soy puro pinoleroPosted: March 22, 2013
The Pinolillo drinks came in on trays. “Don’t expect coca-cola here,” said Pedro Haslam, in charge of the Ministry of Families, Community, Co-operatives and the Associative Economy. Pinolillo is the maize based national drink, so central to Nicaraguan culture that Nicaraguans are often described (and describe themselves) as Pinoleros.
“At least in this Ministry we don’t eat junk food,” said Pedro. “It’s all produced by local families. We are working very hard to try to create a market for their products. I worked at the start of fair trade. People in Northen countries – the UK, Germany, US, bought the coffee just because it came from a poor person. But we realised it needed to come from a poor person and also be of quality.”
Co-operatives are one of the mainstays of the economy that the Sandinistas want to develop. Sandino formed a co-op in Wiwili, which was destroyed immediately after his assassination. In the same way, in the 1980s during the revolution, co-operatives again came under attack. 3,000 were created, as 2 million hectares were distributed as part of the agrarian reform. They were targeted by the Contra, the counter-revolutionaries, and many paid with their lives to defend the co-ops.
In the 1990s, with the onslaught of neo-liberalism, again the co-ops were attacked, this time both physically and economically. “There was the counter agrarian reform,” said Pedro. “Former demobilised soldiers and contras were used to invade the land along with the old landowners. Many co-ops started to share their land with the enemy. In some ways that saved the process. None the less half the land was lost. During 1990 to 1997 there was a lot of violence, murder, kidnaps. But many resisted and survived. Through a lot of creativity the co-ops had a re-birth.”
Pedro was part of this re-birth. He helped set up one of Nicaragua’s biggest coffee co-operatives, CECOCAFEN. Recently he has been working with people like NSC member Nick Hoskyns, to spread the lessons not only to Nicaraguan co-operatives, but also to other ALBA countries like Venezuela and Cuba.
The lessons that people like Pedro share were won the hard way. “Many co-ops which had common land started de-centralising because they couldn’t get loans or technical help. So private banks and MNCs came back. McDonalds showed up. They substituted for our historical and cultural foods – oil, rice, corn from other countries. In our national market the prices were plummeting. Many tried to export in order to survive. That’s when co-ops like CECOCAFEN started to appear.
“In the small co-ops they divided the farms up into private lots. It happened naturally. Families tried to survive on that piece. Many of the co-ops who tried to work in a unified manner fell apart. So now we have co-ops who no longer have land, but provide services.”
Pedro acknowledges that the co-ops had no choice. “Some might say this is a retrograde step. But really it needed to happen for people to survive. We’ve tried to maintain that collective spirit. Together people can fight for the things in their daily lives. It’s part of our mission in this Ministry. Our principle aim is to work with all the small economies in these areas, not just rural but urban. There’s many national services which are organised collectively – transport, bananas, artisan crafts, woodwork, textile industry (though not the maquilas), and in food production. People are getting together in order to provide services, get technical assistance, access financing and marketing. In 2007 when we returned to power there was still 1,700 co-ops on the books . Our goal has been to create more. Today there are 4,500.”
The Ministry’s vision doesn’t just extend to the legally registered co-operatives, which explains another part of the its title: “There’s other forms of organisation, which we call ‘associative’. One example is the production bonus for Zero Hunger. 100,000 women are organised into nuclei – 50 women in each. The Government gives them a package, targeted at the poorest families. All these women are encouraged to create savings groups. They have already saved C$80 million.”
“There is a project with beans and rice producers who work on plots of less than 2 hectares. 30,000 of these workers are organised into solidarity groups of ten families. We work with these nucleii for financing.”
“We have another programme – patios saludable -healthy backyards. It was set up last year. It’s urban agriculture. It’s more than just planting. We are trying to transmit values – people who live in the city can provide part of their food. We are working with 70,000 people, especially in Managua. We’re hoping to strengthen that this year”
For the Ministry the work is as much cultural as economic. “We have a programme which promotes national products,” said Pedro. “It all has to do with Nicaraguan culture – both consumption and production. Crafts, woodcrafts, food, drinks, clothes. We are promoting ‘comercio justo‘ (as fair trade is known in Latin America). We are working internationally with the ALBA, fair trade between countries. But also talking about fair trade with ourselves. We have a national Fairs programme. Just this year we’ve been organising Fairs as a Ministry. We are going to be promoting 1,300 Fairs – day markets – in each of the municipalities. Every municipality should be holding one fair a month, and all the co-ops should be invited. We are also careful that a solidarity price is always kept – at the national price or below.”
Pedro wraps up the meeting. “One last thing. Perhaps it’s where I should have started. Your presence is very important. Go to the Campo. Learn directly from families. Since 2007 you will have been in the new Nicaragua.” And how was the Pinolillo? Delicious.
Ben Gregory is a member of the Wales Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign, and was part of the 13th Welsh delegation to Nicaragua in February.