[URBANTH-L]anthropology of the financial meltdown (outside the USA)

Alex M Nading amnading at gmail.com
Fri Oct 24 19:33:08 EDT 2008

I only get the URBANTH messages in digest form, so I hope this gets to all
concerned.  My ongoing dissertation research is, in part, on the
recycling/scrap metal trade in urban Nicaragua.  I can tell you that the
crisis has had immediate consequences for junk dealers around the world and
for informal scavengers and brokers right here in Nicaragua.  Nearly all the
scrap steel, aluminum cans and siding, copper, and plastic sold here gets
exported.  The garbage trade here grew tremendously from about 2002 to
2008.  (A popular legend among scavengers has it that the scrap metal they
collected was going to China to help build the Olympic stadium.)
I am writing about this at the moment but have nothing ready.  Apropos of
the message string I read, however, I can tell you that before the meltdown,
prices were at an all-time high.  In just the last 6 weeks or so, locals
tell me that they have dropped to a 6-year low.  This means that people who,
two months ago, could make a living and feed a family scavenging through
garbage now can't make out.  It also means that those who opened up small
local junk brokerages (often with the encouragement of larger firms) are
having to shut down.  This is already having a tremendous impact on the
local economy and on local politics.  The scrap market is notoriously
volatile, but in this most recent downturn, it has effectively cut a great
number of informally employed Nicaraguans out of the global economy.  Their
undocumented labor helped fuel the massive building boom, in Beijing and
elsewhere.  I have been amazed to see how quickly lives have been overturned
by the meltdown, especially considering that the food and oil crisis struck
so (relatively) slowly down here.

Alex Nading
Phd. Candidate
Department of Anthropology
University of Wisconsin-Madison

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