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 V.16 No.26 | June 28 - July 4, 2007 

Ortiz y Pino

We Stand Condemned

The rights of people in Third World El Salvador should be worth more than the rights of corporations

Ignorance is no excuse. If we choose to remain blind to the injustices carried on by American corporations in the Third World, this does not make us innocent. Our hands are dirty and our failure to recognize that fact doesn’t make the damage we do less serious or our silence less complicit.

We may have created legal fictions to permit ourselves to sleep with consciences undisturbed, but those elaborate mental constructs turn out to be as flimsy as cotton candy when scrutinized closely. In the final analysis, the only question history will care about is, “Why didn’t you act to stop the abuses when you had the chance?”

Measured by that standard, I can’t imagine we’ll ever walk free.

These pessimistic musings arose after a trip I made to El Salvador early in June with a delegation of parishioners from our church, the Newman Center Catholic Parish at UNM. Once or twice a year our parish sends these delegations down to spend a few days visiting rural communities where projects we have helped finance are underway. They help to restore our sense of hope and social justice by sharing, however briefly, the lives of impoverished campesinos struggling to create a better world for their children with few resources beyond their faith in God.

One such example is the family gardening project getting underway in the dirt-poor settlement known as El Chingo on the coastal plain just east of the international airport. Organic farming techniques and fertilizers, heritage seeds and cooperative labor are being used to create several dozen household gardens where fresh fruits and vegetables for family consumption will improve diet and health and help stretch budgets.

We sat in a circle in a farmer’s yard, surrounded by pigs, chickens and children while the project[ url]http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/%20agronomistagronomist, Valmoris, dealt with questions raised by villagers who were considering whether to join the venture. One widow asked if project resources could help her plant an extra plot of corn, which she’d try to sell for cash, as the price of this staple has soared recently and she saw this as an opportunity to make a neat profit.

Valmoris explained this wouldn’t be consistent with the project as envisioned … and would not be likely to succeed, either. He said the gardens were to be limited to food for home consumption. Corn could be grown, using a traditional variety called maiz criollo, and its product used domestically.

But the high-yield varieties, the hybrids being planted in huge quantities by corporate farms all across Mexico and Central America, are all patented, genetically engineered forms controlled by North American companies whose Salvadoran agent is the former right-wing president, Alfredo Cristiani.

This man’s far-flung empire, largely enabled for him by corporate allies in the United States eager to gain a foothold in Central America, has made him El Salvador’s wealthiest man and actually one of the wealthiest in the whole world. The hybrid seeds he sells will produce enormous harvests, far more corn per hectare than maiz criollo could ever produce … but as hybrids, farmers using them cannot retain a portion of the harvest to use as seed grain in the future.

Thus, opting for Cristiani’s promised green revolution would mean surrendering autonomy and becoming completely bound to a form of agriculture (single crops, reliant on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, dependent on one supplier and one buyer) that apes U.S. industrial farming and that would rapidly destroy the Salvadoran villagers’ way of life.

El Chingo may hold out for now, but the pressure is enormous and many other Third World farmers are surrendering. One reason corn (the most important staple in Salvadoran diets) has suddenly become so expensive for the people who live where it has been grown for centuries by generations of family farmers is that NAFTA and CAFTA, “free trade” agreements pushed on Latin America by North American industrial interests (and our government), have pushed the demand for corn (and its price) way beyond peasants’ ability to purchase.

Mexican corn (which used to be cheap and readily available in El Salvador) is being diverted from tortilla and tamale use to ethanol production. Even the traditional Salvadoran food, the ubiquitous pupusa, a sort of thick tortilla stuffed with any of half-a-dozen fillings, is more and more expensive to make with cornmeal, shaving the already precarious profit margin for thousands of street corner pupuserias.

On Wall Street this all makes perfect sense. When the only measuring rod used is profit margin, what’s the use of worrying about a few thousand Third World campesinos being driven to desperation by global corporations’ avid greed?

In the 19th century, we deliberately created the concept of the “corporation” as the legal equivalent of a human being to protect it from responsibility (guilt). Then we endowed it with rights and privileges that equaled those of real people.

In the 20th century the corporation evolved, accumulating far more rights and freedoms than most humans enjoy. Will we in the 21st century acknowledge the damage we’ve caused around the globe through these surrogate, legally fictitious “people” and act decisively to set things right … or will we go on pawing at the marketplace with hands dirtied by squeezing peasants off their plots?

Corporations might evade legal responsibility, but in the Court of World Opinion our attempts at patenting, controlling, modifying and exploiting basic foods (or even water) for a profit make us no more than simple thieves. We stand condemned.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail jerry@alibi.com.

 

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