Minerals, Oil and the (Still) Open Veins of Latin America

Drawing from the cover of "Open Veins of
Latin America" by Eduardo Galeano.
Image courtesy of henryjacksonsociety.org
by douglas reeser on September 28, 2011
Written in 1971 (the English version came out in 1973), Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America offered a glaring critique of the relationships between Latin American countries and the world powers of Europe and the United States. It remains a moving account of the historical roots of the relative underdevelopment and poverty that persists throughout the region. While much of the book is thought provoking, I thought I would share a short excerpt that describes oil and mineral extraction. Galeano opens the third chapter with this discussion (and keep in mind that this was written 40 years ago!):
“Petroleum continues to be our world’s chief fuel, and the United States imports one-seventh of the petroleum it consumes. Bullets are needed to kill Vietnamese, and bullets need copper: the United States buys abroad one-fifth of the copper it uses. Shortages of zinc cause increasing anxiety: over half comes from abroad. Planes cannot be built without aluminum, and aluminum cannot be produced without bauxite: the United States has almost no bauxite. Its great steel centers – Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Detroit – do not get enough iron from the Minnesota deposits, which are on the way to exhaustion, and there is no manganese within the United States: one-third of its iron and all of its manganese are imported. Nor has it any nickel or chrome of its own to produce jet engines. Tungsten is needed to make special steels and one-fourth of that is imported.”
“This growing dependence on foreign supplies produces the growing identification of the interests of U.S. capitalists operating in Latin America with U.S. national security. The internal stability of the world’s greatest power is closely linked with its investments south of the Rio Grande. About half of those investments are in the extraction of petroleum and minerals, indispensable for the U.S. economy in peace and war.”
Today, the "great steel centers" are largely inactive, military expenditures will exceed $700 billion in 2011 (according to this Time article) and the reliance on resources from outside of the U.S. is as great as ever. I did a little digging, and found a document from the Mineral Information Institute that cites a 2011 report from the U.S. Geological Survey showing U.S mineral imports in 2010. Imports of most of the minerals mentioned above have gone up since the time of Galeano's writing (by percentage consumed): copper from 20% to 30%; zinc from 50+% to 77%; and 100% of bauxite and manganese. We also know that today the U.S. is going to extreme lengths to secure access to oil outside of its borders. In other words, not much has changed in 40 years, and it may be argued that the issues that Galeano raised in 1971 have continued and even worsened over time.

With the constant barrage of news and information, I think people tend to view many of the problems we face in the world as new and unique to our time in history. In fact, the sheer amount of new information serves to obscure history. Revisiting our history reveals that we have known about and discussed the issues that continue to plague us today. Galeano’s work is an interesting and engaging piece of scholarship that begs for an updated edition. If you are interested in an understanding of Latin American history and international relations, this is a must read. 

The Cost of Cooking -vs- Fast Food

by douglas reeser on September 26, 2011
Comparing Costs of a Meal for Four
Image courtesy of the New York Times
The New York Times printed this interesting graphic comparing the costs of different versions of a meal for four: a fast-food meal from McDonalds, a homemade chicken meal and a homemade rice and beans-based meal. The graphic shows that the non-fast-food options are not only cheaper, but on the healthier end of things.

Not to rain on any parades, but the info-graphic may be a bit misleading, as it leaves out a few integral pieces about the homemade meals. Purchasing the food requires that one has the ability to get to a grocery store; whether via foot, auto, or public transport, such food needs to be accessible. The food pictured assumes that you could purchase the ingredients as is, however can you really buy two slices of bacon, a cup of dried beans, or four slices of bread? Finally, homemade meals take time - time to go to the store, time to cook and time to serve. From store to table, a homemade meal certainly takes a bit more time.

Still, this is a useful graphic to begin to dispel the myth that fast-food is the cheapest way to eat. With some planning ahead, we can eat healthier meals at lower costs. Thanks New York Times!

Vertical Farming and the Future of Food

The "verticrop" - a vertical farm created by Valcent.
photo courtesy of Valcent Products.
by douglas reeser on September 24, 2011

Vertical Farming. The name conjures images of giant walls of vegetables with people swinging in harnesses harvesting the ripened produce. This isn't exactly correct, but it does capture the essence of what vertical farming is all about - growing up. Figuratively and literally, growing up is exactly what we as humans need to be doing. With a projected 80% of the world's population living in urban settings by mid-century, the problem of feeding those urban masses is going to become very real, very quick. Vertical farming may offer a part of the solution.

In practice, vertical farming is not quite as simple as growing food on walls. The concept is wrapped up in architecture and biology. As detailed by microbiologist, ecologist and Professor of Public Health in Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University, Dickson Despommier, vertical farming utilizes urban spaces to create completely integrated agricultural systems into dedicated buildings. Vertical farming is conceptualized as a closed system, from seed to product, and one that reuses and recycles it byproducts. Once in operation, a vertical farm would theoretically need little to no input besides the labor needed to plant, tend, and harvest the products of the farm. This can all be done in a 5-10 story building on a city block.

We've included two short videos below that will give readers a better idea of what vertical farming may look like, the concepts behind it, and how it would work. It doesn't appear that any vertical farms are in operation at this point, but this is an idea worth keeping tabs on. Farming in urban settings would be a great benefit to parts of the world where arable lands are short, such as the Middle East and southwest United States. Additionally, producing food where the people are would dramatically reduce the economic and environmental costs of traditional agriculture.

Finally, here at Recycled Minds, we've written a good deal about Monsanto and the problematic ways in which they go about their business in the world of agriculture. I've realized recently that we often critique what Monsanto and other companies like them do without offering many positive alternatives or options. It strikes me that vertical farms would be an ideal place to produce Monsanto-derived products. A closed system would allow for long term testing of seeds, and once in production, the closed system would prevent GMO seeds from haphazardly crossing into the (more) natural world. Just a thought!

Check out these videos for short introductions and explanations on vertical farming, or visit the Vertical Farm Project here >>>

Monsanto and Developing Countries: the Case of Belize

A Q'eqchi' Maya farm planted in corn in southern Belize.
Photo courtesy of dooglas carl.
by douglas reeser on September 21, 2011

As one of the leading companies in the business of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Monsanto has been seeking to spread its seed(s) around the globe for years, including into developing nations where populations may rely more heavily on agricultural production for their day-to-day needs. Indeed, debate about the longterm viability and safety of GMO seeds and plants remains a hot-button issue in the US and abroad. A recent feature in Amandala, one of the primary newspapers in Belize, shines some light on the GMO debate in the context of a developing nation.

In Belize, GMO seeds are not yet in production, although seeds do exist in the country - locked in a vault awaiting the green light for testing. Still, as is the case the world over, GMO products are on the shelves of local supermarkets in the form of imported goods such as breakfast cereals and snacks. Still, despite pressure from Monsanto, Belize appears to be on the track of exercising caution where GMO seeds are concerned. According to the Amandala article:
Whereas the GMO corn is being considered by the Mennonites of Spanish Lookout, who farm commercially; there are fears that the GMO corn, described as invasive, could eventually take over cornfields in places like Toledo, thereby wiping out the livelihoods of Toledo Maya who grow corn for both subsistence and trading purposes. 
With patent rights claimed by the foreign corporation Monsanto, there are fears that the economic impacts could be far-reaching on rural communities whose meals are still heavily corn-based.
In Belize, the Mennonite population, a group of immigrants whom mostly came to the country in the mid-1900s, are the primary producers of agricultural products in Belize. In the south of the country (the Toledo District for instance), the majority of the population is also agricultural, however most production is for household or local consumption. If farmers in areas like the Toledo District turn to GMO corn, they may be forced into purchasing seed for their crop on an annual basis, which is one of the ways that Monsanto has maintained control of its seeds and its profits.

Still, Belize remains in a unique position, and may be able to allow GMO seeds into the country without issuing patent rights to the seeds to Monsanto. This would allow farmers to plant the seed, and then save some of that crop for planting the next season, as is custom for farmers around the globe. Amanadala explains:
The Belize Intellectual Property Office (BELIPO) has the jurisdiction to refuse the registration of the patent for GMO corn in Belize, which would mean that Monsanto cannot have protected status in Belize, on the grounds that the refusal is needed to protect public order, morality and human, animal and plant life, as well as to avoid serious prejudice to the environment.
At this time, it appears that GMO seeds are going to make their way into the Belizean soil in the way of test-plots that have been approved in a few spots in the north of the country. These plots will reportedly be seeded sometime early in 2012. Where the seed goes from there remains to be seen. There are groups in Belize opposed to the introduction of GMO, and there are a number of legal issues that need to be addressed before GMO seeds make it into farmer's fields. It should be interesting to see how this all plays out over the next year or two. Will the influence and money of Monsanto be too much for Belize to resist? Will GM-corn take over the fields of Maya farmers who have been growing corn for generations? Or will Belize remain relatively GM0-free, and offer a place for multiple varieties of corn and other crops to co-exist?

Read the entire Amandala article here >>>

Consumption Junction: Women in the Workforce

1941 (Library of Congress)
by lana lynne on September 15, 2011

In the early 1700s, at the dawn of the commercial marketplace, author Eliza Haywood published her first novel, Love In Excess, to great critical and mass acclaim, earning it equal billing with Daniel Defoe's Robinson Caruso as one of the most popular novels of the early eighteenth century. The novel was a somewhat racy exploration of women's private and public lives. Not much biographical information is known about Haywood, other than that she wrote professionally and acted in the theater to support her two children.

In the mid-1800s, writer Fanny Fern, a contemporary of (and more financially successful than) Herman Melville, published her semi-autobiographical novel Ruth Hall, which delved into a woman writer's negotiation of the publishing industry and her marriage and family. Ruth Hall was a smash hit with readers (although a bit less so with literary critics, who couldn't understand why a woman would write such a scathing piece on the marketplace and marriage).

In the early 1900s, two of the most popular writers of the time, Edna Ferber and Fannie Hurst, explored similar themes -- women's need to balance the marketplace or the workforce with family life. In some cases, women's foray into the workforce was met with treacherous consequences (i.e. loss of husband/relationship to children); in other cases, female protagonists balanced the two brilliantly. Biographically, Ferber never married, nor engaged in any romantic relationships at all, as far as anyone knew, and Hurst raised eyebrows with her separate living arrangement with her husband.

What this brief look back through literary history can show us is how women (and men!) have always been concerned with the gender politics of the work force. Hundreds of years ago, these professional women writers were trying to figure out how to balance career and family. This is not to say that today's concerns about these same issues should be dismissed, but rather that the struggle has a long history, one which gives a more nuanced perspective to today's critique of gender and class problems in the workplace and job market.

In a recent interview with Guernica Magazine, historian Stephanie Coontz talks about gender inequality and class disparity in the job market from the Depression to the present. One of the most interesting aspects of her discussion, to me, was the situation of women after World War II and how it compares to today's situation.

"...as the postwar economy expanded, many government and business leaders began to believe that women workers were needed to fill shortages in the service sectors of the economy. So there was a campaign to get wives to rejoin the labor force after their children had reached a certain age. Of course this was not done for the sake of women’s emancipation, but from the need for a lower-paid, non-union segment of the labor force that could more easily be hired and fired or mobilized as part-time workers.

"So there were these contradictory messages for women. You weren’t supposed to compete with men, and you were supposed to stay home when your children were young. But then you were supposed to stop being a “parasite” and go get a part-time or low-paid job that would contribute to the gross national product and our ability to out-produce the Soviet Union. But you shouldn’t get a job that paid enough to threaten your husband’s identity as the primary breadwinner or interested you enough to compete with your total absorption in your role as wife and mother. Advice books in the 1950s and 1960s actually said this!

"There are equally contradictory messages today. Now middle-class women are encouraged to enter the rewarding and challenging careers that used to be reserved for men. But once they have children—which is typically just as their careers are hitting their strides—there is still a tremendous sense that becoming a full-time mother is the way to go. So there is all this social approval of career women “opting out.” But low-income women—the ones whose jobs make it much harder to combine motherhood with full-time employment—are now the ones considered parasites if they try to stay home with their kids. Instead they are pressured to find jobs, any jobs, no matter how ill paid or how long the commute and the work hours. Middle-class children are thought to 'deserve' full-time mothers in the home; poor children are not. And at the same time many conservative legislators are pushing to restrict the ability of women, especially low-income women, to control when and if they have children."

Coontz's critical comparison shows how men and women's struggle with gender roles has been perpetuated into late capitalism. Moreover, it shows how class stereotypes and political propaganda now serves to reinforce this same struggle that has been experienced throughout the history of the commercial marketplace.

Read Coontz's entire interview here.

Views from the ANThill: Reflections on Beginnings in Anthropology News

by douglas reeser on September 7, 2011

On September 1st, 2011, the American Anthropological Association launched the new online version of their popular Anthropology News magazine. For the next year I will be writing a monthly column for the publication titled, "Notes from the Field", in which I will muse on the many aspects of research and life that I experience while conducting my dissertation research in Belize. The column will run once a month, and I will be able to repost here on Recycled Minds. Ideas and requests for future columns are always welcomed, and in the end, I hope everyone enjoys the columns. This is the first in the series:

Reflections on Beginnings…
Sometimes the distant sounds of ritual drumming fill the stillness of the night. Members of the local Garifuna community have come together to participate in the dugu, an event during which some experience possession by the spirits of their ancestors. Among other things, the dugufunctions as a healing ceremony, as men in trance use the power of the spirit to heal those afflicted by some illness. This type of healing represents just one aspect of the complex health system in southern Belize.

A Q'eqchi' Maya traditional healer's clinic in Belize. This is just one example of the many sites of health care in the south of the country. Photo courtesy of douglas carl reeser.

First Friday Picture Show: Haiti by Federico CintrĂ³n-Moscoso

Our latest Picture Show Slideshow with photos of a working visit to Haiti in late July of 2011 by anthropologist and photographer, Federico CintrĂ³n-Moscoso. You can follow some of his work at his blog "Cultura de Papel" - culturadepapelfcm.wordpress.com