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Common Hope counters globalization's corrosive effects
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Common Hope's school in a Guatemala village will serve 600 students, many of them children of indigenous families. (Photo courtesy Common Hope)
Broccoli reveals a lot about what's good and bad about globalization. Guatemalan farmers are turning to raising the crop for grocery stores in North America. Globalization advocates say the move away from subsistence farming will lift the Guatemalan farmers and their families out of poverty. Critics, however, say the move is causing some farmers to fall deeper into poverty. Common Hope, a St. Paul-based nonprofit, is helping Guatemala's poorest weather the transition.

St. Paul, Minn. — Vanderbilt University anthropology professor Edward Fischer works with poor farmers in a Guatemalan village who are making a living raising broccoli and other vegetables for export.

"They've been able to expand their land holdings. They've been able to maintain their agrarian lifestyle and they've been able to earn a little extra cash," he says.

In a country where a yearly income might total $100 even a little extra cash is a windfall.

However, another anthropologist, Nancy Black, on leave from Metropolitan State University in Minneapolis also works with Guatemalan villagers.

She says broccoli and other cash crops for sale overseas are pushing out subsistence farming. When the cash crops fail or prices fall, she says, the poor are trapped. They haven't raised food for their own consumption. So they try find work, Black says, at the coffee plantations owned by a handful of the country's wealthiest people.

"They earn less than $3 a day, and they owe much of that to company store so the improvement simply is not there in their lives," she says.

Guatemala's globalization is taking place amidst a swirl of countervailing forces. The Central American nation of 12 million is about the size of Tennessee and has natural resources, scenery and climate that could turn it into an economic engine.

However, Guatemala is still reeling from the effects of a just ended 30 year long civil war. Most of the victims, as many as 300,000, were the indigenous people, the Maya.

Guatemala's indigenous people are about half the country's population. John Huebsch, executive director of Common Hope, says most are very poor. Common Hope is a St. Paul-based non-profit that builds homes in villages near Guatemala City. The organization is also completing a school for 600 students in one of the locations.

Any potential payoff from globalization for Guatemala's poor rests to a degree on the children finishing school. Many complete studies only through 6th grade. Huebsch says the country's public schools aren't free and the teachers are poorly trained.

"With our help it's getting better. I think if those kids go to school, their kids and future generations will be better off, but the poor seem as poor now as they did ten years ago," Huebsch says.

For many of Guatemala's poorest life is a day to day struggle to survive. Common Hope's Renato Wesby, in a telephone interview from one of the villages where the organization works, says many residents go door to door in nearby Guatemala City.

"(They sell) soap and rice and eggs that type of thing. Some of our mothers are cleaning ladies or sell food on the corner in Guatemala City," he says.

Lack of education, Vanderbilt's Ed Fischer says, undermines globalization's potential benefits. He worries Guatemala is making the same mistakes made by Mexico, where officials have been slow to expand access to education. The result, Fischer says, is thousands of workers aren't equipped to make the move to other jobs.

"Mexico did not make those sorts of investments following the opening of the world market and now they're seeing all those unskilled assembly jobs moving to China and other countries in Southeast Asia. Mexico is losing out," he says.

Globalization's effects on Guatemala and other poor countries are spurring a movement to educate consumers how to buy coffee, clothing and other goods with a social conscience.

Common Hope's John Huebsch commends the effort. However he believes more people will be helped faster when corporations on their own see there's a way to do business that serves everyone's interests.

"I believe companies will see that you can make profit and do good and actually doing good will help you make more profit. That would change the world," he says.

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