The film opens with the question: Why does poverty persist in a world of growing wealth?
The answer is revealed historically. It begins in 1492, with the Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the Americas. Not only was the mineral wealth of Latin America plundered, the indigenous economies were destroyed by forced mining on a massive scale and the creation of plantation agriculture. The creation of an economy based on the export of raw materials has remained a structural problem to this day.
The loss of land was a major effect of colonialism. In Latin America, Africa, and Asia, dual economies were the result, with the majority of people forced to work for the new landowners. After political independence, little changed. The new masters of the latifundia and plantations were the local inheritors of the colonial system, with all of its inequalities. Land rights struggles have continued into the 21st century.
Slavery was formally abolished throughout the world in the 19th century, and yet it continues on every continent, with at least 80 million people still forced to work under slave-like conditions for others. In Brazil, as the film shows, certain categories of workers are still referred to as slaves.
Destruction of local crafts (especially weaving and ceramics) was another feature of colonialism that has left its mark on modern economies. The colonized regions of the world were set back by two centuries in the development of manufacturing, which is why they have had such great difficulty creating integrated economies in recent decades.
As if the direct economic damage imposed by colonialism were not bad enough, the colonizers also destroyed the cultures of the places they dominated. To force people off the land and into the mines and the plantations, the colonizers had to disrupt a communal way of life by teaching people to disregard their own traditions. Missionaries thus played an important role in the subjugation of the mind.
The introduction of the concept of private ownership was one of the most insidious instruments of colonialism. In every culture in the past, occupation of land required some form of reciprocal obligations to the community. British colonialism arose in tandem with the increasing influence of Puritanism. The religious celebration of individualism broke old ties of reciprocity and introduced the idea that property ownership could be divorced from communal obligations. Through colonialism, that ethos spread around the world and is a major source of inequality and poverty.
After political independence, new forms of control were developed, with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund playing the role of the economic police force of the rich nations to keep the poor nations in check. The most important instrument of control has been international debt. The former colonial governments illegally saddled their former colonies with that debt when they departed, knowing that the combination of debt and an economy based on raw-materials exports would keep the former colonies in a state of dependence.
Through debt and dependence, the South finances the North, sending far more of its economic surplus to northern banks than they receive in foreign aid. Perhaps this would not be so bad if the money borrowed had helped the poor in some way, but in fact the loans mostly went to build vanity projects for the elites, not the kind of infrastructure that helps the poor, who are left paying off the debt anyway.
In the 1970s, a number of countries in the global South were starting to climb out of poverty and gain some degree of economic autonomy. But after the global depression of 1982, engineered by policies in the U.S., the South became far more heavily indebted. That gave the IMF leverage over the governments of the poor nations, which they used to impose structural adjustment policies. In particular, following the neoliberal Washington Consensus, they required many governments to privatize services, include communications, transportation, education, health care, and water supply. The loss of some of those services was, for the poor, a matter of life and death.