Saturday, June 30, 2012

Paraguay as the Center of the World

    Someone once told me that Paraguay was the center of the world. Of course, the person who said this was only a little countryside schoolboy, maybe 10 years old or so, who--whether due to his young age and/or the fact that the Paraguayan public school system is usually somewhat lacking--had no notion of geography and the world. While this statement shows an obvious gap in perspective (completely understandable given the circumstances) it also reveals an idea that is, in itself, quite profound if also unintentional. It would be hard to defend the literal statement ‘Paraguay is the center of the world’, however, if I may tweak the sentence slightly, perhaps I may engage in that deeper meaning. Paraguay is an ‘economic’ center of the world...for the moment. Defend...

    Most people have never heard of the country of Paraguay (evident from the question often posed to me, “What part of Africa is that in?”). In the chance that they have heard of it, it is likely that they lack any further understanding past it’s approximate location. By any measure, it is not a well known or incredibly noteworthy country--tourists do not visit here, revolutions and political turmoil do not happen, and for the most part, the people suffer their moderate to desperate poverty quietly and humbly. By its own standards--the seeming political and cultural isolation, the lack of infrastructure and difficulty in traveling around, etc.--some may even consider this country quite obscure. An un-probed, un-tapped corner of the world; something exotic to talk about with friends at home. This is the surface, at least, but even the murky shallows of this little South American country paint a much different picture.
    Outside of Asuncion, the capital city, one will not see much of McDonalds or Burgerkings, and there are not many malls or shopping centers in the rest of the country. But as you drive out into the countryside, heading east along Ruta Dos, a different kind of economic infiltration can be seen (although it is not as easily intelligible as a big, blaring sign for a fast-food chain). Endless, rolling seas of sugarcane stretch to the horizon on either side of the road. As one gets farther east, or heads north, these oceans change in texture but not in size, now consisting of uncountable numbers of spade-shaped soybean leaves. In the south, the story is mostly the same, except this time it is sesame. Monoculture is the name of the game in this land and the players who toss the agricultural dice are, to an alarming majority, foreigners (Brazillian, Argentinean, Japanese, German, etc.). Economically, fertile Paraguayan land is a cornerstone of producing inexpensive biodiesel and bioethanol (biofuels made from soybeans and sugarcane, respectively) and for putting cheap sugar, sesame and food products on the tables of millions of people in countries around the globe.
    This might not seem like a great exploitation, especially when we know that good, old American companies like ADM (one of the world's leading perpetrators of international land-grabbing) are negotiating the prices of agricultural products for export. The reality, however, which involves coercive means to force impoverished farmers off their land and the terrible environmental and health effects of such large-scale production (with chemical pesticides and insecticides thrown in the mix), is a little more dark and scary. Right now, as conditions are just right and the business atmosphere in Paraguay is finely tuned for such foreign economic exploit, it may seem that Paraguay is getting a good deal--capital investment, a growing and developing economy, and a hand in the global market. While this may be the short term bubble of opportunity, the long term consequences are unfortunate. The land will not produce forever, the soils will become drained of nutrients and polluted by chemicals, the effects of Global Climate Change will deepen, the people will urbanize and leave the countryside deserted (once the big companies pull out on their 99 year leases from the government) and Paraguay will once again resort to its tried and true, bread and butter--contraband and smuggling.
    One reason that Paraguay has such a favorable climate for business, especially agro-business, is the same reason that Nazis fled to this country after the end of World War II. The government doesn’t ask many questions, they just don’t want to know. Following Paraguay’s own military defeat in the 1800’s at the hands of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, this tiny little country had lost somewhere between 60-90% of its population (historical estimates vary). Desperate for immigrants to replenish its economy and colonize its land, Paraguay opened up the borders to foreigners who brought both their culture and their economics. The incentive for these colonizers: cheap land, hands off government, no questions asked. The tradition has continued until this day.
    While Paraguay has always been an agricultural producing country, it has also seemingly always been a contraband country. It should be noted that Ciudad del Este (Paraguay’s “City of the East” which borders Brazil) is the third most important free commercial zone in the world following Hong Kong and then Miami. How can this be in a country that is the second poorest in South America and virtually unheard of otherwise? The answer: contraband. The goods that flow through this economic hub are, by and large, illicit, ranging from narcotic and prescription drugs or human traffic, to untaxed Brazilian cigarettes, pirated computers, and Scotch whiskey. Paraguay is one of the largest importers of Scotch whiskey in the world although very little of this is consumed in Paraguay. It is almost all imported because of low taxes and virtually non-existent tariffs, before it is exported (legally or illegally) to the other countries of the world. Such is the role of Paraguay in the modern, globalized capitalist economy. Such is the niche this tiny little country has learned from its own history that it fills so well. Agriculture and contraband spells ‘poor but getting by...still’ for Paraguay.
    So when that little child told me, “Paraguay is the center of the world”, I am fairly sure he did not mean all of that. Still, it is interesting to think that even a place as out of the way as Paraguay occupies a very essential, if not also unfortunate position, on the global stage. In the capitalist, profit-seeking fervor of the modern age, with the Walmart-driven thirst for cheaper and cheaper products, countries like Paraguay are employed, at least until something cheaper (and likely, even more exploitative) comes along. It is a sad fate, but it is absolutely a product of the decisions that each and every one of us make every day when we buy a cup of coffee or a new pair of shoes.
    Still, I sit here in my hammock, writing this blog and the wind is humming softly through the trees. The sun is shining. This is a beautiful country. Maybe the reality of the world is too depressing to begin to tackle. Maybe Paraguay really is, or should be, the center of my world. If not the country at large, then maybe just right here, right now, being swayed into a calm sleep by a southern breeze. It is naive to think that things will change, for better or worse, any time soon although, as we know, nothing is forever. Lets take comfort in the constancy of inconstancy, leave the fates to those who foolishly think they are writing them. The air is so warm. I think I’ll take a nap now.

From the Center of the World,
little hupo

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