CORVALLIS - Last month, amid riots and the collapse of the Argentine government, a group of Oregon students found themselves in the middle of a scene broadcast around the world. Touring Chile and Argentina, the students witnessed history through more than the lens of a TV camera.
The tour was the culmination of a class that introduced global agriculture to students from Oregon State University and Eastern Oregon University. After spending their spring term in the classroom learning about the culture, economy and agriculture of Chile and Argentina, the students felt prepared to see it all for themselves.
But nothing could have prepared them for all that they would see.
Leaving Oregon in early December, the group of 18 students and two faculty stepped off the plane in Santiago to tour the first harvests of the southern summer.
Geographically, Chile is the mirror image of the western United States, with many similar agricultural regions and products. Its long coastline produces an exceptional variety of fruit and wine grapes, similar to those of California, Oregon and Washington. Argentina's climate and cropping patterns resemble the Great Plains and Midwest, producing grain, oilseed and livestock on the vast Pampa.
For two weeks, the students toured farms, orchards and packing plants throughout the region. They found Chileans friendly and optimistic, enjoying a period of political stability and economic growth in their country.
Chile's government works with its agricultural sector to develop new markets and to get maximum use out of the narrow strip of high quality farmland squeezed between mountains and ocean. The students were surprised that many Chilean agricultural firms used technology as advanced as any in the United States. In addition, Chile benefits from low labor costs and fewer pest problems than exist in the United States, which puts Chilean products at an advantage in the competitive global market.
The visit to Argentina provided a number of contrasts. Argentina is struggling to adopt many of the open market reforms that were successfully implemented in Chile during the 1970s and 1980s.
The Argentine government has levied high taxes on the agricultural sector to pay for government services and, in the process, reduced their ability to compete in the world market. Whereas Chile's federal government is debt free, Argentina is deeply in debt.
"The farmers were proud of their country and sad that this was happening," said Lorraine Thomas, a natural resources major at OSU from Kimberly, Ore.
Greg Perry, a professor of agriculture and resource economics at OSU and one of the organizers of the trip, concurred.
"The Argentines we talked to just shook their heads," said Perry. "'Our poor country,' they would say. 'We have so many resources and intelligent people, but we can't create a government that works.'"
On one of their last nights in Argentina, the political turmoil became headline news. During dinner at a sidewalk café in the town of Pergamino, the students saw police going by, carrying rifles, and masses of people and cars heading out of town.
"No one said anything to us," recalled Mandi McDowell, an agricultural business management major at OSU from Tangent, Ore. "So, we kept eating. The restaurant workers began to put chairs up on tables, and board up the windows. And we kept eating. Finally the waitress told us to come inside. There were threats of riots throughout the city, and we had to make it back to our hotel as soon as possible. Once back, we watched television reports of a riot at a supermarket, just 12 blocks away."
Riots broadcast worldwide eventually forced the resignation of Argentina's president. But being there allowed the students to see a larger story.
"As soon as the president resigned," said Perry, "the riots stopped, business resumed, and people began cleaning up the streets. We watched workmen laying new tiles in the main plaza in Buenos Aires where the night before the old tiles had been torn up and thrown at the President's mansion."