Supporting sustainable economic development
and direct trade in Guatemala

Franklin's World

franklinsworldAs well as being the founder of As Green As It Gets, Franklin Voorhes also fancies himself as a bit of a writer!

After much bribery, begging and large quantities of chocolate he finally allowed us to put some of his articles online.

These articles are written to provide food for thought.  Be prepared to challenge your perceptions not only of Guatemala, but of larger world economic and social systems.  Franklin's work reflects personal experiences and connects them to a more global perspective.

You'll find his writing style quirky, engaging and full of imagery.  Franklin will teach you about economics while giving you a laugh all at the same time.

So please enjoy...

Franklins World!

To access Franklins alternative blog, click here.

 

On Development and Unintended Consequences

The year is 1947.  The place is the Barrens of northern Canada, a half-day plane trip from the end of the railroad track.  Two children, five and ten years old, are found in an igloo next to the frozen body of their mother.  Their village is deserted—no other survivors are found.  The disease, like many that ravaged indigenous societies, was brought to them by the white man.  This disease manifested itself as eventual starvation, suicide, or madness to face death by exposure in a desperate attempt to flee the infested village in the heart of winter.  It began innocuously, benignly, even beneficially, but then mutated, spread, destroyed.  Some call it Progress.  Others call it Development.  I call it a warning.

For untold centuries, the Inuit had inhabited the area.  To say that they had thrived may be an overstatement, but in their frozen wilderness they had survived as a people longer than most countries or kingdoms.  They lived the nomadic life of hunters, heavily dependent on their wits and the caribou.  They had learned to make oil lamps that burned deer fat, bows from their antlers, clothes from their hide, and most of all, food from their meat.  They were the Inuit, or “Mankind” in their own language.  To the Cree Indians, they were the Eskimo, the eaters of raw meat.  Those who value sustainability and stability call their society marvelous.  Those who value change in the name of progress call that same society stagnant.  Good, bad, or indifferent, this was their life, perhaps as early as the first Asian who crossed the Bering Strait.

Then, Development happened. In the late 1800’s, a fur trading company reached the area.  A single outpost, a thousand miles from nowhere, reached its fingers a few hundred miles further.  The Inuit no longer had to depend on the caribou for sustenance—the fur of the arctic fox could provide income.  They no longer had to hunt with bow and arrow—the fox hide could be traded for rifles and ammunition.  Their subsistence economy changed to a market economy.  Their industry of hunting caribou turned to one of trapping fox.  Their time was spent not in survival, but in gathering wealth that could be measured in bullets or sea shells, as they saw fit.

The fox hide market took a downward turn.  The fur trading company closed up shop.  The proprietor of the outpost went into business for himself—a single man controlling the entire fur market for over a thousand square miles.  He did well for himself, as capitalists with monopolies tend to. Unburdened by competition, he exploited the Inuit and gave little in return for their furs.  The Inuit response was to spend more time trapping, and less time hunting and preparing for survival.  The trader moved on, leaving his sons to run the outpost.  They ran the business more fairly than their father, but Development continued. The society now made their living almost exclusively by trapping fox, and had lost the knowledge of generations, the knowledge of subsistence. 

True, the Inuit tribe knew how to survive day-by-day.  However, the resilience of a society, a people, or even a species is shown not in day-to-day life, but in the extreme circumstances.  Those extreme circumstances came in the winter of 1947.  The caribou left the region early that winter.  Hunters preoccupied with their trap lines had failed to set up adequate stores of food or oil. 

Hunger, then starvation came.  Blankets and clothing made of animal hide were boiled for sustenance until no fuel remained.   Those that could, left, choosing a precarious fate in the frozen tundra over certain starvation.  Those left behind butchered their dogs and ate them raw, an act which sentenced them to death—the death of a nomadic people deprived of mobility.  The old chose their time to go, walking naked into the frozen night, leaving the meager scraps for the younger generation.   The ancient law of the land, that the hunter must be fed first, was broken so that the children may survive. 

News of their plight reached Canadian officials by relayed Morse code.  The official reaction was typical of the well-meaning-but-uninformed.  They sent assistance without understanding.  Sacks of dried white beans were shipped and cached some 200 miles from those in need.  Two hundred miles, or a million miles, it did not matter.   The starving had neither the strength nor the dogs to pull their sleds to the food.

In the end, two children survived.  Records from the debt log of the fur trading company indicate that there were just under 50 hunters; presumably a society of 50 families, at the turn of the century.  Left to their own devices, the society had survived a few millennia, and would likely have survived a few millennia more.  In the presence of uncontrolled, uninformed, or uncaring development, they disappeared in half a century.  The only names preserved are in a handwritten ledger alongside the total of their debt to the fur trade, a fact which speaks volumes.

This story was told to Farley Mowat in 1947 at Nueltin Lake by the son of the fur trader, and new parent to the children Kunee and Anoteelik .  The original account can be found in Mowat’s book “The People of the Deer.”  Like all his books, it comes highly recommended, and should be required reading for anyone in the world of Development.  It serves as a warning to those of us in Economic Development, a warning to look for the future unintended consequences of our actions, a warning to ask the question, “At what cost?” 

We are in the world of Development.  The problem with the Law of Unintended Consequences is that you didn’t see them coming.  Some days, I’d consider our work successful if we’re never heard of, if our name isn’t the developmental equivalent of Three Mile Island or the Tacoma Narrows bridge.

Do we want the donation of 90 day corn seeds that promises to increase food yield?  No, thank you.  I refuse that donation every year.  The donor is aghast.  These corn seeds are an improvement—they represent newer technology and more food for the masses.  Maybe.  But what are the unintended consequences?  Will the corn blow down when there is a hurricane on the coast?  Can the stalks be used to build houses like our unimproved variety?  Are they strong enough to support the pole beans that will be planted at their base—the beans that provide protein for families and nitrogen for next-year’s corn?  Are the proving grounds of Illinois an accurate representation of Guatemala?  Does our corn have a resistance to tropical diseases that weren’t studied by Monsanto?  Perhaps the question is more accurately phrased as “How many diseases not studied by Monsanto does our corn resist?”  Are the seeds fertile or sterile hybrids?  If they are sterile, how do we plant next year?  If the seeds are fertile, when will Monsanto sue us for collecting and planting them?  Most difficult of all, “Am I intelligent enough and  informed enough to even ask the right question?”  Perhaps that’s the easiest question—it’s the only one I know the answer to.  The Law of Unintended Consequences tells me I’m not. 

The problems become more theoretical.  What is the value of a corn field compared to a forest?  What discount factor do I apply to the future value of the forest when I choose to cut it down and plant corn?  Is our goal to maximize food production, to maximize quantity of life, or maximize quality of life?  Do we have the right to decide this question?  Which is a greater sin; to allow a child to starve, or to cause future starvation by short-term development under the banner of feeding the children?  If I am fully cognizant of population dynamics, and understand that increased food production leads to population growth, which implicitly means a de facto decrease in quality of life for the next generation, can I in good conscience increase food yield?  The answers to those questions will yield Master’s theses in Agronomy, Economics, Philosophy, Ethics, and Mathematics. The danger isn’t in the difficulty of these questions, but in how seldom they are asked. 

I enable folks to plant coffee.  I’ve seen corn fields turn to coffee fields.  Production of food gives way to the production of cash with which to buy food.  I can answer my questions theoretically.  The future value of the corn field is low, and the future value of the coffee field is high.  We are minimizing (local) food production to maximize (local) quality of life by putting more food on kitchen table, though it wasn’t grown here.  No one starves.  We’re have secured the moral and economic high ground.  If the current market economy will be the future means of distributing wealth, then the farmer will be in an increasingly strengthened position to provide for his family.  Do I make the mistake of measuring that strength today, a relatively average point in time?  That strength is really best measured in the extreme, when coffee has completely supplanted corn, the local coffee harvest has failed but the world market is glutted. And to make matters worse, all the corn farmers have supplanted coffee so the supply of corn is non-existent. In that scenario, we might not fare so well, but a scenario like that is beyond imagination.

The following conversation is also beyond imagination.  The 49th Inuit hunter says to the 50th Inuit hunter, “Why not give up on the caribou?  There’s more money to be had in fox pelts.  Besides, there will be plenty of time for hunting caribou later.  And even if we don’t have a chance to hunt caribou, someone else will.  We’ll be able to buy meat from our neighbors with all the sea shells we’ll earn from the fox pelts.” 

In Development, we measure success in seashells and fox pelts, coffee beans and dollar bills.  I can’t shake this nagging feeling that we’re using the wrong units.  I don’t know the right answer.  My fear is that I don’t know the right question.


First Month on the Job

As an As Green As It Gets volunteer, I’ve processed hundreds of dollars of coffee orders, helped deliver over 1500 saplings to a remote village, solicited donations for our secondary school, scheduled tours, managed relations with customers, gotten to know the coffee farmers and artisans, made good friends, and learned more than I ever thought I would about coffee production. And that was just in my first week here.

As my college years were coming to an end, I knew I didn’t want to settle down for one of the more typical post-college jobs. I was taken by the idea of moving abroad, where I could explore the world and contribute to a good cause in a meaningful way. I wanted to be challenged, to understand more about other people and myself, and to find work that mattered. I looked around the web for an organization that fit the bill, stumbled upon As Green As It Gets, found my way to San Miguel Escobar, and realized I’d found exactly what I was looking for.

When I tell people I’m a volunteer here, they usually ask, “but what do you actually do?” Let me take a stab at answering that question. I’ll get to the details in a minute, but the short answer is ‘everything.’ There aren’t too many of us at the office right now – Franklin, Jessica, me, Matt, and our accounting and web volunteers who work from other places – so I’ve had to fill in whenever something needs doing, and that had given me a chance to learn up-close about all the different things As Green As It Gets does.

The opportunity to do something different every day, and to learn about everything that happens here, has been one of the most fun parts about my job. I’ve gone on coffee and artisan tours and witnessed how hard the farmers and artisans work. I’ve learned how to process coffee orders and talk to potential customers, getting a feel for coffee terminology and pricing. I hiked with two farmers out to their land, a beautiful spot overlooking Ciudad Vieja, to be able to report back to the American who financed their land loan, seeing first-hand the importance of financing to the farmers we work with and understanding just how hard they work every single day.

I’ve also had a chance to do some more unusual and exciting projects, which probably wouldn’t have been in my job description if there had been one. I rode with Franklin 8 hours to the northwest to help deliver trees and in the process survived some pretty serious car trouble (see Franklin’s blog for the whole story). In preparation for the trip I studied a variety of fruit tree pruning techniques, and gave a mini-class to the community members on a subject I had known nothing about the previous week.

Another fascinating diversion has been our decaffeination project. Many of our customers have requested decaf coffee, and so previous volunteers built a machine to remove the caffeine from coffee beans. My role was to test out a chemical process to determine the caffeination levels of coffee, and put together a procedure that we can teach the farmers so that they can perform their own certification of how decaffeinated their decaf coffee is.

What I’ve been most impressed with about AGAIG is how it takes a simple idea and executes it with such success. Many people, particularly in the developing world, have skills to create things of value, but they may lack the capital or technical expertise to finalize their products, as well as the means to find markets where they can earn a fair price for their goods. AGAIG helps with every step of the way, providing loans for machinery and supplies, technical training, and help finding customers and making sales. The results are an impressive economic network that raises peoples’ incomes in both an environmentally and economically sustainable manner. And with its emphasis on transparency and devolving as much responsibility as possible to the Guatemalans, all of the benefits and the majority of the responsibility reach those we work with.

I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to work at AGAIG, and it’s the first job I’ve ever had where I wake up in the morning eager to get to the office and happy to work 10 hour days without complaint. Every day I learn new things, accomplish something, and get to know the people we work with better. I’ve also had the chance to do many things I’ve always wanted to do, such as riding a motorcycle and learning how to use a cappuccino machine, with many more to come I’m sure.

If this sounds exciting to you, there are always opportunities to volunteer here, whether during summer break, after you graduate, or if you’re already in the work force and looking to take some time off or move to a new place. As my experience has shown, no technical expertise is necessary, though a desire to work hard and learn new things is. If you want to contribute but volunteering won’t work for you, we can always use donations to pay our rent and utilities, finance loans for the farmers, and continue construction on the school. Find out more on our website, or contact me at andyf@asgreenasitgets.org for more details.

Peanut Butter

Peanut butter is a topic I’m passionate about.  I know peanut butter.  It’s my staple food.  I find myself wondering how a Guatemalan can be happy with black beans on a corn tortilla yet again while I’m smearing peanut butter over wheat bread for the third time that day.

Years ago, we worked with a couple of random do-gooders to lend a hand to a peanut butter cooperative.  Our part of the program was technical in nature, revolving around the equipment used in processing.  While a fun project, it didn’t directly lead to what I see as the ultimate goal of any peanut butter program—which is peanut butter and banana sandwiches on my lunch table.

We’re giving it a try again, in two communities in the valley.  Mercedes and Lydia are already cranking out product.  They have their first significant order (50 lbs) in the pipeline.

It epitomizes the way we want to use entrepreneurship as an means to develop a community.

It’s vertically integrated (agriculture and production) from day one

Capital investment is low

Overhead, management, and training are minor.

Payback time is measured in days.

It is appropriate work for either gender.

It requires little formal education.

It scales easily.

I get to eat peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

What could be better?

My Sermon

Sermons ring hollow to me these day.  I like the widow’s mite sermon, the one about the little old lady who threw two coins, all she had, in the offering plate.  I thought it was novel, that this old lady must be a Mother Theresa-type with the rareness of her character.  Wrong.  They’re everywhere.  Walk into any church near the equator and you’ll see that same story play out over and over again.  It was novel to me in my rich home country because I never once saw a single person give all they had.  Not even close.  Now I can see it anytime I want, on schedule.

I liked the ‘if-the-birds-of-the-air-and-the beasts-of-the-field-aren’t-worried-about-their-next-meal,-why-should-My-chosen-be-worried-about-tomorrow’ sermon.  I liked it, because I actually was worried about tomorrow, and that sermon would put my mind at ease all the way through the doxology.  Then my pewmates and I could go home to check online to make sure our 401k’s and IRA’s were in good shape, stopping on the way at the grocery store to make sure the last little spaces in our freezers were full of ice cream, take a long drink of water from the never-ending supply that came right to our kitchens, make lunch from the 2-month supply of canned and dry goods in our pantries, flip through our decade-at-a-glance calendar for upcoming appointments, and generally get back to the business of worrying about tomorrow.    

Folks here, the poor, the blessed, the inheritors of the earth; I can’t say that they aren’t worried about tomorrow, but tomorrow is certainly viewed differently.  You’ll eat papaya when it’s there, you’ll eat berro if you find it on the path.   If you don’t find it, you might be a little hungry.  Nobody buys green bananas because they are thinking about today.  Sure, you can’t plant corn without thinking ahead to the harvest season, but for the most part, the meek must get through today, before turning their attention to tomorrow.

So, my favorite sermons are completely unnecessary in most of the world, and completely unheeded where needed. 

One sermon, heard nearly 10 years ago, still resonates with me.  The message came from no ancient text, but statistics from various federal and international agencies.  The basic upshot was, as a citizen of the US, it’s virtually impossible not to be in the top quartile of wealth worldwide.  As a US homeowner, I was in the top 5% of the richest people in the world, and my book value was even higher.  I’d been comparing myself to my neighbors, and thought I was in the middle of the pack.  Until I passed Bill Gates and Warren Buffet in the pecking order, I was losing the game of life.  That sermon showed me I’d won the game, and didn’t even know it.  I was so far ahead of the pack, that even after years without an income stream, I’m still the richest guy for blocks.  I lead what anyone reading this would consider to be a sparse existence, typing this on an old computer, viewed on a monitor repaired and salvaged from the garbage.    I’m hunkered in the airstream of my electric fan, sweating in the heat, wearing worn-out sandals that I’ve owned for five years and were old when I got them.  In the next room, two farmers are roasting coffee.  Neither owns a computer, nor an electric fan.  Their sandals are much older than mine, the soles made from worn out steel-belted tires and the straps made from a bicycle inner tube.  The concrete building we rent for an office is almost exactly the same size as their two concrete homes combined.  We volunteers, rarely more than 8 of us at a time, work in the same space where their families, 25 people total, must live.   

I’d won the game, and didn’t even know it.  If you’re reading this, you’ve won too.

A Day’s Work for a Slaves Wage. Capitalism: Now Cheaper than Slavery

franklin
Workers’ living quarters on a coffee plantation.

 

Our farmers are entering the eye-opening world of employer-employee relationships.  The economics are fascinating from a social justice standpoint.  After two recent federal wage increases that have nearly doubled minimum wage in Guatemala, it is still cheaper to hire a Guatemalan in 2010 than it was to own a slave in the US in 1865.

Capitalism works.  In fact, it works better than our most recent economic alternative, slavery.  Slavery had some major downsides.  For example, the plantation owner had to pay for the food the slave ate, had to put a roof over their head, give away a bed and blanket of sorts, even provide medicine to a slave when they were sick lest they lose a valuable commodity.  With communal living of slaves, socialized medicine, free food, subsidized rent—those plantation owners were leftist bleeding hearts.  They were lucky to turn a profit at all.

  Now, good old-fashioned capitalism, with just a dash of red-blooded imperialism has proven to be a much better alternative to socialized slavery.  The free market worker is cheaper to employ than a slave. Gone are the days of subsidizing a slave’s wage with food, medicine, and a place to stay.  A worker must make it on a slave’s wage, or not at all.

Let me give you a quick example of why slavery was more expensive than free market labor.  Let’s say Mom and Dad are slaves.  They work in the fields all day for food for themselves and their two little babies, too young to work.  That food today would be the equivalent of the canasta basica, or the amount of food it takes to feed a family of 4 for a day.  Today in Guatemala, that’s Q65.  Renting out even the meanest of shelters, mud floor, tin roof, cornstalk walls, will run you at least Q17 a day.  By moving the relationship from owner to owner-employer, the boss no longer pays for medicine, blankets, furnishings, etc.  Without a vested ownership in one particular slave, they can be let go during illness, family trouble, what have you—and replace them with one of the many unowned-unemployed.  Call it Q5 per day in savings of medicine and the like, straight to the bottom line.  How do you calculate the cost avoidance of not having to go to the auctioneer to buy a new slave, and simply wait for them to come to you, for no cost at all?  How do you calculate the savings by not having lost work days when your slaves were sick or died?  I can’t put a number on it, but it was substantial.  Or how about the fact that those pesky slaves kept trying to run away, which was a constant drain on resources.  Now those slav employees are running to the boss for work.  That’s a substantial improvement.

Then there is the out-of-pocket expense of buying the slave in the first place.  In the 1860’s, a healthy young male in the US ran $1500, while a female was $1000.  Even slave women hit that glass ceiling, but that’s a different article.  Let’s call it $1250 on average, and adjust for inflation, and you’ve got $29611 in 2009 dollars or an even Q240,000 in 2009 quetzales.  If you get 50 years of work, 7 days a week from that slave, your cost per day was Q14 per day.

Let’s add that up

The per day cost of owning a pair of slaves is:

Initial purchase, Q14 X 2 = Q28

Food                               = Q65

Housing                          = Q17

Medicine and the like      = Q  5

Total                              =Q115

 

Meanwhile, the per day cost of paying current wages for a pair of independently contracted slaves in Guatemala at legal rates is:

 

Daily wage, Q52.5 X2 =Q105

Total                          = Q105

 

Is it any wonder slavery died out?  Of course not.  It is simple economics.  Give folks their freedom to work where they want, but don’t give them the opportunity or the wage, and the business magnate can make more cash from paid labor instead of slave labor.

The slave in the cotton fields of Georgia may be a thing of the past, but the cacao worker in Guatemala, the coffee worker in Mexico, the tea worker in India, and the vanilla worker in Indonesia are still waiting for emancipation.

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