Category Archives: Well-Being

What Lies Beneath

I’ve been reading an absorbing article in the June issue of National Geographic Magazine, entitled, “Why We Lie.”  I’m going to guess that it might be the most widely-read article that the magazine has ever published; as the article posits, we all lie, and  the title draws us to want to understand ourselves a little better, since most of us regard that characteristic as a negative.  (Why do I choose to do that, anyway?)

The article is fascinating and full of the reasons and motivations for our lies.  (Gosh, it even makes me feel bad to write that line.)  Some of our deceptions are protective, some are ego-driven, some are avoidance-based and some are even altruistic: lies intended to help someone or avoid their discomfort.  (Can I claim ownership to this category as my only source of lies?)  It turns out that we all have dishonesty built into our makeup.

“Lying, it turns out, is something that most of us are very adept at.  We lie with ease, in ways big and small, to strangers, co-workers, friends and loved ones.  Our capacity for dishonesty is as fundamental to us as our need to trust others, which ironically makes us terrible at detecting lies. Being deceitful is woven into our very fabric, so much so that it would be truthful to say that to lie is human.”

Wow.  I never realized the extent of the dark deceit that surrounds each of us.  Certainly, I acknowledge the ubiquity of lies in everyday life: (does “fibs” make that sound less awful?).   Advertisements promise results that could never be true, tabloid magazines publish stories with no semblance to reality, political pundits dish out speculation and innuendo without any basis in fact, and social media simply multiplies the problem.  But, within our own circle of family and friends?  (I wonder now whether those kind words about my sweater were sincere or sinister?)

The reality of our lying makes working in Nicaragua even more difficult than it might otherwise be.  Already, I must navigate relationships and circumstances through translation and my North American eyes.  Now, in addition, I read that there are also untruths being spoken, even if for the very best and most reasonable of reasons: hunger, shelter, health, life itself.  I’m not naive; I am well aware of the frequency of exaggeration and overstatement by people in dire need of assistance, financial and otherwise.  But reading an entire article about it underscores what has been mostly an uncomfortable subtext.  (Truth be told, now, it feels more omnipresent and, somehow, more problematic than before.)  Should the possibility of half-truths suddenly feel more offensive insulting or more threatening?

I’ve thought about that and decided that the answer is likely “no.”  If the article in National Geographic is even close to being accurate, we’ve all been subject to speaking and hearing lies during our entire lives.  There is nothing new happening here, only some data to confirm it.  It’s a bit like enduring a destructive overnight storm and awakening in the morning to read details about what you have already personally experienced.   (I swear, the hail stones were the size of melons!)

But there’s another reality which mitigates any sense of wrong that I might feel after being lied to.   When someone utters an untruth, often he/she is the one who is most hurt by it.  Lies can be like items posted on the Internet, in that they never really go away.  (All lies should be marked as spam.)  They continue to exist, hiding in memory until the moment when they can cause the maximum in embarrassment  and loss.  Falsehoods diminish who we are by eroding our credibility, our connection to truth, and to our own self-worth.  And those erosions hurt.  A deliberate lie to someone else is also a lie to ourselves, made even worse because we know the truth.  The conflict is, ultimately, wrenching.  (Is this why on some days I don’t feel as well as on others?)

We each have little in this world that is truly ours.  (What about my guitars?)  Material items come into our lives, and then they go.    The people in our lives enter and exit.  Always.  We take nothing from this world but our own integrity and sense of honor, two matters about which we can attempt to lie to ourselves, but without success.  It’s true in politics, in business, in farming, philanthropy and any other endeavor we can imagine.

I doubt that reflections here will have much impact on people in their day-to-day correspondence with each other; as the article observes, it’s “in us.”  But like any nagging habit, we can work on it.  We can make it better.   Ultimately, our well-being is built upon what is real, and whoever we are, truth will out….

 

 

 

 

Can the youth fall in love with the countryside again?

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

You cannot direct the wind, but you can change the direction of the sails. Chinese Proverb

Let the wind blow and carry you where it will. Bible saying.

“Our problem, says A. Argueta, from the COMAL network (Honduras), is that our offspring do not want to know about agriculture; many times in a family of 7 only two are working, Mom and Dad.” R. Villegas, also from the COMAL network, says, “when they are little our children help us in the work, but once grown up, returning from their studies they do the numbers on our crops, and they tell us that planting corn and beans no longer works, and they tell us it is better to sell the land.” What Argueta and Villegas tell us we hear in every country in Latin America.

If this situation intensifies, it will affect world food production. Because it depends in good measure on family agriculture, which, according to ECLAC, FAO and IICA (2014, Prospects for Agriculture and Rural Development in the Americas) represent more than 75% of total production units in nearly every country of Latin America. The organization of that peasant economy, according to A. Chayanov (1925, The Organization of the Peasant Economic Unit) is based on family labor to meet their needs. From that situation, to now where youth are increasingly disenchanted with farm work, means that the peasant economy is growing old and the depopulation the rural sector is increasing.

We are facing a world problem that we deal with in this article from a rural perspective. We break down the dynamics that led to this situation, we look into the specific nature of family agriculture and we provide some ideas for the youth to fall in love again with the countryside. For these points and others, taking up again the Chinese Proverb and the bible passage quoted above, we argue that it is important to change the direction of “our sails” (perspectives) as we understand the direction of the “wind.”

The conditions for the disenchantment

There are structural conditions that are conducive to this disenchantment. The first refers to the current generation of parents and children. In Europe they talk about the “neither-nor” youth; they neither study nor work. Bauman (2014, Does the Wealth of the Few Benefit Everyone?), studying the inequality, observes that the generations after the second world war, supported by redistribution policies, looked forward in order to improve; while today the “neither-nors” are the first generation that are not managing the achievements of their parents as the beginning of their career, that instead are asking what their parents did to improve, and that in this way these youth are not looking forward, but back. Some years ago in rural Latin America, parents would receive their inheritance and would go into the forest to expand their area in order to, later on, leave it to their children, and they to theirs. The inheritance was the starting point for each generation. But now the agricultural frontier has reached its limits, and there is almost no more forest to go into. So, on the one hand, the parents are not expanding their areas to leave behind, nor did they have time to inculcate their farming culture on their children, because they passed their childhood, adolescence and part of their youth studying; and on the other hand, this growing group of youth did not find work in their majors, nor did they like their parents farming, and in the case that they did, it is common to hear their laments; “Dad says that as long as he is alive I cannot raise different crops on his land”, “they do not want to leave me my inheritance because they say that ‘the pig sheds its lard only after it dies’”.

Table. Corn profitability (Honduras, 2016/17)
  Units Price (L) Value (L) Dollars
Production (qq) 24 300 7200 309.0
Costs 7040 302.1
Preparation (wd) 16 120 1920 82.4
Planting (wd) 4 120 480 20.6
Seed (lbs) 25 4 100 4.3
Fungicide (wd) 1 120 120 11.2
Fungicide (lt herbicide) 2 130 260 20.6
2 fertilizations (wd) 4 120 480 20.6
2 fertilizations (sacks fertilizer) 4 500 2000 85.8
Bend and harvest (wd) 12 120 1440 61.8
Clean 2 120 240 10.3
wd =work days

Source: based on cases of several producers in Honduras

The second condition refers to the knowledge perspective acquired by the youth. There is a boom of youth studying; in 2015, according to the UNESCO report, 98% of the youth of Latin America were studying. Going back to where their parents are, many of them do economic calculations and conclude that what their parents are growing it not profitable (see Table for corn; calculations for beans are more generous, $400/mz costs and $1200/mz income). This acquired knowledge, nevertheless, underlies a perspective contrary to the peasant economy: they take crops as a comodity isolated from the production system where it grows, and outside the logic of the family that produces it. These assumptions are in line with the perspective of big enterprise: monocropping, betting on volume based on intensive and mechanized technology, and the maximization of financial earnings.

The third condition refers to the growing gap between parents and their children. The children are caught between the love for their parents and their belief that “I did not study to go back to the fields” – by “fields” they assume backwardness. The parents feel impotent in not being able to explain their “agricultural profitability” showing their production systems and their social and economic life, surprised they recall when they encouraged their children to study, telling them that “a shovel weighs more than a pen”, and get frustrated in not being able to direct their children to the future, even worse not knowing the digital technology in which the youth move. These facts make the gap that separates them even greater, the parents grow old and the youth are at risk of falling into that old expression of “the idle mind is the devil´s workshop” in a Central America that finds it difficult to free itself from violence.

The fourth condition refers to rural organizations. It is common to run into peasant associations, stores, banks and cooperatives whose members´average age is 50. If life expectancy in the Central American countries is around 73 years of age, the paradox is that the organizations are aging while they close themselves to the youth. A mother who returned to dedicate herself to her family, after 8 years in an organization, said, “if I would have continued as a leader, I would have lost my son, because he was already on a bad path.” The logical thing would be that the family life of those who are organized would improve, but that mother says that it did not. Others look for people to blame: “the governments hassle the organizations with taxes and repressive measures, businesses hassle them through their harvest collectors or intermediaries, and aid organizations keep them busy with projects.” It could be. But the chasm between the organizations and the youth is deep.

The Specific Nature of Peasant Production

Why do they take such great pains with corn and beans? What is it that we do not understand about them? Full of millennial patience, the peasant families husk the ear of corn for us. “We plant corn, beans, chicory…because we learned it from our parents to feed our families, not to make a lot of money.” Looking at me skeptically, they continue on: ”by planting corn we eat tamales, atol, corn on the cob, baby corn, new corn tortillas, would we be able to eat all this if we quit planting corn?”, “the protein from a recently harvested corn cob is not comparable to that anemic imported corn”, “with beans we eat green beans, bean soup, cooked beans…” We understand that corn is more than tortillas, and beans are more than bean paste. “When we have corn and beans it makes us feel relieved, so we look for plantains, eggs…we go from serving to serving.” And then, “the beans that we are not going to eat we sell, likewise with the other products, in order to buy other needs and pay for the studies of our children.” And the profitability?

With weatherbeaten skin and a cold stare, they explained to us. “If we don´t plant corn, we would have to buy tortillas; we are 6 in the family and we would need 30 tortillas for each meal, that is L15; if I plant we eat 20 tortillas because the tortillas we make are thick.” Time to do the numbers: 1) 20 tortillas come from 1 lb, 3 lbs per day, 90 lbs per month, in other words 10.8qq per year, the remaining 13.2qq are for seed, chickens and pigs, from which we get between 6-10 eggs each day and 2 piglets every 6 months; 2) not planting corn, a family of six people needs L16,425 ($714) to buy tortillas in the year, another amount for atol, eggs and pork. In other words, the Table does not show that the corn is linked to small livestock, does not count the corncobs, little corn, new corn tortillas…If the peasant families subjected themselves to the “profitability calculations” of the large enterprises, they would have to go into debt, sell their land, and become farm workers to buy corn in times of scarcity at double the price or buy 90 tortillas/day at $1.90. “They say that it does not work, but it does”- the roar of the wind is heard.

The peasant cornfield includes basic grains, root plants, bananas, trees, chicory, poultry, pigs, water… Is it time to change the direction of our “sails”?

Thinking about the youth

Observing, listening and dialoguing can happen in the family, particularly if their organizations help. The Colega of Colombia cooperative shows us the way. Their members are milk ranchers and the cooperative collects and sells the milk. “We are second in world productivity, behind New Zealand,” they state. This cooperative organizes the children of the members into two groups; the little Colleagues are those under 14, and the pre-Colleagues are between 14-18 years of age. Each little Colleague is given one calf to take care of, the cooperative gives milk to the child as a provision for the calf, and the family of the child provides the inputs for raising the calf; in school they include courses on cooperation and the cooperative invites the little Colleagues to their events; so, from an early age they are cultivating the “member-rancher of the future.” The pre-Colleagues, who were able to take care of and multiply their calves, are provided scholarships for their studies, and member benefits, because they already participate in the production processes like their parents.

Youth are joining the Fe y Esperanza Rural Bank of Palmichal in the COMAL network, encouraged by their families. “My stepfather insisted that I attend the meetings, I thought that this was about old guys who do not change, then I realized that here you learn to improve.” “My grandfather is trustworthy, he told me to join the Bank because one day it would work for me, I paid attention to him, and it is true, now it is working for me.” In a few years this organization is growing in savings and loans, has efficient administration and its organs (board of directors, oversight board and assembly) meet each second Saturday of each month to discuss their numbers and opportunities. Another organization, the 15th of July (a community in Corozo, Yoro) also from the COMAL network, recognized the capacity of a young woman (D. López) who has finished her Certificate Program, and named her as President, and that organization got itself up to date with its internal and external paperwork, and finished its factory for processing granulated sugar.

These three experiences express three ways of including youth. They also tell us that, in contrast with the large businesses where you learn to do a task, in small organizations youth learn to follow their dreams with deep passion. So if an organization would dedicate 1% of its profits to provide a calf, a piglet or a contribution of 5 dollars to each son or daughter of each member, and if that organization accompanied that initiative, it would be planting its own future and that of humanity. If that is accompanied by the universities teaching the perspective of the large business sector, and also that of that 75% of producers who make up family agriculture, we would be turning the direction of our “sails”, and the youth would once again fall in love with the countryside. In this way, organizations could continuously reinvent themselves under the following expression, that D. Zuniga from the COMAL network saw in a home for the elderly in Copan: “you will be as young as your faith and as old as your doubts.”

[1] PhD in development studies, associate researcher of the IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium), collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/) and member of the COSERPROSS Cooperative. rmvidaurre@gmail.com.

Step Lightly

I recently took the opportunity to travel to some places I had never been before.  Specifically, my wife and I visited for the first time the jewels of the Southwest United States:  Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.  Such an experience is many things: renewing, educational, inspiring, humbling, a privilege and even existential in nature.  Especially at this time of great upheaval within our country, the opportunity to “pull back,” even for a short time, provided a welcome relief.  And an important lesson.

Most of the sites we visited are well-known to those who have visited the Parks, and the trails leading to these vantage points are well-marked and well-trod by millions of visitors before us.  And at each of those trailheads, the Park Service feels obligated to post a message to its visitors, one which might seem unnecessary in the shadows of majestic peaks and rims of jaw-dropping chasms, but which is offered nonetheless.  It’s a small sign which reads, “Your Steps Matter.”                                                

The sign is simply a reminder of the transience of these landscapes and our impacts upon them.  They are fragile.  People too often have the desire to leave their own imprints on these monuments of creation, as if to satisfy a need to make a statement of existence, to leave their own modern-day petroglyphs about which future visitors might wonder.   Perhaps it was the reflective nature of our trip or my tendency to look for hidden meanings where none may be intended, but the words on the sign prompted other thoughts for me.

Our steps do matter, whether for the health of ground vegetation, rock formations or water quality in the parks.   Trees that have withstood the extremes of nature for more than 100 years are nonetheless dependent upon “breathing space” from the hordes of human visitors who come to these sites constantly to witness the immense majesty of the natural world.  It’s among the places where it’s not OK to take “the road less traveled,” as Frost suggested, and where we’re discouraged to blaze our own trails, in deference to the survival of other life.

In light of the signage, I felt a certain pride at keeping to the paths, as though I was contributing something good to the welfare and sustainability of the parks.  I know that the notion is ridiculous, but staying on the trails was perhaps the one act of preservation that I could make.  But that same sense of self-righteousness led me to consider other steps in my life.

Steps everywhere in our lives matter.  Every stride taken in our journey makes an imprint, leaves a trace, impacts our surroundings. Like the proverbial beating of butterfly wings that affects weather patterns on the other side of the world, we are part of a global tapestry wherein all of us are inextricably dependent upon and impacted by each other.  Choices we make in the U.S. have an impact in Nicaragua.  We might elect to trespass over someone else’s space, and might even be able to “get away with it,” and to do so without detection.  But the space will be changed forever, in ways that we may never know. How and where we walk are matters of choice: we can elect to tread lightly and with respect, or to trample according to our own narrow wills.  Either way, we leave a story for those who follow.  Like our children.  Or our grandchildren.  Or our children’s children’s children.

Our steps are our legacies, like those artifacts we covet from millennia past.  They are the messages we leave behind that attempt to declare our existence and portray the kinds of lives we led.  What a pity if, in our wakes, all that remains are traces of once-resplendent times and places….

 

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

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

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

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

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

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

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

[pull down full article here]

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

 

 

Dormilona

The Bashful Plant
The Bashful Plant

While visiting a Nicaraguan farm one Sunday in September, just before the start of the Certificate Program, we hiked some of the property with the owner of the land, Ernesto, along with several of our Nicaraguan colleagues.  His is a small-but-diverse operation, where he has raised beans, corn, coffee, cattle and cacao for his entire life.  Walking the plot of land, even briefly, was a great enjoyment.  I’m always amazed at what grows in sometimes-suspect soil, and how creative farmers have to be with the logistics of five crops growing on very limited acreage.  But the plant that commanded my attention was not one planted in straight rows or intended for harvest.

As we walked to the grove of cacao trees, one of the family members bent over and pointed to a tiny plant growing wild in the pasture.  The stems of the plant were no more than an inch or so in length, with delicate leaves symmetrically extending from each side of the stem.  Though the plant was not in bloom, I was told that it boasts a beautiful pinkish flower.  The stems were all over the area, like some special ground cover that I might see in a backyard where I live.  The plant is called dormilona, sometimes called the “sleeper plant” or the “bashful plant.”  For when its tiny leaves are even gently brushed, they immediately close up like the pages in a book.  It’s a fascinating response to observe, as though the plant is either ticklish to the touch or so shy as to be physically introverted.  The leaves eventually unfold again, once they are sure that the intrusion has passed.  The experience of touching the plants and observing their response is oddly addicting.  And I had it in the back of my mind at the start of the workshop.

On the following day, the Certificate Program began with each of the 40-some participants- class members, presenters, hosts and guests-  introducing themselves to the rest of the crowd.  This is an interesting and instructive process, however routine it may seem.  For within these brief statements of “who I am,” we get perhaps our first opportunity to meet each of the individuals with whom we will be sharing an entire week.  It’s a quick gauge of personality and perspective to guide the interactions to come.

It’s not unusual for members of a group like this, in any country or setting,  to be a little hesitant or even shy about speaking up; many of us are “hard-wired” to be cautious about how much we reveal of ourselves until we’re sure that the surroundings are safe.  It’s better to venture forth slowly, lest we jump into waters way over our heads and we suddenly discover that we don’t know how to swim.  And particularly with rural Nicaraguans, many of whom have not spent much time in the presence of visitors, the tendency is to be reserved and quiet.  (Unless you’re like the ubiquitous “Juan,” one of whom seems to be in every group, wisecracking and joking from the start!)

Nonetheless, we always start with these introductions, not for the completeness of what they can tell us, but for the brief glimpses of who is in the room.  On this occasion, it’s what started me thinking about the dormilona plant once again.  It seemed to me that there were many in our group who, when their turn to introduce arrived, were clearly humbled to even offer their names,  standing in withering modesty, almost turning inward upon themselves, so tangible was their bashfulness.  I thought of fragile green leaves, folding inward for protection until threats had passed.

During the ensuing week, the dangers must have dissipated, because the Program participants opened up in ways as beautiful as those little green, flowering plants which covered that Sunday hillside.  We came to recognize each member for the capacity which he or she brought to the week.   The participants were engaged and energized, and full of the ideas that could make their week successful.  Indeed, by week’s end when the certificates were awarded, each individual was recognized for his or her own particular character and contribution, and there was nothing bashful about it.  Only a sense of accomplishment and some pride.

Working alongside the Nica participants during the Certificate Program was not unlike interacting the dormilona plant.  At first touch, palpable humility showed itself as a “folding inward” for many.  But with time, the folded arms of shyness gradually reached out to embrace what was good in the environment, to soak in the essential components of well-being, whether personal of group.  It’s a universal truth, though one that we seem to forget the next time we find ourselves among strangers.

Maybe I make too much of the dormilona and my fascination with its gentle ways.  But I have found its character enormously attractive, and worth spending my time on….

 

 

 

 

 

 

Awaking to normality, an antidote for market control

Awaking to normality, an antidote for market control

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

“I am fine”, he says, while in the jaws of an alligator. Popular saying.

Every cloud has its silver lining. Old saying.

The parable of the “boiling frog” says that if we put a frog in a pot of boiling water, the frog will immediately jump out of the pot; on the other hand, if we put the frog in temperature that is low, and do not scare it, the frog will remain there; if we then increase the temperature, the frog will not do anything; the more the temperature increases, the more dazed the frog remains, and even though there is nothing keeping him from getting out of the pot, it will not leave; and ends up being boiled. Organizations (members and organizations) tend to be like the frog, in the face of sudden events (coups, electoral results, unpopular decrees) they react and take to the streets; while in the face of a gradual dispossession of their resources and even their own organizations, they tend to adapt, some even enjoy appearing to be victims, and when they realize it, they are already “boiled” like the frog.

In this article we present one of those organizations, the La Voz Cooperative, located in the municipality of San Juan La Laguna (in the Lake Atitlán basin), Sololá Province, Guatemala. We studied their process of awakening, and then, so that they might continuously keep themselves awake, and at the same time contribute to a formation with justice, we suggest an important collaboration between the cooperatives and the universities.

In 12 years they had completely “flipped the tortilla”

I visited them in 2004 and again now in 2016. In 2004 the historical tensions that existed in the municipality of San Juan and San Pedro over land and other resources were still felt, in fact some people from San Pedro continued buying land in San Juan and had the best coffee fields in the municipality; the chalet owners (mostly foreigners and people from the city of Guatemala) took over the shores of the lake, one of the 7 marvels of the world. The La Voz cooperative had their wet mill, they stood out for their frequent rotation of leadership, while the organic coffee yields of their members were equivalent to 60% of conventional coffee yields.

In 2016 the picture I found was very different. Some people from San Juan had purchased land and coffee fields from people from San Pedro and almost none of that previous tension between San Juan and San Pedro was felt. Hurricane Stan in 2005 and Tropical Storm Agatha in 2010 made the water level increase in Lake Atitlán, and with that a lot of land in dispute disappeared. The cooperative is changing; in addition to a wet mill, now they have a cafeteria where they roast 5% of their total coffee and they sell it packaged and in cups of coffee; 95% of the rest of the coffee they export; they have a clinic for women; they produce organic fertilizer to sell to their members; the coffee quality has improved (cup scores of 94 and 95) and their yield is the reverse of 2004, now their conventional coffee is equal to 60% of the per manzana yield of their organic coffee. Some of their members are buying land again.

“If you do not flip the tortilaa, it burns.” The cooperative had flipped the tortilla, taken a big leap, and along with the cooperative San Juan had also improved. What were the keys that openned the door of improvement for the cooperative in a matter of 12 years?

‘Hit rock bottom’ with the crisis, trust in themselves and move forward again in alliances

Paradoxically, the principal key was undergoing a harsh crisis and waking up right before “getting boiled.” Between 1993 and 1995 the cooperative received a loan for nearly a half million dollars from a social bank and two userers; and in that same period doubled the amount of their organic coffee exports, buying another 50% from third parties and passing it off as fair trade and organic coffee from the cooperative. The cooperative did not receive most of that loan, and did not receive anything for the shady deal for the other 50% of the coffee (earnings for the purchase and sale of coffee to a friendly market that was paying a good price + US$20/qq fair trade premium + US$30/qq organic premium). This obviously was possible thanks to the complicity of part of the board and the administrative staff, who acted behind the backs of the cooperative, even though they did do it in their name, with the complacency of the certifiers, banks and coffee buyers, who obviously saw the numbers double on paper and kept quiet.

“In just one period we disgraced ourselves”, said a member of the cooperative, while refering to the fact that the elections of the board members are every two years, and that one period was enough to “disgrace” the cooperative. In this period during which the temperature of the “pot” was increasing, “the frog” (the members) were calm, they did not perceive the change in temperature. The following period (next two years) the collectors arrived because they had fallen into arrears, the board members and the members were concerned, but the situation appeared to be under control. They needed one more period to realize that “they had exported double the amount”, it is then that they met in the assembly to ask the ex-board members what had happened, and analyzed the causes along with the members; and met with the banks, the certifiers, the buyers and the aid agencies. They worked to reach agreements, changed the organic certifier, and the members of the cooperative bodies began to look at the administrative management. Thus they freed themselves from being “boiled” like the “frog.”

Now outside the “pot”, the leaders look at their awakening in retrospect:

“If a member spoke well, we would say that that member was good, we would say let him be president, and we would nominate him for president. We would trust what the manager or president would tell us: “such and such a project is coming…sign here.” That is fine, we would say, and we would sign. We would not verify the minutes to see how it had been left. They only would come to tell us. We signed and we signed. There was no control over the travel allowance of the manager, nor over the salaries that they got. We let them sign the checks for the employees. The manager in one period was even the legal representative of the cooperative. We would change everyone in each period, there were meetings, but we did not know how to exercise those roles. The credit committee would allow the board to authorize the loans, and we would say that that was good. As the legal represenative the manager would negotiate and talk with the buyers and the banks; we were afraid to talk with a business person and we were happy that the manager did so. Going to the capital was something we really did not want to do…” (board member of the cooperative).

The members saw themselves as adapting to something that was making things worse for them. First, the “normal” (signing minutes and checks without verifying, naming board members and meeting without playing their roles, putting people who spoke up more into positions of responsibility, allowing the manager to be the legal representative, the administration to sign their own checks, the board or manager to authorize loans instead of the credit committee, avoiding conversations with buyers and the banks) emerged as “abnormal” for being from a cooperative. This is waking up. Secondly, realizing that the instigators for taking over the resources of the cooperative were from inside and outside the cooperative, this made centuries of beliefs evaporate about “the foreign auditor has the last word,” “the person with the college degree is trained to lead organizations”, that “we always need a patron” (someone who directs us “from above”), and that “we indigenous are not capable of speaking or traveling”. Third, the formality of the cooperative had absorbed them: that leadership rotation was the solution to corruption, and that the audit of international aid organizations ensured that everything was normal. “That is fine, it is fine”- they would tell them while reviewing the paperwork that the small mafia had organized. Fourth, they laughed when they realized that culturally as families they had closed themselves off to learning new ideas, they had said that “a ladino could not teach an indigenous about coffee”; and that idea had blocked them, they could hear them but not listen to them. Fifth, the force of the market (individual interest to maximize profits) was like the fire that increased the temperature of the pot, it was a logic that had penetrated the minds of the members and the fair trade organizations, and had connected them to the normal practices of the first point, the unfavorable beliefs of the second point, the demanding formality of the third point, and with that cultural prison of the fourth point. This is the environment that made them repeat to any visitor: “we are fine.”

With all these points and the decisions that they made, they had taken a giant step: waking up in time and getting out of the “pot.” Nevertheless, this did not guarantee them that they would not fall into another “pot”; in addition they were “half boiled” by the time they got out; the members did not trust their cooperative, while many aid agencies withdrew, and other suggested closing down the cooperative and founding another one. How did they rebuild trust and move forward again as a cooperative? They put their house in order, they defended themselves against legal suits, they negotiated their debts, and at the same time they invested and found good markets for their principal crop, coffee.

First, the cooperative learned the lesson that the associative side of the cooperative (board, oversight board and committees) had to understand AND manage the administrative side of the cooperative (cafeteria, exports, fertilizer production, administration, credit, clinic), and had to be zealously careful with the decisions that each side (associative and business) had to make. This lesson they began to put into practice.

Secondly, the cooperative, with its bodies and management, built beneficial relationships with different actors. With aid organizations and the State, administering resources efficiently. With social banks, honoring their debt, in spite of the fact that only part of those resources had gotten to the cooperative, and the fact that the social banks had failed in their scrutiny mechanisms to ensure that the loans went to the cooperative and not a small mafia. Building relationships with a new organic certifier, looking for one that “visited the countryside.” And with the coffee buyers so that the demand for more quality might be combined with price differentials.

Third, the “associative-business” awakening also implied a “awakening in production technology”. This implied recognizing that there was a lot to improve in their production areas, and that the training sessions from the state institutions on the coffee market were useful and necessary; then they began to listen to the trainings and observe their fields. It also implied deciding to have a full time technical promoter (who would accompany the members in their fields, as well as produce organic inputs, earthworm and compost fertilizer) that the members can buy. In this way, slowly, they perceived that a responsible management of organic coffee would yield sustainable fruit in the long run, something beneficial even for including different associated crops with the coffee, and for understanding that an open mind with a long term perspective is important.

Fourth, adding value to their coffee, getting into the roasting and grounding of coffee, and opening a cafeteria for the public, has multiple benefits. On the one hand, it has allowed you to know more about the yield of coffee, for example, that 1.20 pounds of export coffee is equal to 1 lb of roasted-ground coffee, or that 1 pound of roasted, ground coffee comes from 7.4 pounds of cherry coffee, and that you can get 25 cups of coffee from that one pound. This information is important to them when negotiating differential prices with coffee buyers, because both organizations, the cooperative and the buyers, understand how unjust the New York price is, when it says that 1 pound of coffee is worth US$1.50, and that same pound in the United States or Europe, now roasted, ground and packaged, is worth 10 to 20 times more, and let´s not even talk about once it is turned into 25 cups of coffee. On the other hand, the cafeteria is also a door to agro-ecological tourism for people connected to the coffee trade and for the public in general; this creates an environmental awareness and allows people to understand how coffee economics works and how it is part of the culture of the communities of San Juan; and also deepens the relationship between the cooperative and the organizations with which they are connected.

The ongoing awakening

“Every cloud has it silver lining.” The crisis was serious, but at the same time, awakening to it allowed them to make a difference in 12 years. They learned that the relationship between the associative and business parts is the engine of cooperativism; that the formality of leadership rotation is basic, but insufficient; and that a relationship of alliance is a double edged sword, it can be a relationship of complicity for dispossessing the members of their own organization, or it can be an alliance so that they “jump” out of the “boiling pot”, improve the lives of their members, and contribute to non members. If the relationship of the organizations is only with the president or the manager, based only on “papers”, they are on the brink of being dispossessed. If the relationship with the organizations is with that associative/business interaction mediated by immersion processes and transparency on both sides, they are on the brink of repossession. This is the biggest contribution of the La Voz cooperative to the associative world.

After these two large steps forward, are they out of danger of being “boiled” like the “frog”? The response is no. In fact, it is said that human beings are the only animal that trips over the same stone. What can be done to keep danger away? In the history of social movements we learn that, after being mobilized “from below”, even the best leaders tend to believe that the people can only be mobilized “from above” – from a political vanguard, manager or market. The cooperative needs mechanisms that would allow it to mobilize itself “from below” (members) to detect in time any increase in “temperature”; that the associative side supervise the administrative side – like the rotation of leaders – it is good, but not enough. How can it be done? Based on research, we should work on an alliance between the cooperative and the University around the formation of students and new associative leaders. Concretely, the cooperative and the Rafael Landivar University (RLU), I mention the RLU because of their historic interest in contributing to a society moved by social justice and not by market justice, should invest in a cafeteria on the central university campus and then in each branch; that cafeteria would be the gateway toward an ecology of knowledge (the science that is taught is ONE knowledge, there are other knowledges produced for example by the indigenous and peasant families of San Juan, and other knowledges); and that relationship would allow the RLU to have a privileged source for formation, and the cooperative would have an opportunity to study itself in a contextualized way.

“What good can come from San Juan de La Laguna?” ask those who are mobilized “from above”, like the prejudiced elite asked some 2 thousand years ago: “What good can come from Nazareth?”. In this article the La Voz Cooperative teaches us that working within a plural framework of alliances, keeping the focus on organized families, may be the best antidote for any organization that fights for justice and peace to avoid being “boiled” by market fundamentalism that says that you have to study a major or organize yourself exclusively to make money.

[1] René (rmvidaurre@gmail.com) has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/) and an asociate researcher for IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium).

We Have Grown Together

ANIDES is an organization with whom Winds of Peace has partnered for the past several years.  It’s a group devoted to lifting up women, helping them to understand and embrace their rights and to explore their capacities as the critical players in strengthening their families and Nicaraguan society.  ANIDES has not only helped with basic living amenities for its women and their families across 34 communities, but has also assisted in the formation of communal banks in outlying villages.  The banks have created access to economic resources, but more importantly have helped to teach finance, cooperative responsibility and the dignity to be discovered in effectively managing such a collaborative endeavor.

Recently, one of the Foundation colleagues visited with the rural cooperative members to talk about their visions, their needs, and the aspirations.  After the meeting and some contemplation about the visit, Gloria Ordoñez- director of ANIDES and the hands-on godmother of the women members- drafted a thoughtful reflection about both the progress of the women and the challenging road ahead.  It’s worth reading, as excerpted with her knowledge and blessing, below:

For some five years we proposed to deal with this challenge in a joint way with the women, using tools for knowledge management, so that they might learn some of their good and bad practices, improving their self esteem, and the importance that the roles that each one performs have for making their organization stronger, working on the recognition of different leaderships that each one exercises within their organization.

For us the application of methodological tools seem important (Results Oriented Management), for their recognition as human beings and through them that they might recognize their skills, abilities and capacities. Likewise that they might recognize the medium in which they can “exploit” or apply those skills. These tools help to recognize what I am now, what I want, a balance in life, the personal values and how through learning to build their path toward the personal and organizational vision.

These tools not only help the growth and personal development, but also the organization, all the members working together to recognize themselves not only as individuals but as organization, the construction of this path toward the vision from the systemic approach helps them to take more ownership over the organization and to work, putting into practice solidarity as a fundamental principle of cooperativism. We know that putting this into practice, or the implementation of a good attitude toward the members, is a long and steep path that we need to walk.  In these years the members have shown an openness to change and are involved in the processes, more and more in a conscious manner.

… So we have grown together little by little, we started with 15 very fearful women that would arrive at the workshops in the company of their husbands or sons; now we have grown in number and active participation; maybe we needed to not move too quickly through stages, so that everyone might participate at the same level….

The communal banks have been the space for learning to set the foundation for the development of trust among the members, strengthening their self esteem, formation and skill development. Making a sieve in order to create cooperatives with the members that show better strengths, identifying and strengthening the common elements of institutionality (system of values held in common for governance).

We see that the role of ANIDES is still very important for STRENGTHENING THE INTERNAL SELF MANAGEMENT CAPACITY of the incipient cooperative organizations. Through accompaniment processes so that they themselves might facilitate them with knowledge acquired in previous processes, GUIDING the comprehension of INSTRUMENTS FOR COLLECTIVE ENTREPRENEURIAL GOOD GOVERNANCE (these documents already exist for each cooperative) in this new stage we will teach their leaders to use and apply them.

Precisely through this we think that strengthening a promoter group of leaders, we will expedite (in a cascading manner) the training process of the different cooperative organizations from within, being accompanied by ANIDES, so that the grassroots cooperatives might be able to continue strengthening themselves FROM THE IDENTIFICATION OF THEIR OWN STRENGTHS AND COMMON IDENTITIES, (like what you call the institution, that has to do with their roots, values and common commitments as women who are living in similar circumstances, learning to get ahead with their families in the midst of adversities).

Thanks for your multiple perspectives and contributions to continue going more in depth to make a different in the cooperative organizations, which is the strong commitment of ANIDES.

This memorandum is a complete and focused organization development roadmap, as holistic, sophisticated and ambitious as any strategic document I’ve encountered.  Its focus includes the health and strength of the organization, its current and future leadership, the well-being of the individual members, a sensitivity to collaborative realities, courage to take on enormous difficulties and a vision which exceeds the boundaries of sight.  It’s a document of hope and expectation, and one that any U.S. business organization would be challenged to achieve and proud to own.

When people occasionally ask me whether there is good news in Nicaragua, whether there is cause for optimism for the future, I will use the words above to state the unequivocal answer, yes….

 

 

“First Person”

I had the wonderful opportunity last month to briefly address the National Center for Employee Ownership (NCEO) Annual Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  I have not spoken before a national employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) audience in several years, so it was a terrific chance to renew past friendships and catch up first-hand with what is happening in the ESOP community at-large.

Along with that invitation, NCEO also wondered whether I might be willing to write a companion piece in a column entitled “First Person,” to be included in their monthly publication, “Employee Ownership Report.”  The periodical provides updates on all sorts of ownership-related matters., both in the U.S. and also in other locations.  I agreed to submit a reflection on the similarities of ownership as I’ve experienced them in both the U.S. and Nicaragua.  The article was published in the May-June edition of the Employee Ownership Report and I think it has application not only for a U.S. ownership audience, but also anyone engaged in development work in places like Nicaragua.  The following is the article in its entirety:

“Universal Truths”

It’s still amazing to me! After working for 31 years in my company, the last 20 of which were under ESOP ownership, in 2005 I found myself working for a private foundation serving rural Nicaraguans. But as different as the circumstances and surroundings may be between those environments, I’m still talking and teaching the same language and the same lessons as all those years ago. To my great surprise, my greatest strength in working with impoverished Nicaraguan farmers is my ESOP orientation, and recognition of just what it is that grabs the human spirit and shakes loose creative drive.

Things such as ownership, as in the coffee cooperatives. And transparency, as in understanding the fundamentals of how an enterprise succeeds, how A+B=C, the rules of the game being played. (Yes, The Great Game of Business translates into Spanish!) Or participation, by members all across the organization, both as constituents and leaders. Like organizational holism, where the entire organization focuses on the six dimensions of well-being: Intellectual, Social, Emotional, Spiritual, Occupational and Physical. It turns out that the elements of organizational strength are the same whether in Nicaragua or within the U.S. and there’s a lesson in that.

The lesson is that the methodologies we encourage for effective employee ownership are not simply progressive management tools that can generate improved organizational performance. Rather, the elements are responses to basic human needs, universal truths that address some of the most basic yearnings that we experience in our lives.

We need to provide for ourselves, of course. But we long to be part of something bigger, something that goes beyond vocation, something that promises a lasting imprint. We want to know how things work around us, and how we make it better. We need to feel that we have contributed something of ourselves to an undertaking that is good and successful. Providing a living for ourselves is a livelihood. But elevating those around us at the same time is a legacy, something that transcends everyday existence in ways profound and subtle.

I’ve experienced the power of that truth both in the U.S. and in Nicaragua. In 1993, The ESOP Association began its annual practice of recognizing employee-owners and companies for their achievements under an ESOP ownership structure. The very first national employee-owner of the year was Shirley Bauer, a Tool Crib Attendant at Foldcraft Co. Shirley and her husband were farmers in southeastern Minnesota; maybe that contributed to her ability to see the potential in employee-ownership. A humble but outgoing woman, Shirley had daily access to people from around the entire company and became an outspoken promoter of the ESOP. When her name was announced at that first annual awards dinner, both her energy and humility-as well as her ESOP passion- were evident to everyone in attendance. The moment emblazoned itself in the memories of many who were present, and I still hear recollections from some of those people today.

Two weeks ago, I sat in a very different venue. I attended an organizational workshop for coffee cooperatives. Before an audience of 75 people, a tiny Nicaraguan woman by the name of Corina nervously but firmly explained the details of a 5-year family farm plan which she had created. I had met Corina several years before, after her small coop had been defrauded by unscrupulous middle-men and faced almost certain collapse. The Foundation provided enough help for coop survival, but I recall Corina as a defeated woman, one who had invested much and now faced near-ruin. Back then, she was barely audible in the presence of her North American visitors. But now she was sharing the wisdom gained through perseverance, the success of her immensely hard work and that of the coop, the “family strategic plan” blueprint provided by her coop mentors. Her radiance mirrored that of Shirley Bauer so many years ago.

We’re not as different as we sometimes think. There are universal elements that feed our psyches and souls, among them the power of shared, collaborative work. Tenets of employee-ownership are not simply good structure. They meet some of our most basic human needs.

It’s often the case that we spend much of our time and energies identifying how we’re  so different from one another, and deciding who should be allowed to participate in the freedoms and joys of this life, rather than recognizing how entirely alike we members of the human species really are….