By Nadia Nava Contreras
Images of Cuban medical brigades landing in Italy and the British cruise ship disembarking on the island after being refused entry to other Caribbean ports made the headlines on global public discussions on Cuba’s responses to the CoVid19 crisis. The government’s assertion on its success to combat the virus accompanies the equation, getting appraisal in academic circles. Simultaneously, the Revolution opponents use scarcity and energetic dependency to point out the unfeasibility of the Cuban model: the U.S. embargo is not the one to blame; it is “The Castros,” it is communism.
Trapped in between polarizing views, Cuban people have slowly opened globally visible spaces of discussion, thanks to the recent expansion of internet use (2014). Cuba’s slow-paced demotic turn —the increasing visibility of the ordinary person in the media— provides a window to look at how Cubans have experienced the CoVid-19 crisis. I want to call attention to two matters dominating discussions on internet platforms such as YouTube and Twitter: the inequalities propelled by the dual-currency monetary system and scarcity. For the last few years, Cubans have feared the advent of a second “special period,” the deep economic crisis that followed the socialist bloc’s collapse. The global pandemic has created the “perfect storm“ for a similar scenario.
The dual-currency system originated in 1994 when the National Bank of Cuba introduced the Convertible Peso (CUC) to replace transactions in U.S. dollars. The transition was completed in 2004. From the start, it became evident that Cubans with access to CUC had a clear advantage over those without. Most people get salaries in CUP (Cuban Peso), amounting to around 25 CUC in 2020.1 A minority with a job in the service sector (waiters, taxi drivers, tourist guides, etc.) or with an entrepreneurial license can access CUC more easily. Remittances also guarantee the constant flow of “better” money.
In 2019, the Cuban government announced the opening of stores operating exclusively in MLC (“Moneda Libre Convertible” or freely convertible currency). Through an electronic card charged with U.S. Dollars, Euros, Mexican Pesos, Swiss Francs, or other coins, citizens could purchase electronic appliances, homeware, and even cars. Officials defended the decision as the best way to capture foreign currency necessary for imports and other financial operations. The process was documented by journalists, but also by Vloggers and YouTubers like Frank Camallerys and Pedrito el Paketero. The latter interviewed people on the streets, getting replies commonly present in other social media forums: “that is for people who have family in the Yuma (U.S.),” “I don’t get paid in foreign currency.”
In January 2020, before CoVid-19 made it to the Cuban news, the island’s economic prospects were already pessimistic. For Carmelo Mesa-Lago, this is the result of 1)a substantial cut of economic trade and aid from Venezuela, 2) the hardening of U.S. sanctions by the Trump administration, 3)the predominance of central planning in the economy. For Cubans’ everyday lives, the economic crisis translates into a rise in prices and scarcity of essential products. Even during the pandemic’s peak on the island, goods like soap were nowhere to be found.
During a fieldwork visit to Havana last January, queues outside supermarkets were a common sight. Yet, some habaneros I talked to remained somehow hopeful: the slow but steady growth of private businesses such as cafeterias, restaurants, bars, was a good source of income to many, either through entrepreneurship or employment (the emergence of the private sector in Cuba is also recent). The CoVid-19 crisis changed everything dramatically because most of those establishments depend on tourism. Initially, the government tried to promote Cuba as a CoVid-safe destination, taking advantage of the island’s medical sector’s solid reputation. The proposal awoke strong animosities on social media, and in the end, Cuba closed its borders. Tourism revenue plummeted. Reopening businesses during the late Summer did not improve the situation. Most Cubans cannot afford services initially designed for internationals. A shutdown of remittances is also likely. The government announced U.S.’s latest sanctions would force Western Union offices’ closure on the island, affecting those who receive money from abroad enormously.
However, what puzzles many Cubans to the point of anger is their government’s doing: when CoVid restrictions eased and supermarkets reopened, many were converted to MLC stores. Inaugurated in 2017, those supermarkets sold mainly imported goods at CUC prices, something already inaccessible for most. The new alternative limits, still more, access those same imports. Cubans have also denounced the lack of goods in CUP/CUC stores, contrasting with a better offer in MLC ones. If the dual-currency system was already the inegalitarian paradox of the Cuban model, MLC stores have added a brand new layer.
Scarcity may not be new for Cubans, and neither is it weak purchase power. A Cuban proverb states, “Cubans do not live from a salary; Cubans live from el invento.” An umbrella term for survival alternatives that rank from informal/black/grey market economies to remittances, upcycling, and favors, el invento has limits. Over the last years, the country has tried to steer apart from its historical trajectory as a sugar/tobacco economy to diversify crops. Mesa-Lago has suggested that for Cuba to survive these convulse times, the Vietnamese model could work: food self-sufficiency. Finding alternative sources of energy is also a “must.” Agricultural produce often spoils in the fields due to lack of transportation means. The cruel face of tourism also manifests in scarcity: lemons were easier to find in agromarkets once they did not end up in tourists’ mojitos.
The internet overture has enabled the visibility of Cubans that want to find sustainable and alternative solutions for their country’s development. One remarkable example is ”El Enjambre,” an independent Podcast discussing current issues created in 2019. Undoubtedly, those voices have always existed, but they did not resonate so loudly. Many proposals often go beyond the socialist/capitalist dichotomies and require extensive social participation. Outsiders, need also to listen to those voices, to escape from the same dichotomies and accept that Cubans citizens are the ones with solutions to their problems.
1 25 CUC equals 22 euros as of November 2, 2020.
Nadia Nava Contreras, M.A. is a project researcher at the John Morton Center for North American Studies, University of Turku. She is part of the CUBAFLUX project, financed by the Kone Foundation, where she investigates the impact of Cuba’s Digital Revolution in Havana’s urban configuration.
After a long break, we are resuming our special issue with Nadia Nava Contreras’ collaboration focusing on Cuba. So many things and events have had happened during 2020 regarding the pandemic since our latest post was published, therefore, we take the chance to invite all readers to our event related to the Covid-19 pandemic theme with environment, society and development issues in Latin America and the Caribbean, where Latinamericanist researchers in Finland will put together and make a balance on the situation during this year. The event will be on November 17, 2020, 4.00 – 6.00 p.m. (GMT+2:00 Helsinki time) via Zoom. More info here. Welcome! Bienvenidxs!
By Mariana G. Lyra.
Mobilization is the glue that puts together activists around a cause; they all care and prompt actions in hopes of change. Even though online activism has been growing a lot for the past couple of years, recent times saw waves of protests on the streets all over the globe.
The Arab spring, the 2013 June journeys, or the Confederations Cup riots in Brazil, the independentist movement in Catalunya, and the Hong Kong protests are just some of the examples. These movements have in common the combination of online and offline activism, displaying several tactics and actions when fighting for their causes, however making use, especially, of massive and constant protests on the street. These agglomerations are the main image media brought out of these protests, combined with the violent repression from the police and authorities.
Now, in 2020, with the coronavirus pandemic, the WHO orientation is so that people should avoid crowded places and maintain at least one meter of physical distance from others to reduce the chances of being infected or spreading COVID-19. This recommendation, however, has continuously been ignored by many in Brazil.
Since March, at the beginning of the pandemic, Brazilians have gathered in protests constantly, and with different motivations. Bolsonaro’s supporters have been organizing anti-lockdown car protests, claiming the need to keep the commerce open and against other restrictive measures like it happened in the USA and Spain. At the same time, acts against the national congress have been organized in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, gathering thousands on the streets. The demonstrators have counted with the support of president Jair Bolsonaro, who, ignoring the medical orientation of isolation due to a suspicion of infection, went to the acts to take selfies and salute the protesters.
Health professionals have also protested in the past 1st of May, workers’ day, in Brasilia as a tribute to the colleagues who have died on duty during the pandemic. The protesters wore masks, medical coats and held crosses on their hands.
This past Sunday (31st of May), however, the blockades of protesters supporting and rejecting Bolsonaro’s government, gained new momentum. Brasilia had a pro-Bolsonaro demonstration, as it has lately been happening every Sunday, counting with a ride-horsing and handshaking from Bolsonaro himself. São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Belo Horizonte have had protests against and supporting the current president of Brazil.
In São Paulo, the protest pro-democracy, and against Bolsonaro, the military dictatorship and fascism, was led by several associations of football fans. It ended up having a violent confrontation between activists and the police. Apparently, it all started when Bolsonaro supporters holding fascist flags from European groups got closer to the other protesters, arousing them.
Brazil is now the second country with most people infected by the coronavirus and has recently registered more than a thousand related deaths in a period of 24 hours. What could be the motives prompting citizens to risk their health amidst a pandemic?
It is hard to precise it, but some cues might be on triggers coming from multilevel context influence. First, it is relevant to note, as I also said in a previous post in this blog, that Bolsonaro’s measures and responses to the pandemic have been polemic and heavily criticized internationally, but also domestically. As a consequence, the last poll on the public opinion about Bolsonaro’s government hit a rejection record. This news was celebrated by the opposition, which quickly put up an online campaign with the hashtag #somos70porcento (“we are 70%”), suggesting that most Brazilians are now against Bolsonaro.
Second, the police in Rio de Janeiro have shot and killed a minor during confrontations with drug dealers. Locals are claiming there was no confrontation and more children were killed during the police operation that day. The pandemic has not stopped the violence in marginalized areas. A recent analysis published by The New York Times shows the long history of police brutality in Rio. Moreover, poor and black people have been affected the most during the pandemic in Brazil. They have precarious access to health and sanitation, and are also severely impacted by the economic shrink that came as a consequence of the lockdown measures.
Hence, last Sunday protests in Rio had also an antiracist connotation. This feature is fueled by the historical and current violence against black and poor people in Rio, and in line with a series of other protests around the world following the United States anti-racist protests that sparkled due to George Floyd’s death. Floyd was a black man brutally killed by a white police officer after gasping for breath. The event was recorded and then widely spread online. The United States is seeing a wave of protests against racism that is comparable to the ones that happened due to Martin Luther King’s murder.
The timing could not be worse in terms of health risks for the activists. The urgency on the anti-racist protests in Brazil, however, has always been there. The number of infections and deaths due to coronavirus reflects the high social inequality present in Brazil. Black and poor Brazilians are dying five times more than ‘white’ ones. Also, the prompt motivations to resist and join struggles are usually encompassing risks, including death threats, especially in Latin America, where violence is common during protests and conflicts.
As for the pro-democracy protests, the timing and window of opportunity to push for more democracy and rights perhaps could not be better. With this new push, campaigners against Bolsonaro aim at impeaching him from duties. They are afraid that measures towards a military dictatorship are in course at the moment and are orchestrating countermoves.
Protests are thus likely to continue as lives will remain being lost due to the pandemic and violence in Brazil. The urgency to refrain the virus spread does not seem bigger than the urgency demonstrated by the activists last Sunday on the streets.
Mariana G. 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.
By Violeta Gutiérrez Zamora
Mexico, like other countries in Latin America, is facing fast-rising numbers of COVID-19 cases and death tolls. Since March 31st, the federal government implemented several restrictions on economic activities considered as “non-essential,” among them the forestry sector. For rural communities that make a living out of their forest resources, the measures have meant a drastic decline for families and communities’ incomes. In an online press conference in mid-May, various actors involved with the forestry sector reported that the 70% decline in the domestic wood market and the plummet of ecotourism were already hitting community forest enterprises (CFEs). Although COVID-19 has not widely spread among rural communities, for many, the socio-economic consequences are already impacting their livelihoods.
In the Mexican environmental arena, CFEs have been a critical element to build up strategies for supporting people’s livelihoods, managing forest ecosystems sustainably, reducing, and avoiding deforestation. CFEs emerged in the 1980s after a wave of mobilizations against forestry concessions granted to private and state companies. With the suspension of concessions, several communities started to build their CFEs as a way to acquire more control and technical knowledge over the use of forest, and the economic benefits derived from timber production. Since then, they have settled wood and non-wood productive ventures like timber and charcoal production, wooden furniture manufacturing, sawmilling and water bottling plants, and ecotourism projects. The difference between private enterprises and CFEs resides in their core principles. While private enterprises raison d’etre is to turn and maximize profit, CFEs are drive by a sense of community responsibility. As such, one of the main objectives of CFEs is to invest their profits in the provision of public services that would otherwise be difficult for community members to obtain, such as employment, health care, education, and basic rural infrastructure.
The CFEs’ success, mistakes, and failures have a direct impact on the human populations that depend on them and, therefore, on the dynamics of forest ecosystems. The enormous responsibility that CFEs and the rural communities have in terms of biodiversity conservation and populations well-being is often unacknowledged and receives low remuneration. As I have argue elsewhere, CFEs and community forestry as a model confront critical limitations when neoliberal environmental policies aim to transform them, or at least treat them, as private enterprises to compete in the free-market. While the link between biodiversity loss and emerging infectious diseases such as COVID-19 is more evident, the critical role that CFEs have in biodiversity conservation needs further consideration and responsiveness from the state and the society in general. In this sense, the strategies of economic ‘reactivation’ promoted by the federal and state government need to rethink how to support CFEs and rural communities as a question of socio-ecological care and collective well-being rather than plain productivism.
Moreover, in the last four weeks, amidst the pandemic, other emergencies like forest fires have required prompt action from the communities the forest service at federal and state levels in Michoacán, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, and Yucatán. CFEs and the forest service workers, trained to manage fires, have become another group of essential workers for avoiding the spread of wildfires frequently caused by human action.
During last years, forest fire seasons have become harsher, longer, and with higher intensity across the globe. According to fire data from MODIS shared by Global Forest Watch, forest fires alerts in Mexico in 2019 were the highest since 2001. This year forest fires alerts in the country seem to maintain a lower tendency than last year. However, in personal conversation with a community authority in the Southern Sierra of Oaxaca, he complaint that when calling for support for fighting forest fires, the response from the Oaxaca state government is often sluggish. Despite the austere conditions in which CFEs and the environmental sector are, several workers from the companies, and the forest service along with community members have been fiercely working to manage the current wildfires, demonstrating once more how essential their work is.
In the near future, the environmental sector may suffer a further reduction in their already low budget (about 1.2 billion EUR for 2020). The cuts have already impacted the support community forestry received from the federal environmental agencies. CFEs and other governmental and non-governmental actors involved also need to rethink and reformulate strategies to confront the environmental debts and future emergencies related to people’s health, the oncoming economic crisis, the risks of violence, and the various vulnerabilities that climate change creates for the forest. Any strategy for socio-ecological transformations requires that the needs of rural communities and the CFEs are heard and placed as a priority. More than ever, the pandemic and the socio-economic crisis lead us to reconsider new strategies for socio-ecological adaptation and transformation where people can recognize future contingencies but also reformulate in common other senses of our coexistence between us and with the forest.
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.
By Paola Minoia
Covid-19 is expanding in Ecuador, but even more rapid has been the reaction by the government to restrict certain rights. No one dares to contest the lockdown, one of the strictest worldwide, that forbids the mobility of people from 2 pm until 5 am. However, some restrictions that are involving fundamental rights for the Ecuadorian people, i.e.: education for all, are causing discontent. The focus in this blog post is the right to higher education, especially for the less affluent groups of people who attend public universities. My knowledge of the Universidad Estatal Amazonica (UEA) – since my first visit in 2015, allows me to tell how much the administrative and academic staff of this University, located in the Pastaza province, is committed to serve their students to the best of their possibilities.
We should note the latest news of dramatic cuts in the public finance directed to 32 public universities: more than 98 Million U.S. Dollars that had to be distributed in May. The following table has been published by Nayra Chalán Quishpe, Vice President of the indigenous organization Ecuarunari, in her Facebook page, with the title “Ranking of infamy in higher education”. The table shows the catastrophic cuts that have hit all public universities of the country. According to Chalán Quishpe, these cuts will mostly affect the poorest students, who will not be able to continue their studies.
Last October 2019, the announcement of cuts in the public sector had caused a massive popular reaction, especially organized by the indigenous organizations and strongly supported by university students and staff. Thanks to the paro nacional (national strike), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) package that had required those cuts, to fill the gaps of debts earlier contracted by the state, had to be withdrawn. While the IMF conditionality is sadly famous for hitting especially the vulnerable groups, discussions were still in the air, that the government would have imposed another way to comply with the socially and economically disastrous IMF recipes. This sanitary crisis seems to have offered a favourable political environment to the government, but on 5 May 2020 students, teachers and workers of the public universities damaged by the cuts, together with activists of indigenous organizations, have organized a national strike in defense of the public education (#HuelgaEducativaEc ).
According to the academic authorities, these cuts will reduce the teaching staff that is employed on a temporary basis, and other expenses that were planned during this emergency time. Unfortunately, the start of the new semester would have needed even more funding to support distance education, given the fact that a large proportion of students do not own computers or have access to the internet.
Moreover, in the past weeks other disasters have hit the Amazonian region dramatically: a flooding of the Bobonaza river, causing losses of homes and food supplies for the the Kichwa communities of Pakayaku and Sarayaku, following heavy rains whose consequences in terms of the magnitude and frequency of floods are made extreme by the heavy logging in the forest; and on April 7, an oil spill of 15,000 barrels that affected the Coca and Napo rivers with tremendous contamination of a very extended region. The coincidence of disasters of this magnitude places the region in extreme need of sustainable transformation through its release from unbridled extractivism of natural resources and public investment in essential services for all.
In early May, UEA has done a survey and identified 35% of students without internet access, half of whom do not even possess any device to follow the online lectures. UEA had organized an emergency plan of purchase of devices and internet subscriptions for students who otherwise would not have the possibility to follow distance education; but the cut of 10% of the overall budget from the central government, is now challenging this possibility.
Moreover, the effect of the financial cuts that have been announced in May will be to reduce the temporary teaching staff, research and other activities directed to the communities. The university does not want to suspend any courses, as this would be directly detrimental for the currently enrolled students. The risk is high, because in the past and in many universities in the country, entire study programmes were suddenly obliged to close.
The right to education is a frontier struggle. It is not recognized as much as other struggles for the recognition of human rights. In the Pastaza province, only 3% of the indigenous peoples are enrolled in higher education. This governmental decision will be paid especially by students from the indigenous territories and other vulnerable groups.
As part of a group doing research in the Amazonian region, we had started our Academy project with a focus on decoloniality, intercultural education for the respect of ecocultural knowledges and the pluriverse. Now we are here, in the impossibility to reach our comrades, in their struggles for the very right to a more “just” education. The defense of public education is crucial, because if it collapses, many generations will suffer from the consequences.
In an interview with Ruth Arias, Rector of UEA, we illustrate some of the problems lived by the Amazonian community, and the importance of the role of an engaged university in providing responses to this emergency.
Since the time of the interview Covid-19 has spread especially in the municipality of Santa Clara, where UEA has its research centre of Amazonian conservation CIPCA.
Paola Minoia is an Adjunct Professor of Geography and Senior Lecturer in Development Studies, University of Helsinki. She is also an Associate Professor at the University of Turin. Her interest is in postdevelopment, political ecology, social and environmental justice. She is the Principal Investigator of the Academy project Pluralismo ecocultural en la Amazonía ecuatoriana (2018-2022) in cooperation with the Universidad Estatal Amazonica based in Puyo, Pastaza, and with members of the indigenous organization Confeniae. The research studies the State-Amazonian nationalities’ relations in the field of intercultural education in line with the principles of epistemic and territorial justice of the ethnically diverse State of Ecuador.
By Anna Heikkinen
Indigenous and peasant communities across the Peruvian Amazon region have taken the management of the coronapandemic in their own hands. Many have blocked access to their villages and tightened surveillance over their territories to protect themselves from the Covid-19.
Over the past eight weeks, the peasant community of San Roque in the Peruvian Amazon region has followed rigid measures to avoid the spread of coronavirus.
“Since the president of Peru declared a state of emergency for the coronavirus on March 16th, we decided to begin with strict control in our community. We blocked the road three kilometers away from the village and formed security groups. Now each of them has their own guarding turns to restrain access to our community”, tells Genrry Lopez Ruiz, head of San Roque community’s social aid commission, in a phone interview at the end of April.
The rural Amazon area is one of the most vulnerable regions in Peru in front of Covid-19. Access to sanitation, potable water or health care is among the lowest in the country. Moreover, deforestation and extractive activities, such as oil drilling and mining, are exposing the Amazonian populations to elevated levels of environmental contamination.
Before the Covid-19 outbreak, the tropical regions across Latin America were struggling with another severe health threat: dengue. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2019 the continent saw the highest record in dengue cases in history with over 3 million infected and over 1,500 deaths. In the beginning of February 2020, the Ministry of Health of Peru declared a state of emergency due to an extending dengue epidemic in the Amazonian departments of Loreto, Madre de Dios and San Martín.
The community of San Roque is located in the department of San Martín, one of those regions with the highest number of dengue cases in Peru. Recent experience with the dengue has increased worries among the community members over their safety.
“In February, we had two persons infected with dengue. They were people outside of the community who had come for some temporal forestry work. Now we are very strict with whom we let in. Anyone who enters the community is sprayed throughout with disinfectants. It is harsh, but we do it to protect our community”, Lopez Ruiz tells.
San Roque has a small health care center that is shared by its 1,300 inhabitants. According to Lopez Ruiz, until now the health care has been working properly, as none of the community members has yet been infected by the Covid-19.
“During the pandemic, we have received some help from the government but there could be more. We are used to managing things on our own, as we say, the community never sleeps. We have worked hard to develop our health care and sanitation long before the coronavirus. Now our only worry is that we are running out of plastic gloves, masks and Covid-19 tests. There is not much left and without proper equipment there is a risk that the virus will spread”, Lopez Ruiz tells.
In San Roque, most of the people receive their livelihoods from small-scale agriculture. During the pandemic, the families have sustained themselves mostly with self-cultivated products such as cacao, peanuts, plantains and corn. There is also a strong tradition of sharing foods and other items among the community members.
“There hasn’t been any panic in San Roque during the coronavirus. We have always been well organized and we have our fields that feed us. Now in the cities people are losing their minds for the fear of running out of food. Before the coronavirus outbreak, the rural people were forgotten in our country. Nobody cared about us. Now suddenly the Peruvian small-farmers have become really wanted. I hope this change in mentality will last even when the virus will be tackled”, Lopez Ruiz ponders.
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.
By Violeta 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.
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.
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.
By 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.