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.

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.

Honduras: Narcotics Trade Accelerating Deforestation

By Luis Noé-Bustamente*

Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve (Honduras)

Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in Honduras. / UNESCO / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The rapid increase in deforestation in Honduras is being driven to a significant degree by the narcotics trade’s use of logging, land purchases, and cattle operations to launder drug profits.  Honduras has lost approximately 30 percent of its total forest cover since 2000, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.  Research indicates that the burgeoning drug trade connects businesses involved in illegal logging, timber sales, and the use of the cleared land for cattle ranching as a mechanism to launder drug trafficking money.  Criminal organizations insert illegal timber into the existing legal supply-chain, hiding illicit profits within legal revenue streams.

  • Drug traffickers’ access to capital gives them immense social, economic, and political influence in remote areas. Research published in the journal Environmental Research Letters shows that they are able to conduct unusually large, remote, and fast forest-clearing in areas where they also collaborate with illegal loggers to grab land, enabling them to later merge both activities through cattle ranching operations.  Last year, a spatio-temporal study led by Dr. Steven Sesnie, an ecologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, estimated that as much as 25 percent of the annual forest loss in Honduras during the past decade can be linked to the drug trade.

Even though these emerging regional bosses are growing in influence and audacity, the Honduran government does not acknowledge the scope of their illicit activities – even in the Rio Plátano Biosphere Reserve (RPBR), the country’s largest natural forest reserve (approximately 800,000 hectares).  In 1997, the Honduran Congress designated three different zones in the RPBR to provide some long-term protection of its sparsely inhabited core zone and to promote sustainable development in its more populated buffer and cultural zones.  Available information indicates, however, that enforcement has been very spotty, with only very rare action against only low-level violators.

  • Parts of the RPBR have experienced what forestry experts call alarming levels of cleared forest patches – even in areas with limited or no road access, where only illicit traders go. The RPBR’s secluded “cultural zone” is experiencing forest clearing at an estimated rate of more than 100 hectares per year (50 times more than in 2005).  Sensie’s report directly correlates this with increased drug trafficking throughout the country.  Indeed, there is a positive and substantial correlation between the country’s recorded percentage of GDP from drug trafficking (based on the same study) and the amount of irregular forest loss.

Under current conditions, Honduras has limited ability to address the institutional, socioeconomic, and criminal factors that exacerbate deforestation.  Unemployment, corruption, weak law enforcement, and violence create an environment that facilitates the illegal triad attacking Honduran forests – the narcotics trade, illegal logging, and land grabs.  The country has shown little political will to use what few legal tools it has to keep illegal groups from bribing and, failing to buy them, intimidating the law enforcement and government officials who give them harvesting or transport permits.  High unemployment and poverty in rural Honduras also create a strong incentive for local residents to cooperate with criminal organizations to obtain income and protection for their families – and severely dissuading them from with what few investigations might be undertaken in their areas.

  •  The increasingly obvious link with the narcotics trade, however, offers a way to squeeze illicit logging and livestock operations. Earlier this year, two months after U.S. prosecutors indicted Honduran Congressman Fredy Najera Montoya for conspiring to import cocaine into the United States, Honduran courts finally – after years of allegations against Najera for “operational irregularities” – accused him of environmental crimes related to his illegal use of wood products and forging official documents.  Such actions, as well as a recent agreement to work with USAID to better enforce environmental laws, are good signs, but meaningful progress addressing deforestation must take into account the underlying causes: the country’s weak rule of law, lack of economic opportunity for most of its population, and the near-total lack of institutional presence in much of rural Honduras.

July 17, 2018

* Luis Noé-Bustamente is a CLALS research assistant.  He is on a team dedicated to a new two-year project by CLALS and InSight Crime investigating the clandestine wildlife trafficking and logging industries throughout the region.

Peru: Wildlife Trafficking Poses Complex Challenges

By Ana Marrugo*

A large parrot shows its multi-colored wings

A red and green macaw takes flight in Manú National Park, Peru. / Bill Bouton / Wikimedia Commons

Peru – the fifth most “megadiverse” country in the world – is losing precious wildlife because of weak trafficking laws and even weaker enforcement of them.  Home to 10 percent of existing species of flora, Peru ranks between second and fifth worldwide in the number of species of birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles within its borders.  The illegal trafficking of wildlife, however, is threatening Peru’s biodiversity.  It now places second in the hemisphere in volume of trafficked wildlife, trailing only Mexico.

  • Growing threats are pushing species into endangered status at a rapid rate. In 2004-14, according to Peruvian government estimates, the percentage of endangered species increased rapidly: from 14.1 to 24.5 percent of mammals; 9.2 to 35.2 percent of amphibians; and up by 50 percent of reptiles.
  • Trafficking is one source of pressure on dwindling wildlife populations. The most-trafficked species in Peru are birds, especially the white-winged parakeet and the red and green macaw, and some small primates sold as pets or to illegal zoos.  Bigger animals, such as the Andean bear, vicuñas, monkeys, and various cats, are sold for their meat.  Animal parts and reptiles and amphibians are sold for medicinal or reputedly magic uses, and reptile skins for the fashion and leather industries.  Cattle ranching, agriculture, logging, and infrastructure construction also put major pressures on animal life.
  • Peru’s National Forest and Wildlife Service (SERFOR) estimates that three quarters of the country’s most frequently trafficked species are for domestic rather than international markets. Indigenous people and peasants in the Amazon region – seeking profits far above those that can be generated from agriculture – capture animals and sell them to middlemen who then sell them to retailers in local markets or to international collectors.

Investigations of traffickers are rare, and prosecutions almost nonexistent.  The director of Neotropical Primate Conservation told reporters that “few” of the 150 cases she reported to SERFOR, prosecutors, and regional authorities – including a trafficker caught carrying thousands of parakeets – have been investigated, and “almost all cases” are retired without ever reaching a judge.  The first conviction (and one of the few known), finalized in 2016, resulted when police caught two brothers red-handed driving a car carrying an ocelot to a local market.  Offenders are usually released after paying a minor fine.

  • Getting good information is a challenge. Most estimates come from seizures of exported animals, leaving unaccounted the large portion of illegal wildlife sold in local markets, and most research focuses only on particular species.  The flow to local markets of Titicaca frog juice (thought to have extraordinary health benefits), monkey meat (for traditional cuisine), and Andean bear parts (thought to have magical properties) has been impossible to track.  Internationally, owl monkeys are sent clandestinely to Colombia for malaria research, and Chinese markets sell dried seahorse powder and an array of other substances for medicine – without leaving a trace in Peru.
  • Corruption is a perennial problem. Low-paid officers take bribes to provide protection and forged documentation permitting the transport of illegally sourced animals.  Forestry and Wildlife Law 29763 delegates virtually all responsibility for environmental crimes to local governments with poor resources and serious conflicts of interest, including officials’ collusion in the trade and local inhabitants’ dependence on it for income.

International attention in wildlife trafficking has been limited.  Unlike the illegal timber trade, this trade does not involve hundreds of millions of dollars, nor does it harm the commercial interests of the nation or its trading partners.  Major industries have not been linked to this criminal enterprise as they have in the trafficking of narcotics and timber.  Thus, international support to tackle the demand side of the market appears likely to remain feeble.  At the local level authorities rely on educational programs to teach people about the environmental impacts of wildlife trafficking, ecosystem protection and the importance of denouncing environmental crimes.  Nevertheless, wildlife trade continues to be an important source of income for impoverished communities, as well as for traffickers who frequently count on ties to corrupt officials to ensure that they can evade prosecution.

  • The impact of wildlife trafficking is not as immediately obvious as logging, and it is therefore harder to marshal political pressure for comprehensive solutions. SERFOR is expanding port controls, but piecemeal efforts have had little impact.  Since most of the trafficked animals remain in Peru and neighboring countries, efforts to discourage local demand and increase cross border cooperation would seem to offer hope – if governments get serious about addressing the problem.

June 29, 2018

* Ana Marrugo is pursuing an M.A. in Public Anthropology at American University.  She is on the team dedicated to new two-year project by CLALS and InSight Crime investigating the clandestine wildlife trafficking and logging industries throughout the region.