network, as well as local-global networks among national and international organizations, unions, churches, social banks and universities in the world. When there is the will, there is the way, as the saying goes. If each person feels a mission of service, we can deepen those relationships of collaboration and reactivate “dead” relationships, because “where there are ashes, there was fire.” Each person and organization can play an important role if in this COVID-19 context they realize the importance of working on the community level that is organizing: what good does it do to provide individualized credit or training, as neoliberalism does, promoting mono-cropping, environmental degradation and the erosion of communities? The current situation wakes us up: people who organize and follow rules agreed upon in their assemblies, instead of gurus or chiefs who see themselves as the law, are those who really energize their communities, sustainable farming systems and contribute to social and environmental equity. Communities save communities.
Within this framework, what role do aid organizations have? Traditional donations, involving donating and awaiting reports invented by organizations “confined” to the cities, can be counterproductive, particularly if they displace the efforts of the communities themselves, which in the long term would undermine communities. Aid organizations need to connect with counterparts who really are working with grassroots organizations that meet the following criteria: they are democratic, redistribute their surplus, are transparent with their information and are rooted in their communities or specific micro-territories. This type of organization will persist in the communities, while other external organizations, or those with disperse membership, will continue treating the communities like their lovers, showing up from time to time and leaving. Forming alliances with grassroots organizations so that a donation might provide an initial push, for example, with what is indicated in the table, supporting wash basins in schools with access to water, or working on agro-forestry systems that would protect water sources, where grassroots organizations might accompany their communities, and that their national partners might accompany them in the communities themselves, being careful, but overcoming fear, is the network which need to be built now and always. The dilemma is not whether to leave your urban home or a rural farm; it is how we strengthen internal community assets, how we can take advantage of this “momentum” that exists in global awareness as an effect of COVID-19 to see the importance of communities. In this way, external financing to build a community response would decisively help the community deal with the virus and its new outbreaks, and help in the long term to democratize the community itself.
5. By way of conclusion
In this article we showed the risks of COVID-19, we have begun a reflection on the relationship between hygiene, the economy and social factors, we described the strength of communities if they build lasting connections, we have emphasized the role of grassroots organizations to reflect on their values and principles in light of what is happening in their communities, and generate ways to cooperate in the prevention of COVID-19, and to innovate in ways of accompanying their communities in the midst of the uncertainty. We showed that, through these short term measures, and starting from an analysis of the processes which we are experiencing, it is possible to look forward to the medium and long term: to improve, correct, and generate habits of hygiene connecting home, farm and nature, and home, school, health center and community building.
The impact of what we are proposing, nevertheless, will be seen above all on more structural issues. For example, an exponential increase is coming of people in extreme poverty, the goal of eliminating extreme global poverty for 2030 is going to be only left on paper. The crisis for rich families of the world is how to have less desert options in their dinner, while for our communities the crisis means that they might miss a meal or face empty plates, becoming vulnerable again to any disease. This article and the previous one on basic grains aim at preventing those impacts.
The current situation also provides us with opportunities, because “behind every adversity there is an opportunity”. What opportunity? Mitigation of climate change which, in the case of rural communities, means water, land with life, biodiversity; it is the moment to rethink farming systems and intensify more sustainable forms and farming systems that stop the loss of nutrients in food because of the decreasing quality of the soil. It is the time for communities, never before has the importance been so clear of investing in communities who organize and embrace a culture of care; now is the hour for life, amen.
To look at these structural issues we must understand that it is not the economy that solves health care, it is not a matter of knowing whether the chicken or the egg is first, now the economy is public health and community health; and health, the economy, social and environmental reality are like a mountain slope, if you are on the higher part it looks different than seeing it from below, if you are on the very top, it looks different from one side than from the other, but it is the same slope, the same mountain slope.
“Think, Pipita, your love for others is stronger than anything else…Besides, the rain is coming!”
 It is likely that air pollution facilitates the virus and makes its impact worse, which in part would explain why countries in Europe have had high mortality, measured by the indicator of “over-deaths” or “over-mortality” (number of deaths above the average deaths from previous years) as an effect of COVID-19.
 Many people even with clear signs of having been infected, decide not to go to the health centers or hospitals. Why? “They say the hospitals have no room”, “I don´t want to die intubated”, “I want my family to wake me” and “we want to now where he is going to be buried to be able to go to pray for him”. The express burials frighten the population.
 L. Engelmann, J. Henderson and Ch. Lynteris (eds), 2018, Plague and the City. Londron: Routledge. They study the relationship between plagues and measures to fight plagues and cities from the middle ages up to the modern era; they also include cities like Buenos Aires.
 Inspired in these realities and by actions of Dr. Mazza and his team, in 1995 they filmed the movie Casas de Fuego. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6yWNBytu3U The movie illustrates the relationship between disease-insects, homes (shacks) and social inequality, the wealthy class is against homes being rebuilt, because “they are not concerned” about the millions of poor people.
The movie Casas de Fuego (footnote No. 5) illustrates the duality science/faith and committed science/academic science. The priest is opposed to science benefitting the most impoverished and affected communities; for him “faith and science are fighting over the same people”; a Manichean dilemma that smacks of the middle ages and that did a lot of damage to humanity. Also in this movie, that captures a good part of that experience, the University blocks the mission of Dr. Mazza and his team; fortunately Dr. Mazza and his team persist, their commitment is worth more than restrictive science, a commitment that nevertheless, they paid for with their lives, caused by the Chagas disease itself.
 If there are other organizations in the community, like alcoholics anonymous, water or road committees, the same is done as with the schools and churches.
 Note that traditional organizations tend to do just the opposite: the meet first and only with the leadership of the organizations, and then send technicians to “train” (in other words, convince).
 If some national or international organization wants to provide support under this spirit, they can contact the Coserpross cooperative (http://coserpross.org/es/home/) in Nicaragua, the Comal Network in Honduras (http://www.redcomal.org.hn/). Coserpross and the Comal Network accompany dozens of grassroots organizations in the region, synthesize verified information to provide to the grassroots organizations, and move about in those same territories. There are also organizations like Aldea Global and ADDAC that we mentioned in footnote 5; their uniqueness is that their network is present in dozens of communities.
 What would happen if a bee stayed in its hive? It could live as long as the food that it stored lasted, the honey that it produced, and then? We must understand that we, flowers, bees and humans, are all one network. The bee leaves its hive and goes from flower to flower, pollinizes, does it at the risk of losing themselves and of losing their lives. So is the network. So are we accompaniers, taking on the corresponding measures (use of mask and frequent hand washing), we should not “pass by on the other side” like the priest and Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, we should be inspired by people like Chagas and Mazza did and their teams in Brazil and Argentine that the movie Casas de Fuego portrays.
On one occasion I talked with a former director of a European aid agency.
-We are bringing in a donation of rice for Central America, so that people would let go of their native seed and end up buying rice seed from our business; we finance potatoes under the same condition …
-Do all aid agencies do this?
-Not all … What do you expect, that they would provide it for free? Nestle did this also in Africa, gave away free milk in the hospitals so that mothers would give it to their newborns, and after some days those mothers did not have breast milk, and had to buy Nestle´s milk.
-That is why some organizations in the south, the larger they are, the more deals they make for fewer people, they keep part of that aid; while ecological agriculture or peasant agriculture trips over every trap that they set for them.
-And when does this happen?
-All the time, but even more in times of crisis.
I bring up this conversation held 10 years ago. Under the shadow of COVID-19 multinational enterprises are moving their pieces like a game of chess, while the peasantry is groping about under the inclement sun of April. In many cases governments of developed countries act with both arms, with one arm they help, and with the other arm harvest what the first arm planted; it is their foreign policy where “nothing is free,” These practices of dispossession are intensified “more in times of crisis.”
In this article we show the urgency of producing food in the circumstances of COVID-19, the adversity that these circumstances represent, and the opportunity before our eyes. We identify the indigenous and peasant families who produce the food in the region, the basic grains, beans, rice and corn, even though in this article we emphasize more beans and corn. We expose the intentions of commercial mediation and the dispossession “traps” of capitalism with its “two arms.” And we make an effort to present proposals from grassroots organizations – we are referring to first tier cooperatives, but it extends to associations, associative enterprises, rural banks and peasant (or community) stores.
According to the IMF (https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WEO/Issues/2020/04/14/weo-april-2020), as an effect of COVID-19, the world economy is going to decline this year 2020 (-3%), particularly the economies of the so-called developed countries (-6%). This can be expressed in the fact that investment and consumer spending falls. For the countries of the south, that means that their export products are going to have less demand in Europe and the United States, which in fact is already happening; with drop in demand, prices fall for products like meat, coffee, bananas, apples…Will the same thing happen with basic commodities like beans, rice or corn? By way of hypothesis, for the case of Central America, if the supply of basic commodities falls more than demand, then their prices are going to rise, and low income consumer families will be affected. Let us remember, in Latin America there are hundreds of varieties of corn and beans, but in Central America some varieties are the ones that are produced and consumed, like red beans in Nicaragua, Costa Rica and El Salvador, or black beans in Guatemala. There can be corn like what is used for corn flour with varieties from Mexico, but the indigenous and peasant communities in Central America consume the corn that they produce.
The quarantine in the United States and Europe means that people are confined to their homes, which is why their consumption goes down. This means that the price of products, particularly the products that are not basic commodities, will fall. For example, if the price of meat in the United States drops, this affects prices down the line in the mediation chain in the meat industry, which reaches down to the farms and haciendas themselves in countries of Latin America. The graph of the FAO (see http://www.fao.org/worldfoodsituation/foodpricesindex/en/) reveals dramatic drops in the months of January to March in vegetable oils, sugar and meat, a drop that according to other reports, continues in this month of April.
Products like beans and corn also are dropping, but to a lesser extent (see yellow line for cereals on graph). In Mesoamerica, beans, corn and rice are basic commodities, they are the number 1 ingredient in the Mesoamerican family plate of food, which is why it would be difficult for their demand to drop. “As long as there are beans with tortilla and some corn, the rest is a treat”, people are heard saying in the communities.
Even though in Latin America those crops are produced by producers of different sizes (medium and large in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and northern Mexico), in Central America, particularly in the case of corn and beans, almost all is produced by small producers. In this region (see Table 1), even though the data is from 13 years ago, it tells us that there are a little more than two million basic grain producers, who, including their families, represent a little more than 10 million people, and they constitute 56% of the total rural population and 29% of the total population of the region.
Table 1. Number of basic grain (corn, beans, rice and sorghum) producers & rural population 2005-07
Basic grain producers (thousands)
Rural population basic grains (column 1 x aver. family size)
Total rural population
% Rural pop. BG / total rural population
Source: Baumeister (2010), Pequeños productores de granos básicos en América Central. Honduras: FAO-RUTA. http://www.fao.org/3/a-au202s.pdf%20 This is data based on standard of living surveys and agricultural census.
Table 2. Basic grain areas 2006 (hectares)
Source: Baumeister (2010)
This population produces 2,457,341 hectares of corn and beans: see Table 2. Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras have more production area. Both crops are cultivated at 3 times of the year: first planting (May), second (August) and third (December); plantings that coincide with the rainy seasons by edaphoclimatic zone.
Since the quarantine affects the entire region, the agro-chemical industry and banks are limited in the scope of their action, which means that the provision of credit, seed and agro-chemicals for planting basic grains is limited. The decree of a quarantine reduces the spread of COVID-19, and at the same time, limits farm production, not so much because families are confined to their homes, or because peasant and indigenous families are “confined” to their farms, but because the movement of producer families in the region, except for Nicaragua, to do their purchases of inputs and financial transactions is limited; for example, in Honduras, with the curfew people can only leave their homes one day per week as determined by their identity card.
As an effect, the supply of corn and beans tends to be less: by planting smaller areas in May, less smaller volumes will be harvested in July, which is why the second planting is going to be smaller…If this happens, the scarcity of basic grains in the entire region is going to cause an increase in prices and possible hoarding of large volumes to do price speculation; in fact, the price of beans already increased starting on April 21. Going back to Tables 1 and 2, we conclude that if other countries drop their production by 30%, Nicaragua should increase its production areas to contribute to the region.
How should this situation be addressed? After this introduction, we summarize the mediation practices that make bean supply and demand possible, but mediated by unfair institutions, that affect human population and nature. Then we involve the efforts of international aid and we warn of its risks. Then we describe a different path as a proposal. Finally, we lay out a decisive and unconfined accompaniment on the part of those of us who say we are accompanying rural families. In the conclusions we recall that we need to open ourselves to the people who are more underprivileged.
2. More of the same with businesses of mediation
In general, we are seeing an intensification of the old practices of mediation, more of the same. Meanwhile, part of the peasantry is preparing to grow basic grains with relative autonomy. There is no variation in the mediation technology and relationships, in spite of what is said in the world that after COVID-19 “nothing will be the same”.
The logic that traditional mediation intensifies is: dependency on agro-chemicals and certified seed, unfair weighing and disproportionate application of percentage of defects, disinformation, absence of incentives for product quality, and the power of ideas like “more inputs, more production”, “without glyphosate there are no beans and corn”, and “clearing land causes joy” -clearing land refers to deforestation or felling trees to plant basic grains or for ranching.
Within this logic there are three types of mediation. The first, businesses or intermediaries provide seed and agro-chemicals to be paid with beans or corn, under the condition that the entire harvest be sold to them. The second type is businesses or cooperatives that offer a package the includes seed, agro-chemicals and technical supervision, to be paid with beans, and on the condition that they be sold the entire harvest; the difference with the first type is that in this second version they offer them C$100/qq over the street (market) price. The third type of mediation is scattershot, there are people from the community itself who lend money under terms of usury to families who are not able to save to pay for the rental of land and to buy uncertified seed, they are families whose harvests are sold to local buyers, who collect the harvest for municipal mediators (“truckers”), who in turn sell the grains to provincial buyers. The first two types of mediation export beans to other countries in the region, particularly to Costa Rica and El Salvador, countries that produce less (see Table 2) and have a large population that demands grains; the third type also export to countries outside the region.
The effects of these 3 mediations are multiple: loss of soil fertility, increase in the resistance of insects to agro-chemicals, pressure to cut down patches of forest that still remain on peasant and indigenous farms, lack of water in the communities because the deforestation leaves the water sources and creeks unprotected, systematic reduction in the profit margins of grains for producer families (the nefarious “plier squeeze”: more expensive inputs, combined with lower prices for peasant produce), migration and sale of land, erosion of communities, hoarding and price speculation…
Those who escape from this network of mediation throughout the region are indigenous and peasant families with small areas of land. They are families who cultivate for their own consumption, who store native seed, use little or no agro-chemicals, and sell their surplus grains to the highest bidder. They are families who live in relatively stable communities. With or without quarantine, these families will continue producing. These families and communities, nevertheless, are ever fewer, the new generations are being de-peasantized, which is why it is easy to find communities that 30 years ago were owners of land, and now mostly are families who plant grains on rented land.
3. Efforts of international aid organizations
Before the crisis we heard different voices from international aid organizations, including the so- called fair-trade organizations. Their practice seems to be “more of the same” as well; this worldwide discourse that “everything will be different” after COVID-10 is beginning to be carried away in the wind.
Some organizations look to support NGOs whose staff are confined to their homes. Other organizations, and this is what we uncover in this section, remember rural families, but tend to fall into or brandish two old modalities of aid.
The first modality intensifies the first two types of mediation described in the previous section, and at the same time is distinct from them. It intensifies because it provides credit and induces them to make an arrangement with traditional mediation to sell them inputs and buy their harvests. It is distinct when they work with second tier cooperatives to collect the grains and sell them to international organizations, or some large buyer; in general they pay for and demand quality. In the context of COVID-19 this type of practice is intensified.
The second modality is being revived with COVID-19. It is an old form of aid that generally emerges “in times of crisis”. It goes well with the story that we described at the beginning of this article. There are organizations that donate in cash or food to “more vulnerable” families; it was a boom when Hurricane Mitch hit in 1998, or in 2001 when prices for coffee fell to $70/qq for export quality coffee. To do so, aid organizations use the cooperatives or NGOs to identify the families in a vulnerable situation, and to channel the donation. Let us magnify this type of aid to see its possible adverse effects on the explicit objectives that they pursue.
Aid organizations ask the administration (manager and technical team) of the cooperatives to prepare a list of families, not members of the cooperative. On these lists generally are a good number of people without land, or with little land; most of them are day laborers, and in the corresponding periods grow basic grains on rented land, or work in a sharecropping arrangement with the owner of the land, and pay the rent generally with their savings from harvesting coffee. When the donation gets to this sector, even though the good intentions of the aid organizations might be praiseworthy, it results in two risks that can be counterproductive to the spirit of help that motivates the aid organizations, and counterproductive to the reason for being of the cooperatives. What are those risks?
A first risk is that a good number of these families, on receiving the aid, might decide to not plant basic grains, or reduce the area that they are planning on planting. It can happen with peasant family owners of small areas of land. And it can happen with day laborers. A day laborer, on receiving an amount in cash or food that meets their needs that day, and the following days, their first reaction, coherent with this mentality of a day laborer, is “to not work”, in some cases even “look for beer” (alcoholism). In other words, the aid can result in less area planted, which means less food, which means more problems particularly for women concerned about putting three meals on the table. This type of aid, in the long term, can cause a bigger crisis in the family, even selling off the little land that they have or their yard. If the family does not plant, and prefers to consume the donation, without saving or investing it, in a matter of three months that family is going to be in a worse situation, because they are not going to harvest, and so will cry out for new aid. Since the cooperative was the channel for the first aid, they will expect the cooperative to resolve their problem.
A second risk is that the sustainability of the cooperative might be diminished, and crack the social cohesion of the community. The members, on realizing that they are not part of the list, and that instead are subsidizing aid to non-members, are going to have their idea that “the members are not in charge in the cooperative” be confirmed, and some with debts to the cooperative will say that “they are not going to pay.” The organs of the cooperatives also tend to be weakened in their functioning, because the aid organizations erroneously assume that the cooperative is equal to its management, they make arrangements with them, and pressure them to execute the donation; the administration tends to obey them under the rule of “you don´t look a gift horse in the mouth,” while the organs of the cooperative are placed to the side. In terms of the community, the non- members not benefitted by the donation, resent not being part of the aid, so possible long standing internal schisms revive. The population will feel that it turns their stomachs to understand the message of the donation: “you have to be impoverished to receive aid,” “the working person does not deserve aid”; which is contrary to the Law of Talents from Matthew 25, or certain values about one´s own effort that tends to be promoted in the communities.
Taking these risks into account, international aid organizations that make donations to impoverished families should be coherent with their own policy: accepting the effects of their actions. If they donate, they should do it every 3 months to those families for at least two years; delivering the donations directly to beneficiary families, so that the benefitting population might applaud or complain to the donor organization. The cooperative, one that is committed to its sustainability and that of its community, should not get wrapped up in unsustainable actions, and even less so, if these actions have the potential to erode the future of their organization and their communities.
National and international aid organizations are good for moving about in the aid market, grassroots cooperatives should recognize them for that skill. Grassroots cooperatives, those who are seeking their sustainability and that of their communities, know their families better, aid organizations should listen to them and learn from them.
4. An alternative path from those who are more impoverished
In the context of COVID-19, if traditional mediation intensifies their unjust mechanisms against the peasantry and the environment, and if international aid organizations impose their “aid that entraps”, in the short term, low supply and institutional situation of hoarding will be felt, famine could break out, as well as water scarcity in an agriculture which deforests and is dependent on agro-chemicals. Without the peasantry producing, and a change in the institutional arrangement that would respect the right of the population to access food, the region will be affected. In this section we sketch out a different path, not just donations, not just business, but contributing to the production of food in the short term, and through that “window” entering into long term change, local and global living communities with sustainable agriculture that restores their soil and water.
Table 3: Costs of production for beans (C$*)
With agro-chemicals (1 mz)
With sustainable agriculture (1 mz)
Financing (30% costs)
* To get cost in dollars divide by C$34 = US$1
Source: estimate with support of ing. Elix Meneces
In the last week of April people finish the arrangements for renting land and begin to prepare the soil for planting, awaiting the “rain showers of May” – the first rains of the year. Let´s remember, some families plant on their land, they need minimal support in credit for seed and other costs; some families rent land to plant basic grains, they have difficulties in coming up with the C$2500/mz that the land owner charges, maybe they need 50% of that amount; some families seek to plant by halves, they expect that the land owner would provide the land and seed, or between two people, they rent the land and work it 50-50. These families, growing their grains, on harvesting them need to save their seed to begin a life less dependent on mediation and aid, then they need to improve their soil and protect their water… They can do it if they organize into cooperatives, associations or associative enterprises that move on the basis of agreements in their assemblies.
In the face of this situation, international organizations and grassroots cooperatives can join forces. Both have a common, explicit objective: help the most vulnerable families, and that there be water for life. Correspondingly, they should agree on the fact that aid should help. How?
The cooperative can finance the amount that families need to rent land and obtain their inputs (see Table 3), and/or go into halves with families that desire to do so. The table shows that the area of sustainable agriculture is more expensive, that is because it requires more labor, which also should be read as greater creation of employment and environmental benefit. The cooperative can finance 30% of an area with agro-chemicals and an area with sustainable agriculture, supervise those plantings, and technically advise the family within the framework of community. The condition for this service would be that the families pay the loan with beans, commit to sell their harvest to the cooperative, that 50% of the area be cultivated without agro-chemicals and with organic inputs, and that they protect water sources throughout the farm. In the case of compliance by both parties, the cooperative would distribute their surplus in accordance with the norms of the cooperative, a distribution which is both social and individual: 10% legal reserves, 20% social fund, 20% capitalization of the cooperative and 50% individual distribution in accordance with the quantity that the producers have sold to the cooperative. In the long term, these sustainable products could be better remunerated. What would you prefer, reader, rice and beans with glyphosate or without glyphosate?
Under these agreements the cooperative can collect an estimated 25qq/mzs of beans and 35qq/mzs of corn; if a cooperative under the terms described would support 100mzs of beans and 100 mzs of corn, it would collect 2500qq of beans and 3500qq of corn; we can imagine what is possible with 20 or 100 cooperatives taking on these practices. 5% of this total could be saved as seed, to organize the second planting (August). The rest of the volume of grains can be sold in accordance with the health situation and the demand for food that we would have in the months of July, August and September; cooperatives can make more favorable decisions for society and social justice, while capital only sees merchandise, money and moves under the justice of the market.
Consistent with this perspective, a cooperative can commit to producing organic inputs in an ongoing way. It can do it by itself or in alliance with international enterprises that offer organic inputs to revitalize soils, and not like the chemical inputs that are directed only at the crop and are only short term. This would mean working with landowners who would revitalize their soil in the long term, and working with families who would rent land from landowners for a minimum of 10 years, because the revitalization of the soil happens over years and its benefits are lasting. Landowners will benefit from a stable agreement and from those practices that revitalize the soil, in addition to the financial benefits.
Through this short term “window” of organizing the production of food, the cooperative can enter to work on the in-depth issue: mitigating climate change with sustainable agriculture and energizing living communities.
There is a perspective here in which international organizations can redefine their forms of aid. It is a perspective that in the long term transforms traditional mediation and “aid that entraps”, leads them to respect and empower the rights of people to produce and have access to healthy food, and respect the rights of nature. It is a perspective that encourages mechanisms be directed to fair weighing, quality control with incentives, prices with redistribution, and the fact that communities can scale up by adding value to their products and their waste.
5. Accompaniment needed
Some people from NGOs confined to their homes are not going to move about; we respect their decision, even though they can help us studying the behavior of markets, and reflecting on the changes that the NGOs themselves should begin. Some of us who are accompanying the rural families who are organizing, we are “confined” to accompanying families in their communities. What does it mean to accompany?
The biblical passage of the Road to Emmaus (Lk 24: 13-25) can be a guide. The Puerto Rican theologian, Carmelo Álvarez, says: “This passage encourages us to walk in the midst of uncertainty, which is being transformed into certainty and confidence. Jesus approaches these hopeless, frustrated, and hurting travelers/disciples, and accompanies them without showing his identity. He establishes a dialogue of travelers. And he patiently provides elements that illuminate the faith! He is able to get the travelers to be receptive to his words and presence. So, an invitation emerges, “stay with us” (…) The Supper calls for sharing, revealing the Mystery …Today, more than ever, we need the Pilgrim of Emmaus, so that he might help us with this presence, to continue walking with the faith of open eyes…”
This accompaniment should include three elements: studying, training and innovating. Studying people to apprehend ways of expanding their relationships of cooperation. We can suggest something to people IF we know their situations, like the producer Rodrigo López from the community of Ocote Tuma (Waslala, Northern Atlantic Region, Nicaragua) was telling us, “if you do not understand, you do not see”; accompanying is the people themselves teaching us to advise them – “stay with us”. Training means creating conditions for awakening, taking on the consequences of our actions and decisions, awakening to the way of life that we are leading, the way of working and way of organizing ourselves, realizing that no matter had bad off we may be, we always have something good to hold on to. Innovating along with families forms of making the proposal just described a reality, innovating day by day in agriculture, commercialization, collective organization and learning. The people that we accompany, we need to understand that studying, training and innovating are interdependent, it is the holy trinity of accompaniment – understanding in order to see.
Each cooperative can be the Pilgrim of Emmaus. Each church, University and NGO could be the Pilgrim of Emmaus.
After COVID-19 “nothing will return to what it was before”. This phrase is hollow when we look at the current behavior of traditional mediation of capital, products and words. We must make that expression a reality to the extent to which we build different futures, futures more socially and environmentally just and equitable.
In this article we have started from the idea that basic commodities, like basic grains, could become scarce as an effect of COVID-19, that in the face of this possibility, it is urgent that indigenous and peasant families get involved in producing. But that they do so under different conditions from those imposed by traditional mediation and by the aid industry, whose actions do damage and create perverse incentives for producers as well as for their organizations. Let them produce in alliance with local organizations, with incentives in which landowners and producer families all gain in the short term, and as living communities gain in the long term.
This proposal is in relation to basic commodity foodstuffs that encompass the entire population of the region. It is about growing basic grains whose first planting season is about to begin (May 1). But if we still are not able to work at total strength in this season, we can begin, and prepare ourselves for the second planting (August). The same can be done with vegetables – squash, cucumbers, garlic, summer squash…
This proposal is even more important, because it involves families who are farther down, the most impoverished families who sustain humanity, they are 29% of the total population of the region. The mentalities of this 29% are even much lower from centuries of domination, but that with good accompaniment, like that of the Pilgrim of Emmaus, the good of that population can emerge as well as the good of their accompaniers.
This is a proposal for the grassroots organizations who maybe have embraced only export crops, so that they can include basic commodity crops. Not just because they are primary foodstuffs, but because getting involved in them will provide them roots in the communities and local markets. It will also feed into their environmental perspective, particularly the indigenous populations will make us understand that the land has life, is the mother, and therefore it is not conceivable to buy or sell “the mother” or mercilessly drown her with agro-chemicals. Or is it?
 Even though the fall in the prices of sugar and (palm) oil is due more to the fall in the price of petroleum, products that are used for the production of biofuels. We are grateful to Arturo Grigsby for this information.
 Even if the supply of basic grains were less, possibly it would be enough to feed the population. What might happen is hoarding that might cause famine. In this sense, it is worthwhile to dust off the study of A. Sen (1981) Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Clarendon Press, Oxford. In that study, Sen shows that there was no lack of food in the 1943 famine in Bengal (India) or the famine in Ethiopia in 1972, but social institutions that hoarded food and deprived people of their right to have access to food.
 50-50 is viable, while a radical change of cultivating 100% with ecological agriculture could be unreal. The advantage of the ecological area is that it is intensive work, generates Jobs, and makes use of resources existing in the community itself. The ecological agriculture area part implies a radical change: betting on the soil instead of betting on a crop.
We were waiting for you like the “rain showers of May”,said the girls as they hugged their grandparents.
The fifth month of the year is called “May” in honor of Maya, one of the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione from Greek mythology; “Maia”, goddess of abundance. People who dig into history also tell us that it was a month for the elderly, the word “elderly” in Latin is “maiorum”. In Central America May means the first rains of the year, with which agriculture begins and all the pallid landscape of April turns green and pulses with life; the popular expression is “the rain showers of May”, the month most anticipated. This article is about the power of community, that when we discover it is like the month of May: abundant, living, ever changing and very much anticipated.
Those who live in a village or hamlet watch the movement of people. They see the buyers come in to buy coffee, beans, or agoutis; for the buyers the community is a place to buy things. They see people who have diplomas arrive, and board members of organizations, they greet them from the road, they estimate the harvest, fill out paperwork, and leave promises; for them the community is a stone paved road. They see people arrive in cassocks, lab coats, or wearing glasses, who enter the church, school or health center; for them, the community is a bunch of cement blocks with tin roof sheeting, and people who applaud them.
Among those people who are watching, Elder Lagos, from the community of San Antonio, observes, “The cooperatives collect the coffee harvest in the towns, while the buyers collect it here.” Rodrigo López from the community of Ocote Tuma, also observes, “There are two cooperatives with members from here, these cooperatives are in the town; they never meet here.” These observations awaken three, five, ten, up to thirty people, who form cooperatives, meet, collect the coffee harvest, and pay for it in the community itself, they save the people the cost of transportation of having to take their coffee to town. Others, with their fingernails and the friendship of their neighbors, buy cacao to dry it in the community itself, and pool their cents together to start a chicken farm. “The cents that it costs us make it more savory”, concludes Doña Justina Meneces.
There were good times when growing just coffee, cacao or cattle people bought their vehicles, they took on positions and went to live in town. But at the same time, their water sources dried up, the land grew tired, and the prices of those products dropped, and the price of agro-chemicals rose. Daniel Meneces remembers the words of his uncle Toño, “A lot of people are like the dog who barks at the squirrel believing that it is in the tree, when the squirrel has already left.” Betting on only one crop is like barking at the tree, when “the squirrel has already left.” People like Daniel become aware of this reality, three more do, then ten more…they turn their attention to the land, water, and processing foodstuffs: making bread, honey…The land is valuable and worth more than money!
“We are at different steps on the ladder,” said Claudio Hernández from Samarkanda, recognizing the inequality in the communities. That is why, in the face of the law of “exporting the best and leaving the worst”, they are roasting coffee in the communities; in the face of the rule that “organization and projects come in from outside,” they are talking among themselves, so that the community might have water; in the face of the wealthy who say that “people are only moved by money”, they visit one another, and the mutual affection that they cultivate moves them more. So, the community stores are saying, “I am going to give you products on credit that you share with your family” – products like beans or oil, but not cigarettes. This spirit is like the spirit of the first time one falls in love.
The power of communities is like “rain showers in May”, which causes good changes to bloom.
Good morning, friends from international aid agencies,
Out of the friendship that I have with a good number of you, I write you this letter from a Central America immersed in an unfavorable context imposed by COVID-19, like most of the countries in the world.
Surely you are rethinking your 2020 agenda and your post CIVID-19 agenda, due to the fact that your budgets will tend to drop, because the economy is deteriorating and governments are adjusting their budgets to the issue of health, and because COVID-19 is leaving us a new institutional context, strengthened States, markets-elites weakened and a new perspective on climate change, while our societies are slowly awakening.
COVID-19 is revealing the “emperor has no clothes” (story written by Hans Christian Andersen, in 1837): “disaster capitalism” for decades privatized public goods like the health care system, has dispossessed indigenous peoples and peasant families of their lands, and has appropriated natural common goods (wood, minerals, water, oil…); a plunder possible thanks to the hierarchical, authoritarian and patriarchal structures of our own societies. This is the fertile soil for COVID-19 to multiply like sunflowers or soy beans on long plantations. COVID-10 is affecting the entire world, but affects more vulnerable people, the elderly, the Afro-american and Hispanic populations in the United States, because they are an impoverished and low paid population. It is a virus that is transmitted not just by coughing, but through normal breathing. Even without touching them, the virus is squeezing the working class, and diminishing the three meals of families in the informal economy. Even though the mortality affects more men, women who deal daily with family meals and human health suffer the daily stress more than any other social group, and are those most affected by gender violence. Impoverished people from the rural area who distrust the State from centuries ago, will prefer to die in their homes than go to the health centers. The cry of the earth and the cry of impoverished people is heard more severely in the universe.
It is important to connect the short-term urgencies with the long term needs. In the short term, it is important that they be based on facts like the effects of the virus that I just mentioned, and prevent big capital from imposing their economic logic on human life – that people go back to work sacrificing human lives. In the long term we must recognize that COVID-19 has to do with the impact of capitalism that has eroded our society and our common home, planet earth – which commonly is repeated as climate change. This is the fertile soil for COVID-19 and other diseases that scientists predict will come. It is our duty to keep big capital from wanting to ignore the current reality and return us to the “normality” prior to COVID-19. We need to change not for a while, but forever.
There is a saying that “behind every adversity is an opportunity”. The world is awakening, there is the opportunity. Humanity is realizing that the first floor that sustains the edifice of humanity are the indigenous and peasant families who produce food and protect nature, above all when these families are organized into different associative forms in their own communities, led by principles of social and environmental justice. It is not nefarious agro-business, the mono-cropping system, industrial animal raising or extractivism led by market justice the path for preventing diseases and dealing with climate change. This is the opportune moment to work with these families who are organizing, particularly because of their ecological knowledge and traditional practices.
International aid organizations should think about quick ways to capture alternative resources, and/or adjust their resources to the opportunities that would lead us to build societies with social and environmental justice. Thinking about more effective ways to work with grassroots organizations (associations, cooperatives, social enterprises, community organizations, social movements) that move about in the communities themselves, not so much with NGOs (or second tier organizations), that are confined – for safety – to their homes and cities. We should think about mechanisms that would ensure work at the grassroots level in order to expand sustainable production. Because the worst is not COVID-19, what is worse are the conditions that incubated COVID-19, and what is coming after it. And it is this alliance among community organizations and some international aid organizations more committed to social and environmental justice that can change for the good these post COVID-19 tendencies.
It is unusual for a media outlet on the Pacific side of the country to publish a long interview of a community leader from the Atlantic Coast. Her experience on the Coast places in a larger perspective the largely student led uprising of April 2018, as well as recent news stories of attacks on indigenous communities.
Susana Marley: “In the Caribbean they do not prescribe jail, just lead”
The Miskita leader is recognized in the North Caribbean as “Mama Grande” because of her closeness to the communities of the Río Coco and her hard work of denouncing human rights violations.
Susana Marley Cunningham, sociologist and teacher by profession, has dedicated nearly two decades of her 62 years of age to defending and denouncing violations of the rights of the Mískita communities of the Northern Caribbean of Nicaragua. She was born in Waspam and began her humanitarian work after Hurricane Mitch in communities bordering the Río Coco, through the Civil Foundation for the Unity and Reconstruction of the Atlantic Coast (FURCA).
The work of Marley has left a mark on the Mískita population. The children who she once taught and defended call her “Mama Grande”. But she has not just won affection. Threats as well. In August 2019 she had to leave her native Northern Caribbean to a more urban area of the Pacific for her safety.
In this interview, Marley denounces the increase of violence in the Caribbean, the advance of invasions, the hunger that the communities are experiencing, the fear of the children to go to school, the corruption of communal governments, and the lack of respect for their forms of organization and elections.
When did the situation of insecurity for the indigenous, Mískitos and Afro-descendants begin to get worse?
The situation of violence and human rights violations I have felt personally since all those actions in the year of the 80s began, with the famous Red Christmas, when our people were taken away or murdered in the forest. I was at the point of dying during that so called Red Christmas, they put me in a line, thanks to God that He used one of those soldiers, I saved myself only because one of them made himself pass as if he were my husband and got me out of there.
Who started that wave of violence in the 80s?
The Sandinista Army and Police. We began to live in an environment of a lot of terror, insecurity and fear. You could not go into the countryside alone, so, since the 1980s the defense of life has gotten worse. Life and human rights are not respected. They have treated us as if we were animals that should be hunted, so they could exploit the land, the minerals, the resources of our territories.
What consequences did the protests of April 2018 have on the Caribbean of Nicaragua?
Our resistance has been historic, and we always denounced that they were killing us, so, after the situation that erupted in April 2018, people began to understand that the same thing that they were doing to us, they were using against the youth, who were unarmed, defenseless and they killed them and they continue killing them. In the Caribbean they do not prescribe jailing, there it is only lead [bullets] , but the situation is pretty similar. It is a terrible, lamentable situation, that has separated families.
In these last weeks, several acts of violence have been registered against indigenous families. What is the current situation of the communities?
December and January are the months for the preparation of the land to harvest rice and beans, but they have not planted this year, because of the violence and the invasion. Famine will be a reality now in our communities. We are experiencing a humanitarian crisis. Classes started and the children go with fear. They are watchful of the forest because now it is not known when someone armed will come out of the forest. The children are psychologically affected in the face of the insecurity, because it is not just what happened this past February 16th, where a girl was wounded. So, in the face of this situation, we think that we are experiencing a serious situation of insecurity, there is no economic stability, there is a lot of poverty and latent lack of respect for our rights.
How did that attack on February 16th happen, where they wounded a minor in the cheek?
That Sunday, around 5:00pm, in the community of Santa Clara, close to a place where there is a creek of the Santa Clara river, the people went to bathe, and while coming a girl resulted wounded. We could not see who were shooting, and it was difficult to be able to get transportation to leave the community. The ambulance was requested at 5:00 pm, and it did not arrive until 11:00pm. It seems that they (the paramilitaries or settlers) were watching those who were bathing, they were stalking them, and at least they did not shoot the girl in the head, but in the cheek. It is not fair that the children also are victims of this type of human rights violations. Minors also suffer this persecution.
How far has the invasion of settlers advanced?
Too far. I want to confide in you that if something happens to me, I hold these murderers responsible, because we are just denouncing this, and we do not have weapons of war. The situation is very bad, and in every testimony we hear, that fear is noticeable, that insecurity. A little while ago a peasant from the community of Santa Clara, who had to leave that territory, commented to me that between the Wangki Twi Tasba Raya and the Li Auhbra territory, that is on the shores of the Río Coco- in between these two – is the Mocó mountain, where there are dozens of settlers or paramilitaries who created a community which is called Araguas. They have large extensions of pastureland and homes, so the advance of the invasion is nearly countless.
What consequences does this invasion of settlers have on the communities?
The encroachment that these people make in our lands has caused the displacement of our people to the Honduran side. Our people are displaced, even people from the community of Santa Clara, located in our Wangki Twi Tasba Raya territory, they migrated from the countryside to the city, and others have been displaced toward Waspam, because they can no longer plant. The leaders of Santa Clara and other communities bordering on the Wangki Twi Tasba Raya territory have had to suffer the deaths of their leaders, so, hunger and insecurity are prompting the forced displacement of our community members.
What is happening with justice in the case of the murders of the leaders?
The murders have been left unpunished. Every time this type of situation happens, we have wanted to denounce it, but we do not have that support, or that contact to denounce each one of these situations of the violation of our human rights. What we are demanding is that the laws that protect us be respected, like Law 28, the Autonomy Law, but these people are organized and willing to continue causing damage.
Some of the communities that you have mentioned are beneficiaries of precautionary measures granted by the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights. Do you think that the State is observing those measures?
No. The State is not protecting these communities. The State should fully comply, but it is not doing so. Recently, the community of Santa Clara – one of those protected by precautionary measures – received threats from settlers or paramilitaries who told them that they have 200 men, and they will go burn the houses, and they are going to kill them, and we have seen how the threats are being carried out.
How has the Army of Nicaragua behaved with the Mískito Indigenous peoples?
There is no protection, because in years past which have had atrocious murders of peasants and indigenous close to their posts, they did not do anything. They know about it, and are direct accomplices in this type of violations, and they fill their mouths with words saying that they are protecting, but in practice they do not do any enforcement at all.
Do you feel unprotected?
Yes, they have left us completely unprotected. The precautionary measures are not observed, and all the authorities are accomplices of everything that is happening to us. The threats in the zone are constant, the same with the attacks, and they do not do anything to stop them, so the situation is very tense, and the indigenous and Afro-descendent populations are unprotected. The theft of cattle, kidnapping of women and labor exploitation are a reality in our communities.
This lack of protection has been in all governments, or it is something that has intensified with the regime of Daniel Ortega?
Our struggle and our resistance are historic. It is sad to say, but each government that has come to power in the country looks on our land for the purposes of exploitation. This is what we have observed.
How many attacks are registered in the course of this year?
The threat is ongoing. They (the paramilitaries) leave nailed on the stalks of the trees threats to the communities. The terror is constant. Just this year the kidnapping of two boys fishing from Santa Clara, the attack on the community of Alal, and now this attack on an adolescent girl.
What is the feeling of these communities who are constantly threatened?
There is a lot of tension. The people are terrorized after receiving the threats, but they are organized. The men have been out on guard, but they have informed me that the big problem is that now they cannot peacefully go out to gather the harvest in the fields, they tell me that they are experiencing hunger. Some only maintain themselves with fruit or dry coconut. A lot of people cannot even sleep, the children have no peace in order to study. Since the 1980s to now they continue murdering us, and it continues intensifying, we demand that they quit killing us.
And what is happening with the regional councils? They are also part of the territorial governments that should be looking for policies to protect the indigenous.
Living in the territories one realizes that the person in the Government building belongs to the government, so, they work in strict coordination with the Government, and only do what they are ordered to do. They do not work in favor of the communities.
And the local council members [síndicos], do they have the same reputation or are they watching out for the well-being of the communities?
The communal council members work hand in hand with the communal leaders. The people choose their communal council members and leaders, but the problem is that, parallel to this, the ruling party chooses their council members, so the Regional Council only accredits the council members that they elect, but the ones elected by the communities, generally, are not accredited, like what happened in Kamla last year. Just so as to not accredit the council person elected by the people, they ordered the people beaten, wounded and threatened. The denouncements about these cases were made, but since they themselves are the ones, there is no justice for the community members who were victims of these abuses.
What is the role of a community council member [síndico]? Why does the Government see them as an obstacle and prefers not to accredit them?
The community council member who remains is a representative of the communities, and can coordinate the use of resources, always in consultation with the communities, but they leave the councilperson elected by the communities without voice nor vote, so it is only the one elected by them that is accredited, and presents papers as the highest authority. In the end, the reality is that that council person that they put there, only does what the Government wants and not what the communities need. For example, the large extensions of land that are taken and through which the paramilitaries come in, they are the ones that give them passage so that they can register those properties. This invasion and land takeovers are done by those people themselves, and that is where the community members have to go to demand their lands. The council members that Orteguism puts in place do not have land, but they order the invaders to be placed there. Government officials promote the invasion in the communities.
Is this something seen since the 1980s or is it something that non -Sandinista governments have also promoted?
This (invasion and violence) started more forcefully since 2009, even though in the 1980s there was displacement and massacre against the Mïskito people through the so called Red Christmas. In the 80s the people sought to displace themselves into Honduras because of the persecution, but in the 90s – when they returned because of the change in Government – they even found tigers in the communities, and little by little they raised up their houses. It was in 2003 that they approved Law 445, which included titling, we did not appreciate that later these titles would be used by corrupt politicians of our region as well, so , they provided the title to people who were not members of the community, and they negotiated our lands, in addition to the fact that they allied with the council members and they allied in order to invade our lands little by little.
Concerning the legislative work that some are doing in supposed representation of the Caribbean, do you feel represented by these people who are officials within the Assembly? Are they promoting projects to improve the situation of the indigenous, Mískitos and Afro-descendants?
Years back, like in 2016, the corrupt political representation of the region was expelled from the Assembly for the illegal sale of our indigenous lands, so how is it that he returned once again to the National Assembly? Is it real that they are allies then? We do not feel that they represent us, and with this I am referring to the Yatama party. They cannot provide for the freedom of our territories from invasion, when they are the very ones who have been pointed out as promoting the invasion with the provision of titles to people from outside the community members. If they were part of the problem, they are never going to be part of the solution.
How do you assess the coalition building process that the members of the National Unity and the Civic Alliance are working on?
Look, when this situation happened in the Pacific in April 2018, many young people gave their lives to see a free Nicaragua, and many politicians holed themselves up, and now, for money and to give an opportunity to this murderer, are uniting. You have to be realistic, because these old and corrupt politicians are not an opposition. There is no sincerity, they must be more sincere, so, I think that there is a lot of falsehood in these traditional politicians. We as Mískitos demand that there be transparency, that there be unity, that they in truth defend the rights of indigenous peoples, peasants, youth, students. They have to give an opportunity to the new generations, because the corrupt politicians are advanced in age, let them go rest with their millions, let them leave the path open to the youth so that Nicaragua might be free and democratic again. If we truly love Nicaragua, let us leave Nicaragua in the hands of the youth, so that this [country] might be led in peace.
Susana Marley, known as “Mama Grande”, was born May 24, 1957 in the community Cabo Gracias a Dios in Waspam, Northern Caribbean.
She graduated as a teacher in 1970 from the Teacher School in Waspam, but a large part of her childhood she lived in the community of Santa Martha, located close to the Wawa River.
The Mískita leader is also a sociologist. She finished her studies in 1997 in the Central American University (UCA).
She is the daughter of Eduardo Marley (deceased), known in Waspam as a Moravian pastor and one of the first teachers in that municipality, and Benicia Cunningham, 95 years of age, popular for being one of the first midwives of her community.
“Mama Grande” had five children, but she had none of them in a hospital. Her births were assisted solely and exclusively by her mother.
In 1981 during the so called Red Christmas, she was at the point of dying, but she states that her beauty and the favor of God saved her.