23 September 2006

Agricultural Marketing

After three weeks, my occupation here is becoming a bit clearer. While Ag Marketing volunteers do have a ridiculously wide set of circumstances in which they work, I'm at least getting ideas of things I might be doing in the future.
CharlasCharlas are meetings that just about every ag marketing volunteer seems to end up doing to some extent. They're meetings in which you're trying to teach a concept or develop a skill. Usually you wait until you have a little bit of a sense of what kinds of things people are interested in learning about. Generally, you're trying to impart a sense of some business practice on them.
In most developing countries nowadays, it's rare that you find the fabled "subsistence farmer" -- somebody who grows what they eat and only that. Usually, you find small family farmers who know technical aspects that allow them to grow on whatever size of plot of land most small farmers have ended up with. Sometimes they have that size because of government land reform or just because that's all the land their father & grandfather could farm, and therefore all they ever had. Very often, you find the farmers all growing the same crops. Sometimes they're crops of tradition, like maize in Guatemala, and sometimes they're crops that the country was somehow convinced to grow, such as lettuce here. Lots of people grow iceberg & leafy green lettuce. They know how to grow it and know what price they'll get for it. Usually, however, the price is low compared to if they chose to grow a slightly rarer crop, such as romaine or mesclun. Risk aversion makes this a rare choice. Farmers usually eat a little bit of what they grow and sell the rest to people who hold monopolies on things like transit and marketing. It appears that while a need to have more actual cash to pay for the things you either don't make yourself anymore like clothes or can't make yourself such as electricity has pushed most farmers to selling the bulk of their crops. However, this doesn't truly make them mercantilist farmers. They're all trained like subsistence farmers -- how to do a good job with one or two crops, which is all you need to eat. To be a cash crop farmer, you need to understand that you've got to consider things other than being really good at growing a crop. You've got to see everything as dollar signs -- seeds, labor, trips to markets -- and not food. Even if you work really hard and 99% of your lettuce grows healthy, you may be worse off than if you worked just enough that 40% of your organic certified radishes grow. This is obviously counterintuitive for anybody who is used to just trying to feed themselves. If only there was a way to explain this to people.
Oh yeah, that's me. They give you a book of pre-made lesson plans on things like figuring out what your costs are, how to get certified for various sanitiary practices, how to look for new markets and new products, et cetera. They also teach you how to do most of this stuff. Peace Corps Guatemala really tries to focus its basis on "capacity building development," which means that you go in and facilitate their learning, but you really try to set it up so that in the end they do it all themselves. You try to help them learn, but at the same time play as little role in the process of achieving a goal as possible.
I believe that's very important, too. There are, however, some obstacles in Guatemala that simply cannot be easily overcome by subjegated groups such as the Mayans, who constitute about 45% of the population. This is because 1) Mayans are constantly discriminated against due to their race, 2) most mayans are at a severe economic disadvantage, 3) Mayans suffer a major language barrier, most speaking an indiginous language primarily and sometimes no Spanish whatsoever, and 4) Mayans, as often are disenfranchised groups, suffer from poor systems of education. In the end, they just can't get appointments with some people that many ladinos can get, and have no hope of getting the respect a gringo can get here.
I heard a story today of a friend of a volunteer who was a backbacking drifter in Asia until he decided to start a language school in Guatemala's capital. He had no business skills, but his business was a thriving success because he could impress any ladino entrepreneur if he just spoke a little English on the phone or wore a suit to match his white skin. Ideally in community work you try to use your privileges, such as race, to turn such inequalities on their head -- such as showing up with a K'ekchi woman and letting her run the show.
The agricultural training here holds the perspective that there is a progression of development of farming. For example, on one end is the farmer who grows maize, eats what he wants, and sells the rest to some guy who owns a truck & comes to town and rips the farmers without trucks off. In the middle of the spectrum you have cooperative farmers who have eliminated some middlemen and are selling to supermarkets and have some levels of certification of best practices. The fully developed farmer is organized into legal cooperatives, often conduct value-added work such as packaging on their own, and sell to Wal-Mart and export to the United States. With this I don't agree entirely. For some groups of farmers, exporting isn't always the best solution. Sometimes you're better off taking a little bit of your own land & growing some of your own food in a little garden. Truly, quality-of-life improvements gained from the profits you receive from supplying Americans with bok choy and radishes sometimes is smaller than the quality-of-life improvements you can get by holding back a little plot and growing your own broccoli so your pregnant daughter gets enough folic acid.
In the larger sense, one truly hopes that Guatemala is going to further become a larger source of products for the states for their sake. With CAFTA approved, nonagricultural industries will hopefully grow -- but that doesn't mean that every family's goal should be to take full advantage of free trade with a country whose economy can't help but create a hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. That´s all for now. Let me know if there´s problems with the new site. It doesn´t look very different, but it´s base is different.

1 comment:

Sarah Evans said...

Hi Andrew!
What a great letter writer you are and it is so wonderful reading about your adventures!! You seem to be learning a LOT about farming!! Wow! All that time growing up in Arlington and living in the heartland has put itself to good use!! And it sounds like you are learning a lot about everything! Beautiful pictures. Must be a spectacular country. Good to see that picture of you as well! take good care of yourself.
love,
Aunt Sarah

I am required to mention that this blog doesn´t reflect the opinions of the Peace Corps.