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.
Riding astride coffee yield and quality in Nicaragua
René Mendoza, Javier López, Ivania Rivera and Warren Armstrong
“Do you know why I invited you to this coffee shop?, a European buyer, who is also a grade Q coffee-cupper, asked me. “Because they told me that they serve quality coffee here”, he responded to his own question. With that the waiter came up, and he asked for an expresso – coffee with more flavor and texture. When we were served, he took the first sip and made a face, “this is garbage.” Why? I asked. “There is no coffee shop in this country with good coffee, and we are in a coffee growing country!” His words shook the floor under me, and I came back at him, “you buy coffee throughout Latin America, where have you tasted good coffee?” Taking another sip of coffee, he said, “In Colombia, in Bogotá, even in the poorest coffee shop you find good coffee.” “Well… we are a coffee growing country, but the culture of coffee shops is new,” I said to him, “like looking for a needle in a haystack.” Looking at me with a certain amount of compassion, he said, “That explains it, but it does not justify it.”
(Based on a conversation between René Mendoza and a coffee buyer in 2019)
Coffee quality is expressed through its aroma, fragrance and flavor, the fact that its beans are healthy and clean, that they are dried well, grew on good soil, and in the company of other crops…Behind these attributes and actions are dozens of human hands in several phases and moments. That quality is relatively stable over time, as the French proverb says, “Price is forgotten, quality remains.” Prices can be like milk when it is boiling, they go up and down, while quality is more stable. What is happening with coffee quality in Nicaragua? The cupper-buyer in the story gives us a troubling indication: it could be that we do not have a good taste for coffee, and even so produce good export beans. Maybe.
Responding to the question, in this article we describe the situation of coffee yield and quality, we explain reasons why, we propose a path for improvement, and in the end provide conclusions that summarize the findings and leave the reader with the approach that should guide us. Even though the story about “good coffee” refers to national markets, and specifically to that of coffee shops, in this article we work more on coffee exports, whose quality is also connected to the quality of the coffee offered in the coffee shops of the country. We do this in good measure from the experience of Aldea Global, an association that sells more than 150,000 qq of coffee a year, and from the space of the dry mill where we want to look at the coffee chain, including its production and commercialization.
1. Coffee Yield and Quality
The prices of goods and products in markets frequently vary, as do interest rates on money; in contrast, the productivity and quality of an agricultural or non-agricultural product are less unstable, change more slowly. In the last 40 years the productivity of several crops has been maintained with minimal variation: for example, coffee, the crop that this article addresses, varied from 9.23 to 12 qq export coffee per manzana over a 50-year period!
Prices for coffee vary every day in New York (international point of reference) and in local markets; while the demand for quality coffee is increasing in international markets. In the 1990s there were few brands, among which fair-trade brand stood out. In contrast, in the current millennium there are dozens of brands (rainforest, bird friendly, utz, 4C, Nespresso AAA, café practices, etc) and denominations of origin or geographic indication (Juan Valdez, Colombia; Marcala, Honduras; Blue Mountain, Jamaica; Volcán de Oro, Guatemala; Tarrazú, Costa Ríca) which illustrates the growing world demand for a quality product. Nevertheless, precisely when the demand for quality coffee is increasing, the yield and score that measures the quality of coffee in Nicaragua is dropping: see Graphs 1 and 2. The yield we refer to is the quantity of pounds of parchment coffee (with 50 % of humidity) that are needed to get 100 lbs of export quality coffee (with between 10-12 % of humidity) – subtracting a number of pounds of imperfect coffee (broken, black, severe insect damaged, withered beans). The quality score, for its part, measures fragrancy, aroma, taste, acidity, body, uniformity and sweetness of the coffee. This is expressed by cupping points: from 70-80 is “common or commercial coffee”, 80-83 are “specialty coffees”, 84-89 “regional exemplary plus +”, 90-95 is “Exemplary coffees” and 95 and above are “unique coffees”.
Graph 1 shows us that to get 100 lbs of export coffee in the middle of the 1990s 215 lbs of parchment coffee was needed, then 3 more pounds, and since 2010 it shot up requiring 232 lbs by 2020. In that same period the rate of imperfect coffee has increased from less than 5lbs/qq in the 1990s (and export quality coffee of 96-98%) to more than 10 lbs/qq in 2020 (and export quality coffee of 85-90%). The same thing is happening with coffee producer families, in the 1990s with 18 to 19 buckets of raw cherry coffee they were able to get a load of coffee (200 lbs of parchment coffee), and in 2020 that load required more than 22 buckets of raw cherry coffee, “My coffee weighs less and less” observe the small producers.
Graph 2 shows us that coffee quality, after jumping between 1990-2000 from 80 to 84 (range of “regional exemplary plus+”), thanks to the differentiating actions of cooperatives within the fair trade framework (Mendoza et al, 2012; Mendoza, 2012), has been systematically dropping, finding ourselves now in “specialty coffees” with scores of 82, 81 and 80. Organizations that are looking for quality coffee are going find it with difficulty: a score of 84 you will find in no more than 15% of total coffee, the rest is “commercial coffee” with scores below 82.
Table 1. Evolution of coffee production, Central American countries (in 1,000 sacks of 60 kg)
So while markets are increasing their demand for quality coffee, because the societies´ tastes are improving and differentiating, and countries like Colombia; and Costa Rica are out ahead responding to these international and national demands, and Honduras is taking huge steps in production volume, quality, organization and branding, Nicaragua is being overlooking and is losing terrain (See Table 1 that compares the production volume among Central American countries from 1990/1 to 2018/9: Costa Rica, El Salvador and Panama are going down; Guatemala is maintaining their levels; Nicaragua is growing and Honduras is unstoppable). Even though we are paying attention to volume, let us focus on our question: What is causing this systematic drop in coffee yield and quality in Nicaragua?
2. Elements that are affecting this quality and yield
These healthy or broken beans, with good favor or undrinkable, are determined by human actions in the space of farms, wet mills (pulper, washing and drying) and dry mills (drying, hulling reprocessing and selection). After looking at Graphs 1 and 2, what are their causes? The three responses commonly heard are: there is a scarcity of labor, and therefore the coffee ferments on the plant itself; that producer organizations increasingly are buying poor quality coffee from intermediaries and non-members, which is why their own members become disillusioned with their organizations, and have quit producing quality coffee; and that the State, in contrast to Colombia, Costa Rica and Honduras, is not investing in coffee growing, nor in positioning the country internationally.
These three responses have some basis. In this section we will focus on two elements of the context, climate change and lack of liquidity/resources, and within this framework, coffee growing culture and the dry milling process.
2.1 Climate variability
Climate variation, combined with farm neglect, affect coffee quality and yields. We provide three elements that illustrate this fact. The first, in 2012 this combination of factors contributed to the fact that coffee rust and anthracnose wiped out a good part of the coffee (Mendoza, 2013; Brenes et al, 2016), particularly the varieties of caturra, maragogipe and bourbon –varieties of the arabica species. Caturra constituted more than 60% of the coffee in the country, considered to be a high- quality variety. As a consequence, caturra coffee plants were replaced by catimor plants; catimor is more resistant to rust, has the potential for producing larger volumes, but has a modest contribution to coffee quality. Catimor today represents more than 60% of the total coffee in the country.
The second element, mold and coffee with phenol. One hears more frequently that coffee has “severe mold” and even “phenol”. The mold is from over fermentation, be that on the plant itself, or because the pulped and washed coffee was not immediately dried, which in turn is due to rain, heat, or lack of coffee pickers. The phenol is the change in the chemical composition within the bean as an effect of drought and heat in the coffee plants, as well as the storage of wet coffee; coffee in humid environments gets dampened, generating fungi that produce the taste of mold and phenol. Generally, when cupped these coffees are classified as “undrinkable”.
Finally, withered beans, beans that even though red, have a ripe side and another speckled side; small beans also are an effect of climate change. In the last 3 cycles coffee has been observed that had a good appearance, but had small hair or fuzz that was left on the bean, which is due to lack of water. These types of affected beans are on the increase, made worse in the 2019/20 cycle due to the fact that during 2019 there were droughts of up to 30º C, and very hot early mornings, which caused uneven and misshapen maturation. If between September and October it either rained a lot, or it did not rain at all, that affected the ripening of the coffee, which, no matter how good a job is done in the wet mill, will result in insect damaged and spoiled beans. All this has affected the coffee yield and quality. Table 2 summarizes the physical defects of the beans and their possible causes
Table 2. Coffee defects and their causes
Physical defects of coffee
Beans with brown or black coloring
Lack of water during the development of the fruit
Misshapen and wrinkled beans
Poor development of the plant due to drought or lack of nutrients
Beans with small and dark perforations
Attack by insects (coffee berry borer or weevil)
Scarcity of resources
Yellow colored bean
Problem of soil nutrients
Management of farm and wet mill
Over ripened raw cherries picked up from ground
Poorly calibrated pulper
Beans with changes in its normal coloration
Prolonged storage and poor storage conditions
Beans with intense yellow caramel or reddish coloring
Delay between picking and pulping
Silverskin, can tend toward reddish brown coloring
Dirty fermentation tank, use of contaminated water, overheating, storage of wet coffee.
Management of dry milling
Flat bean with partial fractures
Coffee walked on during drying process; hulling of wet coffee
Added to this adverse environment is the so called “suffocating embrace”, which is a harmful embrace that is asphyxiating the peasantry. With the “left arm”, coffee prices go up and down, like milk when boiled, but seen over a 100 year period producer prices are decreasing in terms of the final value of coffee (Mendoza y Bastiaensen, 2003; Mendoza 2013); and with the “right arm”, the prices of farm inputs are systematically rising. So, this “big embrace”, the price of coffee dropping and the prices of inputs and capital rising, is suffocating producer families. If costs of production surpass $100/quintal, and the price of coffee drop to close or equal to $100, it is difficult for coffee to receive its 3 fertilizations, 2 moments for shade management, weeding and 4 leaf sprays a year. If the application of inputs drops, that not only affects the volume of coffee, but also increases the rate of imperfect beans, and lowers the cupping score – for example, it is difficult for a bean with little fertilization to ripen properly. In addition, the catimor variety, that has more potential in terms of production volume, also is more demanding in terms of fertilizers – what has a greater yield, eats and drinks more.
This “embrace” was more suffocating in the last two years (2018 and 2019). In the 2018/19 cycle coffee prices dropped to $98 in September 2018, and to $100 in December 2018, while prices for agro-chemicals rose by 30%, as a result of the new tax policy in the country starting February 28, 2019. In addition, due to the political crisis of the country, financial institutions (formal banks and micro-finance organizations) decided not to provide credit, except for Aldea Global, that instead expanded their rural credit portfolio and geographic coverage; due to that same crisis, international coffee buyers signed fewer purchase contracts, contracts that tend to allow cooperatives to get loans from the social banking sector. In other words, producer families did not have resources, which is why they applied little or no chemical or organic inputs. The effects of this are expressed now in the 2019/20 cycle in higher rates of imperfections and lower coffee quality.
Organizations are also experiencing another type of “embrace”. With the “left arm” they feel international pressure for better coffee quality, and with the “right arm” the parchment coffee (APO) that they receive from the producers is of lower quality. Between 1996 and 2010 it was just the reverse, the demand for quality coffee was less, and the producer families were providing better quality coffee, which is why it was relatively simple to sell large volumes of coffee. They were the times when the international perception of the quality of coffee in Nicaragua was good; that perception changed over the last 8 years, the coffee quality of the country is in question, correspondingly buyers are diverting their paths to other countries.
2.3 Coffee management on the farm
Even though climate change and the scarcity of resources through the “suffocating embrace” are having an impact on coffee yield and quality, coffee growing families also are experiencing structural changes within themselves. Producer families who established their coffee farms and other crops starting in 1990, after the “big war”, are getting beyond 60 years of age, which is why part of their offspring are taking on farms now divided up through inheritance.
This transition from one generation to another is facing challenges. First, farming is less diversified, it is more specialized in coffee or cattle or vegetables. This means that, in the case of coffee, families receive income practically only once a year. Secondly, a good number of the generation that are taking over farms now, inherited that culture of “coffee growers”, with the difference that now they only have 2 or 4 manzanas of coffee, and many times those manzanas are affected by rust and anthracnose. Third, with the end to the agricultural frontier, crop rotation with uncultivated areas is reduced, and with that, land has lost fertility (“it is tired”); the low application of inputs is only able to maintain production volumes, which is why the farm is less profitable for them. Fourth, the work culture “from sunup to sundown” of the older generations has ended, the new generation that grew up under the belief that “a pencil weighs less than a machete” mostly works only in the morning; and many times, erroneously interpreting what it means to be “coffee growers”, only want to “be in charge”. With only 2 mzs of coffee!
Consequently, that generation in transition that feels itself to be “coffee growers”, lack income in the months from March to October, in a context of climate changes and under the “big embrace”, have not been careful with their farms: i.e. take care to regulate their pulpers, not pulp too early nor wash too late, but respect the fact that coffee needs 12 hours of fermentation, calibrate the pulper depending on the coffee variety, being watchful over the drying…In a parallel fashion, the communities where they live seem to have lost that social warmth that encouraged them to cooperate, now they have less or nothing in their gardens (“my Mom´s green thumb”), and nearly work only on coffee, so have less reasons to exchange…The absence of that social cushion seems to put a damper on their economic life.
2.4 Coffee management in the dry mill
The dry mills receive the coffee that is the fruit of the effort of those producer families who find themselves economically, socially and environmentally asphyxiated. That is why this coffee comes in the form of shell beans, broken beans, with strident flavors, insect damaged, moldy, or healthy, clean beans with acidity and great flavor and aroma…In the dry mill they can take some actions to improve that coffee, even though their possibilities for maneuvering are reduced.
They cannot reduce the imperfection rate, they measure it, and can reprocess the coffee to achieve a certain level of quality, and with a certain number of defects that the markets demand. Likewise with the mold, even severe mold can be removed in drying with the sun; in the case that they are not able to get rid of that mold, they separate that coffee so that it does not affect the rest of the coffee, and sell it separately. They can manage it in micro-lots and have more control over its defects, mix varieties and improve something of its quality; but nothing more. They can also keep the yield from dropping too much, if they avoid trails of coffee on broken plastic or loss of beans from moving coffee from one place to another.
They can do that, if the dry mill is managed honestly, transparently and with access to the right technology. It is common to hear workers of the dry mills say that “they switched out the coffee” of such and such cooperative, or such and such members, that “the coffee got mold in the truck because there was no patio space to unload it”; or hear managers say that “they reprocessed it twice” without the owners of the coffee being present to know if they really did “reprocess it”, and whether they did it because it was necessary, or only to earn $2 or 3 per quintal, or that the “yield was 235 lbs for 100lbs” without there being proof of the weight, and control over the movement of the coffee in the reception area to the patio, to the warehouse, to the huller, to the sack…In many cases, those rumors are unfounded, but as the saying goes, “where there is smoke there is fire.”
Also from an external perspective, it is heard that buyers are looking for scores of 84, and in the dry mill, on not finding coffee from anywhere with that score, and on not being able to improve coffee quality based on re-processing the coffee with less than 5 defects, “they send coffee with a score of 82 saying that it is 84”. This might work once, in the short term, but in the medium and long term these practices of deceit undermine good relationships with buyers.
Even when the dry mill is managed honestly and transparently, they can incur in deficient management and neglect the importance of being committed to coffee quality. They could order containers of coffee with 11 defects, and that in the end they are prepared with 10 defects. It could be that a lot of coffee is classified as second quality, because it has fermented beans or some other damage, but that it is recoverable as first quality coffee with timely cupping, preparing the coffee with a smaller number of defects and working on it with different preparations. These errors can be due to the fact that there was a change in personnel, and this new staff did not have enough training and coordination to be watchful over the coffee drying; or it could be due to inefficient organization, top-down with office managers, which limits the responsibility of each person and makes them dependent on doing work that only is directed from above. A form of vertical organization that takes agency away from the people doing the work digs its own grave. If dry mills only bet on volume, not quality, they mix coffee indiscriminately, not guided by the cupping scores, even worse if the container to be sold is commercial grade 79, 80 and 81. They even store coffee with different weights, without controlling the coffee yield [resulting from the milling process]
The management in the dry mills also has to do with technology. The drying is done by the sun and hundreds of people, mostly women, under an unforgiving sun. Given that workers´ pay is low, we assume that they are not thinking about coffee quality, but about that sun and the time when the day will end. The consequence of that type of drying is that the beans end up uneven and over-dried. Also, most of the dry mills work with old processing equipment (huller, densimeters, vibrating bean separators, elevators, mechanical driers and electronic bean selectors), or new equipment from cheap brands, instead of the latest generation in quality and technology.
Concluding this section, the causes of coffee yield and quality are found throughout the chain, from the farm to its roasting. A family can pick just the red beans, and even so lose quality for not drying it quickly enough, or because of lack of space in the dry mill, it is left wet for two days. Several actors can make the effort to achieve good coffee, but the increase in temperature and drought can affect the coffee plants. You can have quality coffee, and even so damage it when the appropriate technology is missing – the latest generation. The quality is changed, not from one month to another, but in terms of years and decades. Coffee, and farming itself, is a long- term art, and involves several hands and minds.
3. Governing coffee
In the years between 1990 to 2000, it was the cooperatives who took on the leadership in improving coffee quality in the country; they did it in a context of relative peace, slight impact of climate change, and more than anything inspired by the fair trade movement. Today the context is different, climate change has worsened, the generational transition has not found its way and the fair trade movement lost strength and became bureaucratized, even so, cooperatives and associations can promote the improvement of coffee quality again. How? Figure 1 shows the importance of combining a coffee farming culture with an alliance for a quality cup and principles of well-being, and processing that adds value. These three mechanisms, mediated through coordination in learning, can make a difference. These are not proposals that are pulled from the sleeve of some magician, nor just the result of data analysis and literature, they come from observing and experiencing in the field this combination that the figure expresses as the pathway.
The first pillar, differentiating action on the part of producer families. That they renovate and repopulate their coffee fields, and scale up in their treatment of coffee processing. They can recover varieties of arabica coffee with high quality potential, and grow them under agro-forestry systems, adapting their management in accordance with their variety. A problem with catimor, for example, is when the producer gives it the same treatment that he gives a native variety; catimor should be picked when it is red (not speckled nor green), providing it more fermentation time than the caturra variety. To feed the soil (fertilize it), the chemical or organic input should be based on the formula resulting from the soil analysis. For the producer family to get those inputs, it must have in-kind credit under arrangements with input companies that lower their prices by volume purchasing, which is what Aldea Global does, and it works. They can experiment with coffee processing (wet milling); for example, so as to not mix qualities in the pulping stage, they can have a water tank that serves as a separator of floater of green, empty or poorly formed beans; or manage the fermentation by coffee varieties.. This requires a new culture of being coffee producers, who are motivated by a spirit of studying their realities (farms, families and communities), observing them, investigating new information, recording data, analyzing it, being guided by soil analyses and climate forecasts to manage their farms; all this is more possible with the current generation, which has higher levels of formal education, and makes more use of the internet.
The second pillar, the construction of direct connections between buyers and groups of producer families, based on quality cupping scores and principles. In terms of quality, each producer turns in coffee individually, and the dry mill can manage it by group and lots, register the information and have the coffee cupped by farm, so that buyers are guided by the cupping score; a family receives payment/price based on the quality of their coffee. It is assumed that they will invest more to improve the quality of their coffee even more.
In terms of principles, Aldea Global has developed a procedure and mechanisms for providing incentives for good agricultural practices, which can inspire other organizations in the country. What does Aldea Global do? It provides awards for compliance with principles, like having an orderly farm, not using prohibited chemicals, paying laborers in compliance with the labor regulations in the country, management of honey waters, protection and conservation of nature, environmentally friendly practices, recycling containers. These awards depend on the score that each member achieves; producers with a score of 70% have access to “x” amount of award per quintal; those that achieve 80% a bigger award, those with 90% an even bigger award, and those who achieve 100% get the “big” prize.
There can be producers who might receive a good price because of their cupping score, and not receive an award, if they get less than 70% in terms of their compliance with the principles. Even though it is more probable that a producer family with more than 70% compliance with principles would have coffee with a cupping score higher than 82. The logic is that complying with the principles is taking care of the farm and the well-being of the family, which is also going to be expressed in coffee quality and in good yields. Consequently, if buyers (national and international) and certifiers visit these producer families, and help them to establish themselves, they will be betting on the quality of family life, which leads to quality coffees in a sustainable and lasting manner.
The third pillar, the organization of the dry mill guided by values of honesty and transparency. To add value to coffee quality, the administration of the dry mill must have a counterweight in an autonomous board of directors with the capacity for supervision, and the owners of the coffee (members, cooperatives or organized groups) must have access to see the patios where their coffee is found, review their labels, be there at the moment of hulling, and review the data registry on the weight of the coffee at reception, on the patio, in the warehouse, before hulling and after hulling. With this three-way relationship of counterweights (administration, board members and owners of the coffee), the dry mill can manage micro-lots of coffee that come from different geographies of the country, and using different types of drying (natural, with honey and washed). This implies coordinating along the entire chain; for example, natural coffee implies picking only the red beans (none green or speckled), raw cherry coffee is transported that same day to the patio for drying, thus keeping the coffee from fermenting. The micro-lots of more than 50qq export coffee can be treated with differentiated qualities and respond to the demand of small roasters in the world. It also implies making use of appropriate technology (latest generation), like an industrial plant that treats coffee from its raw cherry state, thus preventing coffee from losing weight (2-3% in the fermentation and another 2-3% for the 12-13 days of drying) and conserving its quality.
These three elements of improvement are possible if a culture of learning is developed among the different actors around coffee. This is cultivating a spirit of investigating, observing, asking questions, recording information, taking notes, analyzing information and making use of the technology that todays world offers, including technology for massifying soil analyses, so that information flows to producers. The producer family can manage catimor or maragogipe varieties if they learn how to do it in a differentiated way; coffee drying will add value if people know how their actions make a difference…Without awakening the worm of doubt that each one of us has inside us, any work will be boring, and any information will pass under our noses without us noticing; guided by questions and a procedure for organizing and analyzing information, every human person will be mobilized, taking on their task as a mission that is worthwhile carrying out.
Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time, more intelligently. Henry Ford
We began the article with the question about what is happening with coffee quality. That word quality is an aperture to agriculture and our society, it tells us on a small scale what is happening to us. And what is happening? Coffee yields and quality in the country are getting worse. What is the reason? Climate change, prices (of coffee and inputs), neglect of the farms and the not very transparent management of the dry mills, which are concentrated in few hands. The latter can be seen in light of the type of drying-hulling in countries like Guatemala and Colombia, where drying is done on the farms themselves and in grassroots organizations, without the drying and hulling being concentrated in few hands; or in countries like Costa Rica, where an industrial plant processes coffee from its raw cherry state to its hulling, with a positive effect on coffee quality.
In contrast to Colombia, Costa Rica and Honduras itself, Nicaragua has not had a State that invests in coffee growing with a long-term perspective. There has not existed an institute that studies each coffee variety, or that has laboratories for innovating varieties. The State does not regulate the weighing of coffee in commercial trading, and within the dry mills. There are no financial incentives nor human recognition for producing quality coffee. There is a need for a State that would work to position the brand of coffee of the country in the outside world, and that at the same time might work for the population to replace sugar with a good taste for coffee.
But at the same time Nicaragua has more than 30% of coffee producers organized into cooperatives and associations. Among those organizations is Aldea Global, which is committed to the use of technology and information, which it takes to the producers to manage their farms based on soil analysis and climate forecasts. Also, Aldea Global is committed in the long term to improving coffee quality and yields based on technology that would help o control the temperature and humidity of the beans, and based on automated systems with sensors. These elements will guide the technical assistance provided to producer families and in the dry mills.
The fact that yields and quality are dropping is an opportunity, to paraphrase Henry Ford. Of course, Ford himself was surpassed by the Toyota industry, in spite of that, his phrase continues to have value, particularly seen as a society. How can coffee quality be improved “more intelligently”? Organizations (cooperatives, associations and businesses) must join efforts to organize a space for learning around coffee farms in association with other crops. Without investigation-learning, the different actors will be walking in the dark, and the producers, like oxen, will prefer their old yoke and sell coffee to traditional intermediaries, without concern about yields and quality, which means that in the long run the entire country will lose, including the producers themselves. A producer family can fill itself with passion, learn and seek their own vision, if organizations become democratic, transparent, efficient, and if together they organize information supported by technological and informational innovations, like big data and artificial intelligence (machine learning). This type of organization, like Aldea Global, having this learning infrastructure, would be able to accompany the entire coffee chain and other crops.
The old Fordist model continues guiding a good part of the coffee in Latin America, also expressed in its political structure of exclusion and inequality; so it is that we hear that “more volume, more earnings”, which lead us to coffee shops that the story at the beginning of the article talks about. Nicaragua can recover ground and position its quality coffee based on adopting a culture of learning, supported by information management and the latest generation technology. It could be that money might be a limiting factor in this, but like the history of so many innovations teach us, more important is the vision of transforming the countryside, pursuing product quality, pushed by families who are improving their lives. In this way we could hear that “the better the quality, the better our lives” which could include improving our own taste for quality coffee. It is not a matter of “adding money” and having coffee quality, it is a matter of “thinking more and running around less”, as they say in “tiki-taka soccer”.
 Javier, Ivania and Warren are from Aldea Global (https://aglobal.org.ni/), president, vice manger and manager, respectively; René is a consultant to rural organizations and a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (https://peacewinds.org/). Even though most of the authors are from Aldea Global, we maintained objectivity in the analysis, and we added data and experiences of Aldea Global when they were needed.
 According to the 2017 Annual Statistics from the Central Bank of Nicaragua, the average coffee yield in 10 years between 2007 and 2017 was 11.97qq/mz; in the 2018 Annual report, a certain amount of improvement was noted between 2014/5 with 14.7qq/mz, and in the following two cycles 2015/16 and 2016/17 with 16.5qq/mz. We still do not have data for the last two cycles (2017/18 and 2018/19). For a study on the decade of the 1980s, see José L. Rocha, 2003, “Revolution in Nicaraguan Coffee Growing” in: Anuario de Estudios Centroamericanos. San José: Universidad de Costa Rica 29 (1-2).
 Both graphs are based on information from several coffee buyer organizations, and on data that we have followed since the 1990s, seer: R. Mendoza, 2003, La paradoja del café: el gran negocio mundial y la gran crisis campesina. Managua: Nitlapan-UCA; R. Mendoza, 2013, Gatekeeping and the struggle over development in the Nicaraguan Segovias, PhD thesis, University of Antwerp..
 According to the International Coffee Organization (ICO), in 2018 Honduras was the seventh largest coffee producer and exporter in the world. In the last 10 years it has become the largest producer in Central America; in Latin America it is behind Brazil and Colombia. While the weight of coffee in farm production value dropped in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Panama, in the case of Honduras it increased between 1980 and 2011 (G.C. Brenes, C. Soto, P. Ocampo, J. Rivera, A. Navarro, G.M. Guatemala y S. Villanueva, 2016, La situación y tendencias de la producción de café en América Latina y el Caribe. San José: IICA y CIATEJ).
 In terms of the effect of coffee rust and anthracnose in the region, Nicaragua was the country most affected; the neighboring country, Honduras was not much affected at all (See: Brenes et al, 2016).
 R. Mendoza y J. Bastiaensen, 2003, “Fair trade and the coffee crisis in the Nicaraguan Segovias. In: Small Enterprise Development, Vol. 14.2.
 If we add other costs to this, like labor, the situation is even more “asphyxiating.” Note that even though the price for a bucket of picked coffee is the lowest in Central America, the fact that a load of coffee (200 lbs of parchment coffee) that required 19 buckets prior to 2016, currently requires more than 22 buckets; this means that the producer families are paying for an additional 3 buckets, which increases the cost of production, which does not necessarily benefit the workers.
 Aldea Global supports agro-forestry systems: 1,320 of its members are implementing it in 1500 mzs. There are also other organizations in the country that support these system; what is unique about Aldea Global is that they do it with the purposeof producer families improving their coffee quality.
 These experiments include testing the form of management common in Costa Rica, of receiving raw cherry coffee, and in a mechanized way, separating ripe beans from speckled and green ones, and then passing the uniform ripe beans directly from the pulper to the mechanical drier, eliminating fermentation. Ivan Petrich (2018, “Fermentación: Qué es & Cómo Mejora la Calidad del Café”, https://www.perfectdailygrind.com/2018/07/fermentacion-que-es-como-mejora-la-calidad-del-cafe/) explains the advantages of aerobic and anaerobic fermentation for coffee quality.
 For people of any age, but particularly young women and men, we have a guide to help them become students of their realities. See: René Mendoza, 2019, Jovenes y la oportunidad de construir puentes hacia el futuro. Una Guía para investigar e innovar. Managua: Nitlapan-UCA. It is also available at: www.coserpross.org . Aldea Global has information on more than 12 members with whom it works, information that anyone can access.
 Aldea Global is the only organization in Nicaragua that, starting in March 2020 will have their own first version of their app, to pilot providing personalized technical assistance by cell phone to 150 producers. The biggest challenge in this will not be providing that information, but using it. The app is a software progran that those 150 people will Access through their cell phones.
 A 2019 film “Ford vs Ferrari”, directed by James Mangold and written by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, shows the change that Henry Ford II underwent in the competition with Ferrari. That precise moment of change: not just producing quantities of vehicles but winning competitions, illustrates the spirit we are seeking.
 Style of Barcelona where they pass between one another while opposing team wears itself out running after the ball, and when an opening appears, attack the goal.
René Mendoza, Fabiola Zeledón, Elix Meneces, Hulda and Eliseo Miranda
Up until 2010 we buyers who were looking for quality coffee, we first would come to Nicaragua. After 2010 we no longer did, first we go to Costa Rica, then Honduras … (Coffee buyer).
In the 60s and 70s tons of people came to Nicaragua from El Salvador and Honduras looking for work, now we are the ones who go to those countries, looking for work. (Flavio Cardoza, producer).
In the dry coffee mills imperfect coffee reached double digits in this 2019/20 cycle: 10%…15%; black beans, faded, chipped, full black beans, insect damaged beans…The fungus moved from “slight” to “severe” and smelled like fish. On the farms of producer families instead of doing “three passes” (three passes of picking red and almost ripe coffee during the coffee season within 2 months), they saw themselves forced to do only two, and even only one pass, because of lack of pickers (labor), while they neglected to regulate their coffee pulper which resulted in those broken and chipped beans. What makes the coffee quality and its production drop? In this brief article we list 4 basic elements on coffee farms in Madriz, Nueva Segovia and Matagalpa, and at the end we offer some suggestions.
What affects coffee production and quality
The literature is full of technical reasons. We list what we observed in this 2019/20 cycle, and what producer families commonly say, based on their own observations, as well as the staff in the dry mill.
Figure 1 shows two scarce resources and two limiting structures, which have a high impact on coffee volume and quality.
A first element is the reduction in nutrients for the coffee plants. In the 2018/19 cycle, the prices for coffee were low. In September 2018 it dropped to $98, and in December 2018 it was at $100, while the prices for agrochemicals rose, as a result of the new tax policy in the country. Not only that, but the financial institutions implemented a policy of loan restructuring without providing new loans. In other words, producer families saw their resources dry up, which is why they applied little or no agrochemical or organic inputs. This had a repercussion on coffee quality, which was seen in the current 2019/20 cycle, precisely when prices went up, reaching $123 on December 16, 2019. Consequently, producer families thinking was “I am going to receive now the same thousand córdobas as last year; this season money is tight, in spite of the fact that prices are better than in the last cycle.”
A second element refers to the scarcity of labor. Pickers are going to coffee fields in Costa Rica and Honduras. Their argument: “They pay us better there, in addition we pick more than we do here.” Isn´t it the same coffee? Yes and no. Most of the coffee of Costa Rica is sold as specialty coffee at better prices; while Honduras has passed Nicaragua in production volume. Both countries have greater productivity, even though in Honduras it is due more to increase in area. This means that the person who picks coffee on small farms in Nicaragua, picks less in a day because the farms have less production; in addition, the price paid “per lata” is low, and varies between 30 to 50 córdobas, plus food, per lata. “It doesn´t work for us,” the pickers complain. Producer families argue that they would prefer to pay all in cash (without food), but the pickers want food, and many of them pick very little, and by midday are already out of the fields and asking for their 3 meals. This situation means pickers are scarce, the consequence of this is that the coffee is not picked on time, with a corresponding loss in volume and quality.
A third element is the mentality of believing themselves to be coffee growers in mono-cropping systems. The producer families who established their farms with coffee and other crops, starting in 1990, after the “big war”, are now getting beyond 60 years of age, which is why their offspring have been taking over farms already “cut up into pieces” through inheritance. Given that in the last 15 years families have become dependent on coffee as a mono-crop, a good number of these offspring, as new family units, inherited also this culture of feeling themselves to be “coffee producers” with 2 to 4 mzs of coffee, which at the most produces 10qq export coffee per manzana, which is why they lost the culture of working “from sunup to sundown” in taking care of the farm, and no longer go out to pick coffee on other farms. Their problem is that they inherited coffee fields affected by coffee rust and anthracnose, which they have to replant now on land which is more worn out (low fertility). Consequently, that combination of feeling themselves to be “coffee producers” and at the same time not having income in the months between March and October has them “underwater” in financial and marriage crises, which is why the children are growing up without Fathers, while they neglect their farms, the regulation of their coffee pulpers, drying, diversification…
The last element is the variation in the climate. Rains were expected for December, which help the grain thicken and ripen; but it did not rain, rather the temperature increased, which is why a good part of the flowering period was lost and the coffee with little liquid did not thicken. The beans that were able to thicken did not reach their optimum level. Many beans, on being picked, pulped and washed, looked as if they had been dried for 6 days. The rains that started on January 10th were not expected, were unnecessary, their prolongation for more than 10 days damaged the roads, reduced the time for picking the coffee, and made it difficult to transport the coffee, and hindered the sun drying process.
The combination of these elements has the power of undermining plans and commitments, and above all, making the families depressed before the harvest ends.
Recovering coffee, the farm, the community
Figure 2 lists the ideas that lead us to confront the 4 elements that affect coffee volume and quality.
Some people from that generation that is now passing 60 years of age are still a good reference point. “My Dad gets up at 4am, drinks his coffee and goes out to work the farm; if in the morning he goes to town to do some task, and returns at 4pm, he still goes to the farm.” (Rebeca Espinoza, Samarkanda). If we add to that culture of dedication to work, youth dedicated to studying their realities and innovating, the families could save resources and invest them, doing their numbers, producing fertile land that would provide them product volume and quality.
If that combination responds to a long term perspective, one that avoids “cutting property into pieces” and children growing up without Fathers, and is committed to the diversification of the farm and processing what they produce, these families could mobilize their members for activities like coffee picking on their own and their neighbor´s farm, and would attract workers from other places.
If we cultivated that work and study culture under a long term perspective, in a space of renovated cooperatives, the members of both sexes and different ages from the same community could cooperate better, and improve their collective actions, like transporting, drying and milling their coffee in their own community, selling any of their products, producing their own farm inputs, protecting and saving water, or preventing domestic violence.
Recovering the coffee quality that we achieved between 1996 and 2005, which the buyer refers to at the beginning of this text, is a challenge. Getting our people to stay in the country picking coffee, which Flavio observed in hindsight, is another challenge.
Both challenges are not achieved with the hundred year old ideas of the elites: “More inputs, more production”, “better price, more quality”, “investing only in coffee to buy the food for the year”, “the more members there are, the better the cooperative”, “farming is something men do”. The consequences of this cookbook, sadly reproduced by most of the farm cooperatives today, are destroyed families and farms, degraded environment, and the advance of elites expelling the peasantry from their communities.
Addressing those two challenges is possible with families that change as people, as they build a new type of cooperative, one in which families cooperate with one another to generate new technologies, organize and analyze new information, and add value to the coffee and a dozen agricultural products.
 The authors are part of a network that facilitates the training of cooperatives governed by their members.
 Lata refers to old cooking oil cans that were used to measure picked coffee beans for paying workers. The term is still used, although the measuring is now mostly done with 5-gallon plastic buckets.
The revolution and the agrarian reform came, people knew the word and their eyes were opened, many organized into cooperatives and received land, seed and technology, and they said “we are in power.” Within years they sold the land and forgot even the word. They received it, and lost it.
A woman received a cow and in months paid for it with a calf, which was given to another family. She understood that the cow pays for itself, she felt that she paid back, and made an effort along with other families. Paying back is improving.
(Based on a conversation with Gregorio Solórzano, Municipality of Cinco Pinos, Chinandega, Nicaragua)
This parable recalls the historic rules of indigenous and peasant communities. If the action of “giving” is connected with “paying back”, like the woman with the cow and the calf, their lives improve. While “receiving” unilaterally, without “paying back” to the community, creates a false world (“we are in power”) where people are left worse off (“without land and power”). The paradox is that “paying back” is not losing, it is gaining: it makes the person “make an effort” within a collective framework and community space.
That collective framework constitutes the paradoxical difference. In the case of the woman who received a cow and paid back with a calf, an arrangement (agreement, rule) underlies which she fulfills, an arrangement that is connected to a virtuous millennial indigenous institution, “giving-receiving-paying back”. In the case of the beneficiaries of land on the part of the government, a damaging arrangement underlies it, subordinating oneself and depending on the government, something that leads them to be connected to another historical institution, this time a counterproductive institution, “easy come, easy go”; people lose and the government loses. The gaze of the woman is toward the community, while the gaze of the people in the cooperative is directed outside the community.
Giving-receiving-paying back is growing in collective spaces mediated by rules that are connected with virtuous endogenous institutions of the people themselves. Within this framework, how can distributing (“paying back”) in the cooperatives be the key for growing with equity? Perhaps diminishing is growing?
In this article we study these questions in light of the cooperatives, even though it can be generalized to associations, associative enterprises or NGOS with initiatives under the framework of the social and solidarity economy. We start conceptualizing distribution as a different idea from the neoliberal economy, where the market is the great distributer. Then we look at five ways for the distribution of surpluses: legal reserve, cooperative reinvestment, social-educational fund, direct resources to members, and retribution by way of a member´s rights. Then we work on how to carry them out. We conclude reconceptualizing equitable distribution as a cooperative concept and one from the social and solidarity economy, that goes along with the democratization of cooperatives, and connected to endogenous institutions of the peasantry.
1. Distribution rules and policies
In capitalism “the invisible hand” attracts resources and distributes them with inequality, in dependence on the financial power of the actors, their connections, the support of the State for elites (e.g the policy of low taxes for mono-cropping enterprises), and guided by the rule “even the monkey dances for money”. The mediation network captures the resources and returns them as money that buys new products (and labor), mediated by institutions that worsen that inequality: usury, future purchases (crop lien system) and indebtedness. The capitalist, be it merchant, banker or industrialist, is the absolute owner of the surplus.
Polanyi (1976), in an anthropological study, worked on the idea of reciprocity, distribution and interchange. For the topic that concerns us he says: “distribution designates the movements of ownership toward a center and then toward the exterior”, and added, “distribution depends on the presence to some extent of centrality in the grouping”” (1976:7). Santana (2014: 91), rereading Polanyi, indicates that “what is unique here is that there must be trust and loyalty to be able to group the assets in that centrality, knowing that later it is going to be returned in an equitable way.” Let us reread both authors: resources come toward a center, let us say toward a cooperative (like taxes to the State), from there is “goes outside” of the cooperative, to the members in an equitable way. For those “movements of ownership” to happen, there has to be “centrality in the grouping”, which is possible if there is “trust and loyalty”. Without trust and loyalty, there is no “movement.” When is there trust and loyalty that takes resources to the cooperatives and makes them be “paid back”? Our argument: there is trust and loyalty when the rules of the cooperative, connected to endogenous virtuous institutions, guide the cooperative from its beginnings with a societal and communitarian perspective. In other words, the cooperative, from and for the communities, is responsible for the distribution with equity.
Cooperatives currently, nevertheless, are formed and achieve a partial “movement”: they attract resources from dozens of their members, but it is difficult for them to “pay back” the surplus and pay them back in an equitable way. There is the challenge. For that reason, there are written rules. What are they?
Cooperatives include in their statutes, following the laws of each country, the distribution of profits. Cooperatives include a percentage (%) for legal reserve, % for the social or educational fund, % for distribution among the members according to their contributions or economic transactions in the cooperative – note that improvement in the price of the raw materials is not mentioned as “distribution of surplus”, because it is not, the surplus is calculated after the annual financial year. This is consistent with the principles of historic cooperativism: among the Rochdale principles of 1844 is the “payback of surplus”, then in 1966 the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) reformed those principles and replaced it with “the surplus belong to the members”, and finally in another reform in 1995 the ICA said “the economic participation of the members”; in all of them the spirit of the distribution of surplus is maintained. These rules can be connected to the virtuous institutions of agrarian societies, giving-receiving-paying back, the gift that Mauss (1979) described.
Consistent with this cooperative and communitarian principle, the International Fair Trade Movement (FLO), begun in the 1980s and 1990s, in their policy of offering better prices to products coming from families that are organized, included a “fair trade premium”, which in the case of coffee, for example, is US$0.20/lb., a fund so that the members of a cooperative might decide to use it in educational, health projects, and farm improvements or investment in processing installations. Other buyers tend to include also a “cooperative premium”, a fund that the members might decide to use for collective investments that would benefit everyone.
In addition to rules, cooperatives have mechanisms for complying with them. They have their oversight board, the assembly, the education committee, there is also the administration with accounting that issues financial reports. In some countries the State has a role of comptroller of the cooperatives. The international fair trade organizations include their FLO certifier that audits the use of the Fair Trade premium and the democratic processes of the cooperative; social banks require financial statements and balance statements; aid agencies ask for audited reports and evaluate the projects that they finance, and in some exceptional cases withdraw their support when the cooperative fails to fulfill their rules for equitable distribution; likewise some companies that buy coffee or cacao.
Having gotten to this point, what do we observe? In spite of having rules and mechanisms for distribution, it is rare the cooperative whose members participate in the decisions on the use of the social fund, reinvestment fund, or on the cooperative premium; it is rare the cooperative that is transparent with its members on the use of these funds; and it is rate the international aid agency or buyer who ensures this transparency, and that the surplus be distributed. In other words, the rules of the cooperative and the organizations are systematically not met; consequently, there is no confidence nor loyalty, which is why the “movement” is in only one direction: the resources from the members go to the cooperative and then to the companies (fair trade, direct trade, or independents), who do not “pay back” the surplus to the members. The rules of the cooperative and the organizations do not end up connecting to the virtuous endogenous rules.
2. What opposes the distribution of the surplus
Even having rules and mechanisms, why do cooperatives not distribute their surplus? It seems a matter of adding and subtracting, of knowing rules, signing and complying with agreements; it is not a technocratic matter, that a “scholarly” person might resolve; it implies adding and subtracting, showing the strength of the old anti-cooperative model, and of perceiving their own attitudes. Here we start with three interconnected responses, of the several that exist. See Figure 1.
First, the “business foot” of the cooperative, and organizations-international enterprises coincide in the fact that the business (sale-purchase of the product, disbursement-payment of the loan and execution of the project) works, not so much that the cooperative works.
They are content with the protocol, written and legal proof about the functioning of the cooperatives, proof that the elites of the cooperative learn to quickly fabricate: minutes that prove that the organs meet, audits with authorized signatures, financial and narrative reports including registry of data, and even members “trained” to repeat what the organizations want to hear, when some organizations visit. This practice, in turn, is read by the members as something that confirms their ideas that the cooperative does not change at all their way of working and selling their products: “If the organizations says that it is fine, surely it is fine, as we have always worked.” This is the formal structure that covers over the fact that the cooperative does not distribute its surpluses in accordance with its own rules, and the millennial aspiration of indigenous and peasant families.
“The peasant is interested in selling his product, he is not interested in whether there are surpluses”. This phrase presidents and managers of cooperatives repeat, along with buyers and international aid agencies, as well as technicians and boards of NGOs. This phrase underlies century old institutional practices. What are they? It is the institutionalized idea in the hacienda owner or the capitalist, that they have the exclusive rights to surpluses, that the peasantry were born to sell their labor and/or their raw materials. It is the same idea that the peasantry reproduces: “My country ends with my fence of piñuelas”, says the peasant family; “they pay my wage, that is all I ask”, says the working person (field-hand or peon); they never ask themselves about the surplus that their work or their product generates, they take it as given that it is not theirs. That institutionality absorbed the cooperatives and made them forget about the reason for their origins and their rules for distribution, and with that buried even more that indigenous-peasant right to the value that their work creates. So it is that the members demand that they increase the price of their sun-dried coffee, cacao pulp or their sugar cane; in some cases they demand an “adjustment”; “if we got credit as a cooperative so that you pay us a certain price for coffee, and if you paid us as the market price a little less than that set price, then pay us the adjustment”; no one demands their surplus; the presidents and managers behave like the hacienda owner or capitalist. Figure 2 illustrates this institutionality: the worker reaches the wall of their days wage, the peasant their fence of piñuelas, the “business foot” of the cooperative goes as far as the “wall” of the port, and the buyers-roasters-distributors to the sale or even the cafeteria. Each one, and in each wall, seem to follow the rule of “I don´t touch you, and you don´t touch me.”
Second, the organs of the cooperatives are left bound up, because their rules are replaced by others that respond to what Polanyi (2001) called the “market society”, and respond to colonial and patriarchal structures. One of those rules is: “To distribute, first you have to grow.” This rule comes from neoliberalism, that “economic growth is development”, from trickle-down economics: capturing the wealth of the members so that the cooperative might invest and accumulate in the short term, and benefit the members in the long term. This “development” and that “long term” with “benefits”, nevertheless, tends not to arrive; in other words, “they do not pay back”. Consistent with neoliberalism, the cooperatives assume that “distributing decapitalizes the organization” and they embark on the path of the “big headed dwarf”, whose head is large and is made of steel (concentration of physical investments and resources), and whose feet are clay (impoverished members who do not participate in the decisions of their organizations nor rotate offices). In this logic the managerial staff or the president tend to end up feeling themselves to be the true owners of the resources of the cooperative, that it is “their effort”, while the board members tend to abandon the volunteer nature that their offices imply, and seek any gap to take advantage individually, be it through travel allowances, loans on top of loans, or benefitting themselves from the donations that the cooperatives eventually might receive. Also consistent with neoliberalism, the fair trade and direct trade bodies reduce their relations with the cooperatives to just the financial aspect, and treat the cooperatives as just “businesses”.
Distribution, expressed in colonial rules, says to the members: “We always need a patron.” The field-hand depends on the patron, who “provides” for him (future purchase of his labor), like the peasant depends on the trader who “provides” for him (future purchase of his product). For them, this “providing for” is the best “distribution”; they know no other. This is what penetrates into the cooperative where the members confirm naturally that they never had rights to the surplus.
Distribution is also expressed in the heart of the family. There, the patriarchal rule says, “The father decides to leave the inheritance to the eldest son, and that will be carried out when he dies.” That will is conceived as something sacred. The family is an institution that attracts resources because of the family labor of its members, and in the end “pays back” (inherits) in an unequal way, leaving tacit that that older son is going to distribute the inheritance among his brothers and sisters, and what happens? Not always, but generally, that older son takes over the inheritance, or sells it and squanders it. That family institution also penetrates into the cooperative, where many times the person who occupies the presidency or management is seen like that “eldest son”, while the rest of the members are submitted to his will, in spite of the fact that they are the “parents” (owners of the cooperative) of that “eldest son.”
The cooperative, guided under this capitalist, colonial and patriarchal spell, tends to start with enthusiasm and when it capitalizes, the board members or the administrative staff turn into elites, exclude those who question them, and privatize the cooperatives. Thus, W. Berrios, from the CAFOD aid agency, observes, “In my years of work in Central America I have seen that it is in the maturation curve that the cooperatives go broke.” Infrequently they restructure the cooperative into a private enterprise, but many times they make it function as a private enterprise sheltered under the legal status of a cooperative, or under the discursive mantle of the social and solidarity economy. In both cases the members are treated as simple sellers of raw materials.
Finally, there is dovetailing between the mentality of international organizations (buyers, banking institutions, certifiers and aid agencies) and that of the members. The international organizations turn a blind eye to the lack of compliance with the rule of distribution, because, following Streeck (2019), “the policy of distribution only function in nations; in world society there are donations,” global governance “is not democratic”, because “above the nation-state there is only the “international free market”, which consists in large enterprises that are free to do whatever they want.” That mentality leads them to have a mentality of turning a blind eye to distribution, which coincides with the mentality of the members, who have never had access to surpluses, they always saw them as something that belonged to the patron or intermediary, from there it is that the members also turn a blind eye to their right that they be “paid back” (distribute) the surplus. This is what Figure 2 expresses with the walls, “I don´t touch you and you don´t touch me.”
3. Distribution of the surplus (“paying back”)
How can cooperatives unbind this adverse triangle and distribute the surplus? By distribution people tend to fall into two beliefs: that it is “distributing financial surpluses” and that it is “distributing all the surplus to the members.” From here comes the idea that “distributing is decapitalizing.” In this section we break down what equitable distribution of surplus is, expanding the content of the distribution already described in the rules of cooperatives.
Let us start with the attached graph. This illustrates the components of this “paying back” that include collective forms (legal reserve, reinvestment fund and social fund), and the individual forms that the members receive directly (distribution to members and payments when they leave the cooperative). The percentages in the graph are arbitrary estimates, they vary depending on the laws in each country, and the decisions of the cooperatives agreed upon in their statutes.
Note that this graph breaks with the belief that “distributing decapitalizes”: the reinvestment fund refers to the fact that their own fund or their own “capital” grows in accordance with the percentage approved in the cooperative. The assumption in the graph is that exercising distribution in the five ways, combination of collective-community and individual distribution, builds trust and loyalty, which makes the members turn in their products to their organizations in larger amounts and with better quality; from here distribution instead allows the economic transactions of the cooperative to increase, and therefore the entirety of their funds grow; in other words, ”decreasing” (paying back or distributing) is “growing” in resources. The graph also shows the underlying reason for cooperativism, that it is not to accumulate just to accumulate capital, the cooperative is a means, and the members and their communities are the end (final objective). We break down these funds in what follows, including some important remarks.
3.1 Components of collective distribution
Let us describe those funds that are in the statutes, let us clarify and add what they can have which is unique. “Legal reserves” is to cover losses that eventually the cooperative might have during the year in the economic fiscal year; it is a financial cushion that prevents the cooperatives from going broke. In the case that there are no losses, that reserve could swell the investment fund, or, for example, cover legal paperwork expenses, the opening or updating of bank accounts, the legal defense of the cooperative in the face of lawsuits from third parties, the legal defense of the members in cases that affect the cooperative, or to have legal counsel in the face of certain situations or issues.
“Cooperative fund” or “reinvestment fund”, belongs to the cooperative. In addition, some buyers tend to increase the price of the product that they buy with a “cooperative premium” or with an “infrastructure fund”, resources that are added to the funds of the cooperative. These funds are to buy equipment that the cooperative might need, repair or enlarge the infrastructure (building, harvest collection center) of the cooperative, and/or to increase the funds of the cooperative itself, which would increase the loan portfolio, or would pre-finance the payment that the members make on receiving products, while they process and sell them – avoiding the need to seek outside credit.
“Social or educational fund”. It is a fund from the rules of the cooperative itself, and is a fund that increases if the cooperative sells its product through fair trade organizations or buyers that condition a certain amount for a social fund. In general, cooperatives use it to finance some demand of the community school, provide backpacks to the children, provide support to the local sports team, or for trainings that their education committee might organize. Even though these initiatives are praiseworthy, physical investment in the school is the obligation of the State for which society pays taxes. The sports teams are going to function with or without the support of the cooperative, the children will go to school with an old or new backpack. Some innovative cooperatives use that fund under the following criteria: invest in something that generates value for the community, that is not the role of another institution, and doing so as a long-term investment. An example of this is the fact that two or three cooperatives from the same community might invest in libraries for children under 7 years of age, story books that their families might borrow to read to them before going to sleep, promoting reading in the family itself, and that the cooperative might organize reading circles with the support of people who promote reading; the long-term impact of this initiative in the creativity and cooperative spirit of the community can be significant.
3.2 Components of individual distributions
Following graph 1, 50% of the surplus of the cooperative is distributed to its members directly. The criteria for that varies from cooperative to cooperative, and depends on the services that they offer. In some cases, it is in accordance with the contributions of each member. In other cases, it is in accordance with the volume of product transacted with the cooperatives that collect the harvest and sell the product of its members. In other cases, it is in accordance with the quantity of products bought in their cooperative. And in other cases, it depends on the amount saved in their cooperative. There are cooperatives with similar services, and that “pay back” under different criteria; for example, the peasant store Los Encinos in Honduras “pays back” 100% of the amount of the agreed upon contribution, while the Esperanza of the Campesinos Cooperative with several supermarkets, “pays back” based on the amount that each member buys from those supermarkets.
These criteria promote the capacity of each member, and increase their trust in the collectivity that the cooperative is. There are members with more financial capacity and do not necessarily have larger contributions in the cooperative; it depends on the trust that the members have in their cooperative, and on the opportunity cost that each member thinks their resources have. In this sense, the biblical parable of the talents (Mt 25: 14-30) illustrates part of what the cooperative looks to incentivize with direct distribution; in that parable three people receive talents, one 5, another 2 and another 1, “in accordance with their capacity”. After a time, the person who received 5 and the one who received 2 double theirs, and the one who received 1 maintained it. In light of this, the person who gave them the talents rewarded the first two, and took away the only talent from the third, “because he who has, will be given more, and they will have an abundance, but he who does not have, even what they have will be taken away from them.”
From the religious context, this indicates that God gives people talents in order to develop them, which reveals an individual vision, where each person is responsible for duplicating their talents. From the cooperative context, one is “paid back” in proportion to the trust and loyalty of that member, demonstrated by contributions, savings, delivery of product or amount purchased; that “payback” is not taken away from them in the cooperative, in contrast with what happens in the parable of the talents, where each individual responds individually with the talents received; instead, there is cooperation among the members mediated by commonly agreed upon rules, compliance mechanisms and there is accompaniment so that each member might increase their capacities; there is individual responsibility within the framework of collective responsibility.
3.3 Compensating by rights those who resign from the cooperative
Following cooperative statutes, the member who resigns from the cooperative has the right to the return of their extraordinary contributions, and the “reimbursement of social assets” (shareable surplus) within a term generally of 90 days. This “departure” arrangement should be thought of and agreed upon from the beginning when the cooperative is founded, even though it is clear that in the beginning, being immersed in making the cooperative survive, no one thinks about this; it should be done, because it is thinking about the future, and because each member should be clear about their rights from the very beginning.
In our societies the member who resigns from the cooperative tends to leave without recovering, many times, not even their contributions; likewise, those who die, their relatives do not tend to receive any benefit that by rights the family members are due. For some members, having joined a cooperative is even a financial loss. In the case that there are voices that are raised about this, some board members pull out the ghost that “distributing is decapitalizing”.
If the cooperative does not pay the member who resigns, or the relatives of those who die, in accordance with their rules and the rights of each member, the cooperative signals distrust in its own future, and sends an erroneous message that they are not members, that the “cooperative does not belong to its members”, which undermines any sense of ownership of those who stay in the cooperative, and those in the community who observe it. If in contrast, the members fulfill the rights that each members has on leaving the cooperative, that they be paid the part that corresponds to them that the cooperative has at that moment, probably that person will leave with a good amount of resources, and happy for having been a member of a coop. In the short term, this is a hard moment for the cooperative, because it is going to disburse in cash resources what it surely needs; at the same time, each member will see themselves in the person who resigns: in the same way that they treat the person who leaves, they will treat me. If the member joined the cooperative with little, and leaves with a good amount of resources, those who remain will ask themselves: if after the cooperative fails, will we be the most unlucky ones? The doubts will keep them up at night. But in the long term, those who are left are less, which means that they will receive more from the future resources that the cooperative accumulates; more than that, each member, seeing that the one who left took what corresponded to him, will confirm that in truth he is a member of the cooperative, that the cooperative really does belong to him.
Let us talk about numbers to estimate the amount that could be due to a person who resigns. What is the arrangement with the member who leaves? A member who leaves or dies, that person or their relatives have the right to part of the assets or resources that the cooperative has generated. Let us help ourselves with an example. If through the use of the “cooperative fund” or the “reinvestment fund”, extraordinary contributions of $100 per member, and donations that the cooperative received, a cooperative has assets valued at $200,000; if that cooperative had 20 members at its founding 10 years ago; then if one of them resigns from the cooperative, they are due $10,000 (200,000/20 = 10,000). This amount could be paid over a term that the statutes indicate, or, if the cooperative does not have the $10,000 available, they can arrive at friendly arrangements for the time frame for the payment.
The biggest impact of this fact, nevertheless, is not in the financial “payback”, but in the fact that the 19 remaining members, and the rest of the community, confirm that effectively the cooperative does belong to its members. This is the seed of incomparable ownership. This implies greater trust, loyalty and the deployment of individual and collective capacities.
Concluding this section, distribution in the cooperative generates equity, and incentivizes the development of each member. An estimate of 40% of the surplus protect the cooperative from losses, increases their investments or their own capital fund, and contributes to the community with unique investment in education. With an estimated 50% of the surplus, the cooperative incentivizes the development of the capacities of each member, their trust and mutual loyalty. And with an estimated 10% of the surplus, the cooperative ensures the recognition of members who leave the cooperative, far from seeing it as a “financial loss”, they recognize the rights of the cooperative member and with that plant the seed of ownership. This collective and individual outcome is the way in which the cooperative distributes its surplus with equity, which is connected to the virtuous peasant institutions of giving-receiving-paying back, expressed in shared labor, sharecropping, and shared harvesting, among other institutions.
Now that distribution with equity appears obvious, along with its importance. How can it be carried out?
4. How to implement equitable distribution
Inequitable pay back… breaks down the organization
The Spanish, Mexicans and US tried to dominate the Apaches; they failed. The Apaches had the nant’an as their leaders, they were decentralized, operated in circles. Their adversaries, as they did with the Aztecs and the Incas, did away with the
nant’an, but the Apaches did not fall apart, immediately another nant’an would emerge. But one day the North Americans donated cattle to the nant’an; since cattle were scarce, the nant’an had the power to distribute them, so everyone wanted to be nant’an, the egalitarian power structure became hierarchical. The Apaches were defeated.
(Based in Brafman, O. and Beckstrom, R.A., 2007, The spider and the starfish. Barcelona: Empresa Activa).
This historical passage shows us that distribution is more than distribution of surplus. It is important to have holistic egalitarian structures that include equitable rules and mechanisms for carrying them out. Before continuing, we cannot avoid comparing this event of the Apaches with the action of the government in the parable at the beginning of this article; the government in the parable, and the North Americans in this other one, seek to subordinate the cooperative or the Apaches, the first donates land to them, and the second donates cattle, in both cases without “payback”, thus they undermine them before their members, leave them not looking toward their community, which causes the cooperative and the Apaches to fall apart. Militarily the Apaches were indomitable, but a simple donation eroded their entire organization, like termites on wood. How did this happen?
The Apaches lacked equitable rules for the distribution of assets donated to their leaders. The North Americans took advantage of that gap, and donated the asset that was the scarcest, cattle, directly to the nant’an and not to the Apache tribe that surely had their own organization. This practice internally stirred up the Apaches, who fought over being nant’an, for having that connection to the North Americans and accessing the cattle; surely, like the managers or presidents in conventional cooperatives, the nant’an said to their tribe that the “cattle had cost them”, that they should be content with what “trickled down”, that they were their “connections”, and that without them they would all die of hunger -or in other words, the evil of the “big headed dwarf” began to corrode the minds of the nant’an and sow distrust in the rest of the tribe. This process led them to become hierarchical structures, and consequently to collective failure; it is what has also happened to most of the conventional cooperatives.
Cooperatives, in contrast to the Apaches, have rules and mechanisms for equitably distributing the surplus (including donations), but they lack democratic processes in their functioning, which is why they do not comply with their rules for equitable distribution. In many cases the cooperatives were started by the State with donations in land or other assets, undermining them from their own beginnings. International organizations (buyers, financiers and donors) have continued on this same path. Like the North Americans with the Apaches, they only connect with the nant’an of the cooperatives (managers or presidents), and they are not interested in knowing the consequences that their actions provoke. How can cooperatives fulfill their rules and make distribution their most valuable attribute for growing equitably?
This point about the Apaches leads us to understand that a cooperative that distributes its surplus with equity is that which, in addition to having rules for it, is democratic and transparent: See Figure 3.
If the organs, in democratic exercise, ensure the fulfillment of the agreements about equitable distribution, that cooperative will embark at a good port. In the case of the Apaches, their organs operated around resisting militarily, including their food, but they lacked the rules for donations and relationships with external actors. We can imagine that the Apaches, in decentralized groups, hunted animals for food; for which they had their rules and they applied them, but not so that some nant’an individually might receive 10 head of cattle as a gift behind the backs of the tribe, even precisely for their tribe.
This combination (rules-democracy) requires, nevertheless, a third foot: transparency. It is depressing to find members who after contributing for 5, 10 or 15 years do not know how to add up their contributions, and that do not recognize their rights over the surplus. It is not just having democratic economic management coherent with the rules themselves and the rotation of members in the different offices and decision making in the corresponding organs, but informational transparency with the members and with the allies. The idea of transparency or accountability in the cooperative is not being subject to trial, measured and humiliated by “the magic of the numbers”. It is sharing information that in turn forms and commits the members. A member can understand that their surplus might be $30 per qq of coffee that they have delivered to the cooperative, if he is informed about how that surplus was produced; otherwise that person will see that surplus as “an award” or a “favor” of the patron, as his historical rules make him see it. Distributing surplus implies distributing responsibilities (democracy) and information; the way “the legal reserve”, “investment fund” and “social fund”; the expenses and income… were produced and used. This information forms people and commits them: the member, based on transparent information, will want to participate in the definition of the goals for the year for their cooperative, and will want to be part of the implementation of those goals, because he recognize that his individual surplus will increase, that the benefits to his community will improve, that if the cooperative increases its reinvestment, any member who leaves will be able to go with more resources. In addition, if the first tier cooperative is a member of a second tier cooperative, the member also needs to be informed about the second tier cooperative, know how surplus is generated in that organization, and how much is due his cooperative, and how much of that amount is due each member. That explanation can happen in an assembly, in visits to each member family, on whiteboards or through brochures, and on the day of the distribution of surplus, combine festivities and information.
Correspondingly, transparency implies being accountable; for example, it is commendable that the credit record include columns for the amount of credit, amount past due and contributions; it is also commendable that the record include the amount that the member is leaving for “legal reserves”, “social fund” and for the “reinvestment fund”; the first format for the record contains control information for the member, and the second format has the accounting of the cooperative to its members. Being accountable in the assembly about their resources expresses the rights of each member, and it is an obligation of the cooperative that each member know that. From here, if the members are informed about each step of their cooperative, they will be committed to their cooperative, if their cooperative faces difficulties, they will sweat the fear of failing and will row the canoe together even in the midst of the biggest waves.
Equitable distribution is possible within a framework of democracy and transparency. There, being a cooperative member is thinking beyond salary, beyond raw materials and beyond exported product; it is thinking about the entirety of the cooperative, and the entirety of the chain of actors where value is created. In other words, it is breaking down the walls of Figure 2 and understanding that what creates value is the human work of the working person, producer, processer, importer, roaster and seller of the coffee in the stores and coffee shops. It is “I touch you and you touch me”, entering into different worlds. This implies including the international organizations and companies, which goes in the direction of global triangulation that we worked on in several other articles, about an alliance of actors that work for equitable distribution.
You read a book from beginning to end. You lead a business just the opposite way. You start with the end, then you do what you have to in order to achieve it.
Harold Geneen, 1984, Managing. New York: Double-day
At the beginning of the article we asked ourselves how cooperatives can distribute (“pay back”) in order to grow with equity. Equitable distribution in a renovated cooperative is very different from the distribution of the market in the neoliberal economy, which is one unilateral way, from society to businesses and institutions, from which there is no “pay back” beyond what “trickles down”.
In the renovated cooperative, and in alliance with global actors, equitable distribution is illustrated in Figure 4.
It is the distribution of surplus combining the collective (social fund, reinvestment fund, and legal reserves) and the individual (direct distribution to the member for their differentiating actions and payment of what by right is due the member who leaves); it is financial and social distribution. Then, equitable distribution implies that the organization be democratic (rotation of officers, collegial decisions and compliance with the rules). Then equitable distribution implies distributing information under the maxim that the more informed the members are, the better their decisions will be.
This notion of equitable financial, social and political distribution (democratic and transparent), mobilize energies and hearts when it is connected to the endogenous institutions of the members, in our case, the peasantry. Consequently, each member feels part of the cooperative, seeks to know its goals, have an impact on them and commit themselves to fulfilling them.
Finally, when the members and their global allies follow equitable distribution connected to endogenous institutions, that is when they see the entirety of the cooperative and the entirety of the value-added chain with equity. Far away are left the “walls” that separated the worlds. Paraphrasing Harold Geneen, we organize a cooperative from its end, from its equitable distribution to the benefit of the members and their local and global communities. The more that is distributed, the more that it grows.
 René has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation, member of the COSERPROSS cooperative, and associate researcher of the IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium). email@example.com
 Mauss (1979: 204-211), based on a type of distribution known as potlach, practiced in Eskimo societies in the Northwest of the US, finds the triple obligation of the gift culture: giving, receiving and paying back. “You do not have the rights to reject a gift, a potlack, because acting in this way makes clear that you are afraid to have to pay back and be left diminished, it is losing the “importance” of your name, it is declaring oneself beaten in advance, or in some cases proclaiming oneself victor or invincible” (p. 208). Marcel Mauss, 1979, Ensayo sobre los Dones. Motivo y forma de cambio en las sociedades primitivas, en: Sociología y Antropología, Madrid. Note that this identified institution is pretty similar to institutions of indigenous communities in Latin America.
 Polanyi, K., 1976, El sistema económico como proceso institucionalizado, en: Antropología y Economía (ed. Godelier, M.), Barcelona pp. 155-178
 Santana, M.E., 2014, “Reciprocidad y Redistribución en una Economía Solidaria” in: Ars & Humanitas 8/1. Slovenia.
 Surpluses result from deducting costs and expenses of the cooperative, amortization (value for deterioration of fixed assets). In associative organizations the term “profits” is used more, which is pretty similar to “surpluses”. The term “earnings” is different, there could be earnings through a discount if a product is sold above its acquisition price.
 W. Berrios, from the CAFOD aid agency, refers to the fact that some aid agencies linked to churches in Europe tend to withdraw their support for organizations that in theory assume the social and solidarity economy approach, but in practice do not follow it, and that instead become part of conventional mediation.
 Several buyer companies left Fair Trade on realizing that their premium payments were not getting to the member families, so they formed another movement called direct trade, to get around “cooperative mediation”. There are also European enterprises and cooperatives that buy coffee or cacao in Central America and want the cooperative that they work with to distribute their surpluses; correspondingly, some of them avoid the second-tier cooperatives and prefer buying directly from the first-tier cooperatives.
 Polanyi, K., 2001, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Second Edition. Google Books. (First publication in English in 1957).
 See: Jack Stack, 2002, A Stake in the Outcome, New York: Doubleday. Stack, along with other workers, founded an innovative enterprise in the United States. In this book he recounts how they struggled with this issue from the beginning of their company. If they did it as a company, how much more should a cooperative!
I dedicate this article to my daughter Itza Irene and my sons Jaren and Inti Gabriel.
Planting a cooperative
A cooperative was attacked from outside and inside; it went broke. Its administrative council called the last assembly where they provided an accounting of each cent of the cooperative, the motorcycle, the computer, the desks, the portfolio of debts…
Given that their own sons and daughters and other youth from the community formed a new cooperative, the assembly agreed to donate all their resources to them: “We started with 10,000 córdobas and we worked 20 years, receive these 300,000 córdobas and let them serve our community at least 30 times more than us”, they said. Along the paths and creeks the rumor of the people was left etched in the stones: “The president, the Vice President, all left with a clean slate”, “humble and honest they started, humble and honest they left”. And more helpful”, shouted an elderly woman.
The 10,000 or 200,000 was not as important as the humility, honesty and service.
Is this what it means to be a cooperative member? Asked the granddaughter of the president. “In part, daughter, in part”, responded her mother as she gave her a hug.
The graveyard for cooperatives is sizable, larger in some countries than in others, generally because their members forget that the cooperative is a mean for a larger objective, their community. They do not follow their own agreements. Some of their board members “get big heads”, stay in their posts under “death do they part”, and others take over the resources that belong to all the members of the cooperative. In this way the collective effort turns into “damned money” that is served mouth to mouth in bars, and this type of cooperative, like a vine that climbs into the branches of lemon, tangerine and orange trees, choking them off and preventing them from bearing fruit, chokes off the communities where their members come from.
The parable reveals a different prospect, where even death, a good death, can generate life. Sporadically we know how to find some cooperatives that, even going broke, plant the future: they leave good footprints in women and men who were their members. This footprint is like the collective effort of 300,000 córdobas that the cooperative did not split up into pieces, nor let some few appropriate them, as happens with most peasant families who are always dividing up their land into pieces. Those members, in assembly, agreed to give it to the new cooperative that was starting, and committed it to return to the community “30 times more”. Behind this collective effort are values like humility and honesty that guide their steps, and what the cooperative cultivated and the elderly woman observed: service. Behind these values and that sense of service is the vision of a cooperative as a means (instrument) of living communities, that is the horizon in which that inheritance of values and resources become very important, but let us notice, just “partly”, as the mother points out to her daughter.
Those of us who also share these perspectives and support these processes in rural communities tend to be asked by rural families, with some incredulity, why do you come in to support us? What interest do you have in us when not even presidents of cooperatives nor mayors visit us? Even though in our mind it is that “part” of being cooperatives that the stones whisper “along the paths and creeks”, sometimes we have responded recounting the experience of the Catholic Church between 1958 and 1978, within the framework of its social doctrine, that opened the doors of their churches and monasteries and allowed for decades of religious and laity to accompany impoverished families in their communities; that experience allowed believing that God was living in these impoverished families, a seed of service and commitment that has germinated in hundreds of people.. Other times we have responded alluding to the fact that each person has a sense of service, and that each person deploys that service in a thousand ways in the places where they live.
In this article we show the idea of stewardship as a more thought out response to the questions that they tend to ask us. Stewardship is a perspective that gives more meaning to cooperativism and that adds another additional “part” about what the mother saw and the daughter heard in the parable. We do so basing ourselves on something from the indigenous, religious and business traditions, to then conceive of the cooperative as a rooted organization that could take on stewardship in their communities. At the end of the article we re-conceptualize this idea of stewardship as the greatest motor and the most intense light of humanity.
1. Seventh generation thinking
“Now we crown you with the sacred emblem of buck antlers, the emblem of your lordship. Now you will become a mentor of the people of the Five Nations. The thickness of your skin will be seven tranches, in other words you will be a test against anger, offensive actions and criticism. […] Look and listen to the wellbeing of all the people, and always have present in mind not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are still below the surface of the earth, the future nation that has not yet been born.”
(Law of the Iroquois nation written between 1142 and 1500)
A Confederation of five Iroquois nations in the United States wrote their law between the years 1141 and 1500, that started seventh generation thinking. It is a principle of innovative stewardship, conceived and taken on prior to the Spanish colonization in Latin America, and before the British colonization in the United States. The principle suggests that in each deliberation its impact up to the seventh coming generation should be taken into account, that is, thinking about the great-great grandchildren of our great-great grandchildren. In other words, when we deliberate, make decisions and take actions we should ask ourselves: “Where is the seventh generation in these decisions? Where are we going to take that generation? What are they going to have?” Imagine if you were an Iroquois, let us say centuries ago, when the climate was relatively stable, your people were connected to nature, living certainly with conflicts between nations, you had that thought to the seventh generation. Meanwhile now, in the current conditions of climate and degraded nature, we realize clearly that we have abandoned that thinking. In spite of that, this thought challenges and guides us. Correspondingly, the decisions that we make today on the environment, water, energy, social relations between indigenous and non-indigenous people, the relations between women and men, or about the life of the communities, are going to have an impact on the lives of coming generations, up to the seventh, which is a nation of people who have yet to be born. It is a matter of living and working for the benefit of that future seventh generation; that really is thinking long term!
There are two ways of understanding this principle. The first way, if each generation differs from the previous one by 20 years, the seventh generation is in 140 years, which is why we should think about 140 years in our deliberations and decisions: see Figure 1.
The second way is varying the thinking about the seventh generation, and expanding the period in years in which a person is touched (influenced, awoken) in their lives by their great-great grandfather/grandmother, who in turn was touched by their great-great grandfather/grandmother. In other words, we place ourselves in a 360 year period and from there, looking 180 years backward (7 generations) and 180 years forward (7 generations), we can understand our roots and plant our future: see Figure 2.
When from our peasant realities we look at the questions asked within the framework of the seventh generation, they seem very hard. Following the first perspective, most peasant families are reducing their land area by inheritance and the sale of land, this means that the seventh generation will be left without land, and with a relationship divorced from nature, for example. Given the graveyard for cooperatives and those cooperatives taken over by elites, what cooperative are we leaving for the seventh generation?
Following the second perspective, this very reality of the division of land is demonstrated by looking at the 180 years since our mothers/fathers and grandmothers/grandfathers, and so we question ourselves looking at the the next 180 years: How can we stop this dividing up? What are we leaving the great-great grandchildren of our great-great grandchildren? We can respond to these questions in each family and community, or we can respond to them alluding to current issues like climate change, water…we can also see them from the history of our countries with a historical perspective, issues or challenges like peace and indigenous and non-indigenous social relations. For the case of Nicaragua, Oscar René Várgas (1999) argues, based on an event that happened in the XVI Century, more than 400 years ago, that Nicaragua is a prisoner of the syndrome of authoritarianism and disregard for law; Alejandro Bendaña (2019) presents to us the invisibility and margination of women by historians and the guerrilla leaders themselves in the war of Sandino between 1926 and 1934, something that in light of our current realities appears not to have changed. In that 400-year view and 100-year view, it frightens us to confirm that authoritarianism (hierarchical structures) and gender inequality, both accompanied by violence, changed so much as to not change “even a little”. We find the same thing in each country. It would seem that each generation that has gone by has not been able to leave not even a little change that might benefit the seventh generation, it would seem that each generation intensifies those old and harmful institutions.
The notion of stewardship, from the Iroquois indigenous tradition, begins to move us. It makes us think about the change of any “syndrome”.
2. Stewardship in the biblical tradition
The Catholic and Evangelical religions, professed by most of the population in Latin America, have the notion of stewardship in the Bible, which can be understood in two ways. The first way is God as the creator of the earth, where people are his administrators (stewards). Paul explains it this way: “Because we are collaborators with God, and you are the work of God, God´s edifice” (1 Cor 3:9). Stewardship is oikonomos: the person who administers. The second perspective is that people, women and men, are co-creators with God: if previously they had to multiply as the creation of God, in the new testament women and men are co-creators: “Go and make disciples of all peoples” (Mt 28:19).
The first perspective assumes that the patrón (owner) of all is God, and that tends to justify “each one of the verticalisms on earth”, warns the ex-Jesuit priest, Peter Marchetti. Correspondingly, Marchetti continues, “at the level of subjectivity, it is up to the grassroots to begin to work on the concept of God”. The second perspective as “co-creators” is a more horizontal perspective, even though the subordinated relationship of nature to human being persists. Marchetti counsels us: “The challenge is recovering traditional ecological knowledge that existed prior to the idea of God the patrón; the path is emulating traditional knowledge to be able to dismantle the idea of God the patrón.” Correspondingly, the Iroquois seventh generation thinking, for example, is very useful for us, because it comes precisely from prior to the Spanish and English colonization, where we could say that the “patrón” is the seventh generation.
From both sections, our challenge is “working on the subjectivity at the same time as the materiality”. The latter is, for example, the democratization of organizations and their economies, while the subjectivity is working on attitudes. Among these attitudes is dialoguing with the biblical perspectives of God as “creator” (patrón) of everything and humans as co-creators, as well as dialoguing with our great-great grandfathers and grandmothers, and at the same time thinking about the impact of our actions on – or dialoguing with – the great-great grandchildren of our great -great grandchildren. Here are the first brushstrokes about what stewardship is, which combines subjectivity and materiality, begins to dialogue with other perspectives, generations and with the attitude itself to free ourselves from the “patróns”, not matter what they may be. Now let us look at how businesses address and take on stewardship, to later focus on cooperatives.
3. Stewardship in businesses
In the past the church and the military caste dominated the world. 30 years ago the private sector dominated the world. Common interest, the State, education, the church, health care, the army are all read from the perspective of business; for example, each one of these areas or institutions are measured by their efficiency, costs, and their power relationships defined as technical things, that can be resolved through social engineering, through management. It is recognized that businesses create jobs, that they fight against racism, assume actions compatible with environmental sustainability and “social responsibility.” Business people who achieve financial success are admired as true heroes, and are named as directors of health care, education, churches or presidents of countries, like war heroes or religious martyrs used to be venerated, no matter what side they were on.
We identify two perspectives in these enterprises. In the first perspective are most of the large corporations, who prioritize their profits, dividends (% of profits) for their shareholders, while they are desperate to produce wealth today, and satisfy consumer society; this is short term thinking that produces short term results. There are few corporations in the second perspective, they are, for example, investors in pension and insurance funds, businesses that innovate, invest in the formation of their staff and get involved in profitable recycling actions instead of dumping it in spaces of poor countries; they look to develop long term thinking (MacNamara, 2004). Nevertheless, business organizations, like the churches and military structures in past centuries, intensify those millennial authoritarian, patriarchal and hierarchical structures that concentrate wealth and power. It changed so much in order to not change much at all.
Recognizing these hard institutions, and at the same time seeing the potential of companies, Block (2013) proposes the notion of stewardship as
An alternative to leadership. Stewardship asks us to be profoundly responsible for the results of an institution, without forcing the purpose of others to be defined, controlling them or overprotecting the rest. It can be defined more simply as ordering the dispersion of power.
Block defines stewardship as the change in the governance of businesses, that distribute power, privileges and wealth in favor of the people below and people marginalized in the businesses. Stewardship as “alternative to leadership” conceived as hierarchical and patriarchal, that does not subdue nor treat others as “minors” (“overprotected”); more than directing organizations, it is cultivating organizations, more than controlling and deciding for others, it is facilitating so that people might be empowered – controlling is accepting “the dispersion of power”; facilitating is democratizing (ordering) power. Stewardship is seen as an option of action at the service of those with little power and for the common good, it is long term thinking. This is taking care of the wellbeing of the next generation. How can this idea of stewardship be carried out? Block thinks that it is difficult to carry out with the dominant patriarchal leadership of our times, in the service of the short term and being operational with those few who have power.
Block provides the elements that characterize a real stewardship, whose notion we try to draw in Figure 3.
Stewardship has to do with a partnership of working together in democracy, which is opposed to the colonial belief that those above are the only ones responsible for the success of the organization and the wellbeing of the members. It is a matter of empowering each member of the enterprise, where it is assumed that their security and freedom is in their own hands, contrary to depending on those above, believing that they know what the rest of the people need, and contrary to the fact that they treat people as subordinated children. And it is a matter of service, that is committed to their organization and their community without expecting anything in exchange, cares for the common good and creates community, and distributes power and wealth, because it assumes a commitment for something beyond oneself, contrary to looking out for ones own interest at the cost of others.
In this notion of stewardship, of working together, in partnership, empowered and in service, underlies the idea that our life is brief, “we are on borrowed time”, as rural populations say, and our work in any organization or area is even briefer, which is why we want to turn over any task that we have taken on in the past in a more advanced stage. In this sense, let us remember the parable of the talents (Mt 25. 14-30), that we should multiply the talent received; this challenge becomes difficult in the case of peasant families, for whom if that talent was the land that they received from their parents as inheritance, after some 30-40 years that land would have to be more fertile and not “worn out” (less fertile, eroded soils) – something very difficult, while for enterprises, the land conceived as something that produces only based on agrochemicals, it is impossible for them to turn over land in 30 or 40 years with more fertile soils.
Bringing those questions about the seventh generation here, we would say: How can businesses be built in partnership, that empower and are of service to the seventh generation? How can the land be worked so that it might benefit the great-great grandchildren of our great-great grandchildren? If the land is the mother of any product and any life, can businesses be built of any size with long term thinking, which would be watchful over its social and environmental impact and the elements of stewardship that Block advocates? Paraphrasing Jesus of Nazareth, probably it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than C-Corporations to assume this role of stewardship that Block proposes. Nevertheless, from the world of corporations there are good attempts; B-corporations, founded in 2006 and by the end of 2018 totaled 2500 in 50 countries around the world, could meet what Block proposes; B-corporations are certified for having good governance, transparency and good social and environmental impact. Also businesses whose workers become owners, governed by the ESOP law in some countries, could be taking on Block´s stewardship, particularly those that function under the approach of “open book management”, because they cultivate a culture of ownership (of being owners) for long term success.
4. Stewardship in cooperatives
B- corporations and ESOP enterprises with “open book management” could be exercising a role of stewardship. But the most suitable seem to be cooperatives, and even more so, if they bring together people with few resources. The problems is that most cooperatives also are an expression of hierarchical structures, like C-corporations, and are more and more moved by the short term thinking of the god of the market. Recognizing this fact, we argue that a renovated cooperative, that “is born again”, can be a serious option. To assume this role of stewardship, the cooperative must take up the ideas of Block and impress on it their own historical essence, because it is with renovated cooperatives that the ideas of Block could have greater possibilities of being carried out. See Figure 4.
We reread Block from the perspective of a renovated cooperative: in partnership we understand that people from different ages (grandparents, offspring, grandchildren), sexes and social sectors (e.g. workers) participate in a cooperative; that the cooperative is a space where each person is empowered in horizontal and vertical agricultural and non-agricultural diversity, using the market and not subordinated to it; and that the members cultivate a sense of voluntary service coherent with the idea of co-creation in dialogue with nature. Given this interpretation, the type of renovated cooperative is one that walks with both of its “feet”, the associative and the business one, is distinguished by its democracy, transparency and for distributing its profits (wealth). With these elements the members, and also their allies, make their own values and cooperative values their own, more and more intensely illuminated by a long-term perspective, and deliberately seeking to have an impact on – and dialogue with – its seventh generation.
This is the perspective of stewardship which a reborn cooperative implements, which pushes it to reorganize itself systematically as an alternative to despotic, hierarchical and patriarchal leadership. This is the promise that each member makes to the other members and to themselves from the first day in which they join a cooperative, which in turn, bears the potential of significant self-realization, which frequently is lacking in our organizations.
Correspondingly, how can a cooperative be reorganized from a role of stewardship? How can a cooperative member be a steward? First, a member accepts an office conceiving it as a service, serving other people, it is not to serve oneself at the cost of the other people. The office responds to the mandate of the members, which is why this service implies willingness and availability, being a person who does not have time, and always has time to serve other people, who listens and helps them to connect events and ideas, so that the members resolve their problems and/or take advantage of opportunities. Coherently, a person who occupies the office of president fulfills their role of president, and respects the role of each member of the Administrative Council and respects the functions of organs of the cooperative (Administrative Council, Oversight Board, Education Committee, Credit Committee). The same does the vice president, treasurer, secretary. Likewise, each member of the Oversight Board, the credit committee, the education committee. In addition to taking on their own role and respecting the other roles, these member help other people to exercise their offices; if the secretary has difficulties in writing the minutes, or the treasurer doing their financial report, the people from other offices, or those who already had those offices, support them (facilitates or trains them), so that they might lean to do the minutes and the financial report, but without taking their place. The assembly does not name people to posts to just to fill a post, nor out of formality, but it is a real need.
Promoting the culture of stewardship is going against the current of the culture of most of our rural organizations, where a person tends to believe they are the patrón and God, it is like a person walked around with 10 hats on their head at the same time, the hat of president, secretary, treasurer, oversight board, assembly, education committee, credit committee…That is not possible, right? That is what generally happens. One of the consequences of this fact is that that person believes himself to be the owner of the cooperative, and treats the members as their “minors”, does not let them grow, wants them to serve him, be subject to him; he disempowers them. “My poor patron, he thinks that the poor person is me” goes the song of Cabral, that seems applicable to this type of person with multiple hats, and who does not obey the mandate of his assembly. A president or manager with the commitment of stewardship is completely different: he supports and celebrates the work of the oversight board, administrative council, credit committee, because those structures help him to fulfill the sacred responsibility of co-creating the cooperative to the benefit of their communities, to redistribute power and surpluses, to empower the members so that they might take their own steps.
Secondly, a cooperative member, with or without an office, administers in a responsible way – and generates – financial resources (money), physical resources (building, infrastructure, assets) and productive resources (coffee, cacao, beans, bananas…) for the members. There is an awareness that those resources will last beyond our present lives. No one individually appropriates them under the pretext that “it is my effort”. Everyone cultivates the relationships of their organization with other global and local actors (financiers, buyers, accompaniers), without centralizing those contacts for their own exclusive benefit. Each person is accountable to themselves, their families, the cooperative and their community. It makes them think about co-creating and benefiting their community and the seventh generation, a task for which they are guided by the virtuous rules from the time of the great great grandparents of their great great grandparents, and in accordance with agreements and rules of their cooperative in line with the cooperative principles defined 175 years ago, in 1844, by 28 working artesans in cotton factories in the city of Rochdale, England. Correspondingly, any loan of money to a member, for example, is done from the appropriate body, according to agreements, with a receipt and later accountability to the assembly; the board members understand that they cannot make and use the resources of other at their own discretion, that there are organs and rules under which the resources, information and power relations flow. This very specific exercise can be generalized to other levels, including the country, building citizens with rights and obligations, not so much consumer societies.
Third, support to people to exercise their offices, and the fact that there are rules and structures that guide being cooperative members, implies also that the members be committed to learning and changing. If there is no transformation inside each member, if there is no re-evaluation of our desires, yearnings and expectations as far as we are explicit about the harmful and virtuous rules that govern us, any structural change for the operations of our cooperatives will be like a stripped bolt. In fact, in Central America we have experienced dictatorships and revolutions, a boom of organizations and religions, and all those changes have been like stripped bolts, our lives continue being guided by century-old structures and harmful rules that reproduce social, environmental and gender inequalities, which make us see the cooperative as “a thing of men”, “mono-cropping services” and “hierarchical and authoritarian bodies.”
Joining a cooperative means that we have chosen and accepted that relationship of organizational and personal transformation to energize our communities. The choice and acceptance become our contract. Our desires for financial gain, participation, self-expression and the expectations that we have for being part of a community, are only possible if we are committed to the objectives, results, limitations and principles of the organization in general. The agreement on the elements of the contract is the basis for the association and the basis of the community. Stewardship offers more options and local control, in exchange for that promise of commitment on the part of its members, a promise that should be given from the very beginning (Block, 2013).
With these three elements the cooperative can “be born again” and assume its role of stewardship in light of its community, which is as local as it is global. Forming its own membership, generating collective innovations, working on equitable rules, adding value to the products of the community, producing good land…to benefit the seventh generation.
The Church dominated the world for centuries. The military as well. For half a century, businesses have dominated the world. Century after century the land and the relationships between human groups seem to have deteriorated, currently we find ourselves in an inflection point in terms of the future of the earth; the domination of the private sector – the god of the market – intensified it. Our bet is that the decade of 2020 the community might begin, through its forms of cooperative organization, not to dominate the world, but contribute to the democratization of the world, and that we rethink nature not as something subordinated to homo sapiens, not even in a relationship humans-nature, but homo sapiens as part of nature. This is possible if the communities, through their cooperatives, and other organizational expressions, take on the role of stewardship.
In this article we have reviewed the idea of stewardship from the indigenous tradition, religious tradition and from economic business sciences, in order to re-conceptualize cooperatives. From this review and re-conceptualization, we understand that stewardship can be applied to individuals, businesses, organizations, institutions and communities. Stewardship is the word that summarizes the vision of the cooperative, and any organization, for its members. That is so if the community is the starting point, while at the same time the horizon – that community as local as it is global. It makes us learn another way of understanding and organizing life. What is the idea of stewardship that we have been shaping in this article?
Figure 5 shows the perspective of the community that rereads the cooperative in its material expression (organizational) and its subjective expression (personal), from which originate 4 elements that make the meaning of stewardship visible.
The community of human beings and nature is something living, geographically concentrated and at the same time globally clustered through dense relationships around products. This utopia or horizon makes us reread the transformation of a cooperative in its material expression, organizational change, and in its subjective expression, individual change. In other words, a person awakens, for example, to the fact that only through collective actions can some problems be resolved, like hierarchical and authoritarian structures; it is that material-subjective combination that mobilizes the cooperative in its role of stewardship, expressed in its 4 elements. First element, thinking about the great-great grandchildren of our great-great grandchildren, in other words, more than 140 years, which is contrary to the short term thinking or the mining and push button culture, of wanting to earn money immediately believing that tomorrow everything could change. Second element, co-creating that world along with other people, with nature and with divine energies beyond our human comprehension, empowering particularly impoverished people, which is contrary to believing oneself to be the patrón (owners of this world), intensifying social and environmental inequality. Third element, cultivating a spirit of voluntary service, taking on offices and cultivating the cooperative, which in the long term benefits each individual, which is contrary to abusing the cooperatives for personal profit at the cost of coming generations. Fourth element, being guided by human values like humility, honesty and respect for the collective good, which is contrary to just betting on finances.
With this reconceptualization of stewardship, we can reorganize the cooperative in another way. We can even expand on the Iroquois law; that each person have “skin as thick as the bark of a pine tree” to confront not only “anger, offensive actions and criticisms”, but to exercise a stewardship that benefits “the future nation that has not yet been born.”
In the parable, “planting a cooperative, the daughter “reads” being a cooperative is about that collective force, values and sense of mission, while her mother recognizes that precisely is what it means to be a cooperative member, even though just “in part”. With the expansion of the framework that we have worked on, the reader can read this article again and contribute “30 times more” to the effectiveness of their decisions and actions. Even so, in light of the seventh generation, that contribution to the notion of stewardship, surely, will continue being “in part”.
 René has a PhD in development studies, is an associate researcher of the IOB-Antwerp University (Belgium), collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (WPF) and a member of the cooperative COSERPROSS RL. firstname.lastname@example.org I am grateful to Steve Sheppard and Mark Lester, president and director of WPF, respectively, for the inspiration and ideas that they have offered us in the work with cooperatives, and particularly in regards to a very brief first text on this topic, published at the end of 2019.
 We recount the experience of the Catholic Church, but the same happened with a good number of protestant churches, particularly the historic ones- Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans. Also, university students in those years, without necessarily professing any religious faith, also moved to the countryside and marginal neighborhoods. It is also the experience of many people who later on were connected to guerrilla movements.
 These questions we adapted from the questions that Oren Lyons, chief of the Onondaga nation, formulated and are quoted in “An Iroquois Perspective”, in: Vecsey, C. and Venables, RW (Eds), 1982, American Indian Environments: Ecological Issues in Native American History. Vol. 46.4. New York: Syracuse University Press. p. 173, 174. For a broader understanding of the indigenous culture in the United States and their lessons for today, see: Kathleen E. Allen, 2018, Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World, USA: Morgan James Publishing.
 “Touched” is when a person feels gratitude for something good that someone did for that person. In the context in which we are using it, by “touched” we mean when your great-great grandmother or grandfather made you look at your life in a different way, or something fundamental in your life, that marked you in your feelings or perspectives for the rest of your life. What is yours for the future, the possibility that you, on becoming a great-great grandfather, might influence (“touch”) the lives of your great-great grandchildren, which is possible because you had the possibility of learning about life for nearly a century.
 There have also been methodological proposals based on seventh generation thinking. One of them is the alternative proposal to the logical framework, a planning tool that organizations tend to use. See: Kathleen Allen, 2018, “Seventh Generation Thinking – A Replacement for SWOT”, https://kathleenallen.net/seventh-generation-thinking-a-replacement-for-swot/ It deals with locating ourselves in the fourth generation and from them gathering lessons from the three previous generations and using them as information for our future decisions that would include the next three generations. This can be done as an organization, particularly if there are people from 3 generations within its membership; they can be worked on in groups.
 Vargas, O.R., 1999, El Síndrome de Pedrarías. Managua: Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Nacional.
 Bendaña, A., 2019, Buenas al Pleito, Mujeres en la rebelión de Sandino. Managua: Anama ediciones.
 For example, Goodwyn (1978, The Populist Moment, New York: Oxford University Press) studied the rural populist movement that occurred between 1870 and 1910, about a peasantry that organized into cooperatives in such a way that they founded their own political party and came close to an electoral victory, but which the political and economic elites coopted and subsumed until crushing them. Goodwyn concludes that that democratic process in the United States was the last opportunity for the US nation to democratize.
 Owners can sell their businesses to their own workers, there is a law in the US and England to facilitate this. In the United States it is called Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), and in England there are two types, the incentive plan and the savings plan. There are also ESOPs in India.
 Jack Stack and a group of workers bought the business of Springfield ReManufacturing Corporation in the 1980s. More than being successful, they designed a transparent form to govern and work the business, which they called “open book management”. See: Stack, J and Burlingham, B., 2002, A Stake in the Outcome, New York: Doubleday.
René Mendoza Vidaurre, Mark Lester and Fabiola Zeledón
The unfaithful market
“Bring your coffee and I will pay you 100 córdobas more per quintal than that coyote that is circling you”, Carmelón the trader said by cell phone. Pedro weighed his coffee before leaving on the bus, it weighed 3 quintals. Now in town, Carmelón put the three sacks on the scale and it weighed 2.3 quintals! He paid him 2990 córdobas, at 1300 per quintal. Pedro left dazed: in his own village they were offering him 3600, at 1200/qq; and he would have saved the cost of the transportation and the lost day. He arrived home with a headache. “What is bothering you?”, asked his wife, Julita. “Carmelón cheated me,” he responded angrily. Ah Pedrín, you know very well that the market is like a lover, you cannot demand that it be faithful. Pedrín felt like the earth opened up in front of him, how right his beloved was!
The market is like a lover, you cannot demand that it be faithful“. If it does not cheat you with the price it does it through the weight, if not, it tells you that your sun-dried coffee is wet, and if not that, it tells you to “wait on me.” Price, weight, and quality are structural challenges that can be resolved if people organize into a cooperative. But it is not automatic, most cooperatives are taken over by elites who turn their backs on their members, and turn into traders dressed up as “cooperatives”. Ah, but when the members of a community organize and the organs of their cooperative function, in that community they reduce violence, generate more equality and peace – this is what Esterlina Talavera says, from the 13th of October Cooperative in San Antonio: “In these cooperatives where only one person is in charge, one is not worth anything; in this cooperative, where the assembly is in charge, there I feel like I do have value.” If importers, roasters and sellers of ground coffee in the United States and Europe work with those corrupt cooperatives, they instead sow violence in peasant communities, like what happens with traditional mediation connected to big corporations, but if they work with democratic cooperatives, they support peace with justice.
Under what conditions can small producers, women and men, and small roasters and coffee sellers build communities of peace between rural areas of Central America and consumers in the United States and Europe? Responding to this question in this article, we see that markets can become “faithful” to the challenge of making peace with justice.
1. Perspective and ways of riding the markets
With Mark Lester´s visit to 50 importers and roasters in the United States, we discovered similar perspectives on both sides of the ocean: buyers and producers. He met with roasters who buy from 6 sacks of coffee a year to those who bought containers of coffee; there are peasant families also who produce 4 quintals of export coffee to those who produce 100 or 150 quintals of export coffee. In the face of this situation, there are importers who connect these two worlds: they import coffee in lots in one containers for roasters who want lots of a smaller size than that of a container; they are lots that come from 3 or 5 producers with the same coffee profile, possible through the grassroots cooperatives (1st tier).
He learned that roasters ask for samples of coffee to be able to express their interest in buying; some cup and define their own cup profile, and others ask the importer to define their cup profile; generally they are looking for a score above 82, because they think that is the way that they can differentiate themselves and compete in the face of large corporations whose costs are less because of their economies of scale. The cooperative sends the sample, indicates the volume of coffee that it offers from that sample, and the roaster responds whether they are interested in that coffee or not; as a sign of loyalty, the cooperative does not sell the volume it offered with the sample until the roaster has responded, to do so would be behaving as an “occasional lover”; the roaster or importer responds as quickly as possible, to not do so would be to behave like a “lover”. The roasters prefer lasting connections, it does not work out to each year have a new seller of coffee, because they want to maintain their cup profile; the cooperative also wants to have lasting relationships, especially if the buyer pays them based on quality and there is good deal; this implies that the cooperative also is loyal to its members, only collects their coffee, and thus maintains the same cup profile that it agreed upon with its buyer. It is a loyalty among several actors who revolve around coffee.
Mark found roasters and importers concerned about the sustainability of their enterprises and that of the coffee growing peasant families. If the peasantry with less than 5 hectares of coffee goes broke, the coffee is left in the hands of large mono-cropping enterprises, thus the quality of the coffee would drop because they are committed to varieties that produce volume and they grow them in full sun. This is not helpful to the buyers nor to the peasants. So from both sides of the ocean they want peasant families to increase their productivity (more and better coffee per hectare), and importers and roasters process more coffee in the same physical space. Both sides of the ocean also want diversification and the commitment to coffee quality to lead them to increase their productivity, that diversification would also include sustainable practices with several crops and the agro-industrialization of products, roasters who diversify their markets; university communities that demand coffee from cooperatives…
2. Trust, the beginning of triangulation
Cultivating these described connections and commitments are not possible with conventional practices. Financial organizations provide credit requiring financial statements (indicating expenses and income) and balance statements (indicating assets of the cooperative versus its debts) from the cooperatives; but these in turn tend to hire accountants who “invent” their financial reports, while their members do not have access to that information, and if they do, the numerical chaos is incomprehensible to them. Financial organizations and buyers assume that on signing contracts with cooperatives, they actually are operating as cooperatives; at the same time it is seen that most of them do not redistribute their earnings, they treat their members as any intermediary would treat them; they are cooperatives whose members do not rotate in their posts, nor does their administrative staff rotate in accordance with their merits. So the aid organizations, on learning of these realities, turn a blind eye; thus, trust in people becomes trust in money on the part of a small global club.
Those connections and commitments can, nevertheless, be built based on trust if cooperatives function as cooperatives, if buyers and roasters treat them as cooperatives and not as if they were haciendas, connecting only with the manager or only with their president. How can trust be built? From the work of the Winds of Peace Foundation (WPF) with grassroots cooperatives and its contacts with buyers and roasters, we propose an inclusive triangulation.
Social banks, buyers and second tier cooperatives already practice triangulation, they sign contracts where the cooperative collects coffee with financing from the social banks, and the buyer pays the loan owed by the cooperative to the social bank. But it stays there, they are that club that turns a blind eye to the true functioning of the cooperative and its members. We take up that triangulation, buyers, financiers and cooperatives, but not with second tier cooperatives but with grassroots cooperatives (first tier); and we do not stay there, we do an inclusive triangulation, that implies that part of the contract stipulates the distribution of profits and information, that they be democratic and efficient organizations (that they lower costs), and work in sustainable agriculture. That this inclusive nature be verified by an accompaniment that helps the members govern their cooperatives, and that the transparency between buyers, roasters and cooperatives be reciprocal.
Being inclusive means that the member families coordinate among themselves to achieve a cup quality of 85, improving their soils, assuming the costs of sending coffee samples: not letting the market govern them, believing that it is only a matter of putting up money and moving coffee; it is that we work with members over the entire year and not just in the coffee harvest season, connecting small producers who organize into cooperatives with small roasters. If one actor acts as an opportunist, they damage the entirety of the coordination with the different actors, and they do damage to themselves. If the price in the market goes way up, the cooperatives prefer to stay in a lasting relationship; if the prices of the market go way down, the buyers prefer to stay in a lasting relationship. This is coordinating, trusting and being faithful.
3. Role of accompaniment
There are roasters aware of the fact that peasant families cannot improve their lives if they do not organize into cooperatives, and that is why they seek out healthy relationships with these cooperatives. There are importers who understand the importance of connecting small roasters with small producers who are organized into grassroots cooperatives. There are also foundations, like WPF, that accompany this process of triangulation.
In this role, WPF, in collaboration with a team from the COSERPROSS cooperative, accompanies the grassroots cooperatives, contacts importers and roasters, and because of its connections with Universities in the United States, works so that the triangulation reaches university communities.
Previously WPF did not play this role. It assumed that that role belonged to the cooperatives. But seeing that the cooperatives are being absorbed by structures that sow injustice, violence and environmental unsustainability, WPF took on new roles, of being a hinge in the relationships between cooperatives and buyers, helping to make transparent the agreements between the different actors. If previously WPF provided credit on the basis of bilateral trust with a cooperative, now it does it in the framework of an inclusive triangulation, precisely to build greater trust.
At the beginning of this article we asked ourselves about the conditions in which small producers and small roasters can build communities of peace. We provided three responses. First, small producers and roasters pursue common perspectives; perspectives that start from having similar size, committed to coffee quality, and social and environmental sustainability, innovating through diversification. Second, establishing relationships of an inclusive triangulation where the economic transaction goes along with the economic and organizational democratization of the cooperative and the other allied actors. Third, ongoing accompaniment of these perspectives and this inclusive triangulation.
Under these three conditions trust, mutual loyalty and lasting relationships can be built. This leads us to be concerned about the people. It is a perspective where Pedro and Julita, from the story at the beginning of the article, organized in a cooperative can collect their coffee harvest in their own communities. It is a path where markets can work to build communities of peace with justice, communities that plough the seas.
by Fabiola Zeledón, Freddy Pérez, Claudio Hernández, Hulda Miranda, Rebeca Espinoza and René Mendoza
Juan, president of the cooperative, got off the bus, and walked like a rooster, with his chest held high.
-Greetings, young lady. I am the president of the cooperative
-Good day, Juan.
-Call me “Mr Juan”. I was born a leader. I am the way, the truth and the money, hahaha.
-Ahh… Who said that…?
Didn´t you hear me…? Tell your Dad to send his contributions. I will give him a loan.
A sparrow that was flying around the area, seeing that was happening, crashed against a tree. The bird couldn´t believe what it was hearing!
When at last there was a restructuring of the organs and administration of a cooperative, winds of change were felt. Among other reasons, the cooperative was founded to be a democratic space and a place for learning for the members. Nevertheless, a short time after the changes, the cooperative tends to return to its old course: hierarchical structure, absence of information, disillusioned members, lack of ownership… How things change so as to not change. Why do we trip over the same stone time and time again? Here, in contrast to the sparrow, we reflect on what is happening. Then we add a second question: How can we avoid this stone and walk along the cooperative path without “crashing” into the first tree? In this article we reflect on these questions based on our own experience of recovering a cooperative.
1. That tripping stone
In Chapter 12 to 16 of the Book of Revelation in the Bible, John, from the island of Patmos, warns about the first beast that shows itself to be powerful. But he warns us that its power comes from another beast, that we should not get confused. That second beast also is powerful, but its power is not its own either, but comes from a third beast. Something similar happens in a good number of cooperatives. See Figure 1.
The manager or president personified in a person tends to appear as the patron. He says: “Aid organizations only write to me”; “I am going to give the members directions because you are like children”; “I give you loans”; “You owe me”. The members resign themselves: “to whatever he says”; “we are small producers”; “I go to him for loans”. The leader or patron who centralizes decisions and concentrates resources, ends up believing that there is no need for assemblies, that he was born a leader and that is sacred. If some institution sees that that cooperative is like a hacienda, the patron shouts to the four winds about “autonomy” and against “third party [outside] actors”. He believes himself to be the general assembly, oversight board, administrative council and manager all rolled into one. The members dream of one day becoming that patron; Fanon said that then in Algeria: “The oppressed dream about being the oppressor”.
But his power is not his own. He or she is the face, generally, of a group that is as global as it is local, who live off the control of the resources that revolve around the cooperative. These include buyers, certifiers, agro-industry, State institutions, financial organizations…Behind these acronyms are individuals who manipulate their own organizations. They say: “information confuses the members”; “Buy coffee or cacao in the street and pass it off organic”. The patron senses that he lacks power, that his power comes from that group, so he goes to church and there whispers to himself: “I am not a bad person, I was tempted by money”.
The power of this group is not its own either. It comes from the patron-fieldhand structure, wedded to capitalism. This structure says: “everything is possible with money”; “more volume, more earnings”; “everything has already been studied”; “even God does not like stupid people”. Any natural force or wealth, economic wealth and friends of the member families remain diluted in the face of this structure.
Now we are able to understand how it is that we trip over the same stone. The saying goes: “human beings are the only animal that trips twice over the same stone”. We started a cooperative, and it is trapped by this harmful group, and this group responds to that hacienda and capitalist structure. If our patron is removed from his post, the new president or administrator takes his place, they make him repeat [his term] and keep him as an errand boy, while they make him believe that he is the top honcho! What happened? That structure awaits the new president or administrator as the “spare tire”, once he arrives, they exchange him for the “flat tire”, while the “vehicle” keeps rolling on. So it is that time and time again we trip over the same stone.
2. Walking on the cooperative path
There were elections in the Reynerio Tijerino cooperative. The members were happy.
-Luis Javier Vargas, a member, quoting the Bible, exclaimed: “When the just rule, the people are happy”
-the recently named president, Justo Rufino Espinoza, responded: “Let´s not be overconfident”.
It was a moment of joy, heart, reason and consciousness.
A hummingbird that was flying by, began to sing of joy.
When we began to get tired of tripping, discovering those three “beasts” woke us up. We refused to be that patron, that “spare tire”. The brief conversation between Luis Javier and Justo Rufino reveals that individual and collective combination, between emotion and reason, between hope and reality. A person makes themselves just, they are not born just. “In an open treasure, even the most just sins”, says an old saying, that is why the new president warned: “Let´s not be overconfident”. In other words, the cooperative has to create mechanisms to build trust and produce justice. How can it do so? Here we list some mechanisms.
The first is preparing for each activity. This means studying each situation and reflecting on the notes that we have taken of past conversations and meetings. Claudio Hernández says: “I have been taking notes for years, I can lose anything in my house, but not my notes”. Freddy Pérez adds: “If I would have known that my notes were important for learning, I would have taken notes sooner”. On the basis of notes and other information, we prepare ourselves for each meeting, negotiation and activity – imagining each detail before doing things. In this way we overcome the old practice of the patron, of doing things impulsively, because you feel safe under the shadow of the second beast, we overcome relying on the patron who says “leave it to me, I will solve it”. The more we prepare ourselves and coordinate as a group, the more our confidence increases and the more we help the cooperative.
The second mechanism is realizing that in the cooperative people have the power that comes from interpreting and applying the rules of the cooperative. These rules are the result of the decisions of the Assembly, wedded to the values of our communities. Our patron are the legitimate rules and processes. We guide ourselves by these rules, and we apply them through the corresponding organs. Our loyalty is not to money, but to the general assembly composed of the members, who produce these rules and who every three years elect other members for the different posts. Money is a means; the end are the members.
So if a member is looking for a loan, he goes to the credit committee, and follows the rules that the assembly of the cooperative approved. No one should take the place of the credit committee in a cooperative; it is not like in the haciendas, where the patron is at the same time the credit committee, general assembly, oversight board and manager. Our statutes tell us that profits are redistributed in the cooperative, therefore we must redistribute the profits of the cooperative. In a cooperative each member has rights, voice and vote, without regard to whether they produce a little or a lot, each member has the right to become president, to their part of the profits, and to have a copy of the statutes of their cooperative. In a cooperative the directions do not come down from above, they are made in the Assembly, and in the other organs of the cooperative. “Oh”, said Freddy Pérez, “I thought that being a board member was solving the problems of the members, rather it is the members who solve their problems through the cooperative”. “It pains me what I experienced, I know that I should not lend the money of the cooperative to the members, but I did it again”, expressed Claudio Hernández, recognizing that those “3 beasts” have formed a nest in our minds, but that our consciousness wrestles with them, and that being a cooperative is gaining more and more terrain. “We do not need credit, we need our profits”, insists Josué Moisés Ruíz.
The third mechanism is connecting the inside forces with the outside ones. Figure 2 shows the harmful leadership style, the patron who believes himself to be the door to the cooperative and to outside the cooperative; while Figure 3 shows the style of leadership that a real cooperative practices. If the cooperative is guided by its statutes, the State will legalize its path. If this process happens making its organs function, external institutions and aid agencies will respect the cooperative; they will treat it as a cooperative, and not as a hacienda arranging everything only with the patron. For example, the credit committee will meet with the institutions or organizations that might provide credit to the cooperative. The commercialization committee will meet with commercial enterprises and organizations that provide processing services for their products.
Internally, the members of the organs visit the members, and encourage them to visit one another as members. Members of the commercialization committee visit a member family, see their product and their wet mill, and at the same time come to understand the family in their multiple interests – most deeply felt needs and dreams; it is on this basis that the committee advances in their work strategies. The members of the oversight board, credit committee, education committee and the Administrative Council all do the same. A visit is a blessing that makes friendship and trust, loyalty and truth blossom. The more informed a member family is, the more it contributes with their ideas and oversight to the cooperative; the more connections are cemented in visits that generate friendship, the more the cooperatives become instruments for the majority of their members.
The fourth mechanism is that organizational improvement must improve our farms and homes. The cooperative is not there to apply agrochemical inputs and then lie, saying that we have organic production. Nor is producing an organic crop leaving it “without applying anything”. If we visit the member families, each family should visit their plants every day as well. The cooperative is not there so that our members might consume the coffee dregs, but to consume the best of their coffee, honey, grains, vegetables, bread and the best of their enchiladas…
3. In conclusion
This article is the product of 5 months of tension, and the pursuit of a cooperative to defend its rights, speak the truth and have the strength to change. This process taught us that a small group, in alliance, is capable of making cooperativism contagious. The biggest changes start in our own minds. The rule that “we will always need a patron” or that “leaders are born” comes from the hacienda institution and capitalism, and has built a nest in our minds. How can we get that idea out of our heads? To the extent that we reflect, demonstrating it, trying mechanisms out and being persistent, we can free ourselves from that idea.
At the beginning of the article we asked ourselves why we were tripping over the same stone. Throughout the article we have discovered the “three beasts”, who have trapped most of the cooperatives in our countries. These “beasts” make us trip time and time again.
The second question was how to avoid tripping again. We listed 4 mechanism that we have experimented with: preparing oneself for each meeting and not moving impulsively, following the rules of the cooperative, being a leader who connects with the members and the external actors, and making organizational improvement go hand in hand with the improvement of our production. Our aspiration is that these four mechanisms might help us to get those harmful norms out of our minds that come from the “3 beasts”. Being a cooperative is path that we peasant families need to hone. If we do it, the hummingbirds will be joyful as well, and the sparrows will not longer crash against any trees!
Let us end this article recalling another rule of the patron: “you should not help members, because they are ungrateful”, the patrons repeat. When Sandino decided to not surrender, General José María Moncada said to him, “The people are ungrateful; what is important is living well”. Sandino did not crack. There is no better gratitude than the members recovering their cooperative and closing the door on the thief, the patron, and the three beasts, and follow their own path.
My head spent the days immersed in matters like employee ownership, organizational strengthening, empowerment, open book management, continuous improvement, transparency and the wisdom inherent in organizations.
My heart was in Nicaragua, at the foot of Peñas Blancas, with more than 50 peasant producers who are spending the week in another edition of the Certificate Program, an on-site immersion into holistic development of their farms, coops, families and futures. I have come to know many of these folks, having worked with them in previous settings, and I miss being with them.
My body was at home in Iowa, trying to figure out how to respond to a mysterious malady that inflames all of my joints and aches my body’s systems like a bad case of the flu. I need to learn what is wrong and how to make it right. I’m saddened not to be in Nicaragua and frustrated at the reasons for it.
So my time was divided among three states of being this week. And as I reflected on my uneasiness at this state of affairs, it dawned on me that what I was experiencing was not unlike the normal circumstances of our Certificate Program participants. Their lives are under the stresses of being torn in multiple directions, as a way of life.
The heads of many peasants are filled with trying to discern what’s happening within their country. Investment has all but vanished. Foreign aid organizations have pulled out long ago. There is enormous tension between the Ortega government and the Civic Alliance, giving ongoing potency to the anxious uncertainties of every day life, even in the countryside.
The peasants must have found it hard to concentrate on their organizations, with their heads already immersed in matters like: What is really happening in our country? What is true? What do I have to do to protect my family and myself? Can I trust my neighbor? How do I process all of it? Of course, all of this is context for the ongoing, every day questions about climate, weather, the cost of inputs, the income from harvest, the presence and absence of rain, maintaining the farm, worrying about kids. Oh yes, and the ever-present worry about health, of the family, of the spouse, of self.
Their hearts are firmly in Nicaragua, even if at times they cannot actually be there. Despite the warped perceptions of a U.S. president, under normal conditions Nicaraguans essentially have little desire to leave Nicaragua. It’s their home. It’s both their inheritance and their future assignment to their children. They treasure their history and culture no less than any U.S. citizen does about their North American homeland. But if conditions and opportunities diminish to the point of complete destitution, then alternatives become realities, and the idea of immigration emerges.
Their hearts know, deep inside, that only new ways of managing the coops will bring about greater success, despite the urges to cling to the old ways, the means by which survival has been possible for generations. There is heartbreak in leaving old ways, the comfortable ways, behind. It can even feel like betrayal. There is anguish in having to choose the unknown.
Their hearts remember that the land that once belonged to their elders, and that should be destined to belong to the youth, is a sacred trust, an honor-bound commitment to family. But their hearts also are fatigued from the consumption of energy and spirit by injustices that so often infect the poor. My acquaintances in Nicaragua are strong of heart, unflinching in the face of crushing poverty, but also realists who are willing to break their own hearts for survival.
Their bodies are the resilient homes for hopeful spirits. Their physical bodies are asked to endure and thrive in the face of limitations on healthcare, nutrition, clean water, education opportunities, healthy incomes and environmental health. In the face of huge physical demands, the rural farmers accept and adapt to such challenges as a matter of course, and largely fulfill the requirements of their days.
I cannot help but imagine the course of activities undertaken by such a farmer experiencing my current set of symptoms. With some embarrassment, I imagine perseverance that puts my days in these weeks to shame. In many ways, our Nica colleagues are far more adaptable to change than we might think.
Comparisons are a likely outcome, I suppose, when time is abundant, when my head is teeming with ideas, when my heart is restless and my body compromised. But there is substantial learning available despite it all, and I find that my Nica colleagues can teach me well, even from a long distance away….
in Nicaragua, working with peasant farmers on issues of cooperativism and continuous improvement.