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.

Laudato Si:  Support for the Indigenous of the Amazon Benefits Us All

By Birgit Weiler*

Group of men and women stand behind a banner

Members of the Awajún community mobilize in Peru. / Andina Archivo / Creative Commons

Issuing his Laudato Si encyclical in 2015, Pope Francis put himself on the side of Latin America’s original peoples in protecting the environment in their ancestral lands, in what will be a long struggle to counteract climate change and safeguard the earth.  Laudato Si emphasized that different religions, including the indigenous peoples’, can make “rich contributions … towards an integral ecology.”  Francis wrote:  “Given the complexity of the ecological crisis and its multiple causes, we need to realize that the solutions will not emerge from just one way of interpreting and transforming reality.  Respect must also be shown for the various cultural riches of different peoples … their interior life and spirituality.”   He spoke of their wisdom especially in dealing with the earth and all the living beings.

  • For the Awajún and Wampis in Amazonas Department in northern Peru, their cosmovisión (world view) and traditional religion are an important source of inspiration and endurance in their struggle for safeguarding their living space. In the integral vision of the world they share with other indigenous peoples, all living beings – not only human beings – are considered agents within a single big energy.  Everything is connected – similar to the “integral ecology” mentioned in Laudato Si.
  • Highlighting the urgent need of a “bold cultural revolution,” the encyclical implicitly embraces the indigenous people’s concept of “Buen Vivir,” an alternative way of life based on respect for the earth and on living in relationships of interconnectedness and interdependence. This demands a change in lifestyle reducing significantly our negative impact on our planet; caring for the integrity of the ecosystems and of human life; and a real change in our way of understanding and practicing economy, “progress,” and “development.”

Governments have been slow to respond to these calls – which threaten to disrupt longstanding arrangements between the extraction industry, regulators, and legislators – but there have been some significant public signs of progress.  Last March, for example, the Fourth Constitutional Court in Lima declared that the Awajún and Wampis have the right to approve oil exploration in their ancestral lands, particularly an area known as “Lot 116.”  The court ordered exploration activities to cease and withdraw from the region until full consultation with local indigenous groups was completed.  In another case, in the Iquitos–Pucallpa region, a court ordered that the state consult with respect the indigenous people’s right to a full consultation, forcing the government to step back and begin the process anew.

 Despite this halting progress, the environment and cultures that Laudato Si reveres are under constant and, in some cases, worsening threat.  Illegal deforestation of precious tropical lumber is reaching alarming levels.  An explosion in new oil palm farms, the construction of hydroelectric power stations, and the expansion of roads and other infrastructure to facilitate extractive industries are all inflicting permanent damage.  Scientists have repeatedly pointed out that the ecosystems of the Amazon won’t be able to bear much longer the devastating impact of these activities.  As the Pope wrote, loss of the region’s tropical forests – the biggest lung of our world – and the vanquishing of peoples like the Awajún and Wampis would be a tragic loss for us all.

October 11, 2017

* Birgit Weiler is Director of the Area of Research at the University Antonio Ruiz de Montoya in Lima; collaborates closely with the Vicariate of Jaén (Catholic Church) and with the Awajún and Wampis; and contributes to CLALS’s project on religion and climate change.

Latin America: End of “Supercycle” Threatens Reversal of Institutional Reforms

By Carlos Monge*

Monge graphic

By Eduardo Ballón and Raúl Molina (consultores) and Claudia Viale and Carlos Monge (National Resource Governance Institute, América Latina), from Minería y marcos institucionales en la región andina. El superciclo y su legado, o las difíciles relaciones entre políticas de promoción de la inversión minero-hidrocarburífera y las reformas institucionales, Reporte de Investigación preparado por NRGI con colaboración de la GIZ, Lima, Marzo del 2017. See blog text for high-resolution graphic

Policies adopted in response to the end of the “supercycle” have slowed and, in some cases, reversed the reforms that moved the region toward greater decentralization, citizen participation, and environmental protection over the past decade.  Latin American governments of the left and right used the commodities supercycle to drive growth and poverty reduction at an unprecedented pace.  They also undertook institutional reforms aimed at improving governance at large.

  • Even before demand and prices for Latin American energy and minerals began to rise in the early 2000s, some Latin American countries launched processes of decentralization (Colombia and Bolivia); started to institutionalize mechanisms for citizens’ participation in decision making (Colombia and Bolivia); and built progressively stronger environmental management frameworks (Colombia and Ecuador). Peru pressed ahead with decentralization and participation at the start of the supercycle, and when it was in full swing, created a Ministry of the Environment.
  • Implementation of the reforms was subordinated by governments’ overarching goal of fostering investments in the extractive sector. Indigenous consultation rights in Peru, for example, were approved in the second half of 2011, but implementation was delayed a year and limited only to indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin.  President Ollanta Humala, giving in to the mining lobby, claimed there were no indigenous peoples in the Andes and that no consultations were needed around mining projects.  Local pressure forced a reversal, and by early 2015 four consultation projects on mid-size mining projects were launched.

These reformist policies have suffered setbacks since the decrease in Asia’s and particularly China’s appetite for Latin American energy and minerals has caused prices to fall – and the value of exports, taxes, and royalties, and public incomes along with them.  The latest ECLAC data show a decline in economic growth and a rebound of poverty both in absolute and relative figures.  The gradual fall in the price of minerals starting in 2013 and the abrupt collapse in oil prices by the end of 2015 reversed this generally favorable trend.

The response of the governments of resource-dependent countries has been “race to the bottom” policies, which included steps backward in fiscal, social, and environmental policies.  Governments’ bigger concern has been to foster investments in the new and more adverse circumstances.  In this new scenario, the processes of decentralization, participation, and environmental management have been negatively impacted as local authorities and citizens’ participation – as well as environmental standards and protocols – are perceived by companies and rent-seeking public officials as obstacles to investments.

  • Peru’s Law 30230 in 2014, for example, reduced income tax rates, weakened the oversight capacity of the Ministry of the Environment, and weakened indigenous peoples’ claim public lands.

The correlation between the supercycle years and the progress and regressions in reforms is clear. (click here for high-resolution graphic).  During the supercycle – when huge amounts of money were to be made – companies and government were willing to incorporate the cost of citizen participation, decentralization and environmental standards and protocols.  But now, governments are desperate for new investments to overcome the fall in economic growth and extractive rents, and extractive companies are not willing any more to assume these additional costs.  Those who oppose the “race to the bottom strategy” are fighting hard to restore the reforms and to move ahead with decentralization, increased participation, and enhanced environmental management, to achieve a new democratic governance of the territories and the natural resources they contain.

April 7, 2017

* Carlos Monge is Latin America Director at the Natural Resource Governance Institute in Lima.

Mexico: Environmental Initiatives Likely to Stir Things Up

By Daniela Stevens*

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

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

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

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

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

September 15, 2016

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

Peru’s Frente Amplio: The Emergence of a Post-Extractivist Left

By Carlos Monge*

OperacionesYanacocha

An abandoned gold mining project in the Cajamarca region, Peru / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The surprising emergence of the Frente Amplio (FA), a coalition of political parties, social organizations and independent activists, in Peru’s recent presidential and congressional elections signals the first significant support for the Peruvian Left since the collapse of the Izquierda Unida in the 1980s.  The Left was not able to present its own alternatives in the ‘90s, the early 2000s, and again in 2011.  In October 2015 barely 13 percent of Peruvians knew about FA’s internal election to select presidential candidates.  Veronika Mendoza had the support of only 1 percent of intending voters, and over 60 percent of Peruvians did not even know who she was.  Nevertheless, FA ended up receiving 18.74 percent of the vote in the first electoral round, coming in third and only a couple of points behind Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK), who secured 21.05 percent and ended up defeating the Fuerza Popular’s candidate, Keiko Fujimori, to become President for the 2016-2021 period.

FA’s “post-extractivist” program has been key.  Breaking away from the nationalist redistributive programs of leftists in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, and Argentina, FA espouses economic diversification and tax reform rather than more mineral or hydrocarbon exports to sustain economic growth and public incomes.  FA also emphasizes the need to protect the environment and renewable natural resources for future generations and to recognize indigenous rights to territories, autonomy, direct political representation and effective consultations.

  • These are not only electoral campaign ideas. Indeed, FA local activists and national leaders have maintained staunch opposition to emblematic mining projects such as the Conga project in the northern Cajamarca region and the Tía María project in southern Arequipa.  In the same way, FA is denouncing that the new government is trying to lower air quality environmental standards to ease foreign investments in mineral smelters and has harshly criticized the new Minister of Production for abandoning the National Plan for Productive Diversification launched by the outgoing Ollanta Humala administration.
  • Frente Amplio is grounded in social movements that have long confronted extractivist projects. Veronika Mendoza left President Humala’s Nationalist Party in 2012 in a dispute over his repressive response to socio-environmental protests around mining projects in the highlands of her native Cusco.  Tierra y Libertad, FA’s largest party, has its roots in the Cajamarca rondas campesinas resistance against the Conga project.  Another factor is that the end of the commodities “super cycle” has moved extractive rents off center stage.  Even in Venezuela the official discourse is now moving in the direction of economic diversification.

Frente Amplio is not alone in Latin America in attempting to build a post–extractivist platform, but it seems to be the region’s most successful.  Similar policies were at the heart of the presidential campaign of Alberto Acosta and a coalition of social and indigenous organizations in Ecuador.  And in El Salvador, the Farabundo Martí government is also keeping extractivist temptations at bay.  But Acosta did not manage to get significant support or to build a stable political alternative, and El Salvador is not a major commodity exporter.  The importance of the FA experience is that it happens in a significant mineral and gas producer, that it has had immediate electoral success, and that it can become a permanent political player in Peruvian democracy.  FA and PPK will probably agree on issues such as the fight against corruption, crime, and violence against women, but they will certainly disagree over macroeconomic and sector policies, such as taxes.  Also, FA has denounced PPK for his call to lower air pollution standards and for his authorization to large fishing factories to operate up to 5 km off the coast, leaving very little for artisanal, small scale, internal market-oriented fishing activities.  Where this ends up is anybody’s guess, but this is certainly a process worth keeping an eye on.

August 29, 2016

*Carlos Monge is Latin America regional director at the Natural Resource Governance Institute in Lima.

Cuba: Implications of U.S. Tourism

By Emma Fawcett*

Tourists on beach in Cuba

Photo Credit: Emmanuel Huybrechts / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

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

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

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

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

July 25, 2016

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

Nicaragua: Where’s the Canal?

By Fulton Armstrong

Canal Nicaragua

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

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

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

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

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

April 4, 2016

From Lima to Paris … and Beyond

By Evan Berry*

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Photo Credit: Ron Mader / Flickr / Creative Commons

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

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

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

November 30, 2015

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

El Salvador: Just Saying No to Gold Mining

By Rachel Nadelman*

El Salvador mining

Photo Credit: laura / Flickr / Creative Commons

El Salvador’s refusal to allow gold mining within its borders sets it apart from most other Latin American countries, but the mining suspension is far from permanent.  Since 2007, three successive presidents, from both the right-wing ARENA and left-wing FMLN parties, have maintained an administrative metals mining “industry freeze.”  This executive action has created a de-facto moratorium that prevents all mining firms – international and Salvadoran, public and private – from accessing El Salvador’s estimated 1.4 million ounces of gold deposits.  Some in the Salvadoran media trumpet this policy.  When former U.S. President Bill Clinton made a philanthropic visit to El Salvador earlier this month, a number of news stories fixated on one of his travel companions: Canadian mining magnate Frank Guistra.  Some media slammed Guistra as “persona non grata in El Salvador.”  They showcased his billion-dollar global mining investments, labeling him (incorrectly) a major shareholder in Oceana Gold, the Australian company suing El Salvador for $284 million for having denied the firm a license to mine.

The mining freeze represents a drastic break from El Salvador’s past economic strategy.  In the 1990s, after the civil war, El Salvador, encouraged by international donors and creditors, embraced mining as an opportunity for economic growth.  Environmental activists challenged the policy, emphasizing the country’s ecological vulnerability and worsening threats of water scarcity and deforestation.  Consecutive ARENA governments ignored these arguments and implemented legal and regulatory reforms to attract foreign mining firms.  But a community-based social movement changed that.

  • Led by a decade-old Salvadoran coalition “roundtable” (with some international support) against mining, this movement strategically promoted a campaign that is pro-water rather than anti-industry, based on rigorously collected and analyzed scientific evidence.
  • The Salvadoran Catholic Church, citing doctrine as prioritizing water and land over economic gain, has provided the movement a level of non-partisan, moral legitimacy.
  • Individual government officials from across elected, appointed, and civil servant ranks have ensured that El Salvador’s weak but existent administrative mechanisms resist pressure from powerful multinational business to reverse policy.
  • A number of Salvadoran companies relying on water and land resources, such as agrobusiness, ranchers, and producers of juices and soft drinks, have largely stayed out of the debate, eliminating a potentially huge obstacle to the movement’s agenda.

The media’s zeal – strong enough for them to mistakenly connect Frank Guistra to Oceana Gold and the ongoing lawsuit – reflects strong popular support for the administrative freeze on mining.  My field research and earlier studies indicate that most Salvadorans do not see the environmental threat from mining as imagined.  Nonetheless, the suspension is precarious – based only on executive action and not legislation that would permanently prohibit mining.  Many in the anti-mining movement believe that a suspension is inadequate over the long term because a change in government could lead to its reversal.  New mining technology, which purportedly would ward against environmental damage, could give political leaders a pretext for lifting the moratorium.  Yet others who support the freeze under current environmental conditions want to have the option of opening the country to mining available in the future.  For those who advocate that total prohibition is the only solution, the fight to stop mining permanently for El Salvador will be a long one.

November 23, 2015

* Rachel Nadelman is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the School of International Service, whose dissertation research focuses on the unique aspects of El Salvador’s mining policies.

Correction: November 23, 2015

The original photo accompanying this blog was incorrectly labeled as being from a Salvadoran mining town.  The photo was actually taken in a town named El Salvador, Chile, and is unrelated to the content of this post.