Poverty in Chiapas

One aspect of life in Chiapas affects me on a daily basis. It is poverty. There are just too many moments when contact with the individuals and families leading degraded, devalued lives temporarily takes away the satisfaction and happiness that my own career and family provide, leaving me with feelings of guilt and emptiness. Over time it is too easy to become hardened and insensitive to sights that would shock most Europeans. While we do all develop our personal defense mechanisms, sadness, rejection and anger at the sight of poverty is always the right response. If we could just determine the cause, perhaps we could even eliminate this terrible evil.

The text at the end of this video points out that this family has not received the state aid that they are entitled to. In general terms much has improved for millions of Mexicans in the last decade. Infant mortality has dropped, life expectancy has improved and complete illiteracy is now rare among the young. Targeted poverty alleviation programs have helped. However few programs have been efficiently implemented in Chiapas. Many families have slipped through the flimsy safety net the state provides. The fundamental structural weakness of the rural economy has not been addressed by politicians on either side of the political spectrum, who find it easier to point to global forces outside their control.

A key point is that Mexico is a middle income country. Per capita GDP is around $US 10,000 at purchasing price parity. Even under a system in which wealth is inevitably concentrated in a few hands there is simply no need for the lower end of the scale to be set at such a low level. Relatively few people live off urban rubbish or beg at traffic lights, but the fact that the system allows any family to resort to this is clearly intolerable. It simply doesn’t have to be this way.

I am an ecologist, not a sociologist nor economist. It can be difficult to see how improved knowledge concerning the distribution and abundance of organisms can have any relevance to the larger questions of poverty. I have been involved in several research projects that have aimed at analysing linkages between biodiversity and poverty. These linkages can indeed be found. Ecologists can play positive roles in developing patterns of natural resource use that improve livelihoods. However many of the contributions that the discipline of ecology itself can make are indirect. The benefits are often long term.

This does not mean that those of us that work in the field of ecology cannot play a positive role in tackling social problems while carrying out our research. I have also worked on linkages between poverty and decision making rather more directly. It is in this area I feel I can perhaps “make a difference” through teaching methods of careful reasoning with data. An element that permeates my own thinking both in ecology and life in general is the uniqueness of individual phenomena, even when they form part of a whole. A forest is a collection of trees. A society is a collection of people, each with their own lives and aspirations. I have taught students to use Bayesian Networks and hierarchical modelling to attempt to avoid the so called “ecological fallacies” (which has little to do with ecology) that arise when classification into groups is taken too far.

I find it difficult to accept solutions to the problems of poverty based on the classification of people by ethnic group, class, gender or culture, even though such classifications, if used with great care and discretion, can sometimes be useful as research tools. If I keep up this web log for any space of time I will undoubtedly return to this theme on many occasions in the section on probability.

It is extremely frustrating to find that irrational, even self defeating decision making has become locked into aspects of the Mexican way of life as has endemic inefficiency (see the endless queue) . Attempting to teach the more subtle elements of reasoning under uncertainty can appear quite irrelevant when institutionalized ineptitude devalues even the use of simple common sense. However I will continue to make the effort.

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