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Business & Culture

May 31, 2006


Lots has been written about culture in the age of globalization. Commentaries range from Samuel Huntington’s warnings that the Latinization of America will be its downfall to laments that globalization will so homogenize the world that cultural identities will be lost. There doesn’t seem to be too many stories about how globalization can advance while at the same time preserving local culture. Assimilation, to a point, is important, but how much assimiliation and how fast are two important questions. In yesterday’s Washington Post (“Together in Bicultural Business”), Krissah Williams wrote about a Spanish-English magazine cleverly titled Two Mundos. The title not only highlights the bilingual nature of the publication but the reality faced by many young Latino entrepreneurs. As the article notes:

Some of the Latinos who run … companies say they operate in a bicultural society that extends from this region to Latin America, a world defined more by language, ethnicity and international connections than by geographic boundaries.

That is a pretty good description of globalization at work. Just as interesting, however, is the fact that, according to the magazine’s co-publisher, Marcelo Rocabado (who was born in Bolivia), the magazine is not targeted at new immigrants but those who are more settled (i.e., those who have successfully assimilated). The other co-publisher, Jeanette Dove (who was born in Puerto Rico) points out an interesting split in the Latino community between Mexicans and Spanish-speakers from other countries. The implication is that all Spanish-speakers are being portrayed in the current immigration debates as day laborers from Mexico — and that is a world with which she is personally unfamiliar. I point out this particular aspect of the article because it underscores the fact even within the Latino community (one which most Anglos see as homogenous) nuances of culture remain — regardless of how successful a particular individual may be. In other words, culture is more resilient than most people are willing to concede.

Entrepreneurs like Rocabado and Dove admit they enjoy aspects of both popular and Latino cultures. As a result, they do business at the intersection of both worlds. In other words, they are potential catalysts for a Medici Effect (see 18 May posting).

A related article in yesterday’s New York Times (“Cell Carriers Seek Growth by Catering to Hispanics” by Matt Richtel and Ken Belson) discusses why mobile phone companies are targeting Hispanics. The reasons, according to the article, are pretty straightforward:

One of the country’s fastest growing demographic groups, Hispanics often have large families that span international borders, making for larger phone bills. They are also younger as a group, so they are less likely to have an old-fashioned landline phone and more likely to use pricey data services on their cellphones. In other words, they are ideal customers.

The article also points out what was implied in the article discussed above:

Though the cellphone carriers and market researchers often lump Hispanics into one big mass of about 40 million people, the label covers a broad spectrum. Some use Spanish as a primary language, while others are strictly English speakers. There are recent immigrants, undocumented workers and millions of long-established Americans in every walk of life and at every income level.

And as the earlier article points out, they come from many different countries. The point here is that both articles show how culture and globalization are moving comfortably together into the future. Another example of how globalization and culture are coming together was related in a New York Times article (“Poisonous Tree Frog Could Bring Wealth to Tribe in Brazilian Amazon,” by Paulo Prada, 30 May 2006). The opening paragraphs say it all:

Fernando Katukina is chief of an indigenous tribe that lives largely without running water, electricity, or links to the world outside this remote corner of the western Amazon. But Chief Fernando says he possesses a treasure that could be at the cutting-edge of biotechnology. If a plan initiated by the chief is successful, his tribe’s fortunes will be transformed by an asset he and the Brazilian government believe holds great promise for the global pharmaceutical industry: the slime from a poisonous tree frog.

The article goes on to explain how the Brazilian government is working with its citizens to take advantage of globalization to better their lives, at the same time helping them preserve what is best about their culture.

There is also a great deal more than naïve hope at stake here. Brazilian scientists have already taught the country’s farmers, who today are among the world’s top exporters, to manipulate soils and alter crops once unsuited for the country’s climate. Now many researchers believe science can turn Brazilian forests into working, productive laboratories.

“Brazil has a large, growing and capable community of scientists keen to develop their own research and products,” said Joshua Rosenthal, deputy director of a division for international training and research at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

Moreover, Brazilian researchers have not forgotten the case of the jararaca, the Amazonian viper. The pharmaceutical giant Squibb used the snake’s venom to develop captopril, a blood pressure medicine it began selling in 1975. Though available generically since 1996, the medicine at its commercial peak was the largest selling product for the company, now part of New York-based Bristol-Myers Squibb, grossing $1.6 billion in 1991.

“Because of past errors,” reads a document from the Brazilian Environment Ministry, “captopril is not Brazilian.”

The road ahead is not smooth, but it is passable. Developing nations want changes made to international law allowing governments to block or profit from foreign patents based on biological resources found in their territory. Pharmaceutical manufacturers, to say the least, are wary. They note that compounds found in nature rarely make it unchanged onto the shelves of pharmacies. Making such medicines, they assert, is costly and laws that make the process even more costly or that limit potential payoffs are bad for both producers and consumers. One solution to this conundrum, the article points out, is for developing countries to develop these compounds indigenously. They could then cut deals with the large manufacturers who have marketing and distribution systems already in place. It is this kind of a win-win situation that must be found. The article concludes with the hope expressed by one tribe member:

Most Katukina speak only the tribal variant of pano, a native Amazonian language group. Fernando, one of only two tribe members to work outside the reserve, is convinced of the kambô’s [a poisonous tree frog] value, and adamant that the medication, if used by others, can improve a tribal economy that is currently at the level of subsistence.

“The vaccine belongs to us,” he said. “Science might help us develop it, but kambô knowledge is Katukina.”

The fact the Brazilian government is working with (instead of against) the tribe, is an encouraging sign for the future.

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