#CoffeeLives

If you are into coffee, you might want to check this out:

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AMRDI is a Colorado-based NGO working on rural development issues in the mountainous landscapes and polar regions most affected by climate change. Their focus is on data-driven development solutions. They work on the ground to research issues of poverty, health and well-being in communities often far removed from policymakers and government services.

I am with them in Nicaragua now, where they are collecting survey data on local coffee growers. Coffee is a product targeted by terms like “Fair Trade” and “sustainable,” but there is very little oversight or on-the-ground research into just how much impact a $5 latte has on the people who grow the beans. AMRDI is in Nicaragua talking to coffee producers and pickers to understand those issues better.

IMG_1473.JPGI’m along to shoot video and document their efforts, working with them on their research and writing blogposts along the way. The conversations we are having are enlightening, and the living conditions of families who sell some of the highest quality coffee in the world are astonishing.

All of this work will eventually find its way into hard print, the sort of data that can help implement lasting change. But for now this is the early stages.

The trip is winding to a close, but if you want a look at what the short story check out the AMRDI blog. I’ve posted a handful of reports (day one, day two, day three and day four) on what it’s like tromping around the Central American mountains talking to people who grow the drink many of us consume every day.

And if you’re concerned about climate change and its impact on communities at the fringes in the high and polar places most affected, get to know AMRDI. Data-driven development work. Cool stuff.

CDS Column: Scraps at the Christmas Table

It’s less than a week until Christmas. I still have shopping to do, cards to write, family to see. There is snow on the ground, the ski lifts are running, and Mount Washington is glistening its most majestic. I don’t really want to write about politics.

But I feel like I ought to. Somehow evidence that Russia meddled in the U.S. election has become partisan. Hackers did what they could to sway the vote, and here we are bickering about it like children.

How did it come to this? How did we get to a point where we fight among ourselves while a foreign power toys with our democratic process?

This shouldn’t be complicated. It is easy to focus all citizens on concerns about Russia’s foray in our election. It’s an issue that affects every American.

Lots of Americans are concerned with unfair elections. That was made clear this campaign season. Candidate Donald Trump repeatedly called into question the legitimacy of the American electoral process. He even said he might not accept the outcome while his surrogates raised concerns about voter fraud.

But now? Where is that concern now? Who is willing to stand up and say something about the sanctity of the American process? Who is willing to rebuke Russian influence in our election? No one within the president-elect’s administration. Somehow defense of basic American civic process has split along a partisan divide, and KGB-style meddling goes unchallenged.

But that has become a theme in our country as the American Century has splintered. We have become bickering children arguing over table scraps. Trump won. There would be no punches pulled. Even as the American electoral process takes a hit.

We’ve seen this before. For years we have watched the Congress choose winning over governing. There was no compromising on workable solutions to real world problems. The fight was bitter, and We the People wound up the losers.

Supporters of Donald Trump rejoice that his rise will bring change to Washington, the draining of the swamp. But his blind eye toward Russia indicates more of the same — someone more invested in winning than on governing.

But regardless of his temperament, his party will have to govern. His promises to scrap regulation and Obama administration programs like the Affordable Care Act mean he and his team will be forced to implement a new American vision. What will that look like? Will it be one more winner-take-all proposition, or can Trump conceive of America as a place of growth for everyone?

His initial rhetoric is not encouraging. But the fact is despite Trump’s language of exclusion, America is not a zero-sum country. If our history has proven anything, it is that capitalism and ingenuity mixed in an American pot make it possible for everyone to rise. The children of immigrants can become wealthy. The descendents of slaves can be president. This is America’s legacy.

But the current strain of conservatism seems to read a different narrative, one where America is a land of scarcity. There are winners and losers and where anyone willing to pull punches might find themselves at the bottom.

That narrative has kept Donald Trump from coming out strong against Russian election influence. If Trump gives an inch, according to this reasoning, his entire victory and future administration could come crashing down.

But is his administration that fragile? Wouldn’t it be possible to fight for the sanctity of the process and the rights of all Americans to be left unmolested as they choose their president without handing Hillary Clinton victory? Where is that confident voice, Mr. Trump?

This isn’t the only place where this administration divides the world into winners and losers. Jobs and immigration get the same treatment: There are only a certain number of jobs, the narrative goes, and if immigrants are willing to do jobs for less, Americans lose. If China and Mexico are willing to produce cars or air conditioners or computers for less money, Americans lose again.

But economics doesn’t work that way. The beauty of capitalism is its capacity for growth, the ability to take a given set of inputs and leave everyone with more. Adam Smith described this idea more than 200 years ago, in 1776, the same year we declared our independence. And it is how we’ve approached commerce ever since. We aren’t left with table scraps. Yes, there are winners and losers, but that is part of capitalism’s creative destruction. And on balance America is winning.

This used to be the heart of conservative ideology. Adam Smith was Republican dogma. But just as Democrats were once Dixiecrats and Republicans were once the natural party of black voters, things change. Now conservatives abandon faith in the market and backpedal from free trade.

It is sad to watch the incoming administration approach the American worker so pessimistically. Our capacity to exist, survive and thrive on the world market is not weak. Yes, we have sectors that have become obsolete. I work in one of them: Newspapers are tanking as a result of the internet. And while we may look back nostalgically, we can’t unwind progress. We can’t disconnect from a global economy. Our job is to figure out what we do well, how we can best compete, and then throw our collective might into that sector. This is not a time to blame immigrants or trading partners, to lash out at natural allies (Mexico) and ignore the provocations from adversaries (Russia). It’s a time to claim our place within the world and its markets confidently, and to support those caught in capitalism’s creative destruction.

Instead we’re chasing table scraps and ignoring Russia. Merry Christmas.


This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

Belize’s Tired Tourism

Belize’s Tired Tourism

Belize-1050971Storms roll in each morning just after sunrise. The thunderclouds sweep the ocean and crawl up the beach, prolonging the night and laying soak rain across the sand, palm trees, patios and walkways. But it never lasts, the Caribbean sun quickly burns through and turns the air into steam. Placencia summers are sticky and dense.

The town juts out like a thumb, surrounded on three sides by water. It’s a town of sand and ocean breeze and falling coconuts, a Belizean paradise. Pink and yellow cabañas dot the beachfront. A quiet walkway parallels the sea. Shops selling conch shell jewelry abut seafood stands. Placencia is the real thing, the kind of sleepy backwater escape first-worlders dream of.

And so they’ve come. Tucked among the shops and stands and bungalows are restaurants advertising happy hour drink specials, pizzas and ocean views. ReMax realty signs dot empty lots proclaiming the ideal locations for vacation homes. Tour operators bark snorkel excursion and scuba trip information in the streets. Everywhere the signs of a bustling tourist economy call.

But if that bustle marks opportunity, it is growth that leaves Belizeans behind. The realtors are expatriates, as are most restaurant owners, tour operators and even many shop and stand owners. The face in the window may be Belizean, but usually the owner behind them is not.

“They want to own everything,” one Belizean food stand owner told me, “and to tell us what to do.”

Belizeans smile and don’t let on about the tension, but if you ask they’ll tell you: the best of their country feels taken from them. Expatriates are the new colonialism. They own the resorts and restaurants and tourist businesses. They buy the land for cheap, developed it in ways no local could afford and then hire on the former owner at sharecropper wages. They sell to tourists and export the profits, leaving Belizeans marginalized, pushed aside in their own country and unable to afford a home in the towns they grew up in.

But no one will tell you that. Everyone is too friendly, too polite. You have to ask.

It’s not a dissimilar story to thousands of other tourism destinations, the skyrocketing real estate prices and the foreign investors/developers. But in Belize for some reason it feels different. The expatriate-owned properties are billed as ecoresorts, a term that conjures images of local cooperatives, not exploitive practices. That such sustainability-focused businesses are environmentally conscious but socially bereft (or worse, intentionally abusive) seemingly runs counter to their mission. The idea of an expatriate-owned business helping elevate overall economic standards seems an empty one.

Without the infrastructure built by such investment, however, there wouldn’t be much in Placencia. The tourism economy was founded by those expatriates, even as they changed it. The economic prosperity of the peninsula is intricately tied to those foreign-owned shops, restaurants and hotels.

How do you balance growth with economic prosperity? How do you ensure locals have access to the kinds of jobs that feed a future? Is it a business owner’s responsibility? Government?

Owners, it appears, aren’t doing it, but at the suggestion of government Belizeans laugh. “They’re as bad as the foreigners,” they say. Politicians in Belize are notoriously corrupt, and everyday Belizeans know better than to look to them for relief. If a big house on the beach isn’t owned by an expatriate it’s owned by a government official. The path out of poverty, it seems, lies elsewhere.

Perhaps it is in education, notoriously underfunded in Belize but a possible path to something other than displacement and servitude. The cost of high school, however, is borne by families, to say nothing of college. In a country of 300,000 it’s hard to spread the cost of public necessities. College is not in everyone’s future.

These are the quandaries hidden beneath white sand and rum drinks. They are the veiled problems of paradise. Belizeans know that Caribbean destinations are only desirable if they are warm, inviting, happy, and so they remain beneath the surface—to do otherwise would threaten the few economic scraps available. So any tourist with $40 U.S. can land a cabaña on the beach and stare at the stretching blue Caribbean, sip rum drinks near the lap of waves on sand.

But that is the tourist economy today—one of displacement and denial, an economic scramble that leaves behind more people than it elevates.

Welcome to Belize. Welcome to the world.

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