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A Local Alternative
Si Mitchell questions the wisdom of export driven economies
12th December 1999
There are 25 million milk producing animals in Mongolia, but in the city market place you can only buy German butter. Similarly last year Britain exported 47 million kilograms of butter to Europe while importing 43 million kilograms from the same countries. In one of Southern England's prime dairy farming counties, Devon, New Zealand butter is a quarter of the price of local butter. It's insane.
Founder of the Dartington based International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC) and cofounder of the International Forum on Globalisation (IFG), Helean Norberg Hodge, is unimpressed by well travelled dairy produce.
In his document 'Small is Beautiful Big is Subsidised', ISEC's US programmes director Stephen Gorelick, argues that the efficiencies of scale, at the heart of global trade, are a fallacy. Governments are encouraging growth at every level. This is costing people their jobs, and breaks down the community fabric that depends on healthy local economies; they are eroding democracy and widening the gap between rich and poor and irreparably damaging ecosystems and human health across the planet.
From education, to aid, to infrastructure the quest for growth is insidious. We are constantly reminded, from Bodmin to Bangalore, that local customs and knowledge are inferior to the glossy prosperity fed to us through Western media. While people in the poorer south are goaded to be like those in the affluent north, northerners are made to feel 'greedy', and responsible for the plight of those in the south.
"It's more complex than that", says Norberg Hodge. "We need a shift in direction towards locallising economic activity to strike a balance between international trade and production at home."
This is not about people in colder climates going without bananas, but about doing away with the unnecessary transportation of goods, and the petro chemical pollution that entails.
A recent study in Germany, found the ingredients of a single tub of yoghurt had travelled 1,000 km from four different countries. In Arkansas the US government are stumping up $90 million to build an airport that will handle poultry-carrying 747s with the aim of opening up Japan as a boom market for US fresh chicken imports. Somerfield supermarkets transport Cornish Cauliflowers to the north of England to be wrapped in cellophane to be brought back to the same county for sale.
In 1970 there were over 100,000 dairy farms in Britain. That figure has been halved and small farms are continuing to disappear at the rate of 100 a month. Meanwhile the biggest ten per cent of farms account for half the UK output.
Steven Gorelick says, "export led agriculture usually demands large scale monocultural plantations, industrial scale machinery, and heavy chemical inputs; but it does not require many farmers, and a large portion of the agricultural labour force is left redundant. Britain has shed 88,000 rural jobs in the last ten years."
Despite this, governments continue to oil the wheels of growth. Fossil fuel and nuclear power plants, dams, motorway networks and airports are of little use to small traders. Treaties and regulations implemented by the WTO and EU may benefit multinational cross border businesses, but they regularly penalise local businesses. Though they are rarely represented in the headlines calling for 'trade freedom'.
It is unfortunate that it took the jingoism, unleashed in the latest siege of the Anglo-French trade war, for people to consciously connect export led trade and the decimation of Britain's farming industry. If it wasn't for the corporate quest for maximum payback from minimum effort we may not be living in dread of hormone injected US beef, GM food, vanishing forests or melting ice caps.
"I think our biggest enemy is narrow focus, more than conscious evil intention", says Norberg Hodge, referring to the blinkered arguments that surround poverty and pollution. "The government and corporate elite are so fixated with growth that they refuse to contemplate alternatives. "
She goes on to criticise environmentalists and some of the leading NGOs - who see globalisation as part of the solution - for refusing to see the link between aid projects and the destruction of local economies and culture.
The previously self sufficient people of Ladakh in northern India are being encouraged to grow flowers for export to Holland. Many like them, forced by indebted governments courting international monetary aid, have their lands turned into production lines for the richer nations.
Microcredit systems of small loans promoted by The World Bank shackle previously stable, though less cash intensive, economies to the notoriously corrupt and unstable speculative currency market. The newfound cash crop system has no need for the majority of rural people who flock to the cities to compete for jobs that don't exist.
What money is left in communities is soon sucked out. Studies indicate that of the money spent in a typical McDonalds, nearly 75 per cent leaves the local economy, says Steven Gorelick. Asda's new owner, the US based Wal-Mart, has been found to destroy three jobs for every two it creates.
Similarly a DETR report from September 1998 found new UK superstores to be taking up to half the trade of local food retailers, while the National Retail Planning Forum calculated each new store caused a net loss of 276 jobs as local traders cut back or closed.
However pressure can be brought on the politicians, companies and self styled international trade police such as the WTO. People all over the world are voting against the monoculture with their feet. Buy local campaigns, community banks and loan schemes, tool lending libraries, ecovillages, LETS schemes, community supported agriculture and farmers markets are all on the increase.
Dave Lang, a livestock farmer from South Gloucestershire in the UK, was on the brink of bankruptcy when he joined a farmers market. He now trades in 20 small town markets a month all within forty miles of his farm.
"The public can talk to the actual producer (a stipulation for stall holders) and find out how the crop was grown or what the animal was fed on, they can even come down to the farm to see", says Lang. Similar markets are springing up all over Britain. People are amazed by what's in season and have lost touch with what food tastes like. Unlike McDonalds 100 per cent of the money spent at a farmers market goes into the local economy.
Dave Caspar gave up teaching to grow apples and sell juice at Bristol's farmers' market. "We have a twelve acre orchard that's never seen a pesticide", he says. "We pasteurise at a lower temperature, its more labour intensive so the big producers don't do it, but they lose half the goodness and flavour."
There are over 40,000 members in Britain's expanding network of 450 Local Exchange Trading Schemes (LETS). Acting outside the mainstream economy LETS provide a low cost, inclusive means of combatting social exclusion. Participants recieve credits for their contributions which are traded for services from other members.
Babysitters trade with language teachers, and therapists with hairdressers. "It's not just for those that can't afford it. It's about taking things into your own hands, uniting communities and building up old and new skills", says Rae Orr from Letslink UK.
Economist David Korten likens global capitalism in a healthy economy to cancer in a healthy body. "Curing the capitalist cancer to restore democracy, the market and our human rights and freedoms will require virtually eliminating the institution of the limited-liability for-profit public corporation", he says.
Kalle Lasn, editor of Adbusters magazine, says that corporations are merely doing what we programmed them to do. Helena Norberg Hodge feels that if the subsidies were withdrawn, the multinationals would crumble. Lasn suggests that each shareholder should be liable for 'collateral damage' to bystanders or environmental harm.
"If you reap the rewards when the going is good, why shouldn't you be held responsible for that company when it becomes criminally liable." He feels that fewer shares would be traded and the worst offending companies would collapse. Instead of simply choosing the biggest cash cows, potential shareholders would carefully investigate the backgrounds of the companies they were about to sink their money into. They would think twice about buying into Philip Morris or Monsanto.
We must rewrite the rules of incorporation in such a way that a company caught repeatedly and wilfully dumping toxic wastes, damaging watersheds, violating anti-pollution laws, harming employees, customers or the people living near its factories, engaging in price fixing, defrauding its customers, or keeping vital information secret, automatically has its charter revoked, its assets sold off and the money funnelled into a superfund for its victims.
Company bashing legislation is unlikely, hampered not least by what Gorelick calls the revolving door between government post and boardroom seat.
Former UK Secretary of Stae for Transport, Steven Norris, now heads the Road Hauliers Association and GM retailer Lord Sainsbury chairs the select committee scrutinising GM crops.
In 1953 General Motors president, Charles Wilson, was appointed US defense secretary. Saying, "what's good for General Motors is good for the United States", Wilson managed to push a 41,000 mile interstate highway system past Congress in the name of national security.
(In the 1920s the same company along with Standard Oil and Fyrestone Tyres was found guilty of buying up and systematically destroying the street-car systems of over eighty US cities. Each company was fined a laughable $5,000 and car dependency was born.
David Korten told The Independent Media Centre, "at the political level we need to restore democracy by working for radical campaign finance reform to get big money and corrupt politicians out of politics. An immediate agenda is to stop the WTO from negotiating new agreements that further weaken democracy and speed environmental and social breakdown. The WTO should be closed, while we establish mechanisms under the United Nations to regulate transnational finance, and trade."
Lasn cites positive precedents. In 1884 the people of New York asked their attorney general to revoke the charter of The Standard Oil Company. In May 1998 the present Attorney General, Dennis Vacco, revoked the charters for Tobacco Research and the Tobacco Institute, on the grounds that they are tobacco-funded fronts that serve as propaganda arms of the industry.
And last year the people of Arcata California voted to ensure democratic control of all corporations conducting business within the city. Recent events in the Microsoft saga suggest that even the ridiculous wealth of Bill Gates may not guarantee his stranglehold on PC system software.
All farmer Dave Lang asks for is a level playing field to compete with artificially cheap mass produced imports.
Helena Norberg Hodge believes we must reconnect with our immediate environment. Fundamental to that is the need for region specific education, not ignoring other cultures, but being aware of our own too.
Using local produce does help the local economy, it requires less energy, packaging, preservation and transport and enables those in other communities to look to meeting their own needs with their own resources.
We need a shift in the balance between international trade and production at home. We need to move away from the 'teenage boy culture' that demands mobility, independence and a fear of growing old, that is the hallmark of today's atomised industrial society.
The message is simple. Think global, act local.
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