Of Many Things

I first heard of Epica at my former parish in Washington, D.C. Several staff members attended its main Sunday Mass, and one was married there. The acronym stands for Ecumenical Program on Central America and the Caribbean. Its mission statement describes the 30-year-old group as an ecumenical faith-based organization in solidarity with the oppressed people of the Americasone that seeks to strengthen solidarity with grass-roots organizations in the global South, and to raise awareness here in the North about the impact of corporate globalization in the Americas.

Besides engaging in political and economic analysis, along with spiritual reflection and social action, Epica also sponsors periodic delegations to countries in Central America and the Caribbean. This spring, preparations are under way for a delegationor travel seminar, as they are sometimes calledto Nicaragua and Honduras from May 26 to June 8. Leading this spring’s journey is Kathy Ogle, a staff member who has lived in Central America. I spoke with her about the undertaking, which will focus on women in an effort to learn how the economic aspects of corporate globalization are affecting their lives.

Epica’s philosophy involves a preferential option for the poor, she said, but over the past few years we’ve also taken on what might be thought of as a related preferential option for womenbecause they represent the most marginalized group among the poor in general. In this context, she spoke of four books that are part of Epica’s women’s series, which project the voices and experiences of women in Haiti, El Salvador, Guatemala and southern Mexico.

Members of the upcoming delegation to Nicaragua and Honduras (mostly representatives of nongovernmental organizations, students, educators, organizers and possibly some union members) will be meeting with women employed in maquiladoras, or factories that assemble garments for export. Much of what is assembled goes to big U.S. companies like Gap and Wal-Mart.

Anti-sweatshop advocacy organizations like the New York-based National Labor Committee have long contended that women working in the maquiladoras are exploited through both low wages and substandard working conditions. We have a person in Nicaragua and another in Honduras who are setting up the various meetings and activities, Ms. Ogle said. Besides speaking with maquiladora workers, we hope to actually visit a workplacethough this can be difficult because of the owners’ resistance to outsiders visiting.

The group also plans to meet with agricultural workers. More and more people, both men and women, are leaving the countryside to go to the cities in search of factory jobsbut there aren’t enough, she observed. She went on to speak of the negative effect of corporate globalization on the sale of home-grown agricultural products like corn and beans: Farmers who have traditionally raised crops of this kind for sale in the local markets are now finding that free trade has opened the way for imports of the same products from other countries.

She mentioned as an example that corn grown in Kansas might find its way to Central American markets, where it may be sold at prices lower than the already low prices set by Nicaraguan and Honduran farmers. There are no government subsidies for farmers there, and no mechanisms in place to protect the prices of what they produce, Ms. Ogle noted. She added that although city dwellers in those two countries are happy about the cheap imports of their dietary staples, farmers find their prices undercut to such an extent that they are unable to support their families.

The overall hope in regard to this particular delegation is that participants will return and, drawing on what they have observed and what they have learned from the people with whom they have spoken, become advocates within their own organizations and communities on behalf of the poor of Nicaragua and Honduras who work in the countryside and in the maquiladoras. Some scholarship aid is available for the delegation. Epica can be reached at www.epica.org.

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