Drinking coffee as an act for peace in times of polarization
Nicaragua is once again extremely polarized. It is enough to compare different posts on our nica-update to see diametrically opposed views of the ongoing crisis. We post them not to imply that each perspective is equally true, but rather to recognize that important segments of the population hold contradictory views of what is happening and its underlying causes. Even more important are its implications for the future governability of Nicaragua –for any government to be sustainable, it will need to find a way to incorporate the interests of those holding the opposing viewpoint, no matter how “mistaken” they may be judged to be. We certainly learned this lesson at the end of the “contra war” in the early 1990s.
For our part, given that our major focus for the last few years has been accompanying Nicaraguan cooperatives, we have redoubled our efforts to support their economic and social enterprises in spite of the risks in these times of crisis, because we see them as potential oases of peace. Cooperatives generally have members of different political and religious perspectives who come together to achieve economic and social benefits for their members. By nature, they have to negotiate the accomplishment of common goals with members from different viewpoints.
Furthermore, the history of Nicaragua is full of examples where political violence starting in urban areas ends up claiming many more rural lives, as both sides recruit peasants by offering to meet their historic demands when they come to power. But consistently, after the conflicts end, while a few might end up benefitting, the effective political power of the peasantry remains largely unchanged, in spite of the many promises.
We see our contribution in this context to be helping cooperatives be successful economic and social enterprises in these difficult times. Because when successful, they contribute to the sustainability and stability of their territories, and thus lessen the attractiveness of purveyors of violence.
The problem is that because of increased country risk, credit to the countryside from both banks and microcredit organizations has largely dried up. No access to credit severely cripples the ability of cooperatives to play this role in their communities.
Since 1997, WPF has lent $3.7 million dollars directly to cooperatives and grassroots rural organizations, and has lent another $7.5 million to national microcredit institutions founded to support the rural sector. Even though these numbers show we are a small overall player, we intentionally set out to lend to groups that had never before managed a loan, precisely to help them establish a credit history, and thus open up other sources of credit to them. As a result, a number of cooperatives, and one now very large rural microcredit organization, have “graduated” to the point where they have “outgrown” the amounts we can provide, and now receive much larger amounts from a variety of lenders.
But as a small, private foundation (i.e. one that does not receive donations from the public), we cannot survive very long if those loans are not repaid. Correspondingly we have an overall loan loss rate of only 3.59% in this same period.
Even in this time of crisis, WPF has made loans to grassroots cooperatives worth just under $168,000 in this 2018-19 coffee cycle. But the risks only increase with this next coffee cycle, as economists point out Nicaragua now faces macroeconomic instability. Economic actors continue to send dollars outside the country, and international reserves continue falling. Specifically, this raises the specter that even though we make loans to grassroots coffee cooperatives, and they are able to export their coffee, once the payment for their coffee enters the country, the government may not allow those dollars to leave, thus making payment impossible.
The only way around this problem is to “triangulate” the loans, i.e. include the international buyers in the loan contract, where the buyers, once they have received the coffee, agree to transfer the amount of the loan and interest directly to WPF´s account in the US, sending the remainder to the account of the cooperative. That way the cooperative does not lose access to an international lender for not being able to make a transfer of dollars to the US.
We have already used this mechanism with a number of cooperatives. But given the new risks, we realize it has to be required for all our loans. The problem is in this last coffee cycle the number of contracts between cooperatives and international buyers actually dropped precipitously, while the number of contracts with “local buyers” increased to a similar degree. This strategy would not work with local buyers, because their payment to us would still have to overcome the hurdle of sending dollars outside the country during a possible ban.
Yet our research has shown that these local buyers are actually exporting all the coffee they buy. Given the uncertainty, it appears that previous direct international buyers are working through these intermediaries to source their coffee. This means that in this time of crisis, cooperatives are getting even less value for their coffee, as these intermediaries take a chunk of the money that previously went directly to them. Just when cooperatives need to be supported to promote local stability, they are even more hobbled by the new buying methodology.
WPF for some time now has been working with a team that accompanies some 50 cooperatives. Even before the crisis our team had been working with the cooperatives on issues of internal organizational effectiveness, equity, transparency, and effective member participation.
Now as a contribution to peace, we are willing to continue lending to these cooperatives, in spite of the risks. We want to form an alliance with coffee and cacao buyers interested in making a concrete and real contribution to peace in the countryside by buying directly from grassroots producer cooperatives. This is particularly important for this next coffee cycle.
We would not expect buyers to buy anything less than quality coffee, and the cooperatives we work with, in addition to providing the normal samples required by buyers, could also provide them with abundant information about their members, as many of them have done internal surveys, and even facilitated their member families developing their own “Family Investment Plans”.
Such an alliance would provide quality coffee to buyers, and would provide important income to coffee producers, thus enabling them to be oases for peace in their territory. In this sense, drinking coffee coming from such an alliance would effectively be an act for peace in Nicaragua.
Buyers and roasters interested in contributing to peace in this way in Nicaragua can contact us at email@example.com. We would also appreciate support from any readers in helping us make contacts with coffee buyers and roasters.
In the film “Spartacus” on the slave rebellion in 71 BC we recognize the strength of a shared vision. After twice defeating the Roman legions, the gladiators/slaves fell before the legion of Marcus Crassus, who says to thousands of survivors: “you were slaves and you will be slaves again, but you can save yourself from crucifixion if you turn Spartacus over to me.” So Spartacus takes a step forward and shouts, “I am Spartacus”. The man by his side also steps forward, “I am Spartacus”. Within a minute all shout that they are Spartacus. Each gladiator/slave choses death. Why? Following Peter Senge (1990, the Fifth Disciplne) they are not expressing loyalty to Sparacus, but to a shared vision of being free in such a profound way that they prefer dying to being slaves again. “A shared vision – says Senge – is not a idea, not even an important idea like freedom. It is a force in the hearts of people.” In this article we lay out some long term visions, show their importance for lasting change, and we take note of the role of organizations related to the peasantry of our millennium.
That vision of being free emerged as a profound human aspiration in the face of the slavery system, a fire that neither the cross nor death were able to extinguish. In the movie the lover of Spartacus comes up to him and reveals to him that his vision will be realized, “Your son will be born free!” 2089 years later that powerful vision continues present in the foundation of our societies.
Another vision, one of democracy, emerged even before in the years of 500 BC. Even though it excluded 75% of the population (slaves, women and foreigners), that vision arose based on assemblies, building institutions under the power (cracia) of the people (demo). 2500 years later, in spite of the fact that the elites flipped that vision to where democracy exists only under the control of a minority, that Greek vision based on assemblies continues moving millions of hearts.
The vision of the reign of God was sketched out by Jesus of Nazareth, son of a peasant woman and a carpenter, in 30 AD. In a hierarchical and despotic patriarchal world, Jesus envisions the possibility of a “kingdom” for those who are looked down upon – who might be like children, destitute and who would build peace, a reign that is small and becomes big like the mustard seed. Since then, that vision of the kingdom, in spite of being androcentric (king-dom), has mobilized millions of people. It is a vision that made Luther in the 1500s challenge the institutional church and translate the Bible into vernacular languages so that people might have access to God without religious intermediaries.
In the XVIII century the encyclopedists (1751-1772), living at a time with a minority of educated people, envisioned “putting up a wall against barbarism.” That vision of making “papers speak” has moved humanity with revolutions and fights against racism and extreme poverty. It is enough to see the movie “The Power of One” filmed in 1992, based on Africa in the 1930s, to recognize the vision of the encyclopedists, that learning to read made a difference. It is also the advice that we heard from our grandmothers in the countryside, “study, a pencil weighs less than a shovel.”
Even though the idea of organization and the construction of the State emerged with capitalism in the XVI century, societies envisioned alternative forms of organization to the control and rule of capitalism and the State. Thus the cooperative emerged in England against the textile industry and in Germany against usury, under the conviction of joining forces in line with the ideas of associativity of Saint-Simon, Fourier, Cabet and Owen. Along these lines the agrarian cooperative movement in the United States from 1870-1910 made explicit the cooperative vision of democratizing the economy (L.Goodwin, 1978, The Populist Movement). This alternative vision, of joining forces –“elbow to elbow we are much more than two”, as Mario Benedetti would say – to democratize the economy continues moving millions of people who are organizing.
Finally the non violent vision of M. Gandhi (1869-1948) in order to achieve the independence of India from the British empire, and improve the well being of both. That pacifist movement saw that “humanity cannot free itself from violence except through non violence”, that “eye for an eye will leave everyone blind” and that “there is no path for peace, peace is the way”. His methods in accordance with that vision were the use of hunger strikes, the “salt march” (salt satia graha) that affected the principal source of taxes for England, and being coherent in his actions and ideas (he made his own clothes and was a vegetarian). That movement inspired Martin Luther King in the United States and his vision of a society where people were treated equally, regardless of their race. And Domitila Barrios of Bolivia walked the same route in 1978 with a vision of a country without fear overthrowing the dictatorship of Banzer peacefully, in the words of Eduard Galeano:
I was seated in the principal plaza with 4 other women and a poster that said: “We come from the mines, we are on a hunger strike until the military dictatorship falls.” People made fun of them as they went by. “So just like that 5 women are going to overthrow a military dictatorship! Hahaha, what a great joke!” And the women, unmoved, in solemn silence…After the 5 women they were 50, then 500, then 5,000, then 50,000 and then half a million Bolivians that came together and overthrew the military dictatorship. Why? Because those women were not wrong, fear was what was mistaken.
All these shared visions connect hearts by common aspirations. Yuval Noah Harari (2011, Sapiens: A brief History of humankind) tells that in human evolution homo sapiens differentiated themselves from other species like chimpanzees by their ability to invent myths capable of mobilizing millions of people to cooperate. Visions belong to that genre, they are real, palpable and move incredible forces born from human hearts.
Peasant and indigenous visions
In our days we hear visions that, like those quoted, are mobilizing a good part of humanity. Scrutinizing them, we understand that they are both new and connected to millennial flames. Let us start with the oldest. Our ancestors that lived close to 2 million years ago as hunters and gatherers envisioned human survival based on agriculture, which led them to domesticate plants and animals between 9500 and 3500 BC. Since those years in our DNA is that tense vision of humans subjugating nature or plants like soy beans, wheat, sugar cane and sunflowers multiplying at the cost of “domesticating” humans (Yuval Noah Harari).
Following that vein, the vision of peasant families has been to have land. In the 1970s in Honduras (Azomada, Lempira), the peasants saw idle land taken away from their ancestors and recognizing that fire that came from their grandparents to “recover a piece of land to produce on it”, took those lands as thousands of peasants have done on the face of the earth. In 1985 when the war was raging in Nicaragua, the State moved 74 indigenous families from Cusmapa and San Lucas to Samarcanda (San Juan del Rio Coco), organized them into cooperatives to confront the Nicaraguan Resistance, as had happened in so many places in the country; one of the leaders, Claudio Hernández recalls, “to get land with coffee we risked our lives, and we accepted being treated as fieldhands and soldiers”; the paradox was that many of those involved in the Nicaraguan Resistance also were fighting for land.
In the 1980s Ricardo Falla S.J. put that vision into words: “a peasant without land is like a being without a soul.” In 1993 I went to La Primavera in Ixcan, Guatemala where hundreds of families that returned from Mexico with the signing of the peace agreements were working the land collectively; at one dinner that a woman shared with me, she whispered: “help us, my husband was killed by the military, I want a piece of land to leave to my children, that his death not be in vain!”; it was a vision shared by families of Mesoamerica and beyond.
Being a farmer is more than having land. In Nicaragua Marchetti and Maldidier (1996, El campesino-Finquero y el Potencial Económico del Campesinado Nicaraguense) detected that peasant vision: “I dream of that day in which my friends visit me and say, what a beautiful farm you have!” The land would not just be a plot with annual crops on it, but a diversified farm with permanent crops. In Honduras, Carlos Cantoral from Terreritos (Nueva Frontera) in the 2000s, sketched out what food sovereignty and peasant autonomy is, echoing our ancestors thousands of years ago:”being a peasant is producing what my family eats, without depending on anyone” – without a debt with the usurer, without giving in to the intermediary, and without lowering your head in the presence of the politician and religious leader. And again in Honduras Porfirio Hernández de Trascerros (Nueva Frontera) in 2018 describes those who lose that vision: “even having cattle they walk around money in hand looking for their corn grinder,” unfortunate is that family that does not first ensure their food. These are the families that resist being a clone of mono-cropping, families that grow their corn and produce their food on more and more diversified farms, which gives them the freedom to generate their own thinking and experiments.
Being a farmer and processing what is produced to ensure food “in green and mature times” has been a vision for thousands of years. Humanity learned to dry meat under the sun in its era of hunting and gathering, and in the years of 3000 BC made bread, and the Incas stored potatoes as starch, exposing potatoes to the sun during the day and to the cold at night. In this vein we find the peasantry of the XVII and XVIII centuries envisioning agro industrializing raw material in their communities. That vision, in spite of being squashed by capitalist industry and later by the socialism of Preobrazhensky and Stalin, persisted within Europe itself. That is why there are around 1100 flavors (brands) of beer in Belgium today, or vineyards and wine in Trentino, Italy. And it persists in Latin America. In Honduras in 2008 (Laguna de La Capa, Yoro), in the face of the “vocation” of the agricultural frontier to receive a peasantry whose grandchildren migrated with sugar cane and sugar mills defeated by the slavish rule that “only the rich make sugar”, the COMAL Network and peasant families started to process granulated sugar in the community itself. Cirilo George from the APROCATY Associative Enterprise put that fire into words, “we will not go back”, referring to the fact that individually they fell with their sugar cane into that destiny and that slavish rule, but organizing themselves, they made that vision of agro-industrialization palpable, as the Manduvirá Cooperative of Paraguay has done.
Having land, being a farmer, processing food…and selling! What a chain of visions! Even though the peasantry sees itself at odds with commerce, their aspirations include commercializing in order to cooperate. Within this perspective, in Honduras (Encinos, Intibucá) in the midst of intimidating polices under the Alliance for Progress of the 1960s and 1970s, women and men who would walk for days through mud to buy what they were not producing, envisioned “bringing in a store managed by us the Lenca peasant ourselves, right here.” That community, like the members of the La Unión Store (Taulabé, Honduras), Maquita Cosunchej of Ecuador, or the Hope of the Peasants Cooperative in Panama, overcame the old rule that “peasants and indigenous are no good at selling, only at planting.” Maybe individually it is difficult for a peasant family to sell, they say that it is a “betrayal of a promise” (buying oneself in order to later sell), but organized, it is another story, because “the market is really relationships of people coming together, getting to know one another and trusting one another”– Peter Druckers would say to Peter Schwartz (1996, The Art of the Long View). In the 1990s again in Honduras a dozen leaders of several organizations, among them Auristela Argueta, saw a vision that continues to light up deep Mesoamerica: “we now have land, we are producing our food and something more, a market for selling and exchanging our products.” That aspiration that markets can connect organized people to one another, was the seed that gave rise to the Comal Network of Honduras.
What is distinctive about these visions and the imperative to see them
These visions, far from the current ones that businesses tend to express to generate capital or the blueprint of organizations to find donations and “to put a patch on the problem”, move human determination through time and are like flames that do not go out, in search of a greater good. What distinguishes them? They are born out of crises, when that which should die, does not, and what should sprout, does not, as A. Einstein used to say: “creativity is born from anguish as day from night.” Adversity is overcome by “swimming against the current” and connecting oneself with centennial and millennial human aspirations that, like tectonic plates, shake even the most solid land, like that outrageous belief that a divine being or the market writes your destiny. They are understood by people discontent with the status quo, that question their worlds, see other possible realities, expand their mental horizons and really believe in their capacity to create the future because they experience it daily. They are shared visions that emerge from personal visions, and not from adhering to visions prepared by managers or consultants; they derive their energy and commitment precisely from the fact that they come from personal visions.
These shared visions reorder life. If your vision is that your family eats what you produce, that makes you reorder your farm, the work of your family and your relationships with your neighbors, and if that vision is shared by other people of an organization, this reorients the organization toward that vision. They are concrete visions, here and now, visions that make them encounter the stranger and discover themselves. They are visions that cause changes day to day, brick to brick, seed after seed, the drop of water that breaks stone.
In the face of these visions of future frameworks that we want to create, the challenge for peasant and indigenous organizations is to encourage their members to express their visions, understand them, and embody them in agreements and new rules to support the peasantry, the basis for food and assurance of environmental sustainability for humanity. For that purpose, the more an organization opens itself to learning, the more it tunes its ear to hear the visions, the more it takes out a pencil to take notes and ruminate on them, the more it reinvents itself, breaking rules like “the older one gets, the less one changes”, “the more one studies, the more one forgets about where they came from”, and “the more power one gets, the more farther they get from the people”. A peasantry that organizes itself and awakens to the fact that they can create their future, is more connected to the vision of Jesus, feels more the vision of the gladiators/slaves, seeks to have more democratic assemblies, aspires more the path of non-violence, makes agriculture an art, and weaves more of their own thinking. Shared visions, in the midst of the tensions and adversities of all times, move human mountains and help us to be generators of long term changes that started just yesterday.
The height of injustice is to be deemed just when you are not. Plato
Even an honest man sins in the face of an open treasure. Saying.
The VII song of the Odyessy tells how the goddess Circe warned Ulysses that the sailors of those waters were so enchanted by the song of the sirens that they went mad, and lost control of their ships. To not succumb to that enchantment, Ulysses asked that he be tied to the mast of the ship, and that the oarsmen have wax put in their ears, and ordered that if he, because of the spell of their song, would ask that they free him, instead they should tighten the knots. So it was that Ulysses and his oarsmen were saved, and the sirens, failing in their objective, threw themselves off the cliff.
Facing unfair commercial relations, Fair Trade (FT) emerged as an alternative so that people who organized might improve their lives and be a space of solidarity among different actors beyond their countries´ borders. Nevertheless, in our case study in Nicaragua and Central America, we show that the institutional structure of power relationships under the market control of elites is like the sirens in the myth, capable of seducing the FT network, turning it against its own principles, and turning solidarity into just a bunch of words, numbers and papers. How can FT tie itself up so as to not succumb to the song of the sirens, and in this way, grow, enhancing its FT alternative principles? To respond to this question we take as a given that there are exceptional cooperatives, organizations, and people who confirm the importance of organizing and cultivating global solidarity, and that there are successful cooperatives, in countries in the south as well as in the north, in FT as well as outside of it. Nevertheless, in this article we study certain practices of the FT framework that seem to indicate its involution, and on that basis we suggest its reinvention. To do so we focus on coffee, which constitutes 70% of the volume of what is sold through FT.
You have to look at coffee like the fingers on a hand; the first year we plant, the second year the coffee develops, The third year we harvest, the fourth we harvest more and the fifth year the coffee begins to decline R. Mairena, President
The cooperative works for me: it sells my coffee at a better price, it gives me credit. And it guides me in growing coffee. M.D. Gómez, Member
Plato in his book “The Republic” tells the story of the cave. A group of prisoners remained chained in a cave since their birth. They cannot turn their heads, they can only see the wall in the back. Behind them is a corridor and a bonfire. Men are passing through the corridor with different objects which project shadows on the wall because of the light. The prisoners believe that the shadows of the objects are real. One day one of the prisoners is freed and seeing the light from the fire, the people, trees, lakes and the sun, realizes the origin of the shadows and that they are only shadows. He returns to the cave to free his fellow prisoners, who on hearing that the shadows were only shadows, do not believe him, make fun of him and treat him as if he were crazy. This allegory reveals the strength of mindsets (tacit beliefs that rule the lives of people).
What is this kind of mindset in a cooperative? How can a cooperative free itself and build its own way? We explain this mindset, study it seeking to change it: we do it from the experience of the Solidaridad Cooperative in Nicaragua.
1. Mental frameworks and their origins
“The large estate provides, and the farm is a drain”, “we always need a patron”, “the patron knows and decides, the rest obey”, “only one crop, more inputs, more production”, “the dumber the fieldhand, the more hardworking they are”, “ the cheaper you pay the fieldhand, and the cheaper the land is, the more money can be made”. These beliefs sustain a hierarchical and discriminating framework, internalized by a good part of our society.
This mentality was refined over centuries all over. By 1880 Matagalpa had an indigenous population with more than 200,000 mzas of mountainous land, most of it was expropriated by the State for coffee; the mindset was in line with the myth of mestizo Nicaragua (J. Gould): “coffee, a civilized crop, indigenous an obstacle for civilization.” Thus between 1889 and 1895 there were more than 200 foreigners in Matagalpa. In time, in the zone of Arenal, Thomas, Manning, Crespi, Harrison and Vita formed large estates. Vita founded the Aranjuez estate (hacienda), later bought by Potter, then by De Savigny, later on turned into the first mountain hotel and later Somoza turned it into a Sanatarium for people with tuberculosis. From the start of the XX century up to now, temporarily interrupted by the war in the 1980s, the following haciendas were formed: El Quetzal, Marsellesa, Monimbo, La Aurora, El Paraíso, El Paraisito, Los Helechos, Santa Ana, La Esperanza and La Minita. The Solidaridad cooperative is in Aranjuez and El Arenal, has an indigenous past and is now surrounded by haciendas.
The hacienda system was imposed with State backing. Racism and dispossession mechanisms went hand in hand, which is the origin of that mentality that persists even in our times. In the 1990s a hacienda closed the road on 62 members of the Carlos Rodríguez cooperative, forcing them to sell their lands at the price that the hacienda had set. Currently the El Quetzal hacienda closes the road after 6pm, thus leaving the communities “closed in”, communities where its own workers live, as well as some families who are members of the cooperative. After 2010 several haciendas of the area have been facing a drop in the production of their coffee, the soils are exhausted, the exploited environment no longer produces: more inputs, more dead soil, the more coffee is exposed to full sunlight, the more the soil is washed away with the rainfall.
The very act of explaining the origin of that mentality awakens people. The hacienda has built itself by taking. More inputs and mono-cropping has led to greater soil deterioration. Closing roads no longer leads to cheaper land, nor does it force the hand of producer families. The “stupid” fieldhand, leaving the hacienda, has become a farmer.
2. A check on the hacienda: the cooperative
The 63 members of the cooperative have more than 300 mzs of land and produce about 7,000 qq of export coffee. The cooperative collects and exports 60% of the coffee of its members, 30% of that as quality coffee. 20 years ago most of these 63 members were fieldhands – some of them foremen – of the haciendas, they were families with little or no land, some of them producing some flowers and vegetables. Of the 63, some 25 members produce between 30-100qq export coffee per manzana, producing more than some haciendas. A small producer of Aranjuez, who is not a member of the cooperative, with 5 mzs of coffee, won the 2017 Cup of Excellence Award with 91.16 points. That is quality coffee! Diversified coffee farms with bananas and citrus, and not mono-cropping haciendas, produce quality coffee, not just standard coffee. All of this makes the land increase in value, puts a check on the hacienda, and in addition the hacienda sees its earnings decreasing.
It is easy to find examples to illustrate these results. There is a member who is a single mother who lives off her 2 mzs of coffee and bananas, that produces enough for her to support her mother and married daughters. Another member of the cooperative was able to intensify his coffee with bananas and citrus through the cooperative, and left his job as a fieldhand of the hacienda. There is a foreman who became a member of the cooperative and ended up being president of the cooperative.
What has generated this change? Well, the cooperative! Its strategy? First, it understood the importance of regularity in the application of inputs (urea and leaf sprayed fertilizer) that coffee needs in order to produce more, which is why the cooperative provides in-kind credit so that, under technical supervision, each member family applies it and pays for it with that same coffee, for which the cooperative finds markets. Secondly, they got past the biannual nature of coffee (one good year of production and the next year low production), pruning 25% of the coffee each year, and systematically renovating their old coffee plants. Third, the member families are concentrated in a microterritory and receive credit services, technical assistance and collect the harvest right there, which reduces their transaction costs and facilitates a close relationship between members-leaders and members-administration. Fourth, strong leadership pushing the cooperative in new challenges in a calm, gradual way; “directed credit”, “piloting direct exporting with a small amount”, and “getting into milling with low volume”; they do it as they establish relationships with the social banking sector, coffee buyers and chemical input companies.
Seen from the results, organized small scale production provides more and better farms, good for the people and good for the environment. Nevertheless, seen from the processes, following a different path from that of the hacienda, the response is two pronged: increasing family ownership over their production, but not over their organization. On the one hand, the discipline of applying inputs every 30-35 days on their coffee, and selectively pruning 25% of the plants has become a custom, and thereby a tacit law; as well as turning their coffee in to the cooperative, paying their loans and waiting for a better price. On the other hand, the mindset planted by the hacienda persists: “more inputs, more production”, “without the president we would fall”, “information is not up to date and does not get to the members”, “decisions about credit and who can have a better price for their coffee are not made in the organs of the cooperative”, “a buyer even chooses 10 members to buy their coffee”, “we members rely on the president, we only come in to get our loans and our payments”, “the members who do not increase their production will not increase it no matter what we give them”, “if we apply the rules of the cooperative we would be left without members”, “let the member with the most volume of coffee set the price”. A good part of the cooperative and some of its allies breathe in this mindset.
The benefits of the cooperative for the member families and the environment, for Aranjuez and el Arenal are visible, but their durability depends on changes in their mentality. As Saint-Exupéry said in his novel The Little Prince, what is most important is what is invisible. Taking your own path involves getting off the path of the hacienda.
3. Transformation of mental models
In addition to increasing production, the cooperative proposes increasing coffee quality, diversified farms with environmental sustainability, stronger relationships with the social banks and buyers, members who study their farms, and good relations between members, leaders and workers. And they are on that path. One member who studies and experiments: “I make a selective leaf spray, because I am watching over my plants, I recognize the coffee bore or rust, I observe it daily, if it progresses, I spray it, if it does not progress, I enclose it”; “I spray the entire coffee field, for prevention”; “ before putting a chemical on it I test it a little”, “what I learned when I had organic coffee I continue applying, I spend less and it goes further”, “I have coffee trees for repopulating and to sell”. The member/leader, the one that asks questions, accepts positions of responsibility and exercises them, complies with the rules of the cooperative and the decisions of its respective bodies, is still a subject under construction. Relationships with the workers, encouraged by a coffee buying organization, are making progress: “Coffee with a union aroma” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_SD3QBJ7r_U&feature=share)
For that the cooperative is refining its strategy. First, it is strengthening the observation and study that led them to determine the regularity in the application of inputs, this time to get beyond the belief of “more inputs, more production” to “more observation and management, more quality production”, including mixtures of coffee in micro-lots. Second, it is keeping its decision to have an office and services in the same territory, trying to get their sons and daughters to participate in the life of the cooperative – as members and personnel-staff. Third, it is making the policies and rules of the cooperative be applied, that decisions come from the organs of the cooperative, that members, board and administrative staff be subject to those agreements, and that the international allies respect and strengthen that institutionality. Fourth, the distribution of earnings based on updated information be posted on the wall- information on loans, financial statement, balance statement, volume of coffee collected, services of processing and exporting – so that the member families might come in to be informed, because informing is forming.
The Solidarity cooperative has taken a giant step: it stopped the hacienda. But even though it is at a standstill; it is still intact; the member families, even though are progressing in production and organization, are dividing up their land through inheritances, and their cooperative instrument continues being a challenge. The myth of the cave could change in the cooperative framework if the 4 elements of the strategy – observation, territory, institutionality and transparency – are carried out as the origin of its “light”, that would let them dismantle the mindset of the hacienda (“shadows”) and discern a new path. Their challenge is also the challenge of the entire world.
 René has a PhD in development studies, is an 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 RL cooperative. firstname.lastname@example.org Edgar is also a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation.
 We talked with the member families, their leaders and staff and we facilitated workshops in Aranjuez. This article is the result of that collective learning with the member families that observed their farms and reflected on their cooperative. We are grateful to J. Koldegaard for his comments on the draft of this article.
It’s June. The trees are leafed out, I need to cut my lawn at least once a week and summer seems as though it wants to stay around for a while. It’s what we in the north have pined for during the past six months. And all I can think about is Nicaragua.
I haven’t been in Nicaragua since February and likely won’t make another return trip until August. No farms, no cooperative counsel, no ownership enthusiasm, no face-to-face conversations with people who do not speak English, but who nonetheless speak “my language.” Memory of earlier trips fade over time and I begin to feel more and more distant from people who are the focus of our work and the hopes of sustainable Nicaragua. That exemplifies a problem, a big one for all of us.
Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it also creates distance. Physically, I am no further away from my Nicaraguan colleagues and acquaintances than I was upon my return from there in February. But the ensuing four months have distanced me, nonetheless. Obviously, I do not see their faces. I do not hear their voices or the anxieties within their words. They do not shake my hand in the morning or wish me a pleasant night in the evening. We cannot share meals together. I am not there to encourage and they may quickly forget lessons shared. We are… apart. Despite my heartfelt desire to be a resource and a friend, the time and distance erode the intensity of our relationship. I’ve experienced the phenomenon before.
In 2000, my wife and I traveled with our four children (our two sets of twins) to the land of their birth, South Korea. One of the many blessings of that travel was the opportunity to meet with both sets of birth parents. The reunions were priceless, the time spent with these extended families were filled with emotion and love beyond our possible expectations. We became family with these South Korean kin; by the time of our departure from their country, we promised each other ongoing love and communication.
For a time, we kept our pledge to one another. From the U.S., we regularly telephoned long distance with the aid of an interpreter. (E-mail was not yet the readily available tool that it was to become.) From Korea, we received gifts and photos. Christmas featured gifts in both directions. The bonds remained vibrant. But in time, they grew less frequent. Our kids grew into busy young people already pressed for time and energy. Birth families likely grew increasingly frustrated with time lags and difficulties in translating letters. And eventually, not even the bonds of shared parenting and extended family could sustain a continued embrace.
It’s perhaps an obvious reality that time and distance intrude on the most sincere of desires and necessities. And if they can erode our intentions even with respect to those whom we know and love, we can only speculate about the difficulties in nurturing connections with those we do not know. I experienced it happening with South Korean family. I feel it developing with Nicaraguan friends. We become victims of our isolations.
At a time when our government and some of its population look to isolate our nation- to create greater distance and fewer collaborations to Make America Great Again- we would do well to recognize the realities of distance and time. They are already formidable enemies of peace and humanity. They siphon away touch and contact and emotion. They feed doubt and gossip. They sew seeds of suspicion. Our needs are not to withdraw even further from the presence of “the other,” but to draw closer.
At the very least, I’m determined to reach out to two families in South Korea. And to get back to people whom I know and care about in Nicaragua….
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)
Fungicide (lt herbicide)
2 fertilizations (wd)
2 fertilizations (sacks fertilizer)
Bend and harvest (wd)
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.”
I spent the week in Nicaragua last week, visiting partners and participating in a cooperative workshop. It’s a process that has become familiar to me over the past dozen years, but it is never the same. Every cooperative, every member, has a story to tell, and each is very different from the other. Some stories are sad. Some are uplifting. Some are absolutely energizing in the sheer power of their message. Such is the case of COMUSAN, the women’s communal bank cooperative in the remote village of Santa Ana.
The route to Santa Ana and our meeting is slow and difficult, even for a 4-wheel drive vehicle; the trail is little more than a wide path. The surroundings are breathtaking, with the mountains and valleys contrasting each other. At one plateau sits a tiny pre-school house, wherein the women of COMUSAN await our arrival.
They have come from all over the territory to attend this meeting of exposition, pride and gratitude. The cooperative has been guided into existence through the patience and determination of the women and ANIDES, the Nicaraguan Association for Sustainable Development. Two members of ANIDES are present, but the show belongs to the women.
What is remarkable about this gathering is not just that the women have come together for a common purpose (the communal bank), but that they have done so against such enormous odds and with such striking success. Many of the members have migrated to this region from other parts of the country, whether uprooted from past conflicts, ravages of nature or lack of economic opportunity. Their ages cover generations. None possess previous experience with banking, even as borrowers. Most have little education, many with none beyond primary grades. The men in their lives must understand that the stake in the cooperative bank belongs to the members, a sometimes difficult lesson. And yet the financials of this fledgling communal bank are positive
and growing, as the members take small and certain steps to ensure the strengthening of their bank- and the cooperative which now envelops it- for the future.
The women are understandably shy about speaking up; they don’t have many visitors here and perhaps they are overly-modest about what they have accomplished and how they feel about it. Asking for support is a humbling experience all by itself. But the presence of the 27 women, many of whom have walked a great distance to attend the meeting, is a testament to both their pride and determination to make this entity succeed, for themselves and their families.
There is a determination here, a sense that the women of COMUSAN will make this initiative work, regardless of the obstacles they may face. They are deliberate. They seek to understand the processes of their cooperative. Members of both the coop and ANIDES plan to attend the cooperative workshop to be held later in the week. A visitor can feel both the inexperience and the intensity of a collaborative effort to succeed. Indeed, one “dream” expressed during the visit is that this cooperative not only succeed unto itself, but that it might become known internationally.
Ambitious visions for a rural women’s cooperative? Perhaps. But then, all great success stories start with an unlikely dream….
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….