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Today in Awful Environmental News

February 13, 2014 Comments off

Well, this is both unsurprising and awful:

New research published in Nature adds further evidence to the argument that drought and fire are reducing the Amazon’s ability to store carbon, raising concerns that Earth’s largest rainforest could tip from a carbon sink to a carbon source.

While the government’s recent efforts to reduce the rate of deforestation have met with some mixed and relative successes in recent years, it has not stopped the process, and massive swaths of the forest continue to be destroyed with an all-too-familiar human disregard for the long-term consequences on the global scale.

On Brazil’s Air Force

January 27, 2014 Comments off

David Axe recently published a really interesting long-form piece on the Brazilian Air Force (FAB). The basic focus is on how the FAB operates on a relatively low-budget, even while maintaining sustained campaigns relevant to defined national security interests (namely, combating smuggling in the country’s interior and regional defense). Frum’s contextualization and discussion of the FAB is thorough, but I’d like to make a few additional points.

Regarding the use of the FAB to try to monitor and maintain control over the Amazonian basin, this is part of a number of historical trends. First, there’s the issue of integrating the Amazon into the nation more generally, and efforts to address this issue go back much further than 1990 (which Axe points to). Until the 1930s, much of the Amazon remained “outside” the nation of the federalist First Republic (1889-1930). From the government of Getúlio Vargas onward, Brazilian governments of any number of political stripes have attempted to incorporate the Amazon into the country, be it just through discourse (usually as the Amazon as “our” national treasure, in Brazilian rhetoric) or through practice (as with the military regime’s ultimately-limited efforts to build the Transamazonian highway). That these efforts continue under the government of Dilma Rousseff, herself once subjected to torture under the military rule and now president of the country, reveals the ways in which “securing” the Amazon and making sure it falls under the more direct aegis of the federal government’s power continues to be a major part of political and military agendas of governments from across the ideological spectrum.

Secondly, and somewhat related to this, is the issue of the Amazon as an area needing “securing.” Given the historically weak presence of the state in the region, fears of foreign involvement/infiltration into the region have long existed. These fears aren’t necessarily unfounded – after all, the majority of the Amazonian basin is only Brazilian because in the colonial period, the Spanish presence was so weak in the area that the Portuguese could disregard the Treaty of Tordesillas and effectively make the Amazon “Portuguese,” papal bulls notwithstanding.  Even today, there is very much a strong nationalistic tendency even among leftists that the Amazon is “theirs,” and those who are not from Brazil but are interested in the Amazon are viewed with skepticism if not outright suspicion. Certainly, cases like Raytheon’s alleged corruption do not help this image, but it’s not just limited to corporations trying to abuse the system to their economic favor (certainly nothing new in the world of transnational resource exploitation). Rather, these attitudes even extend to foreign environmentalists who are often seen as either taking what belongs to Brazil (a more nationalist stance) or extracting wealth from the Amazon for foreign corporations while pretending to be conservationists (a charge I heard not-irregularly during my time in Brazil). This isn’t to say the air force’s presence in the Amazon is equivalent to these concerns; however, it is fair to say it makes up part of a broader intellectual and political discourse that views the Amazon as particularly “Brazilian” but susceptible to intervention/invasion from (often poorly-defined) “outsiders.” Sort of the inverse of the need to make the Amazon part of the Brazilian nation-state, this rhetorical fear of invasion, like its nationalist counterpart, is not limited to a particular political ideology. Put another way: the use of the air force to make sure the Amazon remains under the power of “acceptable” (read: nation-state) actors is part of a longer history of fear over the region’s weakness.

The result of these two factors has been that a long-term context of efforts to bring a difficult environmental region under the control of the nation-state, combined with (sometimes not-so) latent fears of the region’s historical weakness have led to the militarization of combating deforestation, as well as how efforts to fight deforestation and illegal crime are not mutually-exclusive terms. Indeed, while there is much handwringing among some in the US over that country’s use of drones (an issue not really under the scope of this blog), in Latin America, drones are being used for purposes like this, so that, rather than targeting “enemies” overseas, drones are put to use to try to strengthen the nation-state’s power domestically.

As thorough as Axe’s piece is, however, he rather superficially glides over another major function of the Brazilian air force: regional power. As the US’s gaze turned elsewhere in the first decade of the 2000, Latin American countries operated with an unprecedented degree of (relative) non-interference (though the US remained active in the region in often-pernicious ways, as the failed Venezuelan coup against Chávez demonstrated). In that new-ish context, regional politics shifted, as countries (often under new left-ish leaders) demonstrated a greater autonomy and role in international politics. Far from a unified bloc, there were competitions, both explicit and implicit, between the countries; even while professing to be friends and allies, countries like Brazil and Venezuela still jostled to be the leader of the region. That Brazil is the continent’s largest country, and has one of its largest militaries, is thus not an accident; rather, it’s an example of how it could take the lead for the region should a military need ever arise, with the not-so-subtle implication that it could probably overwhelm neighboring militaries as well, should that particular “need” ever arise. Indeed, it’s made no secret of its effort to train others, which always brings the implied message of one country’s particular military strength. To be clear, this isn’t to say that the air force is so strong because of some militaristic plans on Brazil’s part; however, having a strong and modern military that is effective still carries a veiled threat, even if that is not the intent. Axe seems to give this sense of (still-friendly) regional competition in the twenty-first century short shrift. Admittedly, there is not much in terms of the public record to suggest any sense of militarized competition, but that does not mean such messages aren’t still tacitly present when one country or another conducts military exercises, as Brazil itself recently did.

Finally a point regarding the implications of Brazil’s ability to maintain what are by most global standards a strong air force without a massive budget. The implications are not meaningless for the US. It’s no secret that the US has a massive (and even bloated) defense budget that far outstrips social programs; meanwhile, Brazil manages to launch massive social programs like Bolsa Familia that have played no small role in addressing (though far from resolving) the socioeconomic inequalities that have historically defined the country. Put another way: Brazil suggests that a country can simultaneously adequately address “safety” even while maintaining social programs designed to help its citizens; it’s not the either/or proposition that all too often defines budgetary discussions in the US.

Around Latin America

August 25, 2013 Comments off

-In spite of a recent attack that left 13 Colombian soldiers dead, peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC continue, in an attempt to end civil war and conflict that has lasted nearly 50 years and left tens (if not hundreds) of thousands dead and millions displaced.

-Although Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto managed to remove powerful union leader Elba Ester Gordillo earlier this year, her absence has not prevented broader teacher mobilization against unpopular education reforms that Peña NIeto has pushed through. Thousands of teachers and their supporters have taken to the streets in Mexico City, protesting against an evaluation system they say is designed to fire teachers.

-Speaking of protests, in Colombia, thousands of farmers have mobilized, protesting against the government’s economic policies and issuing a wide number of demands, including access to potable water and lower taxes on agricultural goods.

-In Brazil, plans for a highway through the Iguaçu Falls National Park have prompted protests and intensified struggles between environmentalists and government officials.

-And in yet one more example of popular demonstrations in Latin America in the last few weeks, in Ecuador, protesters expressed anger at President Rafael Correa’s decision to open parts of the Yasuni National Park to oil exploration. Anger is understandable, given the ongoing effects of decades of toxic spills, pollution, environmental degradation, and health crises that resulted from oil production in Ecuador’s Amazonian basin.

-Chilean General Juan Emilio Cheyre has stepped down from his post as the head of Chile’s national electoral service after revelations that he was involved in the Chilean military regime’s practice of taking children of arrested and murdered activists.

-Meanwhile, in other episodes involving the legacies of the PInochet regime and the ongoing quest for justice, a judge has ruled that there is not sufficient evidence to try former dictator Augusto Pinochet’s family members for embezzlement and corruption, while another judge rejected a legal request to try former General Fernando Matthei for the murder of General Alberto Bachelet, an officer who opposed the 1973 coup. Bachelet was the father of former president (and current candidate) Michelle Bachelet.

-Twenty-two soccer players in El Salvador have been suspended amidst allegations of match-fixing.

-I previously commented on the non-military ways in which drones could be deployed in Latin America. Peru is adding to that list, now using drones to protect and further learn about archaeological ruins, simultaneously combating the effects of illegal mining, squatting, and scavenging at sites even while learning more about what these sites hold.

-A battle between rival gangs at a Bolivian prison has left at least 31 people dead, including an 18-month old child who was living with a parent in the prison, a practice allowed in Bolivia if children six years old or younger have no other living relative with whom they can live.

-Finally, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff signed into law new provisions designed to protect and aid rape victims, including guaranteeing medical treatment and providing emergency contraception to those who have been raped. The new provisions are part of a broader effort to combat rape in Brazil, where recent data suggest it is a broad and, for far too long, unaddressed problem.

Around Latin America

June 12, 2013 Comments off

-Nicaragua and China have entered into an agreement through which China could help build a canal through Nicaragua that would rival the Panama canal. Of course, Nicaragua has long been seen as a potential site for a canal; even in the 1800s, the US and European powers considered the possibility of building one. As it stands right now, the canal would take eleven years to construct and would cost $40 billion, but there is nothing to yet indicate that the construction would start soon or that it would be brought to completion.

-An audit of the April elections in Venezuela has confirmed that Nicolas Maduro defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in a very close election. Meanwhile, the economic and political instability that has been a significant problem in Maduro’s still-young administration (a problem that Maduro’s own policies and rhetoric have not helped) is hitting society hard: in addition to reports of shortages in basic goods like toilet paper, it appears beer prices have gone up 92% in Venezuela as well.

-An oil-spill in Ecuador now threatens both the Peruvian and Brazilian environment as it flows into the Amazonian basin, threatening river communities and riparian ecosystems. The spill began after a landslide damaged an oil pipeline, providing another reminder of the predictably-unpredictable nature of environmental processes and the risks of pipelines in dynamic ecosystems.

-Peace talks between Colombia’s government and the FARC have resumed after a brief break. The ongoing talks are the first significant talks between the two sides since the 1990s, as the two sides try to bring an end to a civil war that has lasted nearly 50 years. Prior to the talks, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Israel, where he signed a free trade agreement between Colombia and Israel.

-In a tragic example of the ways in which women in Nicaragua continue to be treated as second class citizens, conservative activists and politicians are seeking to create a law that would require abused women to negotiate with their abusers.

-In the wake of an AP report that found that Brazilian car designs facilitate deaths from crashes, Brazil has begun plans to create its first-ever crash test facility.

-In dual cases of justice in Peru, President Ollanta Humala (who is currently on his first official state visit to the US) denied a pardon to former president Alberto Fujimori, who had been convicted for his role in state repression and human rights violations during his 1990-2000 administration. And on the other end of the spectrum, a court sentenced former guerrilla leader and Shining Path leader Comrade Artemio (Florinda Flores) to a life sentence for his role in guerrilla violence, drug trafficking, and money laundering.

-Speaking of the Shining Path, though a tiny number continue to fight for revolution ostensibly in the name of the movement, a new political arm of the movement, the Movimiento Por Amnistia y Derechos Fundamentales (Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights; MOVADEF) is increasingly gaining support among some in Peru and beyond, prompting further reevaluations and considerations of the legacies of the Shining Path, state violence, and social divisions in Peruvian memory.

-Even while stories of government surveillance have occupied headlines in the US, it appears that secrecy at Guantanamo has only intensified, where a government ruling has gone into effect, and “those who’ve read it can’t say what it’s about, and those who haven’t don’t have a clue. Not even the accused, who, unless the judge rules for the defense, is not allowed to get an unclassified explanation of it – and cannot sit in on the court session when it’s argued in secret.”

-In another reminder of the gross socioeconomic inequalities in Brazil’s legal system, Thor Batista, the son of Brazilian billionaire who hit and killed a bicyclist while driving his car avoided jail time for the death. Instead, a judge ordered Batista to pay a R$1 million fine and serve two years of community service. In spite of the relatively lenient sentence for killing another person, Batista still plans on appealing the sentence.

-Finally, more than ten years after Brazil enacted affirmative action laws that created quotas for university admission, it appears the law has gone a long way in addressing inequalities, if a report on the University of Brasilia is representative. The study finds that there would be 71.5% fewer Afro-Brazilians in the school without the law, and that students admitted under quotas have outperformed non-quota students. [English version available here.]

Around Latin America

May 30, 2013 Comments off

-Two former executives from Ford in Argentina have been charged (among other things) with having ties to the abduction of 24 workers for Ford during the military regime of 1976-1983.

-El Salvador’s presidential election is shaping up to be a close three-way race, according to new polls.

-Mexico’s government says it will release a report that finds the number of disappeared in Mexico is “much lower” than an initial report that claimed that tens of thousands have been disappeared as part of the violence that has defined part of the drug trade in Mexico. Nonetheless, Mexico’s government has created a special unit to investigate and try to track down the fates of the tens of thousands of “disappeared” caught up in the drug trade and violence in Mexico.

-In what is perhaps curious timing, even while Efraín Ríos Montt’s conviction for genocide has been annulled, former Guatemalan president Alfonso Portillo was extradited to the US, where he will face charges of corruption and money laundering. As Mike Allison points out, the trial in the US provides another reminder that, although Guatemala’s courts are not as corrupt as they once were, they still have a long way to go, a fact that the recent decision on Ríos Montt all too tragically demonstrated.

-Speaking of institutional failures and undoing justice, a Brazilian court has overturned the 2010 conviction of landowner Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura for his role in the murder of land activist Dorothy Stang in 2005. It is the second time a conviction of Bastos de Moura has been overturned, though he will remain in jail while a third trial takes place. Meanwhile, three other, poorer men hired to murder Stang remain in prison without having access to multiple trials and a court system favorable to their cause the way it is to the wealthier and more powerful Bastos de Moura.

-Chile has fined Canadian mining company Barrick Gold and suspended all operations at the Pascua-Lama mine after environmental degradation, water contamination, and other environmental issues. Though seemingly large, the fine represents only %0.1 of the cost of operating the mine.

-Rio de Janeiro mayor Eduardo Paes is facing criticism for his inability to deal with criticisms after he punched a man in the face while out to dinner last Saturday.

-Following the footsteps of gangs in El Salvador, the MS-13 and Calle 18 gangs in Honduras have agreed to a truce that may reduce (but won’t eliminate) all gang violence and rivalries.

-Ten years since the rise of “Kirchnerism” in Argentina, poverty has declined, though to what degree and by what metrics are apparently up for debate.

-Efforts to reforest and aid the environment in Latin America have slowed to a crawl, caught in bureaucratic red tape, political fear of social movements, and a slowness (or unwillingness) of governments to help environmental causes in the region.

-Digital currency business owner Arthur Budovsky, whose company, Liberty Reserve, operates in Costa Rica, was arrested in Spain this week on charges of money laundering.

Watching Rural Conflict Unfold in Real Time

May 15, 2013 Comments off

IPS recently ran Fabiola Ortiz’s powerful story of violence in the Amazon that in many ways perfectly taps into the issues at the heart of inequalities, environment, and power in Brazil’s North, Northeast, and the Amazonian basin.

A fresh outbreak of violence between large landowners and landless peasants is looming in the Amazonian state of Pará, in northern Brazil.

The large estate of Itacaiúnas, in the southeast of Pará, in the municipality of Marabá, 684 kilometres from the state capital, Belém, is owned by Agro Santa Bárbara (AGRO-SB), a company that possesses at least 600,000 hectares of land in the state of Pará.

Since 2002 the Federation of Agricultural Workers of Pará (FETAGRI) has demanded that the property be confiscated and the land redistributed under Brazil’s land reform laws. More than 300 families are living on the land, in an encampment.

In late April, the landless rural workers announced that they would carry out “definitive occupation” of the estate and on Monday Apr. 29 they started dividing it into lots in order to “build the settlement themselves,” according to a FETAGRI communiqué.

AGRO-SB regards the landless farmers as criminals and says it has reported their actions to the military police, in order to keep the peace and avoid conflict.

“This group of land invaders is planning to divide the property into lots. Its goal is to expand the illegal occupation. This is a new criminal action by the invaders, who have the estate under their control and are blocking access by other people,” AGRO-SB said in a communiqué.

There is a real possibility of imminent violent conflict, because heavily armed groups hired by the estate owners have been reported in the area.

There are several historical processes to unpack here. First, there is the basic issue of inequality of land. For centuries now, dating back to the colonial era, land in Brazil’s Northeast (and later North) has been concentrated in the hands of the very few, while the overwhelming majority of the population found itself either completely landless, or barely able to eke out a living on tiny plots of land. As agroinustry expanded in the 20th century, many of those small-holders (as well as indigenous peoples) found themselves forced off their land, which in turn played no small part in Brazil’s urban explosion in the 20th century: between 1930 and the 1970s, Brazil’s population completely switched from 70% rural/30% urban to 30% rural/70% urban (and of course, rather than resolving inequalities, the glut in the cities just relocated the socioeconomic inequalities of the countryside into urban environments). By the 1980s, rural citizens had enough, forming the MST (Landless Workers’ Movement) and demanding action to address these inequalities. The MST has become a powerful social and political movement, and its paradigms for occupying land (often not in use) and forcing the issue of redistribution and reform has been a powerful model not just in Brazil, but elsewhere in the world. This style of occupying and defending the newly-occupied land are exactly what is playing out in the story.

Connected to this socioeconomic inequality is the question of political power and force in the region. As Ortiz mentions, the landless arm themselves not out of any sense of revolutionary violence, but out of the need for protection. Again for centuries, landed elites often formed what amounted to their own private armies, paying other peasants off (or ensnaring them in debt) and then deploying them to fight on behalf of the elites, be it against indigenous peoples, other landowners, or rebellious peasants. Though these “armies” have effectively disappeared, the private and personal use of outsourcing violence to the poor has not. Murders of peasant leaders like Chico Mendes and activists like Dorothy Stang have been all too commonplace in Brazil in recent decades. Usually, poorer workers for the elites commit the murders, operating as killers-for-hire; the elites are able to eliminate those who challenge their power without facing trial, while the poor contracted to kill the activists get paid and rarely face prosecution. Even when trials are brought forth, as in the Stang case, it often leads to the poor killers facing jail time while the elites who contracted the murders remain free, thereby reinforcing the socioeconomic inequalities in a legal system where there are effectively two structures: one that punishes the poor, and another that ensures the elites remain free.

And that ties into a third issue – often the police are complicit in this process themselves. Landed elites exercise enough regional control that they generally dominate politics, either directly or through personal and business connections. Such a structure means that they can effectively mold the institutions of the state to their desires, pressuring police departments to look the other way or even work directly in their interests, with police evicting, abusing, and even killing the activists and landless peasants, again oftentimes with impunity.

Thus you have on the one hand a large number of peasants and activists who have not been intimidated into silence and whose numbers are to great to completely wipe out; on the other hand, you have the elites and those from the lower classes and state institutions willing to work with them to target and try to terrorize activists in order to prevent any challenge to their economic and political power, power that often has its roots in social structures that date back centuries. Neither group is able to completely destroy the other: the peasants are too numerous, and the elites too entrenched. And so the violence continues, as is the case in Ortiz’s story. Though the outcome at Itacaiúnas is uncertain, the story itself is sadly all too familiar, and rarely does the outcome lead to greater political, economic, or social equality in the Brazilian countrysides.

Around Latin America

April 1, 2013 Comments off

-Brazil’s Federal Council of Medicine recently came out in favor of legalizing first-trimester abortions in Brazil, adding to the arguments and debate over the issue in a country where abortion is currently only legal in the case of rape, severe mental disability in the fetus, or if the pregnancy is a threat to the mother’s life.

-A hunger strike at Guantanamo continues to expand and to last, adding to questions of indefinite detention at the US bas in Cuba.

-Students in Chile continue to demand educational reforms, and, after police attempted to force students onto a route other than the already-approved one, the march turned violent, a turn of events that could perhaps have been avoided had police not forced the last-minute change.

-In an attempt to reduce violence against women, Ecuador may categorize femicide as a separate crime within the country’s penal code.

-The Brazilian Senate passed a law this week that gives domestic workers the same rights as other workers, including overtime pay, finally extending workers’ rights to the millions of domestic workers (almost all women) who work for Brazil’s middle- and upper-classes. Unsurprisingly, those who employ domestic servants have pushed back against the idea of their workers actually enjoying basic rights (an attitude the Washington Post itself reinforces by declaring the law will “impinge” upon the economy).

-Police violence in Honduras continues to be a major issue, as police act excessively and with impunity in ways reminiscent of the 1980s, even as the US allegedly continues to funnel money to forces that operate as death squads (a charge US officials of course deny).

-In tales of opposite results, the Peruvian government is working on setting aside lands for indigenous peoples who voluntarily remain isolated from most of Peruvian society, even while one of the few Bolivian indigenous groups that is growing faces opposition from ranchers who continue in their attempts to relocate native groups and seize their lands.

-A Brazilian doctor and her medical staff are under investigation for the murder of seven patients at a hospital; however, reports suggest that at least another 20 deaths could be tied to her team, with 300 more cases under investigation. According to one recording of the doctor, she allegedly committed the murders in order to open up beds in the hospital.

-As Paraguay’s elections approach, conservative candidate Horacio Cartes appears to be in the lead.

-Speaking of elections, Michelle Bachelet has officially announced she will run for president for a second time (she previously served from 2006-2010) as Chile prepares for elections next year. However, in spite of her incredible popularity when she left office in 2010, the path to a second term is far from assured. She is already facing harsh criticisms from other politicians and has significant work to do among social groups (including students and those who support the indigenous Mapuche, whom Bachelet targeted) who have grown critical not just of the right-wing Pinera government, but of the post-Pinochet governments in general.

-Finally, in a bit of potentially good environmental news, Brazil’s supermarkets have agreed not to sell beef from cattle raised in the Amazonian forest. It is not clear how they will monitor this or prevent all Amazonian beef from reaching the shelves, but given that ranches are responsible for much of the deforestation in the Amazon, this is a not-insignificant step.

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