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

By Mariana G. Lyra. 

“Shot to death or infected to death – are these the options for the favela???”

Source: Jotamarquesrj

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.

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

By Violeta Gutiérrez Zamora

Community Forestry workers in the Southern Sierra of Oaxaca (2017). Photo: 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.

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

By Paola Minoia

#NoalRecorte campaign in Ecuador banner. Source: Internet.

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.

Source: Table of “Ranking of infamy in higher education” shared by Nayra Chalán Quishpe on Facebook.

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.

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

By Anna Heikkinen

San Roque community in the Peruvian Amazon region has taken strict measures
to protect their community members from Covid-19. Photo: 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.

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.

[RE-POST] Pachamama is crying – Climate Change in the Peruvian highlands

Hi!

This time we share a research experience from the field. “Pachamama is crying – Climate Change in the Peruvian highlands” is a re-post from ‘Mondanna’-blog, authored by Anna Heikkinen, who kindly allowed us to re-posting her blog in our ESDLA’s blog. Kiitos Anna!

Anna is a Ph.D. researcher in the Doctoral Programme of Political, Societal and Regional Change, in the discipline of Development Studies at the University of Helsinki. Her main research interests are water governance, water conflicts, climate and social vulnerabilities and climate change in Latin America. Anna’s research has mainly focused in the Andean region of Peru.

We encourage you to visit Anna’s website “Mondanna” to know more about her research and interests.

Here is the blog’s re-post:

Pachamama is crying – Climate Change in the Peruvian highlands

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Children sitting in front of the glacier Huaytapallana in the Natural Reserve of Junín, in the Central Andes of Peru.

By July, the Mantaro River Valley had turned all yellow. The transition had happened slowly. One morning I was standing on the terrace of my appartment in Huancayo, looking at the surrounding mountains. All that had been covered with different shades of green when I had arrived few months ago, had now transformed into dry, lifeless colors of yellow.

It had not rained for weeks. Last time it rained, it came down as a furious thunderstorm. In the mountains, the thunderstorm feels so powerful. It seems to be born behind the mountains, crawling slowly on the top of the mountain peaks and then spreading its anger down by the slopes to cover all the valley. The sound of the thunder runs through your bones. The concentrated energy in the air makes your body shake. At the peak of the thriller – the sky breaks down and bursts out an outrageous rain that can last for hours.

The thunder scenery is magical and scary at the same time. You feel so tightly connected to the power of nature and realize that at the end, it will always be superior to you.

In the Andean cultures, it is believed that humans, animals and nature are all one and that there are no divisions between these Earth Beings. If Pachamama, the Mother Earth is hurt, all the beings will go through its suffering. When you go walking to the highlands, before taking off you make a short ceremony for Apus, the mountain God. It is considered as a kind gesture to ask Apus for its permission to visit its mountains and for its protection for your journey. Nature, with its all different Earth Beings are valued and treated with respect.

In the Andean cultures, it is believed that humans, animals and nature are all one and that there are no divisions between these Earth Beings. If Pachamama, the Mother Earth is hurt, all the beings will go through its suffering.

On a one crispy Saturday morning in July – an expedition crew consisting of me, Dr. Armando Guevara Gil and our friends Don Cirilo and Don “Chalaca” from a nearby local community of Santa Rosa de Ocopa – was heading to explore highland lakes feeding the Achamayo River.

The red shades of sun were rising behind the mountains as our car was slowly climbing uphill on a rocky serpentine road. As we got higher, we could see the grass covered with white sheet of frost and feel in our lungs how the air had become freezer to breath.

A clear sun light was shining on our path as we began our walk surrounded by the sceneries of endless puna. The frozen grass was shuffling under our feet and the small mountain flowers growing tightened to the ground were waking up. We could hear echoes of dogs barking somewhere far away. Cirilo told that they came from the alpaca-herds’ camps.

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Expedition crew in the highland punas of the Achamayo River Valley.
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By the lake Taptapa with Don Cirilo and Don Chalaca. Photo: Armando Guevara Gil.

We had sat down by the lake Chaluacocha to have some snacks when suddenly the sky turned all grey and a snappy gust of snow began to whip the ground. Our local friends said teasingly that Pachamama had gotten angry because we had been so eager to head to the punas that we had forgotten to make the payment to Pachamama.

In the middle of the snowstorm, we decided to make a short ceremony, sharing some of our fruits and bread with Pachamama. Don Cirilo gave a short speech to ask for good weather and thank Pachamama to permit us to visit its lands, lakes and mountains.

Ten minutes later the sky started to brighten and the snow was gone.  We were joking that our presents had managed to calm down the anger of Pachamama.

“Rationally thinking” our little ceremony probably did not have the power to change the weather. But it forces you to reflect upon, how we tend to forget that after all, we are all just shortly passing visitors in our common home – the Earth. And the least we should do is to show respect and gratitude to our host.

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Having a rest in between walking with Don Cirilo. Photo: Armando Guevara Gil.

Drastic changes in weather is not something uncommon in the highland punas, located in the altitude of 5,000 m above sea level. In the highlands, the flow of air is influenced by the mountains. This can cause rapid changes at micro scale. Though, Don Cirilo and Don Chalaco told us that it was quite rare that it would rain or snow at this time of the year.

In the Peruvian Andes, there have typically been very marked shifts between rainy and dry periods. Usually it rains regularly between December and April whereas from May onwards until November the rain remains almost absent.

For centuries, the farmers in this region have been used to live, sow and harvest according to these shifts. Now the regular climate patterns are changing. The highland farmers that  interviewed, told me that they didn’t know anymore when they should sow or harvest. In recent years, their yields had often been destroyed due to lack or excess of rain. Last year in many parts of Mantaro River Valley, the farmers had lost their entire harvest due to harsh night frosts. As one farmer put it: “farming in the highlands has become a risky business.”

The way people in the highlands describe their environments and farming practices is often almost poetic. They would often tell me how “my little corn is suffering from the burning sun” or “our poor river is dying”. When I was asking, what does water mean for the communities, a very common answer was as the following one: “without water we cannot live, neither our cows, without water everything dies.”

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A farmer and the cattle in the community of San Jose de Quero.

These conversations reveal the relationship the highland communities have with the nature. Natural resources bring literally bread to their table. But nature for them is more than just a livelihood. It is a way of living and a way of being in a coexistence with and by the rules of the nature.

Last year in many parts of Mantaro River Valley, the farmers had lost their entire harvest due to harsh night frosts. As one farmer put it: “farming in the highlands has become a risky business.”

Unlike us – sipping our cappuccinos comfortably in a cozy café and speculating the latest scientific findings about rising temperatures or melting glaciers somewhere far away – for the Andean farmers, climate change has become an everyday reality. They feel the burning sun on their faces while working the whole day in their chacras, sowing corn, potato or quinoa. They wait desperately for the rain for their plants to grow. And hope that the unexpected rains won’t burst to ruin their harvests left on the fields to dry.

Besides the changing climate narratives of the local people, physical studies show that the climate in the Mantaro River Valley has changed in the last decades. Just as people told me about “plants burned by frosts or sun” or “the insane rains” – the climate studies indicate clear evidence of declining rain, rising temperatures and more frequent extreme weather events.

Scientists have also found that climate change is deepening the inequalities between the poor and wealthy nations. Countries in the so-called global south, that have contributed least in global warming are the ones who are now suffering the biggest economic losses caused by it. At individual level, the poor are often the most vulnerable to climate change due to lack of resources or living in ecologically and politically fragile regions.

It is paradoxical, that those who least exploit the nature are the ones that must bear the heaviest consequences. In the worst case, the farmers have no other options than leave their homes. In his book Environmental Refugees: Climate Change and Forced Migration ,Professor Teófilo Altamirano writes that the number of current climate migrants around the world is approximately 50 million and by 2050 the number is estimated to rise up to 150 million.

Countries in the global south, that have contributed least in global warming are the ones who are now suffering the biggest economic losses caused by it. At individual level, the poor are often the most vulnerable to climate change due to lack of resources or living in ecologically and politically fragile regions.

Altamirano reminds that most of migration due to climate is not voluntary. For example, in the rural Andean societies, there often exists a spiritual and emotional bound to the living environment and the community. The land, the animals, the fields and the surrounding nature have a strong religious and cultural value. When climatic conditions force one to leave, these cultural, symbolic and spiritual dimensions of life must be left behind. In the cities, the migrants often face discrimination due to their rural or ethnic backgrounds – making the vulnerable populations even worse off.

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Don Cirilo telling Dr. Armando about “the untouchable pond”. One of the community members had seen a dream that a bad spirit lives in the waters. Ever since water of the pond have not been used for any purpose. “There are waters that simply cannot be touched”, Don Cirilo explains.

The past week was an official Climate Week. The young and ambitious climate activist, Greta Thunberg, has given emotional yet serious speeches in New York, urging politicians around the world to act upon climate emergency. Thousands of people around the world, from Helsinki to Sydney, were marching on the streets to express their concern on the miserable state of our Planet and the insufficient rehabilitation actions.

It is empowering to see, how the global community requiring for a change in status quo is expanding. Most importantly, these people are giving a voice for the most vulnerable populations in front of climate change – the ones who bear most of the climate weight but who are seldom heard.