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Cultural Industries Growing In Significance In Latin America And The Caribbean

By Odeen Ishmael

CaribWorldNews, CARACAS, Venezuela, Fri. Nov. 26, 2009: Earlier this year, the Latin American and Caribbean Economic System, (SELA), convened a forum in Caracas on the protection of the region`s folklore, traditional knowledge and genetic resources.

Protection of these resources, which form the basis of cultural industries, is a particularly sensitive issue for the countries and governments of Latin America and the Caribbean. It is also a relatively new issue, which is simultaneously linked with commercial interests, human rights and national sovereignty matters.

According to SELA, it is also related to the commitments taken on by the Latin American and Caribbean countries within the framework of the multilateral trade negotiations and with the conditions on traditional knowledge negotiated in already signed free trade agreements (FTAs). Actually, various versions of FTAs negotiated over the past few years now include specific provisions about traditional knowledge, framing it within the general concept of intellectual property.

Generally, cultural industries are specifically concerned with the creation, production, and distribution of goods and services that are cultural in nature, many of which are protected by copyright provisions. More and more, cultural industries are playing a significant role in the economies of both the developed and developing countries since they produce artistic and creative outputs and have the potential for wealth creation and income generation. Thus, they form an important aspect in poverty alleviation.

In 2000, the global value of cultural industries was estimated at US$900 billion; five years later the estimated figure had jumped to US$1.3 trillion and, currently, it is approaching US$2 trillion. With the advance of cultural productions such as the music and entertainment industry, as well as international sports competitions in Latin America and the Caribbean in the past five years, the region stands to achieve even a modest share in the global cultural markets which can have a positive effect on domestic employment and GDP growth.

At present, cultural industries account globally for about 7 percent of GDP. In Latin American and the Caribbean (LAC), the average contribution of this sector, excluding the cultural tourism sector, to GDP is about 4 percent. It is relatively much higher in Europe and the United States of America.

A noteworthy aspect of cultural industries is cultural tourism. Overall, tourism has become one of the most important industries globally and it now a significant factor in the development of the global economy. In recent years, LAC countries have experienced a growth in this sector, even though the current global economic downturn has been a detrimental factor in its advance. Nevertheless, throughout the region, particularly in Central America, cultural tourism continues as a leading money-earner for local populations and governments. No doubt, this is because these countries possess archaeological sites, old colonial towns, natural scenery, pristine rain forests and rivers, along with the traditional cultural forms of the people – all of which present a variety of cultural attractions to tourists from all parts of the world.

National sports also provide an attractive pastime for tourists and thousands of local and foreign tourists congregate in various LAC countries to watch baseball games in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Venezuela, to revel at football in Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Costa Rica, and to enjoy international cricket matches in Guyana, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad & Tobago, as well as other English-speaking CARICOM countries. 

Actually, cultural industries, generally environmentally friendly, are especially suited to aid in local development. They are `people intensive` rather than `capital intensive`, and often employ creative workers. At the same time, these industries can assist in social cohesion since arts, culture, and sports can offer common meeting places in societies affected by political divisions and economic and social inequality.

One of the current drawbacks in assessing the economic potential of cultural industries in LAC is that many regional economists and development planners are not yet totally convinced about the importance of cultural industries to economic development. It is hoped that they will eventually agree that culture is an economic resource that can be used to promote sustainable growth, and if properly utilized, can be effective in poverty alleviation.

A comprehensive technical assistance program, with the aid of relevant UN agencies, can be developed to assist in the sustainability of these industries, particularly handicraft production in rural communities. Both the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) have in the recent past carried out studies of cultural industries, and their expertise should be utilized in developing the necessary technical programs for the region. 

It should be noted that a sizeable proportion of women work in cultural industries, especially in craft production. Obviously, the development of these industries positively aids in advancing women entrepreneurship, thus promoting gender balance and equity. Cleary, these enterprises, particularly the craft sector, can inject long-term growth for marginalized population groups such as women and youth.

One of the major complaints of workers in cultural industries is that current regulations in LAC are antiquated and must be adjusted to meet the demand of changing times. Regulations and institutions are sorely needed to combat piracy of intellectual property, a problem which has now graduated into a worldwide plague. In this respect, governments of the region must take on the urgent task of developing effective legal and regulatory frameworks to protect their cultural industries.

When SELA convened its forum on the protection of the region`s folklore, traditional knowledge and genetic resources, it obviously did so with the realization that these factors heavily influence cultural industries and their economic impact on its member states. But like other economic activities, the problems associated with global climate change can have a detrimental effect on all of these aspects of cultural industries. Surely, the destruction of the region`s forests and other natural resources can lead to damaging results, not only on archaeological sites and the natural environment, but especially also to genetic resources in the region. Already, as is well known, the ownership of many of the genetic species of plant life in our various countries is claimed by institutions and other enterprises in developed countries, which have registered patents and other forms of title, and they exploit these resources to manufacture pharmaceuticals and other high-priced products from which the LAC nations obtain marginal economic benefits.

With the impact of cultural industries already highlighted by one regional organization at a major forum, it is hoped that others will also give it special attention. It is obvious that these enterprises, given local, regional and international support, can be instrumental in supporting the struggle against poverty and for the improvement of the economic livelihood of a wide cross-section of the region`s citizenry.

EDITOR`S NOTE: (The writer is Guyana`s Ambassador to Venezuela and the views expressed are solely his.)