First Hand Report: Human Costs of Consumption

I know that gloom and doom do not motivate behavior change.

The most effective public outreach strategies include positive messages combined with attainable actions that residents and businesses can take to reduce consumption. But it is important sometimes to name the true costs of seemingly inexpensive products we purchase.

Sometimes those costs make themselves apparent whether you like it or not.

I learned last week that friends who live in one of the communal villages in the highlands of Guatemala that I visit regularly are leaving their community. Their water supply has been poisoned by the foreign-owned mining company located upstream. This is an indigenous community where families have lived for generations. While my friends and mentor community organizers Juan and Candalaria, pack up their belongings and nine children, I reflect on what I have witnessed when visiting the region between 1993 and 2011.

Coffee-Drying Patio

Coffee-Drying Patio

What strikes me the most is that all resources around them (their water, their land, roads and labor) are entirely dedicated to the extraction and mobilization of materials and products for consumption far away. Coffee fincas (farms) have replaced all food crops. Coffee workers have to bus in and out of the coffee plantations to find food and a place to sleep at night, because the finca owners don't want to use up space to house laborers or give them a plot of land for growing food. A massive highway is being built across the country that will connect two new ports from East to West. This “dry canal” is part of an industrial project called Plan Puebla Panama that will build an infrastructure designed to improve the mobilization of goods and raw materials from Central America to the north. Thousands of indigenous communities have been displaced to build this highway. The project makes moving across the country extremely difficult for those returning from the fincas or travelling for other means to eke out a living. I have sat on buses for nine hours on trips that used to take two hours because the government was busy building this highway in support of foreign investors.

And then there are the mines. Antimony (for fire retardants), nickel and gold are some of the major minerals extracted and exported from Guatemala and used to make electronics and other common consumer products. The mining companies evict residents and poison their waterways without providing compensation.

I wonder what my friend Don Juan’s oldest son Oscar will do when the family leaves their home. Will he join the millions who have been forced go to the north to earn money for their displaced families? Will he forget his native language and learn English? Perhaps.

I hope that if he does he can tell his story so that may we will all learn from him. 


Lauren Norris