Don’t Sell the Red Gold Away

San Gavino Monreale, in Sardinia, is my birth-town. It’s also the single biggest producer of the spice called saffron in Italy. We call it also red gold for its color and price. Saffron is a tradition that dates back centuries. The first bulbs (the spice is extracted from a flower) were cultivated around the XIII century. Saffron comes from the Middle East. That was quite a route in times when it would take a whole day to go to the next village.

My family has never produced saffron. All I remember is that once I helped “clean the bulbs” when I was a child. That sums up pretty much all my involvement with saffron in its raw form. But many of my acquaintances do produce saffron.

Purple has become the symbolic color of the town. In late autumn, when the flowers blossom, whole fields turn purple. The saffron blossoms all of a sudden. We call this “groffu”, which in Sardinian means “full” or “crowded”.

Some twenty-five years ago, when a young journalist, I saw the birth of the local saffron festival. We wanted to spread the thing out of the city boundaries. We wanted to turn a tradition into a business. We wanted a name. A recognizable trade mark. A distribution net. I believed in all that. Now no more.

Not that I lost the hope. Simply I hope it won’t happen. I hope my dream won’t come true. But I am having second thoughts about the way this may happen.

Because it may happen that strangers will come from abroad, and they will bring papers for you to sign. A faceless multinational corporation will come with binding agreements to sign and alluring checks to write. They will come with colored beads. Of course, your saffron should accord with the synthetic wishes created by their advertising wizards. They will run the show, or else no business. You will deal with smiling people that don’t care a thing about your saffron.

And showing their pre-packaged smiles, they will tell you that you can freely decide about anything. Well, almost so. You will be free to choose a brand name of your liking. What fancy logo to stick on it. They’ll let you do the packaging. You will be special guests on TV, and will be broadcast on a Sunday at lunchtime. You will be the honored guests. They will even allow you to scrape the bottom of the empty bag. The money to them, to you the shovel.

And they will come into your homes with their cameras, and show you and your relatives and close friends while you are cleaning the saffron, and will turn you into a plastic commercial nativity scene. And they will be eager to know about your traditions and your saints. And they will touch everything. And all they touch will turn into a fetish for their cold gods called money.

After all, when you sip a cup of coffee or share a bar of chocolate with your beloved you are not enriching the natives that have cultivated cacao or coffee for centuries and millennia. Your money goes to the multinational corporations that plague Mexico, South America or West Africa like locusts. Your money goes to shareholders and CEOs. And the local petty governments that, by the way, are there to protect corporate power from the peasants when they rebel.

Huge capitals are sweeping the world in search of something from which to extract value. It doesn’t matter what, so long as some value can pumped out of it. It may be oil as well as hazelnuts. In all too many cases, the physical production of goods is generally located in poor, work-hungry places, mostly in underdeveloped countries with corrupted governments. Nike set an example for such transnational corporations that make record profits acting as middlemen.

Over forty years ago, Nike began sub-contracting its production to sweatshops in China, South Korea and Taiwan. Poor people were paid a pittance to produce footwear and clothing items, branded “Nike” and sold to wealthy consumers at a much higher price. This scheme is becoming the default mode of production for many transnational corporations, that all too often are little more than brands. From Nike’s shoes to Apple’s iPhones, production is sub-contracted to sweatshops.

And all this goes on within the protective shell of state regulations that take care that the firm is not held accountable for working conditions. That’s the main reason why manufacturing has shifted to developing countries, mostly in Asia, in the last thirty years. There is no “Chinese economic miracle”. Corporations look for work-hungry poor countries, where workers have little if any protection, and whose governments can be trusted to look away from the workplaces.

So don’t sell your red gold away. Don’t sell yourselves away. In this jungle of giant financial monsters, it takes time and patience to build a business without giving up to alluring promises of an easy success. But if you succeed, that will be a success you can call your own.

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