Living on the Edge

The Third World farmer lives constantly on the precipice of disaster. They are not blessed with many of the things we take for granted: a steady job, stable income, an economy fairly free from inflation, and a social services network that helps to mitigate the effects of natural disaster.

For the Third World farmer, every day is a potential disaster waiting to happen. A good day, in fact, is when nothing too terribly bad occurs. Take Candido Soto, a young, landless, Bolivian sharecropper with a wife and three children, struggling to make ends meet from one day to the next. One day, unexpectedly, while on a trip to bring produce into the city, as he was changing a flat tire at the behest of the driver, it exploded, throwing him 20 meters into the air, leaving his body a mangled, lifeless mess. Disaster. He was a good man, sober and hard-working, who only desired the best for his family. I hope to honor his memory by writing of him here.

Other disasters are more subtle, but the effect on poor families can be just as devastating. Inflation can drive entire demographic swathes of a population to desperation. It was, after all, after a particularly vicious bout with inflation that Germans were seduced by the allure of Adolf Hitler’s fanatical brand of xenophobic nationalism. Something like inflation, or the influx of cheap corn onto the market from trade deals like NAFTA, can be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back.

These are the forces that drive the waves of immigration to Europe and North America. Despite the rantings of demagogues like Lou Dobbs, immigrants don’t risk everything for the sake of hijacking other people’s government, or to recolonize lands they believe are rightfully theirs. The vast majority come purely for economic reasons…it is safe to say out of economic desperation.

So now, let’s be real about the immigration debate. There is nothing wrong with hard-working families migrating to the United States, but everything wrong with how it is taking place. These families need to be given a realistic framework in which they can work and be welcomed into local communities. They need time to learn new skills, and they need training to be able to take the capital they earn while here, and reinvest it into productive enterprises in their home countries.

Clearly, we need well developed programs whereby small businesses can absorb immigrant labor for the short to medium term, provide guidance and training, and planning to help them reinvest wisely. As we move towards sustainable communities, there exists great potential to take advantage of their knowledge and skills in agriculture and construction.

Unfortunately, the obstacles are great. From a moderately xenophobic society to a government that is incapable of providing lean, service-based programs for small businesses and community initiatives, it’s no wonder we are so mired in a meaningless and polarizing debate about nothing.

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