Category Archives: WPF partners

Tilling the Soil

I wrote in a post here last week about the need for both “planters” and “harvesters” in the development community to reasonably blunt the oppression of poverty in Nicaragua.  My choice of words and analogy prompted a couple of responses which requested some clarification of those terms and funding postures.  (That’s not at all unusual, as my brain and my words don’t always operate in perfect synchronization.)

In considering how to provide that clarification, I recalled an e-mail that was written by my colleague and Nicaraguan Director for Winds of Peace, Mark Lester.  He had written a response to an inquiry from another funder asking about our process and assessment of project proposals.  I revisited the e-mail and, as I had suspected, Mark’s words painted a clear portrait of a development process geared to clients themselves, and how WPF has come to work with its potential partners in a fashion that plants seeds for and is very focused on the future.  That e-mail is excerpted here:

I think the goal of having your grassroots group partners dictate to you what their specific needs and priorities are is a very good institutional goal, and one that we very much share, but our experience is that it gets very complicated when you try to put it into practice. 

Suppose you [identify] a grassroots coop, and they send you a request. That request will reflect the needs and priorities of the coop to the extent that the leadership really represents the rest of the members, and that is precisely the problem that I explained on our Skype call. These leaders [always] tend to be the same people (patron-fieldhand relationship). In this case the only way to know whether something being proposed reflects the membership is if you spend time in the coop; interviewing board members, but also interviewing a diverse selection of members in different regions of the coop, visiting them in their homes. This is the only way to find out what the members really think when there is great power disparity among the members of the coop. Because those with less power in the community will not say things publicly that would reflect negatively on those with more power in a local community. Their situation is too fragile, and their ability to be able to go to those powerful people to help them in times of need is too important to risk by being honest in a meeting.
 But when you have collected that information from private conversations with members, and then in a plenary session with the members of the coop present the findings, the collective is forced to deal with the true reality, because everyone recognizes it is true. But there was never a way for that truth to surface publicly and thus have everyone deal with it. Without this truth on the table, however,  there is no possibility for the coop to move forward for there to be change, and thus there is no change in the territory, because the [individual]organizations within the territory are not changing. 
This is the work that our colleagues have done and are doing with all the cooperatives that we are working with, and this is what the followup workshops have dealt with. We too put a high value on  the people deciding what their priorities are, but as we delved into it more, we realized to do so effectively often meant getting beyond the leaders, because they really were not representing their membership. 
As a result of the ongoing dialogue, and exchange among the coops, a number of coops have told us that they want to be able to export directly, i.e. not have to sell to either an export company or a 2nd tier cooperative. Especially two  coops had determined in their own internal planning – that for the first time was truly participatory, because the interests of sectors that previously were not reflected in the plan (because of the situation I described above) now were – they decided they wanted to learn how to export. In the last workshop we had, we were able to have a number of small coffee roasters present, precisely because the coops told us they wanted to export. In the course of the workshop the roaster said they wanted to buy coffee [specifically] off these two groups, and in the discussion with the roasters about what they needed, these two coops realized that exporting was more complicated than they thought, so the issue is a very hot topic for them.
To be clear WPF does not want any money, we are however interested in that your money (and other international aid) really does help the grassroots people, and not a local elite that looks like a grassroots group from the outside. Because every dime that ends up going to the local elite ends up financing the very people blocking what the grassroots really want and are able to express when they are offered a channel that does not put them at risk.
Our experience and research shows that unless there is a methodology that gets around the unequal power distribution at the local level, the resources are always going to be controlled by the local elites (who to outsiders may look poor, but internally they clearly are an elite). But there are very few organizations that deal with this central issue. That being said, there is another organization in Nicaragua that does this well, but using a slightly different methodology. I can send you more about them as well if you are interested.
The context Mark described above is happening every day in Nicaragua and in many if not most other impoverished nations where the poor work with assistance groups for their advancement, if not their very survival.  In many cases, they have become dependent upon the intervention of funders, and in the process have abandoned both their right and their hope to ever operate in a self-sustaining fashion.  The projects they propose may, in fact, be capable of generating repayment of loans received or accomplishing grant objectives.  But the essential question to be asked is whether the results are transformative or simply stop-gap until the next infusion of support.  That’s the recipe for dependency.
Within the WPF methodology, we prefer to think of ourselves as planters, “in the soil” with the campesinos, tilling the ground until the first shoots of growth emerge, transforming seeds into ways of life, and working toward an eventual harvest….



My U.S. acquaintances almost always have questions about the work that Winds of Peace undertakes in Nicaragua, and especially they are curious about the people with whom we work.  They are curious to know how they are like us in the U.S.  They desire to know whether they are happy, what rural Nicaraguans like to do in their spare time, and what they may know about those of us who live in the North.  (My answers to those specific questions tend to be along the lines of: yes, they experience happiness in some very different ways from us, they have little spare time and they know a great deal more about us than we do of them.)

During my visit in Nicaragua two weeks ago, I became re-acquainted with a woman I had met several years ago, a grassroots coffee producer and member of a very small cooperative.  She attended an organizational strengthening workshop which the Foundation had underwritten and, in fact, turned out to be one of the presenters.  I want to introduce you to Corina, because she is a composite story of who many Nicaraguans are.


When we first met, Corina and her cooperative had found themselves in deep economic trouble. But the cause of the difficulty stemmed from the fraudulent actions of “middlemen” who recognized an opportunity to take advantage of small producers who were too trusting, unschooled and undereducated in the responsibilities  and obligations of organizational success.  In that first meeting, Corina and her fellow coop members faced a likely collapse of their group; she thus faced a similar fate for her own farm.  Without the middlemen to provide market savvy and price negotiation (as well as deceptive representation), Corina felt lost.

But I recall her tenacity in addition to the shyness.  She had not spoken much in front of her North American visitor those years ago, but she spoke passionately and with defiance when she chose to speak at all.  But I remember thinking that the odds were definitely against this small-producer coop which now faced significant debt not of their own making.  Winds of Peace has made annual loans to the coop since that first meeting, and the coop has survived thus far.  But providing funds each year for fertilizers and new coffee plants is neither the road away from dependence nor the key to sustainability.

Corina and her fellow coop members have worked hard.  They have attended other workshops.  The coop has been attentive to understanding exactly what project proposal information is required of them and what donor expectations are.   They’ve been scrupulously diligent in meeting their loan obligations.  While a preference for having others intervene on their behalf still surfaces at moments, a movement toward self-sufficiency is happening.

So I was both surprised and not surprised in seeing Corina before the audience two weeks ago.  She towered over the audience, in a way that very few people less than five feet in height can; sometimes captivation comes from unsuspected sources.  She clutched a handkerchief like a good luck token, but her voice was firm and her resolution fixed on two large papers taped to the front wall.  On the pages, Corina had charted her family’s 5-Year Farm Plan.

Set aside for the moment the fact that many businesses never attempt something as progressive as a 5-year plan.  Corina, with the assistance of her husband and children and workshop facilitators,  had undertaken a detailed description of her business, including its dimensions, crops, limitations, opportunities, improvements, environmental impacts, successes and its future outlook.  There on two sheets of butcher paper was a complete strategic plan, one which in its simplicity and breadth presented her story, both current and future.

As Corina related her story, her voice grew in size and confidence. The handkerchief became twisted with emotion and conviction.  The audience, notorious for its restlessness, now sat rapt in attention, utterly astonished at both the woman and the content of her work.  At one moment, suddenly self-conscious of her standing, she looked to the workshop facilitator and observed that, maybe she wasn’t making sense and that he could explain the process better.  To his everlasting credit, the facilitator turned to the participants and asked, “Is she doing OK?”  The audience erupted into thunderous applause, matched in emotion only by the modesty in Corina’s face.  She continued, with even greater fervor than before.

By the close of her presentation, Corina had communicated details of her life which, under any other circumstance, would never have been shared.  She talked of her children and their work on the farm, after school.  She described the long hours of labor contributed by her husband, who hired out as a field hand elsewhere by day before returning home to tend to their own land.  She talked of her own unending work among the coffee plants, and how she nonetheless was able to achieve the equivalent of her high school diploma, the first member of her family ever to do so.  By the conclusion of her talk, I had a distinct feeling of under-accomplishment in my own life.

I suspect that many in the group felt the same.  At the conclusion of her presentation, Corina was surrounded by many, people seeking more information, offering their appreciation for her tenacity and strength, thanking her.  Several members of a coffee-buying group from North America sought to establish direct links for purchasing her coffee.  She may never have experienced so many photographs taken of her.  Clearly a sense of accomplishment welled up within her, and yet the demeanor of humility and reserve never wavered.

IMG_5372Corina’s example to her fellow small farmers resulted in many such family plans being drawn up that day and in the weeks to follow; indeed, they are still being created.  She had extended herself, far from her comfort zone, in order to provide a basis for others to act.  Her courage on behalf of other producers enabled a development threshold to be crossed, one that may cultivate harvests and benefits for a long time.  But I recall the day in a different light.  I will recall her performance and leadership as a challenge to my own way of life, to look at its content, its yields and plantings and harvests, its potential and its character with a greater sense of needing to do better….


Body of Knowledge

I’ve been making entries in this space since the Winds of Peace website came into being; my earliest entry dates back to January of 2007.  I don’t often go back in time to read what was on my mind back then, partly because I’m prone to wince at some of the inexperience and naivete reflected in those early days, but mostly because my views are different today than they were eight years ago.  In fact, the context of the country has changed.  Our partners have changed.   It’s a different world than it was.  The Foundation has evolved.

One of the most significant changes has been the work we have undertaken with Dr. Rene Mendoza Vidaurre.  I have referenced him here many times in recent years, describing the one-on-one work that he has done with our partner cooperatives, Indigenous groups and others.  Rene is a tireless pursuer of healthy development for Nicaraguans.  He is a co-founder and former director of NITLAPAN, the University of Central America entity which is the leading research organization in the country.   He has worked extensively in the rural sectors of Nicaragua, where development efforts are particularly difficult and few resources are available.  He has created and conducted scores of workshops to help strengthen organizational effectiveness and sustainability of the coops.  This year he created and conducted The Cooperative Certificate Program, a six-day holistic, intensive, residential workshop designed primarily for rural producers.  Earlier this month, Rene completed a week-long visit to the U.S. to study organizational strengthening techniques in venues including Springfield, MO, Minneapolis, MN and Boston, MA.

The significance of Rene’s involvement with WPF is that he has brought an intensive research focus to our work.  With more than 30 years of experiences in the Foundation’s history, Rene is synthesizing those experiences with current realities to generate perhaps the most extensive, research-based thinking and writing about Nicaraguan rural development.  In an age of global economic interdependence and enormous economic uncertainties, access to fact and successful practice are more important than ever to aid organizations operating anywhere in the world.  It might be said that, at one time we were primarily placing funds.  Today, we are acting with perspectives of knowledge and specific purpose that are true to the Nicaraguan context.

Many of the recent findings and observations about current context in Nicaragua can be found in Rene’s many weblog entries, featured at this website.  If you’ve entertained a curiosity about the Nicaraguan realities with which Winds of Peace has operated over the past 30 years, you will find Rene’s writings insightful, candid revelations about the challenges and importance of financial aid.  If you work with a foundation or other agency tasked with providing such aid, you will find Rene’s discernments and conclusions to be perceptive resources for consideration in your grantmaking or lending practices, because they reflect the entirety of Nicaraguan realities: financial, historical, political, social, religious.

From time to time I receive feedback on some of my entries here.  I’d be equally interested to hear of reactions to the in-depth work that Rene has undertaken in the name of compassionate research….


Ten Years After, Part 1

There must have been some kind of special “karma” in the air last weekend.  I had an urge to listen to a record album (yes, the kind that are played on a turntable) from the 60’s by a group called Ten Years After, and featuring a song entitled, “I’d Love to Change the World.”  After listening to both sides of the 33 1/3 RPM, I realized that both the song and the group hold special meaning this week: today, October 1, I have worked with Winds of Peace Foundation for ten years.  And naturally I have honed a deep yearning to change the world!

Ten years ago I left my role as corporate CEO with no plan about what I would do for my “next chapter.”  I had two kids in college and two more headed that way, a nice home with its accompanying mortgage, a desire to distance myself from the obligations of corporate demands (both personal and philosophical), and a need to search for meaningful work that was closer to my passions and compassions.  Firmly believing in the shelf-life of a CEO, I chose an early retirement on September 30, an option some companies afford to folks who are not old enough for Social Security but who are old enough to recognize when it’s time for a change.  I had no plan or prospect in mind.

I became involved actively with Winds of Peace the following day. Having served on its Board of Directors since its inception in 1980, I was familiar with its mission and history.  And with one of its founders, Harold Nielsen, in the hospital with pneumonia at age 90, I might have been the most logical and available person to step in on a temporary basis.  But within a week, I recognized the work as something I wanted for my “next chapter.”  By the time I could visit Harold personally later in that week, he apparently had come to the same conclusion.  He offered me the opportunity.  I jumped at the chance and have never looked back for even a moment.

There have been many affirmations about that decision.  The first was that I continued to work with founder Harold and Louise Nielsen, two of the most genuine and selfless people I have ever known.  (Harold was the wise  and entrepreneurial founder of Foldcraft Co., my firm of some 31 years.  Louise was his wife and co-conspirator, as Harold would say.)  The second immediate affirmation  was in the person of Mark Lester, the Foundation’s “feet on the ground” in Nicaragua, a most exceptional man, a student of and advocate for development in the country, and one whom I had met years earlier during my first visit there.  The third affirmation emerged a bit later, during my ensuing visits to Nicaragua when I was able to meet face-to-face with the potential and actual beneficiaries of the Foundation’s work.  This was where the true richness of the work has been experienced, where the longing to serve meets the hunger and thirst of people who are living their very lives on the edge of collapse, continuously.  These and other affirmations are endless and continue to this day.

Ten years is a long enough period to measure any organization´s impact and progress.  Over the past ten years alone, WPF has issued grants totaling over $2MM, loans totaling $7.6MM and maintained a loan default rate of just over  2%.  It has partnered on more than 300 agreements representing thousands of families.  It has underwritten scores of organizational and technology workshops as its focus has become focused on a territorial strategy.  The Foundation has added primary, secondary and university education as additional focal points for funding and development.  We have accompanied.  We have researched and written.  We’ve been busy.

The past ten years have brought about change in the lives of our partners, as well.  Access to capital in some of the most rural settings of Nicaragua has been a critically important element of life for those served by WPF.  For some, it may have meant survival.  The accompaniment in organizational development by our colleagues has illuminated some dark places where myth, falsehood, forgery and undereducation have festered for generations, rarely permitting the light of opportunity to foster growth.  Women’s voices have been heard.  Students bloomed.  People wept.  And smiled.

Well and good; the actions behind these measures what WPF has been called to do.  But there have been personal impacts, as well.  The past ten years have also rather dramatically changed the way I personally experience the world and its complexities.  I have come to understand how incredibly difficult it can be to “give away” resources.  Not the physical distribution of them, but the ways in which such work must be done to achieve meaning and impact; the presence of large amounts of funding does not guarantee success in the move away from poverty and marginalization.  Sometimes it even contributes to the problems.

I have experienced the importance of accompaniment.  I am still surprised and moved by the importance of our accompaniment with partners.  There is a feeling of strength on the part of rural peasants knowing that they are not entirely alone, that someone else knows of their existence and plight.

I now know the face of the poor.  I have established relationships, friendships, partnerships with individuals, real people with real families and real problems.  These are not statistics or photographs, but real human beings for whom my empathy and concern runs as deep as for any member of my community, my neighborhood, or other niches of my life.  That has changed me, as it would you.  I now personally understand why Harold and Louise Nielsen were so easily moved to tears when talking about this Foundation’s work.

In ten years’ time, Harold and Louise have both passed away.  Our focus has both broadened (with the addition of education and research) and narrowed (with the emphasis on a specific territory).  Our processes have sharpened, with the involvement of our three Nicaraguan consultants and their personal commitments to WPF work, and our own experiences in nurturing healthy organizations.  The presidency of Nicaragua has changed, the country’s relationships within the international community are different and so is the landscape within which development must conduct its efforts.

But the poverty remains.  The Nicaraguan poor are as omnipresent as ever, perhaps not in every statistical metric, but certainly according to any reasonable measure of basic human needs.  And therein lies our work agenda for the next ten years, which I’ll envision in Part II of this message, next week….







The drought: social injustice and the opportunity for change

The drought: social injustice and the opportunity for change

René Mendoza Vidaurre*

“Behind adversities are opportunities” goes the saying. After the rust that affected thousands of families working in the coffee chain, repeatedly we heard about the adversities of the drought: “the first planting season was lost”, “the families´food reserves have been used up”, “the water table has been reduced”, “there is a risk that the second planting will not happen..nor the third,” “insects are appearing like the flying locust, the cotton weevil, mites and the pink hibiscus woodlouse”, “cattle raising is at risk due to the scarcity of water for drinking and for grazing,” “exodus from the communities”, “increase of cattle rustling because of the economic crisis,” “ microcredit is protecting itself in the face of the drought.” Without a doubt, it is important to be concerned about the effects of the drought in the short term. In this article we call attention to the fact that the drought is being understood as if it were only a natural phenomenon, and the human activities that contribute to it are being ignored. Understanding these actions and their impact would allow it to be seen as an opportunity for thinking about ways of overcoming the challenges that the drought imposes, and developing a possible long term perspective.

The Central American dry corridor

The FAO (2012, Estudio de caracterización del corredor seco centroamericano identifies the dry corridor of the region. Out of a total of 75 million hectares in the region (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua), the corridor covers 15.9 million hectares, in other words 21%; out of this total 42% is low effect drought, 50.5% large effect drought, and 7.5% has severe effects. See map.

corredor seco CA


What is alarming is that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency of the US (NOAA), in addition to confirming the presence of El Niño, points out the possibility that it might be extended into the first months of 2016 (prolonged dry season and early withdrawal of rainy season), and on top of that, concludes that the below normal rainfall for the months of August to October will affect the dry corridor and beyond in each country. (See map below; Central America Agricultural Council, Climate Change and Holistic Risk Management Technical Group, 2015, Current status of El Niño, climate perspective, implications for farming and recommendations for regional measures;


perspective climatica CA

Causes that generate the drought

It is said that the behavior of the current rainfall is similar to that of 1976 and 1982, that the drought is similar to that of 1997, and that the seriousness of the situation is that the drought goes back to last year, 2014. In other words, the drought is becoming something structural. What has caused this? The absence of humidity in the atmosphere, which is made worse by the increasing variability of the rainfall, including the increase in temperature, particularly on the ocean´s surface. This variability has been caused by human actions that generally are interconnected. First, deforestation causes soil erosion, which is why the soil then retains less water, the water is less able to infiltrate and the soil loses its fertility, so then flooding increases, and the creeks and springs disappear, rivers dry up, crop yields decrease, and become more vulnerable to rainy season droughts and infestations, and with this the families lose their capacity to maintain themselves. Secondly, this deforestation is accompanied by another chain of pressures that include the “hamburger effect” (fast food in the United States at the cost of the forests of Central America), increase in extensive cattle raising, the advance of the monocropping haciendas (producing sugar cane, peanuts, sorghum, tobacco…) on large areas emptied of trees, land concentration that expels families from their communities, and the consequent reduction of diversified farms and manual agro-industry (cheesemakers, grinders, cacao drying…). Third, this dynamic of deforestation and land concentration is accompanied by financing, research and technology – by and for – large monocropping production, but it is dressed up as modern economics and even the first “victim” of the drought. There the drought appears as a “natural” phenomenon, as a matter of “those poor” subsistence peasants, and organizations discussing the size of its impact.

One hypothesis for any territory in the dry corridor for the last 70 years would be that the combined effect of these three factors (degradation of natural resources, concentration of the land and accompanying chain of pressures) has increased the variability of the rainfall, and has resulted in less capacity to resist the impact of the drought, which is a human result that underlies the current of injustice “an underwater riptide”.

Opportunity for change

If the drought expresses the social injustice and the merchantilization of the land (and the climate), and it is a human outcome, then it is a changeable phenomenon. Recalling the words of Chesterton, “playing the violin when Rome is burning is amoral, thinking about a hydraulic system is the task of the researcher”, thinking about strategies for overcoming the drought is more than suggesting technical solutions (communal gardens, raising iguanas, drought resistant crops like pineapple, reforestation, agro-forestry and silvo-pastoral practices, protection of water sources, irrigation systems in harmony with the profitability of the crop and without affecting the water basin, combination of agriculture and ranching, and diversified farms), it is thinking about how to implement over the long term. What follows indicates some points along those lines.

First, organizing research and experimentation in specific territories with mostly producer families, doing it in a participatory way so that the families and the researchers can build awareness about the fact that the drought is not “a punishment from God”, nor something “natural”, to just “monitor”, but a changeable phenomenon, and that under certain conditions crops can be rotated and farms diversified, capable of feeding the soil, so that it retains more water, has a greater capacity to allow the water to infiltrate, produces more, and thus families become more capable of maintaining themselves and bettering their situation. In this process one learns to observe, analyze and act preventively, as a family from the municipality of Cinco Pinos (Nicaragua) recounted: “if we plant with irrigation in the dry season, we notice that the insects pile up in green places, in the barrier of corn or sugar cane, and we can fight them there before they get to the crop; while in the rainy season they are all over.”

 Second, what is crucial is awakening among the families a vision of change on their farms and their communities, that they cultivate a long term perspective, and that they hold to that vision. One family: “dreams of the day my friends visit me and say, ´how beautiful your farm is´; here the entire family is working to see that day.” This awakening and perseverance is possible when various families, aware of the fact that alone they cannot overcome the drought, organize into cooperatives, associations or some form of community, and do so in alliance with organizations or institutions of the region that are capable of putting on the shoes of those families, commit to their formation, and provide follow up to one another for various years.

Finally, creating the conditions so that the two previous points can become possible. Financial institutions, instead of “shielding themselves” (reducing credit to non-ranching families or vetoing credit to dry zones), increasing their loans to intelligent investments that would allow them to move past the drought. Universities can create interdisciplinary certificates on development in high risk dry territories with the participation of rural leaders and professionals, with follow up intervals on experimentation processes. Commercial enterprise chains that buy products from the dry corridor within a framework of subcontracting relationships for various periods. Fiscal policies that provide incentives for sustainable productive diversification, and penalize land concentration and monocropping.

The drought is an opportunity for change. One family in San Francisco del Norte (Nicaragua) is clear about it, “I am planting land…that is what is going to feed us, and that is what is going to be my inheritance, that is our common home.” Our greatest challenge is to quit planting drought and to contribute to this “common home.”

* René ( has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator with the Winds of Peace Foundation (WPF) (, an associate researcher with  IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium) and the Research and Development Institute , Nitlapan-UCA (Nicaragua).

Towards intelligent farming

Towards intelligent farming

René Mendoza Vidaurre and Edgar Fernández

Talking about innovation is in style. It tends to be presented as an accumulation of useful things for the market, defining it as resulting from the economy and as a matter of engineering, without responding to the question of the why and for what end these innovations have. According to the OECD (2005[i]), innovation is the “implementation of a new or significantly improved product, a new process, a new method of marketing, or a new organizational method in business practices, workplace or external relations.” Something “new” emerges from questioning the old, the unjust, where the social, economic, political and cultural are embedded. In this article we talk about the why and for what end behind innovation in farming, we describe four innovations in Nicaragua, Mexico and Uruguay, and we conclude with the importance of creating favorable conditions for innovating.

The why and for what end of innovation

Europe saw the passage from farming to industry, and then from industry to technology, from peasant to worker, as something inexorable, determined by economics, and as an expression of large innovations. Central America appears to corroborate this perspective: the crops of coffee, bananas, sugar, cotton and meat generated 70% of the foreign exchange in 1978, while in 2006 it was only 11%, in that same period family remittances went from 3 to 38%, other exports outside of Central America went from 12 to 16%, free trade zone from 0 to 11%, and other services dropped from 10 to 9% (Rosa, 2008: 9)[ii]. Following these figures, inexorably farming will disappear, and if it persists, it will be through “innovations” responding to the market through agribusiness and the plantations of large companies or haciendas.

Agro-exports are not all of agriculture, nor is agriculture just farming. Even though in percentage terms agro-exports dropped, it is due more to the fact that the total amount of foreign exchange increased some four times, certainly the weight of agro-exports in the decisions was replaced by remittances and free trade zones. Nevertheless, the amount of foreign exchange generated by the agro-export crops in absolute terms increased, like non traditional agriculture that is found in “other exports outside of Central America.”; missing in that calculation is forestry products (e.g. wood), rural tourism, and the fact that the products are not just generic, like before, they have additional added value. For example, coffee is generic, specialty, organic, has different brands, and exported by various chains of actors, it is roasted, ground and packaged for the national market, and grows with the coffee shops. In this way, the inexorable disappearance of agriculture is left in doubt; agriculture is more than farming. And it is growing.

It is growing because it is mostly in the hands of small producers; they gained space even in coffee, meat and bananas, while cotton disappeared and sugar continues in the hands of large enterprises. ECLAC, FAO and IICA (2013: 173[iii]) estimate that in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) there are 17 million exploitations under family agriculture (60 million people), which represents more than 75% of all production units in nearly all the countries of the LAC.

From this reality, innovations would not be useful things that would turn 60 million people into workers and migrants. This would be dispossesion. Innovations are “something new” (OECD, 2005) to the extent that this “normal” inexorability is questioned, and to the extent that the changes are understood of an agriculture that goes beyond just merchandise (commodities).

Inspiring innovations

The following innovations are expressive of an agriculture on farms that is sustainable and belongs to a peasantry that is progressing. The first is the organization of agriculture into 5 floors, from the years of the 1970s in La Concepción, south of Masaya, Nicaragua. On the first floor are crops that are vine plants, like summer squash and pumpkin, that are close to the soil, followed by coffee, then bananas and plantains, then citrus, and on the fifth floor avocados, mangos and wood trees; currently the coffee floor is being replaced by grafted fruit trees (H. Hernández, personal communication, 6-30-2015). This innovation was due to: the peasant resistance back in 1960 to the harassment of the cattle haciendas in the plateau north of Masaya, that later became cooperatives on confiscated areas (1980s), and in the last 10 years are once again in the hands of large peanut and sugar cane enterprises; to the fact that they have soils rich in organic material, and the microclimate and biodiversity unique to that plateau, zones with elevations and seasonal rivers that flow into the Masaya laguna; and to the family organization that intensifies the small areas, reordering them into “floors” to the extent that the women go into commerce.

The second innovation is in coffee in San Juan del Río Coco (SJRC) (Nicaragua) between 1960 and 1979. First, in the 1960s the principal farmers understood that the coffee in the country was the worst in the region, that Costa Rica and El Salvador have double and triple the production of Nicaragua (Delgado, 1961)[iv]; in SJRC the Arabica coffee had low yields, which is why a group of farmers experimented with varieties, disseminating the use of Bourbon and Caturra, along with pruning and shade regulation. Secondly, they introduced beekeeping to pollinate the coffee fields, and in noticing the deficit in the supply of flowers for the bees, established gardens, did selective weeding (leaving plants with flowers), and arranged for the purchase of beehive frames from farmers in El Jícaro. Thirdly, they introduced drying kilns for drying coffee and transporting it in ”dry parchment” form to Palacagüina, and they made arrangements for bringing in coffee harvesters from Palacagüina and the Pacific side of the country. That group were students of their reality that envisioned improvements, they organized to bring in experts, they had the “real workers” learn from the experts, they reorganized their farms and expanded their social networks to Palacagüina and to El Jícaro. As a result, the coffee, honey and banana production in SJRC tripled, their biodiversity improved, their social capital expanded and their thinking was more autonomous of the Somoza government.

The third innovation is the reordering of coffee farms with beekeeping in Mexico, that emerged in reaction to the shadeless coffee haciendas that are renewed every 8-15 years and that are affecting the pollinators (Flores et al, 2006[v]). Pollination is important for coffee, also important is a coffee field with shade that is renewed every 15-30 years. These farms with coffee have a mosaic of flowering species, whose management takes into account their blooming (e.g. pruning guava plant without affecting its blossoms), and they have herbaceas with legumes. That variety of trees and herbacea bloom in a staggered fashion throughout the year, feeding the bees, who in turn pollinate the zone, improving the production of the crops and the biodiversity.

The fourth innovation is the agro-intelligence of Uruguay between 2005 and 2014 (Zamora, 2014[vi]). In this period it went from producing food for 9 million people to producing it for 28 million. Their milk production increased by 54% without deforesting. This agro is due to: 1) policies adapted to family agriculture where the key is crop rotation adapted to climate change; 2) livestock information systems through which ranchers of all sizes had access to the same commercialization channels, and where 12 million head of cattle carry a chip with which a customer in a supermarket “when he wants a cut of beef that he likes, takes out his cell phone, scans the bar code on the label, and the application tells him when the animal was slaughtered, where it was raised, what type of feed it had received, and would even provide a link to see the farm the animal was raised on”; 3) satelite information system to ensure that the producers implement their crop rotation plan to protect the soil and fight erosion; 4) state leadership in working with all the economic groups.

In conclusion, reordering the farm as a building (La Concepción), horizontally (farm and territory) (SJRC and case in México) and on a country level (Uruguay) uncovers an intelligent agriculture for the future. Organizing a learning community with small producers studying their reality, the role of the State and of research institutions would contribute to generating innovation. Because the revolution of agriculture is the basis for the development of any country.

* René ( has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (WPF) (, associate researcher of IOB-Antwerp University (Belgium) and the Nitlapan-UCA Research and Development Institute (Nicaragua). Edgar is a collaborator of WPF.

[i] OECD-2005, Oslo Manual

[ii] Rosa, H., 2008, Perfiles y trayectorias del cambio económico en Centroamérica.

[iii] CEPAL, FAO, IICA, 2013, Perspectivas de la agricultura y desarrollo rural en las Américas.

[iv] Delgado, S., 1961, “El café en la economía nacional” en: Revista Conservadora del Pensamiento Centroamericano 3

[v] Flores, J., Guzman, M., Ricketts, T. y Vandame, R., 2006, “Café y abejas: Conservación y producción” en: Pohaln, J., Soto, L. y Barrera, J. (eds) El Cafetal del Futuro: Realidades y Visiones.

[vi] Zamora, A., 2014, “Uruguay, la revolución agro-inteligente” en: Rebelión.

“Open book management” in cooperatives”

“Open book management” in cooperatives”

René Mendoza, Steve Sheppard and Mark Lester*

Two sailors were at sea. A storm blew up. The boat was rocking. One of the sailors hurried to tie things down, while the other just watched and moved with the storm. The first said, “if we don´t save the boat we will die.” The second replied, “it is not my boat.” Will they save themselves?

In the article “open book innovation in business” we summarized its central points and we considered that companies in Latin America can adapt it creatively. In this article we think that the cooperatives could even more easily adapt this innovation. Because they are organizations composed of members, and the cases where they have personnel (workers and/or employees), there is openess to their joining, their identity is being associative and being an enterprise, and they have a democratic organizational structure based on cooperative principles. But, even though the cooperatives emerged, like the corporations in the US, for the good of society, like the corporations that have moved away from the original idea of their founding, a good part of the cooperatives were also co-opted by elites. Our thesis is that the cooperatives have rules and a democratic organizational basis for the “associative” part of their identity, and not for their “business” part, which has made them controllable and eroded their associative side. Consequently, we argue that the innovation of “open books” could be the key piece for that “business” side of the cooperatives, and that energizing the associative side, would put the cooperatives back on the path to contributing to the transformation of our socieites. That is what this article deals with.

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Cooperativism, founded 250 years ago, has general principles and rules that are found in the Cooperative Law in each country, and in the statutes of each cooperative. This is mostly for its “associative side”, where each member is one vote. While its “business side” is another game and requires specific rules that start from the economic contributions (amount of money) of each member, where “you earn in accordance with your contributions”. This combination of the associative and the business provides each member the path for organizing, learning by scaling up through the different bodies of the cooperative and through getting actively involved in the work of the business in which their organization participates.

A member contributes to the success of the cooperative (improving quality, lowering costs and developing products and services that no one else has) only to the extent that that member knows their organization: each member must understand how the cooperative makes (or loses) money through each of its processes. First, with the participation of all the members they define their objectives, goals and collective incentives for each year, the deals to include, the amount to produce and sell, amount of savings and loans, and incentives for meeting and/or surpassing the goals. Secondly, they also define their processes and standards in each area, for example, if the cooperative is a coffee or cacao coop, the members in the production area define their steps of production, set their standard of productivity to reach (qq/mz), the harvest collection area sets the % of the total production of its members to collect, the area of processing sets the % of yield (of wet coffee to sun dried, of cacao pulp to dry cocoa), the credit area sets the % of recovery and percentage in arrears, the administrative area sets the % costs/member, and the commercialization area sets the % of product placed in niche markets; and each area constructs their standardized costs. Third, members of each area report on their profits and losses, and in doing so see the effect of their work on the balance statement of the organization; each piece of data is evaluated in terms of the objectives, goals and standards set for the year. This review allows transparency of where problems may be occurring. Fourth, this process is systematic, reported monthly, so when there are losses or lack of fulfillment in certain areas, it gets resolved among all, without waiting for the end of the year when corrections may be too late. This is possible because everyone knows that the more they learn about each step of their business, the more they can see, the better they can perform, the more their cooperative earns, the more return there is on their economic contributions, and the more their communities improve.

This seems necessary and possible, if the mentality and current institutionality of the cooperatives changes. Myths that currently govern the lives of the cooperatives are seemingly “written in stone”: “an illiterate person does not understand the numbers”, “the fieldhand does not speak in the presence of the patron”, “not even the mother of the manager should know the information about exports”. This mentality of centralizing information in an elite, complemented by members with a “fieldhand” mentality, like that of the second “sailor” in the story at the beginning of the article, has led to systematic administrative crises and to the death of the cooperatives. Nevertheless, “what is written in stone” could be “filed down” implementing what is described in the previous paragraph, that there is no one person capable of knowing more than all of the people together, and that each person knows and can contribute – as Edmundo López, a cooperative leader says, “The illiterate person is not the one who cannot read letters, but the one that cannot read their reality.” If a member receives profits in a cooperative in accordance with their contributions, the member will want to know about all the activities of their cooperative, will increase their contributions, and will contribute to the balance sheet of their organization.

This change in attitude requires an organizational change in the cooperatives. Informal institutions have governed the economic side of the cooperatives, and from there its associative side. “The board has the responsibility, the rest are followers”, “we always need a patron”, “some of us are born to be in charge, and others to obey orders,” “if I leave my post others will ruin the principles of the cooperative”. With this basis, the technocratic-administrative elite, faithful to their interests, understood that “information is power”. The structure of democratic organization from the associative side can be a reality if the business side functions under the modality of a circular rather than pyramid organization: owners (members), board and management, communicating openly and together, involved in meeting collectively defined objectives and goals. There the key is that the grassroots cooperatives be the first to move, because of those below improve, those above will have no other option but to improve.

Taking as a reference “open books management”, the innovation is in changing as cooperatives and in being a means for their owners to improve their lives and contribute to social, environmental and gender equity. It is important that cooperatives know that there is a means of achieving this open book status, through training and practice. They can do it as first and second tier cooperatives, as part of the fair trade chain, or from other forms of integration. It requires the members to be like the sailor who hurried to save the boat, aware that their lives depend to a large extent on saving cooperativism.

If you want to get a harvest in two months, plant beans, if you want to harvest in five years, plant avocados, and if you want to harvest your whole life, plant a transparent and participatory cooperative.

* René ( has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (WPF) (, associate researcher of IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium) and the Nitlapan-UCA Research and Development Institute. Steve, the current director of WPF, was manager of the Foldcraft corporation bought by its 350 employees. Mark is director of WPF in Nicaragua and of the Central for Global Education and Experience at Augsburg College.

The Point of the Trip

In The Parable of the Sadhu, a real-life story by former Wall Street

Bowie McCoy
Bowie McCoy

investment banker Bowie McCoy, we learn what it means to focus on “the point of the trip.”  McCoy and a friend take advantage of a six-month sabbatical offered by his company and they travel to Nepal and the Himalayas, there to rediscover and energize themselves, and maybe to sharpen the sense of meaning in their lives.  Climbing the treacherous peak requires strength, persistence and a constant eye on the weather, which provides for only brief opportunities to actually reach the summit.

While on their ascent, a New Zealand climber shows up at their camp with the nearly frozen body of a Sadhu, a religious mystic, and leaves the man with the Americans to rejoin his own party.  Short on time and weather opportunity themselves, McCoy and his companion decide that the suffering mystic should be taken down the mountain to a Japanese camp, where perhaps someone there might better minister to the Sadhu’s needs.

McCoy’s companion volunteers to help the Sadhu and does not meet up with McCoy again until the following day.  Distraught, he relates the seeming indifference of the Japanese climbers to the plight of the Sadhu.  They, too, are focused on the brief window of opportunity which the weather provides to climbers.  The companion relates how he has left the slightly-revived Sadhu at the Japanese camp, uncertain as to their intentions toward this inconvenient intruder.

McCoy and his companion press on successfully to the summit and down again, but never discover the fate of the Sadhu who had come so briefly and awkwardly into their lives.  And it is only then that McCoy, a church elder himself, comes to realize the missed opportunity of his search for renewal.  So focused on the climb and the summit, he misses the noblest and most important chance of all, that of saving the life of another human being.  McCoy has spent his days since that trip in “public confession” and teaching ethics to those who will stop long enough to listen.

I continue to reflect upon the activities and the lessons of the recent Certificate Program for cooperatives in Nicaragua, though several weeks have now elapsed since the event.  While I participated as one of the “teachers,” my greatest take-aways were from the perspective of being one of the “students.”  The faculty and the participants assembled by organizer Rene Mendoza were so good that absorption and reflection were inevitably created in every participant, even if he/she did not actively seek such personal impacts.

One of the more dramatic lessons took place mid-week, at a point when the group likely needed a break from the seminar format and would be most open to learning of a different sort.  Our assignment was simply this: report to the learning center at 6:00 A.M. to commence the hike to the top of Peñas Blancas.  Guides would lead the way for us, and we were all encouraged to make the hike all the way to the top.  We were assured that the climb would be worth the effort, that the view was spectacular and the richness of the forest would reward even the most casual observers.

Peñas Blancas
Peñas Blancas

Surveying the group before departure, I began to wonder whether such admonitions were entirely appropriate for some of the participants.  We ranged in age from approximately 18 years of age to perhaps mid-70’s.  Some women were attired in skirts.  Others wore open-toed shoes.  Beyond that, while I knew that I would be hiking among people who made their livings through hard physical work and who regularly traversed difficult terrains, I also knew that hiking up the side of a mountain required an entirely different set of physical strengths.  I wondered whether the climb was really well-advised for every member.

We set off on the journey full of enthusiasm, high spirits and anticipation.  Our first half-hour presented only a gentle slope as we followed a rough road to the base of the cliff.  We stopped to admire and climb a truly “big rock”

The Big Rock
The Big Rock

in the backyard of one of the cooperative leaders before continuing on; energy conservation had not yet become a consideration.  Conversations flowed easily among us.  One participant even approached me to try out some of her English as we walked.

Some forty-five minutes into our adventure, we reached the base of the cliff and the origin of the narrow hiking trail upwards.  The tightness of the path dictated a single-file line, IMG_5043though it didn’t seem to limit the ongoing give-and-take of the hikers.  If anything, the laughter and the noise we created seemed to grow in their intensity as we ascended.  Now-steep elevations in the trail began to test our resilience and leg strength.  The trail became more slippery, a combined outcome from the previous night’s rain and the footfalls of some fifty hikers.  Periodic stops along the way signaled the growing fatigue of some, but in every case the cluster of people around them patiently waited for recovery while offering swigs of water from bottles carried by others.

And at each moment, words of encouragement and support were poured out upon each other.  The most savvy and stable of the forest hikers, without request or prompt, assumed personal responsibility for those in greatest need.  Even for me: more than once, as the muddy trail slipped out from under me, Edmundo or Lester were there at my side to offer a hand.  (I suppose they needed to watch out for the gringo.)  But I remember thinking to myself how good and supportive that felt, even in the face of my prideful determination to navigate independently.  The spirit was the same throughout: the group had become determined to ascend to the top as a group, with no one left behind.

The long line of marchers eventually separated a bit into faster and slower groups, though continually within earshot of one another.  I had chosen to move ahead with the faster bunch, eager to reach the pinnacle and take in the views.  My own energy remained good and I was particularly grateful to be wearing my trail boots on this occasion, convinced that they were giving me an advantage over the terrain that most of the others did not have.  At the precise moment of that reflection, I noted the shoes of others nearby and was amazed to see one tiny lady of our group sporting flip-flops for the climb.  I felt sheepish about my footwear despite- or maybe because of- their utility.

Four hours into the adventure, the first cluster reached the small clearing at the summit.  We became rather subdued in that moment, a reverential peace and quiet descending upon us in the face of a panorama that literally took our collective breaths away.  There is something about mountaintops that perhaps suggests closeness to heaven; we all might have been feeling that.  IMG_5053

They All Arrived
They All Arrived

And then the others arrived at the peak, in twos and threes from the forest trail, tired from the journey but equally transfixed at the valley sights far below.  But of equal importance was the greeting that each successive cluster received as they joined the rest of us.  Cheers and congratulations and laughter resounded from that peak, joy that we had all achieved the summit, that even the oldest and most unconditioned and reticent of us had persevered together.  There was water and snack crackers for everyone, the largesse of several members who simply chose to share.

Watching the entire collection of unlikely teammates, I eventually began to discern the point of the trip, the lesson of the day.  This demanding hike, though not of the intensity or scope of Bowie McCoy’s, offered a renewal.  It had not been about physical condition or our universal longings for achievement or even recognition of our need for a collective stewardship of a beautiful planet.  The exercise revealed something far more crucial for those inclined to see something deeper in the sweat and the mud.  The lesson was revealed in the gathering of all hikers at that clearing on the top, the fact that a very disparate and unlikely consortium of human beings collaborated, persevered, helped one another and triumphed, that we each had been presented with an opportunity to serve another.  Every participant brought an energy and a contribution to the Peñas Blancas effort, even an outsider who did not even speak the same language as the rest.

Our wealth is in each other.  Our achievements and treasures, if won in the solitude of self, hold no import without context. And there is no context in our lives but for the lives of others.  That was our lesson of renewal.

The point of the trip.  It’s an easy thing to miss, even when it’s staring us in the face.  It’s an ancient truth, but one easily forgotten in our competitive, self-driven lives.  The lesson was well worth the climb….

The Point of the Trip
The Point of the Trip