On Culture and Trade

FTAA. WTO. Globalization. These are all words that we’re becoming familiar with. But what do they mean?

This week I had the fortune of attending a meeting of the OAS that looked at the economic implications of culture. Turns out that the world is suddenly waking up to the fact that culture has an economic existence. The trouble is, it’s also a world that’s embarking on adventures in free trade.

What does this mean? Well, three things that are most relevant to us here in The Bahamas. The first is that culture is no longer considered a luxury that eats up money and gives back little in return, which is how most countries in the world have regarded it for many years. Rather, culture is regarded as an engine of economic development, a means for the eradication of poverty. And this view isn’t coming from cultural practitioners alone; economists are also pointing this out.

In Mexico, where the meeting took place, for instance, culture accounts for 6.7% of the Mexican GDP, which is a serious chunk of Mexico’s economy, which focusses on manufacturing and industry as well as tourism. In Brazil, culture generates 6% of the GDP, and 5% of all jobs. In the USA, culture produces 7.75% of the GDP, and is responsible for 5.5% of jobs. Whether or not culture is valued or supported, it generates income for its country.

The second is that, at the same time as countries are beginning to recognize the economic value of culture, its contribution to the wealth of a country, the principles of free trade are threatening to weaken local cultures. This is because at the moment, the principle of the free market includes cultural products. Under the WTO agreement, and under the FTAA which follows WTO principles in the main, countries do not have the right to pass trade laws that give preferential treatment to their own citizens.

To bring it home, what that means is that (for example) if The Bahamas signs on to the FTAA or the WTO, it will not be legal for the government, or any Bahamian artists to place limits on, say, the importation of foreign music or musicians. Limiting foreign acts because they are foreign will not be an option. Bahamian musicians are already marginalized in their own country, a nation that welcomes more than 4.5 million tourists annually; only a select few are able to find work in their own professions. The implications of free trade in cultural goods and services are such that their ability to do so will be even further curtailed.

The third is that free trade implies a sort of open season on Bahamian products in the marketplace. Unless we are very careful and vigilant, things that we consider fundamentally and uniquely Bahamian — which may also be things that could be profitable in a free market — are vulnerable to being patented or copyrighted by people outside of The Bahamas. In the worst case scenario, we Bahamians will have to make, use or sell those things that we consider traditionally ours; in the best case scenario, we will not be positioned to make money from them in the international arena.

Take the example of the Trinidadian steel pan, traditionally handmade in Trinidad, and a sizeable industry. Not long ago a company in Germany or Japan obtained the patent for the mass-production of steel pans, thus earning the right — in the global market — to produce Trinidadian steel pans in factories and thereby to corner the European market. While Trinidadian panmakers may still benefit from their hand-made pans, they have no claim to the profits that are made off the factory-produced instruments whatsoever.

In the Bahamas, we are very cavalier about our cultural products. From those consumers who say that there’s no value in Bahamian music, choosing instead to invest their money in American hip-hop or Jamaican reggae, to the people who regard all of our indigenous cultural wealth, from Junkanoo techniques to the various styles of plait, we have a healthy disregard to the wealth at our fingertips. Young people are not interested in mastering the traditional ways of doing things, opting for the faster, the easier, the flashier; straw vendors prefer the fast turnaround, buying mass-produced bags from China instead of supporting local Bahamian straw-workers.

But know this. While we may not be aware of the potential monetary value of Bahamian culture, be sure that Americans and others are. If we are not careful, we will find ourselves like the Trinidadian panmakers — our Junkanoo trademarked by an American, our drums mass-produced in Pennsylvania, our straw-work marketed out of Miami. And the money from these things will be lining the pockets of others, and not of ourselves.

So we need to wake up. We need to recognize the economic value of our cultural products. We need to find ways of preparing for the free market by protecting what we have, trademarking and patenting and copyrighting what is ours. We need to become more active on the international scene, negotiating, with other countries, for the exemption of cultural products from the free market.

We need to know who we are and what we’re worth. And we need to take the steps to let the world know we know.