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

El Niño Pummels Peru and Poses Challenges Elsewhere in Latin America

By Abby Lindsay*

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Mangrove against waves, Estuary of Rio Tumbes, Peru. Photo Credit: Bruno Locatelli/CIFOR / Flickr / Creative Commons

Although advanced scientific models can better detect the severity of an upcoming El Niño, preparing for the impact of each episode remains a recurrent challenge for many Latin American countries.  El Niños change rainfall patterns in ways that result in extreme flooding in some regions and droughts in others, affecting food and energy production and other economic activities.  In July 2015, satellite and computer modeling predicted that an “extraordinary” El Niño would likely strike in six months – and although not record-breaking, this episode has wreaked havoc in parts of Latin America.  Citizens below the poverty line tend to be hit hardest, as many live on lands vulnerable to natural disasters, such as landslides and flooding, and rely on subsistence agriculture that cannot withstand weather shocks.  Studies by climate and atmospheric scientists argue that El Niños will become more frequent and severe in future years due to rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions, increasing the urgency that governments build resiliency against the associated flooding and droughts.

  • Peru has been particularly affected by this year’s ongoing El Niño, especially in the northern coastal zone. As warming in the middle of the Pacific Ocean causes less upwelling of nutrient-rich waters, fish stocks have declined, damaging an industry upon which Peru relies for 2 percent of its GDP.  Extensive agricultural losses also result from changes in ocean currents and wind patterns that cause droughts in the southern part of the country and a spike in rainfall in the north.  Severe flooding is already having a detrimental impact; local media report that in the Tumbes area, in northwest Peru, 3,000 people have lost their homes and 30,000 have been affected because overflowing rivers have washed out bridges and devastated houses along river valleys.  Landslides have devastated dwellings constructed on the steep, marginal land on the outskirts of cities or in river valleys.
  • Other parts of Latin America are also affected during El Niño. In Central America, the warm Pacific Ocean temperatures are exacerbating existing droughts, which have reduced agricultural yields, while excessive rainfall on the east coast wipes out bridges and houses.  The Andean and Amazonian regions have seen reduced rainfall, leading to worries about forest fires in the rainforest.  The La Plata River basin is getting abnormally high levels of run-off.

With proper warning, governments can take action to mitigate the damage of El Niños.  Receiving predictions last July, Peruvian President Humala declared 14 regions in a preemptive state of emergency and called for preparations.  It is still too early to tell how much these measures have helped, but there is little debate that some preparation is better than none.  Local officials held planning meetings, and the national government provided funding for citizen programs – such as warning the population to move away from flood and landslide zones, and building infrastructure’s ability to withstand flooding and landslides.  In Piura, for example, they dredged part of the river and built diversions to direct water away from populated areas.  Given the predictions that El Niños will continue and worsen in severity, governments need to start thinking about long-term solutions and preparations.  Rather than last-minute preparations, however, governments could consider proactive measures such as conserving or constructing mangroves, wetlands, and riparian buffers that can naturally mitigate flooding; promoting crop diversity with drought-resistant strains; or harnessing water surges for benefits such as aquifer recharging.  Better planning could help Peru and other countries weather future episodes with less emergency scrambling. 

March 28, 2016

*Abby Lindsay is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the School of International Service.  Her dissertation research focuses on global environmental policy, particularly water governance.

How are the Americas Faring in an Era of Lower Oil Prices?

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Gas Station Guatemala

Photo Credit: Josué Goge / Flickr / Creative Commons

The sharp drop in global oil prices – caused by a combination of a slowing Chinese economy hurting commodities sales and efforts by Saudi Arabia to retain market share – has both downsides and advantages for Latin America and the Caribbean.  By keeping production levels steady, despite decreased demand, so that a barrel of crude remains below US$40, the Saudis’ hope is to put U.S. shale oil producers and Canadian tar sands producers out of business.  The drop in oil prices has had a varied impact elsewhere in the Americas:

  • The effect in Venezuela, already reeling from over a decade of economic mismanagement, has been catastrophic. The ripple effect is being felt in those Caribbean and Central American countries that grew to depend on PetroCaribe’s generous repayment terms for oil imports that allowed savings to be used for other needs.  In 2015, for example, this alternative funding mechanism in Belize was slashed in half from the previous year.  The threat of interest rate hikes on money that must eventually be repaid for oil imports also pushed the Dominican Republic and Jamaica to use funds raised on international capital markets to reduce their debt overhang with Venezuela.  (For those weening themselves off PetroCaribe dependency, however, the lower prices are a silver lining.)
  • Low oil prices have also knocked the wind out of Mexico’s heady plans to overhaul its petroleum sector by encouraging more domestic and foreign private-sector investment.
  • In South America, the decline has undermined Rafael Correa’s popularity in Ecuador because the government has been forced to implement austerity measures. The Colombian state petroleum company, Ecopetrol, will likely have to declare a loss for 2015, the first time since the public trading of its shares began nine years ago.  In Brazil, heavily indebted Petrobras has seen share prices plummet 90 percent since 2008, although that is as much the result of the company being at the center of a massive corruption scandal that has discredited the country’s political class.
  • On the other hand, lower petroleum prices have benefitted net energy importers such as Chile, Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

The one major oil producer in the Americas that has not cut back on production and new investment is Argentina – in part because consumers are subsidizing production and investment by the state petroleum firm YPF, which was renationalized in 2012 and now dominates domestic end sales of petroleum products.  Prices at the pump remain well above real market values.  While successive Argentine governments froze energy prices following the 2001-02 implosion of the Argentine economy, this time policy is keeping some energy prices high.  This encourages conservation and efficiency and spurs greater use of renewable alternatives, but it becomes unsustainable during a prolonged dip because it will, among other things, make the country’s manufacturers uncompetitive.  The Argentine example underscores that predictions of a pendulum shift in Latin America in favor of private-sector investment in the hydrocarbons sector over state oil production are still premature.

The lower prices do not appear likely to harm the region’s continuing substitution of natural gas for coal and oil as a transitional fossil fuel to greener sources of energy.  Natural gas prices remain at their lowest levels in over a decade, and the expansion of liquefied natural gas plants allows for easier transport of natural gas to markets around the world.  They are also unlikely to dent the global shift to greater reliance on renewable energy resources driven by the international consensus that climate change can no longer be ignored and something must be done to address it.  At the UN climate change talks in Paris last December, for example, countries agreed to keep temperature increases “well below” 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels and made a specific commitment “to pursue efforts” to achieve the much more ambitious target of limiting warming to no more than 1.5 degrees centigrade.  The year 2015 was the second consecutive year in which energy-related carbon emissions remained flat in spite of 3 percent economic growth in both years. 

March 24, 2016

*The author is the President of San Francisco-based Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd.  He chaired the Western Hemisphere Area Studies program at the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute between July 2011 and November 2015.

Zika Challenges Mount

By Rachel Nadelman* and Fulton Armstrong

Scientists and Zika

Photo Credit: Pan American Health Organization / Creative Commons / Flickr

While scientists struggle to confirm their theories over the link between the Zika virus and the dread health conditions it apparently causes, national and regional leaders face the monumental task of addressing popular anxiety that’s spreading faster than the virus itself.  The Health Minister in Brazil – site of the largest outbreak of microcephaly – has said he is “absolutely sure” that the virus is causing women to give birth to babies with the condition, characterized by abnormally small heads and serious developmental deficits.  The head of the World Health Organization’s emergency response team said last week (2/19) that the “virus is considered guilty until proven innocent,” but that it will take four to six months to even potentially be sure.  In the meantime, other questions are emerging:

  • Argentine scientists calling themselves “Physicians in the Crop-Sprayed Villages” suspect that the outbreak has been caused by pesticides. They note that thousands of Zika-infected pregnant women in Colombia – where the larvicide pyriproxyfen has not been added to drinking water as in Brazil – have delivered normal babies.  El Salvador, also hard hit by Zika, has not reported Zika-related microcephaly cases.  Other scientific authorities, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, question the evidence for this theory, and the later arrival of the disease in these countries means the consequences for infected expectant mothers cannot be fully determined.  Research is ongoing.
  • In lowland Colombia, along the Caribbean Coast, the virus is being blamed for an outbreak of Guillain-Barre syndrome, when victims’ immune systems damage nerve cells and cause pain, weakness, sometimes paralysis, and even death. Scientists are investigating.
  • Mental health experts say the Zika virus closely resembles some infectious agents that have been linked to autism, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. They can’t confirm their suspicions.
  • Entomologists and climatologists are warning that global warming will accelerate the spread of Zika and other diseases transmitted by the mosquito Aedes aegypti, which thrives in warmer, more humid environments. They caution that the number of people currently exposed to the mosquito, roughly 4 billion, will grow steadily.  Evidence is inconclusive.
  • Other theories include that the birth defects are caused by genetically modified mosquitoes released by a British company in Brazil to combat dengue; and by vaccinations given to pregnant women to prevent rubella and pertussis. But doctors and scientists have so far rejected each one.

Regional organizations and governments are taking whatever actions they can while awaiting more conclusive science.  Briefing the OAS, the Assistant Director of the Pan American Health Organization called on countries to “to mobilize to eliminate mosquito breeding sites in every corner where they may be” and pledged PAHO’s support to do so.  Brazil has formed special teams to travel around the country to rigorously quantify cases of Zika and possible links with microcephaly.  U.S. President Obama has asked Congress for US$1.9 billion and approval to reprogram funds left over from Ebola eradication efforts to deal with Zika in Latin America and the United States.  Cuban President Raúl Castro has mobilized 9,000 troops and police to spray neighborhoods and eliminate standing water in which the mosquitoes breed.

The “epidemic,” as some leaders are calling it, will be difficult to respond to even after scientists certify the mosquito-virus link.  Solving the mystery of the higher concentration of microcephaly cases in Brazil, or linked to Brazil, will also be essential to developing an effective public health response.  Eradicating all mosquitos would be a monumental undertaking – further complicated by the fact that the history of pesticides shows equal or even greater risks to citizen health when used widely.  The Aedes mosquito sucks the blood of both rich and poor, but population density and weak infrastructure — allowing for stagnant water – makes lower-income communities much more vulnerable.  Focusing on the mosquito may not be enough, moreover, because there are early indications that Zika can be sexually transmitted.  Traces of Zika have been found in breast milk, but the implications remain unclear.  Such questions fuel popular panic, increasing the risk that governments will make rash decisions that could have  profound costs.

February 26, 2016

* Rachel Nadelman is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the School of International Service.  Her dissertation research focuses on El Salvador’s decision to leave its gold resources unmined.

From Lima to Paris … and Beyond

By Evan Berry*

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Photo Credit: Ron Mader / Flickr / Creative Commons

The “COP 21” Climate Conference beginning in Paris this week appears likely to produce meaningful results yet fall short of policymakers and civil society leaders’ high hopes for an international accord.  Strong action on climate change is of particular significance in Latin America – because of its environmental vulnerability and the key role it plays in helping establish a post-carbon global economy.  The coastal communities of the greater Caribbean Basin, the intensely biodiverse forests of the Amazonian region, and the glaciated peaks of the Andes are acutely threatened by climate change.  Concern about climate change is higher in Latin America than in any other region of the world, according to the Pew Research Center.  Several nations from the region have played key roles in putting the international community on a path toward a substantive agreement at COP 21, especially Peru, host of last year’s UN climate talks.

The negotiations in Paris are designed to develop an architecture for international cooperation on carbon mitigation and climate adaption that, while essentially voluntary, will catalyze bolder action in the future.  In anticipation that COP 21 will conclude an agreement signed by all the negotiating parties, the international community finds itself again trying to strike the right balance between critical pressure for stronger action and acceptance of an imperfect, but necessary, policy apparatus.  Although observers expect that more mitigation will be necessary, Paris will provide several powerful tools for states afflicted by climate change.  Most especially, through the vehicle of the Green Climate Fund (GCF), financing for large-scale adaptation projects is now starting to flow.  Because the mandates of the GCF prioritize low-carbon agriculture, climate-compatible cities, resilience in Small Island Developing States (SIDS), and financing for forests, the fund will have a special impact in Latin America, one of the world’s most urbanized and forested regions and home to more than 20 SIDS.  Indeed, the first round of CGF projects, announced this month, includes two in Latin America – an energy efficiency bond in eastern Mexico and an indigenous people’s forest management project in Peru.

While there is room to be optimistic that these talks will make important progress, many probably will be dissatisfied with the outcome.  According to independent evaluations, several Latin American countries have put forward robust plans to limit carbon emissions, including Costa Rica, Mexico, and Brazil.  But many stakeholders, particularly environmental NGOs and leftist governments like Bolivia and Ecuador, are likely to be skeptical about the outcome of the negotiations.  They will be right to point out that the sum total of emissions reductions being discussed at COP 21 is insufficient to keep warming below the consensus 2°C limit, and that the anticipated deal is almost certain not to be legally binding and may also have weak measures for verification.  The “Road to Paris” may not take interested countries as far as they’d like to go, but in Latin America as elsewhere, critics might be well advised temper their skepticism, embrace the incremental progress, and begin preparing for the next round of climate change politics. 

November 30, 2015

* Evan Berry is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion and Co-Director of the Ethics, Peace, and Global Affairs master’s program at American University.

The Papal Encyclical: Driving Debate in Latin America

By Evan Berry*

Pope Francis

Photo Credit: Raffaele Esposito / Flickr / Creative Commons

Pope Francis’s encyclical on human ecology, due to be published this week, seems likely to contribute to a range of ongoing debates.  Entitled Laudato Sii, the document has already become a touchstone for debates about the moral dimension of climate politics and triggered heated debate within the global Catholic community about the pontiff’s authority on climate change.  It links care for the poor with environmental stewardship and makes a theological case against the “culture of consumerism.”  A vocal Catholic environmental movement has embraced it, while detractors are raising concerns about the fusion of theology and science, and some Church conservatives fear it will feed into arguments for “population control.”  Non-Catholics, including secular environmental organizations, the progressive media, and leaders from other religious traditions, are also studying it.

Champions of the document claim that it could have broad implications.  They expect it to legitimize civil society organizations committed to the climate and justice; affect the behavior of millions of individual Catholics; influence Catholic political leaders who are skeptical or obstructionist about climate change; and become a factor in ongoing international negotiations.  Perhaps zealously, these claims imply that tectonic changes are underway in the international political landscape, especially in the United States, where Hispanic Catholics are the demographic group most concerned about climate change, and in Latin America, a region both shaped heavily by Catholic tradition and uniquely imperiled by the threat of global warming.

For Latin America, which has been front and center in climate politics in recent years, the implications of the encyclical are potentially deep.  Peru and Brazil have hosted recent international conferences on climate change, and the Amazon, a key global carbon sink, ensures governments’ high interest in the international environmental dialogue.  The region’s vulnerability to glacial melt, storm intensification, drought, and rising sea levels also give the issue salience.  The challenges posed by climate change come at a time that many lower-income countries believe that Latin America can be a source of development models that address income gaps, raise literacy rates, and expand access to health care while protecting the environment.  Francis’s teachings on ecology and consumerism will resonate with and reinforce existing ecological movements – Buen Vivir and other groups link the issues – and his imprimatur could even facilitate rapprochement between leftists and centrists within the Church.  On a political level, the region’s reliance on energy exports, such as in the Pope’s native Argentina, may make it harder for public officials to advocate oil and gas development without seriously addressing the climatic impact.  The situation is similar in Brazil, where Pope Francis’ popularity and ecological orientation are starkly contrasted with the President Rousseff’s abysmal ratings and poor oversight of Petrobras.  But religion, environment, and politics are nowhere more likely to come into confluence than in Peru, where an upcoming election touches on several intensive socio-environmental conflicts, and where public awareness about climate change is well established.  Whether or not the Latin American leader of the region’s historically dominant religion has all the solutions, his encyclical seems likely to play into the moral and political debates the region needs and welcomes.

June 16, 2015

*Evan Berry is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at American University.