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CONSUMER ACTION
FIGHTS POVERTY

"Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man made and can be eradicated and overcome by the actions of human beings."

These words were spoken this last February in London by Nelson Mandela during a powerful speech condemning poverty and its causes. Mr Mandela was cheered by a crowd of 22,000 people as he pleaded for solutions in the fight against poverty. He called for increased aid for developing countries, debt cancellation, and fair trade.

According to the United Nations, 1.2 billion people live on less than $1 a day. Most of them are women with children. They make too little to feed their family so their children and elderly must also work. Poverty is growing at such an alarming rate that if it we allow it to continue, in 30 years, almost 1/3rd of the world's population will be forced into slums, mostly without water, sanitation, or security. For now, this fate affects only 1/6th of the world's population, mostly indigenous people in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Indigenous people around the world used to be self-sufficient. However their lands and resources have been, and continue to be, taken away by multi-national corporations seeking fuel, wood, or space for plantations. Other companies started factories under the pretext of job creation. These jobs have turned out to be more like slavery.

We, in North America, are unwittingly exploiting these workers in order to have what we need, or think we need. Most of us, as consumers, are unaware of how we violate human rights every day, or worse, help a handful of obscenely rich business people become even richer. But if we knew, we'd hit the streets in protest.

So, What's going on? Here's what author Rosemarie Benz Ericson says:

"Pacts like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have encouraged multinational corporations to shop the world for the lowest wage - often putting corporate interests above the well-being of individuals and nations. The U.N. conference on Trade and Development reported in 1997 that wages for unskilled workers had dropped by 20 to 30 percent in developing countries that had liberalized trade laws. This glut of manufacturing plants has been a boon for consumers, ensuring that shoppers in developed nations are supplied an ever-expanding array of inexpensive products."

UNICEF tells us there are over 200 million working children worldwide. Low cost clothing and toys purchased in North America come from factories which employ children in Latin America and Asia.

Someone else than us is paying the real price for these products. The cost of producing cheap goods also affects that someone else's children, their natural environment and their community. Their precious knowledge, their culture and their future are at risk. The cities where they are forced to migrate will face increasing social, health, and political crises. This will affect us too.

There are human beings behind the products we buy, and they are very much like us. They care about their family and the people in their community. Our choices as consumers can make a real difference to their lives and our world. We already know that buying organic produce locally helps our farmers, our community and the environment. When we buy fair trade goods, we are also helping the producers in the developing world, their community and the environment.

There are more and more fair trade products on the market for us to choose: soccer balls, toys, wrapping paper and cards, baskets & blankets, utensils & jewelery, bath products and table linen. They are imported by responsible businesses that are members of international fair trade organisations. There is also fair trade certified commodities, like coffee, chocolate, and sugar in our grocery stores. We recognized them by their "fair trade certified" label. People are again able to live a simple but decent life from the sale of these products.

The effort doesn't seem like it has much impact. Yet, as a consumer, when we make decisions that are fair to the people who make the products, we're working for positive change. We want respect for human rights. We're telling multi-national corporations that exploiting people is unacceptable.

Laure Waridel, author and sociologist, believes this: To buy is to vote. Make sure your vote is for healthy communities and not poverty. Poverty is man made and can be overcome by the actions of human beings, like you and I.

Written by: Nicole McGrath


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