Latin America has historically been known for its colourful living, cultural diversity, and natural resources. Unfortunately it has also been known for its inequality, insecurity, and political instability. On balance though, it remains an attractive destination and, moreover, an important source of raw materials.
Taking a look back, when we were first entered the occidental world as a colony, our commercial relations were based on fulfilling the resource needs of developed countries. Later, as a free continent deep in debt, industrialization came very late and so our economy rested once again on the exploitation and exportation of natural resources. Finally, after centuries of struggle, we successfully integrated into the globalized market with a modern productive structure, thanks in large part to private investors. However, the business model of prioritizing developed markets remains about the same. This shouldn’t be surprising as our population size, and therefore our need, is smaller and our consumption is less exigent. It is not a crime to respond to capitalism, and so we sell to wherever they pay the best. Nevertheless, this does not mean it is acceptable to neglect local consumers.
As organic farming develops in Latin America in response to foreign demand, the local consumer needs to be informed on the reasons why this is happening and the problems caused by traditional farming.
Time and time again, Latin America has developed high quality organic coffee, cocoa, and several other farming products. However, as soon as they reach the highest standards, most of the harvest goes abroad under the rationale that local consumers won’t pay a premium price for organic produce. This is not a mistake: it is true that most of the population is very sensitive to price. After all, why pay extra for something that has always grown fresh in your backyard? We must not assume, however, that this reaction is exclusively linked to money. According to the World Bank, the middle class in Latin America has grown 50% during the last decade, meaning that 50 million people have moved out of poverty within a decade that has been marked by new economic reforms and political stability; this new stability has given the emerging middle class the confidence to invest in health and education. So what is it that we are still lacking, in order to drive better quality consumption? Simply, information.
Consumption awareness in South America, mainly about food products, has begun to flourish at a slow but steady pace. People want to eat healthy and this is only natural at a time when people are concerned about tough illnesses such as cancer and diabetes. Latin American’s are reacting to an immediate problem that touches them directly, their health. This is a great first step. However, we are still missing the bigger picture.
Although we see how what we ingest is affecting us on a daily basis, what we wear also affects us but the connection is less intuitive. Latin America holds
an important supplier position within the fashion industry worldwide, not only for its manufacturing but also for its large production of raw materials like cotton, linen, and wool to mention just a few. Though all of these are natural fibers, we face the problems associated with traditional farming and its negative consequences on nature and the health of field workers.
Let’s take cotton crops, the “star” product of the region, as an example. I think we all know cotton requires intensive water irrigation, that’s only natural, right? Water will end up back in our rivers and land and we can always manage to find new sources of water in our diverse habitat… or at least we hope so. But are we also aware that cotton stands for 25% of the world’s insecticide use? Not to mention the use of synthetic fertilizers and GMO seeds to maximize production at lower costs? This means that the water we are putting back into our land is highly contaminated, affecting not only soil and rivers, but also wildlife. And, as if all of this isn’t enough, we also expose our field workers to daily chemical contact, thereby increasing their chances of developing irreversible illnesses. If you are familiar with public health policies in most of Latin America, you know this basically amounts to a death sentence.
We fail to see the connection because the consequences are not hitting us directly. It is not our health being jeopardized, it is somebody else’s. It is not our private property being damaged, it’s our collective land. We don’t feel it (yet), but it doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
So what’s the solution? We cannot stop the industry, right? Too many people depend on it, plus cotton represents nearly half of the fiber used to make clothes worldwide. It can’t be stopped, but it can be reformed and a transition towards cleaner production in our region has already started (though in a very small proportion). We still don’t see this certified organic/certified fair-trade fiber in regular stores; instead, we are offered synthetic wool which is (according to the salesperson’s pitch) “as good as organic, but more affordable”, we are offered polyester or acrylic. So where is our high quality, low impact textile going then? Well, most of it is going abroad because, we are told, “our local market isn’t ready yet”. As compensation, however, we are getting access to the world’s largest fast fashion retail chains that ten years ago wouldn’t have consider stepping into our market, but that are now making an aggressive and successful expansion. So, is the lack of money really the issue?
I personally think our market “isn’t ready” because we are not allowing it to be. If there is something to learn from our capitalist system it is that we are a consumer driven economy, therefore, industry will respond, adapt, and change to customer demand. So why are we not asking for better options? Why not start educating the Latin American consumer at the level of developed markets? Why should we accept unhealthy farming processes in our lands and why should we have to choose from a large range of low quality, harmful products? There is something to fix here.
To be clear, I’m not against exportation, we need it – it highly contributes to our economy and generates a lot of jobs. However, I think our objective should be to develop the local market while responding to external demand. We need to put better options out there and let people make an informed decision.
Now, this sounds easier than it actually is. Education takes time and effort,with a lot of repetition, repetition, and repetition. But we must think forward. If more people become more aware, we can pressure the farming, cattle, and fashion industries to re-design their unsustainable practices not only in our region, but worldwide. Something as banal as shopping can actually become a political act.