The Poorest of the Poor

For the better part of the last decade I’ve spent a good deal of my time in the US Southwest, less than fifty miles from the Mexican border. In this part of the country the majority of citizens are, of course, of Mexican heritage. That is, they are legal in the deep constitutional sense that they were born in New Mexico, and in many cases their ancestors predate the English settlements and settlers that arrived much later. The Spanish and Native civilizations that preceded the American conquest are quite in evidence here. But the US border has become a magnet for the poor and impoverished, many of whom are ex-smallholders from southern Mexico. They cross the border illegally into the US in search of jobs in the “wealthy north”. This story is not new, not by any means. It has been repeated over and over again across many international boundaries and by many different nationalities. The dispossession and transformation of the smallholder into a landless migrant, or worse, has sparked the genesis of a man-made global exploitation that goes against the very grain of the religious values of the three Abrahamic faiths.
In other words, the world’s poorest are the victims of a crime. And not unlike Cain, the wealthy nations and their citizens must ask themselves–“Are we our brothers’ keepers?”
The Mexican example to this story is indeed glaring. It begins for the most part with NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. Signed by the US, Canada and Mexico, NAFTA threw open the borders for a tariff-free trading system that was advertised as a growth cure-all. But instead of growth for all, NAFTA became a nightmare for the marginal and the weak. Not that the Mexican smallholders weren’t sustainable, or even successful within their own local culture. On the contrary, they were the most vibrant elements in a most vibrant local economy. Their only “crime” was that they weren’t part of the advanced global capitalist economy. Yet these multitudes of Mexican smallholders flourished. And they did so on less than five acres. These small holdings provided their families with more than enough food and a fractional surplus of corn to sell on the regional market as a cash crop.
Like all smallholders, these Mexican peasants needed some semblance of a cash crop in order to survive. Either to pay off very small loans for supplies and extras, or because of a previous bad year, whatever the reason (school fees, or doctor bills etc.), subsistence farming by the world’s poorest is never just subsistence. It requires a small cash crop. And for countless generations of Mexican peasants, this crop has been corn.
Enter NAFTA. Under the rules of the agreement, US corn — grown by huge machines on vast acreage, using corporate methods, under mountains of debt, with massive US government subsidies, specialized hybrid seeds, herbicides, pesticides and tons of chemical fertilizers — underbid Mexican corn by nearly a dollar a bushel. US agribusiness captured the Mexican corn crop, making it “inefficient by capitalist standards” (i.e. price). After generations of localized production, the Mexican smallholders had been driven out of business by a well-financed, corporate/government monopoly hell-bent on expansion and new markets. The difference between local agriculture and global agribusiness couldn’t have been more stark. Let’s examine this a little closer.
During the Cold War (1947-1989), the predominant development model for the non-aligned nations of the world was import-substitution and a localized strength in regional agricultural markets. The newly independent countries of the “third world” fought neocolonialism by attempting to play the two superpowers off against each other. Development (it was believed) went hand in hand with protected domestic markets. Even the US allowed its most strategic international allies a large amount of slack when it came to protective tariffs. Taiwan, South Korea and Japan are prime examples. But still the gap between developed “first world” economies (Europe, the US and a few others) and the ex-colonies (most of the rest of the world) was far too wide to be bridged. The newly independent ex-colonies demanded a “new international economic order” in order to adjust the imbalances. These imbalances had occurred over a period of centuries as minerals and tropical commodities (cocoa, tea, coffee, sugar, gold, cotton etc.) were sent to Europe, while the products of the Industrial Revolution were shipped to the colonies. The events leading to the American Revolution were a product of this system.
Neocolonialism (like colonialism itself) kept the third world nations in a kind of debtors bondage. Since the price of their commodities never equaled the price of the European manufacturers, a permanent deficit was built into the system. Hence, by the early 1970’s, the need for a “new international economic order” was demanded by the poor countries of the world. But even with all their advantages, Europe and the US during the 1970’s were in the grip of their own economic crises. The Keynesian welfare-state Fordist model built on far-reaching government benefits and well-paid labor unions had run headlong into the US-led global military expense of world-wide bases and war (especially nuclear arsenals and Vietnam). A policy of guns and butter in the first-world had led to a severe crisis of inflation and dollar devaluation. Both profits in the US, as well as the value of savings, were being squeezed. The last thing Washington wanted was a new deal for the commodity markets, especially a deal which would raise third-world prices.
But without a price rise on commodities, the poor countries of the world could hardly begin to pay their bills. In fact, it was during the inflationary 1970s that the price of oil tripled. Overnight, the third world debt mushroomed from a structural problem into a full-fledged economic catastrophe. The Arab oil producers established a tacit agreement with the US that, in exchange for military protection, they would recycle US petro-dollars back to US banks. This agreement kept the US dollar as the traded world’s money (reserve currency) at a time when the first world economy was in serious trouble. But this agreement did nothing for the ex-colonial countries of the third world. With the price of oil on the rise, their economic hopes sank. In fact, unlike the system established in the Hebrew Bible (Jubilee Year, when all debtors are released), in this new modern system (called the international debt crisis) the poor countries of the world were loaned even greater amounts of money by US and international banks flush with newly recycled petro-dollars. Are we our brothers’ keepers? Apparently, we are not!
It was at this historical moment that most of Israel’s African friends turned against the Jewish state. Not because Israel’s development program was bad. It wasn’t. It relied on appropriate technology and smallholder farming. But the poor nations of the world were caught in a debtors vise. Any small gesture toward the Arab oil producers (the Zionism is racism/ UN Resolution) might allow them a much-needed break on their oil bill. But Israel bashing wasn’t the answer. Their weak position with regard to the rich world (Europe and the US) worsened with time as their debts mounted.
Enter the World Bank, the IMF and the World Trade Organization. For the last three decades, these economic organizations (all controlled by the rich world) have established the ground rules for increased commodity production at the expense of local food and appropriate farm technology. The results have proven extremely profitable for the rich countries. They have been able to increase their exportation of food grains (corn, wheat, rice etc.) into third world markets that had been closed to them. At the same time, the global supply (call it a glut) of coffee, cocoa, tea and other non-food farm products has diminished the prices for these items. This, too, has been a boon for rich-world buyers. But it has meant devastation to third world economies and especially its multitudes of subsistence smallholders.
The World Bank, in turn, has established a development model based on large mega-projects geared toward plantation commodity production. The World Trade Organization has made sure that import tariffs have been lifted and that all rich-world food and manufactures are “free for trade”. These rules and regulations are watched over scrupulously by the IMF. If you break the rules, you can’t get a loan in order to roll over your last loan. The system has become rigged to be maintained in perpetuity. One loan pays the interest on the last, and the one before that, and the one before that etc. etc.— the globalized 21st century world economy has become a debtor’s prison. Globalization increases poverty at the expense of the poor. Its effect is exactly the same as colonization.
Yes, we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. The Hebrew Bible, The Torah, establishes this principle very early in the first chapters of Genesis. But the “spirit” of the Laws from Mt. Sinai has not been enough to inhibit the rule breakers. The economic Laws of Moses must be obeyed, or the consequences for the poor will become dire. This has been the message of the Hebrew prophets. The Torah has an economic system which is not only clear and distinct; it is fundamentally just. Interest is outlawed, and debts are to be cancelled. The essential structure of G-d’s economic plan for His creation is smallholder agrarian. The earth is a soil that must be tended lovingly. This is our essential task.
The secular European and American economies (born out of Christianity) and their debt-infused materialist cultures have forgotten the downtrodden of this earth. These smallholders are probably forgotten because it is the rich world who benefits from their exploitation. In their neverending quest for more and more money, the globalized agribusiness system has become a murderous outrage. It is up to all the world’s Abrahamic religious leaders to truly stand up for the economic Laws of G-d and not simply pay lip service to the poorest of the poor. In the final analysis, human creation is only as strong as our weakest link. We need a world of smallholders, or the very earth that we till will be blown away in an erosion of greed.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).