Communities ploughing the seas

Communities ploughing the seas

René Mendoza Vidaurre, Mark Lester and Fabiola Zeledón

The unfaithful market

“Bring your coffee and I will pay you 100 córdobas more per quintal than that coyote that is circling you”, Carmelón the trader said by cell phone. Pedro weighed his coffee before leaving on the bus, it weighed 3 quintals. Now in town, Carmelón put the three sacks on the scale and it weighed 2.3 quintals! He paid him 2990 córdobas, at 1300 per quintal. Pedro left dazed: in his own village they were offering him 3600, at 1200/qq; and he would have saved the cost of the transportation and the lost day. He arrived home with a headache. “What is bothering you?”, asked his wife, Julita. “Carmelón cheated me,” he responded angrily. Ah Pedrín, you know very well that the market is like a lover, you cannot demand that it be faithful. Pedrín felt like the earth opened up in front of him, how right his beloved was!

The market is like a lover, you cannot demand that it be faithful“. If it does not cheat you with the price it does it through the weight, if not, it tells you that your sun-dried coffee is wet, and if not that, it tells you to “wait on me.” Price, weight, and quality are structural challenges that can be resolved if people organize into a cooperative. But it is not automatic, most cooperatives are taken over by elites who turn their backs on their members, and turn into traders dressed up as “cooperatives”. Ah, but when the members of a community organize and the organs of their cooperative function, in that community they reduce violence, generate more equality and peace – this is what Esterlina Talavera says, from the 13th of October Cooperative in San Antonio: “In these cooperatives where only one person is in charge, one is not worth anything; in this cooperative, where the assembly is in charge, there I feel like I do have value.” If importers, roasters and sellers of ground coffee in the United States and Europe work with those corrupt cooperatives, they instead sow violence in peasant communities, like what happens with traditional mediation connected to big corporations, but if they work with democratic cooperatives, they support peace with justice.

 Under what conditions can small producers, women and men, and small roasters and coffee sellers build communities of peace between rural areas of Central America and consumers in the United States and Europe?  Responding to this question in this article, we see that markets can become “faithful” to the challenge of making peace with justice.

1.     Perspective and ways of riding the markets

With Mark Lester´s visit to 50 importers and roasters in the United States, we discovered similar perspectives on both sides of the ocean: buyers and producers. He met with roasters who buy from 6 sacks of coffee a year to those who bought containers of coffee; there are peasant families also who produce 4 quintals of export coffee to those who produce 100 or 150 quintals of export coffee. In the face of this situation, there are importers who connect these two worlds: they import coffee in lots in one containers for roasters who want lots of a smaller size than that of a container; they are lots that come from 3 or 5 producers with the same coffee profile, possible through the grassroots cooperatives (1st tier).

He learned that roasters ask for samples of coffee to be able to express their interest in buying; some cup and define their own cup profile, and others ask the importer to define their cup profile; generally they are looking for a score above 82, because they think that is the way that they can differentiate themselves and compete in the face of large corporations whose costs are less because of their economies of scale. The cooperative sends the sample, indicates the volume of coffee that it offers from that sample, and the roaster responds whether they are interested in that coffee or not; as a sign of loyalty, the cooperative does not sell the volume it offered with the sample until the roaster has responded, to do so would be behaving as an “occasional lover”; the roaster or importer responds as quickly as possible, to not do so would be to behave like a “lover”. The roasters prefer lasting connections, it does not work out to each year have a new seller of coffee, because they want to maintain their cup profile; the cooperative also wants to have lasting relationships, especially if the buyer pays them based on quality and there is good deal; this implies that the cooperative also is loyal to its members, only collects their coffee, and thus maintains the same cup profile that it agreed upon with its buyer. It is a loyalty among several actors who revolve around coffee.

Mark found roasters and importers concerned about the sustainability of their enterprises and that of the coffee growing peasant families. If the peasantry with less than 5 hectares of coffee goes broke, the coffee is left in the hands of large mono-cropping enterprises, thus the quality of the coffee would drop because they are committed to varieties that produce volume and they grow them in full sun. This is not helpful to the buyers nor to the peasants. So from both sides of the ocean they want peasant families to increase their productivity (more and better coffee per hectare), and importers and roasters process more coffee in the same physical space. Both sides of the ocean also want diversification and the commitment to coffee quality to lead them to increase their productivity, that diversification would also include sustainable practices with several crops and the agro-industrialization of products, roasters who diversify their markets; university communities that demand coffee from cooperatives…

2.     Trust, the beginning of triangulation

Cultivating these described connections and commitments are not possible with conventional practices. Financial organizations provide credit requiring financial statements (indicating expenses and income) and balance statements (indicating assets of the cooperative versus its debts) from the cooperatives; but these in turn tend to hire accountants who “invent” their financial reports, while their members do not have access to that information, and if they do, the numerical chaos is incomprehensible to them. Financial organizations and buyers assume that on signing contracts with cooperatives, they actually are operating as cooperatives; at the same time it is seen that most of them do not redistribute their earnings, they treat their members as any intermediary would treat them; they are cooperatives whose members do not rotate in their posts, nor does their administrative staff rotate in accordance with their merits. So the aid organizations, on learning of these realities, turn a blind eye; thus, trust in people becomes trust in money on the part of a small global club.

Those connections and commitments can, nevertheless, be built based on trust if cooperatives function as cooperatives, if buyers and roasters treat them as cooperatives and not as if they were haciendas, connecting only with the manager or only with their president. How can trust be built? From the work of the Winds of Peace Foundation (WPF) with grassroots cooperatives and its contacts with buyers and roasters, we propose an inclusive triangulation.

Social banks, buyers and second tier cooperatives already practice triangulation, they sign contracts where the cooperative collects coffee with financing from the social banks, and the buyer pays the loan owed by the cooperative to the social bank. But it stays there, they are that club that turns a blind eye to the true functioning of the cooperative and its members. We take up that triangulation, buyers, financiers and cooperatives, but not with second tier cooperatives but with grassroots cooperatives (first tier); and we do not stay there, we do an inclusive triangulation, that implies that part of the contract stipulates the distribution of profits and information, that they be democratic and efficient organizations (that they lower costs), and work in sustainable agriculture. That this inclusive nature be verified by an accompaniment that helps the members govern their cooperatives, and that the transparency between buyers, roasters and cooperatives be reciprocal.

Being inclusive means that the member families coordinate among themselves to achieve a cup quality of 85, improving their soils, assuming the costs of sending coffee samples: not letting the market govern them, believing that it is only a matter of putting up money and moving coffee; it is that we work with members over the entire year and not just in the coffee harvest season, connecting small producers who organize into cooperatives with small roasters. If one actor acts as an opportunist, they damage the entirety of the coordination with the different actors, and they do damage to themselves. If the price in the market goes way up, the cooperatives prefer to stay in a lasting relationship; if the prices of the market go way down, the buyers prefer to stay in a lasting relationship. This is coordinating, trusting and being faithful.

3.     Role of accompaniment

There are roasters aware of the fact that peasant families cannot improve their lives if they do not organize into cooperatives, and that is why they seek out healthy relationships with these cooperatives. There are importers who understand the importance of connecting small roasters with small producers who are organized into grassroots cooperatives. There are also foundations, like WPF, that accompany this process of triangulation.

In this role, WPF, in collaboration with a team from the COSERPROSS cooperative, accompanies the grassroots cooperatives, contacts importers and roasters, and because of its connections with Universities in the United States, works so that the triangulation reaches university communities.

Previously WPF did not play this role. It assumed that that role belonged to the cooperatives. But seeing that the cooperatives are being absorbed by structures that sow injustice, violence and environmental unsustainability, WPF took on new roles, of being a hinge in the relationships between cooperatives and buyers, helping to make transparent the agreements between the different actors. If previously WPF provided credit on the basis of bilateral trust with a cooperative, now it does it in the framework of an inclusive triangulation, precisely to build greater trust.

4.     Conclusion

At the beginning of this article we asked ourselves about the conditions in which small producers and small roasters can build communities of peace. We provided three responses. First, small producers and roasters pursue common perspectives; perspectives that start from having similar size, committed to coffee quality, and social and environmental sustainability, innovating through diversification. Second, establishing relationships of an inclusive triangulation where the economic transaction goes along with the economic and organizational democratization of the cooperative and the other allied actors. Third, ongoing accompaniment of these perspectives and this inclusive triangulation.

Under these three conditions trust, mutual loyalty and lasting relationships can be built. This leads us to be concerned about the people. It is a perspective where Pedro and Julita, from the story at the beginning of the article, organized in a cooperative can collect their coffee harvest in their own communities. It is a path where markets can work to build communities of peace with justice, communities that plough the seas.

Leave a Reply