Ambassadors of Goodwill

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Ambassadors of Goodwill

Imagine a remote corner of the world where people have lived off their farms for generations. Families and neighbors live and work communally, the young care for the old and nature provides. Then, without explanation, things begin to change. Large tracts of the best farmland are bought by complete strangers and closed off. Other land […]

© Michael BallakImagine a remote corner of the world where people have lived off their farms for generations. Families and neighbors live and work communally, the young care for the old and nature provides. Then, without explanation, things begin to change. Large tracts of the best farmland are bought by complete strangers and closed off. Other land is “appropriated” and the peasants who lived and farmed there are forced to find other work, forced to move away from their ancestral lands to places where they are greeted with hostility.

The streams that once ran clear are now muddy with silt and poisoned with metals and chemicals. Children begin to sicken and die. In time, the intentions of the powerful outside interests make themselves known to all. With promises of help for the community, education for the children and good jobs for their parents, “the company” sets about helping itself to the resources that drew it to these remote places, where not even the government bothers to visit.

I call it the race to the bottom – multinational corporations entering countries solely to extract commodities: rubber, gold, cocoa, silver, copper, coffee, tobacco, oil, are among the many commodities detailed in the annual DOL Report on Goods Produced with Child Labor.

The commodities listed in this report amount to a “resource curse” for the country of origin. Unregulated and unstoppable, without any apparent moral compass, whole industries seem willing to do anything to get what they want for a rock-bottom price and the communities they change forever can fend for themselves. Charles Darwin would be proud; this is survival of the fittest in a dog-eat-dog world.

© Michael BallakFor the villages whose rural life will never be the same, the influx of money usually turns their home into a company town, where the price of food, wages, the land the school sits on, the local environment and the future of generations of children become a footnote in the business of making money for shareholders on the other side of the world. The work of these companies is often abetted by porous national laws, lax environmental regulations, governments that don’t enforce existing law, corruption and the simple calculus that vast amounts of money – we call them “investments” – can dwarf the budgets and economies of impoverished places where people don’t have enough food for their children or themselves. Money talks.

In time, changes become noticeable but seem impossible to slow or stop. Children go to work in large numbers to help their parents scrape together enough money for food, the environment deteriorates from the impacts of industrial operations, once gorgeous landscapes are reduced to piles of slag. As more people get sick, others are forcibly displaced and a sizable number end up at the dump sites where they scavenge with their children to find anything to sell or eat.

© Michael BallakOver time, school enrollments decline and young girls discover that their bodies are the most marketable commodities they can sell. Children leave to take their chances in the cities where they end up easy prey for traffickers and drug dealers. Town infrastructure is completely ignored by both the company and the government, and so people live in hovels surrounded by their own garbage and sewage. As a result, illness spreads and child mortality increases. Since there is no available medical care, life expectancy drops to nearly half of what we enjoy in the wealthy world, whose companies we proudly consider our ambassadors of goodwill.

It’s not difficult for me to conjure these images because I have seen it with my own eyes on coffee plantations in Kenya, on the Pacific coast of Mexico where Huichole children pick tobacco and are poisoned, even in Texas where American migrant children work with their families and drop out of school so that we can have cheap onions on our tables. These conditions are not new – they violate international laws that the United States and the world community have adopted, laws governments and companies ignore as the number of affected children working increases.

© Michael BallakWhen I show child labor footage to elementary age students at one of the many schools I visit, their reactions are always immediate and to the point, ” Where is their mommy?” one little girl wants to know, ” Why don’t they run away?” asks another. Our children reflexively know wrong when they see it.

Unlike Avatar, where the natives will rise up in righteous anger and defeat the villainous invaders who’ve come to pillage their land, the poor of Harbel, Liberia and La Riconanda, Peru are too weak and hungry to protect themselves or their children from the business of rubber production and mining for gold. These small communities, places so remote they’re largely unknown, have the unfortunate distinction of being at ground zero for the supply chains of dozens of multinationals.

Monique DeJong’s update on Firestone’s rubber production in Liberia reminds us that 80 years is too long to allow a company to abuse the human rights of people, while making only cosmetic efforts at change.

Dutch filmmakers Janett Honigmann and Michael Ballak have risked their personal safety to show us the extent of child labor in Peru, particularly in the mining sector. Peru has the largest concentration of mining companies in the world; nearly two dozen are American, but Chinese and European companies operate there as well. Often, these multinationals will use affiliated companies run by nationals to appear as if they respect the laws of their host countries; it takes the heat off the home office. But these pictures speak for themselves.

Look at the video and listen to the children in “Am I A Child?” Then communicate your outrage to the companies responsible and to our government agencies whose job it is to enforce international labor standards. Ask our President to get tough on multinationals that operate without regard to human rights. Learn all you can and boycott companies that refuse to operate with the most basic regard for human life. Don’t allow these children to become the victims of exploitation and neglect simply because we can claim ignorance. If a five-year-old knows wrong when they see it, what’s our excuse?

Published by  Published by xFruits

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