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Faces of Globalization - It Takes a Village

Greenhouse company in Mexico provides jobs, improving local livelihoods.
At first as I drove I saw a silvery surface, beneath the grey sky -- the cooler, rainy season has come -- close by low green hills. It might have been a lake, but the eye deceived. The feature in the landscape was not natural at all but technology planted in the middle of a poor rural region in central Mexico. The money it generates irrigates some nearby pueblos, mitigating a little their poverty.

Greenhouses are the silver. Twelve years ago Agros, a Mexican agricultural company, built a single greenhouse close to the agricultural town of Ezequiel Montes in the state of Querãctaro to grow tomatoes for export. It employed a handful of workers. The enterprise prospered. Now fourteen greenhouses are spread across the landscape and there are 225 workers: about 25 in
the small office building, 200 tending to the tomatoes.

Ricardo Martã­nez, head of logistics at the plant, meets me in a room lined with maps not just of Mexico but of Europe and North America, on which the "produce hubs," ports and airports are marked. In a rack stand specialist magazines and journals -- "Journal of Vegetable Crop production," "Hortscience," and even, in Dutch, "Groenten & Fruit."

The company is an exporter, selling most of its tomatoes in the United States. In its battle with competitors from the United States itself, and from Canada, Spain and Israel, among others, it has two advantages: the potent Mexican sun, which permits tomatoes to be grown quickly year round; and the low price of local labor -- for the work, even with much technology invested in it, is labor-intensive.

Martã­nez, a kind and charming man in his thirties, is one face of globalization here in the Mexican countryside. He is educated, with a degree in engineering, speaks in English every day to the buyers he supplies in the United States, and drives a modern car. His lifestyle is one many Americans would recognize as similar to their own.

He works with two things: expensive and sophisticated technology, imported from Holland, and unskilled labor paid at the low rate normal in Mexico --about 100 pesos ($9) per day.

The technology begins even as you enter the company. Driving into the plant, the car has to pass through a chemical dip to clean its tires. Later, when Martã­nez takes me of a tour of the greenhouses, he hands me a white elasticated ring of cloth which I at first think is for my hair and am relieved to find is one of a pair, for my shoes. I also have to wear a white coat. The tomatoes, the centre of everything here, are being nursed.

For "Each plant counts," as it says in red on a sign near a greenhouse, "One plant = 20 kilos of tomatoes." Forty-four pounds of tomatoes from one plant: It seems astonishing. In the greenhouses you see how this is achieved.

It is a poor-looking place. The streets are cobbled, or of bare earth. The houses are mostly small and basic, often unfinished, a second story begun, but not completed. Cattle, goats, chickens are corralled in many yards that adjoin the houses. Flies proliferate.
First, more hygiene: Each greenhouse has double doors, an abundance of fly screens, and a sponge impregnated with chemicals to disinfect shoes. Then sophisticated growing technology: Young tomato plants are growing in small pots not much more than one foot long, and in stony red soil. Beneath the pots are stones for drainage, and the soil in each pot has several black plastic syringes pushed into it, supplying fertilizers. Long transparent balloons, attached to the ground, provide additional carbon dioxide. As Martã­nez points all this out to me, a screen behind us begins to move to let in a little extra light. A remote computer somewhere has ordained this. "Everything," Martã­nez says, "is computer-controlled."

But people are needed, too. Workers attend to the plants, moving between each row on electric trolleys running on rails. They cut back leaves and train the growing stems horizontally around twine, enabling the plants to grow to a length of twelve meters and yield a bumper crop just two months from planting.

The company is thriving and providing jobs. "Do you need to train workers?" I ask Martãnez. "Yes," he says, "but the workers here are good, hard-working."

They come from the pueblos nearby -- the company provides transport -- and, when I leave the plant, I drive to one of them, called Santa Rosa de Lima.

It is a poor-looking place. The streets are cobbled, or of bare earth. The houses are mostly small and basic, often unfinished, a second story begun, but not completed. Cattle, goats, chickens are corralled in many yards that adjoin the houses. Flies proliferate.

At a simple shop I buy a packet of chips and the middle-aged woman dusts off the bag with a cloth before giving it to me. When I ask if she knows an Agros worker I might talk to, she is more than helpful. She can think of a couple who are on leave and will be available. She directs me towards the house of Marisela, at the end of a street opposite.

With the help of local people, I track Marisela down. She lets me inside her gate to a compound where her sister-in-law is washing clothes by hand over a bowl of water. To the left, a pan bubbles over a wood fire. Further in, some yards away, an old man, probably her father, is sitting, just outside her home. A couple of young children, a girl and a smiling boy with a shaven head, come up to take a look at me.

I ask Marisela about the work. "I have worked there for six years. It's hard, especially the heat," she says, and she would like the pay to be higher, but she appreciates the regular income. The company also provides social security cover, so that she and her family receive health care. Her annual bonus was about $250. "Without the work, it would be difficult," she says, "there is nothing else." I ask if her husband also works, and she simply says, "No, no husband." When I return to the shop and talk more with the owner, Cristina Avila, she tells me Marisela's husband died years ago of cancer.

"This is a poor community," I say to Avila, "has it got better since Agros invested nearby?"

"Yes," she says, "it is better. There is more money now."

"In what ways has it got better?" I ask.

"There is transport now. Before there was no bus to the main road. You had to walk." "That would take about an hour?"
"There are more shops. A few years ago there were two. Now there are twelve. People earn some cash and have something to spend."

"Yes, easily," she says.

"There is a bus now because people can afford to pay?"

"Yes," she replies, "there are more than a hundred people here working in Agros. So there is money now to pay for the bus."

"What else has changed?"

"There are more shops. A few years ago there were two. Now" -- she counts--"there are twelve. Before, all people had were their 'milpas'" -- communally-owned land on which to grow food. "Now people earn some cash and have something to spend."

"And cars?" I ask.

"More. Before there were only three. Now many more."

I have interrupted Avila, but she is keen to talk, and articulate. She had been sitting with two other women at the side of the shop, close by a phone cabin, small bibles open in front of them. They tell me they are Jehovah's Witnesses. To our left there are a couple of electronic games machines at which children are playing. Flies are a constant irritation.

I ask about the phone cabin.

"It is the only phone line in the village," Avila says. "The men ring from the United States and stay on the line and I send someone off to get their family. They can talk for an hour for 20 pesos (about $1.80)."

"A lot of the men are in the United States?" I ask.

"Yes, many," she says emphatically.

"How about education?" I ask.

"Better now," she says. "People have more money, so they send the children on the bus to Ezequiel Montes to secondary school. Before most went only to primary school, in the village."

We step outside the shop. The principal street of the town outside is broad. A line of water runs down its center.

"What do people want?" I ask, "what do they ask the local politicians for?"

"Well, drainage," she says, glancing towards the line of water, "and electricity. Not all the houses have it. And running water. Not all of them have it. You should see how some people live. Just stone walls, and bare earth floors."

A new pick-up truck goes by.

"That's a good one," I say to Avila.

"No, any car like that is from outside," she says. "That's a landowner from Ezequiel, here to check on workers."

I thank her and set off. I drop into the government-run health center on my way, and speak to the nurse who, like Avila, is welcoming.

"What is the main health problem here?" I ask.

"Diarrhea," she replies, "It's the lack of hygiene in the homes."

Hygienic Agros seems further and further away. It is hard to believe it has made lives better, but it has. Without it, the lives of Marisela and everyone else would be far worse.

Contributed by Ian Campbell, UPI Correspondent. The above piece is part 15 of a half-year series by United Press International which focuses each week on the human face of globalization in locales ranging from India to the heartland of the United States. The series looks at the complex array of social and economic issues facing workers, managers, students and others, who have been affected by the growing worldwide investment, trade and technological interconnections that have come to be known as globalization. Reprinted with permission from United Press International.

To read another Global Envision article about the faces of globalization, see Faces of Globalization: India's Gen-Y.


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