The “Forgotten” Essentials: Mexican and Central American Farmworkers during the Covid19 pandemic

By Violeta Gutiérrez Zamora

Mexican laborers harvesting chillies in British Columbia, Canada, 2019. Photo: Mariana Elizabeth Gutiérrez Zamora

Governments around the world have ordered everyone to stay home amidst the COVID-19 pandemic except the workers deemed as essential to keep running our societies. Farm laborers are among them. Many of the now recognized as essential workers, however, receive low-wages and are hired under precarious conditions. Farmworkers, employed as pickers and packers in the industrial food and agricultural sector, are often from the most marginalized sectors of the society in which they work. For instance, it is well-known that for decades in the USA and Canada, immigrants from Mexico and Central America bear the brunt of farm labor. A few weeks ago, after years of derogatory comments about Mexican and Central American immigrants, the USA federal government had recognized immigrant farm workers’ critical role in feeding the country. However, such recognition did not mean concessions for their working conditions.

The stories of Mexican and Central American farm laborers and their migration to the USA and Canada cannot be detached from? the conditions of poverty, insecurity, unemployment and exploitation in their own countries. In the last decades, the expansion of the large corporate agribusiness model in Mexico and Central America and the commodities boom inaugurated by the NAFTA agreement and followed by CAFTA promised to alleviate the high rates of poverty and support agricultural producers in rural areas. However, rural monetary poverty and financial insecurity have persisted, despite its reduction between 1990 and 2014.  According to the FAO and CEPAL  reports published in 2018, the percentage of rural population living in poverty was 77% in Guatemala, 82% in Honduras, 65% in Nicaragua, 49% in El Salvador, and 45% in Mexico.

Until now, the Central American and Mexican rural populations are not among the most affected by COVID-19. But their governments have already categorized farm laborers as indispensable to avoid crops rot and food shortages. They ‘will not stay at home’ and can continue working. The worry among farm laborers is that the agricultural enterprises will leave the most vulnerable groups without financial support (including those with chronic diseases, +65 years old and pregnant women). Already, in San Quintín Baja California (one of the most affected states in Mexico), farmworkers union representatives are urging that enterprises take measures to avoid COVID-19 transmission among workers in the farms.

The provision of food to the people in the cities, like Mexico City, Guatemala, San Salvador, and Tegucigalpa but also of Los Angeles, New York, Vancouver, and Montreal, heavily depends on the forgotten but essential Mexican and Central American farm laborers. However, their future working and living conditions seem unpromising. The harsh conditions in which farm laborers work are not necessarily improving: minimum wages, lack of access to health security, insufficient sanitation infrastructure, and high exposure to pesticides and other chemicals.

The several crises produced by COVID-19 may create another layer of vulnerability for farmworkers in economic, environmental, and health terms. However, this pandemic and its socio-ecological impacts may also raise more profound questions on the ecological and human costs of industrial food production and the supply chain that feed global populations. Hopefully, it also nurtures the expansion of more ethical and sustainable food production systems, in which farmworkers from all Latin America have better working conditions.

Bio: Violeta Gutiérrez Zamora is an environmental policy researcher and Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Geographical and Historical Studies of the University of Eastern Finland. In her research, she focuses on feminist political ecology, eco-governmentality, rural organizations and community forestry in Mexico.

When urban and ecological injustices meet pandemic: The Covid19 in urbanized Colombia

By Germán A. Quimbayo Ruiz

Amidst the covid19 pandemic, in the busy Latin American metropolises like México City, São Paulo, Santiago, Lima or Bogotá, the public has not been exempted to comment on social media about the pandemic’s “unintended” effects and “return of nature” to cities, or the sudden improvement in air quality due to the forced halt caused by the general lockdown in urban centers. Yet, nature has always been there, especially in Bogotá, the capital of a “megadiverse” country. According to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Colombia is listed as one of the world’s “megadiverse” countries, hosting close to 10% of the planet’s biodiversity, but this exceptional biodiversity context is mutually intertwined with a volatile socio-political setting.

While I am writing this text, there are more than 3,100 confirmed cases of covid19 in Colombia, almost 1,300 of them in Bogotá. The last week state forces deployed excessive repression against several populations in the poorest neighborhoods in the south of the District (in particular the area of Ciudad Bolívar), who desperately rejected the local lockdown measures set since the last month, and went to the streets to protest and perform “cacerolazos” due to the lack of humanitarian aid promised by the state amid the covid19 situation. 

The lockdown and quarantine measures are not an option for people who work in precarious jobs or make a living on a daily basis. It is common to hear people claiming that they are going to die first for hunger than for the coronavirus. Although in Bogotá the coverage of drinking water supply is close to 100%, and the authorities have granted full access to the most vulnerable sectors of the population, this is not enough. Stay at home for these populations is not a safe option, because the housing conditions are precarious, full of resource shortcomings, and often the shelter is the center of domestic and gender-based violence. It became common to see in Bogotá and several other Colombian cities and towns red flags hanging in places where vulnerable people live desperate claiming for aid. Acts of xenophobia towards vulnerable migrants from Venezuela are increasing. Many of these migrants are in tension for the reception of state aid with the rest of the marginalized people like homeless, street dwellers, or even transgender sex workers who also suffer from stigmatization and are often targets of police brutality.  

20 red flags and rags (trapos rojos) hanging in windows in a building at Plaza de la Hoja, Bogotá, Colombia. April 2020. Photo courtesy: Camilo Rozo.

How all this dramatic scenario amidst the coronavirus pandemic is related to urban environmental injustices? Most of these populations in Bogotá are the most exposed to the worst environmental injustices in the city-region, living in areas where the effective access of green public spaces is lacking; and particularly in areas like Ciudad Bolívar, the environmental conditions of neighborhoods and settlements are extremely impoverished due to the allocation of extractive activities for building materials or waste dumps and land-fills (the most extreme case is the metropolitan landfill “Doña Juana”). Prior to the coronavirus emergency, several communities in urban Colombia were living already in a state of environmental emergency and have lived under conditions of restricted mobility and forced confinement.

The state repression against vulnerable communities in Bogotá happens when Mayor, Claudia López, has been praised by some sectors of the public opinion as a national leader during the covid19 emergency, above of President Iván Duque. In fact, in Colombia, a sort of leadership has been taken by local and regional governments to tackle the covid19. López even put the city under an obligatory quarantine drill last month, before the nationwide measures were enforced, besides some arguable measures such as restricting outings by gender during the quarantine (pico y género). Despite measures enforced by the Mayor, the state capacity within a context of historic and deep inequality is not yet the fastest to cope with the current situation.

Although the national government has reacted way better compared with countries such as Brazil or Chile, since the beginning the government has taken several bad decisions. Besides a “Trumpian” approach to favor privileged sectors of the national economy, among the decisions there was a serious issue regarding an app for humanitarian aid that ended up deviating money to ghost bank accounts. Likewise, some emergency measures have had to drawback in their enforcement such as forcing all health-care personnel in the front lines to provide services without full guarantee to exercise their essential jobs.

Since the last fall, workers, students, environmentalists, women, feminist and LGBTQ movements, peasants, and Afro Colombians, were mobilizing in biggest protests the country has ever seen in more than 40 years against multiple injustices and accumulated grievances of a long political and armed conflict, systemic corruption, and the lack of the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement. However, the covid19 situation has put a harsh break on this springing of democratic uplifting. Moreover, during the pandemic, the genocide against social and environmental activists continues, and some measures taken by the covid19 emergency are facing the resurgence of state and criminal violence (often intertwined with drug trafficking and paramilitarism), reinforcing the paths of violence and impunity in both rural and urban settings. As scholars Diana Ojeda and Lina Pinto García recently pointed out, the current situation in Colombia is legitimizing the (para)militarization and warfare state of the everyday life in the name of hygienic and public health and contrary to promote a more solidarity path of democracy and social justice.

Unlike a common belief that the war and conflict have only been set in the countryside, urbanized areas, especially in marginalized places, have also been taking part in this warfare state even in very subtle ways. Although Bogotá has great potential in urban nature reflected in a local system of protected areas, many of them have encountered multiple institutional difficulties to guarantee a good state of conservation and enjoyment by citizens. One of the most vulnerable sectors of the population are homeless and street dwellers, who usually end up making spaces like creeks, hills and wetlands their home in the absence of housing. However, instead of being cared for by the state, they are usually stigmatized and harassed in the name of keeping things “in order”. And when the aid from the state comes, it is not enough.

Many of the urban environmental injustices in the context of the pandemic in cities like Bogotá are worsening and it is not very clear what collateral effects will be unleashed. This is a huge challenge to rethinking spatial and urban planning practices in Latin America and elsewhere.  Environmental conflicts are not the result of a cause-consequence effect, but the product of a long process of environmental injustices, which in the framework of a pandemic are just reinforced.

Bio: Germán A. Quimbayo Ruiz is a researcher and Ph.D. candidate in environmental policy from the Department of Geographical and Historical Studies at the University of Eastern Finland, Finland. His research interests are focused on the political ecology of urbanization and urban environmental history.

Not everyone has the privilege to wash the hands: Covid–19 and unequal access to water in Latin America

By Anna Heikkinen

Santiago de Chile, February 2020. Chile is experiencing a severe mega drought for the tenth consecutive year. Marginalized urban neighborhoods across Latin American megacities are extremely vulnerable in front of Covid-19 as water scarcity deepens. Photo: Anna Heikkinen

Water has become a vital weapon in the battle against coronavirus. Since the prorogation of Covid-19, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced “washing your hands frequently” as a principal protective measure to slow down the transmission. Unicef further instructed to wash the hands throughout under running water with soap for at least 20 seconds – the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.  Social media feeds soon went viral on videos of singing people, obeying their civic duty to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Meanwhile in Latin America many people have been asking – how to follow these protective measures if there is no water? 

According to Inter-American Development Bank (BID), 34 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean lack access to potable water and 106 million have deficiencies in basic sanitation. In 2017, the countries with major pitfalls in basic sanitation were Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Haiti, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela. 

The conditions to follow hygiene are not equal for everyone even within the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. A UN/WHO joint program report shows that there is a deep gap between basic drinking water services and sanitation between urban and rural regions. In 2015, 68% of the rural population lacked safely managed sanitation and 75% had deficient potable water services. Moreover, poor urban neighborhoods in Latin American megacities often suffer from severe difficulties in access to adequate quality and quantity of water. 

In Peru’s capital of Lima, 700,000 people living in the poorest regions of the city are facing the coronavirus without proper access to clean water. In the absence of municipal water services, residents of the peripheral districts must buy water from tank trucks. The cost of tanked water per cubic meter can be up to ten times higher than in the wealthier parts of the city connected to the municipal water network. In January 2020, the investigative journalism platform, Ojo-Público, ordered a quality analysis of tanked water in one of the remote districts of Lima. The analysis revealed high quantities of fecal bacteria, lead and other substances posing risks for health. 

Besides water pollution, climate change is posing further pressure on water supplies in Latin America. Prolonged droughts and other extreme weather events have become more common, deepening water scarcities in many parts of the continent. In the middle of the coronavirus crisis, Mexico announced a state of emergency due to extreme droughts.  Meanwhile Chile is struggling with mega droughts for the tenth year in a row. Currently in Mexico over 10 million and in Chile thousands of households lack daily access to potable water. Rural and poor urban populations and indigenous people are in the most vulnerable position in losing access to clean water as the droughts intensify. 

While climate change is aggravating water scarcity across Latin America amidst coronavirus, the roots of the problem lie elsewhere. In many Latin American countries water is distributed highly unequally between different sectors and groups of society. Water use is often prioritized for economically productive activities such as extractive industries, export agriculture and forestry or prosperous urban neighborhoods. This means that during crises like climate change or coronapandemic, there will always be water for those who can afford to pay for it. 

Latin America is one of the most unequal regions in the world. The income gaps and access to basic services between different groups of people are steep. Covid-19, together with climate change, have shed light on these deeply rooted inequalities, including unequal access to water. Now for many, luxuries such as following the hygienic guidelines of washing the hands to prevent spread of infectious diseases, are out of research. Without thinking of new ways for more just and equal water management – the coronavirus risks leaving Latin America with an even more profound water crisis. 

Bio: Anna Heikkinen is a doctoral researcher in Development Studies at the University of Helsinki. Her current research focuses on water governance, climate vulnerabilities and socio-environmental conflicts in Peru.

The historical and current issues at stake during COVID-19 epidemic in Brazil

By Mariana G. Lyra

“The romanticism of the quarantine is a class privilege!” Photo source: unknown from the Internet

Brazilians are fighting COVID-19 by facing current and historical issues. The numbers of registered cases and deaths are not so high, compared to the world ranking or considering that Brazil has a population of more than 220 million inhabitants. At the moment I am writing this piece, there are 2,024,675 COVI-19 cases around the globe, 615,406 only in the United States, followed by Spain with 177,633 cases. Brazil appears on the 14th place, with 25,758 people infected. The devil, however, is in the details.

The Washington Post editorial from the 13th of April is emblematic: Brazil currently has the worst leader in the world to deal with the pandemic. According to the editorial, Mr. Bolsonaro is putting the Brazilian population at risk by having a recurrent discourse that is, at the same time, minimizing the effects associated with the pandemic and misleading how Brazilians should prevent contamination. Critics on how the Brazilian president is dealing with the COVID-19 situation have been signaled before by The Guardian editorial, remembering that Facebook and Twitter have deleted Bolsonaro’s posts about the pandemic due to its harm to the overall users. The posts were about unproven remedies and attacking the practice of physical distancing. The NGO Human Rights Watch considered that Bolsonaro is sabotaging the Health Ministry and the Governors’ regional efforts to manage the pandemic, putting the Brazilian at grave risk.

The historical context of social inequality in Brazil, also reflected in other Latin American countries, deepens the risk. For example, in times of remote learning and access to information, 42% of the households in Brazil have no computers. Almost half of the population has no access to proper sanitation or water. More than 10% of the population is unemployed and 38.4 million Brazilians have an ‘informal’ job, the ones which are the first to face the economic consequences of the pandemic.

Adding to this context, while the USA and Europe are fighting with each other to buy more and more health supplies and equipment such as masks and breathers, poorer countries in Latin America and Africa are left out queuing for a few months to get those items. In Brazil, it has been hard to grasp the real dimension of the problem due to the lack of tests. Brazil is testing 296 people per million inhabitants, while the USA is testing 8 866 people per million. In other words, the actual numbers in terms of infected people would be up to 15 times bigger than the official ones, and projections are estimating Brazil to be the second most infected country in the world, behind the USA.

The exponential rise of infected people in Italy, Spain, and the USA teach other countries how fast health systems can collapse. Brazil has in average one hospital bed per 10 000 inhabitants in the public system. The lesson from Italy and China indicates the need for 2.4 hospital beds per 10 000 people in the epidemic peak, more than double of the Brazilian capacity.  With cuts on the annual budget, the health system in Brazil has a perilous capacity to deal with COVID-19, and units are lacking equipment, supplies, and even soap and water in some cases.

Without top-down clear directives, the citizens are self-educating themselves on how to fight the pandemic and organizing independent initiatives to help marginalized communities. Groups are providing water bottles and liquid soap to the most vulnerable ones, such as homeless and regions of big cities with a notorious incidence of drug trafficking and drug use in public. The following weeks will reveal progressively how severe the situation in Brazil is. Most likely the future will repeat the lyrics of that Chico Buarque’s old song – another unfortunate page of our history.

Mariana Lyra is an environmental policy researcher and doctoral student at the University of Eastern Finland. Her main research interests are extractive industries, local conflicts, and social movements. In particular, she is interested in shedding light on the groups fighting for social and environmental justice.

ESDLA Blog Special Issue: Latin America and the Caribbean in times of Covid19

Latin America and the Caribbean and the Covid19. The screenshot is taken from the “COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University (JHU)“.

The novel coronavirus pandemic (covid19) has caught the Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) region in a very particular moment of its entangled history. Since last fall, mass protests and demonstrations were springing in the whole region, most of them in South American countries. Regardless of political ideologies, the common denominator of the protests was the reaction of several sectors of the society against accumulated grievances and overt inequalities, besides the restriction of democratic rights that were revindicated by workers, environmental, feminist, peasant, indigenous and afrolatinx movements through the rural and urban continuum. However, there is no such thing as a unique “Latin American experience”. Each nation-state, place or circumstance shows different societal and ecological challenges.

This special issue from the ESDLA blog brings different perspectives on the current juncture of the Covid19 pandemic in the LAC region. This set of perspectives does not pretend to establish a final word of what is happening all over LAC. Far from that. Instead, the issue brings some reflections on issues of environment, society, and development amid the pandemic by Latin American scholars or with interest in the LAC region, based in Finland.

The special issue will have the following contributions mostly reflecting on cases in Brazil, Peru and Chile, Colombia and Mexico: 

Mariana G. Lyra: The historical and current issues at stake during COVID-19 epidemic in Brazil

Anna Heikkinen: Not everyone has the privilege to wash the hands: Covid–19 and unequal access to water in Latin America

Germán A. Quimbayo Ruiz: When urban and ecological injustices meet pandemic: The Covid19 in urbanized Colombia

Violeta Gutiérrez Zamora: The “forgotten” essentials: Mexican and Central American farmworkers during the covid19 pandemic 

Anna Heikkinen: Rural communities in the Peruvian Amazon are confronting the coronavirus on their own 

Paola Minoia: Ecuador: The Covid-19 health emergency cannot be a justification for making public education for the economic crisis

Violeta Gutiérrez Zamora: The COVID-19 pandemic and socio-ecological crises: What is the future for community forestry?

Mariana G. Lyra: Mobilizing in times of social distancing: activism and protests in Brazil during the COVID-19 pandemic

More contributions will come soon.

[Last updated: 3.6.2020]

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We hope that these contributions and reflections allow a broader view of the constant and changing challenges posed by the Covid19 pandemic in the LAC region.

ESDLA-Blog Team and contributors, Finland, April 2020.