[Marxism] Supermarket imperialism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Dec 28 08:04:27 MST 2004

NY Times, December 28, 2004
Supermarket Giants Crush Central American Farmers

PALENCIA, Guatemala - Mario Chinchilla, his face shaded by a battered straw 
hat, worriedly surveyed his field of sickly tomatoes. His hands and jeans 
were caked with dirt, but no amount of labor would ever turn his puny crop 
into the plump, unblemished produce the country's main supermarket chain 
displays in its big stores.

For a time, the farmer's cooperative he heads managed to sell vegetables to 
the chain, part owned by the giant Dutch multinational, Ahold, which counts 
Stop & Shop among its assets. But the co-op's members lacked the expertise, 
as well as the money to invest in the modern greenhouses, drip irrigation 
and pest control that would have helped them meet supermarket specifications.

Squatting next to his field, Mr. Chinchilla's rugged face was a portrait of 
defeat. "They wanted consistent supply without ups and downs," he said, 
scratching the soil with a stick. "We didn't have the capacity to do it."

Across Latin America, supermarket chains partly or wholly owned by global 
corporate goliaths like Ahold, Wal-Mart and Carrefour have revolutionized 
food distribution in the short span of a decade and have now begun to 
transform food growing, too.

The megastores are popular with customers for their lower prices, choice 
and convenience. But their sudden appearance has brought unanticipated and 
daunting challenges to millions of struggling, small farmers.

The stark danger is that increasing numbers of them will go bust and join 
streams of desperate migrants to America and the urban slums of their own 
countries. Their declining fortunes, economists and agronomists fear, could 
worsen inequality in a region where the gap between rich and poor already 
yawns cavernously and the concentration of land in the hands of an elite 
has historically fueled cycles of rebellion and violent repression.

"It's like being on a train with a glass on a table and it's about to fall 
off and break," said Prof. Thomas Reardon, an agricultural economist at 
Michigan State University. "Everyone sees the glass on the table - but do 
they see it shaking? Do they see the edge? The edge is the structural 
changes in the market."

In the 1990's supermarkets went from controlling 10 to 20 percent of the 
market in the region to dominating it, a transition that took 50 years in 
the United States, according to researchers at Michigan State and the Latin 
American Center for Rural Development in Santiago, Chile.

Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica and Mexico are furthest along. While 
the changes have happened more slowly in poorer, more rural Central 
American countries, they have begun to quicken here, too. In Guatemala, the 
number of supermarkets has more than doubled in the past decade, as the 
share of food they retail has reached 35 percent.

The hope that small farmers would benefit by banding together in 
business-minded associations has not been borne out. Some like Aj Ticonel, 
in the city of Chimaltenango, have succeeded. But the evidence suggests 
that the failure of Mr. Chinchilla's co-op is the more common fate.

Its feeble attempts to sell to major supermarkets illustrate how the odds 
are stacked against small farmers, as well as the uneven effects of 
globalization itself. Many small farmers in the region are getting left 
behind, while medium-sized and larger growers, with more money and 
marketing savvy, are far more likely to benefit.

Most fruits and vegetables in the region are still sold in small shops and 
open-air markets, but the value of supermarket purchases from farmers has 
soared and now surpasses that of produce exports by two and half times, 
researchers say.

The bottom line: supermarkets and their privately set standards already 
loom larger for many farmers than the rules of the World Trade Organization.

full: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/28/international/americas/28guatemala.html

Louis Proyect
Marxism list: www.marxmail.org 

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