What would you have done? Dilemmas behind getting vaccinated in the USA as a tourist

by Lidia Malagón*

“What would you have done?” It is a famous phrase of former Mexican president Peña Nieto, repeated today sarcastically when we talk about dilemmas. Who to vaccinate first? Is the decision to “not get vaccinated” valid? Is it okay to travel from Mexico or Colombia to the USA to get vaccinated? Those are among the various current dilemmas when discussing the application of the COVID19 vaccine. In this blog post, I want to discuss the legitimacy of likely responses in a country like Mexico.

The Vaccine Shortage and the Bioethical Dilemma

Any “triage” decision –known as the medical protocol for classification and care priority, based on the possibility of survival, therapeutic needs, and available resources– involves bioethical evaluations. The priority of assigning respirators became an issue, as much as nowadays deciding who to vaccinate first. It began with health personnel in most countries, particularly with the so-called “front line” of the Covid19 battle. This is a clear allusion to the military language commonly used to talk about diseases, just as Susan Suntag in “Metaphors and their diseases” reminded us. Immediately, elderly adults were also considered due to their greater vulnerability to the virus.

In Mexico, people also discussed prioritizing professions as a primary necessity (e.g., teachers and journalists). But the idea of vaccinating the cleaning and security personnel or food provisioners was out of the public discussion. It is important to remember that Mexico’s City Central Wholesales Market (Central de Abastos) concentrated high infections and deaths. Likewise, the current government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador decided that he and the heads of states would “wait their turn,” as a political statement: “no one is above anyone.” The cost of the decision was that he and several other governors contracted COVID19.  Another controversy emerged when health personnel from public institutions was vaccinated but not those working in private institutions.  Such distinction was not applied when vaccinating academic and administrative personnel in educational institutions.

However, many vaccinated teachers will not return to face-to-face classes. Either because their programs allow them to continue with online courses or because union leaders have stated the unwillingness to return to face-to-face sessions until all students are vaccinated work at public universities. Knowing the above, should healthy teachers have given their turn to the vulnerable population? Should the state have decided the distribution of vaccines differently? Why not prioritize risk groups (e.g., people living with autoimmune diseases or immunodeficiencies) in the vaccination scheme?

According to data from Jorge E Linares (Nexos, May 1, 2021), “the WHO indicates that some 300 million doses have been administered, still far from the 10 billion doses needed to immunize 70% of the population worldwide, minimum to achieve herd immunity”. On a regional scale, in the USA, 90 doses per 100 people have been applied, while in Mexico, only 27 doses per 100 people as of May 31, 2021. Mexico City Head of Government Claudia Sheinbaum stated that by June 5, 43% of people over 18 years old in Mexico City received the vaccination with at least one dose. Not so bad news, if we compare with other countries with greater privileges and willing to give vaccines as diplomatic exchanges. The USA government, for instance, recently announced that it “shares” with Mexico a million Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

For some, the vaccination rate in Mexico is a failure attributable to the new government. For others, it seems like a structural symptom of geopolitics that has imposed an unequal distribution of vaccines worldwide, as the BBC systematizes. Any balance must place the United States at the center due to its influence on the business decisions of the pharmaceutical companies and research centers that produce and supply the demand for doses.

So far from vaccinated, and so close to the United States

At the end of January 2021, Juan José Origel, a Mexican television communicator, shared on social media that he received the vaccine in Miami. At the time, the vaccination schedule for the general population in Mexico was unknown, and in the United States, it had just begun. He was criticized for opportunism, particularly for the tone of disdain with which the character referred to the episode, proud of having broken the rules because he could.

But today, this is an increasingly common practice: traveling to the United States to get vaccinated. This reaction has antecedents in dishonest ways of getting vaccinated by those who somehow sped up their inoculation process and their close social circle before it was available to the general population.  Although some case in Mexico were reported, they did not reach the scandal levels of Argentina (#VacunasVIP), Spain, or Peru (#Vacunagate): where high-ranking officials were evidenced (presidents, former presidents, ministers, majors together with their families), some even having to resign, after failing to comply with the vaccination order that each country designated.

Just a few months later, vaccines from different pharmaceutical companies with varying percentages of efficacy to avoid infection, symptoms, and complications have been applied globally with diverse levels of coverage. The United States has vaccinated its population the earliest, being the beneficiary of the most significant number of doses. Today they are even representing a surplus in relation to its demand. The German media broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) declared hundreds of discarded vaccines and up to 300 million doses without a request. If the estimation is accurate, so far, it would be the same number as the doses administered worldwide. A hoarding that does not seem to generate the international commotion it deserves.

With this panorama, it is worth asking who has not yet been vaccinated in the United States? Some indicate that large cities concentrate the dose supply, and residents in remote territories are still waiting. The most unvaccinated population corresponds to those who do not wish to do so. Should the decision not to be vaccinated be respected, putting individual freedom before public health?

With the oversupply of vaccines in the United States, the requirements to receive them became more flexible. Proof of residence document is no longer required, and in some cases, not even an ID, to encourage vaccination among the migrant population without documents. Thus, what at first several local governments had condemned (at least Texas, Florida, New York, and California spoke out against it), little by little, has been seen as an economic reactivation opportunity.

Various media denied the rumors about fines and the Visa suspension for people receiving vaccination but were not residents. Thus, authorities began to invite tourists to get inoculated directly. The regularization of flights and the reactivation of up to 70% of travel packages to the USA show a growing “vaccine tourism.” The plan is more popular, and several companies offer their employees in Mexico to cover travel costs for their vaccination and many a combination of vaccination plus vacation. It is estimated –perhaps conservatively due to the secrecy of the data– that half a million Mexicans have traveled to get vaccinated. Five million more will do so this summer, mainly with the opening of the land border.

The vaccines in the USA are provided inside pharmacies or supermarkets without the collective euphoria typical of vaccination days in Mexico, generally held in symbolic facilities such as public universities. Nevertheless, the figures are significant if we consider that approximately 22 million people had been vaccinated with 31 million doses by the end of May. That is, only 12.6 million people in Mexican territory have received the two doses to complete immunity, according to figures from El País. In other words, half of the goal achieved so far by the state could be performed outside the borders in the coming months.

On vaccine inequalities and moralities

The decision to travel (or not) to the USA to receive the vaccine deserves a reflection from different perspectives: a geographical consideration, the economic access to travel for vaccines, and the access to a USA visa. First, it is not the same to make the trip to the US from border states than from the center of the country. Furthermore, people living close to the border are used to daily crossing for various purposes (e.g., wholesale purchases, buying clothing or gas for a better price). Crossing the border to get vaccinated feels instinctive, as it does not involve excessive spending.

Secondly, the recurring idea is that only the elites can afford this option. A return flight in a low-cost airline to the United States from the CDMX costs approx. USD 250. The prices and the time invested may impede most of the population from this kind of solution. However, some middle-income sectors may consider the opportunity by making an ‘economic effort.’

Thirdly, access to USA visas imposes differences. People in the informal economy with purchasing power may be systematically rejected.  Others cannot even cover the cost of trying to get the document. It is precisely the unequal access to the possibility of being vaccinated, the center of the dilemma that this practice represents.

Some voices suggest traveling to the US for this purpose is to contribute to the reproduction of unequal distribution of doses. Like a consumer who avoids a product, with the legitimate intention to not contribute to replicating unfair production conditions (e.g., fair trade, environmentally friendly, free from slavery or animal abuse, etc.). This consumer knows that such a decision won’t stop such production or stop others from consuming. It is a form of protest that is as legitimate as it is honorable.

It is here where the discussion enters a diffuse scope because although the vaccine is free in the United States, its distribution is not governed by the laws of the free market.  Not everyone who wishes can finance the trip to receive it. The travel costs mark the inaccessibility to the vaccine. It imposes mercantile values on public health and moves it away from universal access good of public interest. As long as the entire supply is not guaranteed in our country, alternative ways of accessing it will continue.

Even when moving ahead in the process is a reason for shame or reproach. It is convenient to bring back the honor that comes with the sacrifice of not consuming, in this case, a vaccine. There is a particular “honor” in waiting their turn that the state apparatus arranged according to its resources. There is honor in respecting the rules imposed for everyone, without privileges. But, can we do it once again if the Mexican state has already withdrawn many responsibilities (e.g., limited security, education, or health)? Is the decision to vaccinate reprehensible if the personal benefit represents, at the same time, a collective benefit? How honorable is it to wait for conviction when there are options?

As Fernando Escalante said in his column The vaccine, the morality “(…) in this case, staying in the trench has no other effect except to remain exposed to the virus, without resulting in any gain.” And although this kind of companionship, loyalty, and empathy towards those who, because of their profile, have not received the vaccine, is honorable, it is still a weak position in the face of a virus that takes lives and compromises their quality.

We can think of both profiles from a position of moral superiority: those who travel to get vaccinated and those who criticize it. The firsts are convinced that getting vaccinated contributes to mass immunization; their decision is noble. In contrast, the others may be confident that their patient attitude ensures order and equitable conditions for the country. It can also be the opposite; those are getting vaccinated to return to a “normal life” while the others angrily reproach the privileged ones as a matter of social revenge. Or there may be many nuances between these ways of reacting to risk. What would you have done?

(In Spanish here)

*Lidia Malagón is a sociologist and PhD candidate at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). In her research, she focuses on urban conflicts and urban planning instruments.

Journalism in times of Covid-19: Representations of Latin America in Finnish Media

We share the recording from our virtual roundtable held on Friday, May 14th, 2021. This roundtable was a continuation of the collaboration that ESDLA seeks to establish with researchers and the public in Finland and the Nordic Countries interested in Latin America.

Thanks to all the people who participated. But if you miss it, you can find the recording here:

Information about the roundtable:

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, journalists have the challenging task of gathering and distributing accurate and reliable information. This task becomes more critical and demanding when journalists create international news coverage of distant crises. In recent months, Brazil, Mexico, and other Latin American and the Caribbean (LAC) countries have been in the sights of world journalism due to the rise in the numbers of contagion, deaths, and the different responses and strategies of the governments in turn. In this round table, we have invited several Latin American researchers based in Finland to discuss how the Finnish media has displayed the consequences of the pandemic in LAC countries. How can specific representations affect popular ideas and normalize preconceptions of such distant crises? What is the role of social science researchers in creating more accurate and reliable information, and what are their limitations? Join us in the discussion!


Nadia Nava Contreras is a project researcher at the John Morton Center for North American Studies at the University of Turku, where she is part of the Cubaflux project that investigates urban visual transformations in Post-Deténte Havana. She is also a doctoral candidate in political history at the University of Helsinki. Her dissertation investigates diplomatic encounters and mutual imaginaries in the relations between Mexico and Finland during the 20th Century.

Florencia Quesada Avendaño, PhD, Docent is a trained historian, currently Adjunct Professor in Latin American Studies at the University of Helsinki. She has been a researcher and lecturer in Global Development Studies, World Cultures, and at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies (HCAS), UH. Quesada’s research interest includes cultural urban and architectural history, sustainable tourism, socio-spatial segregation, and urban violence in Central America.

Leonardo Custódio is an Afro-Brazilian postdoctoral researcher at Åbo Akademi University and coordinator of the Anti-Racism Media Activist Alliance (www.armaalliance.com). He is also coordinator of the Activist Research Network and editor-in-chief of raster.fi, website of the Finnish Anti-Racist Research Network. Custódio is co-editor of “Research Traditions in Dialogue: Communication Studies in Europe and Latin America” (2020, Media XXI) and author of “Favela Media Activism: Counterpublics for Human Rights in Brazil” (2017, Lexington Books).

Germán Quimbayo Ruiz is from Bogotá, Colombia. He recently finished his Ph.D. in Environmental Policy at the University of Eastern Finland, Joensuu. His work and research focus on environment/society relationships and their interplay with urbanization and socio-ecological inequalities, exploring their role in spatial planning practices in defense of commons such as biodiversity. Before his Ph.D. studies, he worked with local environmental organizations and institutions in Colombia.

Mariana Galvão Lyra is a sustainability researcher and consultant. Currently, she is a project researcher at the business school of the University of Eastern Finland. Her main research interests are sustainable science, stakeholder management, company-community conflicts, and activism against mining projects, especially in developing countries. In particular, she is interested in shedding light on the groups fighting for social and environmental justice.

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

Member of ESDLA, Mariana Galvão Lyra, interviewed by Helsingin Sanomat

Our colleague and member of ESDLA, Mariana Galvão Lyra, was interviewed by the Finnish journal Helsingin Sanomat (HS) on the Covid-19 situation in Brazil.  In the HS article, Mariana explains that the collapse was expected in Brazil’s highly unequal society. President Jair Bolsonaro ’s depreciation of the pandemic has only made things worse.
The article’s contextualization draws on this Special Blog Issue on Covid-19 in Latin America. It also follows the terrible current situation in Brazil.

CoVid-19 in Cuba: Reflections on Inequalities, Scarcity, and Alternatives

By Nadia Nava Contreras

Picture: Graffiti in Centro Habana, January 2020 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.  

Resuming ESDLA Blog Special Issue and invitation to event on LAC in times of Covid19

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!



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

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.