On Sunday morning, we woke up in Bogota and headed for one of the city’s best markets, Paloquemao. I burned my tongue on hot café con leche as we ate almojabanas, cheesy pastries, on small stools at the entrance. We browsed the tightly packed stalls for dry fruit, nuts, and whole wheat flour to take back to the Coast and stared at the tall stacks of fresh fruit and vegetables. You can buy almost anything at Paloquemao (bean sprouts, beef tongue, organic coffee, a blend of herbs to treat any illness), and almost all of it is grown in some region of Colombia or another. We laughed at the extremely courteous Bogotano accent, as compared to the brusque, tangled Coastal one.
We had enough time to walk back, and a block down the road, came to the security guards and automatic glass doors of a shiny new monstrosity of a shopping mall. It seemed dropped from the sky- millions of dollars of panes of glass, colorful Adidas shoes, North American fast food and the newest releases in the movie theater. It was clean, uniform, and perfect. There was not a single piece of clutter in the spacious hallways.
We stumbled out into the light and kept walking. Soon we started the long walk along a gray wall that stretches an entire city block. A friend remembered that it was the outside of Bogota’s largest mega-church and convinced us to step inside. There was space in the sanctuary for 10.000, and from the back, over the swaying hands of several thousand, the worship leaders looked like ants. There was a steak house and a gym, as well as a radio station and a large scale map of Colombia and all of its new mega-churches: fruits of recent missions. As we walked past the streams of Bogotanos heading into the service, we remembered some of our friends who were meeting in a house church only a half hour walk away.
That evening, after the plane ride and on the way to Sincelejo, I watched scenes of the Coast move across the taxi’s windows. Thatch roofs, motorcyclists with no helmets, broken concrete, stalks of yucca wilting with the lack of rain. It is extraordinary what things co-exist in this world. On Saturday, we had been privileged to listen to a professor-activist, one of the leaders against a huge hydroelectric dam project in the department of Huila, El Quimbo. He described the strategy of development that is taking root in Colombia and most of Latin America. Massive multinational corporations (in this case, Italian) propose huge, lucrative projects to the government, based largely on extracting or exploiting natural resources. The governments jump at the chance to use the competitive advantage of their regions- the water, gold, lumber, or other natural resources- and bend to the companies, allowing them extreme amounts of power in the agreements. The government effectively steps out from between and lets the corporation interact with the people in the region, without taking any regulatory measures. Because the corporation acts in its own interests, it takes almost all the profits, leaving the national government with little, and the people of the region with nothing except ruined farmland, few jobs, and a lack of future options. There is too much to write here, but through rigorous research, the professor and his team have been able to prove that the damages caused currently and the projected loss of resources over the fifty years of the dam’s lifetime are significantly less than the profits accrued by the project, and the profits do not even stay in the country.
The strategy is maddeningly successful. By turning the world into a neoliberal comparative advantage model, diverse ecosystems are replaced by huge reservoirs. Electricity produced in Panama can travel to Argentina, but doesn’t get to rural towns in Panama. The free trade agreements now signed in Colombia, Peru, Chile, and a number of other countries allow choice export markets to grow, at the expense of the farmers that have sustained their countries for millennia. Malls and supermarkets take the place of the chaotic, diverse networks of local markets in which money spent stays in the community. The church is part of the same strategy. A uniform faith takes the place of geographical communities. Differences are ironed out under the goal of contributing financially to God’s mission on earth, be it through building new mega-churches or funding mission trips across the world. If you pay, you receive more blessings.
We become valued not because of our cultural heritage, our grounding or love of place, our songs and food and literature. Our activities no longer require relationship of specificity, but shopping, entertainment, church, and travel can all be accomplished without talking to another human being. We can watch the same TV, eat the same food, and shop in the same stores in Colombia as in Japan, Sweden or South Africa. We become flattened, the subjects of a market instead of a nation or a culture. We are valued for our purchasing power or how much we produce. It is the model of efficiency, the model of economic growth, the model of profit. But what do we value? At what cost?