Latin America: Grappling with Environmental Displacement

The Honduran refugee caravan crowds a bridge in October 2018

Honduran Refugee Caravan/ October 21, 2018/ Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/boyitchy/31600503428/

By Robert Albro*

Latin America and its faith-based organizations, seeking to expand the definition of refugee beyond just people forced to leave their countries in the face of political persecution, are making slow but steady progress promoting policies that deal with the increasingly serious issue of human displacement as a consequence of environmental change.

  • Since 1951, a large majority of Latin American countries have enshrined the right to asylum in their national constitutions, and the region emerged in the 1980s as a leader in efforts to broaden international standards for refugees and migrants. In 1984, the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, for example, enlarged the concept of refugees to include people “who have fled their country because their lives, safety, or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence.” A series of conferences organized by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) produced further breakthroughs during conferences in San José and San Salvador, including rights-based criteria involving, for example, gender and indigenous identity.

Over this decade, the coincidence of surges in migration from the “Northern Triangle” of Central America and international action on the environment – including Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si – have encouraged reassessment of the traditional distinction between “refugee” and “migrant.” Among similar initiatives in the Andean region, in 2014 Bolivia’s migration law introduced legal protections for “groups of people displaced from one country to another for climate reasons, when there exists a risk to life, as a result of nature, environmental, nuclear or chemical disaster, or famine.” What to do about people displaced across international borders as a result of life-threatening rapid-onset natural disasters has become an increasing focus of attention.

  • Discussions in conjunction with the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – a major component of the 2016 Paris Accord – have given new momentum to addressing environmental migration. Participants called for greater understanding of “climate change induced displacement, migration, and planned relocation,” even though emphasis in multilateral deliberations has shifted to “disasters” and away from “climate change.” 
  • Observers have credited Latin American church groups – as “specialists in the language of ethics” and “sources of moral authority” – with playing an important role in normative deliberations during the UNFCCC processes. A hemispheric dialogue led by the Organization of American States, called the “Protecting Our Home” initiative, was jointly launched with the Holy See after the Pope’s encyclical.

Faith-based responses both to environmental conflict and to the plight of migrants have been significant. Religion’s impact upon international deliberations regarding environmental migration is likely to continue growing as long as religious values are translatable to secular humanitarian efforts. Even when members of religious communities are lumped in with the rest of “civil society,” their emphasis on moral values, their ability to intervene on behalf of affected populations, and their role as service providers serve them well as proponents of efforts to include victims of environmental disaster and climate change as deserving recognition and support from governments and the international community. The “moral authority of faith leaders” is also less about the introduction of alternative moral valuations than a strategic advantage in efforts to gain access to and build trust with victims of humanitarian emergencies. 

  • There is, however, an additional role that faith-based actors have yet to embrace as the international response to increasing numbers of environmental migrants evolves. As multilateral deliberations increasingly consider “loss and damage” as a result of environmental disasters, including climate change, they are unsurprisingly limited to accounting for the loss of livelihoods and material assets, such as farms or homes. To date, little attention has been given to the consequences of non-economic or intangible loss, including loss of community identity, social cohesion, and traditional knowledge. Religion’s focus on moral and cultural questions of meaning and value make it a potential resource in coming to terms with the consequences of intangible loss. 

November 1, 2019

* Robert Albro is the Research Associate Professor at CLALS.

Hurricane Dorian: Silver Lining for Caribbean Unity?

By Wazim Mowla*

Men loading supplies onto a helicopter

CBP AMO agents deliver food and water to severely damaged Fox Town on the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas, in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian Sept. 6 2019 / Wikimedia / Public domain / https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CBP_Food_and_Water_Delivery_to_Bahamas_after_Hurricane_Dorian_(48693139732).jpg

Hurricane Dorian, which lashed the Bahamas for 68 hours in early September, revealed the severe limitations on Caribbean countries’ ability to  respond to increasingly brutal storms – an awareness that appears likely to contribute to greater regional cooperation.  Wind gusts of 220 mph, up to 15 inches of rain, and storm surges 23 feet above sea level caused more than 50 deaths, and 600 people are still missing a month later. Although the Bahamas opened 14 of its main islands for tourism soon after the storm, the economy has suffered major setbacks.  An estimated 80 percent of the fishery infrastructure is damaged in Grand Bahama, and close to 100 percent on Abaco Island. The country also suffered a large oil spill – more than 5 million gallons.

  • Dorian’s destruction is not without precedent in the Caribbean. Hurricanes Maria and Irma two years prior caused a combined total of $140 billion in damages and killed more than 3,000 people. While hurricanes have always afflicted the region, warm ocean temperatures in the Atlantic – raised by greenhouse gases trapped in the water – have made them more likely to develop into a category 4 or 5.

Caribbean countries were quick to respond to the Bahamas’ needs both individually and through the Caribbean Community’s (CARICOM) institutions. Individually, the national governments provided $1.7 million for recovery efforts and medical supplies. Some also sent soldiers, officers, and personnel to the Bahamas, including 100 soldiers from the Trinidad and Tobago Defense Force and 120 members from the Jamaica Defense Force. Others placed police officers on standby Bahamian internal security needed them and sent small teams of technicians to help restore water, medical, and phone systems.

  • As a regional collective, CARICOM also provided assistance. The Regional Security System, based in Barbados, dispatched more than 30 officers to the Bahamas; the Caribbean Development Bank issued $200,000 for relief aid with a $750,000 loan soon to come; and the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) coordinated relief updates and logistics. The University of the West Indies has provided psychological, family, and social support and medical assistance to victims and evacuees.

These actions, however, fall far short of the Bahamas’ needs. Karen Clark & Company’s risk modeler estimates that the country will face close to $7 billion in damages alongside the already high volume of missing persons. On its own, the region does not have the capacity or the financial capabilities to assist more than it currently has. For example, the Caribbean Development Bank’s total of $1 million is already matched or dwarfed by countries outside the Caribbean. India provided $1 million to the Bahamas after Dorian (separate from a $150 million line of credit, announced at an India-CARICOM summit Prime Minister Modi held in New York last month, for cooperation programs to combat climate change).  USAID and the Department of Defense have pledged a combined $34 million. Relief efforts are further stunted because countries in the Caribbean have relatively small populations and limited economies, so they cannot expend large sums of resources or personnel to the Bahamas.

Dorian has overall benefited regional unity and cooperation, even though some neighbors have criticized Nassau’s decision to forcibly repatriate Haitian migrants living in camps destroyed by the storm. In addition to expressing solidarity and providing assistance, CARICOM countries appear to be moving toward a consensus about the implications of climate change for their region, possibly creating a new, almost existential area of cooperation among them, including a strengthening of decades-old – and under-utilized – mechanisms such as the Regional Security System (RSS). At the moment, only seven of the fifteen full member-states in CARICOM have signed the RSS agreement. CARICOM alone isn’t going to sway international opinion on the urgency for combatting climate change, but greater unity among its members will certainly help. Hurricane Dorian will not be the last strong storm to devastate the region.

October 21, 2019

* Wazim Mowla is an MA candidate in the School of International Service and Research Assistant at the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies.

Colombia: Ready to Expand Environmental Policies

By Luis Gilberto Murillo*

Lush view of mountain range in Colombia

Jardín, Colombia by Pedro Szekely / Flickr / Creative Commons

Colombia has provided important leadership in implementing integrated, pro-environment taxes in the country, but there is urgent need for it to do more.  In 2017, Colombia became one of three countries with the greatest advances in implementing fiscal mechanisms to control emissions, one of the principal tasks on its agenda for full membership in the OECD.  But experts believe that the deepening of the global socio-ecological crisis caused by climate change demands broader, accelerated fiscal mechanisms to protect the environment and sustainable development.

  • In 2015, Colombia, as part of its Paris Agreement commitments, set the goal of reducing greenhouse gases by 20 percent by 2030. A recent report by the Comptroller General of the Republic concluded that the Colombian national economy will need to undergo a significant restructuring to meet that goal and make the country resilient in the face of extreme climate events such as floods and droughts.  The Comptroller report opened the door to discussion of fiscal tools for action and environmental protection, with special priority given to controlling deforestation, water conservation, and improving air quality. Environment taxes on carbon, plastic bags, and motorcycles with motors above 200cc have been a starting point, but the Comptroller assesses that they haven’t been effective enough.
  • The government today has much greater resources – more than 700 billion Pesos (about US$227 million) per year – than before. Moreover, the launch of Colombia’s unique voluntary carbon market, bringing important projects and a flow of resources to rural and ethnic minorities (Afro-Colombians and Indigenous communities), has already demonstrated the positive impact of green taxes.  The program to tax plastic bags has reduced their use by 30 percent in just the first year of implementation, 2017.

Debate over how and where to invest the resources created by environmental taxes will certainly be important.  Most observers believe that the central criterion should be how well projects change the attitudes and behavior of those involved.  Projects will be key, but the contribution of each individual to save the planet will be even more important.

  • The recent finance law, introduced by the current government and approved by Congress, missed a valuable opportunity to adjust existing green taxes and create new ones, especially regarding progress in promoting electric vehicles, innovative renewable energy production, and control over the use of plastics other than bags. Upcoming legislation provides ample chances to expand environmental taxes to achieve these goals.  A better balance between various taxes – on capital and labor on one hand, and pollution and environmental degradation on the other – could lay the foundation for progress.

The gains made thus far underscore the importance of having a strategic vision and discipline.  Improvisation will fail; steady work, technical rigor, and political wisdom are required for progress.  An important first step will be the designation of a technical mission to head the National Planning Department, which is charged with leading and coordinating the country’s development agenda in the medium and long term.  Such a technical mission, along with the Comptroller team, can guide public debate and keep it squarely on the national public agenda.

March 1, 2019

* Luis Gilberto Murillo is a CLALS research fellow and former Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development of Colombia, with almost 30 years of experience in the areas of environment, sustainable development, and peace building.

Southern Cone: Rapid Transition to Non-Conventional Renewable Energy

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Edificio Alexander

Edificio Alexander, a building in Punta del Este, Uruguay, that produces wind energy on its roof. / Jimmy Baikovicius / Flickr / Creative Commons

South America’s Southern Cone is undertaking a transition to non-conventional, renewable energy resources – that is, production not dependent on fossil fuels or large-scale hydropower – that creates the opportunity for a historic regional consensus on energy policy.  Uruguay and Chile are at the forefront.  Both lack significant fossil fuel reserves and have experienced crises when droughts detrimentally impacted hydro-supplied electricity.  For them, the rapid shift to other forms of domestically sourced renewables is as much a means to guarantee energy security as to combat climate change.  Approximately a third of Uruguay’s electricity is currently generated from wind power (up from only one percent as recently as 2013).  Similarly, about a third of Chile’s electric power – depending on the time of day – is sourced from the sun and the wind.

  • Brazil has also made significant strides in incorporating wind, and to a lesser degree, solar power into its energy matrix. The primary motivation is the need to offset carbon emissions from the burning of rain forests and the country’s greater use of natural gas.  Brazil has long enjoyed the cleanest energy of any large economy in the world because of its heavy reliance on hydropower, which still covers some two-thirds of the country’s electric needs.  Brazil was also a pioneer in the development of more environmentally friendly sugar-based ethanol (as opposed to corn favored in U.S. ethanol production); most passenger vehicles today have flex-fuel engines.  Paraguay gets almost all its electricity from hydropower (and exports the bulk of what it produces).
  • Argentina, while increasing exploitation of its large shale gas and oil reserves, in 2017 expanded renewable energy projects nearly 800 percent over the previous year, according to reports. President Mauricio Macri has created a more inviting investment climate for the private sector, rapidly increasing natural gas output, especially from the Vaca Muerta shale reserves in Patagonia.  He is also encouraging the expansion of renewable energy beyond large hydro by, among other things, allowing long-term power purchase agreements in U.S. dollars as a hedge against currency devaluations.  Furthermore, large industrial consumers face penalties if they do not meet increasing thresholds set for renewable energy use.  Current laws require that at least 20 percent of the nation’s electricity come from non-conventional renewables by the end of 2025, and they include tax exemptions, import duty waivers, and a special trust fund called FODER, created in 2016, to provide subsidized loans and other assistance.

The rapid expansion of the renewable energy sector in the Southern Cone will enable countries to export excess production to their neighbors, facilitated by a robust regulatory framework to facilitate the cross-border trade in energy resources.  In addition, by creating a fully integrated regional market in renewable energy products, a crucial backup is established for resources such as wind and solar power that are inevitably prone to interruptions during the day.  It would also mitigate the impact of droughts on hydro-generated electricity, which are likely to worsen with global climate change.  Accordingly, there are strong incentives to revive efforts begun by MERCOSUR in the late 1990s to integrate energy markets that collapsed with the Argentine energy crisis at the start of the 21st century.  The fact that all the Southern Cone governments are now ideologically aligned in favor of market-oriented economic and investment policies facilitates achieving a regional consensus on energy for the first time.  Governments in the region now need to move beyond the discussion phase to turn all this into a concrete reality.

October 19, 2018

*Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is the President of Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd. and currently teaches at Stanford University in Palo Alto and Santiago, Chile.

The Caribbean After the Hurricanes: What Path for Recovery?

By Daniel P. Erikson*

A group of man clear debris

Residents and volunteers begin clearing debris from Hurricane Irma on St. Maarten. / NLRC / Flickr / Creative Commons

This fall’s historically fierce hurricane season reminds us once again that the Caribbean remains extraordinarily vulnerable to natural disasters – especially in the lucrative tourist sectors – and needs to move beyond tourism.  The services sector in the Caribbean may serve as an important source of economic growth, but only if the region begins to take advantage of opportunities in banking and financial services; call centers and information and communication technology; off-shore education and health services; and transportation.

  • While the impact of Harvey, Irma, Jose, Katia, and Maria in U.S. states like Texas and Florida has received wide attention, the small island nations of the Caribbean have also been left to contend with extensive damage to infrastructure and loss of life that has resulted in thousands of newly homeless and dozens of deaths. Irma struck the tiny nation of Antigua and Barbuda as a peak-strength Category 5 storm, and Prime Minister Gaston Browne estimated that 95 percent of the properties on the smaller island of Barbuda were destroyed.  Irma then raked across the U.K. territories of Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, and the Turks and Caicos, the French territories of St. Bart’s, Guadeloupe and St. Martin (including the Dutch half of St. Maarten).  Cuba also suffered as the storm swept across its northern coast and ravaged the third-largest city, Camaguey.  Then, just as Hurricanes Jose and Katia rattled the islands only to retreat as minor threats, Hurricane Maria strengthened into a Category 4 storm that ravaged Dominica and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico with winds exceeding 150 mph, devastating local infrastructure and knocking out the power grid, possibly for months to come.

Clearly, the focus of the near-term will be relief and recovery efforts, as these small islands seek to cope with the enormous damage.  But rebuilding a stronger and more diversified service sector may offer the best path towards a sustainable and much-deserved recovery for the people of the region.  Several years ago, the Centre for International Governance and Innovation in Waterloo, Canada, asked me to assess what steps the Caribbean islands could take to diversify their economies away from an over-reliance on tourism to create a more sustainable future.  The lessons of that study, Beyond Tourism: The Future of the Service Industry in the Caribbean, remain relevant today.  The bottom line:  Expanding the competitiveness of the Caribbean services sector beyond tourism is a way to draw on regional strengths and broaden the basis for economic growth.

The hurricanes have dealt a tragic and costly blow to the Caribbean, but the reconstruction efforts may also provide an opportunity to build back stronger and more resilient economies.  While the damage is still being assessed, it is already clear that the lives of tens of thousands of people who live on these islands will never be the same and that property damage will extend into the billions.  The recent damage to Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria will likely jolt those figures substantially higher, while some of the smaller, remote islands hurt by earlier storms may be uninhabitable for weeks to come.  French President Emmanuel Macron and the King of the Netherlands traveled to the region to show solidarity with their afflicted citizens, while the United States deployed teams to assist in disaster relief and deployed over $1 million in aid to the smaller affected islands – and is beginning to launch a major relief effort in Puerto Rico as well.  Once the challenges of treating the injured and assisting with basic human needs are met, much of the early reconstruction effort is likely to focus on rebuilding tourist infrastructure.  This will be necessary, but not sufficient, to create a full recovery.  Caribbean leaders have increasingly recognized that developing globally competitive services industries offers one way to retain high-skilled workers and mitigate the risk of external shocks to the tourist sector. During the Obama administration, Vice President Biden made a major effort to deepen U.S. investments in the Caribbean’s energy sector, and new sources of financing through the Inter-American Development Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and private U.S. companies could similarly lead to a major push to modernize services-related infrastructure throughout the islands.  Future storms cannot be prevented, but a more diversified services sector will help the islands to navigate the challenge of reconstruction more effectively.

September 28, 2017

* Daniel P. Erikson is managing director at Blue Star Strategies in Washington, DC, and previously served as a White House and State Department advisor on Latin America during the Obama Administration.

Peru: Can the Shamans Save the Glaciers?

By Karsten Paerregaard*

huaytapallanaceremony

A ceremony at Mount Huaytapallana during the Andean New Year. / Photo by Karsten Paerregaard.

Peru – one of the countries in the world most vulnerable to climate change – is experiencing a surge in religious ceremonies highlighting the plight of its rapidly shrinking glaciers, but the increased attention has downsides as well.  Peru has 70 percent of the world’s tropical glaciers, which provide most of the country’s fresh water and have been integrally linked to the identity of the Andean people since the Incas.  They are rapidly shrinking, however.  Mount Huaytapallana, a 5,500-meter-high glacier about 300 kilometers east of Lima, has shrunk 50 percent over the past quarter century – with profound implications for life throughout much of Peru.  Shamans in the region, whose ceremonies and offerings have long constituted a critical means of regulating the relationship between society and nature in the Andes, are reviving the practices to draw attention to this environmental crisis.

  • Most participants in ceremonies on Mount Huaytapallana come from Huancayo and other nearby cities in the central highlands, hoping that Huaytapallana will listen to their prayers and bring them good fortune. The Andean New Year on June 24, one of the most spectacular events, attracts more than a thousand people.  They offer food, drinks, candles, and cloths that are burned while the shamans say prayers to Huaytapallana in Quechua.  The event reminds people of the suffering that global warming is causing to the mountain.
  • In the southeastern highlands, Mount Ausungate attracts even bigger crowds. Around the feast of Corpus Christi each year thousands of pilgrims walk up to a sanctuary to pay tribute to an image called Señor de Qoyllur Rit’i (the Lord of the Snow Star), declared an Intangible Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2011.  The image represents Christ, who according the local legend revealed himself at the sanctuary in the 18th century, but it is also a religious relic of a pre-Columbian tradition of worshipping Andean mountain deities.  Dance groups from eight communities of pilgrims, known as naciones, play music and dance around the clock, and men dressed as bears climb the nearby glaciers of Ausungate to set up crosses and until recently set off fireworks.  An estimated 50,000 visited the sanctuary last year.

The glaciers are symbols of both the country’s indigenous past and the damage that global climate change is inflicting.  The growing participation in Andean ceremonies with religious overtones reflects the deepening concern for the profound social, economic, and spiritual implications of the environmental degradation.  It is fueled by a search for alternative answers to problems that global climate change is causing in Peru and that the country’s governments so far have failed to provide.  The surge in interest also, ironically, is cause for concern.  According to the regional government of Junín, responsible for the protection of Huaytapallana’s environment, visitors leave more than four tons of trash on the mountain every year.  The commercialization of the offering ceremonies makes it difficult to hold the shamans accountable for participants’ activities.  At Qoyllur Rit’i, Peru’s Ministry of Culture is in charge of preserving the pilgrimage according to Andean traditions, enhancing people’s awareness of Ausungate’s cultural importance, but pilgrims’ presence on the glaciers remains an issue of continuous dispute.  Shamans and environmentalists are a potentially powerful alliance, but even mitigating the environmental impact of activities by people concerned with climate change is not a simple matter.

February 6, 2017

* Karsten Paerregaard teaches in the School of Global Studies at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.  He has participated in a CLALS project, funded by the Henry Luce Foundation, on Religion and Climate Change in Cross-Regional Perspective.

Mexico: Environmental Initiatives Likely to Stir Things Up

By Daniela Stevens*

mexico-environment

Mexico City’s Reforma axis under a blanket of smog / Lars Plougmann / Flickr / Creative Commons

Mexico has made a big push on climate issues over the past month that could have far-reaching consequences internally and in the hemisphere.  On August 16, it announced a pilot Emission Trading System (ETS), also known as “cap-and-trade,” that will begin a simulation in November and officially initiate trading carbon permits in 2018.  Two weeks later, at the second Climate Summit of the Americas (CSA), the Mexican federal government signed a joint declaration with the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Québec to advance “cooperation activities on carbon markets.”  Mexico’s motives are not immediately clear.  For a middle-income nation, with annual growth (around 2 percent) compromised by the crash in oil prices, an ETS represents a potentially significant economic burden.  Mexican officials have not explained, moreover, how they might link their cap-and-trade to the Canadian provinces’ systems and to the Western Climate Initiative (WCI), North America’s largest carbon market and the second largest in the world.

The moves may be driven by increasing Mexican belief that more assertive, market-oriented approaches are necessary to meet its international commitments.

  • Mexico is dependent on fossil fuels for over a third of its total energy production, wreaking havoc with the country’s air quality. Over the last few months, Mexico City decreed several “environmental contingencies,” situations of abnormally high concentrations of ozone in the atmosphere.
  • Moreover, Mexico may be seeking the advantage that increased regional cooperation represents. Its international commitments on emission reductions are very ambitious, and a linkage to its North American partners lends itself almost as a natural solution to help in the advancement of its pledges.  Mexico could export sectoral offsets that American and Canadian partners need – contributing to Mexican revenues and to market stability.  Mexico would also benefit from the resulting transfer of information expertise, technology, training, and methodologies.
  • An important first step for the Mexican authorities would be to commit the resources to establish the robust institutional mechanisms and capacities to launch, monitor, enforce and sustain a system as intricate as a national ETS, and only after that, lend itself as a reliable partner in an internationally linked market.

The details of the pilot ETS have not been publicized, and the agreement with Québec and Ontario does not establish commitments beyond “identifying opportunities for linking systems as much as possible.”  Mexican companies already voluntarily buy and sell carbon bonds on a small national market – a system complemented by a carbon tax in place since 2013 – but an enforced and internationally linked market would highlight the disparities among the North American nations – and represent a challenge to Mexico.  Unlike its partners, Mexico is still an industrializing nation, with a thriving motor vehicle industry, and industrializing nations have traditionally been reluctant to pricing emissions.  Industrialized countries are the highest historical emitters and reached that status of development by polluting without paying the price.  Although the need to prioritize economic growth does not exempt Mexico from fulfilling its commitments as the eleventh highest global emitter, it does signal that besides opportunities, Mexico faces challenges with trading partners at different stages of development.  The Climate Summit of the Americas showed, however, that regional fora and of subnational partnerships can further environmental commitments beyond the global and national summits.  The CSA signaled an opportunity for the region to develop North American or, more ambitiously, hemispheric solutions to climate change.

September 15, 2016

* Daniela Stevens is a PhD candidate in the American University School of Public Affairs.  Her research focuses on national and subnational policies that put a price on carbon emissions.

Cuba: Implications of U.S. Tourism

By Emma Fawcett*

Tourists on beach in Cuba

Photo Credit: Emmanuel Huybrechts / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

U.S. regulations still technically ban tourist travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens, but the Obama Administration’s policies have already spurred significant growth in visitor arrivals to the island – with implications for Cuba and its Caribbean neighbors.  Over the last year, Cuba has experienced a 17 percent increase in total visitors, and a 75 percent increase in arrivals from the United States since Washington expanded the categories of permitted travel and, according to observers, relaxed enforcement.  An agreement to begin commercial airline operations between the two countries promises even more travel.  Other elements of the embargo continue to complicate U.S. travel: most U.S.-issued credit cards still do not work on the island; phone and internet connections are limited; and visitors often face persistent shortages of food items, consumer goods, and hotel rooms.  But the surge almost certainly will continue.

The onslaught of U.S. tourists challenges the Cuban tourism industry’s capacity.  Cuba has one the lowest rates of return visits (less than 10 percent) in the Caribbean; on the other islands, 50 percent to 80 percent of tourists make a return visit.  It has serious weaknesses:

  • While Cuba’s unique appeal may draw in millions of first-time visitors, the still relatively poor quality of service apparently discourages tourists from making the island a regular vacation spot. Sustaining arrivals requires higher marketing costs.  Average spending per visitor, moreover, has been on a fairly steady decline since 2008.
  • About 70 percent of Cuba’s tourists come for sun-and-beach tourism – a sector under state control – but private microenterprises have already demonstrated more agility in responding to demand than the state-owned hotels or joint ventures. The government reported last year that 8,000 rooms in casas particulares, or bed-and-breakfasts in Cubans’ homes, were for rent, and the number is growing steadily.
  • Cuba’s “forbidden fruit” factor may have a limited shelf life as visitors sense the imminent end to Castroism and the arrival of McDonalds, Starbucks, and their ilk. Questions remain about how long Cuba’s current environmental protections will continue when tourist arrivals increase.  Nicknamed the “Accidental Eden,” Cuba is the most biodiverse country in the Caribbean because of low population density and limited industrialization.  But rising visitor arrivals (and the effects of climate change) are likely to increase beach erosion and biodiversity loss.

Ministers of tourism in the other Caribbean countries have downplayed fears about competition from Cuba, but their optimism is sure to be tested.  A successful Cuban tourism sector could conceivably spur region-wide increases in visitor arrivals, but it could also cause other Caribbean countries to lose significant market share.  The official Communist Party newspaper, Granma, has suggested the government’s goal is to almost triple tourist arrivals to 10 million per year.  President Danilo Medina of the Dominican Republic, the most visited country in the region (at about 5.5 million tourists a year), has also set a goal of reaching 10 million arrivals by 2022 – setting that country to go in head-to-head competition with Cuba.  Jamaica, the third most visited country in the region, has instead pursued a multi-destination agreement with Cuba, designed to encourage island-hopping and capitalize on Cuba’s continued growth.  Previous attempts at regional marketing and multi-destination initiatives have had mixed success.  But as Cuba’s tourism sector continues to expand, Caribbean leaders – in what is already the most tourism-dependent region in the world – undoubtedly sense that Cuba is back in the game and could very well change rules under which this key industry has operated for the past six decades.

July 25, 2016

*Emma Fawcett is a PhD candidate in International Relations at American University.  Her doctoral thesis focuses on the political economy of tourism and development in four Caribbean case studies: Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and the Mexican Caribbean.

Latin America (Overall) Embraces Paris Climate Accord

By Fulton Armstrong

cop21 paris accord 2015

Heads of delegations at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. Photo Credit: Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

Latin American support for the landmark climate agreement signed at the United Nations last week may not have been enthusiastic during the negotiations, but all but Nicaragua seem eager for early ratification and implementation of measures to mitigate the harm of global warming.  A record-breaking 175 countries signed the accord in one day, including a number from Latin America, committing them to take concrete steps to keep the increase in global temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius (or, ideally, 1.5 degrees) over preindustrial levels.  To take effect, at least 55 countries producing 55 percent of global emissions must ratify the agreement.  Fifteen small island nations, including several in the Caribbean, already presented their ratification papers last Friday.  China and the United States, the two greatest emitters of greenhouse gasses, have said they’ll ratify this year – as have France and other EU countries.

The region’s leaders have made significant contributions to the accord over the years.  Mexico and Peru, which were hosts of crucial international conclaves leading up to it, have given it a Latin American imprint, and others supported the final round of talks in Paris last December.  Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s reference in her speech to her political troubles back home overshadowed Brazil’s leadership, including its commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent of 2005 levels by 2030.  In the past, ALBA countries complained loudly that the wealthy, developed nations, which produce the vast majority of climate-harming gasses, should shoulder the burden of reducing them and should compensate poorer countries for harm that environmental measures cause them.  All but Nicaragua, however, have submitted national plans (called an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, INDC) required for full participation in international efforts under the Paris Accord.  Nicaraguan Representative Paul Oquist told the media that “voluntary responsibilities is a path to failure” and that wealthy countries should compensate Nicaragua for the $2 billion cost the measures would entail.

Latin America has clear incentives to support the accord.  Various scientific studies underscore the impact of global warming on the region, with potentially dire consequences.  The World Bank and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have reported that failure to act would cause further extreme weather threatening agriculture; rapid melting of Andean glaciers that provide much-needed fresh water; erosion of coastal areas; catastrophic damage to Caribbean coral reefs; and dieback of Amazon forests.  ALBA demands for compensation may be overstated but contain a grain of truth – they aren’t prodigious producers of greenhouse gasses – and skepticism that the big guys will meet their targets isn’t entirely unwarranted.  President Obama has repeatedly demonstrated his personal commitment to addressing the problem, but obstacles posed by the U.S. Senate (which must ratify the agreement), Supreme Court (which in February stalled implementation of his Clean Power Plan), and politicians seeking the Republican Presidential nomination (who have sworn opposition to deals like the Paris Accord) have all but shut down U.S. movement toward ratification.  The ALBA outliers, on the other hand, have made their complaints heard and appear likely to join the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean in pushing for ratification and quick implementation – and probably will soon renew the push for even tougher measures by industrialized nations.

April 25, 2016

Nicaragua: Where’s the Canal?

By Fulton Armstrong

Canal Nicaragua

Coming soon to Nicaragua? Photo Credit: tryangulation / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Nicaraguan government and Chinese investment group leading the Nicaragua Grand Canal project continue to claim enthusiasm for their dream, but enough fundamental problems remain unresolved to suggest that prospects for its eventual construction are dimming – and the principals are maneuvering to avoid picking up the tab for the expenditures made so far.  In a year-end statement last December, President Ortega’s office said the canal project would be one of his government’s top 25 priorities this year and emphasized its benefits to the Nicaraguan people.  Hong Kong-based HKND Group had announced in November that it was “fine-tuning” the canal design to address problems raised in an environmental impact study, which would delay the beginning of major excavations and lock-building until the end of 2016.  Company officials have since said, however, that construction of a fuel terminal and wharf on the Pacific coast –necessary to bring in the massive equipment the project requires – could start as early as this August.  The company still claims that it will complete the canal in 2020 – a prediction that few, if any, outside experts see as feasible.

The project faces massive obstacles, with no solutions in sight.

  • The estimated US$50 billion in financing is nowhere to be seen. Chinese investor Wang Jing, who has already spent US$500 million of his own money on the project, lost some 85 percent of his US$10 billion personal fortune in last year’s Chinese stock market correction.  (Bloomberg named him the worst performing billionaire of 2015.)  Observers believe his losses as well as the problematic environmental impact study have cooled his and other private investors’ support.  An initial public offering of shares has been postponed indefinitely.
  • Project managers have yet to demonstrate the need for the canal and propose solutions to significant engineering challenges, such the need for construction able to withstand earthquakes made likely because of seismic faults along the route. HKND says the canal will handle 3,500 cargo ships a year, including ones bigger than those transiting the Panama Canal, but industry experts say there’s no demand for more than will be accommodated by the expansion of the existing canal – and that the United States has no ports capable of receiving the larger vessels.  Global warming, moreover, could soon open a faster and cheaper route north of Canada.
  • Public protests have diminished during the hiatus in canal-related news and activities, but opponents remain strident and are gaining international support. Detractors’ resolve to fight has been strengthened by the environmental report, by a credible UK firm, determining that the project will “have significant environmental and social impacts,” including dislocation of at least 30,000 Nicaraguans.  Indigenous and Afro-Nicaraguan groups on the Atlantic Coast are upset about disruptions to traditional territories, including cemeteries and holy places.  Amnesty International has condemned the treatment of affected persons as “outrageous” and “reckless.”

The “biggest earth-moving project in history” is still looking like one of the biggest boondoggles in history – yet another in a long series of chimera canals in Nicaragua since early last century.  The government says that popular support for the project remains about 81 percent, but a survey by Cid Gallup, published in the Nicaraguan newspaper Confidencial in January, showed that 34 percent of 1,000-plus respondents consider the canal to be “pure propaganda.”  One quarter believe technical studies have been inadequate and that funding will not materialize.  Those sentiments could be reversed somewhat by the appearance of massive excavation equipment and creation of related construction jobs, but support will still be tempered by concerns about persons whose lives are disrupted by the project – and by perennial and profound suspicions that corruption will take the lion’s share of benefits.  Some opposition leaders believe HKND’s big push to appear optimistic is to build a case for collapse of the project to be Nicaragua’s fault, so that the company can demand that Managua repay the $500 million that Wang has reportedly spent.  The lack of transparency surrounding the project only fuels such speculation. 

April 4, 2016