Don Hugo: A Cooperative Disciple

Published: May 12th 2009EDIT THIS ENTRY

Daddy Yankee and the familiar cloud of red dust followed me up the road to the Hotel La Palma. Due to the kindness of the head of a the Central and South American wing of EDE, an international coffee foundation, I found myself searching for a coffee taller (conference) for farmers participating in their newest sustainability project in the middle of the mountains of northern El Salvador. Bright paintings cover the walls of the town, depicting birds, homes, women and children. The distinctive style is a hallmark of La Palma, home to some of the best coffee in El Salvador. I find the hotel, tentatively walking past the two women in the front to find a roomful of farmers in the back.

Peppermint streamers cover the windows, wafting forward from the walls with each spin of the hot pink propellers of rotating fans perched on the walls. At the front stands Don Hugo Chavez, a ball of energy in the form of short, slightly balding Honduran who bears no resemblance to the Venezuelan president of the same name. Bellowing in a warm baritone that invites your ears, he captures the crowd of farmers before him who sit at rapt attention, tracing his path from the men sitting in front the coffee carafe at the back of the room to change his power point slide at the front to extolling the virtues of a female farmer sitting in the center. All the while he describes the intense focus required over the next few days to make this taller successful and set the foundation for successful cooperatives. Sweat drips down his face as he bounces back to the front to click forward the next slide.

Don Hugo is a disciple of the cooperative movement, preaching to the uninitiated. He believes that only the unique structure of a cooperative enables poor farmers to lift their families and community out of poverty. For Don Hugo, the foundation of this institution lies in the mentality of the farmers. They have to stop thinking of themselves as individuals, solely focused on the well-being of their own families, and become socios, part of a social and economic institution working for the benefit of its members and their surrounding community.
He starts with an introductory rhythm and rhyme which reminds me of summer camp when counselors invent creative ways to remember every new camper’s name. “No me habian visto antes, No me habian conocido, mi nombre es ____, y ______ mi apellido, Ahora ya me vieron, Ya me conocieron, no se les olvide. Soy ______ por delante, y ______ por atras.” Before he begins his lecture, every member of his audience must stand and recite his rhyme, inserting their own first and last names. He goes first, saying the words with the proper cadence, beginning with a low rumble that crescendos to a bellow. The entire room breaks into laughter as he finishes. The first person says the rhyme hesitantly, projecting to the floor. The second begins to add a bit of Hugo’s flair, but with trepidation. By the time the final member goes, each person was adding his or her own personal touch, a fist pump here, a dramatic pause there, laughter always at the end. By the time we finished, everyone was smiling and the room buzzed with energy for what was to come.

“First,” he begins, “we must discuss the agenda for the coming weeks. Everyone needs to agree to a schedule that they believe will most greatly benefit them and enable the most people to attend.” There is some debate over whether it should be two days this week or three the next. Farmers who live several hours away by bus say that they doubt whether they will be able to make the trip the second week. Others grumble about the potential work lost to days spent in the back room of the hotel. A gentleman in the back with neatly styled hair and a blue button up stands up and points out that the most important part of the meeting is that they receive all of Don Hugo’s information. Don Hugo says his preferred schedule is across two weeks and a few more minutes of spirited debate ensues before they agree to his proposal. When they agree, Don Hugo employs his next rabble rousing technique. Whenever they come to an agreement or he asks if they will be able to accomplish something, they must say “Asi sea!” He turns and asks for an affirmative to the schedule, and receives a mumbling “Asi sea.” After several more tries, “ASI SEA!” shakes a few streamers from the walls.

Hugo employs these techniques to imbue a sense of communal commitment in the group of individuals that begin his sessions. He believes that the success of these fledgling groups and cooperatives will rise and die with the commitment of the people involved to bettering not only their own well-being, but that of their neighbor as well. “El poder no puede concentrar en una persona,” he states firmly to his audience. “If it does, the cooperative will fail to achieve its mission and eventually dissolve. They must be democratic organizations, united to meet the economic, social and cultural needs of their communities where every member has a voice. When they have a successful cooperative, this institution enables the members themselves to bring schools, clean water and litter-free streets to their communities.” He is at once a salesman, selling the idea of cooperation as beneficial to the group and individual; a cheerleader, chanting in their ears that they have the ability to rise above the incalculable poverty of their communities; and mostly he is a teacher, transferring his knowledge and skills to the farmers so they can transform their villages.

After sharing several dinners with Hugo and witnessing his increasingly passionate presentations, I realize that he is waging a war against “la pobreza mental, educativa, economica, cultural, moral (que) se mantiene impune.” From Hugo’s point of view, poverty affects not only the day to day reality of poor people but also how they perceive their condition. Hugo believes in the power of the poverty of perspective - that if the poor believe they are unable change their circumstances, then poverty remains an unmovable force in their community. The unorganized farmers sitting in front of him view the price they receive for their coffee as beyond their control. They are passive players pulled forward and pushed back by the currents of the international market. Resignation and powerlessness accompany this mental poverty. They remain preoccupied with short term price fluctuations, which impact whether they can afford to put gas in their truck and buy their children’s school books or whether they will have to make a difficult economic choice between the two. As they feel powerless to challenge world coffee prices, they do not view themselves as shaping their economic future. Stuck in a reactive position, farmers make economic decisions with their eye to today and possibly to the next. To cope with an unchanging reality, the farmers make choices that may help them to survive in the short term but rob them of long term capital.

After witnessing this downward spiral across the Americas, Hugo teaches impoverished farmers to believe that they are key to overcoming their own poverty. To Hugo, this belief in their own potential is the foundation of a sustainable farming community. Farmers who believe they control their own economic destiny have an incentive to create long-term economic plans. This sense of empowerment motivates them to invest in the future because they believe they will reap the rewards of that investment. A farmer who possesses a long-term economic vision also plans for the future well-being of their farm ecosystem, maximizing the sustainability of their land. A successful cooperative transforms farmers from passive objects in the face international price fluctuations into active agents due to their collective bargaining power in their national market. The cooperative anchors a system that encourages a multitude of individuals to make choices that improve their long-term well-being and that of their local environment.

His belief in the economic transformation initiated by an organized poor community who believes in their own possibilities comes from his background. He grew up in the womb of a successful cooperative in Honduras. For years, the cooperative struggled through various incarnations - from processing milk to coffee - and international partnerships before gaining a solid economic footing. From its profits and international partnerships, the children of its members receive college scholarships to study in the U.S. The only condition is that they return to work for the cooperative for five years after they obtain their degree. Hugo holds a masters in cooperatives from a University in Canada and has traveled through out Latin America attending conferences and meeting with cooperative boards and members. “Do you know what countries have the most cooperatives?” he asks me. “The United States, Europe and Canada. The richest countries in the world have the most cooperatives.” He sees this prosperity and strives to bring it to the poor of the Americas because if cooperatives built the worlds’ richest nations their benefits will only be magnified in the world’s poorest.

After a filling lunch of meat, beans and rice, we return to the room ready to work together, ready to found mini-cooperatives in each village. Despite the merienda hour, Hugo remains full of energy, which he uses to enthuse his audience with passion for what they’re about to under take. “La empresa nace para hacer frente y satisfacer las necesidades. A satisfacer las necesidades,” he emphasizes, “To be successful requires that the cooperative adhere to these basic principles. That it is a product of the work of every one of its members and as a result each person possesses the patrimonial right to a portion of the process equal to the coffee they brought to the cooperative. Members themselves insure this basic cooperative right is protected through a democratic method of governance that enables each person to have a voice in the decision making process.” As he scans across the room, he sees nodding heads and the occasional pen scratching on paper. Observing that his ideas were well-received, Hugo went on to make a surprising point for his audience. The foundation of the cooperative, according to Don Hugo, is that every member, male or female, young or old, rich or poor, is equal. He grows serious and says, “Somos iguales, sin distinccion.”

These words carry special weight in this region where war tarnished the reputation of communalism. If a member of the army perceived that a farmer was assisting his neighbor with the work of the farm, he might take the life and the livelihood of the farmer and his family. Hugo recognizes that the idea that a farmer views another farmer as having an equal say in the commercialization of his coffee is radical and tinged with fear for these men and women. He looks around the room, the smile that often wrinkles his face absent, “Estamos acostumbrados a trabajar individual.” One of the effects of the war was to discourage social bonds formed around work. Rather than working together to bring in the harvest or transport their coffee to market, farming became the realm of the individual. When the harvest arrives, each farmer sells their coffee individually without consulting their neighbor. He finds the coyote that offers him the best deal based on how much he has to sell, not the beauty of the beans he produces. The coyotes seek to buy the most coffee possible at the cheapest price regardless of the quality of the cup. The coffee that emerges from these farms is of poor undiscerning quality, landing as filler in the mass marketed brews of the West. Despite their ideal growing conditions and high altitude farms, these farmers receive relatively little for their coffee.

As El Salvador moves forward from the bloody war of its past, the benefits of cooperation again come into fashion. The farming communities realize that banding together generates higher prices than they receive selling alone. To reap the rewards of this model each individual must set down a history of fear and animosity to work with their neighbor towards a common goal. In La Palma, people have tried to organize themselves in the past, but their attempts have fallen flat in the face of corruption and the desire for individual gain at the expense of others.

Beyond the project, the farmers now have an incentive to work together to create some of the best coffee in the world. Every year El Salvador holds a coffee cupping competition where some of the world’s most discerning coffee palates come to the country to find its best coffee. The farm that produced last year’s winning batch lies within eye sight of the land of many of the farmers participating in the project. The winner’s lot fetched a previously unimaginable price to any of the people in these hills. They now know the potential gold sitting in their soil. They simply have to mine it. Their goal is for each farm, from 5 to 20 manzanas, to produce coffee of the quality that wins the Cup. To meet this goal, they must work together to create and run a mill that will process their coffee to perfection.

After attending the Taller, I traveled with another project worker to a meeting held by the World Bank. Part of the purpose of the project I observed in La Palma was to conserve the Rio Lempa through sustainable coffee farming practices. This river sits at the junction of the three countries, providing water and power to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. The World Bank project emphasizes the ecological importance of the area as multiple international entities organize the various local communities that live off the river to protect it. The Bank project centers around a lake where fertilizer runs off from corn cultivation and threatens the fragile ecosystem that supports birds, fish and people. The traditional annual slash and burning of the land for corn cultivation smoothes the path for the chemicals to pollute this precious water source. Slash and burn agriculture does more than scar the land, deplete the soil and ease water pollution; it also threatens the coffee cultivation of farmers surrounding La Palma.

Jose Alberto Diaz is a simple man. He shuffles up to our truck beside the road, offering a strong handshake to welcome us to his farm. He attended the taller as a representative from the town of Matapan, which lies a three hour journey from La Palma. There was no school here when he was a boy so he struggles to write and can not read. He walks with hunched shoulders and a smile peaking out from beneath his cowboy hat. Ten years ago he was deeply unsatisfied with the only major source of income in the area, the $3.75 wage the local land owner paid workers on his coffee plantation. In search of a better future for his children, he bought 13 manzanas of land. Over the years, he planted three and a half of coffee and maintained 11 as forest and pasture. Last year, he lost 1 and a half manzanas of coffee to the annual fires, where people burn the land to create pasture. He has not yet received any compensation from his neighbors as no one claims responsibility and the courts can not help him because it is impossible to identify the one individual responsible. In an attempt to reclaim the land last year, he planted 600 new plants that were given to him by a project in the area. These plants were not suited to the climate and died.

He joined the project because he sees it as the path to a higher price and a brighter future. “El objecto es obtener un major precio. Tengo vecinos que no se meten.” They are doubtful that this project will succeed and wait to see if he receives a better price. He attended the taller, though he is not sure if he will be able to attend this next time as it is a long journey. He liked it. “No fui a la escuela porque no habia escuela cuendo era nino. Me gusta sentir como estoy aprendiendo algo, que puedo aprender algo.” He can not read or write, but he sat at rapt attention during the taller, soaking in every single word bellowed by Don Hugo. Now there is a school in the area where he sends his children. He wants the best that he can give them, which will include a future where they can read and write. We did not have a chance to finish our interview and so I do not know if the future he envisions includes farming coffee on this unforgiving land in this unforgiving place.

Many of the farmers in these hills have faced a multitude of obstacles to maintain their coffee farm. Ignacio Landa Verde left La Palma for the U.S. during the coffee crisis. After nine years earning wages in the U.S., he came back to his wife’s familial home and bought land which he populated with coffee. Despite the trying history of the crop, he believes that this is where the future of the region and his family lies. In relation to his brothers, who keep cows or cut down wood, he sees coffee as a steady yearly income which always provides something for his family. He sees this project as a way to find different, better markets to sell their coffee. “If two guys come to my farm to buy coffee, I sell to the man who offers me one dollar more. Money is money,” he says when describing the local market, “This year it is very little because costs are very high.” He trusts that this project will make a difference where others have failed, because people in his community participate and recruit him. He cautiously puts his faith in this project and the men surrounding him.

Gerardo Aguiler recruited Ignacio. He tells me the story of many failed development projects which have disheartened the people. “They come and get a big office in town, they hire engineers and drive fancy cars. They give some lectures, or seeds and then leave,” he says in disgust. One such project brought avocado plants to the area. The project group neither researched if this variety would thrive in this climate or demonstrated to the people how to plant the seeds. Far more trees failed than lived. They receive the plants for free, but they lost the labor, fertilizers and space on a limited plot of land in this failed investment. For farmers with extremely limited resources, this is an unrecoverable waste. From his point of view, the tragedy of this failure is that now people doubt any newcomer who arrives promising positive change.

To these men, this project may succeed where others have failed because, in the words of Gerardo, “Me interesa porque nos unimos. Necesitamos cantidad y calidad para sacar una major ganacia.” The emphasis, brought by Don Hugo but written into the fabric of the project, on enabling these farmers to build their own organization inspires them to work together. For those wealthier and more educated farmers, like Gerardo, it opens a wide world of possibility for the coffee of their area. He envisions a cooperative that will provide information on what varieties grow best in the climate of his farm and provide the best flavor, the best cup. Building on this combination of market and farming styles, they could create a platform to market gourmet

organic coffee, inspiring more farmers to move toward organic production, which is too expensive, by turning a losing prospect profitable. As he has already lost an eye to harmful chemicals, he treasures this move away from the substances that “gradually harm everything.”

Despite this unifying purpose, there already exist concrete obstacles to uniting their community under the banner of one cooperative and one processing center. When the project first arrived, farmers with the means to do so began constructing their own washing stations, complete with concrete fermenting tanks. These facilities are small but large enough to process their own coffee and those of their neighbors who are willing to pay for the service. Built after the project began, these existing stations were mentioned by farmers at the taller as taking away from the purpose of the group.

One such farmer is a model farmer, Miguel, working for the project. Miguel is supposed to employ the innovative agronomic and environmental practices introduced by EDE and teach his neighbors how to improve their fields. He is a leader within the project and his farm is beautiful. After an hour long drive up into the mountains, we came across his plot, nestled off the road. He has his own viviero where he can produce his own seedlings and occasionally sell some to his neighbors. He built the factory after learning the proper practices to process his coffee and recognizing the profit potential of quality coffee through the Cup of Excellence. Rather than put his faith in the potential benefits of the cooperative, he heavily invests in his own processing factory to maximize the benefits of the knowledge provided by the project for his own family.

The most ironic part of this individual pursuit is that Miguel is one of the farmers that would most directly benefit from a well-capitalized cooperative. Tornado force winds swept through the mountain tops surrounding La Palma, destroying half of his farm. To replant all that coffee and be able to feed his family till the next harvest, he needs a loan. Since the crisis, farmer credit has dropped so that even large land owners struggle to obtain credit. A strong cooperative would provide him with the loan necessary to survive and rebuild in the face of this current disaster.

Hugo stands at the front of the room, waiting for his farmers to arrive. Attendance drops slightly as the week goes on. People have work on the farm to do, other commitments. Resuming his assault on their mindset, Hugo asks the participants to develop lists of the fortalezas and debilidades (strengths and weaknesses) of their organization and the oportunidades and amenazas (the opportunities and threats) that they see in the outside world.

I sit with a group of men from the small town of Caballero. All three of them wear cowboy hats and speak with soft, closed voices. They welcome me, the gringa and the woman, into their group with smiles and handshakes. Many of them were born during a time when there were no schools accessible to boys growing up on the farm. Each can write his name, but little more. As each word provides a struggle, they appoint me their recorder for expediency. Initially, they strain to understand what constitutes an internal weakness versus an external challenge. I attempt to guide them towards the answer, but in a situation of such uncertainty there is only so much a blond gringa who they have only known for a few short days can say. I am not Don Hugo. He comes over and in a few moments they have a grasp on the greatest weakness of their organization. “Somos seis, y solamente vinieron dos.”

Next Hugo has them take both the challenges and opportunities and turn them into a tree. Each root is a little problem, that grows together with other problems to create the tree of poverty. The other chart shows how little changes, little strengths can combine forces and turn the tide of their fortunes. Hugo’s brilliant structure helps these farmers discover how they can fight the massive challenge of poverty facing their families and their future. From my vantage point, I see men around the room inspired to make change. Hugo has created his disciples, now they must carry their own passion outside the classroom to break down the barriers between them.


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