By Ranil Senanayake –
On Friday Jan 13th it has been reported that Chinese Prime Minister had made the observation that, ‘We must question traditional approaches to growth,’ At last, someone has recognized the dangers of unquestioned growth. Our path to growth must be questioned even at this late stage. It was not that the current direction of growth went unquestioned. The observations made below were written in 1977, our politicians where were deaf to our pleas and blind to the consequences. Now that the Chinese premier has questioned the traditional approaches to growth, the type of growth that resulted in the poisoning of the freshwater streams of Guatemala by ‘foreign investors’. Perhaps our politicians will show us the types of ‘investors’ that they are hoping to attract and how they will give us a approach to growth different that what was being promoted in 1977.
Guatemala: A Sad True Story. Sun’ Newspaper Feb 1977
‘Guatemala city is the showpiece of Central America. With a heavy influx of foreign investment the city has bloom. I visited Guatemala last month after an absence of eight years, changes were quite profound. The city was modernized and everywhere there were signs of affluence. Fancy pizza palace were on about every street, whereas eight years ago I would have been hard-press to find even one.
Stainless steel floor discos and high fashion houses were just some of the handmaidens of development that were visibly evident.
It also seemed pretty impressive. I could not help buy wonder if these were the rewards that we in Sri Lanka were due to receive.
The last time I was in Guatemala I was collecting snakes and spent a lot of time in the mountains and backwoods. I have made many friends in the village and looked forward to meeting with them again. This time I was there looking for new fruit trees, vegetables and fibre crops that I intended to use in my rainforest analog model for the wet zone village designed in Sri Lanka. So after a few days in the city I began my journey into the villages.
The city bespoke of growth, massive multi-storey buildings were erected everywhere. The streets were full of sleek luxury vehicles. I visited many elegant houses and the mood was gay indeed. At that time I remember thinking “how lucky these people are, they have gained all the fruits of development in such a short while”.
My friends in the city were mostly businessmen and their days were marked by visits to great restaurants and nightclubs. Everyone spoke of investments, agencies, imports, exports and of what expensive things they have bought or were going to buy. It was like being in a great roaring tidal wave. One could not help but be carried along by the sheer exuberance, but even at that point I remember wondering about the pre-ponderance of Americans, Germans and other non-Guatemalans in all the high spots of the city.
Then I began my travel out of the city. At this time I went out with Francisco and Kurt who are basically middle class citizens. As we drove to the suburbs, I began to get a somewhat a different picture of the city. Francisco pointed out what were average three to four bedroom houses. “When you were here last my friend, those houses costed the thousand dollars. You know how much they cost now?” I professed my ignorance. “Over 90.000 dollars” he said, and continued thereby “ we cannot afford such accommodation any more, some time ago we could have spired for a house but now….. The gringos (foreigners) are the only ones who live here”.
I confess that the rosy image I initially had begun to get somewhat shacked. I said so when I come back to the hotel at evening and went out for dinner. My companions reassured me “you find malcontents in every society” they said “what you have to realize is the enormous gain the investors bring to the country by creating jobs and industries”.
The next day I was out looking for a fruit plant called ‘Jocote’. It had the ability to be propagated from branch cuttings and had extremely nutritious fruit. There were two varieties red and yellow. The yellow type was rarer but sweeter and came form the lowlands. On the way down to the lowlands I passed the forest road of Pallim, eight years ago this was one of my favourite observation areas for fish and reptiles, the air of nostalgia was strong and I had to turn my truck to explore the road again.
About 200 yards down the road was a lovely stream. I remembered from my last visit. It had fascinated me with the wealth of fish and by one part being warmer due to a volcanic spring. When I stopped my truck on the bridge the first thing that struck me was a strange odour, pungent and strong.
“It is volcanic gas” I thought and proceeded to climb down to the stream to explore. After about 3 minutes by the stream I began to realize that was nothing alive on it. I was by this time literally sick from the fumes. It was an unnatural, chemical odour, but even then I did not realize the truth. My thoughts were that a new volcanic spring had opened up. I was curious, so I summoned my Indian guide Bruno and we moved upstream. I was eager to see this new volcanic phenomenon.
A mille upstream the source of the smell was revealed. It was the new complex of the Bayer chemical company. So the stream was being poisoned by its effluents. The stream at this point was at least 400 feet in elevation above sea level. Consider the insensitivity of the managers. People living by the stream all the way to the sea would be affected by their discharges. The proud of my friends in the city suddenly began to ring hollow.
Then I began to make more penetrating enquiries and found that the “malcontents” ranged from the Guatemalan Chamber of Commerce who were fighting hard to keep the giant American corporation SEARS out of Guatemala to protect their native shop keepers: up to the dispossessed labour who were trapped into complete dependency on the huge agricultural complexes of the multinational.
These complexes grew crops for export and took the most productive farmlands out of the hands of the people. It was as if people did not matter and that only abstract economic goals such as: “growth” mattered. It was disturbing. The images were vivid. As the plane bringing me home clipped low over the beautiful paddy fields and the coconut small holdings around Negombo, those images came back to hunt me and chilled me to the bone. Wither go we?’
Chinese Prime Minister had made the observation that, ‘We must question traditional approaches to growth,’ We too must begin to question the value of this approach to growth which has become the traditional vision of growth since 1977’s. Forty years later, facing a non-communicable disease and a loss of native biodiversity that is calamitous. Sadly, our politicians cannot seem to see beyond that old hackneyed approach to growth. Therefore, we must question the value of giving out our lands to investors who would poison or land and our waters just because it facilitates economic growth.