Saturday, January 20, 2007

Government, and analysis vs judgment

Dear readers,

In my spare time lately, I have started the book "Roll of Thunder Hear
my Cry," by Mildred Taylor, whose narrator is a black fourth grade
girl living in post-Civil War Mississippi. It talks about the daily
humiliations inflicted on blacks by racial segregation. It talks
about lynchings, and how lynchers were not brought to justice even
though everybody knew who they were. I've taken away two thoughts
from this that I want to talk about today.

The first has to do with governance and government. A theme I keep
returning to in my research, and which will probably be an important
part of my dissertation, is the importance of a functioning
government. Government in Nicaragua is perceived to be fairly weak,
at least by outsiders. From my current perspective as a foreigner
living in Nicaragua, it seems like an extraordinary privilege to be
able to depend on the rule of law like many people do in the U.S.
today—that contracts must be honored if members don't want the courts
involved, that lynch mobs or illegal timber harvesters will be
prosecuted, that the Supreme Court has a chance to put a successful
check on the expansion of the powers of the Executive branch. From
this perspective, the government in Nicaragua is weak, because it does
none of these things. However, although the people I work with
recognize that the government does not do these things and ought to,
government is still perceived as the legitimate governing power, and
the correct place to go to claim rights.

It was interesting to me to see that during the fair trade inspection
last week, the inspector seemed to think of the cooperative as a
governmental structure. She talked about entire communities as under
the responsibility of the cooperative, for example. However, in
reality a cooperative has no real or legal relationship with
territory. A cooperative consists of its members, and there is no
requirement that the members live anyplace in particular. Government,
on the other hand, takes responsibility for a certain territory, and
the people living within it. The current situation in the community
that I work in is that there are members of several different
cooperatives living in the same area, plus plenty of people who are
not members of any cooperative at all. So a single cooperative could
not, in fact, take responsibility for this community.

In a number of ways the fair trade requirements for cooperatives sound
like guidelines for small governments: there must be democratic
institutions and accountability, with regular elections and
transparency; environmental stewardship; doing economic development
projects, etc. They are even phasing in a requirement for members to
make detailed maps of the communities showing water sources and their
relationship to agricultural production, etc.—mapping is a classic and
important governmental function, and the history of map-making is
closely tied to the historical moment when governments started taking
responsibility for territory, not just people. And it is not just
fair trade. I have seen several ways in which NGOs, not just
cooperatives, seem to be trying to take the place of a number of
governmental functions. Just as one example, there is a women's group
which comes from outside and holds meetings once a month and helps
women confront abusive partners and denounce rapists. However, NGOs
and cooperatives do not do a good job substituting for government.
First, many of them, especially NGOs, are transitory—they come, stay
for a few years, and leave again or move on. Second, they are
membership-based, not territory based, so there are always people left
out. Third, they are voluntary, not compulsory. And fourth, they are
neither recognized as legitimate governing bodies nor held responsible
for fulfilling their functions, so when times get tough—if there is
disagreement in the local community, for example—the NGOs tend to just
pull out. (This last may seem a like fairly theoretical point when we
think that the government of Nicaragua IS recognized as legitimate and
held responsible, but its hands are tied by lack of funds and
restrictions on the use of existing funds by international lending
agencies, but nevertheless.)

The second thought I want to talk about, changing topics kind of
abruptly, is that it is confusing to me to think about injustice
within the United States and injustice outside of the United States at
the same time. From the perspective of Nicaragua, the United States
is a land of plenty and wealth. Even poor people in the United States
have flush toilets and running hot water and a gas stove to cook on
(at least in the cities—I don't know much about rural poverty in the
U.S.). And if they don't, they can get the city to crack down on
their deadbeat landlord. But the United States today (still) also
contains great injustice. If there is any question about this, please
just refer to infant mortality statistics broken down by race, even
adjusting for income. If there is still any question about this,
please read Jonathan Kozol's book Savage Inequalities: Children in
America's School about school segregation in the U.S. today. (This
was published in 1991, but there are more recent things he's written
on the same theme, too.)

I think the reason this is confusing to me is that I have a tendency
to mark something in my mind as Bad, and have it be an absolute, black
hole, unquestionable negative. The worst possible thing on a
one-dimensional pollster-type scale: choice 5, very bad. I thought
about poverty this way before coming to Nicaragua. If you were Poor,
I thought, this was absolute. You were in crisis all the time. You
never had enough to eat.

The reality, of course, is not like that. There are degrees of poor.
Some people, at some times of the year, don't have enough to eat.
More people merely have a protein-poor and vitamin-poor diet: lots of
corn, rice and beans, not many vegetables, the occasional egg or bit
of cheese. Meat when a chicken is killed, maybe once a month. Being
poor doesn't mean there isn't happiness, any more than being rich
doesn't mean there isn't sadness. However, it is very important to
avoid the cliché of "poor but happy"—the image of innocence and peace
away from the stress and materialism of Modern Life. First, I do not
know anybody who feels peace and happiness about being poor. Poor,
for the people I work with, is ignorance, not innocence. People have a
sense of limitless possibilities which will never be available to them
because of lack of money. And second, the life of the small farmers
is just as important a part of how Modern Life is put together as the
life of an intellectual in New York City, for who could imagine that
intellectual's life without her constant companion cup of gourmet
coffee? Without small farmers, the world economy would collapse, or
at least be shaped radically differently than it is now.

What I struggle to come to grips with is the realization that although
it is imperative for me to bring a moral evaluation to some things—the
preventable death of a baby is Bad, racial lynchings are Bad—my
analysis and understanding must not stop there. Calling something bad
is not an explanation, and does not help solve the problem. Too
often, understanding or explaining something, or someone, is seen as
the same thing as pardoning it. But shouldn't there be a way of
speaking or writing which analyzes evil while maintaining a sense of
moral condemnation? Shouldn't we be able to understand that the
serial rapist was sexually abused as a child without forgiving him for
the rape, or making the rape somehow okay? And if I talk about
poverty in Nicaragua, and maintain my sense that it is wrong, it
shouldn't prevent me from recognizing that the situation is bad in a
different way in Iraq, or sub-Saharan Africa, for example. Saying that
in Nicaragua at least we're not afraid of being killed on a daily
basis, or that at least the population is not being decimated by AIDS,
doesn't mean that the poverty is less bad.

As always, I'd be interested in any thoughts. And I'm thrilled to see
that this blog is being read by some folks in the fair trade industry!
Everybody please see the comment on my last entry telling us how to
get fair trade sports balls in the U.S., too. We should all be sure
to support small soccer-ball farmers—I believe they grow on a
perennial woody bush, while rugby balls are a root crop. ;-)


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

inspections... and monkeys!!!

Hi everybody,

This last week the cooperative I work with had a visit from the fair
trade inspector. As part of my research, I followed this inspector
around to nearly everything she did, taking notes on her interactions
and her attitudes, and also on other people's reactions to her. This
is actually the fourth time I have observed an inspection visit—twice
I watched the organic inspector, and twice I watched this same fair
trade inspector.

You may wonder "what is a fair trade inspector?" She is an employee
of the international fair trade certifying agency, FLO. This is the
agency that licenses companies to put the familiar little sticker on
your coffee, tea or chocolate (or if you are in europe, your sugar,
bananas, oranges, honey, wine, and even soccer balls.) Her job is to
make sure the cooperative complies with the FLO requirements. The
organic inspector goes around doing the same thing for the organic

These inspection visits are, for me, a really interesting interaction
in the commodity chain connecting consumers (those of us who drink the
coffee) and producers. I read an article before starting this
research which described organic inspectors in Mexico as mediators
between two very different sets of (cultural) expectations (reference
available upon request), and I have found that this is also true here.
On the one hand, there are the certifying agencies—FLO is located in
Germany, and the organic certifying agency, located in Peru, has to
take into consideration the different requirements written into the
laws of the European Union, the United States, and other rich-country
governments. For the curious, the European Union has more strict
requirements about the actual farming done—the coffee can't be organic
if corn is grown on the same farm using chemical fertilizers, for
example. But the United States requires more paperwork documenting
the techniques used. And on the other hand, there are the world-views
and expectations of farmers. Quite often, too, there are the
contrasting worlds of the city-based cooperative employees, which in
many details are different from those of the farmers.

Both certifiers require all farmers to keep a log of the work they do
on the farm. If the farmers are highly literate, this is not
generally a big burden. However, for those who are illiterate or only
semi-literate, this can be a high enough wall to prevent them from
joining a cooperative which is certified. It isn't always, though.
Some swallow their pride and seek help from literate children or
neighbors. And some actually request accomodations from their
cooperatives—these may come in the form of fill-in-the-blank logbooks
with pictograms where the farmer can make an X to indicate the work
done, for example, or it can mean the employees of the cooperative
help to fill out the books. Among the farmers I work with, the books
are usually seen as a significant burden. During an inspection last
year, one farmer complained to the organic inspector about these
expectations, asking "do they want our coffee, or do they just want
this paperwork?"

Both of these inspectors do not limit themselves to asking questions,
making observations, and filling out their checklists. Instead,
during their inspection visits they often come across as a combination
of cheerleader and social worker. They give compliments. They
encourage people to participate more and to take pride in what they
are doing. They give suggestions and advice—on how to accomplish the
requirements of the certification, on how to strengthen the
organization, on how to find markets now that they have the
certifications. The organic inspector told me that this is the
official policy of his certifying agency, Bio Latina. There are
actually a number of organic certifiers, and he said Bio Latina's
policy of hiring local inspectors and giving advice and suggestions
during the inspection means that they have a more realistic system.
On the other hand, the FLO inspector told me that she has been
reprimanded for all the advice she gives. Her agency tells her she
should limit herself to "taking the snapshot" of the cooperative when
she visits—of filling out her checklist. She never does, though,
although sometimes she has had to specify that she is giving advice
not as the representative of FLO but just as a private person.

Although the FLO inspector, like the organic inspector, is concerned
about ecological practices, she has a couple of other concerns, too.
First, she needs to make sure that the cooperative is "democratically
operated". This means that it needs to show evidence of significant
participation in decision-making by people other than the leaders,
that all the members need to understand the pricing structure, and
that the committees are operating, especially the committee called the
"Vigilance Committee" (is there a better translation for that?). The
Vigilance Committee is essentially an auditing committee, whose job it
is to poke around in the books and ask questions, to prevent both
corruption and authoritarianism. Next, she has to make sure that the
financial accounts are in order and that the labor practices in the
cooperative meet a certain standard.

About labor practices: everybody around here recognizes that children
work. School vacation is during December and January (rather than
July and August, like in the U.S.) in order that the children can help
with the coffee harvest, and this is normal and not frowned-upon.
However, a lack of government services, or laws about school
enrollment, mean that orphans and children of very poor families often
quit school (or never begin school) and may start working by the age
of 7, and this is seen as a sad fact of life. On the other hand, for
people who have a little land, farmers like the members of
cooperatives, who are able to look ahead a little further than the
next meal, education for their children is almost always a big
priority. Education implies a significant cost and difficulty for
parents—finishing elementary school through sixth grade in the
community where I work means the children have to have shoes,
notebooks and pens. But in order to attend secondary school, the
children have to leave the community and either live with a relative
or friend, or rent a room somewhere. Sometimes there is tuition.
Some people get small partial scholarships for this, but not always.
However, if a child makes it through secondary school, it seems there
are more scholarships available to go to the university for those who
get accepted. And one of the first laws passed by the new Sandinista
government has outlawed schools from collecting enrollment fees and

Oh, but I was talking about the FLO inspector. Well, to wrap it up
here, one of the things she was encouraging the cooperative to do was
to very seriously look for foreign coffee buyers, and not to use
intermediaries in Nicaragua, like they have been doing until now.
This is where I can help the cooperative. I made a contact with the
buyer for Green Mountain coffees, and they are sending along a sample
of their coffee. We'll see how that turns out… wish us luck? Anyone
else know any fair trade coffee buyers, especially who are looking to
buy coffee this year? Please let us know!

I also made a website: This is
still a work in progress, but I'm thrilled that some cooperative
members are excited about helping me to put together more details.
I'd love any comments or suggestions, and thank you very much to those
of you who have already helped me with it! Yesterday, I accepted the
invitation of the president of one of the base cooperatives to go to
take pictures of howler monkeys on a cooperative member's farm. (YAY
monkeys!!!) These monkeys disappeared from the area for a while, due
to deforestation. But they have returned as farmers began to take
more responsibility for their environment, planting trees, conserving
the soil, protecting the sources of water. So I'll leave you with a
couple of not-exactly-National-Geographic-quality photos that I took


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

I´m back, in more ways than one

Hi Everybody,

Well, I'm back after a long hiatus from this blog. I suppose I could
stress out and feel guilty about that, but I've decided not to—I don't
owe this blog anything. So I'm doing it now again because I feel like

I've spent the last couple months doing a lot of back-and-forthing
between the U.S. and Nicaragua. I went home to visit family for both
Thanksgiving and Christmas, two separate trips. During my first trip,
for Thanksgiving, I really had a hard time. That trip followed a
four-month stay in Nicaragua, and I was experiencing what I think of
as culture shock, (although I don't know if there is some sort of
clinical definition of culture shock. Lisa?) I felt really
emotionally fragile, and swung back and forth between loving and
hating the things that are different between the two places. I also
had a sort of disconnected feeling, as if the things that happened to
me (in either country) weren't really very real, and the books I read
and movies I saw were almost as real as my life. It was great to see
my family over Thanksgiving, and I was fine when I kept busy, but it
was tough when I stopped to think. However, I re-established some
stability when I was in Nica in the beginning of December, and ended
up having an enjoyable visit over Christmas, with no real problems.

I have been wondering whether all this back-and-forthing is a positive
or a negative thing for my research. I certainly think that many
anthropologists would say that it is a negative—that ethnography, as a
sort of intense, semi-mystical process of empathy—should be
uninterrupted (and, of course, should go on for at LEAST a full year).
They would, I think, probably argue that transitioning back and forth
between places is a problem because it interrupts the concentration of
the ethnographer in the process of becoming as much as possible like
the research subject.

However, I disagree with this. Even if I think about my job as
building this mystical empathy, an important part of that is being
able to communicate the results of that empathy at the end. My job is
to create communication between two different mindsets, and I can't do
that if I lose my sense of the contrasts between those mindsets. I
need to remember what they're both like, and immerse myself in the
contrasts. I need to remember that for a Unitedstatesean, a two-hour
period in which hot water is unavailable in the shower is outrageous
(as happens regularly, to the intense disgust of my sister-in-law A.,
in our slum-lord-owned apartment building in Brooklyn). And that for
a Nicaraguan, running water is only available to prosperous city
dwellers, and hot water in the taps is simply never available.

You know, another contrast I face is the complicated class identity
that I have. In Nicaragua, on the one hand, I have U.S. dollars, and
therefore can afford a prosperous life style (a house in the city, a
motorcycle, restaurant meals, etc). On the other hand, I voluntarily
have chosen not to do certain things which I probably could have
afforded (buy a television, acquire much furniture, hire domestic
help, etc). And to further complicate how I am seen here, I am
highly-educated but don't have a house, a job, or a car in the U.S.
Then there is my class identity in the U.S.. A daughter of an
upper-middle-class white family, with many upper-middle-class tastes
and attitudes, almost 30 and married for 6.5 years, but unlike many
friends at similar stages of life we're living in a not-so-great
neighborhood in Brooklyn where we are one of only 2 or 3 white
families in our building with more than 100 apartments. No car,
turning us into dependents whenever we visit family outside the city.
And sort of beyond the age when I might be expected to be backpacking,
but too young for a midlife crisis, and voluntarily separated from my
husband (with whom I nevertheless have a great relationship) and
living in some country that nobody's really quite sure where it is,
but is associated in the minds of many who read newspapers during the
1980s with a nasty war. So what class category does that put me in?
In Nicaragua? In the U.S.? No wonder I'm sometimes a little confused
and disoriented.

However, right now I'm feeling relaxed and excited to be embarking on
the last lap of this research—a solid two months of time when I'll be
focusing on systematically doing a more structured interview with
about 50 people in the rural community where I've been spending the
most time lately.

I wish everybody a joyful and peaceful new year!