Coming to the end of two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru, I write in response to the ever-present questions How have you changed? and What have you learned? that are now being directed toward me. Instead of trying to describe how this amazing experience has matured me, or taught me patience and perspective, I would rather talk about how living in a small Peruvian port town has changed my view the world, which originally reflected the largely naïve way most Americans view the world.
We live in a world that is increasingly global. Globalization is often touted as economic progress. Because of globalization, US citizens are able to buy cheap imported products bananas from Ecuador, sugar from Brazil, avocados from Chile, small technology products from China. These imports are cheaper than US-produced products, and cheaper is better, right? Living in Peru has made that price-tag less appealing.
In my small community of Puerto Chicama, a fishing village (population 8,000) on the north coast of Peru, products are produced en masse for First-World consumption. Ten factories process anchovies to produce fishmeal, a main ingredient in pet food. On the agricultural farms nearby, artichokes and asparagus are produced by the ton and bottled for European and American markets. In theory, this seems fairly straightforward: These large-scale production factories offer jobs in a country that has over 50% unemployment. Yet the fishing factories in Puerto Chicama catch so many tons of fish that the local fishermen, who fish for subsistence, have seen a large decrease in their catches. On top of this, the factories pollute the air and dump all of their waste products into the ocean, breaking several laws that local authorities cant enforce. The result is the gradual depletion of this towns natural resources and a gradual shift from subsistence fishing to importing food from more productive farmland in the nearby valley. All this is done so people from Europe to China to the US can have cheap pet food.
The same is true for the agricultural exports. A large agricultural production center turns vast amounts of land into single crop farms that produce food, mostly artichokes and asparagus, that Peruvians dont even eat. I was flabbergasted when my host family, including my host brother who works in one of these plants, produced a jar of preserved asparagus and proceeded to ask me how to prepare and eat it.
Again, the tradeoff for jobs is no great deal for locals. Due to nonexistent enforcement of already weak labor laws, employees usually work 12- to 16-hour shifts and get paid less than $20 a week. When the fish factories are in production (only 4 to 6 weeks a year do they actually offer full-time employment), these Peruvians commonly work up to 18-hour shifts. And the worst part is that inspite of all the work put in by locals and all the Peruvian resources being used, the majority of the profit goes to factory owners who are European or North American or Asian. In the end, in an area where the population of this fishing village could once produce enough food for everyone, now people starve because fishing has declined and prices have risen, and the majority of the land is used to produce a product Peruvians dont eat. And for sacrificing their resources, these Peruvians dont receive enough money to eat in a land where a two-course lunch costs less than $2.
This sad reality, which I have seen with my own eyes, is only part of the picture. Almost all the large enterprises in Peru are owned by foreigners mines, telecommunications, agriculture and, of course, oil and gas. The exploited workers often strike to ask for higher wages and better working conditions, and sometimes their demands are met, but too often they are tear-gassed. Whole communities near mines protest when they discover mercury in the rivers that serve as their water supply. Foreign-owned mines all sporting English names such as Goldfinch and Andean Copper promise schools, plazas and jobs to communities in exchange for 20 to 40 years of rights to millions of dollars worth of gold, silver and copper. Large sums of money are invested in roads and mining structures, their investment is recuperated several times over and then the Peruvians are left with a depleted zone at the end of their leasing period.
Telecommunications industries in Peru are almost all foreign, and cell phone companies are so aggressive there are actually more cell phones than landlines. Many Peruvians already have the latest phones that double as music or video players, but they dont come cheap. Internet, as far as I can tell, only has one service provider, the same Spanish company that has a monopoly on land lines.
At this point Im sure most are thinking how terrible, but we didnt ask for any of this. When the US spends over $1 billion dollars a year on pet food, pet owners dont ask to deplete food resources of Third World countries. When Europeans buy tons of bottled asparagus, they dont ask to kick small subsistence farmers off their land. When Americans use cables containing copper mined in the Peruvian Andes, they arent asking the companies to ravage the land and pollute the resources of the surrounding communities.
These First-World consumers didnt ask this, but our government and elected leaders sure did. Bilateral trade agreements and free trade agreements are fancy documents that essentially specify economic conditions for other countries if they want to trade with the US. Peru has negotiated a free trade agreement with the US, an agreement that would allow certain Peruvian products (asparagus, artichokes) to have access to the US consumer; import tariffs are lowered or dropped altogether, while in return certain subsidized US agricultural products (corn and soybean, for example) will be awarded the same green light in Peruvian markets, producing the inevitable effect of out-competing small Peruvian farmers. These trade agreements require the approval of Congress. The new Democratic-majority Congress sent the original deal, as negotiated by the Bush administration, back until language was included to protect Peruvian workers. Im sure the labor protections are still minimal. Congress approved the Peru pact and is considering similar free trade agreements with Panama, Colombia and South Korea.
So, aside from the fact that cheap products on the shelves of our supermarkets come at the price of hurting small farmers in other countries, there is the question of how these foreign-owned large-scale industries that seek US and European markets came to exist in Peru in the first place.
During the 20th century, especially the second half, countries like Peru were eager to develop. Institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund offered these developing countries access to loans as large as billions of dollars so they could contract American or European engineering companies to build airports, highway systems, hydroelectric dams, and other large infrastructure projects. However, a condition of these loans (which either purposefully or accidentally almost always resulted in the developing countries defaulting on their loan payments and being forced to grant trade concessions or other deals to the US) was that the countrys economy must be open to private investment. This basically means that large telecommunications, energy, mining, and agricultural companies could enter these countries and profit from their resources while selling them to the US and developed countries for prices lower than the more-regulated American products.
Needless to say, these slick, technologically advanced industries outperform or push out any locally owned industry. I often wonder what Peru would be like if Peruvians had been allowed to develop their own industries their own fish production, their own mining, their own television. Would they be better off? The industries would certainly be smaller, less advanced, and produce on a smaller scale. But that would mean more local production, i.e., more food for Peruvians and probably more sustainable productions as well. Agricultural production would be smaller, but products Peruvians actually eat would be grown. Would they have cable TV? Widespread Internet access? Cell phones? Probably not, but they would have the chance to develop these industries on their own, instead of 20 million Peruvians paying their phone bills to a Spanish company.
So what have I learned? How have I changed? Over the past two years I have learned to live a normal life using only several liters of water a day. The average American uses over 30. I learned to survive on a diet of a third of the calories an average American eats. The food I eat is almost entirely locally produced fish and seafood from the ocean, and vegetables and beef and chicken from farms a few miles outside of town. This means I eat strawberries and mangos in the summer and miss them in the winter until they appear again one day in the market, and those first few bites convince me that it was well worth the wait. In the US, on the other hand, year-round we eat beans from Mexico, bananas from Ecuador, sugar from Brazil, and asparagus from Peru.
This costly (both environmentally and financially) practice of importing food and food products from other countries wouldnt bother me so much if only the American consumers were bearing the extra cost. However, the sad reality the reality I see every day in Puerto Chicama is that the real cost of mass food production for the American market is borne by the people and communities of poverty-stricken countries like Peru.
And the worst news of all about the unsustainable, globalistic economy driven by the American lifestyle and rampant consumerism aside from the negative impact it has had on the people I have lived and worked with these last two years, and aside from the havoc being wreaked on the local environment by large-scale production factories is the fact that globalisms disastrous effect is growing. First-World levels of consumerism are very quickly spreading to many other countries around the world, including Peru.
In the end, it is incredibly frustrating to know that a few simple changes in American economic policy eliminating subsidies and placing real values on products, replacing free trade with fair trade, giving incentives to businesses whose social justice policies really do what they ought to would literally have a million times more impact and effectiveness than all Peace Corps work combined. Many times I have wondered to myself what am I doing? as I teach recycling in a community that produces a lot less waste and recycles a lot more than any community in the US. Or when I try to promote biohuertos (community gardens) to people who not only produce most of their own food, but also tons of food for First-World countries. Or when I teach water conservation to people who have running water only two hours a day.
What can I, one Peace Corps volunteer, do? Now I know what a 99-cent bottle of marinated artichoke hearts means in terms of pesticides used and cheap labor exploited. I know what a 20-cent can of pet food means in terms of environmental pollution and unsustainability. In California I can buy locally grown food that somehow costs more than imported food due to the wonders of globalism. I can teach recycling, gardening, and resource conservation skills to the people who are the most wasteful. And last but not least, I can vote for politicians who are willing to quit pandering to the interests of big business. And while Ill know, deep down, my actions alone will make very little difference, Ill act any way I can because Ive seen firsthand the destructive side of globalization, and Ill act with the hope that I can influence my friends and family to do the same.
Isaac Pearlman holds two degrees from the University of California at San Diego (BA, literature & writing; BS, environmental science). He has worked in the field of environmental management for the Port of San Diego and for the Peace Corps. Email: email@example.com.
From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2008
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