The Chac Lol Cooperative*
by Elizabeth A. Bowman
A Red Flower Blooms in the Yucatan
In Mexico, on the Yucatan Peninsula, there is a Mondragon-type co-operative of Mayan peasants which makes corn tortillas in five small, dusty villages near the Mayan ruins of Uxmal. The co-operative is called Chac Lol which means red flower in the Mayan language. This co-op was born of struggle.
In January 1999 two friends of mine and I visited these tortilla factories or tortillerias. The villagers still live in one-room, dirt-floored Mayan adobe huts and sleep in hammocks as their ancestors have done for centuries. Strong families and a large non-money economy moderate the poverty of the proud, rural Mayas. Yet the struggle for food and potable water is still the focus of life. The main crop is drought-resistant corn, and the staple of the Mayan diet is the tortilla, the flat corn pancake that is wrapped around all food. In Mayan mythology, people were created from corn. All of life revolves around corn; all food around the tortilla.
We spent several days with Rommel Gonzalez Diaz, Chac Lol's financial technical person; Ester Munoz, their lawyer, and Reni Coral, the architect. These three people are the heart and soul of Chac Lol, the driving forces behind it.
The goal of the Chac Lol cooperative which operates several stores, a livestock farm of sheep and goats, a shoemaking enterprise, and a farm growing amaranth in addition to the five tortillerias is dar de comer, to provide food. Everyday at lunch time the women and children come to their local tortilleria to get their hot tortillas for lunch. The women are all dressed in the traditional huipil, an embroidered white dress; the girls are as well.
The struggle for land and food is centuries old. The slogan of the Mexican Revolution of 1911 was land and freedom. In this area, in the mid-1980s, Rommel and Ester helped the peasants try to get possession of some of the ejidos, the communal lands, from the town of Opichen in order to grow corn. The communal lands had been subject to a system of rotation whereby everyone had to change plots of land every two years. The co-op wanted to abolish the rotation system in order to become more productive and to have two crops per year instead of one. They succeeded and won possession of 200 hectares of land (about 500 acres). This was the first time since the Mexican Revolution that a group of peasants independent of the PRI (the Mexican ruling party) had been successful. They cleared the land and worked it; the communal lands are supposed to go to the peasants who work it. But the local PRI authorities changed their minds; they sent in the military and took the land back. The co-op went to Mexico City to meet with government officials and the coordinator of the Plan Ayala, a land redistribution program implemented at the time of the Mexican Revolution. After strikes, attacks from the Mexican Army, and lots of struggle, it won back 50 hectares of land to grow corn and make tortillas. During this struggle, Rommel Gonzales was banished from Yucatan for a period of two years; he didnt leave but stayed there in hiding. The Opichen cooperativistas explain that these struggles happen all over Mexico; peasants fight the Mexican Army throughout the country. They concluded that the legal form of the ejido was not sufficient to protect their ownership and independence. With friends, they found that Mexican law allowed cooperatives and thus the Chac Lol co-op was born. They started the first tortilleria in Opichen. News of their struggle against the PRI and of their success led other peasants to come and work with Chac Lol. Rommel commented: When one has triumphs independent of the government, people notice. They had earned the trust of the neighboring peasants through their struggle. As they organized more cooperative enterprises, they also helped people build houses. In all, they built 200 houses.
At a certain point in their development, they realized that they needed technical help. For example, Ester went to school, studied law, and became a lawyer because the co-op needed a lawyer. When they were building houses for the members, they needed an architect and so they found Reni Coral at the architecture school of the University of Yucatan in nearby Merida. These technical people have formed a co-op called CAIPARU, Centro de Asesoria Interdisciplinario Para el Apoyo Rural y Urbano. They are hired by Chac Lol and their technical assistance services are paid for out of project grants and revenues.
Chac Lol is legally a cooperative company of regional consumption. Mexican law allows for cooperatives of local consumption and those of local production. Their social objective is to obtain in common all the goods and services for ourselves and our families through all our individual activities of production.
Ninety percent of the members are Mayan peasants from Ticul, Muna, Opichen, Calcentok and Maxcanu. There are 200 members (socios), of which about 100 are active members; of those 100 active members, roughly 60 work in the different enterprises they are called working members (socios trabajadores).
The co-op is democratic. Its highest authority is the General Assembly in which all members have a vote. There is the Coordinating Council which meets monthly with members delegated from each community. The Coordinating Council discusses the major questions affecting the entire co-op. At the local level, there is a President, a Secretary and a Treasurer; they are the Administrative Council; there are also people responsible for each project. The structure is exactly like Mondragon, with a General Assembly, a Coordinating Council with three members from each community (rotating delegates), an Administrative Council, and the Watchdog Council (the elected body that monitors the Coordinating Council).
To become a member, one must attend a local meeting and ask to join. A new member is required to attend a certain number of meetings, take a course on co-ops (taught by some of the technical folks), and contribute 100 pesos (about $10). Membership entitles one to discounts at the stores and the tortillerias; one also participates in the lottery at the annual General Assembly and can receive a refrigerator or some other prize. There are also food packages given out around Christmas and members can get packaged candy made of amaranth to sell.
Jobs, such as running the tortillerias, are highly prized, and there arent enough for all the members. The community-level assembly decides who gets s job. So theoretically the most dedicated, hard-working, and capable people get the paid jobs. The salaries are very modest ranging from 500 to 1800 pesos per month.
With about ten pesos to the dollar, these salaries are not enough to support someone living in a G-7 country with a middle-class lifestyle. For the rural people of Yucatan, these salaries are enough to provide security and stability for a family. They are also enough to support the political independence of the family from the ruling PRI, whose control of local jobs is enormous, a phenomenon unknown in most western economies. For example, the primary source of corn flour for making tortillas in the area comes froma factory owned by the powerful Salinas family (which gave Mexico its recent criminal president, Salinas de Gortari, who is now living in exile in Ireland, one of the rare countries with no extradition treaty with Mexico).
Financing for Chac Lol
Only six percent of Chac Lols capital comes from members. 20% comes from gifts and 70-80% comes from government and state grants, along with grants from international foundations and foreign governments. Their goal is to reinvest in the co-op, produce food, then learn other things such as marketing to help the co-op grow and develop other alternatives. In this way, they can better defend themselves against NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which favors conditions that bankrupt local businesses in order to benefit multinational corporations.
More Jobs Through a Mayan Hotel and Ethno-Tourism
The dream of Chac Lol is to provide a decent standard of living for the people. They are trying to build an economic community of solidarity with dignity and justice, the leaders explained. They have started by raising food, making tortillas, and building houses. The next goal is to provide more jobs. In order to do this, Chac Lol is building a hotel near Uxmal to develop ethno-tourism. With 55 direct jobs from the hotel, and another 150 indirect jobs, profits will be reinvested in the co-op, etc. They already have the land, sufficient grants for construction, and the architectural plans. Given the sudden, exponential growth of the tourist industry on the Mayan Riviera along the Caribbean coast from Cancun to the Mayan ruin at Tulumwhere the former owners, the Mayans, are welcome only as workers, servants and performers such a venture makes sense. At the new hotel cooperative, visitors will be shown the Mayan way of life from the inside, welcomed by Mayans on Mayan terms. We wish them success. Tentatively, this project is set to open in January, 2000; GEO will soon publish the www address for its homepage, which will provide updates and details.
Their Words for Our Readers
I asked Ester, Rommel and Reni, if they had anything specific to say to GEOs readers. Rommel said that cooperativization is a real alternative for the worker/peasants because they are looking for a way to be the owners of the means of production and to have work for everyone. Ester said that the co-op is an instrument which helps the worker/peasants to have better working conditions, a higher standard of living, and especially for women, it gives them better conditions in the labor market. Co-ops are an instrument of liberation for them. Reni said that he would like exchanges with other cooperativistas to learn from others as Chac Lol is quite different from other co-ops. (To contact Reni or Rommel, see their email addresses at the end of this piece.)
Fight-Back Against Globalization
Over the last twenty years we have seen the increasing impoverishment of the worlds populations due to war, IMF/World Bank Structural Adjustment Programs, and the debt due the international financial community. Furthermore, as land is taken from the peasants and as local businesses are forced into bankruptcy, self-sufficiency for the poor is increasingly out of reach. Globalization, aided in Mexico by NAFTAs PRI enforcers, is gradually pushing much of the worlds workers into wage-labor for transnational corporations and then in turn forcing them to meet their needs by purchasing from the same transnational corporations. The process of this change is violent and devastating to those undergoing it. Co-ops, like Chac Lol, as locally owned and managed enterprises meeting basic needs, are one successful way to fight globalization, to retain autonomy. Co-ops of local producers selling to local consumers short-circuit the free trade system which eliminates local production and requires importing from the multinationals. In this way, they keep economic power in the peoples hands. Indeed Chac Lol may be in the vanguard not only of resistance to multinational globalization, but in the construction of a new globalization from below.
*I wish to thank Greg MacLeod who introduced me to the Chac Lol co-op. For further information, see his From Mondragon to America; Experiments in Community Economic Development, Univ. College of Cape Breton Press, Sydney, Nova Scotia, 1997, pp. 129-138. I also wish to thank Rommel Gonzalez Diaz, Ester Munoz and Reni Adrian Coral Quintal of CAIPARU for taking their time to show me all the branches of the co-op and for allowing me to interview them; Christina Tollez, the President of the co-op, and all the other socios who took their time to explain how their co-op works. And thanks also to my friends Bob Stone and Al Vileisis who accompanied me. Readers who want more information about Chac Lol may contact me through GEO. To contact Reni, write him at <email@example.com>; Rommel's email is <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
Elizabeth A. (Betsy) Bowman, Ph.D is an independent scholar and writer living
in New York City. She has written on Jean-Paul Sartre and the Mondragon
cooperatives, and is on the Editorial Board of GEO and the Radical Philosophy
Review. She is co-author, with Bob Stone, of the forthcoming Sartre's Morality
of Praxis: An Introduction to Sartre's Unpublished Ethical Writings of the
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