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Community Economics in Guatemala

The Economy and a Pair of Shoes

by TOBIAS ROBERTS

The other morning, after dreaming to the tune of the constant patter of rain on the tin roof of my house, I woke early to enjoy a morning stroll through the mountains of northern Guatemala.  After an hour or so of watching the mystical dance of clouds caressing the valleys and peaks of the green hills, I began to notice that my right foot was soaking wet.  My favorite (and only) pair of shoes, a pair of brown Dockers bought at a thrift store a year and a half ago, finally wore out as a hole the size of a quarter revealed my blackened sock. I needed a new pair of shoes.

As I walked back towards my house with increasingly wetter feet, I began to weigh my options regarding how I could get a new pair of shoes in the small town of northern Guatemala where I live.

The first option that came to mind was to travel into the capital of Guatemala City to visit one of the many sacred shrines of capitalism and consumer society: the mall.  I figured a new pair of shoes at the mall would cost somewhere between $75 and $100 dollars, plus the $20 dollar bus fare to and from the city.

Another option that surfaced was to check out one of the many “pacas” that have invaded this small Mayan town during the past 5 years.  The “pacas” are small stores usually in the empty back room of someone´s house that sell used clothing sent from the United States. I´m not sure exactly how the “pacas” work, but I imagine the migrant husband of the women who run these “pacas” using their day off from their low-paying factory job in the United States to visit garage sales, thrift stores, etc in search of cheap clothing to mail back to their faithful wives to re-sell at a slightly higher price to raise their meager family income.  A pair of “kind-of” new shoes at the “pacas” usually costs between $10 and $20 dollars.

After I finally made my way back to my house and dried off, I took a look at the hole in my brown Dockers and realized that, apart from the sole that had worn through, the rest of the shoe was actually in pretty good shape.  Thus surfaced the idea of taking my old, brown Dockers to the local “shoe hospital” (that´s actually how it´s written on the sign of one of the shoe repair shops) to be revived.  In the small town I live in there are probably 20 shoe repair businesses that specialize in resurrecting shoes that probably should have been laid to rest years ago.  I´ve been told that for a new pair of soles the shoe hospitals only charge around $5 dollars.

Lastly, there are the “kaites”. Kaites are a type of sandals that are locally made from leather and used tires.  Older gentlemen who can no longer work in the corn fields usually take up “kaite-making” as a

retirement activity and it is actually quite fascinating to watch them filing away at a pair of rubber that used to be a car tire to make a sole fit the size of the shoe they´re making.  Kaites cost around $7 to $8 dollars depending on what brand of tire you want (just kidding).

So I how was I to choose amongst these four possibilities?  To weigh my options, I sat down to consider the pros and cons of the four alternatives.

On the positive side, if I were to purchase the designer shoes from the mall, folks in the consumer driven world might consider me fashionable, though given my complete ignorance of current fashion, I´d probably have to change my whole wardrobe, haircut, etc. to fit into that category.  Would it really be worthwhile?  On the downside, most shoes at the mall are expensive, ugly, not very durable, and made by exploiting child labor all around the world.  Plus, one of the thrills of living in Guatemala is that there is always the very real possibility of getting mugged for my new pair of shoes during the six hour bus ride back to my small town.

The business of selling shoes from the “pacas” creates local employment helping families separated by migration economically maintain themselves.  Also, it creates employment opportunities for women who are often abandoned by their migrant husbands who get sucked into the thralls and temptations of American society.  On the other hand, the boom of the “pacas” in this small Mayan town is partly responsible for the decline in teenage women using the traditional Mayan dress that is made by elderly women patiently weaving beautiful artwork into blouses and skirts and thus re-telling the story and values of their people on the clothing that women daily wear. This loss of culture due to the competition with the cheap, used clothing imported by the “pacas” made me feel a bit guilty for having as my entertainment the possibility of finding a “cheap-buy” at one of these stores.

Additionally, these migrant husbands must be the ones who always seem to find the good stuff at Goodwill just before I get there leaving me to choose between a XXL and a XXXL jacket.  Plus, my father always scolded me for buying used shoes and assured me that one day I would end up with a healthy dose of athlete’s foot.

The shoe hospital offered perhaps the most enticing promise: that I would be able to keep my pair of Dockers that after myriads of rainstorms and sloshing through muddy fields had miraculously molded perfectly to the shape of my foot.  It was also an opportunity to support local workers who were maintaining a trade and a skill that little by little was vanishing into the forced extinction caused by industrialization, globalization, and capitalism.  Unfortunately, there were a few lingering questions.  I wondered about how long the shoe hospital could revive my pair of Dockers. Would I again be going through this whole thought process about where to get a new pair of shoes a month from now?  Also, I was a bit concerned about how to do away with that unpleasant foot odor that permeated my pair of shoes before taking them to some guy who was going to be handling them profusely while trying to piece them back together.  Would I have to pay workers compensation benefits if he passed out because of my foot odor?

And finally, the kaites.  Kaites are everything that products from the neoliberal, globalized economy are not. They are locally made, inexpensive, innovative, and durable, and I knew I would feel good about having some old grandpa measure my foot onto piece of old tire.  The cons are that kaites are only made as sandals, not as closed footwear.  In these 10,000 foot mountains where an occasional frost isn´t out of the usual, the very real possibility of losing a toe or two to frostbite could be a consideration.

At last, I was confounded. I realized that this simple decision of choosing where to buy a new pair of shoes was at the same time an ethical assessment; a probing into where my values resided and what type of worldview was to guide my lifestyle, my consumer choices, and my ultimate alliances.

The more I reflected on the ramifications of this seemingly simple decision, the more I came to convince myself of the ultimate truth of what has become an overly-repeated slogan seen everywhere from Amish farmer´s markets to TV commercials: “Buy Local.”

Local is community, and ultimately, what is good for the local community, is good for everything else.  Prioritizing what is local should be the center around which our economic lives turn.  “Building community” is hogwash and meaningless rhetoric if it´s not focused on creating tangible paths towards strengthening the local economy and putting neighbors back into touch with one another.  Every economic decision that we make will affect the progress or destruction of building community.  In my case, the simple decision of where to buy a new pair of shoes had the possibility of either supporting local businesses and trades that are barely surviving the onslaught of competition that characterizes the globalized economy, or funneling more and more needed resources away from the local community and thus condemning it to its continued, slow demise.

But what to do when we´re faced with a consumer decision where there seems to be no opportunity to “buy local.”  In the mid-sized town of rural Kentucky where I grew up, there are probably a hundred stores that sell shoes made by children in China, but I don´t know of one that sell kaites, or the equivalent of shoes made by local artisans.  Another example might be coffee; that indispensable life-giving, morning drink that few people are set to do without.  I can´t say I´ve ever seen a Kentucky coffee farm, nor probably ever will.

The first and most obvious answer to this dilemma is to get to know your community and all that it offers.  I no longer live in the mid-sized Kentucky town that I grew up in, but during my last visit back as I drove around the countryside with my father as he visited his insurance clients, I was amazed to find an abundance of local businesses and industries and artisan shops that made or grew or sold everything from blueberry jam to Amish wicker furniture to my mother´s strawberry wine.  It was a side of the rural, Kentucky, local economy that I hadn´t seen before and that is inevitably invisible when one limits his economic life to frequenting malls on the “strip.”  It might not be impossible, then, to find some old grandpa making artisan shoes, though I doubt that the soles would be made of used tires.

Secondly, one of the pleasant, little maxims that has sprung up as a response to the ill-effects of globalization is: “Think globally; act locally.” As appealing as this adage is, and not to discount its truthfulness in many occasions, I believe that we need to rearrange the wording to make it pertinent to so many of the economic decisions that we take on a daily basis: “Think locally when you act globally.”

Try as he might, a Kentucky farmer is not going to be able to grow coffee.  And try as she might, my mother is not going to be able live without her morning coffee (and growing up we didn´t want her to try).  Thus, we´re forced into making an economic decision that is inevitably going to be global.  What would it mean, then, to think locally when making the decision of buying a foreign product, coffee in this instance?

I am pretty sure that my mother and most women in Kentucky would not want to see their children drop out of elementary school to pick blueberries at the local blueberry farm for three dollars a day. I´m pretty sure that my mother and most women in Kentucky wouldn´t want their children to be exposed to dangerous pesticides as they picked those blueberries or to drink the water contaminated by those blueberries or to tremble in fear as they saw the approaching owner of those blueberry fields.  Yet at the same time, so many good women in Kentucky condemn other children to that very situation, but in the coffee fields of the big landowners of the part of Guatemala that I live in.

I believe that most people are good, decent folks that want to see their community thrive and be healthy.  The can of worms with the globalized economic system we live with, however, is twofold.  Firstly, it is pathologically designed to function towards injustice, and injustice implicates the exploitation, destitution, and ultimate collapse of local communities around the world, especially in the poorer countries.  Secondly, this global economic system does all that it can to make “community” invisible.  The vast majority of those coffee drinkers who stop by the local supermarket or coffee shop to buy a pound of coffee have no idea where there coffee came from, who picked it and under what consequences.

Thus, when one is confronted with the inevitability of making a “global” economic choice, my advice would be to take the time to think about what one would want for his or her own community, and then to question how that far-off, distant community across the world where this or that product is being produced is going to be affected. This is not going to be easy for it requires the determination to discover what is purposely being hidden by the designs of the global economic system.  But that is perhaps the price we should be paying to be able to enjoy a hot cup of coffee grown thousands of miles away.

Of course, no decision is ever crystal clear, even the decisions we make in our own communities are often complex and filled with doubts and a lack of clarity. There will be debates and questions regarding what product is “fair trade” or “ecological” or what have you.  But if we take as our starting point the sincere desire to treat the far-away communities where our coffee is grown with the same affection and care that we would desire for our own community, then I think we´re on the right path.

Finally, I´d like to end with a personal anecdote.  The international, development organization I work for recently set up a retirement fund for all of its international workers. Looking over the paperwork I tried to understand the ins and outs of the investment program that my retirement fund had set up for me.  However, as Ivam functionally illiterate when it comes to anything financial, I turned to one of my friends and co-workers, a specialist in economic development with an MBA and a depth of knowledge about how the financial world turns.

His humble yet wise advice was that the retirement program was inevitably founded upon an injustice.  For an organization dedicated to fighting against poverty and injustice around the world, I was understandably confounded.  My friend explained that after spending time immersed in the financial world of the global North and then being exposed to the realities of the poor and marginalized communities of the global South, he was convinced that the only way to invest with justice was through being attached to a particular place as part of a community that shared in the effects of those investments.  Only through belonging to community could one intimately know and feel what any investment really causes.

I think that the same is true, not only for our investment choices, but for all of our consumer choices. The impact of the products we consume must be felt locally for there to be an ethical evaluation of the true cost of the effects of our consumption.  In the very least, we should make every effort to think locally; to consider what we´d want for our own community; when we act globally.

And for my new pair of shoes?  I love my old, brown Dockers too much to let them go, so they´re currently interned at the local shoe hospital for $4.50.

Tobias Roberts lives in Guatemala.