Local Advocates Making Change in Slums in Latin America


SEATTLE — They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but pictures of barrios illegales in Ecuador or favelas in Brazil rarely tell us what actually drives people into slums in Latin America, or how we can help.

Poverty is often systemic, the result of long-lasting structural inequalities, and this is apparent in the factors that ultimately force some Latin Americans to live in slums—areas of concentrated poverty.

According to Brian Stefan-Szittai, co-coordinator at the InterReligious Task Force on Central America (IRTF), an organization in Cleveland, Ohio, that “educates, advocates, and organizers for peace, justice, and human rights for the people of Central America and Colombia,” these structural issues are easily seen in countries such as El Salvador.

When El Salvador was initially colonized, Spain divided the colony into 14 sections for 14 wealthy families. Stefan-Szittai pointed out that, “Despite almost 200 years of independence, those economic relations have not changed much.”

Instead of owing land, those families now own large businesses and financial institutions. Stefan-Szittai notes the unbalanced concentration of wealth places the dependence of the poor majority on the wealthy minority. These disparities in wealth can have physical effects as well, forcing people into slums in Latin America.

In Latin America, similar to many other locations around the world, small farmers are vulnerable to exploitation and the whims of an ever-changing global market.

Timothy Black, an associate professor of sociology at Case Western Reserve University who specializes in social and economic marginalization, said that opportunities for people in rural areas often dry up for a variety of reasons. One such example is the structural adjustments to the economy required by the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund when they loan money to developing countries with the goal of decreasing global poverty.

In this scenario, they may actually push people into slums in Latin America. Oftentimes these loan requirements include reduced government subsidies or free trade laws. The former can make it impossible for people to live in rural areas if they previously survived on subsistence farming. Since they do not produce enough to make a living off of their goods and feed their families, these farmers end up moving to the cities and end up in slums.

Free trade measures may also adversely affect farmers, as they cannot always compete with the crops that flood the market thanks to free trade policies that, according to Stefan-Szittai, give power to large corporations at the expense of these small farmers. Some Latin American countries, though, have used import substitution industrialization (reducing their imports and producing locally instead) in order to develop local industry, but many have turned away from it at this point.

Urban areas can’t accommodate all the new people, though, and then they have nowhere to go but slums, squatter communities, edge cities, etc. When people live in these conditions, a second, local economy often develops, according to Black. This informal economy creates patterns of inclusion and exclusion between the wealthy and the poor that can be hard to escape without the proper education or formal job training.

Black said that people living in slums also need social networks within the formal economy to improve their situation, but oftentimes people only have connections within the informal economy.

Stefan-Szittai said that in the IRTF’s experience, one of the most effective strategies for those living in poverty to help themselves is to form a cooperative. This gives them the opportunity to work together within their community to run their own businesses or to simply bring water to their neighborhood.

“The cooperative movement across the country also helps to keep pressure on the national government to provide more education, health and other basic services—or at least not to cut them,” Stefan-Szittai said.

Domestically, steps to help keep people out of these conditions include advocating for fair trade and the empowerment of workers abroad.

“For IRTF, exploited labor solidarity means engaging consumers in campaigns focused on transnational corporations to empower workers in Central America and Colombia to improve their wages and working conditions,” said Stefan-Szittai.

He also explained how fair trade benefits farmers in danger of the scenario Black described when they can no longer make enough money to support themselves from their own crops.

“Fair trade relates to poverty because in the conventional market farmers producing crops such as coffee or cocoa live in some of the poorest countries in the Global South,” he said. “They often have to sell their crops through a middleman and end up getting the lowest possible prices, leaving these farmers with barely any money to live on.”

Fair trade cuts out the middleman, connecting farmers directly to their buyers. They then receive a fair share of their crop thanks to an internationally guaranteed fair trade minimum price. A good first step to advocate for fair trade is simply to buy fair trade products, such as coffee or jewelry.

Anastazia Vanisko

Photo: Flickr


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