I was very happy to meet with you once more; I hope that far less time goes by before my next visit, because sometimes absences can be corrosive for healthy relationships. It’s much easier to imagine things about one another- good or bad- when we’re not often together.
You have experienced a difficult year, to be sure. You have struggled with several internal governance issues that are pivotal for your future direction. You have faced a brutal attack on the coffee plants by the coffee rust disease that has decimated your harvests. Your cooperative has taken on significant debt, just at a time when economic resources have become very tight. At times, you must wonder if there is any future for the cooperative and, if so, whether it will be worth your effort to participate. I have some ideas about that which I thought I should share with you, even though I’m just a North American visitor to your part of Nicaragua.
First, about those governance issues. There is no better time to repair them than now. Organizations always seem to have management problems that need fixing. Most often, they come about when an individual or small group of members assume more authority and power than they’re entitled to. As a result, they are inclined to become less open, less transparent, with the other members of the coop. They begin to make decisions without a broad consensus. And in time, the decisions that are made tend to favor that same group of decision-makers, even if the choices being made hurt others in the collective. That seems to be at least part of what you have had to face lately, and I feel sad that you have experienced what becomes a lack of trust and confidence in your own organization. After all, you “own” the cooperative and it should be working for the benefit of all members, not just a few.
When an organization is performing well economically enough so that everyone is benefitting, governance problems like those described above may be tolerated by the members; after all, why fix something that doesn’t seem to be broken too badly? But when difficulties arise, the “rocks in the water” become visible and floating downstream is unsteady. The problems become more visible, more painful, less tolerable. It seems like that’s where you are today. So, there is no reason to delay facing the troubles and addressing their corrections. The best time to bail out a boat is when it begins to leak!
The good news is that your repair kit is already in your hands. Your leadership has changed. It is leadership that wants you to be part of the solution, wants you to know what is happening within the coop so that collectively the best possible decisions can be reached. The solutions to your organizational problems are in your own hands; there is no greater wisdom about your needs, your obstacles and your future than in your own experiences. You might not have all the answers, but if you are working together you can discover where to find them. No one of us is as smart as all of us. My question would be: what are you waiting for? Your need is now. Your new leadership is now. The coop needs you and your commitment to make it succeed, for everyone this time.
Second, the coffee rust. Wow, what an unexpected disaster! I know that this fungus has been around before, but maybe never quite like this year. You have said that partly it’s due to the weather pattern. Or maybe from a depletion in the soil. Others have blamed the high incidence of infestation on the lack of sufficient preventive practices of some producers. Or even the type of coffee plant that is grown. I’m not a biologist or coffee technician, but I suspect that the epidemic was created from a combination of all those causes. There’s rarely a simple answer to something that has created such a massive loss. But there is an answer, right?
It’s going to be the same thing with regard to its solution. It’s unlikely that any one answer is going to prevent a reoccurrence of another disastrous harvest. But there are answers, as proven by some of your colleague producers who suffered far less damage this year. It may require a commitment to invest more than in the past. In turn, that may require a deferral of certain purchases or expenses for personal goods. But whatever the solutions may prove to be, they will be far more effective, far more consistent, if you decide to adopt them as a community of coop members. That suggests learning from one another- coop to coop- more than in the past; it’s like having free answers to problems just by talking with one another. I guess I’m back to the organization issue: you’re much stronger together than you can possibly be apart. Winds of Peace commissioned a study on the causes of the rust problem earlier this year. I think it’s important reading, if you haven’t already seen it. Let me know if you need to have a copy of it.
Third, this debt of yours that seems way too big to ever conquer. I know that it looks unsurmountable, and that the holders of the debt might even be threatening the coop with all kinds of legal actions and consequences. But I think taking action from a posture of panic can lead to some pretty bad results. So I’d suggest addressing the issue with great deliberation and care, not speed and reaction.
For starters, Winds of Peace has continued its commitment to you in one form or another, so that’s a positive. We’re not in a position to remove all of your debt, for sure. But having an initial partner, an initial sum from which to work, we at least have a chance of getting through the storm represented by debt. You have some technical expertise available through consultants and organizations who really want to see you succeed. You’ve even got resources for legal help to discover a solution that can work for everyone involved, IF the coop is willing to do what it takes to survive. I’m not saying that’ll be easy or pleasant or a short-term answer. But few things of lasting value ever are. I happen to believe that your coop is worth keeping. I have the confidence and faith in your collective abilities, otherwise Winds of Peace wouldn’t be partnering with you in the ways that we are. But the work is yours, and it will be difficult.
Well, I guess I’ve said more than I ought to in this letter. After all, it’s easy for an outsider to give lots of opinions. After having my say, I get to walk away and can forget the tasks that you have. But I won’t. I think about you every day, with the hope and the belief that the opportunity you still have in front of you is worth fighting for. And I’ll keep paying attention until you either decide to give up or reach success. Let me know how things are going!