Mexico: Setting a “New Social Ethic” of Sustainability?

By Veronica Limeberry*

Maize plot using agro-ecological options in Mexico/ International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s decree phasing out the use of the herbicide glyphosate and genetically modified (GMO) corn has strong support in Mexico – for now – and could conceivably show a way ahead on sustainable development for other countries. Announcing the decree on New Year’s Eve, AMLO framed it as creating a “new social ethic” in food production that puts the wellbeing of the Mexican people before the interests of private companies and profits. The government is moving ahead with implementation of the decree this month despite rapid and harsh pushback from Mexican and U.S. agribusiness. The U.S. Farm Bureau Federation, whose members sell GMO corn to Mexico, appealed to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Vilsack to oppose Mexico’s move.

  • Advocates of sustainable development have long opposed the use of glyphosate, the world’s most commonly used herbicide. The chemical was declared a probable carcinogen in a 2015 World Health Organization (WHO) report. Concern about glyphosate has surged in Mexico since a 2019 study by the University of Guadalajara found that all 148 children in the study had glyphosate in their urine, and all had chronic health conditions. The herbicide’s producer, Bayer-Monsanto, is in the midst of one of the largest settlements in history ($10.9 billion) involving tens of thousands of suits claiming that it causes cancer and death. Despite these growing concerns, glyphosate sales grew from $3 billion in 2015 to $8.5 billion last year, and industry watchers forecast them to be over $13 billion by 2027.

AMLO’s decree on GMO corn also reflects growing interest in Mexico to reclaim the country’s agricultural biodiversity. Mexico is the center of origin of over 59 food varieties, including corn, beans, squash, and cocoa. Mexican corn has long been part of the country’s national identity. The campaign Sin Maíz No Hay País (Without corn there is no country), launched more than a decade ago, embraces the grain as “the basis of our culture, our identity, adaptability and diversity.” Nonetheless, Mexico imported 18 million tons of GMO corn from the United States in 2020, comprising 40 percent of corn consumption. Seeking to reverse this, progressive deputy agriculture minister Víctor Suárez led the push for the decree and emphasizes “achieving self-sufficiency and food sovereignty.”

The decree includes radical terminology and establishes agroecology as national policy informed by Mexican food identity and traditions. AMLO and Suárez have defended its emphasis on sustainable, ethical, and increased food production “through the use of agroecological practices and inputs that are safe for human health, the country’s biocultural diversity, and the environment, as well as congruent with the agricultural traditions of Mexico.” The measure has the support of rural communities and both houses of Congress.

  • Some of the AMLO Administration’s rhetoric seems intended to provide leadership to other countries seeking alternatives to herbicides like glyphosate as well as GMO foods while trying to decenter the needs of industry. Numerous studies point to agrarian crises in many countries – such as the farmers’ movement in India – for which AMLO’s move conceivably offers a model. The Mexican decree offers language of community, sovereignty, and wellbeing attractive to advocates of agricultural sustainable development for the future. It will take some time, however, to see if Mexico’s approach persuades others that it can be implemented and retain popular support over the long term.

March 31, 2021

* Veronica Limeberry is a doctoral student at American University focusing on agroecology, food sovereignty, and indigenous territorial rights.

Nicaragua: Triple-Crisis Threatens More Instability, Poverty, and Migration

By William Vigil*

EU solidarity: helping Central America recover after hurricanes ETA and IOTA / European Union (D. Membreño) / Flickr / Creative Commons License

Three years of political unrest, COVID-19, and back-to-back Category 4 hurricanes last November have created a precarious situation in Nicaragua – raising the probability of increased instability, poverty, and migration into Costa Rica and northward toward the United States. Long ranked the second poorest country in the hemisphere (after Haiti), the country has experienced worsening socio-economic conditions since 2018, and shrinking democratic and civic spaces have deepened political polarization.

  • In 2018, the government cracked down on protests triggered by cuts in social security benefits, followed by months of violent suppression of unrest and demands for a democratic opening. The result was more than 325 dead, thousands wounded, mass detentions, and the exodus of more than 100,000 persons.
  • The turmoil drove a steep downturn in the economy. According to the Nicaraguan Central Bank (BCN), Nicaragua’s economy contracted 4.0 percent in 2018 and 3.9 percent in 2019, while inflation increased to 3.9 percent and 6.1 percent respectively. Other sources estimate a 4.0 percent decline in 2020. According to the World Bank, investment and consumption fell sharply, prompting significant unemployment, particularly in construction, commerce, and tourism. A 2019 household survey by Fundación Internacional para el Desafío Económico Global (FIDEG), a Nicaraguan think tank, indicated that poverty rates had increased at the national level, both in terms of general poverty and extreme poverty.
  • Efforts by national and international groups to advance dialogue to reduce political tensions have not been successful. Framework accords in March 2019 on the release of political prisoners and the restoration of civil rights were only partially fruitful. Targeted international sanctions against government individuals and entities have been intermittent and have not changed government behavior. Some measures have led to retribution, moreover, such as the abrupt closure of the UN and OAS human rights missions in the country.

Nicaragua’s policies regarding COVID‑19 have been erratic and haphazard, and recovery from last November’s hurricanes has been slow. Leaders initially argued that the country’s economic challenges made quarantine largely untenable, and Nicaragua attempted Sweden’s policy of “herd immunity” despite the dramatically different national and institutional capacities of the two countries. In addition, Hurricanes Eta and Iota left tens of thousands of people homeless and without drinking water. According to the Nicaraguan Finance Minister, 3 million people in 56 municipalities were affected, with estimated economic damages of $738 million.

  • Nicaragua has experienced a surge in unemployment, but – in contrast to other countries – has not adopted policies favoring a return to pre-crises levels. Some economists estimate that basic necessities and services now cost more than double the average household income. According to a Gallup poll taken in January, six out of every 10 Nicaraguans would migrate to other countries if they had the opportunity.

These crises do not show credible signs of abating. They significantly increase the likelihood of a challenging outlook, particularly for the country’s most vulnerable population groups. Systematic and comprehensive action has been lacking in and outside the country, however. The international community, including donors, multilateral banks, development agencies, and NGOs, has not been in a position to respond to the crises in a coordinated fashion. Their natural desire to seek a prominent role for civil society in any comprehensive strategy – with accountability and transparency – is frustrated by government resistance.

  • Nicaragua’s volatile political situation could eventually evolve into a humanitarian crisis with repercussions for the rest of the region. Tensions will increase as national elections scheduled for November approach, as all indications are that the government will further restrict civil and political rights. The country’s problems, moreover, could easily spill over its borders. Migration has traditionally been an escape valve. A new wave of refugees could be expected in Costa Rica, but that country’s own economic challenges may well instead drive many to head north.
  • International assistance alone won’t be enough. Conditions of strict accountability, transparency, civil society engagement, and close consultation with affected populations are necessary for it to have significant impact. Together, donors, multilateral banks, the UN, and NGOs have a degree of leverage to ensure the correct use of resources, such as by conditioning it on full respect for human rights. UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet last month called on the government to “urgently adopt effective electoral reforms and establish a genuine and inclusive dialogue with all sectors of society,” but slowing or stopping the country’s downward spiral will require much more from all sides.

March 23, 2021

* William Vigil is co-director of the South-North Nexus. He is a former Nicaraguan diplomat who served in New York (at the United Nations) and in Washington, D.C. This article is based on a South-North Nexus report entitled Nicaragua’s Converging Crises.

Mexico: AMLO’s Backwards Move on Fossil Fuels

By Daniela Stevens*

Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE) Building/ ThinkGeoEnergy/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s proposal early last month to overhaul the country’s electricity market – which appears likely to become law – will betray the country’s climate change commitments, curtail private investment, and hurt consumers. Rooted in 1960s left-wing nationalism, AMLO’s vision is for a state-led, fossil fuel-powered electricity system. It is blind to what many experts consider the urgency for the government to coordinate with the private sector, which he prefers to portray as an adversary, on strategies to curb carbon emissions.

  • The lower Chamber approved the proposal “without changing a comma,” as the President asked. The Senate passed it last night, but the law will face obstacles in court. The Supreme Court in February declared that some guidelines that the Secretariat of Energy presented last May were unconstitutional because they hindered free competition and unduly benefitted the state electricity utility, La Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE).
  • AMLO’s plan reverses the principle of “economic dispatch” – a provision of the 2014 Electricity Industry Law (LIE) that requires the most efficient power plants (those with the lowest production cost) to be the first to upload electricity to the grid. Given the inefficiency of the CFE’s aging hydroelectric and thermoelectric plants, the law currently favors renewables like wind and solar, which are generally inexpensive and in the hands of private investors. AMLO wants to give preference to CFE ahead of private generators.
  • Since hydroelectric plants cannot satisfy electricity demand, the main beneficiaries will be the power plants that generate electricity from fossil fuels. The administration has repeatedly argued, without evidence, that renewables should be downsized because they are unreliable and give undue advantage to private capital. In the President’s view, the initiative would end “price simulation” in a market that favors private participants.

The international community, private sector, and civil society organizations immediately rejected the proposal.

  • The country’s largest business organization, El Consejo Coordinador Empresarial (CCE), called it an “indirect expropriation” of private power plants. Further, the private sector warned that the proposal would lead to national and international lawsuits for state compensation.
  • Diplomats representing the European Union, Canada, and the United States in Mexico said the move will damage the investment climate. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce pointed out that the “deeply worrisome” initiative violates the free trade spirit of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), undermining the confidence of foreign investors.
  • Activists and civil society organizations across Mexico said the policy reverses progress toward decarbonization and called it an infringement of international environmental commitments, such as the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda.

López Obrador’s response to the criticism has been to claim his proposal restores Mexico’s energy sovereignty and self-determination, but it ignores the reality of the country’s dependence on U.S. natural gas – brought home when last month’s snowstorm in Texas paralyzed production and eventually caused blackouts in 26 of Mexico’s 32 states. Indeed, he flipped the narrative in claiming Mexico’s handling of the crisis was a “success of CFE’s workers,” compared to the “failure” of the liberalized electricity sector in Texas.

  • Relying predominantly on the fossil fuel intensive CFE only deepens Mexico’s vulnerability. Natural gas – 80 percent of which comes from the United States – is used to cover around 60 percent of Mexican energy needs. The proposal also fails to address some deeper issues, such as the lack of storage capacity, diversity in power generation sources, and investment in the electric grid to incorporate renewables.

The move is typical of AMLO’s fixation with grandiose national projects, such as El Tren Maya and the Dos Bocas refinery, both of which will harm the ecosystem of the Tehuantepec Isthmus, and to waste money in obsolete and polluting technology that shows disregard for climate change in favor of short-sighted energy nationalism. The reform not only defies climate issues; it challenges the energy sector’s autonomy, chills the investment environment, and marks a return to monopolistic and authoritarian practices.

March 3, 2021

* Daniela Stevens is an Assistant Professor at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) in Mexico City.

South American Megacities, Water Scarcity and the Climate Crisis

By Robert Albro*

Drinking water distribution/ MunicipioPinas/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Access to fresh water has become a regular flashpoint throughout Latin America, particularly in its largest cities, and threatens to trigger tensions and even war. Sixteen of the region’s 20 largest cities are experiencing water-related “stress,” and three of its largest – Sao Paulo, Lima, and Mexico City – are in danger of running out of water completely in the near future, according to reliable sources.

  • In 1995 World Bank vice president Ismail Serageldin presciently warned that future wars would be fought over water. The 2000 Water War in Cochabamba, Bolivia, kicked off an era of social mobilization around chronic water shortages and control over access to fresh water. Protests against the privatization of water have become common – in Colombia in 2013, Ecuador in 2014, Brazil in 2015, Chile in 2016 and 2019, Peru in 2019, and Mexico in 2020, among others.

Water challenges faced by some of South America’s megacities show that the urban water crisis is a wicked problem with no straightforward solution.

Lima: Peru’s capital is the second largest “desert city” in the world, after Cairo, receiving an average of 0.3 inches of rain annually. The coastal area in which it sits has 62.5 percent of the population but only 1.8 percent of its fresh water. It depends largely on three rivers fed by rapidly shrinking Andean tropical glaciers, reduced by 40 percent since the 1970s. As the glaciers vanish, water stress is expected to become “critical” for the more than 10 million inhabitants of Peru’s capital by 2025. Peripheral barrios are already significantly affected: An estimated 1.5 million of Lima’s residents already lack access to potable water. Shrinking glaciers are expected to dramatically worsen water inequality in many Andean cities, including Quito in Ecuador; Arequipa, Huaraz and Huancayo in Peru; and La Paz-El Alto, Cochabamba, Oruro, Potosí and Sucre in Bolivia.

Sao Paulo: In 2014, the worst draught in 250 years left Latin America’s second largest city less than two weeks away from running out of water, with reserves at 3 percent of capacity. Emergency rationing led to protests, and in 2018 it almost happened again. Brazil has more fresh water than any country on earth, but half is in the Amazon, where only 4 percent of its population lives, and deforestation in the Amazon – a giant water pump – reduces rainfall in Sao Paulo. The city’s watershed is also being deforested, ecologically degraded, and contaminated with large amounts of industrial wastewater. Its freshwater infrastructure is ill-equipped to handle these multiple stressors. Other Brazilian cities, including Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte, face similar problems.

Santiago de Chile: While Santiago currently has adequate water and infrastructure for storage, treatment and distribution, underground aquifers are being depleted faster than they can be replenished, and climate change has introduced a destructive cycle of floods and droughts. The city’s water availability is expected to decline as much as 40 percent this century, and the urban population continues to grow. Oversight bodies have little influence over how water is delivered, compounded by extreme administrative fragmentation and poorly managed participatory reform efforts. High prices and poor service by the city’s privatized water company were a rallying cry of protesters in 2019. Improved water governance, along the lines of what Medellín, Colombia, has achieved, is possible and can dramatically improve water access and quality. But Santiago has much work to do.

In theory Latin America should not be experiencing a water crisis because it has 30 percent of the world’s fresh water but only 8 percent of its population. But it is highly unevenly distributed and concentrated in places where few people live. Glacial melt, deforestation, and inadequate water governance are all factors in why urban water scarcity has become a wicked problem.

  • Adding to the misery, as agricultural economies throughout much of the region collapse as a result of changing climatic conditions, urban in-migration is a continuing challenge. Combine this with poor and neglected infrastructure, unregulated industrial pollution, high levels of freshwater contamination, increasing social contestation around water access and management– and the problem looks daunting. Where Latin America’s urban water crisis is concerned, climate change is neither straightforward nor a stand-alone proposition, but rather part of a complex set of urgent crises that will require especially creative and imaginative problem-solving in the years to come.

February 9, 2021

* Robert Albro is an anthropologist and Research Associate Professor at CLALS.

Colombia: Poisoning the Future with Glyphosate?

By Luis Gilberto Murillo, Pablo Palacios Rodríguez, and Michael Julián Córdoba*

Fumigation in Colombia

Fumigation planes spray the Colombian countryside./ KyleEJohnson/ Flickr/ Creative Commons

Colombia is the second most biodiverse country and has the greatest number of unique species in the world, but the government’s approval of the widespread use of glyphosate – by agroindustry as well as in drug-eradication operations – continues to threaten this important resource for humanity. The country undoubtedly has greater awareness than many others of the link between protecting and taking advantage of its environmental richness. Economic and political interests, however, are shoving those values aside. The COVID‑19 pandemic has accelerated deforestation in some parts of the country as the nation prioritizes public health and economic recovery.

  • The use of herbicides such as glyphosate (known commercially as Roundup) in agriculture and, especially in the past, aerial eradication of illicit drug crops poses the greatest threat. The Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA) estimates that glyphosate in 2016 represented 17 percent of the 10 million liters (equal to 359 medium-size swimming pools) of herbicides used in the country. Industrial farms use it in fields that produce a vast array of foods, including sugar, rice, citrus, bananas, and fresh vegetables.
  • The ICA and the National Police say that 10 percent of the glyphosate that year was sprayed from airplanes to destroy illicit crops. (In the previous 20 years, some 2 million hectares had been sprayed.) This practice has continued despite growing evidence that aerial fumigation is inefficient and ineffective – most often merely forcing growers to move production elsewhere, expanding deforestation. UN experts estimate that 60 percent of coca producers replant eradicated fields. Spraying glyphosate is also expensive, costing about US$70,000 per hectare.

The administration of Colombian President Iván Duque has been reversing what progress his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, and the courts had made in ending the use of glyphosate.

  • Santos began a process that, if continued, would have led to a total prohibition of the use of glyphosate. The policies were based on the growing body of evidence that the substance could cause cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2015 designated it as “possibly carcinogenic for humans.” Previously, in 2005, Colombia’s National Health Institute had already demonstrated its genotoxicity (causing mutations) and cytotoxicity (harming cells). The government also argued that more than half of the U.S. states had prohibited the use of glyphosate. The Constitutional Court backed Santos’s push in part to protect the rights of Afro-Colombians and the Indigenous of Chocó, who studies show have been seriously affected.
  • Since taking office two years ago, President Duque’s administration has changed policy back, including on spraying glyphosate to reduce illicit drug production. It has dismissed the validity of existing studies and asserts that the scientific evidence about the herbicide’s effect on the environment and animal and human health is weak. The Colombian government is intensively pushing to resume fumigation of coca fields. The government is also sympathetic to agro-industry’s argument that any substitute herbicide could be worse than glyphosate.

The science is clear even if the politics is not: Glyphosate, especially when aerially sprayed, has serious implications for ecosystems and is already showing toxic effects on many species of plants, many of which are endemic (unique) to Colombia, as well as insects necessary for ecological balance. Trustworthy studies indicate that up to 40 percent of the country’s biodiversity is threatened. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that, in the United States alone, glyphosate threatens 74 species with extinction – a small fraction of what Colombia stands to lose. Agro-industry’s argument that other herbicides could be worse dodges the fundamental issue that continued reliance on glyphosate is dangerous.

  • The pandemic has been a convenient excuse for the government to avoid thoughtful debate and pull back on enforcement of the few existing regulations in place governing the use of herbicides. But now is actually a good time to take up the issue, as environmental protection and the fight against climate change are central to the post-COVID period.

August 24, 2020

* Luis Gilberto Murillo is a former Colombian Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development and CLALS Fellow. Pablo Palacios Rodríguez is a professor of biology at the Universidad de los Andes. Michael Julián Córdoba is coordinator for public policy at Fundación Tierra de Reconciliación.

Lessons Learned from Last Century’s Climate Change Migration

By Elizabeth Keyes*

Then and Now

Left: Migrant Workers in California, 1935/ Dorothea Lange/ U.S. Library of Congress/ Wikimedia Commons (modified)// Right: Central American migrants find quarter in southern Mexico/ Peter Haden/ Wikimedia Commons (modified)

Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States are not the first victims of government policies that discourage migration, send law enforcement to turn them away at a border, ban them from receiving public benefits, and pass laws seeking their immediate repatriation: the Dust Bowl migrants, almost 100 years ago, faced the same fate. Their story is more complex than that of John Steinbeck’s Joad family turning to labor in California’s “factories in the field.”

  • Drought came to Oklahoma and other Dust Bowl states after decades of agricultural practices that prioritized heavy production at the expense of land management and conservation. Corporate farmers favored practices maximizing short-term yield over long-term sustainability. The New Deal bought up farmland, displacing tenant farmers. Relief at the peak of the Dust Bowl in 1934 was mismanaged, and it did not help people stay.
  • Affected residents headed to California, which during a previous economic boom had sought out “migrant” labor from elsewhere in the United States. Many had a relative or friend already in California who could provide a migration pathway, just as happens with migration in 2020. Those with friends or family in the cities fared relatively well, but those who ended up in the labor camps of California’s valleys fared extremely poorly.

As the state’s boom ended in the Great Depression, California made efforts to discourage the migrants, erecting billboards along Route 66 warning would-be migrants that California was no longer an ideal destination. The state criminalized the act of helping indigents migrate, and the Los Angeles Police Department set up “bum blockades” to refuse them entry.

  • California’s responses looked a lot like current efforts to stop migrants seeking to enter along the U.S. border with Mexico: criminalization and walls. Internally displaced persons in the 1930s faced the same kinds of xenophobia that the migrants from outside the United States do today, defining “Okies” as a problematic “other” as if from a foreign country. Although they were, indeed, “fellow Americans” and driven from the land by environmental disaster, it took almost a decade for the U.S. Supreme Court – in Edwards v. California – to clarify that states could not bar migration from other states, and to affirm an ethic of sharing hardships across state lines.
  • The Dust Bowl migrants entered a labor market with strong racial and class inequities. As the United States deported roughly a million Mexican and Mexican-American farmworkers between 1929 and 1936 (with an estimated 60 percent of those being U.S. citizens wrongfully deported), the new migrants took over those jobs.

State and international borders differ legally, of course, in critical ways, but the experience of Dust Bowl migrants nonetheless sheds light on the possibilities for Central American and Mexican migrants today. Climate change is again increasing the drivers of environmental displacement, both internal and international, both slow-onset and acute. Just as a focus on environmental justice and sustainable agriculture would have reduced the need for migration out of the Plains in the 1930s, work done now to mitigate and adapt to climate change would help Central American and Mexican farmers stay in place. And in the communities receiving migrants, we see that California adapted and accommodated them once the Supreme Court refused to endorse California’s deterrent strategies. The Court recognized in the strongest terms that California was enduring great upheaval but determined that it could not use its state border to limit that upheaval.

The same Court also routinely upheld the federal government’s right to use the national border to inoculate the country “from difficulties common to all.” International immigration is legally, if not dynamically, morally or philosophically, different from internal migration.

  • Nonetheless, the Edwards decision provides a wonderful exercise in “what if” thinking. Because of the decision, those suffering in Oklahoma and Kansas had a place to go and could build new lives in California, changing the state but not ending it. Indeed, the state has the largest economy of all 50 states and by one measure is the “14th happiest” in the nation. California is an example of state resilience to migration, even dramatic levels of migration.
  • Perhaps the pain of the Dust Bowl – the forces that sent people migrating and the realities they faced in their new homes – offer us important lessons for international migrations caused by climate. There is no international-style Edwards approach, and refugee law offers no good answers. But the full, complicated Dust Bowl history encourages us to move beyond fear and xenophobia to face the challenges forthrightly, knowing that we do have a remarkable capacity for adaptation.

April 15, 2020

* Elizabeth Keyes teaches law and directs the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

Latin America: The Need to Face the Dire Impact of Climate Change

By Fernanda de Salles Cavedon-Capdeville and Erika Pires Ramos*

Farmer in Nicaragua

A farmer works a field in Nicaragua, one of the Central American countries experiencing increasing drought over the last two decades/ Neil Palmer/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License

Latin America – one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change worldwide – is already experiencing dire consequences, including the displacement of millions of people, but the region has been slow to share the information needed for comprehensive strategies.

  • In 1998-2017, among the 10 countries most affected by climate risks in the world, five were in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the Global Climate Risk Index 2019. Extreme events and disasters are increasing in the region. Out of 335 disasters registered globally in 2017, 93 took place in the Americas. Rapid-onset events, such as hurricanes, have been taking a progressively greater toll. In 2016, 17.3 percent of people affected by disasters lived in the region, far more than the average of 5.1 percent in the previous five years.

Changes in climate variability and in extreme events have severely affected the region. Over 1998-2017, Latin America was the continent with the highest economic losses due to climate-related disasters, representing 53 percent of the global figure, according to studies. The impact on people is aggravated by the high vulnerability and low adaptive capacity caused by poverty and economic inequality. Countries in the tropics and Southern Hemisphere subtropics are also projected to experience the largest impact on economic growth.

  • These economic, political, cultural and social factors – along with extreme-weather events and other effects of climate change, such as desertification and rising sea levels, combine to be a major cause of displacement in Latin America. Colombia, Chile, Haiti and Brazil joined the list of the 20 countries with the highest number of people displaced by disasters from 2008 to 2014.
  • More recently, 4.5 million people in the Americas were displaced by disasters in 2017, representing 23.8 percent of the global total. Three major hurricanes that year displaced over 3 million people, and floods throughout South America also drove many thousands from their homes that year. In 2018, 1.7 million people were displaced by disasters in the Americas. Another 2.5 million people were affected by drought that year in Central America, including migration hotspots Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Oxfam has highlighted that climate change – and the consequent loss of crops and food security – is increasingly a driver of migration in the Dry Corridor of Central America.

Experts at the World Bank and elsewhere estimate that slow-onset climate change events in Latin America alone could displace 17 million people by 2050. This and similar estimates are sound – and underscore the urgent need for action – but data on the impact of slow-onset events is difficult to get and, in general, data related to climate-induced human mobility has gaps. These information challenges will increasingly complicate efforts to deal with the problems of migration driven by climate change. There is also a lack of specific information about the climate laws, policies. strategies, and measures that governments will need to take to avert, minimize and best address the economic and human ravages the region is likely to experience.

  • The South American Network for Environmental Migration (RESAMA) is a regional independent network of experts and researchers developing and disseminating information on environmental migration and related topics, and promoting ways to enhance its inclusion in regional and national agendas. RESAMA, in partnership with the University for Peace (UPEACE) in Costa Rica, has designed the Latin-American Observatory on Human Mobility, Climate Change and Disasters (MOVE-LAM) to map, understand and address the topic in the region. The observatory intends to evolve into a regional hub to simplify and share information — transforming scientific knowledge into accessible and practical information available to actors and other stakeholders. It’s a huge task, but the challenges the hemisphere faces demand it.

February 10, 2020

*Fernanda de Salles Cavedon-Capdeville is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina (UFSC) in Florianópolis, Brazil, and a RESAMA researcher.

*Erika Pires Ramos has a PhD in International Law from the University of São Paulo (USP) and is founder of RESAMA.

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.