I recently learnt a lesson in basic capitalism from two hawkers on the streets of Antigua, Guatemala.

The first hawker approached me, selling wooden flutes that I had no particular interest in. He urged me to part with US$25 for one. For a moment, I thought of my youngest son who has a passion for playing the flute and the trumpet.

The hawker’s basic commercial English would tickle your ears. But then, my Spanish is not enough to get anywhere beyond basic greetings. I offered to pay US$5, and the guy lowered his price to 15. Eventually, I dished out $10 to this guy who took the cash and promptly moved to search for another ‘tourist.’

The flute under my armpit, I swaggered with friends for dinner in a beautiful restaurant. Not too long after, another hawker caught up with me. Guess what? He had flutes to sell and without any bargaining, he announced they went for $1 apiece. That was the end of lesson one: never rush the celebration of a bargain.

Some evenings later, my friends and I decided to sample the culinary delights of Antigua again. A young girl soon made an approach with a collection of pendants and scarves for sale. I was not ready to be sucked in a second time.

When she pushed her pendants at me I showed her one I had bought earlier in the day dangling from my neck. Next, she brought a scarf. Too bad, I already had one around my neck to ward off the cold. She looked at me for a while and asked in impeccable English, “Why don’t you want to spend money?” Taken aback, my response was laughter. Then she fired a second salvo: “open the other wallet!”

She taught me a sound lesson in basic capitalism. First, you must spend money. Is that not the logic about how to stimulate recovery from the financial crisis the world has been plunged into? More money into the hands of private sector operators is expected to bring efficiency over profligacy caskets.

Open the other wallet? It was later on it dawned on me that some tourists probably always carried two wallets: one with the local currency and another with dollars or some similar currencies, but I had only one wallet.

With the reflections from Antigua hawkers, it was time for us to visit San Juan Sacatepéquez, a municipality in Guatemala whose local people engage mainly in agriculture and production of flowers. The visit to a region of 12 communities with a population of 75,000 revealed an iconic struggle between local peoples on the one side, and combined teams of governments and industry on the other.

After listening to the people at a community meeting and then to the minister of energy and mines of the country, I saw similarities with community struggles in Nigeria. A major source of conflict has often been the peoples demand for dialogue.

Shattered peace
The people recalled that peace was shattered in 2006 when Cementos Progreso moved in to commence exploratory activities for mineral exploitation for cement production. Cementos Progresso is embarking on this project in partnership with Holcin, the world’s second largest multinational cement company, which is raising environmental dusts in other countries, including South Africa.

The people insisted they were not consulted and that an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) prepared for the project was not participatory. Also, when they asked for consultative meetings with the company and the government, they were rebuffed. At a point, a state of emergency was declared in the area and initial works on the project took off under that cover.

Community people insist that this denial of consultation violates their rights, as established under International Labour Organisation’s convention 169, which requires that affected communities be consulted on projects that will affect their territories. Guatemalan constitutional court ruled in December 2009 that licences issued by the ministry of energy and mines for the recognition, exploration, and mining and hydropower licences without consultation, is unlawful and arbitrary and violates the constitutional right of consultation.

With official rejection of dialogue, the people went ahead and voted against the project. The official response was repression, heavy-handed attacks, deaths, and also imprisonment of three local people.

The people believe their territory has over 34 different solid minerals and that the cement company’s move is a ploy to open the area to mining of these other minerals. They fear that the dust from cement operations would damage their flower production and cripple the local economy.

Moreover, they believe a road the company plans to build will only benefit the company by providing it a link to the inter-America highway and would ignore the community’s earth road that is in sore need for upgrading and repairs.

When the issues were tabled before the minister, the answers were telling. Of course, they had the best intentions. They needed to fight poverty. Poverty causes environmental degradation. An EIA was conducted and approved by the relevant ministry.

A United Nations agency also reviewed the EIA and cited the potential for heavy dusts as an impact that needed action. Then he added that there was a constitutional gap with regard to consultations. There is no clarity about the meaning of popular consultations and who would be involved and what the scope of such consultations should be. The ILO Convention 169 does not confer the power of veto to any consultative forum that may be set up.

At the moment, the project is stalled and there is an uneasy calm in the communities. The government said mining works would commence only when a “friendly” agreement is reached with the community.

This reminded me of the lesson I got from the hawker about the approach of governments to mining and other projects: open the other wallet - exploit anything that can be exploited, whether you need it or not.

Lesson over!

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