From Home to Peru and Back

Readers may recall my report and editorial following a trip to Peru last year (CG #78, Sept-Oct. 1998). This past summer I was again able to accompany Rick Stewart of Frontier Natural Products Co-op, revisiting the mountainous Tabaconas Valley, where Frontier is supporting development of infrastructure and organic coffee production, as well as visiting a remote Upper Amazon region just east of the Andes highlands. I cannot claim to be highly knowledgeable about coffee production or Peru. But I did see and learn a lot and have been supplementing that brief exposure with further readings.

Frontier deserves credit for its substantial investments in improving the lives of pueblo residents, primarily through SIAT, the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in the Tropics, a nonprofit located in the regional center of Jaen. We were once again warmly welcomed by local officials, mothers' clubs and scores of schoolchildren. Frontier's help includes bringing one village its first ever electric system, using a small hydro plant.

All such improvements are tenuous steps in a struggle to sustain local economies. Coffee prices worldwide are down, including organic and gourmet segments -- in part, ironically, because more and more peasants and cooperatives are receiving needed technical assistance to improve their production. Even AID, your tax dollars usually serving the dominant U.S. agribusiness interests, has begun to recognize that "technification" of coffee production, emphasizing chemicals and shadeless monoculture, undermines any short-term gains.

The larger resource allocation picture, in South America as in the U.S., is dominated by subsidies for military madness and protection of corporate prerogatives. This agenda is in some ways increasingly sophisticated in its methods and theoretical justification by politicians and economists. Yet it is but a successor to decades of capital extraction and the suppression of labor organizations so that banks can have their profits and consumers can have, for example, their cheap United Fruit (now Chiquita) bananas. The military, led by the colossus of the North, protects the entire arrangement and suppresses armed or unarmed attempts at fundamental change. The day I left for Lima, a brief, buried report from Washington conveyed the first ever public complaint in Congress about our financing of Peru's national secret police, nicely named SIN. When local conflict gets out of control or in the way of larger global agendas, as did the very old Peru/Ecuador border dispute, bigger powers step in to urge a settlement. The current hot spot is Columbia, where the U.S. is investing millions of dollars and a few soldiers in the fight against guerrillas.

Some guerrillas, some peasants, and much of the ruling group are involved with cocaine production, the worldwide dollar volume of which may exceed even that of oil or coffee. The centuries-old tradition of chewing coca leaves has been overwhelmed by production for gringo appetites of a much more powerful drug. Our national (in)security forces have long supported the forces of international drug trade ("DARE to keep the C.I.A. off drugs"), and the guerrillas' origins are in social movements for economic justice, often driven out of the cities by military brutality defending the existing power structure.

Many traditional mountain and jungle inhabitants have been so displaced and victimized by Western expansion that they lack even fresh water and good food. Peru may have the highest infant mortality rate in South America. A few jet airplanes sacrificed could bring wells and solar panels to every village there. In the same vein, such a change in direction could provide badly needed resources to begin cleaning up the poisoned air, soil and water of the U.S. Instead we now have an ever larger military budget. Here is one important connection between the North and the South.

There is much more linking us to regions so far from yet so close to home. In spots east of the Andean spine of South America, biodiversity remains greater than anywhere else on the globe. This awesome treasure continues to suffer the same destruction that is being carried out in the temperate North. Support of organic production and preservation of biodiversity in the tropics is a close parallel to support of organic production and preservation of bio- diversity throughout North America. And an essential contribution to real, not fake, democracy is through development of more effective cooperatives everywhere.

Efforts to strengthen the impact of co-ops on the lives of members, growers and our global environment are small but essential building blocks in a larger drama and a possible sustainable future -- in the next decade, the next millenium? Growing our cooperatives may seem a large enough agenda. Yet without continuing education and improvement, we will have little to offer in the struggle that will accelerate when the environmental price tag of our present overconsumption and militarism hits home.

I've been thinking about how to talk
about greed.
I've been thinking about how to talk
about greed.
--Bernice Johnson Reagon,
Sweet Honey in the Rock

My overriding impression from Peru is of the depth of poverty in the areas we visited alongside tremendous natural beauty and resources, and by contrast, the depth of ignorance and destructive materialism evident in most of the U.S. I've been suffering culture shock, perhaps for over thirty years, but am still trying to understand how efforts in support of cooperatives and organic production can do more to build alternatives to a deadly, unsustainable structure of international and domestic class relations.

Let me end on a hopeful note by recommending a recent book about an internationally recognized sustainable development experiment in central Colombia, Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World. This is an amazing and inspiring story of an effort begun in the 1970s by people who recognized the growing world environmental crisis. It is an evolving, real place, heartening in its demonstration of how close we are to a possible lovely life where people work and walk and sing together every day.

See other articles from this issue: #084 September - October - 1999