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Around Latin America

June 18, 2012 Comments off

-In Mexico’s presidential race, a new poll shows PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto’s support staying steady at 42%, with PAN candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota at 29% and Manuel Lopez Obrador at 27% heading into the July 1 election. Unlike elections in other Latin American countries, a candidate only needs a plurality of the vote to win the presidency in Mexico, so there will be no run-off should Peña Nieto not receive 50% of the vote.

-Shell subsidiary Raizen, which produces ethanol for Shell, has announced it will not purchase sugar from farmers who grow sugarcane on indigenous lands that non-indigenous farmers encroach upon. The decision is an important victory for indigenous activists in Brazil.

-Chile’s House of Deputies has unanimously passed a bill that would change the country’s notorious “copper law,” a law on the books since 1958 that guarantees 10% of the nation’s income from copper go directly to the military. However, as Greg points out, the bill has angered some former government officials who point out that it still fails to allow flexibility and greater civilian control over defense spending or to allow more money to go to other social programs.

-Colombia has passed a law that establishes guidelines for peace talks between the government and leftist guerrillas. While the bill is an important step towards ending the 48-year-old civil war, there are still many places where plans for talks could break down, so while this is an encouraging first step, there is still a long way to go towards peace in Colombia.

-While many have lauded to Brazil’s economic successes in the first two decades of the 21st century, there are constant reminders of the ongoing inequalities millions of Brazilians still confront every day. A new report only reinforces how far the country is from socio-economic equality, as the Instituto Brasileiro  de Geografia e Estatísticas (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics; IGBE) reports that 19 million urban Brazilians (or 10% of the country’s entire population) still live without access to drinking water or sewage systems.

-A new survey claims that corruption in Latin America is dropping (though report certainly has its methodological issues – for starters, having only 439 respondents for 1 and 1/3 continents certainly raises flags about “representation”).

-Paraguay has sent its army into the northern part of the country after fights between police and landless farmers have left 17 people dead. This is not the first time in the past several months that the social struggle for access to the land for the poor has led to violence, as similar conflicts have taken place in the eastern part of the country.

-After mounting pressure from environmental groups and an increasing expenses, Mexico has cancelled plans for a massive resort near the only coral reef in Baja California.

-In the past several years, China has increasingly become involved in trade and finance in Latin America, and in that context, Margaret Myers has another excellent post up that looks at recent Chinese headlines on Latin America, providing some small insight into the issues that Chinese media focuses on.

-While many Latin American countries have done a good job in diversifying their trade partners and moving away from a reliance on Europe and the US in the last 15 years, that does not mean that they are completely unaffected by financial problems in the so-called “developed world”; at least one new report suggests that the growth prospects for the region may drop by 40%, showing how globalized economies can still slow down (though not yet shrink) Latin American economies.

Around Latin America

March 8, 2012 Comments off

-Brazilian truck drivers have gone on strike over restrictions on which roads they can use when, and South America’s largest city is feeling the pinch, as São Paulo has begun to run low on fuel.

-In yet even more incredibly discouraging and depressing environmental news from the region, scientific studies reveal that climate change is drastically damaging the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef system, the world’s second largest barrier reef system. Rising temperatures are rapidly “bleaching” the reef, leading to its death and pointing to the reef’s future as a marine dessert. As if this wasn’t already depressing enough, Mesoamerican countries like Mexico, Honduras, Belize, and Guatemala are failing to address the issue adequately, meaning the reef stands a very real chance that it will simply die out, destroying an important marine ecosystem.

-Chilean leaders have spoken out against homophobic violence after the recent beating that has left a 24-year-old gay man in an induced coma.

-Juan Pablo Schiavi, Argentina’s Transportation Secretary, has stepped down from his post in the wake of the horrific train crash in Buenos Aires that killed more than 50 people and injured more than 700 and led to widespread finger-pointing between government officials, rail-safety experts, and the train company responsible for the line.

-Four miners are dead and five are missing after an accident in a Colombian coal mine.

-Brazilian beachgoers have made news for their noble acts in aiding a pod of about 20 dolphins who had stranded themselves on a beach in southeastern Rio de Janeiro state.

-In great news for Bolivia’s disabled community, their struggles for equal rights and treatment may be netting real results and improvements. In the wake of protesters journeying over 1000 miles to bring attention to the need for better treatment and equal rights for the disabled in Bolivia, Evo Morales has said he will support a bill that would provide equal rights for the disabled.

-Chilean airline company LAN became the first airline to conduct a commercial flight that was powered by biofuels (in this case, refined vegetable oil).

-Argentine veterans have spoken out in favor of identifying the remains of 123 casualties of the 1982 Malvinas/Falklands war whose identities remain unknown.

-The former head of Haiti’s Central Bank during the 2001-2004 government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide was murdered this week, shortly after his son cut a deal to speak with US Department of Justice officials in Miami regarding charges of bribery between Haitian officials and companies based in Miami.

-Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes went on television earlier this week and tried to explain away El Salvador’s rising murder rate by saying that 90% of the murders were of criminals, and not innocent civilians. Suffice to say, such claims have raised pointed questions and criticisms of the president, and deservedly so.

-On the heels of the FARC promising to end kidnappings last week, another rebel group tied to the FARC, the Ejército de  Liberación Nacional (ELN) has said it would be willing to end attacks against the oil industry if the government reduces the areas where oil exploration can take place and issues a “social tax” on oil production.

-Finally, for those of you who felt there was not enough thrash metal from Brazilian women (or for those of you who felt there were not enough Brazilian women in thrash metal), your prayers have been answered, as Nervosa (“Nervous”), Brazil’s first all-woman thrash metal trio, has hit the scene.

“Mexico would be a world leader in biofuels – if not for its peasants,” says a U.S. energy executive.

September 3, 2011 Comments off

Granted, these were not the exact words of James Row, CEO of Houston-based Producers Energy, but they sum up the sentiment of his thoughts quite nicely. In fairness, this is what he said verbatim when referring to Mexico’s potential status as a world leader in the production of agave-based ethanol:

“Mexico is absolutely a perfect country for biodiesel, especially if it can be domestically grown, but the country’s ejido system — collectively-held land in rural areas — creates hurdles for private investment. The result is difficulty in finding continuous large areas of rural land that can be negotiated for use for cultivation, or high prices that make it cost prohibitive. Without land reform, issues with land availability will continue, and Mexico will fall a decade or more behind other countries in the biofuels sector.The demand is there, the land is there, but there is no way to get it. Now is the time for Mexico to get its act together for biofuels.”
Before considering these words in depth, a little context. Recently, an AeroMexico plane departing from Mexico City touched down in Madrid and in the process became the world’s first transatlantic commercial flight powered entirely by biodiesel. Many environmentalists in Mexico and abroad applauded the achievement. Some expressed trepidation, and with good cause. The debate over biofuels has raged for the better part of the past decade in the United States and has now arrived to Mexico. The crux of the issue is the same in either setting: What effects will a rising demand to produce the fuels have on agricultural systems and the people that live in them? Advocates of biodiesel make the obvious statement: the prices of food staples such as corn and sugar, until now the primary bases of ethanol, will rise. In Mexico there is another crop with incredible biofuel potential – agave, the basis of tequila. An increased demand for crops and the corresponding price increases for those crops is easily advertised as a win-win for everyone involved; as much as for the distributor of biodiesel as for the farmer who grew the ingredient crop.
What this logic fails to consider, however, are the potential negative consequences that a rapid conversion to biofuel production will have if implemented across vast swaths of the Mexican countryside. Latinamericanists have studied the effects that monoculture agricultural systems have had on Latin American ecosystems and peoples. Scores of books cover the human and environmental consequences of large-scale sugar production in the Caribbean, silver mining in Peru, rubber cultivation in Brazil, etc. More importantly, Latin Americans have felt these effects personally. More often than not, the rapid introduction and cultivation of a single or handful of cash crops in an alien ecosystem has had negative long-term effect on that area’s human and environmental health. In Latin America more that elsewhere, it seems, biodiversity has been directly linked to the physical health of that area’s inhabitants. Who can now view the vast soy deserts of the northern Amazon and not wonder about the permanent loss of species in that most bio-diverse region? A reduction of forest resources still has significant impact on the survival prospects of people (let alone animals) who continue to reside on these “idle” lands, as they have been traditionally viewed by state and agribusiness players alike. There is qualitative evidence to suggest that a similar conversion of the Mexican countryside – which exists now primarily of uncultivated lands used for grazing, foraging, and other subsistence-type activities – will also negatively impact those who reside there.
Moreover, there is the question of who stands to benefit financially from such a conversion? Quantitative evidence suggests that the creation of large scale farms in those areas will offer little benefit to locals. What economic benefit has NAFTA brought? One could ask. Wasn’t NAFTA also a comprehensive production strategy meant to spur the production of cash crops in Mexico and in turn provide peasant farmers permanent, high paying agricultural jobs? The “hurdles for private investment” that Row now cites are taken directly from the talking points of former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari who argued for land reform in 1992 and cited the impediments that he felt the ejido posed to the future of Mexican development. To both men, apparently, a slate of land reform that eliminates the collective land holding is a prerequisite of free trade, for free trade implies a freer (i.e. more individually-based) system of land tenure that enable corporations to acquire plots one a one-to-one rather than collective basis. Thus it appears to Row today as much as it did to Salinas two decades ago that the ultimate end of the ejido is a pre-requisite of prosperity. The astronomic increase in outward migration from the Mexican campo and the marked drop in standard of living in rural Mexico in the post-1994 period, however, seriously question the merits of their position.
It is easy to get behind the cause of alternative energy and biofuels in the form of corn, sugar, or even agave-based ethanol. Biodiesel, clearly, is a promising financial resource for many nations to harness. Before forests are slashed or hillsides are tilled, however, the overall benefits of its production should be weighed keeping environmental and social factors closely in mind. 

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